Democratic Underground

Father Knows Best

July 2, 2005
By Max Gordon

We are facing a particularly determined war-machine in this country that only understands and appreciates what must be called aggressive capitalist white supremacist patriarchal dominance. The destruction of the feminine means nature violated, as environmental guidelines are consistently repealed or ignored to accommodate business interests, chemical waste is dumped into lakes because no one cares about the future of the planet but only how to make more money right now; and the continued use of slave labor in underdeveloped countries, workers with no unions paid pennies for 14-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, and unable to survive on what they earn. Sex, of course, is tolerated for procreation and the occasional entertainment of men - as the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls thrive. Reproductive agency will be denied to women, based on fundamentalist religious grounds.

George Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange are beginning to feel like prophetic visions of our times. When Atwood's book about the religious right's taking over America was published almost twenty years ago, it was a horrifying dystopia - now it's starting to look like the Bush administration's playbook. When we consider men like Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, and when we extend their ideology in our imagination, we have to consider that their victory can only be the total eradication of the feminine from every corner of the planet. The legacy these men would like to leave behind becomes less one of politics and more that of pestilence. Their great achievement will be the end of spontaneous, non-capitalist, non-commodified, creative thought on the planet Earth.

Some people have compared what is happening in America right now to Nazi Germany. This may sound idiotic. Part of the problem with comparing history to current events is that nothing is ever a direct fit, which is one of the reasons why history is so easily repeated. There is no way that what happened in the 1940's can be exactly compared to what is happening in the United States in 2005, but similarities do exist and must be recognized, even exploited at times so that we may draw conclusions about what may lie undernourished, because to not do so, to be too careful in our reverence is to be forced to make connections to the past only when a new tragedy befalls us, after it is too late.

One difficulty in comparing what is happening in this country now to Germany during World War II is that the only fascist dictator we know at the moment is Saddam Hussein. And since he is safely tucked away in jail and there are no concentration camps around, there seems to be nothing to fear. The fact that most people know only the result of a fascist takeover, but aren't as familiar with the stages that often lead up to one may be why so few are panicking. For those who are inside detention centers like the ones at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, or who have been extradited by this administration to other countries for torture, the comparison to a Nazi concentration camp is probably apt. What might seem more familiar to Nazi history is the lack of due process for prisoners, the loose standards for interrogation or no standards at all, the disregard for international law, the incarceration for indeterminate and arbitrary amounts of time, and the secrecy. For the rest of us shopping with our kids on Sundays and trying to get on with our lives despite a foreboding hangs in the air, we watch the news or read the newspaper and exist as some Germans probably did in the Thirties. We cringe at the Patriot Act which allows the government to tap our phones, read our mail, search our computers without due process, but in the end we believe what they tell us: that certain inalienable rights have to be suspended temporarily to protect other rights. We've heard the stories of people somewhere who were visited by the FBI because they were critical of the war or this administration, or how someone overheard an anti-Bush conversation they didn't like and turned their neighbors in. But because it hasn't happened yet on our street or to anyone we know, we aren't out protesting - we don't want to seem alarmist or embarrass ourselves by overreacting and drawing attention to our family. We pull down the shades, or go to the movies, and don't ask too many questions. Occasionally a story on the news penetrates our denial and hysteria threatens to creep, but we pacify ourselves with the mantra: "Come on, how bad can things really get?"

