Above the Fold: When a mis-speak speaks volumes

Drawing a comparison – any comparison – between the mass murder of millions of humans and the slaughter of pigs is morally perverse.

Romani'a's agriculture minister Petre Daea speaks during a news conference in Bucharest, Romania (photo credit: REUTERS)
Romani'a's agriculture minister Petre Daea speaks during a news conference in Bucharest, Romania
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are two types of mis-speaks. The first is a gaff. That is when the speaker – a leader, a friend, a professor – accidentally says the wrong thing. Often the words that inadvertently emerge are funny. A correction is made and, chuckling, we move on. It’s happened to all of us, it happens all the time. These misspeaks fall into the famous categories of malaprops and spoonerisms.
Mrs. Malaprop was a character in the 1775 play The Rivals by Richard Sheridan. The character was constantly misusing words that sound similar. She was the 18th century precursor of television’s Archie Bunker. In the legendary 1970’s sitcom All In the Family, Archie, master of his home and of his own unique universe, misspoke all the time, making for funny, albeit almost entirely politically incorrect, dialogue.
Yogi Berra, the ball player and manager, was another famous malaprop-er. “It’s deja vu all over again” is one of his most often quoted misspeaks. Another famous and uncredited malaprop is saying “polo bears” in place of “polar bears.”
Spoonerism gets its name from Reverend Spooner, a circuit preacher and nervous speaker and history teacher who often inverted parts of words as he spoke. It is he who is famous for saying, it is “kisstomary to cuss the bride” and “Stop hissing my mystery lessons” (in place of “stop missing my history lessons”). Not at all offensive, even cute, embarrassing only for the speaker.
The second type of misspeak is when the speaker really does not understand what they are saying. They make a mistake and, with their correction, proceed to prove just how little they understand not only what they said but also what they were intending to say.
This is what happened when the Romanian minister of agriculture, a Social Democrat named Petre Daea, described and commented on the slaughter of 44,580 pigs determined to be potential carriers of African swine fever virus, which is extremely contagious and, unchecked, can infect many more pigs. The fever had already infected one particular farm in southern Romania, so the pigs had to be killed. It was the correct decision to make.
What happened next was completely inappropriate – a glaring misunderstanding of culture and an abuse of history. On national television, as Daea was describing events at the farm, he said, “The pigs (at the farm) are all incinerated... it’s extraordinary work, it’s like Auschwitz.”
Daea later apologized. But the statement he made, rather than explaining his actions, further mired him in his misspeak and demonstrated how little this official representative of Romania knows about Auschwitz and the Holocaust – especially, how little he understands about the Nazi murder machine.
“I only wanted to present the particularly difficult situation facing pig breeders from African swine fever. In my soul there is a lot of pain; I wanted to describe the awful moments that our farmers face.”
Drawing a comparison – any comparison – between the mass murder of millions of humans and the slaughter of pigs is morally perverse. It is so off base that saying more in an effort to rectify it only underscores the gravity of the original misspoken statement. Explaining that the pigs needed to be destroyed to save the greater society is exactly the Nazi justification for exterminating every Jew.
Romanians should be totally aware of these issues; certainly someone as mature as Petre Daea, a government minister, should know and understand. Romania was allied with Germany until the very last part of the war in August of 1944. It was not until 2003 that Romania officially acknowledged its connection to the Nazi Holocaust and murder of the Jews of Europe. The Romanian president commissioned an international committee to investigate the role of Romania in the Holocaust. The commission was chaired by Ellie Wiesel.
Before the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Romania numbered 800,000; today there are maybe 10,000. The vast majority of Romania’s Jews were murdered in the Nazi murder machine, however, a good number were murdered by Romanian civilians or the Romanian military. Ellie Wiesel himself, the most famous of Romania’s Jews to survive the Holocaust, concluded that between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews – between 40% to 45% of the total population – were murdered by their fellow Romanians.
We are witnessing an alarming trend in the rise of the misuse and abuse of Holocaust terminology. It is an outgrowth of an effort to expand the lexicon of metaphors.
We hear it when a local police shootout is referred to as a Holocaust – it isn’t. We read it when political adversaries are described as Nazis. Even when neo-Nazis and skinheads are referred to as Nazis. They are abhorrent and dangerous, but they are not Nazis. When the United States president of the is repeatedly called a Nazi or is compared to Hitler in august publications like the New York Times, those speakers, writers and editors are as guilty of misspeaking and abusing terminology as is Romania’s minister of agriculture. But the audience they reach and the abuse they spread is far greater.
The best defense that can be offered for Petre Daea is blissful ignorance. His lack of knowledge is self-inflicted. There is a skewed sense of reality in Romania about the role they played in the murder of Jews, very similar to the delusion of many other Eastern European states. Let’s hope that this turns into a positive teaching moment for all of Romania, not an unfortunate cause celebre as it did in Poland.
The writer is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show "Thinking Out Loud" on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.