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Jewish, Shmewish:

Above the Law notes an e-mail at a law firm (likely inadvertently circulated via "Reply All") and the ruckus it caused. The e-mail was:

From: ...
To: DL All Attorneys - US
Cc: ...
Sent: Mon Dec 17 11:00:29 2007
Subject: German Translation - Completed

Dear All,

Thank you for your many quick responses [to a request for translation of a German document]. The translation has been completed.

Regards, ...
______________

From: ...
Sent: Monday, December 17, 2007 11:02 AM To: ...; DL All Attorneys - US Subject: Re: German Translation - Completed

Zieg Heil!!!!!!

Sent from my Blackberry Wireless Handheld

This then prompted apologies, including the "Zieg Heil" author's statement that, "Given my many friends in the firm, common sense and my own Jewish heritage, I know that these are words that should have never been spoken or written."

But come now — connecting German translations with "Sieg Heil" isn't anti-Jewish; it's (in context, mildly) anti-German. It expresses no endorsement of Nazism; at worst (from Jews' perspective) it in some measure trivializes Nazism, but only to a very small degree and not in a manner that is tremendously offensive.

To the extent the phrase has any real meaning, it seems to me, it unfairly connects modern German matters with the atrocities of generations ago (kind of like calling German cars Nazimobiles, though I realize that that also sometimes involves an allusion to the specific history of the Volkswagen). Germans, not Jews, ought to be the ones who feel offended by it.

OrinKerr:
Eugene,

I don't think the author claimed that the comment was anti-Jewish. As I understand it, he just claimed that his own Jewish heritage helped inform him that (obviously) he shouldn't have written the message.
12.17.2007 2:38pm
wm13:
If we followed Prof. Volokh, we would be denying the Jews at Dewey Leboeuf a chance to be pointlessly insulted by someone's offhand remark, even though everyone else gets that chance. That wouldn't be fair.
12.17.2007 2:45pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Hmm -- I took that statement as implicitly suggesting that his Jewish heritage informed him that he shouldn't have written the message because the message was offensive to Jews. Otherwise it's not clear how his being Jewish should affect his judgment on this score.
12.17.2007 2:46pm
wooga:
A better response would have been "Vee have vays of making you talk..." - that would have made clear that the target of the joke was the rapid manner in which the translation was accomplished. Unfortunately, "heil" is now linked with "Hitler" in the same way that nooses are now linked with lynching. I'm sure people can think of many other words/symbols that are now removed from polite discourse because of some popular association (regardless of historically accuracy) to actual offensive things.
12.17.2007 2:51pm
OrinKerr:
It's hard to tell, as this was a "mea culpa" e-mail and they are not typically models of clear thinking. But I would guess the reasoning is that Jews are unusually aware of the fact that references to Naziism are unusually likely to be misconstrued and trigger strong feelings. Alternatively, perhaps that was added just to emphasize that the more likely explanation is indeed the true one.
12.17.2007 2:52pm
A.C.:
What about that episode in Buffy (Season 1) in which someone compares Amy's mother to a Nazi and Willow (a Jewish character) answers "Heil"? Never heard a peep about that. Is it unacceptable a decade out, or are there different rules for law firms and TV? Would it have made a difference if Xander (supposedly Episcopalian) had made the remark?
12.17.2007 2:55pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
what about when Mr. Burns tells Grandpa that if they steal the paintings they found in a German castle that they'll be "rich as Nazis?" this is outrageous i am outraged
12.17.2007 3:05pm
Anderson (mail):
I wondered whether the phrase was strictly a concoction of the Third Reich, or whether "Hail, victory!" played no part in public discourse before then.

I would've thought the Second Reich was pretty enthusiastic about victory, for instance.

But Wiki explains it all for me:

The expression itself was born during a party meeting, when Joseph Goebbels said "Sieg heil" and all supported the phrase (however an early associate of Hitler, Ernst Hanfstängl, claimed to have devised it). Since Nazism argued that war was a way to determine the superior race and that Germans were that superior race, hailing war was to hail the struggle that would eliminate all others and establish, in a social Darwinist manner, the "New Order."

