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January 11, 2005

We all fall down

This is a passage that has haunted me since I first read it last year. It's by David Neiwert, from his essay "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism" available for a small voluntary donation at his blog Orcinus. He describes a story a professor he knew told in lectures:

"When he was a young man, he told us, he served in the U.S. Army as part of the occupation forces in Germany after World War II. He was put to work gathering information for the military tribunal preparing to prosecute Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. His job was to spend time in the villages adjacent to one concentration camp and talk to the residents about what they knew.

"The villagers, he said, knew about the camp, and watched daily as thousands of prisoners would arrive by rail car, herded like cattle into the camps. And they knew that none ever left, even though the camp never could have held the vast numbers of prisoners who were brought in. They also knew that the smokestack of the camp’s crematorium belched a near-steady stream of smoke and ash. Yet the villagers chose to remain ignorant about what went on inside the camp. No one inquired, because no one wanted to know.

“'But every day,' he said, 'these people, in their neat Germanic way, would get out their feather dusters and go outside. And, never thinking about what it meant, they would sweep off the layer of ash that would settle on their windowsills overnight. Then they would return to their neat, clean lives and pretend not to notice what was happening next door. When the camps were liberated and their contents were revealed, they all expressed surprise and horror at what had gone on inside,' he said. 'But they all had ash in their feather dusters.'”

These days I read normal, intelligent people's letters to the editor in which they opine that a blanket prohibition of torture is nonsensical. Or that demanding an accounting of blatant violation of electoral law in places like Ohio is being a "sore loser." Or that our integrity demands we level cities like Fallujah. I hear people who raise money for victims of disasters called "grandstanders," as if working to alleviate suffering is morally suspect. I read that government is now straightforwardly bribing sympathetic journalists to disguise propaganda as reporting — as if the old methods of patronage were somehow not egregious enough.

And worst of all, I see the heinous, palpable evils of the last two hundred American years — slavery and the extermination of the Lakota and slaughter of Tagalog and Vietnamese, the wholesale subversion of democratic governments in Chile and Iran and Guatemala, the corporate pillaging of the resources of three quarters of the world and the squelching of anyone who impedes the flow of money — described by the so-called left as a golden age of American beneficience that Bush has somehow betrayed.

And I see a layer of ash growing on the windowsill.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 11, 2005 05:43 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Chris, you are totally right about this, and it's the one thing that makes me craziest and most anguished about this country. I just don't understand how so many people can turn away from the truth. So deeply. So fundamentally. So deliberately. It's like lying to ourselves has become acceptable. I can't live with it. And the thing is, this isn't just the Bush supporters. It's very nearly everybody. Voting against GW is not enough, folks. We're way past that point. People should be screaming from the rafters, or, as residents of Teheran did on occasion, going up on their rooftops and beating pots and pans in a collective protest against the government. Instead - silence, and the daily sweeping. Some good people blame a sense of overwhelming helplessness. My answer to them is what a priest once said to me, when I was saying I felt overwhelmed: "It doesn't matter where you go in" (meaning, what area you choose to protest and work on for change) "as much as it matters that you do go in somewhere."

Posted by: beth at January 12, 2005 06:21 AM
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Excellent post, Chris, especially your link to the previous Air America/Randi Rhodes piece...

Posted by: Pica at January 12, 2005 06:23 AM
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It occurs to me that I should say the "so-called leftist" barb was aimed at Rhodes, and not any of my valued friends and commenters who stuck up for her.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 12, 2005 11:14 AM
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Yes. This post elicits the same feeling I have whenever the news reports on, say, Europeans standing or marching silently en masse to protest something, while we blithely go about our business. And each time I wonder, why is this not part of American culture? Is this the dark side of individualism?

(btw, your content-checker considers the name of my email server to be "questionable".)

Posted by: Rana at January 12, 2005 01:58 PM
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Profound. Very well said. And you are so right. I'm not looking forward to watching all these idiots stand back in "surprise" and slap their own foreheads in "shock" when they "realize" what the Bush administration has been doing. And like Atrios frequently says, however bad you think it is, it's worse.

By the way, Randi Rhodes was just excoriating Joe Lieberman on her radio show (not in person; he wasn't there). She said he is not a real Democrat and that he should be booted from the party, along with a number of other right-leaning Democrats. She couldn't be more right if she tried.

Posted by: -asx- at January 12, 2005 02:59 PM
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OK, so maybe I should give her a few more chances. But that "NAFTA and Welfare Reform were great accomplishments" thing was heinous.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 12, 2005 04:33 PM
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--and while we're on content-checking, I had to change the name of a country I mentioned to its capital of Teheran, otherwise my comment wouldn't be accepted...

Posted by: beth at January 12, 2005 05:52 PM
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Has anyone read "The People's History of the United States 1492 - Present" by Howard Zinn? If so, what was your reaction to the book?

Posted by: Carrie at January 13, 2005 05:32 AM
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I'm reading Zinn now. It's apparently often criticized as not being of consequence. But, I swear Zinn is true to his avowed purpose: To report from the perspective of the victims in N.America since Columbus.

His narrative incorporates many quotes and is a chilling tale of brief, rare triumph for us common people and overwhelming, unremiting abuse of power on the part of this land's defilers of people and systems.

Next read is Zinn's update, which, per his interview on John Stewart the other night, uses more direct quotes, coming closer to being an oral history of the survivors, the stalwarts, and the knaves.


Posted by: Bill "Bolivia" at January 13, 2005 08:03 AM
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