Thursday, September 28, 2006

Dawn is Breaking

Today we welcome back Mr. S.R. Algernon to the blog, who offers an excellent piece on the recent fad of "Crying Hitler". Check it out—it directly follows our review of another day amid lunatic tyrants. Or, better than that, how about links to a few signs of awareness? As President Chavez said at the UN last week, "dawn is breaking out all over." Everywhere, in fact, except Washington.

Dawn in Wonkland:Foreign Policy Magazine leads off today with the results of a survey (conducted with the Center for American Progress) of 100 policy experts. The numbers are shocking, though hardly surprising.

Dawn in Science:The Union of Concerned Scientists is calling upon us to join them in demanding that Congress act on the issue of global warming now, and seriously. Click the link to join this campaign.

Dawn in Congress: Russ Feingold and others speak for a revolutionary agenda of free and fair voting, rational and responsible politics, and a people-centered government. You know, democracy, again. Watch the speeches and then make some calls to your own reps in DC. After all, we're still nowhere near the end of this tunnel: in fact, the more Bush is revealed as the tyrant he is, the more Congress wants to make him King.

Dawn in the darkness of poverty: Oxfam is one of those organizations that works for real change while powerful governments sputter away in rhetoric while bombing innocents. Money alone won't solve the world's problems, but it is one of the lights that will guide us out of the current darkness. If you've got it, give it—click the link and do what you can.

Tomorrow, we'll reveal the author of the banner quote, along with a lesson he can offer us on the fate of tyrants. Right now, our correspondent S.R. Algernon has a similar message.

The Boys who cried ‘Hitler’ by S. R. Algernon

If you pay any attention to political discourse nowadays, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we are awash in Hitlers. Leaders as diverse as Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and Saddam Hussein, to say nothing of non-state contenders like bin Laden and Nasrallah have been compared to Adolf Hitler. On the other side of the coin, others are just as ready to liken U.S. leadership to the Austrian demagogue, pointing out his fondness for secret trials, concentration camps, sham elections, ‘shock and awe’ tactics, and preventive war. They could also bring up Hitler’s babbling in 1939 how negotiations were pointless and war was the only way to protect Germany from the grave threat of Polish attack. Ward Churchill called the World Trade Center employees ‘Little Eichmanns.’ Without spilling any ink over the validity of these claims, does crying Hitler accomplish anything?

To be sure, crying Hitler (or Stalin or Judas or anyone else of similar repute) can help rally people to your cause. The Nazis themselves were masters of the trumped-up threat. It was so successful that millions of Germans put their lives on the line in the service of total war. It was so successful… that Hitler ended his life in the ruins of his capital with the barrel of a pistol in his mouth. Crying Hitler can help rally the people, but does it win wars? Does it solve problems? Does it keep you safe? A glance at 20th century history reveals the dangers of crying Hitler or following people who do.

1. Crying Hitler can cause a narrowness of focus: This is evident in the hype over al-Qaeda’s #2 man of the week, but also in the belief, in some liberal circles, that the U.S. would suddenly adopt their policies if only Bush, Rove and Rummy were perp-walked out of power. Hitler himself met disaster when he focused on Moscow and forgot about the Russian winter that surrounded it.
2. Crying Hitler can cause an over-widening of focus: If your enemy is Supreme Evil, clearly he or she must be manipulating anyone who opposes your righteous mission. Bush’s willingness to conflate Ba’athism with Wahhabism and his predecessors’ confusion of Vietnamese nationalism with Stalinism have proved only slightly less disastrous than Hitler’s willful conflation of Judaism and Bolshevism. This does not necessarily contradict point 1.
3. Crying Hitler takes negotiation off the table: Rationally, it shouldn’t, since we negotiate with dictators all the time, and people like Schindler negotiated with actual Nazis with good results. However, because handing over territory willy-nilly in 1938 didn’t work, we’re not supposed to negotiate for anything, even when refusal to negotiate weakens our position. As for Hitler, it is interesting to wonder what a more rational German leader might have coaxed out of the notoriously conciliatory governments of Western Europe in the 1930s.
4. Crying Hitler makes it difficult to rebuild: If the U.S. had gone into Iraq with the idea that it was reforming the government of a diverse nation, it might have been able to cobble together a smooth transition of power. Because the U.S. was there to fight Evil, it wound up ignoring crucial infrastructure, and disenfranchising the Sunnis and irritating the Shiites by propping up its anointed Good Guys and refusing to negotiate (see point 3) with the designated Bad Guys. Both Hitler and Stalin were well known for liquidating many of their most talented countrymen, to the detriment of their ultimate goals.
5. Crying Hitler makes it hard to judge the actual intention of your enemy: If your enemy is Supreme Evil, it makes no sense to ask why he or she is fighting you or to suppose that anything but his or her eradication will get him or her to stop.
6. Crying Hitler makes it hard to understand others who don’t share your zeal: If you assume that anyone who doesn’t buy into your anti-Hitler campaign must be evil or cowardly (as opposed to having a different understanding of the situation), you lose potential allies. This goes for both sides of the political spectrum.
7. Crying Hitler can make one feel good about ineffective tactics: Since Hitler lost in the end, it can lead to the idea that your opponent is destined to fail if you keep at it long enough. After all, you’re standing up to Hitler! Thus, the Bush administration brushes off any criticism of its scattershot militaristic approach, and I’ve not yet seen the left address the fact that sign-waving and chanting did very little to bring down the Nazis. Real tyrants are usually brought down either by their own incompetence or enemies with a sound grasp of strategy and tactics.
8. Crying Hitler makes it harder to respond to a truly immediate crisis. If you constantly hype vague or distant threats, will people respond quickly when a madman brings a nuke into Manhattan? If you continually call the President a Nazi, will people trust your judgment when he does something really sinister?

With apologies to Santayana, if we keep repeating the past, how are we to learn from the present? Throughout the cold war, our leaders strove for a WWII showdown. With the Cold War over, they take on Islamists with proxy wars and domino logic.

Yet the Nazi metaphor has the strongest pull. It’s no accident that Americans dust off Hitler so often. Beating Hitler ushered in a fabled era of American prosperity when cars were big, gas was cheap, and rock ‘n’ roll was born. Conservatives look back to giddy consumerism and Donna Reed Show propriety, while liberals look back to the time when a host of rising idealists began to change the world. On one level, we aren’t trying to get back to life before 9/11. We want to party like it's 1945.

At the risk of jumping on the Hitler bandwagon, the idea that a pitched battle against evildoers can bring back some starry-eyed view of the past is exactly what the Axis powers were peddling some seventy years ago. Germans bought a Wagnerian idea of Nordic supermen. The Japanese leadership promised a strange amalgam of ancient legends and modern technology. Mussolini tried to sell the glories of ancient Rome. If only, they said, the Empires of Europe and the Bolsheviks and the Americans were gone, we could reclaim our destiny. It was hogwash then, and it is hogwash now. No amount of righteous struggle will bring back a simpler past. For one thing, the past wasn’t really as simple as we like to imagine. For another, we can’t change the present, even to escape it, without taking a clear look at reality. As Zarathustra might put it, Hitler is dead.

So, when you look back to the America of 2001 or 1945 or 1776, remember that what good there was in our past didn’t come from George W. and Osama didn’t take it away. Somewhere along the line, Americans, and others around the world created it, and they did it not just with spin or slogans or noble fantasies but by facing reality and tackling real-world problems. If the threats we face are real, all the more reason to see them for what they are, no matter how comforting or inspiring illusions might be. Perhaps a man who really did take on Hitler said it best: ‘We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.’

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