Saying the phrase in Germany today is a criminal offence punishable by up to three years of prison (StGB, section 86a). The same is true for expressions that might be mistaken for "Sieg Heil". Usage for art, teaching and science purposes is exempt from punishment.


So misspelling it "Zieg" still gets you busted, unless you argue that you didn't "say" it in your e-mail. What does the German counterpart of Prof. Volokh think of that, I wonder?
12.17.2007 3:07pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
The idea of referencing modern Germany to Nazi tendencies isn't really something that isn't unheard of today, anyways. If anything, I'd pillory the author of the e-mail for being terribly unfunny. Edgy humor that fails to amuse just winds up making the author look dumb.

Now puns, on the other hand, are the pinnacle of wit.
12.17.2007 3:12pm
kevin r (mail):
what about when Mr. Burns tells Grandpa that if they steal the paintings they found in a German castle that they'll be "rich as Nazis?" this is outrageous i am outraged


What about this Calvin and Hobbes comic? I as well feel the feelings of outrage.
12.17.2007 3:15pm
ronnie dobbs (mail):

The idea of referencing modern Germany to Nazi tendencies isn't really something that isn't unheard of today, anyways. If anything, I'd pillory the author of the e-mail for being terribly unfunny. Edgy humor that fails to amuse just winds up making the author look dumb.

Now puns, on the other hand, are the pinnacle of wit.


Agreed. If you're going to be un-P.C., the joke better be funny. That way, if someone gets offended, you can at least apologize for being offensively funny rather than offensive and unfunny.
12.17.2007 3:20pm
PLR:
Better to quote Borat Sagdiyev: "Great success!"
12.17.2007 3:24pm
wooga:
"High Five!"
12.17.2007 3:38pm
RAFIV (mail):
"Reply All" is honestly the most dangerous button on an attorney's computer. Leaving that aside for a moment, what happened to commmon sense and a sense of humor? I understand professionalism and gravitas should govern all our correspondence, but sometimes an off the cuff humorous comment is just that. Personally, I would have chuckled had I seen this; and if I had noticed the Jewish Surname of the sender, I would have laughed out loud.
12.17.2007 3:49pm
Temp Guest (mail):
An earlier posting implicitly notes that "Sieg Heil" is the correct expression. I think that "Zieg Heil" means something like "Hail the Goat". The writer was actually mocking Naziism.
12.17.2007 3:50pm
WHOI Jacket:
Move every Zeig.

For Great Justice?
12.17.2007 4:11pm
Ernst Blofeld (mail):
I prefer PJ O'Rourke's appleation for the Porsche 911: "Ass-engine Nazi slot car."
12.17.2007 4:20pm
A. Person (mail):
If he actually meant to make a pun on "Hail the Goat" ("Zieg[e] Heil"), it would actually be pretty funny as a slight to Nazism
12.17.2007 4:33pm
John425:
Either the Jewish author is being obtuse and stumbling over his own identity crisis or he's a f**king idiot. It is an offensive reminder of the greatest mass murder of all time. And, No- I am not Jewish.
12.17.2007 5:31pm
Anderson (mail):
If he actually meant to make a pun on "Hail the Goat" ("Zieg[e] Heil"), it would actually be pretty funny as a slight to Nazism

I wonder how many people that syllable put in Dachau?
12.17.2007 5:47pm
SenatorX (mail):
Maybe he felt he could go there because he is Jewish? And then realized he couldn't and threw a "but I'm Jewish so don't be too offended?"

If he was non Jewish, with blue eyes, blond hair, and German ancestry (like me), I can't help but think he would be in more trouble.
12.17.2007 5:50pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
I wonder if the content of the translated material was something that recalled the strong-armed Nazi practices? It's not uncommon (pace Godwin) for people to characterize things they find dictatorial as Nazi-like, after all....
12.17.2007 5:56pm
byomtov (mail):
To the extent the phrase has any real meaning, it seems to me, it unfairly connects modern German matters with the atrocities of generations ago

This makes no sense to me. What does the phrase have to do with modern Germany? It's a Nazi slogan, pure and simple. As such it is, and should be, regarded as offensive.
12.17.2007 5:59pm
PersonFromPorlock:

From: ...
Sent: Monday, December 17, 2007 11:02 AM To: ...; DL All Attorneys - US Subject: Re: Japanese Translation - Completed

Banzai!!!!!!

