Thursday, January 27, 2005

What I learned in school today

A couple months ago, after the "November 2nd attack on American democracy*" I wrote in a blog that living in America right now is a lot like living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. At the time I stated that it was because the current in carnation of the American government was "on a Holy Crusade to rid the world of anyone they perceive as a threat to their devine mission of global homogeneity." I feel this connection more strongly than ever, and today I am going to expand on that statement.

I was substitute teaching senior religion today at a local high school. The class is called "The Holocaust." It is a relatively new addition to the curriculum. I personally think that an entire semester of a whole class devoted to the subject is a bit much, since they should be learning this stuff in history anyway, but since they won't, I'd rather they teach history in religion class than religion in history class. My instructions were to play a short film for the students showing interviews with Holocaust survivors, and then engage the class in a discussion about their reactions to the film. I love classes like that. I love it when I actually get to ask them questions and challenge their ideas and make them challenge mine and really get them thinking about something for once in their mindless, robotic lives.

So I was getting reactions like "it's so sad" blah blah blah, when one student finally gave me the gem. She said "it's hard for us to, like, relate to the people because nothing like that could happen our society, like, nowadays." I could have kissed her. Thus began the discussion of how America today is like Germany in the 1930s.

We talked about lots of things, like the marginalization of minority groups, the national, unspoken rule of denial, and compared the sense of paranoia and need to blame with the McCathyism of the 1950s, but two points in particular struck me. One (and a student brought this one up) was that the Nazis didn't walk in and all of a sudden start putting people on trains to Auschwitz. They began by slowly and incrementally limiting people's freedoms. First armbands for identification purposes, then where banded people could go, then when they could go there, curfews, etc... In this way people were slowly conditioned to accept the authority of their persecutors. Enter the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, stage right.

The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act (for "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism") is a slippery document. For one thing, it never defines "terrorist," though it uses the word throughout. At the moment in Americal culture, "terrorist" is popularly accepted to mean "middle-eastern Arabs and/or Muslim extremists who hate America." (We're very thoughtfully not including the IRA. We like our terrorists to have brown skin, thank you.) However, because the term is not defined, the government can turn the powers of this document, which are many and scary, on any group they deem enemies of the State (more on this later). It's difficult to isolate what exactly the powers of the new law are, so crypically is the Act worded. Mostly, it refers to existing legislation by number, and then proceeds to say that "such-and-such a paragraph will have a comma added after this word and thingummy added to the end." In this way you can read the entire Act cover to cover (and it's huge, believe me), and learn very little about what it does. You have to have an entire library of pre-existing legislation at your disposal just to translate the damn thing. Slippery.

Despite this (I believe deliberate) effort to make the law as incomprehensible as possible, I was able to glean 2 frightening infrigments on civil liberty from its pages. The first is the increased power to the presidential office. Section 106 states that when the US is "engaged in hostilities" with anything foreign, the president can "confiscate any property of any foreign person, organization, or country that HE determines has planned, aided," blah blah blah said attacks. It goes on to say that the president can effectively do whatever he wants with what he confiscates, and he is NOT SUBJECT TO JUDICIAL SCRUTINY! Basically he gets to start the war and keep the spoils. Screw the checks and balances! Let's declare W king and crown him on Christmas day!

The second scary bit is section 213, which pertains to search and seizure rights. Back in the good ol' days you used to need a warrant before you could search someone's property and haul it off as evidence of a crime. To get a warrant to you had to go to a judge and demonstrate probable cause. Like funny SNL episodes and good Madonna music, those days are no more. To quote, "the issuance of any warrant or court order... to search for and seize any property... may be delayed if... the execution of the warrant may have an adverse result [or] the warrant would prohibit the seizure of tangible property..." And finally there's a clause for repeated delays, effectively allowing the government to "delay" the issue of warrants ad infinitum. To paraphrase, the government can now search and seize your property without a warrant if they are either a, likely to be denied the warrant, or b, think it's a bad idea for some reason. God help us. This applies to any federal laws in any circumstance. Heil Bush. The slow, incremental process of government-sactioned limits of freedom has begun. Before you know it we'll be wearing armbands and told we have to be in by 5. (God, I sound like a North Dakota, survivalist, conspriacy-theorist, milita freak. See what they've done to me?)

The second point that struck me in class came out in our discussion of the social climate which made the Holocaust possible. This was a culture which was carefully created by the Nazi propaganda machine. One of the first things it did was to establish the tenet that if you're not for us, you're against us. Dissenting opinions were not tollerated, "sympathizers" were eliminated, and anyone not actively supporting the Nazi party was deemed an enemy of the state. This is happening in America now, and it has happened before. Anyone who lived in America before 1973 remembers the "America: Love it or Leave it" bumper stickers, which were popular with supporters of the war in Vietnam. War protesters were called "unAmerican," but ultimately their voices were heard, and America withdrew from Vietnam with its tail between its coasts. In the past two years this attitude has reached new extremes. I myself have been called "unpatriotic" because I spoke out against invasion of Iraq. It has become widely accepted that anyone who disagrees with Cheney, Ashcroft, and the boys somehow doesn't love America.

Could the Founding Fathers have anticipated this? They could, and did. As long as they have existed, governments have used various methods of silencing dissenters. Shame, fear, intimidation and murder have all been employed in the name of 'peace' and 'unity.' That is why the first right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights is the freedom of speech. By definition, a democracy can only exist if conflicting interests and opinions are permitted to cohabitate and granted equal protection. Anything else is a totalitarian state. We are therefore not only permitted to question our government, we have an obligation as responsible citizens to do so. Right now over 75% of Americans believe otherwise.

"Yes," my students said. "But the Nazis murdered millions of people. Our government wouldn't do that."

"What's the death-toll in Iraq," I asked them.

"Over a thousand Americans," came the dutiful, prompt reply.

"I asked for the death toll, not the American death toll. " A study conducted by Johns-Hopkins Universtiy, Columbia University, and Al-Mustansiriya University released in October of 2004 puts the number of dead Iraqis, most of them women and children, at upwards of one hundred thousand. But we don't think about that. We don't want to know about that. Like the Germans living beside the concentration camps we can see the smoke and smell the bodies, but we don't want to believe it's happening. We just want to go about our lives.

For other disturbing and painful truths about our nation, read this article by Greg Palast at

1 comment:

Free Porn said...

Do you have any holocaust deniers amongst your students? if so what do you do?