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Effective propaganda entertains as it spreads hate

Nicki Minaj arrives for the Billboard Music Awards

Nicki Minaj arrives for the Billboard Music Awards on May 18, 2014, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: AP / John Shearer

Released around the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht -- the "Night of Shattered Glass" that culminated in Nazi genocide -- the popular rap video titled "Only" offers stark and unmistakable proof that the Nazi message is alive today.

In the video, rap diva Nicki Minaj snarls out profanity-laden, highly charged lyrics as three male rappers chime in rhythmically. A flow of militaristic images rendered with choppy animation in grainy black and white evokes 1930s newsreels warning of the growing Nazi menace.

The record label involved, Young Money, serves as the authoritative stand-in for the Nazi party. Its initials, combined Swastika-style, appear and reappear. A rally occurs at a vast outdoor forum recalling Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will."

Propaganda can be an powerful tool.

In the video, released about a week ago, Minaj's animated character is enthroned as a ruling superwoman. A film clip of fighter planes appears and reappears to martial cadences. There are frequent cut-ins to military and religious imagery, including a New Testament Bible and a clerical figure wearing a stylized bishop's hat. Frequent repeated messages proclaim social hierarchies and superior individuals, using a racial term unprintable here.

In the face of growing backlash, Minaj issued an apology. The video's director, Jeff Osbourne, responded defiantly. While admitting the Nazi references, he insists he holds no anti-Semitic beliefs. The video "has nothing to do with glorifying Hitler or the Holocaust," he told Billboard, the entertainment industry publication. "I knew I had an opportunity and an outlet which I knew would reach millions of people and wanted to make a statement."

He added, "People think it's trivializing the Holocaust because the song talks about sex. But I have no control over the lyrical content."

His disavowal is nonsense. He has, however, hit his numbers. More than four million people have viewed it on YouTube in its first week and continue to call up the video. I'm worried that nearly twice as many viewers liked it (gave thumbs up) as disliked it (thumbs down).

I'm not surprised. Effective propaganda entertains as it spreads hate.

The Nazis pioneered the use of mass media propaganda in the 1930s and 1940s. Skilled practitioners inserted stereotypes of Jews and other minorities into everyday situations: newspaper cartoons and popular magazines, lyrics for piano sing-alongs and librettos of staged operas. Commonplace items like beer steins were decorated with anti-Semitic caricatures and widely distributed. (We exhibit one in our museum.) As they downed their brews, tavern regulars learned it was OK to mock their Jewish neighbors. No big deal. Just a beer mug, right? No big deal. Just a song at the piano.

To be clear; I do not believe "Only" advocates genocide. What it does is borrow images, symbols and cadences the Nazis used to desensitize millions of people to the horrors that were to follow. Presenting these monstrous beliefs once again through popular entertainment subjects those who survived the Nazi persecution and their descendants to renewed terror. At the same time, the glorification of Nazi beliefs desensitizes millions of young people to the Holocaust itself.

Because most schools devote little or no time to studying the Holocaust, young people today are unfamiliar with the symbols and images the Nazis used so effectively. It's horrific that so many millions of young Americans are being indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda by a music video seven decades after the Holocaust took place. We need to step up our education efforts to ensure that young people today recognize hate speech when they see or hear it, and understand how dangerous propaganda truly is.

 

Steven Markowitz is chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County.

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