Sent from my Blackberry Wireless Handheld


So? Not especially funny but nothing to get upset over.
12.17.2007 6:10pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Byomtov: Certainly using "Sieg Heil!" as a means of supporting the Nazis is offensive. But here it was pretty clearly a joke. And I don't think that all jokes that mention Nazi-related matters (e.g., Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," or the Buffy, Simpsons, and Calvin &Hobbes jokes cited above) are offensive. Some may fault them in some measure for trivializing Nazi atrocities, but I think that's not much of a serious charge to be made against a generic joke.

What's offensive here is precisely that he's using the Nazi reference not because the referent is supposedly being oppressive (even in some humorous, exaggerated sense) or otherwise Nazi-like, but simply because the referent is German. That strikes me as an unfair ethnic smear, though I'll stress again that, given the context, it's not a very big deal.
12.17.2007 6:12pm
byomtov (mail):
Eugene,

Of course all jokes that mention Nazi related matters are not offensive. In fact very few of them are. I loved "The Producers," to take one of a million examples.

This is not a "Nazi-related joke." For starters, it's not funny. It's a slogan that is going to offend people, much as a white-supremacist slogan (can't think of one offhand) would, even if not used in a racist fashion.

Context matters, certainly, but it is not everything. Suppose UCLA's number one graduate were black, and someone said, "Boy, he's really a smart n*****" Would context make this non-offensive? Would it be unreasonable for another black student to be offended? Some words and phrases have enough emotional power to outweigh a benign context. "Sieg Heil" falls into that category for a fair number of people.
12.17.2007 6:53pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Byomtov: (1) I'm sorry, but I don't really grasp the analogy with the "he's really a smart nigger" example.

(2) Recall that this slogan clearly wasn't meant as a slogan; it was an attempt at humor. It wasn't funny, but that makes it a bad joke, not a serious attempt to use a slogan for its sloganly meaning. The joke was linking the slogan with a reference to German; it is that link that strikes me as offensive, because it's insulting (even if only in an attempted humorous way) to Germans, not because it's being used as a slogan.
12.17.2007 7:10pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
It's not even clear that this is an attempt at humor by first-hand reference to the Nazis, or if it's a reference to some prior attempt at Nazi humor (in addition to The Producers, Hogan's Heroes comes to mind, although the correct tag line would then have been, on first getting the instructions, "Yawohl, Herr Commandant. . . ") Do we know how old the e-mail offender was?

But you gotta watch that "reply all" button.
12.17.2007 7:43pm
NYU 3L:
Honestly, if I were working there, I would have been more offended by the wasted time and bandwidth over a not very funny joke.

It seems that should be a basic rule for anyone in the workplace these days--if you're going to tell a joke, don't write it down, and for God's sake, don't send it to the entire company/firm.
12.17.2007 8:01pm
Visitor Again:
it unfairly connects modern German matters with the atrocities of generations ago

Generations ago? There are still a lot of people alive who were adults during the Nazi years, albeit they are now quite old. I was born in England during the Second World War, and to this day the first things I think of when Germany or Germans are mentioned are the Second World War, Hitler and the Nazi atrocities.

The collective memory is a tremendously powerful force. When Germany and Holland meet on the football pitch, the Dutch fans sing, "We got our bicycles back." That bit of humor is a reference to the Germsns taking away Holland's bikes to fuel their war machine. An unfair jibe? Not in the eyes of those whose parents and grandparents had their sole means of transportation confiscated for the benefit of the German population and their progeny.

The Germans of that time left an indelible impression on all who went through that time, and it'll take a lot longer than 60 years to wipe it away. That's the way things are, and rightly so.

So some Germans may get their feelings hurt a bit because someone made a reference to Sieg Heil? Well life is sometimes a bit unfair, as those who witnessed the German atrocities committed such a little time ago will tell you.
12.17.2007 8:13pm
Wayne Jarvis:
Shouldn't there be a pop-up that confirms that you really want to "reply to all" by now? MS does this all the time. Are you really sure you want to delete that file?Are you really sure you want to accept that cookie?

