Navigate to News section

The Plumber and the Laureate

A collision of memory and amnesia in America and abroad.

Adam Chandler
June 20, 2012

It induces a specifically historical brand of sadness to have two stories cross your path in the same day that not only besmirch the magnitude of the Holocaust (and all genocide for that matter) in frustratingly different ways, but also embody the same cavalier amnesia about suffering. Yesterday out of Toledo (the Buckeye Toledo, not the Spanish Toledo whose vibrant population of Jews were ruthlessly expelled or killed) came news of this campaign ad from Joe the Plumber, this dull scapegoating penny we can’t seem to get ourselves rid of.

In the ad, we watch Mr. Wurzelbacher load a shotgun and, while some casual country jangle plays, he narrates this moronic synopsis of the entire Armenian genocide:

“In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armainians [sic], unable to defend themselves, were exterminated.”

The camera pans to a profile of him, James Hetfield sunglasses on and ears covered by firing range headphones. His goatee resembling a toilet seat cover for his dribbling speaking hole, he looks into the distance and raises his shotgun. As he effortlessly pumps buckshot into apples and tomatoes, Mr. Wurzelbacher (above the sounds of his twelve-gauge releasing) narrates the history of the Holocaust thusly:

“In 1939, Germany established gun control. From 1939 to 1945, six million Jews and seven million others unable to defend themselves were exterminated.”

Last shot of Joe. Facing the camera. Blindness-inducing shades and deafness-providing headphones both on, shotgun in hand. The plumber-in-name-only smiles, nary a trace of irony.

“I love America.”

Not here, the Plumber seems to be saying, in a tone of voice that usually precedes the metal crack of a beer can opening. Well, what about where it did happen? In Hungary, for example, where it was reported that Elie Wiesel returned the Grand Cross Order of Merit, the country’s highest honor, after a number of Hungarian lawmakers publicly honored Jozyef Nyiro, a fascist and a Nazi supporter during World War II, in a memorial service last month.

During the war, Wiesel’s parents and sister (and 500,000 other Jews) were sent to their deaths by the very same coterie of Hungarian officials to which Nyiro belonged.

“I do not wish to be associated in any way with such activities,” Wiesel said of the blanching of history by contemporary Hungarian authorities. In an article, Wiesel also warily cited the hard right-shifting polity in Hungary as another reason he chose to return the prize.

Like Wiesel, very few of us wish to be associated in any way with such gross and reductive distortions of history, be they out of ignorance, political ambition, or old-fashioned, half-buried malice. And while some are loathe to give these voices attention, they don’t shout any less just because we tire of listening to them.


Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.