In 1933 the German Reichstag (Parliament) was burned to the ground. Hitler had his chance. Whoever did it (ostensibly him, but historians disagree on this) Germany now had not only a common enemy but an incident to rally around; any time someone doubted Germany's need for a dominating, protective force, Hitler could point to the Reichstag, the need to be more circumspect and the reasons why civil liberties had to be temporarily suspended. The tragedy of 9/11 was so thorough, so inconceivable, Americans were similarly prepared to do whatever it took to keep 9/11 from happening again. Like the stereotype of the grieving widow taken advantage of by the greedy funeral parlor director who slips her his most expensive package; in her despair she will buy anything. Our shock took us beyond a place of rationality; what we knew was that we were being told that there were more weapons of mass destruction aimed at us, that someone was out there who might harm us again, and they needed to be taken care and quickly. It was this argument that helped Cheney push legislation through expeditiously, as he warned members of congress that if it didn't pass, they would be responsible in the event of another attack. We were told civil liberties had to be suspended because terrorists were everywhere - in our libraries, on the Internet, using the television, radio and our cell-phones. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (or USA PATRIOT Act) was the answer to an America that the administration claimed needed to be monitored more closely after 9/11.

On February 28, 1933, Hitler sprang into action. Using the Reichstag incident, he convinced German President Paul Hindenburg to issue a Decree for the Protection of People and State, which suspended sections of the constitution. According to William L. Shirer's, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the decree laid down that:

"Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephone communications; and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscation as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."

On November 2001, The Homeland Security Act is enacted less than a month after September 11. The Act suspends constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and had already been prepared prior to the time of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. It was accepted by the American public without significant opposition or debate.

If the Holocaust taught us nothing else, it should be that for the rest of human existence when the question is ever posed, "How bad can things really get?" The answer should always be: pretty fucking bad. There are laws and actions that are being put in place now that may not come into full manifestation for another decade, but when they do, there may be no turning back. How these next years play out, and our resistance to what occurs, will determine the political health and survival of democracy in the United States.

I realize that my understanding of what happened in Nazi Germany was far too simplistic in high school: Hitler was evil and did bad things. He was the most horrible human being who ever lived. While all of this seemed true, it didn't tell me anything in particular, and it certainly didn't help me to take his personal and political evil and extrapolate it into an indictment on human evil itself and what I might be capable of in my own life, what might happen in my country. As tempting as it is to envision Hitler as a psychological monstrosity, which in many ways he was, it is his humanness which is actually more terrifying, the fact that any man could contain such hatred, call for the eradication of an entire people, and then compliment his secretary or smile and pet his dog. Alice Miller wrote about the decision to consider Hitler as a subject for analysis: "I had to free myself from thinking of 'what is human' in traditional and idealizing terms based on splitting off and projecting evil. I had to realize that human being and "beast" do not exclude each other." As genocide has continued to occur on the planet since the end of the Second World War, as currently in Sudan, it is clear that we don't understand what causes genocide enough to stop it in each other or ourselves; we haven't learned anything from history, or we simply don't care. To most people these days, as the writer David Rieff once noted, the expression "Never Again" when applied to genocide really means: "Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s."

The reason why the Holocaust must be studied in detail is that we need to know the inner workings of the fascist State, the calibrated clicks as they fall into place. It is too easy to think, "I would have known better if I had been there. I would have seen what was coming." It is this kind of arrogance and false understanding that is the real crime against memory, the ugliest tribute to the vanquished and the survivor. Others argue that Hitler was a historical inevitability, while ignoring the fact that public opinion did matter to the Nazis; their actions had to be covert because they were aware that if more people knew what they were up to early enough, they could never have achieve their unimaginably evil legacy.

Hitler began the euthanasia programs in the early 1930's with this secrecy - he tried to convince the German public through propaganda films that mentally disabled and physically challenged people were taking up too much space and were going to ruin Aryan gene pools. He never mentioned death specifically in these films, but as in the propaganda films used against Jews later, the message was clear: these are the people we need to get rid of to maintain the health of the German body. It was only when Hitler started gassing a few "normal" German soldiers who had come back brain-dead from the First World War that public outcry began, and the Nazi's had to be more covert in their efforts. The Nazis change of course in this effort is significant and acknowledges the fact that when there is even the slightest moral outrage, protest or curiosity against an administration's wrongdoing, evil can be at least temporarily derailed, and arguably thwarted altogether, depending on the level of resistance. As not enough German's were concerned about these killings, not only did the Nazis continued, but by 1941, 70,000 mentally and physically disabled people had been gassed. The early gas chambers would serve as the basic model used for Jews throughout Germany's concentration camps.

