Sunday, January 23, 2011

History Is Not a Book

A Democratic congressman got in big trouble last week for making "inflammatory" remarks about the Republicans and their attempts to repeal healthcare reform. A Democrat from Tennesee, Steve Cohen said of the Republicans, "They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels. Just like Goebbels, you say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually people believe it." Of course Cohen was roundly condemned on the right and the center. The allegedly centrist group "No Labels" called it a "toxic analogy." Glen Beckkk went on to claim that Goebbels was really a leftist or something anyway.

So it's true that there is a big difference between Nazi propagandist Goebbels and today's Republican Party. I wouldn't waste any energy trying to prove that the Republicans are really Nazis: I'd look as foolish as Glenn Beckkk trying to prove that Obama is a Maoist is a socialist is a nazi is....just really really bad. By saying that I don't mean to let the Republicans off the hook: their tactic of the Big Lie is indeed ripped straight from the pages of totalitarianism, dressed up all nice in American family values. But lying is a specialty of (American?) politicians, it always has been. Everybody knows it. And I'm not sure who comes out looking better: the crazy people who believe the lies when they're particularly outrageous, the deluded for whom the lies solve the problem of difficult choices, or the rest of us who enable this whole process by voting for people whose lies we like better, because, well, maybe that thing about lies containing a kernel of truth is our last vestige of hope.

I've illustrated this post with two photos I took in Berlin about 1994, just a few short years after the fall of the Wall. They are of a collection of vacant lots in the center of town called "The Topography of Terror." The fascinating thing about the Topography of Terror was that it was an open-air museum to something that was actually no longer there. These vacant lots and piles of overgrown rubble were the center of the Nazi machine of propaganda and repression: they included the headquarters of the feared Gestapo where thousands of political prisoners met a brutal end. Destroyed by the end of WWII, they were left empty by the course of the cold war: this was no man's land. I gather in the years since something more museum-like is materializing in this space, but when I visited you bought a ticket, passed through a gate, and there you were in the middle of nothing at all. As you can see in one direction were a few still-standing examples of totalitarian architecture, and in another some modern mid-rise buildings. But that "nothing at all" said everything. It was a kind of historical proof of a fearsome equation writ plainly all around.

Here in the United States you mostly have to look really hard to see signs of the violence we have done to ourselves over the centuries. A monument here, a skyscraper built on the ruins of another there, something slightly out of whack that disrupts the order of intention: my mother once showed me chips in stone down on Wall Street where her mother showed her that some bomb-throwing anarchist assassination took place early in the last century. But unlike the plain evidence lying about a vacant lot in Berlin, you have to go looking for meaning here. It's easy to forget that the U.S. Capitol building was built by slaves. It's easy to forget the words of hate that bounced off its council walls over the centuries: we want to think of these politicians as engaged in some kind of noble pursuit when really, that is just us searching again for some truth in all the lies.

If it's not happening on the news tonight--on the internet this second--is it actually happening? Did it happen? Was it real? Did it mean anything? We look through the pages of history books or the archives in a library or articles on Wikpedia to explain what happened before, waiting for it to happen again. Next week nobody will remember what Rep. Cohen said about Goebbels and the Republicans's big lie. And next week, next month, next year, indeed no Nazi stormtroopers will be unfurling their swastika banners from the podium in the center of the Capitol.

But when history happens to you, it's not unfurling neat and tidy like a history book, or a museum. There are politicians lying and something doesn't seem right and there's a terrible building downtown where people go in but don't go out and then there are bombs falling and you're trying to focus on staying alive and living out the life you were promised and one day you look up and there's ruins all about you and you're trying to figure out just where you went wrong or how you survived or where your friends are or trying not to remember things you've seen or heard or smelled and nobody's explaining it to you like a tour guide, it's just, well now there's this empty lot that says so eloquently, this is what happened to you because you made the wrong decision or chose not to act or you closed your mind to the horror you could see happening, or maybe even you just weren't strong enough to stop it, you were just trying to be you while the world happened around you. And hey, you must have made some right decisions, or you have really good luck, cause you're still alive. And somebody's putting your story in a really interesting book but it didn't seem so much fun when it happened, so confusing, so dangerous. So sad. So terrible.

