The bottomless self-pity of American conservatives

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An elephant.
An elephant. Illustrated | iStock

The last decade has seen conservatives making great political hay mocking liberal undergrads. Taking a handful of examples wildly out of context, right-wing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos sneered endlessly about how these students wanted "trigger warnings" before exposure to traumatizing ideas or "safe spaces" where they supposedly wouldn't have to hear hard truths. Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro sold mountain ranges of merch mocking supposed liberal "snowflakes" whose feelings can't handle empirical reality.

Today the shoe is on the other foot. Now it is conservatives who now want to be protected from discomfort — and we're not just dealing with blue-haired liberal arts students who fit the snowflake stereotype if you squint. This time, actual government institutions with real power are involved, and right-wing self-pity is bottomless.

Take the recent spree of conservative book banning. Numerous school districts in Utah, Missouri, Florida, and Virginia have pulled books from libraries, typically in response to pressure from right-wing parents whipped into a froth by conservative elites like Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R). Texas state Rep. Matt Krause complied a list of 850 books deserving of suppression because they "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex."

Books by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, and especially the graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir are common targets. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott explained why he was demanding education officials draw up a list of books to be pulled from schools: "As you are aware, a growing number of parents of Texas students are rightfully outraged about highly inappropriate books and other content in public school libraries." Our little Chets and Khrystals need to be protected from books with sexual or upsetting content! (One hopes they don't have cell phones or computers with an internet connection.)

Now, there is a minor distinction here. Yiannopoulos and Shapiro focused their ire on college students who were supposedly infantilizing themselves by refusing to toughen up and read, I don't know, Rumble Fish. (One right-wing campus group amusingly attempted to mock this stereotype by dressing up in diapers themselves.) That implies that high school just might not be the right time for the more scandalous books.

But conservative pundits aren't making fine distinctions. Right-wing school boards generally aren't saying these books are inappropriate for children under 18, but that they are offensive and bad, full stop — or, in the case of some members of the Spotsylvania County, Virginia school board, that they should also be burned.

Besides, high school has traditionally been the age at which people start reading difficult texts about real life. After all, just one year separates a high school senior from a college freshman. Neither are right-wing colleges like Liberty University proclaiming themselves places where students read all the most inflammatory, challenging books to expand their minds after they turn 18 — on the contrary, the curriculum of its undergrad English degree is just as uptight and restrictive as its honor code, which forbids gay or transgender couples from having sex even if they are married. All this suggests conservatives aren't upset about censorship per se; they just want to be the ones doing the censoring.

Perhaps even more telling is the trend of conservatives stealing Holocaust valor. On the one hand, they want to shelter their kids from uncomfortable works of literature—but on the other, they're willing to raise the horrors of the Holocaust the moment they endure a slight inconvenience.

When COVID-19 vaccine mandates first became a topic of wide discussion, conservatives like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and former President Donald Trump's acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell immediately reached for the Holocaust comparison. On Shapiro's podcast in July, right-wing blowhard Candace Owens said did too. "During the Holocaust the Nazis referred to the Jewish people as 'rats' as another form of dehumanization," she said, and "right now, in this country, in America, conservatives are being dehumanized." In June, a Washington Republican state legislator pinned a Star of David to his chest while giving a speech against about vaccine mandates.

This is part of a long history of conservatives screaming that anything they don't like is Hitler, and the messaging has filtered down to the rank-and-file. In September, anti-mandate protesters in Iowa carried Stars of David in protests against a hospital's vaccine mandate, while a school board candidate in Shawnee Heights, Kansas, compared mask mandates to the Holocaust. In October, the mayor Anchorage apologized after he said Star of David-adorned anti-mask protesters were a "credit" to the Jewish people.

And this month, star-sporting protesters showed up at the Kansas legislature to complain about vaccine mandates. More protesters, these ones carrying swastikas in addition to Stars of David, showed up to the office of New York State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D) — who is Jewish, incidentally — to whine about his proposal to mandate coronavirus vaccination to attend public school.

Even for American conservatives, whose victim complex runs deeper than the ocean's abyssal plain, this is astoundingly offensive. I never thought it would be necessary to explain this, but apparently it is: The Nazis did not seize power and tell local Jews they would have to wear a mask in public locations, or get vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID if they wanted to work at a business with more than 100 employees. Instead — and let me emphasize this part, because it's pretty important — the Nazis killed 6 million Jews and tortured, hunted, and exiled millions more. Anyone throwing a red-faced tantrum at a city council meeting, squalling like a fussy baby over public health policies that might easily save their own life, is not in a comparable position.

Indeed, as writer Talia Levin points out, the truth is exactly the opposite: The immediate cause of a substantial fraction of Holocaust deaths was communicable illness, like typhus, which constantly broke out in concentration camps due to malnutrition and unsanitary conditions. A courageous scientist named Rudolf Weigl actually developed the first typhus vaccine to help Holocaust victims. He gave it to members of the Polish resistance and even smuggled thousands of doses into the Warsaw Ghetto at great personal risk.

As a longstanding student of the right-wing mindset, it's not surprising to me that conservatives constantly reach for the Holocaust as an analogy whenever their political hardship amounts to the pain of a paper cut. If an entire galaxy of 500 quadrillion sentient kittens — every one of them possessing Christ-like decency and kindness — were snuffed out by Space Hitler and his quasar gun, they'd compare themselves to that, too.

Still, it's pretty dang pathetic.

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