Thursday, February 3, 2022

Whoopi's bad history a teachable moment -- Feb. 3, 2022 column


Loose talk often rules the day, but what we say and how we say it still matter.

Just ask Whoopi Goldberg, who, while talking about a graphic novel about the Holocaust that was banned by a Tennessee school board, asserted a stunningly wrong view of history.

The Holocaust was “not about race” but about “man’s inhumanity to man,” she said Monday on ABC’s “The View.”

When her co-hosts pushed back, she insisted: “But these are two white groups of people,” she said. “This is white people doing it to white people, so ya’ll going to fight amongst yourselves.”

Her comments were ignorant or misinformed and led to immediate and widespread condemnation.

“Racism was central to Nazi ideology. Jews were not defined by religion, but by race. Nazi racist beliefs fueled genocide and mass murder,” the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington responded to Goldberg in a tweet.


Goldberg quickly apologized. “My words upset so many people, which was not my intention,” she said. “I misspoke.”

But Kim Godwin, ABC News president, while acknowledging Goldberg’s apologies, suspended her from “The View” for two weeks, saying Goldberg needed to think about the impact of her “wrong and hurtful comments.”

Goldberg, a longtime ally of the Jewish community, was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in 1955. The origin of her stage name is hazy.

“The true story is that my family is Jewish, Buddhist, Baptist and Catholic – none of which I subscribe to, by the way, as I don’t believe in man-made religions. . . So I took the last name from a Jewish ancestor. And I happen to be gaseous, which explains the first name, short for whoopee cushion,” she told Reuters in the 1990s.

But subsequent research by Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed Goldberg’s roots traced to West Africa, and she had no Jewish forebears, Gates wrote in his 2009 book “In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past.”

Goldberg’s recent comments seem to reflect an evolving definition of race and racism as relating only to people of color, some Jewish scholars said.

“What she said was really horrendous, but it’s not her original idea,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in an interview on Talkline with Zev Brenner, a radio program and podcast. “I don’t think she has a bad bone in her body, but she’s parroting now a new definition that’s wrong.”

This “woke definition” of race as exclusively pertaining to Blacks and other people of color, Cooper said, is repeated over and over, taught in schools and has been adopted by some in the Jewish community.

But “Adolph Hitler and the Nazis were all about race,” he said. “We were the ultimate inferior” race.

Polls show Americans in the 21st century may be losing the shared memory of the horrors of the Holocaust, when about one third of the world’s Jews were murdered.

Only 45% of American adults know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, a Pew Research Center survey reported in 2020. In a separate survey at the same time, only 38% of teens know 6 million Jews were killed.  

The banned book that sparked Goldberg’s comments, “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of his parents in Nazi death camps. The book depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. “Maus” won a Pulitzer Special Award in Letters in 1992.

The McMinn County School Board in southeast Tennessee voted last month to ban the book from the 8th grade language arts curriculum because of “inappropriate language” – eight curse words -- and a drawing of a naked female mouse, thus missing the point of the work altogether.

“This is not about left versus right,” Spiegelman told The Tennessean newspaper. “This is about a culture war that’s gotten totally out of control.”

Nothing spurs readership like censorship. The “Maus” books have sold out on Amazon and won’t be available for weeks.  

For her part, Goldberg got a history lesson from which others may learn.  

“It is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race,” she said Tuesday. “Now, words matter, and mine are no exception. I regret my comments, as I said, and I stand corrected.”

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



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