The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Justin Bieber draws outrage for comments at Anne Frank House

Update from Diana Reese: I’m sorry: I made a mistake last night when writing this post by including Justin Bieber in the “ugly American stereotype.” He’s Canadian — I knew that, but forgot. He seems like the boy next door. (And after living in Europe as a student in Paris and later as an Army wife in Germany, I’m sensitive to American behavior overseas.)

I’ve also added a line after hearing from my son’s English teacher this morning about teaching Anne Frank’s diary in school. What originally grabbed my attention when I heard this story was that some of Bieber’s fans were unfamiliar with Anne Frank.

Really, Justin Bieber? You hope that Anne Frank would have been a “belieber” — a fan of you and your music?

I cringe at the insensitivity and the sheer ego of your remark. No wonder the “Generation Me” stereotype persists.

Bieber, the 19-year-old Canadian pop star on tour, visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam on Friday. Before leaving, he wrote a comment in the guestbook, later posted on the Facebook page for the historic landmark: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here.”

Had he only stopped there. But no, he felt compelled to keep writing. “Anne was a great girl.” Great girl? That was the best he could do? Pretty shallow. How about gifted writer? Courageous young woman? Time magazine, after all, listed her as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

Then the clincher: “Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” Oh yes, I can see it now: Anne Frank as president of the Amsterdam chapter of the Justin Bieber Fan Club. Maybe it was those photos of movie stars that Anne taped to the walls. Maybe it was Anne’s age — only 15 when she died — the age of many of his fans. Maybe he didn’t mean it to sound as narcissistic as it did. But it was still an insensitive and ignorant comment that ruined an otherwise positive visit.

Of course, I found his grammar painful, but since the venerated AP Stylebook has accepted the use of hopefully for “it is hoped” at the beginning of a sentence, I’m alone in that agony.

What pains me much more about this nonevent (shouldn’t we be obsessing over North Korea or the global economy or something a little more important than a pop star’s selfish remark?) is the discovery that some of Bieber’s fans don’t know who Anne Frank was.

Perhaps they’re too young yet to have read her bestselling diary, long a staple of English classes. “It is on the list for 8th grade” for our school district, my son’s 9th grade English teacher assured me. “But though on the list, it may not be taught every year or by every teacher.” She did think that students would, at least, be exposed to excerpts.

I’ll admit my daughter’s precocious; she read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” otherwise known as “The Diary of a Young Girl,” while she was in grade school. I still remember my first time reading the book sometime around 7th grade and the shock and distress I felt at the end to learn that this girl, who felt like a friend, had died of typhus in a concentration camp shortly before the end of World War II. It remains one of the most powerful books I have ever read; I remember feeling sad and haunted for days, thinking about her death and the unfairness of it all.

Did Bieber, in his hour-long visit, miss out on the poignancy of the fact that Anne did not have the chance to live the life of a normal teenager? She entered into hiding at the age of 13. She didn’t get to listen to popular music — they couldn’t make noise during the day for fear of being discovered. She didn’t get to go on dates or even attend a regular school.

Instead, she wrote, first pouring out the thoughts of a young adolescent, and later revising her diary with the idea that it might help share part of history. She never dreamed her book would sell more than 30 million copies, or that she would become the face of the Holocaust.

And yet, I think that Anne, of all people, would have forgiven Bieber for being young and stupid, when you think about one of the most famous quotes from her diary: “…because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.