09 Jan Can Americans avoid becoming history’s next “Good Germans?”
I understand why many people will find the title question offensive — indeed, any comparison of modern war crimes and morally atrocious state conduct to the quintessence of such behavior exemplified by the Nazis — but such concerns should never prevent us from having an intellectually honest discussion about our nation’s policies… not when so many lives depend on it.
Before proceeding to today’s blog, please read the following linked articles in their entirety:
1. John Tirman’s op-ed appearing in the Washington Post three days ago, “Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?”
2. Lakhdar Boumediene’s op-ed appearing in yesterday’s New York Times, “My Guantanamo Nightmare”
3. And Glenn Greenwald’s blog from yesterday, “The Evil of Indefinite Detention and Those Wanting to De-prioritize It”
Now, I hope you will agree: The questions raised in these articles present a moral challenge to us — as Americans — which we must not shirk… lest we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.
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In today’s America, there are many things that one is not permitted to say in polite company — and never in establishment circles — unless one wishes to be scorned, ridiculed, and permanently marginalized to the point where the vast majority of Americans will never hear your name (a la Noam Chomsky, America’s most internationally celebrated intellectual, Naomi Klein, author of the indispensable ‘The Shock Doctrine,” John Perkins, the former “Economic Hit Man,” whose story, along with Klein’s book, perhaps, tells us everything we need to know about global economics — and countless other heroes, including Amy Goodman, Jane Mayer, Glenn Greenwald, Mahmood Mamdani, Norm Finklestein, Arundhati Roy, Robert Scheer, Tariq Ali, Tom Tomorrow, Col. Ann Wright, Randall Robinson, Medea Benjamin, Bill McKibben, Ray McGovern, Chris Hedges, Antonia Juhasz…).
While most Americans (among those who pay any attention at all) are subjected to a “debate” between Establishment Brand A and Establishment Brand B — forced to slurp the very thin gruel of “intellectual” discourse between Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity (or, at best, between Jon Stewart and Bill Kristol) — the best and brightest commentators are banned from The Conversation entirely, simply because they’ve had the audacity to publicly observe — and worse, to chronicle — the pernicious official policies and disturbing societal shifts that have come to define America in recent decades.
Most of these forbidden observations have to do with recognizing and empathizing with the first victims (impoverished minorities and foreigners) of decades of policies that have transformed the character of the nation, under both Republicans and Democrats, into something the Founding Fathers would not recognize (or rather they would recognize it and give it its proper name: “Tyranny”).
THE FOLLOWING ARE AMONG THE PRIMARY FORBIDDEN OBSERVATIONS IN TODAY’S INCREASINGLY OPPRESSIVE (AND CLEARLY FAILING) AMERICA:
* It is forbidden to say that our justice system is fundamentally broken, undemocratic, mightily skewed to the rich, and unambiguously racist in terms of how it is administered (devastating certain demographics — blacks and Latinos, chiefly — thanks primarily to the cruelly farcical Drug War, but also due to official reluctance to prosecute the crimes of powerful elites who customarily prey on those same disenfranchised populations);
* It is forbidden to say that “upward mobility” in America and the “level playing field” or “meritocracy” of the past are practically nonexistent today, due to the rise of a corrupt and untouchable American oligarchy that has sucked the life out of our economy and decimated the middle class (succeeding, at least in part, because everything that can be said about the flaws of our justice system also applies to our education, electoral, and healthcare systems: they are broken, stratified, glaringly unequal, and fundamentally bigoted);
* It is also forbidden to say that most of the “good” that America does in the world comes in the form of war-making and advancing our own — perceived — geopolitical and corporate interests (in addition to being the world’s leading incarcerator of human beings, we are the preeminent arms dealer, benefiting dictators, drug cartels, terrorists, and slavers alike). The vast majority of aid that we deliver to disaster survivors and victims of droughts and famines goes straight into the coffers of favored corporations and NGOs, with only the crumbs reaching the suffering populations nominally slated to receive that aid (when we assist them at all — many of the victims of the 2004 tsunami, for instance, were “aided” right out of their villages and livelihoods, barred from returning to their homes and fishing grounds, in order to facilitate the building of resorts catering to wealthy tourists — our “aid,” in short, assisted developers and turned residents into economic refugees, rather than mere storm victims… much like most of the poor African-Americans temporarily displaced by Hurricane Katrina — they were permanently displaced by gentrification and the willful destruction/shuttering of structurally sound low-income housing and the vital public hospital that had served their community for decades).