In school, we learned that Jews were despised in Nazi Germany, but we didn't understand where the roots of this hatred had come from. We didn't understand how hate could fester for decades or centuries before it manifested in unprecedented ways. German theologian Martin Luther wrote in his book, On Jews and Their Lies in 1543: "Their synagogues should be set on fire. Their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. Let's drive them out of the country for all time." There was the increasingly accepted belief amongst Germans that whoever bought from a Jewish person was a traitor to their race. There were signs posted everywhere that denounced the Jews and that had to be taken down during the Olympics so the visiting world wouldn't know how rapidly things were changing in Germany, the depth of the growing hatred. German children learned songs in school with anti-Jewish lyrics, "When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, all goes well," and played manufactured board-games, like today's Chutes and Ladders called Juden 'Rous (Jews Out!). The rules of the game specified: "If you manage to kick out six Jews, you are the winner without question." The Nuremberg laws in 1935 made it illegal for Jews and Aryan's to marry, and began the increasing loss of Jewish rights as they were no longer allowed to hold government positions, to sit on park benches, ride buses, go to concerts, hold public office, or teach at universities. Anti-Jewish sentiment progressed until it reached a decisive turning point with Kristalnacht, "Night of Broken Glass", in 1938. On that day, 1,000 synagogues were set on fire and 76 were destroyed. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses and homes were looted, about 100 Jews were killed, and as many as 30,000 Jews were arrested. The action was initiated by the Nazi police force wearing civilian clothes to give the appearance of an uprising of German citizens against the Jews. For German Jews who had fought bravely in the First World War, who believed themselves fully German, and knew that anti-Semitism would eventually pass, and for those Aryan Germans who were unwilling to see what Hitler had been putting into place for the last decade, who might have resisted earlier, but didn't, there was no turning back. As Hitler had started putting politicals in Dachau concentration camp as early as 1933, the streets were empty by 1938 for massive resistance. Too many other Germans believed in the promise of Hitler's ideology and supported his reign of terror, willing to follow his vision no matter what the cost.

We knew concentration camps were horrible places where people died, but how could we understand the full extent of what had really gone on at Auschwitz? My generation knows the Holocaust primarily through Hollywood movie making. This presents obvious limitations, since nothing is presented outside a movie studio's conception. A student who wants to "understand" the Holocaust can do so only through an amalgam of sources - recorded testimonies, newsreels, museums, actual footage, visits to the camps themselves. In school, we couldn't fathom or never discussed people being gassed to death with their children standing beside them, thrown into ovens sometimes alive, human skin used for lampshades and purses and drawing paper, the human head of a Polish prisoner who'd been hanged, made into a paperweight at Buchenwald and presented at Nuremberg as evidence. The rapes, starvation, hangings, perverse experimentations, cannibalism, the use of human corpses for soap, the human hair woven into fabric. When images taken from the liberation of the camps are shown, the mind recoils and doesn't want to believe that those are human bodies stacked like firewood, that those are piles of glasses, suitcases, family photographs, shoes. The unimaginable greed. The slave labor used by companies like IG Farben to make a financial profit. It all seems beyond comprehension, unimaginable evil in a faraway land, until I remind myself of the public lynching of blacks in this country, the common practice of castration and the torture that occurred before cheering mobs that often included children who were allowed to stay home from school to attend. Of lynchings advertised in the newspaper like theatrical events, of black men's and women's bodies set on fire and roasted, then placed in front of stores where pieces of the charred remains were broken off and kept by families as souvenirs.

