The righteous indignation against the classroom activism of Jay Bennish has thus far centered on the inappropriateness of such remarks, the obvious left-wing slant of Bennish and his desire to proselytize, and the clear violation of district policy. All these considerations make a slam-dunk case for getting rid of Bennish quickly, and the school district’s plodding attempts to decide what to do simply show how bureaucratic, union-driven, unfocused, and cowardly the regular public school system has become. Yet there is a much more obvious reason for firing this so-called teacher, one that has escaped most of the media scrutiny thus far. He is incompetent. He makes moral statements without understanding basic morality. He makes historical statements that clearly reveal an ignorance of the simplest historical facts. This moral and historical ignorance should disqualify him from teaching children regardless of whether he ever makes a controversial statement again.
Let us consider the moral worth of Bennish’s statements. He compared President Bush to Hitler and claimed that the United States “is probably the single most violent nation on planet Earth.” These are more than political statements; they are moral. As everyone knows “Hitler” or Nazism has become shorthand for evil in contemporary terms. In fact, as Allan Bloom argued two decades ago, “Hitler” is basically the only person whom post-modern relativists are willing to designate as evil. So Bush (and Americans who support him and fight his wars) is evil. Then what does that make Saddam Hussein? Bennish’s comparison of President Bush to Hitler thus undermines basic moral understanding in two ways. First, it diminishes and obscures the monstrosity that Hitlerism really was. Second, by suggesting that President Bush and Americans are simply imposing their values on Iraqis (who have recently voted for their government, even at great personal risk, for the first time in their lives), Bennish renders constitutional democracy and oppressive dictatorship as moral equivalents. Yet the most basic common sense suggests that they are not. How many people living in democracies were emigrating to Saddam’s Iraq? Was that reluctance to emigrate simply the result of Western values, or might the basic human rejection of torture chambers and tyranny have something to do with it? By equating President Bush with Hitler, Bennish cannot identify evil when it truly exists.
Bennish’s ignorance of history is also inexcusable. Hitler spoke fervently of the supremacy of the Aryan race. President Bush has never done so and has appointed numerous minorities to his cabinet and recently attended the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Hitler despised the Jews, blamed them for the political and financial woes of Germany, and sent them to concentration camps. President Bush recently appointed a Jewish man to head the Federal Reserve Board and openly declares the Israelis to be “our friends.” Hitler enslaved the nations he conquered. The Bush doctrine is to promote democracy everywhere, including the Middle East where it hardly exists because of tyrannical regimes. Where are the “eerie similarities” between Hitler and Bush?
If the design of Bennish’s class were to deal with contemporary issues responsibly, the wisdom of President Bush’s foreign policy could be debated or Bush compared to leaders in the past, provided the teacher maintained the “balance” required by district policy. Yet even then the appropriate historical analogy would not be Hitler but Woodrow Wilson. President Bush’s second inaugural—”the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world”—seems to be almost lifted out of Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany—”the world must be made safe for democracy.” Would Bennish consider Wilson, a Democrat, akin to Hitler? Whether either Wilson’s or Bush’s grand hopes for democracy and world order were or are translatable into prudent foreign policy is a matter for serious historical and political discussion. Such discussion is not to be had with the likes of Bennish.
Bennish should be fired for his irresponsible activism, to be sure. Yet he should also be fired for his obvious lack of moral and historical understanding. Interestingly enough, the Cherry Creek school district could not have predicted what inflammatory remarks he might make in the classroom when he was hired. But shouldn’t someone have been checking whether he knows a thing or two about history?
Terrence Moore, a former Marine and history professor, is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.