Good news for fans of linguistics. Two neologisms made their debut this week. United Airlines’ CEO dubbed the violent forced removal of a seated passenger “reaccommodating,” and, per White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Nazi death camps have been rechristened “Holocaust centers.”
Spicer’s spectacular gaffe — it was actually a cascade of gaffes — hit a nerve because he violated one of the unwritten rules of political rhetoric: Do not compare the Holocaust to anything. Ever. But that is what he did at an April 11 press briefing on Syria, noting that Hitler, unlike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “didn’t even sink to using” chemical weapons on his own people.
Scrambling to recover, he stepped in it deeper, acknowledging that Hitler indeed “brought [poison gas] into the Holocaust centers.”
And all this on the first day of Passover.
Immediately, pundits, politicians and Jewish community leaders called for Spicer’s resignation. After several attempts at written walk-backs, each of them lamely crafted, Spicer, to his credit, faced the cameras and offered a full-throated apology, calling his own words “inexcusable and reprehensible.”
How reprehensible? Let us count the ways. The Nazis used Zyklon B to gas millions of people, including nearly 180,000 German Jewish citizens. To suggest that Hitler never used chemical weapons, never on his own people, and that death camps were “Holocaust centers,” is to reveal oneself either as a Nazi sympathizer or as utterly clueless.
To be charitable, we suspect Spicer is the latter. From Day One, he has shown himself to be terrible at his job, mispronouncing the names of world leaders, confusing Orlando (site of last year’s horrific nightclub massacre) with Atlanta, and shamelessly spewing untruths from his podium every day.
But there is hope. No one need remain clueless forever. Spicer can avail himself of a world-class education on the Holocaust by taking a short stroll from the White House to see a real Holocaust center, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Or he can travel to Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s peerless Shoah museum, to take in the full horror of the Holocaust in all its dimensions.
Words matter. The words of the official spokesperson of the president of the United States matter. Spicer needs to get his act together right away, or he should reaccommodate himself. The American people deserve better.