So what has me thinking with my keyboard again after such a long absence from the blog? It’s the latest dust-up over Candace Owens’ comments on Hitler. Owens was recently called to testify as a witness for congressional hearings on the topic of hate crimes by white nationalists. Expressing contempt over the decision to bring her in for such testimony, Ted Lieu opted to play ‘the first 30 seconds’ of comments she once made on the subject of Adolf Hitler. He then moved on to ask another witness about the significance of those comments, leaving Owens without a chance to respond and the rest of us without much sense for the context in which her comments had originally been made. Given the chance to respond shortly thereafter, Owens charged asserted that Lieu had assumed African Americans wouldn’t look into the matter further, suggesting she had been taken out of context.
…and the fight was quickly farmed out to various social media platforms.
Such is modern politics!
First let me say that this was not one of Lieu’s finer moments. It’s hard to get past the sense that he left out critical information about the context of Owen’s remarks or the sense of unfairness that goes with attacking someone in their own presence without giving them a chance to respond. I can think of all sorts of reasons why he might have chosen to do this, and yes, I want to support his efforts here, but this falls short of certain minimum standards that ought to guide someone’s conduct. Lieu can do better than this. He normally does.
That said, I can certainly empathize with Lieu’s unflattering take on Owens’ credibility. She is not an expert in politics, crime, or anything else coming up in that hearing. It’s tough to say just how we came to the point where Candace Owens counts as having something important to say at a congressional hearing on racially motivated hate crimes.
Answering that question was actually the first thing Owens herself addressed at the hearings. Why was she there? She told us. Her answer just wasn’t all that helpful. What Owens said was that she has herself been the target of racially motivated hate crimes. She said this in order to establish a personal connection to the issue, then went on to talk about anything but that very issue. The rest of Owens’ opening remarks were spent reminding us that words like ‘racism’ meant something in the context of segregation in the old Democratic South while the real threats to African-Americans today come from Democratic policies purportedly aimed at helping them. In short, Owens was there to minimize the significance of racially motivated hate crimes against minorities and shift the discussion to something that might embarrass the Democrats.
You can see all of this for yourself in the video from C-SPAN presented below. Owens’ opening statement begins at around 47:40 and ends at 53:42. Lieu’s remarks begin at around 2:33:14 and end at 2:38:27. Owens reply occurs between 2:38:50 and 2: 40:38.
Much of the subsequent discussion has focused on the question of whether or not Lieu misrepresented Owens in suggesting that she had tried to legitimize Hitler. For her own part, Owens told the committee that she had done no such thing, that she had in fact been trying to suggest that Hitler wasn’t really a nationalist. “A nationalist,” Owens, tells us, “would not kill their own people.”
So what did Owens actually say at the event in question? Her comments can be found here from around 38:45 to around 40:55.
So, did Lieu misrepresent Owens?
Only if we allow the context to swallow the text entirely, and even then, only if we don’t think very hard about that context itself.
What do I mean?
We can start by looking at aspects of the message that appear to support the claim that Owens was defending Hitler. Here it is!
But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.
Owens’ and her own defenders have reassured us that these remarks were made in an effort to distinguish Hitler’s actions from those of a proper nationalist. On one level, this is fair enough. That clearly is Owens’ main point, and her remarks are in fact consistent with that point.W should not lose sight of the larger goal of Owens’ remarks even as we ask ourselves why she chose to pursue them using the particular set of claims she did on that day.
The problem is that point isn’t inconsistent with a defense of Hitler, half-assed though it may have been. The odd description of Hitler as someone who might have “just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well” does suggest a sympathetic understanding of Hitler’s motives at least insofar as they applied to Germany. Adding to that, the sense that Hitler’s actions only become a problem when he goes global and you have a point that does more than distinguish Hitler’s politics from those of an idealized nationalism; you end up with a point that suggests his internal policies were in themselves just fine, that his politics becomes a problem at precisely the when when those politics cross the border. While we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Owens is indeed trying to distinguish Hitler from nationalism as she would have it understood, her actual argument leaves plenty of reason to believe that she is in fact sympathetic to aspects of Hitler’s agenda.
Simply put, Owens’ speaks approvingly of Hitler’s domestic agenda, condemning him only when his ambitions cross the border. In subsequent remarks, she may have acknowledged his murderous actions, but in the immediate context of her remarks at the time, Owens shows no awareness of anything worth condemning in Hitler’s domestic policies? Does she think his crimes began on the other side of the border? Does Owens think Hitler did nothing wrong inside of Germany?
In effect, Owens was praising Hitler with faint damn.
All of this brings us to a much larger point; why was Owens trying to distinguish nationalism from the actions of Adolf Hitler in the first place? The simple answer is because that is something key parties in right wing politics want to do at this point in history. Owens is not the only person pushing the idea that nationalism isn’t always a terrible thing. Charlie Kirk’s own comments in that clip push that very theme. It’s a talking point that someone in right wing circles has clearly seen fit to push onto the public stage and the folks at the event in question were hitting their marks quite nicely on this talking point.
The goal in this agenda is of course to distinguish nationalist politics from the horrors of the Nazi regime and leave us with a reassuring notion that nationalists just want secure borders and lower crime rates in the nations wherein they live, etc. They aren’t, we are supposed to believe, the kind of folks to exterminate 11 million people. No, that was just the Nazis, and they were actually globalists not real nationalists. Real nationalists, true nationalists, would never do that!
The problem of course is that this is utter bullshit, and the reason it’s bullshit is exactly the reason for the hearing Owens had come to troll. Nationalist movements always bring with them a degree of violence, xenophobia, and terrorism, and that means people get hurt at the border. It means they get hurt on the other side of the border. It means they get hurt well inside the border.
…and, yes, nationalists do kill their own people. Hell, they do it all the time!
Also, oh yes, nationalists always seem to have global ambitions as well. You can see this, not only in Hitler’s own plans, but also in Trump’s many ties to Russia, to Saudia Arabia, and to countless other international entities. Hell, you can even see it in Owens and Kirk going to England to help promote nationalist politics across the pond. If what makes a nationalist is a politics that stops at the borders, then Hitler may not be a true nationalist, ok, but then neither is Owens, neither is Kirk, and neither is the Manchurian Cheeto.
Few movements have ever gone global quite like the wave of nationalism presently sweeping the (ahem!) globe and drawing shameless opportunists like Owens into the picture. Her efforts to distinguish the politics of Nazi Germany from the kind of nationalism she herself promotes is little other than a parlor trick. She is telling us to ignore the genocidal maniac behind the curtain even as we look right at him. For that matter, she is also asking us to ignore the countless nationalists who dragged Europe into World War I, because frankly Nazis aren’t the only nationalists to leave a body count behind them. There is a reason ‘nationalism’ has been a dirty word in politics for some time, and that reason isn’t something Owens has even begun to address with her half-assed efforts to address the issue. She may not want us to think there is any connection between nationalism and crime, but her efforts to distract us from that connection are the very problem with her remarks on this subject.
In short, Owens’ own agenda is in fact a lot closer to that of Hitler than she wants us to believe. That’s why her critique of the man falls well short of anything a thoughtful person would produce, even on the spur of the moment.
Should we pay attention to the context of Owen’s comments?
Oh Hell yes!
It is that very context that condemns her.