I think more careers have been ruined by careless people hitting reply all that there is no excuse to not have some sort of confirmation button.
12.17.2007 8:25pm
Peter Wimsey:
So some Germans may get their feelings hurt a bit because someone made a reference to Sieg Heil? Well life is sometimes a bit unfair, as those who witnessed the German atrocities committed such a little time ago will tell you.



Of course, if you're an international law firm with German clients (Deutsche Bank) and a lucrative tax practice based in Frankfurt, you may want to take a slightly different approach. Verstanden?
12.17.2007 8:33pm
Jmaie (mail):
John425 said, "It is an offensive reminder of the greatest mass murder of all time."

Not to be pedantic but I believe Hitler only comes in third. I do agree with your first statement.
12.17.2007 9:19pm
Anderson (mail):
Porlock, "banzai" is a traditional tribute to the emperor that both predates WW2 and continues in everyday, non-fascistic use today.
12.17.2007 9:37pm
neurodoc:
EV: It wasn't funny...
And any who thought it was in the least bit so were clearly wrong or twisted? How about something less categoric like, "It didn't strike me as funny," to allow for the subjective in such reactions?
12.17.2007 9:59pm
byomtov (mail):
EV,

The analogy was not intended to be exact. You rely on context to excuse the phrase. I was trying to show that there are cases where context doesn't matter. That's all. I understand that the situations are not otherwise comparable.
12.17.2007 10:19pm
MLS (www):
Sure, everyone is solicitous of the feelings of the Germans and Jews, but has anyone considered how this impacts another minority group? I refer of course to the humor-impaired. It is patently unfair that they be discriminated against merely because, due to genetic factors beyond their control, they cannot distinguish between the genuinely witty and the boorishly offensive (and no, neurodoc, this is not a subjective distinction-- just ask anyone. I mean anyone who is not humor-impaired).

Instead of apologizing, the author of this email should demand that the firm provide him with an accomodation under the ADA. Perhaps a non-humor-impaired legal assistant could review his emails and remove all lame attempts at humor. Or suggest funnier alternatives. For example, instead of "zieg heil," the legal assistant could suggest, "they were just following orders." Now that would be funny. A hell of a lot funnier than "hail the goat," anyway.
12.17.2007 10:58pm
Visitor Again:

Of course, if you're an international law firm with German clients (Deutsche Bank) and a lucrative tax practice based in Frankfurt, you may want to take a slightly different approach. Verstanden?

I myself wouldn't bring up the war or artocities or Hitler with German friends--and I've had quite a few. But these things are unavoidably in my mind when I deal with Germans; I just don't mention them, out of civility. Yet I'm not going to get excited if someone says Seig Heil or Yavol or whatever and hurts German sensibilities.
12.18.2007 8:00am
PersonFromPorlock:
Anderson:

..."banzai" is a traditional tribute to the emperor that both predates WW2 and continues in everyday, non-fascistic use today.

Oh, I know that; but in Western minds it's primarily associated with WW2 Japanese fascism, so I think my point - that the old slogans of fascism are too dated for us to be very offended by them - stands.

"Seig heil," by now, is really just a mildly sardonic comment on enthusiasm involving things German.
12.18.2007 8:05am
neurodoc:
MLS, you say the question of what is and what is not funny is an objective rather than subjective one. I don't know how you can seriously (unfunnily) maintain that, but if it were so, then would it not ineluctably follow that either the person who thought something funny or the person who thought it unfunny had to be wrong? In an attempt to be generous here, I was willing to allow that some might see nothing the least bit funny in "Zeig Heil" (intended or unintended?). If, however, it is objective rather than subjective, so that there can only be one right answer to "funny or not at all funny," then I will tell you that it was minimally funny, and my ruling on this is final and unappealable. (To whom would you appeal, anyway?)