Allow me to predict the future: the 21st century will not be a repeat of the 20th century, just as the 20th century was not a rerun of the 19th century. But already there are lies being told about what you, I -- we -- are experiencing. We can see that something is not right, something is out of whack.

Perhaps Steve Cohen was foolish to invoke a straw man as easy to dispatch as Joseph Goebbels. (Well, easy to dispatch 65 years after his death; it wasn't ever thus.) But in all the noise about Cohen's remarks, isn't it strange that the discussion is now on whether it's appropriate to link your political opponents to the figments of ulimate evil represented by the Nazis? Where is the discussion of the Republicans' message, that Obama's modest healthcare reform represents "a government takeover of healthcare"? History is happening to us. Confusing and dangerous as ever. Pay attention.

(Photos by me, ca. 1994, Berlin.)


  1. You are so right. The lies about OUR history, the life that has happened around us in our lifetimes, is being rewritten as we speak. We have Haley Barbour saying that mid Sixties Mississippi "wasn't that bad," that the "citizen's council" was just community leaders out to do good. We have Lieberman just last week still saying that Saddam Hussein had WMD. It's endless.

    I like your Berlin analogy too. I was in Berlin for a while in '75, senior year high school. We visited a teacher's friend in East Berlin, right across the street where Hitler's bunker had been. It was just a vacant weed-strewn block. I thought it odd that there wasn't some sort of museum there, but they explained that the only way to truly remember that time was to look at nothing. I have no idea if that is the case 35 years later, but it was poignant, even to an 18 year old kid.

  2. Casey I was worried I was being too obtuse. Thanks for getting it exactly!!

  3. and almost on cue, at JMG appeared a post about Bachmann rewriting history!

  4. Right, Casey? That was my thought exactly. I have good timing!

  5. Ish, I found this blog so interesting. I lived in Berlin for six months, July 1980 to January 1981, in an area called Grunewald. So many memories; the Wall, taking the U-Bahn under/though the Eastern section and seeing the East German soldiers standing guard at the 'no longer stopped at' stops. And standing watch over the wall from the towers.

    I never made a visit to East Berlin, but I did visit the concentration camp at Dachau on one of our side trips, it was a chilling experience. Little was said on that tour, mostly just viewing the ovens, gas chambers and general camp conditions.

    I also visited Prague for a weekend. Being assigned a state approved hotel and taking a state approved and sponsored tour of the city, where indeed history had been re-written and told to the tourists in the way the state wanted.

  6. Interesting Annie. Why were you there?

    I took the trip to Prague, though in a much different era. More ATMs per city block in the old city than Manhattan. Wild. I bet you wouldn't have recognized it.

    In 1976 I went to Poland, still Communist, and saw Auschwitz. It was also eerie and unforgettable. It was a beautiful warm summer day and it looked strangely...quaint. Red brick cottages. Trees. Very surreal to understand the horror of the place.

    Casey did you watch that clip of Chris Matthews today on JMG about Bachmann? So relevant to this discussion.

  7. I was just a 'tag-a-long" in Berlin. I was dating a PanAm pilot at the time and he was based in Berlin, flying mostly short flights to other German cities. They were in effect keeping open the old air corridors over the eastern section.

    While I was there to fill up time I volunteered at the American Red Cross headquarters and joined an German-American Women's Club.

    I would often mention that I thought West Berlin was a beautiful city, I mean at the time it was this island surrounded by East Germany. Every effort was made that West Germany would want for nothing.

    The older German women would say, "Oh, you should have seen Berlin when it was the Capitol of Europe."

    Sir! No Sir! arrived, I am going to watch it this evening.