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Posted by Time for change in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Mon Jul 06th 2009, 11:23 PM
The world is filled with people who are way too willing to be led by those who are set up as authority figures. These people are too unwilling to exert independent thought and follow their own independent consciences. So, why do way too many American
Since as early as I can remember, I’ve looked at the Nazi Holocaust as a defining event in world history and have had a great interest in trying to understand it better. Consequently, I’ve read dozens of books on the subject, always with the aim of trying to better understand how such a terrible thing could happen.

I feel the need to provide some personal background on this subject before getting into the topic of this post: At least part of the reason for my great interest in this subject has been my Jewish family background. All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe. Some of my family were Holocaust victims, as was the one who wrote a book that included his escape from a Nazi concentration camp on the night before he was scheduled for the gas chamber. Many of those who escaped the Holocaust through emigration to the United States, such as my grandparents, experienced a great deal of anti-Semitism throughout much of their lives, which substantially colored their world view. Fortunately for me, I never had to experience much of that.

Because of my family background, I heard stories about the Holocaust from my family from a very young age. When I was young I considered myself Jewish, simply because my parents told me that I was. So I always filled in “Jewish” on forms that asked my religion. But later I wondered how my parents could consider themselves Jewish when they didn’t believe in God. When I asked them about that, they told me it was because Jewishness was not only a religion but a culture. And they always believed that Jews had to stick together in order to maintain their “identity”, which they saw as a means of combating anti-Semitism.

At some point before I became an adult I began to reject that idea. I also came to feel that it was silly to fill in “Jewish” on job applications, etcetera, since I had no religious upbringing whatsoever. So from that time on I checked “none” instead.

As I grew older, I came to see maintaining a Jewish “identity”, as my parents wished me to do, not merely as pointless, but as harmful and against my basic value system. To put it more generally, I have come to see any kind of religious, racial, ethnic, or national identity as harmful. I understand my family’s point of view on this, and I can understand why minorities who are discriminated against would be inclined to develop pride in their particular minority identities. And I don’t blame them for that. But at the same time I have come to see religious, racial, ethnic, and national identification as labels that divide people. And as labels that divide people, they have led to war and every kind of atrocity known to humankind.

In fact, it is such labels that led to the Nazi Holocaust itself, as well as so many other genocides. For that reason, when it comes to “identities”, I would now much rather consider myself as a citizen of the world before I define myself according to my race, religion (or lack of), or as an American. (I do however consider myself a “liberal”, since that is a philosophy that I have come to after giving it much thought).

Holocaust denial

“Holocaust denier” has come to be a pejorative term in the United States as well as most other parts of the world – as well it should be. I won’t go into the relationship between Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, except to note that, although I have never seen an obvious reason why the two are necessarily strongly related, it seems evident that they are.

Beyond that, there is a very important reason why Holocaust denial is a bad thing: The Nazi Holocaust is perhaps the most evil event ever to have occurred in the history of the world, in terms of the magnitude of human suffering that it caused. It is crucially important to learn from history so that humanity can take steps to prevent bad things from recurring and facilitate the good things. Denial of important historical events makes it impossible to do that. We can’t learn from history if we fail to acknowledge the most important historical events. It’s that simple.

Another way to trivialize the Holocaust

Partly as a result of my great interest in the Nazi Holocaust, I have sometimes pointed out analogies between that and other events. When I have done so I have sometimes been aggressively criticized, primarily on two grounds: 1) the event in question was of a much smaller magnitude, and 2) by making the analogy I was said to be “trivializing” the Nazi Holocaust. Indeed, so sacrosanct have some authors considered the Nazi Holocaust that in their view pointing out analogies between it and anything else is to “trivialize” it. Their point of view is basically that the Nazi Holocaust was so terrible that there never was and never will be anything like it. Therefore, comparing it to anything else is to trivialize it.

I have two answers to that. First, a small slice of pie and a whole pie are basically the same thing; the only difference is that one is much bigger than the other. Or more generally, there are many things that are very similar to each other except for their size. I am not arguing that size is not important. Of course it is. But just because two things may differ greatly in size, that does not mean that there can’t be very important similarities between them.

But more important is the fact that if one considers the Nazi Holocaust to be so unique, so sacrosanct that we dare not compare it to other events, that trivializes it in some respects just as much as denying that it ever occurred. For if it is so uniquely different than anything that ever happened or ever will happen, then we have nothing to learn from it. It is simply a unique event that has no relationship to anything else. If “trivializing” the Holocaust means anything, it means placing it in a context in which we have nothing to learn from it. That could mean on the one hand denying it. Or at the other extreme, it means claiming that it is so unique that it bears no lessons for us which we can use to prevent future similar (even if smaller) occurrences.

And remember this too: Genocides – even the Nazi Holocaust – start out small and grow bigger over time if not enough is done to combat them. The bigger they get, the more difficult they become to stop.