PersonfromPorlock: "Seig heil," by now, is really just a mildly sardonic comment on enthusiasm involving things German.
I see it as more than "mildly sardonic" and about more than "enthusiasm involving things German." For me, it is about blind obedience to authority, moreover some willing participation in evil.
12.18.2007 8:31am
neurodoc:
As the number of people (reply all) who would receive a "smart" retort of any sort increases, the likelihood that one or more among them will take offense and act upon it rises exponentially. With a sufficient number (N=?), even "have a good day" would offend someone and cause many organizations in a super abundance of caution to do their damage control thing. If the speaker is not personally close to each of those who will receive his message, he/she risks disaster with attempts at humor, especially when it is done via email.
12.18.2007 8:46am
Hoosier:
EV says: "Recall that this slogan clearly wasn't meant as a slogan; it was an attempt at humor. It wasn't funny, but that makes it a bad joke, not a serious attempt to use a slogan for its sloganly meaning."

Not to "get all-Wittgensteiny", as the kids say these days, but . . . I think that's exactly right, Prof. V. No word has meaning outside of the context of its use. Even the "N-word" is innocent of intent to harm when it is, say, defined in a dictionary. The sender of the email was speaking the "language game" of "jokes." NOT the "language game" of anti-semitic hate speech.

It was a joke. Granted, jokes can be offensive. But telling an offensive joke with no intent to hurt people is not the same thing as sending an email that says, e.g., "The Jews planned 9/11." It would be wise policy to treat offensive remarks that are meant to be humorous differently from offensive remarks that are meant to be offensive.
12.18.2007 9:26am
gtryagain (mail):
I wonder which client got billed for the time it took to concoct this sample of this attorney's wit and wisdom. Since he was included on the original distribution announcing the translation, it probably was a German one. Then the comment would be even more idiotic than appears at first.
12.18.2007 12:03pm
Sigivald (mail):
Wayne: In many cases, "Reply All" is really "Reply to the mailing list". ("DL All Attorneys US" seems so; DL for Distribution List.)

Email software can't tell if a random email address is one person or a mailing list...

Hoosier gets points for using Wittgenstein correctly.
12.18.2007 12:47pm
A.W. (mail):
Eugene,

I think you got this wrong. Yes, it is also a little anti-German but it can b much more easily associated with anti-semitism.

Saying that Seig Heil is not associated with naziism, because it has a meaning apart from naziism is a bit disingenuous. Its like someone claiming that a swastica is not associated with naziism because it was a bhuddist symbol long before the nazis adopted it. Maybe so, but if you run around, putting up your hand, saying sieg heil while carrying a swastica, we all know what you mean. The fact is, regardless of the those issues, it is associated with naziism, because it has been associated with naziism.

Language is a human creation and therefore doesn't follow strictly logical rules. Associations built on ignorance of language, history and culture are just as real as ones that are well-informed. I think, frankly, you are out-thinking yourself.
12.18.2007 1:23pm
DJR:
Totally off topic, but related to a comment above:

When did nooses become primarily associated with lynchings? Growing up, my primary association for nooses was western movies and tv shows. It wasn't until the last 10-15 years or so that lynching even entered my consciousnesss in any real way, and only recently (around the time Allen was running for Senator in Virginia I think) that I realized that nooses are offensive because of their association with lynching.

I recall learning how to tie a noose when I was about middle school age and thinking it was a pretty neat knot to know how to tie. It never would have occured to me then that tieing a noose would offend anyone.
12.18.2007 2:11pm
Hoosier:
"Hoosier gets points for using Wittgenstein correctly."

Wow! And to think I never get tickets for my Wittgenstein digressions at Chuch E. Cheese!
12.18.2007 6:11pm
markm (mail):
I think more careers have been ruined by careless people hitting reply all that there is no excuse to not have some sort of confirmation button.

I'm all in favor of setting up a few more traps for the stupid and careless to get themselves demoted to manual laborer. There are too many idiots who apparently got office jobs solely because they own a suit and their parents paid for a college degree that didn't require learning anything, so more Office Darwinism is in order...
12.19.2007 3:46pm
Stuhlmann (mail):
Am I the only one that finds it amusing/ironic that an email concerning the translation of a German document would misspell a German phrase (Zieg instead of Sieg)? Makes you wonder about the quality of the translation.
12.20.2007 5:53am