* It is forbidden to say that the global economic system over which we largely preside is one that accepts — without apparent anguish or self-reflection — the deaths of NINE MILLION CHILDREN EVERY YEAR (nearly a Holocaust each and every year) simply as the cost of doing business (that figure is the estimate of the World Health Organization, which states that approximately 70% of those children’s deaths are preventable — and for a trifling cost, especially when compared to our enormous expenditures on war, surveillance, and the data-mining of biometric and other information pertaining to most human beings on Earth).
* But most of all in today’s America, it is forbidden to say that the United States is the very embodiment of an empire that, since the settling of this continent, has never truly renounced or repudiated genocide and colonialism, with a modern population that is largely indifferent to the countless millions of victims of our policies in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and beyond (including right here at home, where our prisons are brutal, profiteering testaments to cruelty, rape, captive labor, and torture).
WHAT MORAL CODE ENABLES MOST AMERICANS TO DEFEND THIS ABHORRENT STATUS QUO?
WHAT COMPELS MOST AMERICANS TO ACTUALLY DEFEND THIS SYSTEM? (It’s not patriotism, because a patriot wouldn’t defend the shredding of our Constitution and the blatant corruption of our legal and other institutions.)
The answer to those questions is actually quite simple: It is no moral code but rather a potent combination of IGNORANCE, FEAR, and DESPAIR that allows us to continue in this fashion.
Many of the more informed and concerned fellow citizens with whom I’ve discussed these matters repeat some version of the following frustrated sentiment: “Most Americans simply don’t care.”
Most Americans are ignorant of these realities; they simply don’t know about our real policies and the abundant victims of those policies — or how inflated are the claims about our alleged enemies and threats. To paraphrase one of America’s most notorious modern war criminals, they don’t even know how much they don’t know (the “unknown unknowns”), since they are unaware of the extent of media consolidation/control and the prevalence of propaganda (NPR through FOX). They are both the victims and the unconscious avatars of the breathtaking myopia and narcissism of 21st-Century America — widely noted beyond our shores (with a mixture of bafflement and disgust).
Furthermore, most Americans are, in my opinion, afraid of what they might learn if they began to explore for themselves the more serious complaints of their less complacent (and/or more agitated) fellow citizens. In their defense, it is a truly frightening prospect that one’s government may not be just inept and imperfect, but truly morally corrupt, and on a historical scale… but the more we turn away and fail to confront this reality, the more we become a reflection of our government’s values (the more we become the analogy that dare not speak its name…).
Deep down, I think, most Americans suspect the horrible truth, but are doubtful of the possibility of a brighter future. Why bother to inform myself when there’s nothing I can do about it, they reason. They despair of our ability to reverse course and make a better world than the currently terrifying one that has us hurtling, quite possibly, to the end of our civilization and the snuffing out of the lights of billions of living beings, human and otherwise (either that, or 98% of climate scientists are all huffing ether or stark raving mad — but if that’s the case, why are so many natural systems, oceanic and otherwise, producing so many troubling signs that they are foundering, if not failing outright? Why are there so many “dead canaries?” we might reasonably ask — regardless of whether the “miners” toil on, refusing to acknowledge them.).
