Professor “accidentally” gives Nazi salute in class, gets fired

This article from the New York Times‘s education issue (click on screenshot) tells us once again the degree of political sensitivity in American schools—this time in an elite New York secondary school. It’s a long read, but worth it:

The story in short: a somewhat socially awkward but popular teacher, Ben Frisch, who worked for years at Friends Seminary in Manhattan (a private Quaker school for rich kids), wound up turning an extended arm into what he thought was a joke. But it turned out to be a bad and misconceived joke. As the NYT reports:

Ben Frisch opened his Feb. 14 pre-calculus class at Friends Seminary the same way that he opened all his classes over the course of his 34 years at the private Quaker school in Manhattan: with an invitation to his students to share anything that was on their minds, followed by the gentle ringing of a chime and a long moment of silence. He then introduced the day’s lesson, involving the calculating of angles of depression and elevation. Frisch straightened out his right arm to demonstrate. He lowered it down and then raised it up. Glancing at his arm, now fully extended and pointing slightly upward, Frisch realized something: He was inadvertently pantomiming the Nazi salute. Frisch is a practicing Quaker, but his father was Jewish, and two of his great-grandmothers were killed at Auschwitz. Mortified, he searched for some way to defuse the awkwardness of the moment. And then he said it: “Heil Hitler!”

A few students gasped; others exchanged surprised looks or laughed nervously. Instantly aware that his stab at Mel Brooks-style parody hadn’t landed, Frisch lowered his arm and tried to explain himself, telling his students that it used to be common to make fun of Nazis. Only recently, he said, had such jokes become taboo. He resumed the lesson, and the weird moment seemed to be over.

It wasn’t. Frisch was fired.

Parents’ reaction were somewhat mixed about this, but, as the Times reports, “the overwhelming majority of students, teachers, and alumni disapproved of Frisch’s firing”, though some thought this was “unforgivably offensive.” I don’t think so. It was a hamhanded attempt to make a joke out of a weird gesture, and it backfired. Frisch even apologized, but it wasn’t enough. And the fact that his father was Jewish and two relatives were killed in the Holocaust didn’t matter. Bo Lauder, head of the school, who wants to make it the equivalent of Manhattan’s most elite private prep schools, terminated Frisch. Further, he prohibited the students from putting out an issue of their newspaper that defended Frisch, and then fired the editors when they disseminated the issue to the school as a pdf. Lauder’s excuse?

Lauder did not consider the “Heil Hitler” episode a close call. “Personally, I was appalled,” he told me. “I couldn’t imagine, even as a joke — and I grew up watching ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ — that in a class that had nothing to do with history or World War II or Nazism or teaching German language that an incident like that could happen.” I asked Lauder why he felt he needed to go so far as to fire Frisch. “One of our pledges is to make all of our students feel safe,” he replied. “And that is something that I take very, very seriously.”

That no one has accused Frisch of being an anti-Semite was beside the point: His invocation of the Nazi salute in a classroom full of high school students, regardless of his intentions, was enough to end his career. On today’s campus, words and symbols can be seen as a form of violence; to many people, engaging in a public debate about the nuances of their power is to tolerate their use.

This really is going too far, and abrogates common decency and an empathic understanding of what happened. It isn’t even close to Count Dankula, the Scotsman who trained his girlfriend’s dog to make a “Heil Hitler” salute with his paw when Dankula said “Gas the Jews.” That was deliberate, though a (bad) joke—and I think Dankula, who was convicted, should have been found innocent. But what Frisch did wasn’t even a deliberate joke: just a misfired attempt to turn a gesture into something lighthearted. But these days you don’t use Hitler to be lighthearted.

So kudos to the students, teachers, and parents who are supporting Frisch (see photo below). Although he was fired, Frisch was a member of a teacher’s union, and they’re appealing his suspension.

Some of the supportive students; it’s heartening to see such sentiments in students not yet in college:

BENJAMIN LEVINE, ABRAHAM LEVIN, CAMILO DURR AND MAEVE WOOLLEN, ALL RECENT GRADUATES OF FRIENDS SEMINARY, AT STUYVESANT SQUARE PARK. ELIZABETH BICK FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

h/t: Grania

 

55 Comments

  1. Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    This seems to be the norm these days. Similar incidents have occurred locally over the past couple of years. Have to be careful what you do and say. I wonder just how far it will go and where it will end. Mass hysteria is what I see. Often that ends with a counter reaction that is even more extreme. For instance a populist president could possibly be elected . But it could not happen here, no, .. wait . . .

    • Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re touching on something many people are afraid to admit. People want to blame Republicans for Trump’s election, but I think the rise of political correctness and not denouncing it when it goes too far caused people to support someone who was the complete opposite of politically correct. I also remember reading something that said something along the lines of “when everything is sexist and racist, nothing is. So, when the real monster walked in, nobody wanted to listen anymore.”