We need to understand every point on the circle; the victim, the perpetrator, the bystander. Each has a story to tell, something to inform us. You cannot study the history of Nazi Germany and not wonder how genocide against Jews in Europe might have ended if there had been more public outrage against Hitler; if the Roman Catholic Church had taken an aggressive moral stand against exterminations and the camps; if the United States had entered the war earlier, done more to stop the killing or if the world powers had made provisions for Jews to emigrate. The story of Nazi Germany is ugly on so many levels, so repulsive to consider, it is tempting not to look at it at all, or to study it in a way that allows our fascination with evil to distance us further. We need to understand in the deepest human terms how one group of people can hypnotize themselves into believing that another group is the source of all their problems, how jealousy and feelings of inadequacy can lead to the most unfathomable acts of depravity and murder. We need to see how terms like "gooks" for the North Vietnamese, "cockroaches" for the Hutus in Rwanda, and even "Axis of Evil" and "activist judges" are used to galvanize hatred against a group of people; how cartoons and illustrations begin the process of making people gradually appear more grotesque and less human. The Jim Crow image of the black American with elastic red lips and protruding eyes, smiling over a piece of watermelon has the same dehumanizing effect as the depiction of the Jew in Nazi propaganda as dirty with an oversized nose, and his hand in someone's pocket. We need to understand how the media have historically been used as an agent provocateur by certain corrupt governments to incite and encourage hate. Media are crucial to people who put forth wars; a dictator has to get his message out somehow. In The Power of Myth series with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell described the reverential relationship that the native Indians had to their environment. "The Indians addressed life as a 'thou'. Trees, stones, everything else. The ego that sees a 'thou' is not the same ego that sees an 'it'. And when you go to war with a people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into 'its', so that they're not 'thous'".

In December 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found three African media executives guilty of genocide, incitement to commit genocide and crimes against humanity for the hateful reports and editorials they had published and broadcast nine years before. Their broadcasts on the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio station encouraged militias to kill Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians and leaders. Names, addresses, and license plates were read over the air, leading to mass executions.

RTLM is the first media outlet to be tried for war crime since Der Stürmer at the Nuremberg trials. Julius Streicher, the Nazi propagandist who published the Anti-Jewish newspaper, was found guilty after the Nuremberg Tribunal described his writings as "poison injected into the minds of thousands of Germans which caused them to follow the National Socialist Party's policy of Jewish persecution and extermination." He was given the death penalty.

In his book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, Eric Alterman writes about the print media coverage at the beginning of the Iraq War: "America's most influential interlocutor of foreign affairs, The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, wrote, 'As far as I'm concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war ... Mr. Bush doesn't owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons (even if it turns out that the White House hyped this issue.)' The editors of The Washington Post in large measure concurred: 'While the Bush Administration may have publicly exaggerated or distorted parts of its case, much of what it said reflected a broad international consensus.'" Alterman claims that not only was this false, but that when journalists reported on the number of inconsistencies and deceptive statements in the Bush team's presentations of the "facts," journalists often used euphemisms like "dubious," not wrong, or "the president's rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy." Says Alterman, "Indeed, the words 'President Bush lied' have not, to my knowledge, appeared in any major American newspaper during the president's [first] term." One wonders how history will judge our media one day and its treatment of our occupation of Iraq, the provocative programming in the months prior to the first bombing, and how phrases like "evildoers" spoken hundreds of times an hour on dozens of cable channels help us look at photographs of bombed Iraqi children and tell ourselves that what we are engaged in is an operation for freedom.

Leni Riefenstal's Triumph of the Will begins with clouds. Words appear on the screen: "20 years after the outbreak of the world war, 16 years after the beginning of our suffering, 19 months after the beginning of the German Renaissance, Adolph Hitler flew to Nuremberg again to review the columns of his faithful followers." The first frames of the film announce to us in visual terms: God has looked down on Germany and sent her a savior.