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And that’s all it takes to make a society of (metaphorical) Good Germans: IGNORANCE, FEAR, and DESPAIR. (Or do we really believe the Hollywood version of history, that post-WWI Germans became a nation of monsters, an entire country of sadistic racists incapable of conscience or human feeling? That kind of moral reductivism ignores what political theorist Hannah Arendt brilliantly termed the “banality of evil,” describing a phenomenon that pertains not only to WWII-era Germans, but which is crucially relevant to people in all societies — including Americans today, unwilling to question authority. And while a one-dimensional moral construct — “evil” Germans — is certainly an easy trope for hack screenwriters to employ, such notions are beyond dangerous in the real world, especially in the political realm, as they’re all-too-convenient for warmongers perversely seeking to replicate — and exceed — the “success” of the Third Reich; some highly regarded analysts have posited that such considerations may have helped determine the path that America’s leaders followed after World War II, explaining why our government elected to shield and relocate so many upper echelon Nazis from justice and indemnify Japanese practitioners of bio-warfare; it was in exchange for their secrets. The Axis powers had, after all, come very close to winning control of the world with their methods — and what ambitious inheritor of a world in ruins wouldn’t seek to emulate that?)
Please understand that I am not trying to be glib or make facile comparisons for provocation’s sake; I believe the analogy (unfortunately) informs the present discussion and (fortunately) has unique potential to spur change — change that is desperately and urgently needed.
To be crystal clear, I vehemently denounce Nazism, fascism, and all who would adopt their methods — whatever their rhetoric, political stripe, or creed. However, I make such judgments on the basis of SUBSTANCE, not exterior trappings (a swastika is one thing, but TORTURE is TORTURE; and INDEFINITE DETENTION WITHOUT CHARGES is, likewise, what it is; and PERSECUTION OF PEOPLE ON THE BASIS OF THEIR FAITH is always morally repugnant; and so on…)
Understand also that I realize that there are important differences between what the Nazis did and what America’s political leadership has done since the end of WWII: The Nazis trumpeted their racism and world-storming ambitions to the world, vulgarly and brashly exulting in the ugliest of their ideas; whereas America’s leaders have wrapped their racism and quest for world domination in the language of liberation and liberalism. Nazis, in far more straightforward — and unbelievably heinous — fashion, simply rounded up their victims, forced them into slave labor, and marched them to their deaths, Jews and Gypsies, Communists, labor leaders, artists and intellectuals, and homosexuals, too; whereas America’s leaders have utilized methods — sweeping sanctions regimes, poisoned environments, support for terrorists and dictators, covert wars, economics, etc. — that in most cases are indisputably less brutally efficient. (Nonetheless, I can’t imagine it makes much difference to our victims… or that future generations will see anything but a tactical shift within the context of the same basic ethos.)
Realize also, however, that the Germans had one excuse that we do not; they had globally powerful enemies that had defeated them in a world war and, long after the war was over, endeavored, with considerable success, to reduce them to abject poverty and utter powerlessness; whereas all America has are a few, relatively powerless radical Islamists, discredited by their methods and politically isolated (reviled by mainstream Muslims from Indonesia to Iran — at least before we began making their case for them, killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and scores of thousands in Afghanistan, torturing countless thousands globally, and unambiguously announcing ourselves, via our ACTIONS, as the imperial enemy of both Islamic free expression and freedom, generally — hostile to the existence of free press, freedom of assembly, open societies, and the rule of law).
What it boils down to (for me) is that MORALITY IS MORALITY… and most people alive today recognize that America is on the wrong side of this ledger. There’s simply no disguising the fact (with lofty rhetoric and message campaigns concocted by high-priced image makers) that the most powerful men in the world — chiefly Americans — are butchering millions so that a few may profit… and very likely damaging the world’s life-sustaining systems in the process, recklessly and callously endangering billions.
Whatever the Nazis did (which was plenty, I readily concede), the history books of the future — whether they’re written in electronic characters or once again on stone tablets — will record that WE were the ones in charge of the world, with more power by far than any other nation, when the rule of law and institutional concern for human rights cratered… when the human race, abjectly and without a hint of real effort, failed to take steps to prevent wholesale environmental collapse.
That all-too-possible catastrophe may well be something for which our generation of Americans must answer. It may even birth, some day in the far future, a new unspeakable metaphor, a new analogy that dare not speak its name.