    • Harrison
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      The good news is moral panics inevitably burn out. The bad news is they always leave a trail of victims.

  2. DIrk
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Meanwhile (sorta), Germans are making funny movies about Hitler: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4176826/

    Anyway, I don’t understand the safety argument. How are inappropriate jokes making anyone unsafe, when the joker or jokester’s intentions are already known?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Because now words are considered just as violent as actual violence so I say something you don’t like to hear, it’s the same as slapping you. Good grief.

      • Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        People have actually used the excuse that somebody else’s words caused them to react violently and that they should be deemed innocent.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          I think I remember Judge Judy telling someone off and upholding a charge for just that thing.

      • Posted September 25, 2018 at 12:11 am | Permalink

        It’s like saying criticizing a religion is identical to criticizing its adherents. If they were the same, I wouldn’t be wasting brainpower on the religion, I’d just call its followers “stupid doo-doo heads”.

        -Ryan

  3. Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Hopefully there will be a reversal, and Lauder will be fired.

    • W.Benson
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Agreed!

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    “On today’s campus, words and symbols can be seen as a form of violence…”

    And this is the problem with the whole thing and illogic of today’s outrage culture. FFS it’s nowhere near violence. Can you imagine what generations that saw real violence in wars would think of this? It’s an insult to anyone who has witnessed or been on the receiving end of real violence.

  5. Pat McKnight
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Agreed, Jerry. The administrator is confused about the issue. This was a teachable moment & Frisch responded appropriately.

  6. TJR
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I’ve come close to something like this when illustrating angles or slopes, but always go for the left arm holding the right arm down, as in Dr Strangelove. I’ll definitely have to avoid the “mein fuhrer I can walk” at the end.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Springtime for Frisch.

    Somebody needs to google “joke.”

    • Posted September 24, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      “You are not authorized to see this page.”

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    “… and I grew up watching ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ …”

    In that case, Mr. Lauder, make like Sergeant Schultz and see nothing, ’cause you damn well know nothing.

    They should send him to the Eastern Front, along with Colonel Klink.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      Personally, I found Hogans Heroes in extremely bad taste. Maybe not quite as bad a making a sitcom in a concentration camp might have been, but I felt it massively trivialised the experiences of every POW by misrepresenting them as well-fed wisecracking smartasses who strolled through the war effortlessly fooling their totally incompetent German captors.

      So I don’t find Lauder’s claim that he watched Hogan’s Heroes as evidence of anything but a naive and retarded sense of humour; in fact, it disqualifies him from claiming to find offense in anybody else’s humour, however awkward or dubious it may be.

      Heil Lauder [/sarcasm]

      cr

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    All of the good comedians abandoned college campus years ago, with good reason.

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the school first fired him without all the info and then felt that had to cover their posterior.

    Very similar to the music festival conductor that was fired over accent jokes with his life-long friend
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/09/british-conductor-sacked-us-music-festival-joke-labelled-racist/

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      That story is horrible. One can’t even have a private joke with a friend or a “helpful” white person will tell on you.

      • BJ
        Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Not always a white person. Let’s not forget how Adria Richards got two people fired from their jobs for sharing a private and completely benign joke that she happened to overhear. Oh, and she also took their pictures and doxxed them on Twitter for good measure.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          I was referring to this article in particular which identifies “a white woman” as the one who complained.

          • BJ
            Posted September 24, 2018 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

            Ah! Gotcha. Sorry.

  11. Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    The problem is with school administrators. They are truly deranged and gutless.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    “Some of the supportive students; it’s heartening to see such sentiments in students not yet in college [ sign content ] “

    Hallelujah!

  13. garthdaisy
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    You know who else banned jokes about Hitler? HITLER!

    • mikeyc
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      You’re very clever, young man, very clever, but it’s Hitlers all the way down!

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        You two made me think of “The Schmeed Memoir,” Woody Allen’s New Yorker short story about Hitler’s barber.

        He sometimes punished der Führer by surreptitiously allowing some of the tiny, freshly snipped hairs to get inside his collar.

  14. Michael Fisher
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    The USofA needs to locate its misplaced funny bone. Lets have this back [& Goldie Hawn while you’re at it please]:

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      This sort of thing would cause an absolute meltdown today. As would many other episodes of most any sitcom and variety show from that time.

      • Doug
        Posted September 24, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        “Don’t mention the war!!”

