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Rich Iott -- a Nazi bit of reenacting work

It's all over the news.

Rich Iott, Tea Party candidate for a House seat from Ohio, has been known to dress up as a Nazi on weekends.

wiking_resized.jpg

This revelation has been making the rounds, generating frenzied attacks and equally frenzied defenses. Nazi reenactor? How horrifying!

Well, sure. But I think the phrase bears taking apart. Nazi? Clearly a problem. Reenactor? There's a more subtle objection.

Reenactment is America's new peculiar institution. Thousands of people pile into rusty pick-ups each weekend to go relive moments from our nation's past, or the French and Indian War, or something. So far, the biggest turnout was at Gettysburg in 1998, when 41,000 people showed. That's practically as many as were there the first time!

As a former reenactor myself, I think Rich Iott's weekend behavior bears more scrutiny. You know how modern psychology and received wisdom urge us not to dwell on things that have gone badly in the past? There's another word for "dwelling on things that have gone badly in the past," and that word is "reenacting."

Especially if you're on the wrong side, it's tantamount to returning to your elementary school and urging that one kid to kick you in the reproductive zone and cast aspersions on your home life. If you enjoy it, you're made of stronger stuff than I am!

And Rich Iott clearly enjoys it.

Even his Jewish friend who apparently testified to his character says Iott's more than just a Nazi reenactor: He also reenacts other things! Iott says he's also dressed as a World War I doughboy and represented both sides of the Civil War.

That's not abnormal at all! As Americans, we have a constitutional weakness for things that require us to dress up in silly outfits and wander around looking somewhere on the scale between indignant and constipated. How else to account for the popularity of tourism, the Freemasons, or the revived success of Colonial Williamsburg?

In a way, the entire Tea Party is a band of rogue reenactors who got way, way out of hand. They even have those vintage "Don't Tread On Me" flags! It's easy to see why people are so excited by this movement. Thousands of people participate in reenactments every year! Especially with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War coming up, it remains a vibrant national pastime. There's nothing like driving out into the countryside every weekend to relive a humiliating defeat from 150 years ago while wearing uncomfortable clothes. I know. I've done it myself. Once, I got a tick! But I consoled myself by imagining that this happened to Stonewall Jackson all the time.

But sometimes reenacted and real life overlap in bizarre ways. Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, has a whole post on its website about immigration reform. Really? I understand that "Colonial Williamsburg: That The Future May Learn From The Past," is a more compelling slogan than "Colonial Williamsburg: That Those Who Forgot To Buy Tickets To Busch Gardens May Stand Around Resentfully While A Guy In Stockings Pretends Not To Know What Airplanes Are." But do they have to go so far?

And there are different shades of reenacting.

When reenacting the Civil War, it's acceptable to go as a Confederate. In fact, whenever I see a Civil War reenactment, I always wonder how the Confederacy lost. They vastly outnumber their Union counterparts, and they seem to have so much more spirit, the kind you never see for other lost causes like, say, the Byzantine Empire. Still, Confederate history is bound up with the national stain of slavery, and it would be wrong to suggest that a man in over-enthusiastic gray doesn't inspire a frisson of discomfort. But so many other associations -- regional, romantic, nostalgic, military interest -- hover around the gray ranks of the people refighting the War of Northern Aggression, that if Iott had acknowledged only that he was a Confederate reenactor, we might not have blinked an eye. The Confederacy is a legitimate part of our national history.

Unlike, say, the Third Reich, or even the first or second Reichs.

Frankly, Nazi attire is fraught with meaning that Confederate garb isn't. Both causes combined atrocities with a period of martial prowess, but the Nazis aren't even local! Dressing up as a Nazi in Ohio seems like going to France and dressing as, er, an evil Toussaint L'Ouverture. And Iott's and the Wikings' whitewashed account of their military prowess is beyond absurd.

Besides, the usual impetus behind all reenacting isn't the people who won saying, "That was incredible! Let's relive that!" It's the losers -- asking for a do-over.

So the fact that anyone would want to reenact as a Nazi, even if he's not a real Nazi, concerns me. Still, not to be a Nazi apologist -- arguably the worst way to begin a sentence, short of "No offense, but" or "I don't think it's racist to say" or "You'll agree that it was manslaughter after I tell you" -- I think part of what he's saying is true: just as you can't reenact the Civil War without the Confederates, you can't reenact World War II without the Nazis

To someone like me, the way of solving this would appear to be for everyone to get together, acknowledge that pretending to be a Nazi is a painful duty, and draw straws every week, or something, passing around the same helmet and boots. Everyone understands that dressing up as a Nazi is never a good career move. It wasn't even a good career move for the actual Nazis. And remember when Prince Harry tried it? That worked badly! No one actively wants to reenact as a Nazi, right?

Right?

That's the trouble with reenacting.

Iott says he reenacts so we "never forget." But if he can separate the Nazi uniform from the Nazi mentality, I think he's forgotten already.

You know what they say: those who don't learn from history are doomed to reenact it. Dressed as Nazis.

By Alexandra Petri  | October 12, 2010; 1:18 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  Rich Iott, reenacting  
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