Riefenstahl's movie is about belonging. The crowd scenes show the unity, precision and order of the soldier, every head turned in perfect profile. There is no mistaking the film's message: you are protected as long as you trust in Hitler. He is God from the Old Testament, egomaniacal and capricious, looking down from the clouds, passing judgment, and expecting to be indulged and obeyed without any hesitation or he will mete out swift and thorough punishments. Germans will greet each other with "Heil Hitler" for twelve years to reassure him of their devotion.

Hitler was smart to get Riefenstahl - Mussolini or Stalin would never have had the insight to hire as talented a filmmaker as her. Hitler said to Riefenstahl, when she hesitated at his request, "I want an artist to make this film." And Riefenstahl does her job smashingly; she sells her product: Hitler. At the first official viewing in 1936, the Nazi's might have hugged each other - the movie was propaganda gold. The film is innovative in that it predates the ruthlessness of television advertising and its manipulative, marketing genius. With the outstretched hands that reach for him throughout the film, the message is clear: everybody loves Hitler. It reveals to us that the relationship many German people had with the Führer was deeper than just politics, or faith in a charismatic leader. This is rock star territory. The distinction is important and helps explain a loyalty that people are capable of feeling that extends beyond all rationality. In Sir Kevin Isaacs' series The World at War a German woman described how another woman from her village traveled to where Hitler gave a speech and managed to shake the Führer's hand. When she returned home, she became a celebrity as people wanted to touch her and gave her a new special status within the community.

Hitler's failed attempts to succeed as an artist are significant in deconstructing the elements of his creative passion. His sketches and water colors aren't bad, exactly. Some are proficient and might even be considered blandly attractive, just right for the wall of a Motel 6 or a travel agency. Hitler failed to get into art school because his work lacked any range or sense of vision. But he showed greatness as a director. Drawing on his love of opera, Hitler knew how to put on a grand show, and he used this to engage people in his fantastical and fanatical vision for the German people and the Aryan race. In this, Adolph Hitler and Karl Rove, as a top strategist in the Bush White House, definitely have something in common: insecure white men with a sense of pageantry and waspy elitism on the brain. Rove is also a great director, the main difference between them being that Hitler cast himself as his own lead, and Rove has George W. Bush. Rove's ability was evidenced by the suspenseful press conferences and news reports that led up to the war; the ultimatum to Saddam and the counting down of days and minutes as the America awaited his response; the exploding lights over Baghdad during "shock and awe" with its circus-barker title that promised to wow and entertain, and the eventual toppling of Saddam's statue in Paradise Square. As an American flag was draped over the statue's face and it was brought down to an eager Iraqi chorus that clapped and cheered its victory and then mysteriously and disappeared "offstage," one had to admit the war on Iraq was at least great theater, if nothing else.

In our last election, Republicans and the Conservative Right took a page out of the Hitler's handbook and "Nuremberged" (The Nazi version of "You Got Punked") John Kerry. It wasn't too hard: Kerry's grandfather, originally named Kohn, was Jewish. Somehow, through the propaganda of the Swift Boat Veterans, the repetition of the phrase "flip flop," his quotes which were taken out of context and made into incendiary television commercials, we were trained with Pavlovian precision to feel contempt and disgust for a man who had taken a moral stance against a war that we now collectively agreed had been a unwinnable mistake and had cost too much money and too many American lives.

For those of us who watched the first presidential debate and thought we were tripping on acid, it became obvious that something much more complex than a presidential debate was happening that night. When it was over, I numbly pondered what I'd just seen. Bush's style the entire evening amounted to defensiveness, "I know you are, but what I am I?" cut-downs, silent gaps, smirks, snorts, repetitive rejoinders and answers that seemed two questions behind. Yet some still said the next morning, "Bush and Kerry tied in the debates." Something extraordinary was happening in America. Bush had established a rapport with his constituency that was beyond rational thought where he could do no wrong. This group, ostensibly the majority of the American public, wouldn't need answers to 9/11 or Iraq or unemployment or anything else because the answer they were looking for was the man himself.