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 24, 2018 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          Hahahaha

  15. keith
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    A close friend and I jokingly give each other a hard time based on our respective ethnic ancestries, including the ironic use of ethnic slurs. Guess we can’t let anyone overhear us if we want to stay employed.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      A couple of New Zealand Maoris I knew used to say things to each other like “Suit your black self”. I suspect they’re more careful not to be overheard, these days. Which is sad.

      cr

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and not that it was ethnic (because we were both white) but my best friend at work and I used to insult each other continuously. So much so that one new boss, on overhearing us, genuinely thought a fight was about to break out and threatened to call security – much to our amusement.

      cr

      • keith
        Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:08 am | Permalink

        My friend and I are both white, but of different ethnic backgrounds.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I wish there was a way to damp down on social overreaction.

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    “Heil Myself” from the musical version of “The Producers”

  18. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    I feel a need to post this:

    Yes, that’s an American flag they’re saluting. They’re actually taking the Oath of Allegiance. (I won’t make any cracks about oaths of allegiance being inherently fascist IMO).

    This was so up until 1942 and nobody is suggesting that those kids were Nazis or crytpo-Nazis or pseudo-Nazis or any other sort of Nazi…

    cr

    • Posted September 25, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I assume swastikas, toothbrush mustaches, and the last name Hitler all were ok before the Nazis came to power. Such is the power of symbols.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 25, 2018 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        I’m absolutely certain you’re right.

        The raised-arm salute has a long and honourable history (before Musso / Hitler adopted it). It was the Olympic salute, the Bellamy (pledge-of-allegiance) salute, and apparently was used for centuries as a friendly greeting – the open hand indicated that the saluter was not holding a weapon.

        http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/08/the-official-olympic-salute-stopped-being-popularly-used-after-wwii-due-to-strongly-resembling-the-heil-hitler-salute/

        The swastika was a good luck symbol for millennia. It’s an obvious yet subtly satisfying geometric shape (you can tile it) and some cultures that were directly impacted by Germany in WW2 have refused to abandon their centuries-old traditional symbol. (I once saw by chance a typical Bollywood movie that was made by ‘Swastik Productions’).

        (We’ll be in real trouble when religion finally dies and the cross becomes a symbol of evil – try typing without using a + 🙂

        As for natty little moustaches, you only have to contemplate Hollywood leading men of the 20’s or 30’s to realise how popular those were.

        cr

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 25, 2018 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

          I’m pretty sure the Romans did it first.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted September 26, 2018 at 3:34 am | Permalink

            Or something approximating to it. Then Mussolini copied them and Hitler copied him, more or less.

            How many different ways are there to salute anyway?

            cr

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted September 26, 2018 at 6:18 am | Permalink

              sIR. There are uncountably many different ways to salute wrongly, just observe American armed services personnel. They even have a fairly recent rule permitting veterans to render a salute during the playing of the National Anthem covered or not!

              Approximately** speaking there is only ONE way to salute correctly.

              Regards
              Colonel Sir R.J. Pelican-Kilgore Trout VC, GC, DCM, CGM, BGM.

              ** Peculiar rules may change “one way” to two or even three ways. e.g. Those heathen RN wallahs can salute with the left hand at times.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

                😎

          • Posted October 21, 2018 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

            I am curious about it. Have you a source?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 21, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

              It may be an adlocutio pose which you see in the Augustus of Prima Portages where Augustus addresses his troops. It’s also seen in several Roman coins and on Trajan’s column. Adlocutio was a rhetoric gesture but shown in a military context in art often. A bit more about adlocutio.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adlocutio

              Fun fact, the way Augustus holds his fingers is part of adlocutio as well and later the iconography was adopted in Christian works as a sign of blessing. Roman iconography uses this as a sign of speaking.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 21, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

                Augusts of Prima Porta (damn you autocorrect)

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 26, 2018 at 3:25 am | Permalink

          Ack! Should’ve been ‘some cultures that were NOT directly impacted by Germany…’

          Hate it when that happens.

          cr

  19. Posted September 25, 2018 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Instead of saying “Heil Hitler”, he should have said Don’t mention the War. That’s a scene from Fawlty Towers that is embedded in British culture, but I don’t think you could make it today.

  20. gayle ferguson
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Wow. I hope that none of these people ever wander into Britain and accidentally see the ‘don’t mention the war’ episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’, or that episode of ‘Father Ted’ where Ted keeps on accidentally impersonating Hitler whenever his Chinese neighbours come by… They might implode.

  21. Posted September 25, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Wow, it seems kind of ironic that in order to punish what he thought was unjust the principal made a unilateral decision and then promptly suspended the first amendment. I feel like although Nazism may be dying off, fascism is alive and well

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      That had crossed my mind too. What could be more fascist than firing somebody for an accidental lapse of taste?

      cr

  22. Diane G
    Posted September 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    sub


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