Michael Moore continues to advocate that Democrats run a "star" as their next presidential candidate. He's been calling for Oprah or Tom Hanks, our most affable public personalities, as the Republicans continue to use actors like Reagan, Eastwood and Schwarzenegger. As a filmmaker, Moore understands the American trance is based on fame: we are whores for celebrity. A few nights before the events of 9/11, Americans weren't thinking about terrorism; we were watching Anne Heche talk about the end of her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres with Barbara Walters. It seems surreal now. The fact that we see ourselves as incapable of becoming fascists is what makes us that much more capable of stumbling into fascism backwards. Like Hitler's methodical rooting out of opposition and his lethal retribution against anyone caught listening to any media source other than German radio, we are watching a gradual shift in American media away from the option of getting opposing information and viewpoints. Fox News has been perceived as the right-wing extreme, but when one channel-surfs now, it is clear that many news channels are starting to follow Fox's format; everything is Fox News. If you want a dissenting view, you go online and read newspapers from Europe. The sources of unbiased news are getting narrower, the radio and the newspaper and the news channels are owned by a handful of people, and Americans could care less, because we have our minds on Michael, Martha, Scott and Laci, Brad and Jen and Angelina.

If Jeb Bush is going to run in 2008, then Rove and company are probably working on him already, teaching him how to walk properly with a book on his head and sending him to political charm school at night. If he is charismatic like his brother, George, or is trained to be, then Democrats should be afraid. When Bush appeared on Oprah before the 2000 election, he shined. Gore did well also, but a talk-show format didn't appeal to all his strengths the way it did Bush's, and shouldn't have needed to if the American Presidency was for a person of ideas, and not just a performer. Bush worked it for Oprah, and was visibly moved when he remembered his wife's faithful commitment when she stood by him as he faced the depths of his addiction. When his style was at full capacity, Bush had gut-power, like a preacher. He never rushed ahead, and never demanded his audiences work to keep up with him; he was willing to close the gap between himself and the person listening. Bush came with his own laugh-track and applause; he was a walking presidential sit-com. He may not have had to articulate his policies on Oprah, but his appearances on the daytime and late-night talk-show circuit helped with the "isn't he cute, isn't he real, isn't he loving" vote. He batted his boyish eyes and helped to close the margin of women voters who were undecided or had been leaning towards Gore.

One night before the election I went to bed after reading an article in Newsweek and, against my will had a dream that George W. Bush was my friend and that we had a conversation as we walked across a huge field together laughing. I woke up feeling betrayed by my own subconscious. When I opened the paper in the morning, I knew I still disagreed with everything this man stood for, but fragments of the dream lingered and I finally understood what the fuss was about. I couldn't use my Democratic elitism or snobbery to erase what I now knew on a visceral level; that Bush was indulging people in places where politics no longer mattered. If a candidate was boring, we couldn't forgive him for not having more star-power and just listen to his ideas.

Nobody knew better than Hitler what made the grade for a people who had collectively decided to turn their brains off, a process he likened to being female. He wrote in Mein Kampf, "Like the woman, whose psychic state is determined less by grounds of abstract reason than by an indefinable emotional longing for a force which will complement her nature, and who, consequently, would rather bow to a strong man than dominate a weakling, likewise the masses love a commander more than a petitioner and feel inwardly more satisfied by a doctrine, tolerating no other beside itself, than by the granting of liberalistic freedom with which, as a rule, they can do little, and are prone to feel that they have been abandoned." What people really want, Hitler knew, is someone to whom they can give themselves over completely without hesitation; an icon, a movie star, a Big Daddy who will take out the garbage (the Iraqis, the North Koreans) and check all the doors at night while they sleep soundly, who they know will stop at nothing, legally or not, to keep them safe and secure. Republicans understand that what most people want is a Führer, and for the promise of unconditional protection, we are willing to accept the baggage of hatred and occasional genocide that usually comes along with having one.

This article is an excerpt from a much larger work, which you can read here.

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