American atrocities

In my most recent post I wrote about several events that I characterized as indications of American imperialism and atrocities. This was just a small sampling of covert or overt interventions that the United States has perpetrated against sovereign nations in its two and a quarter century history. These were all offensive actions against nations that posed no threat to us whatsoever. You can read the post if you want more details, but here a short summary of some of the consequences:

Philippines (1899-1902): 36,000 dead Filipinos
Iran (1953): 26 years of brutal dictatorship
Guatemala (1954): 140,000 dead or disappeared Guatemalans
Indonesia (1965): up to 1 million dead Indonesians
Vietnam (1956-73): 2 million dead Vietnamese
Chile (1973): 3,200 disappeared or dead Chileans; 200,000 refugees; 80,000 imprisoned
Nicaragua (1980s): 14,000 casualties
Iraq (2003- ): 1.3 million dead Iraqis; 4 million refugees

But these are just numbers. To personalize it a little, here is a description of an interview with an Iraqi resistance fighter – the people who we routinely refer to as “terrorists” – by Jurgen Todenhofer, from his book, “Why Do You Kill – The Untold Story of the Iraqi Resistance”:

Omar… lost 10 members of his family, including his oldest son, Mazin, when the American troops invaded. Mazin was nine years old when the American troops shot him… He will never forget the look on the face of his dying son; his eyes were pleading: “Papa, help me. You always help me”. But Omar could not help this time, and Omar’s son bled to death in his arms…

He is disappointed by the coverage of Iraq in the Western media. He is astonished that no distinction is made between the Iraqi resistance to the occupation and the terrorism brought in from abroad that is directed against the civilian population. He also finds it strange that the resistance is criticized for hiding in residential neighborhoods among civilians. Where should they be? The resistance doesn’t have any barracks. Resistance fighters are freedom fighters…. Moreover, in most places the people all support the resistance.

And then there’s a report by the Global Policy Forum on how the United States has conducted its occupation of Iraq: The report explains:

U.S. military commanders have established permissive rules of engagement, allowing troops to use deadly force against virtually any perceived threat. As a consequence, the US and its allies regularly kill Iraqi civilians at checkpoints and during military operations, on the basis of the merest suspicion…abusing and torturing large numbers of Iraqi prisoners… torture increasingly takes place in Iraqi prisons, apparently with US awareness and complicity…In addition to combat deaths, coalition forces have killed many Iraqi civilians. The U.S. has established broad legal immunity in Iraq for its forces, private security personnel, for contractors, and even for the oil companies…

American holocaust denial?

I recently read excerpts from the introduction to William Blum’s book, “Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II”, in which Blum describes our numerous imperialistic adventures in foreign nations, including the Cold War related ones noted above in this post. In that introduction, Blum describes his correspondence with a university professor and author of a book about Nazi Holocaust denial. Blum wrote her a letter:

telling her that her book made me wonder whether she knew that an American holocaust had taken place, and that the denial of it put the denial of the Nazi one to shame. So broad and deep is the denial of the American holocaust, I said, that the deniers are not even aware that the claimers or their claim exist. Yet, a few million people have died in the American holocaust and many more millions have been condemned to lives of misery and torture as a result of US interventions extending from China and Greece in the 1940s to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 1990s. I enclosed a listing of these interventions, which is of course the subject of the present book.

Though I have often written about various American atrocities, I must admit that I had never quite thought about them in terms of a “holocaust”, or in terms of Americans being deniers of an American holocaust. But why not? Sure, there are differences between these atrocities and the Nazi Holocaust. The American atrocities were never carried out solely on the basis of race or religion. But so what? The victims described in Blum’s book posed no threat to us. Hitler had his Jews. We had our “Communists”, which I put in quotes because many or most of our interventions were not actually directed against Communists, but rather against nations that we claimed were susceptible to Communist takeover. But what if they were all Communists? Don’t other nations have the right to choose their own form of government? Here is how Blum makes the parallel between Hitler’s ravings about the Jews and our ravings about Communists:

Both the Americans and the Germans believed their own propaganda, or pretended to. In reading Mein Kampf, one is struck by the fact that a significant part of what Hitler wrote about Jews reads very much like an American anti-communist writing about communists: He starts with the premise that the Jews (communists) are evil and want to dominate the world; then, any behavior which appears to contradict this is regarded as simply a ploy to fool people and further their evil ends; this behavior is always part of a conspiracy… He ascribes to the Jews great, almost mystical, power to manipulate societies and economies. He blames Jews for the ills arising from the industrial revolution, e.g., class divisions and hatred. He decries the Jews' internationalism and lack of national patriotism.

The politics of holocaust denial

When I was in college I took at least one history course that considered and argued about the pros and cons of the Nuremberg trials. I was always very much in favor of them (and still am). But there was at least one argument against them that perhaps I didn’t take seriously enough at the time: the “victor’s justice” argument, which argued that the standards that we applied against the Nazis in the Nuremberg trials were only meant to be used against the losers of wars, never against the victors. I didn’t want to believe that. But the validity of that argument has become clearer to me over the years, and it became especially clear as I recognized the widespread disinterest in and even taboos against prosecuting the war criminals of the Bush administration. Prosecution of war criminals IS selective, and it is definitely driven by politics.

Robert Fisk makes a similar point in his book, “The Age of the Warrior”. He notes that Maurice Papon was tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity in 1998 for his role in the Nazi Holocaust, in which he deported some 1,600 Jews to Auschwitz. Yet that same man was never tried for his role in the massacre of at least 200 Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, in his role as Paris police chief.

The bottom line on the question of who is held responsible for war crimes is that politics has way too much to do with it. War crimes committed while acting in one’s official capacity as a U.S. government official are highly unlikely to be prosecuted because, as U.S. Republicans are fond of whining, that would constitute the “criminalization of policy differences”. Yet we never considered our prosecution of the Nazis at Nuremberg as the “criminalization of policy differences”, even though it was precisely the carrying out of Nazi policies that we prosecuted.

Towards an understanding of crimes against humanity

When I first heard about the Nazi Holocaust as a young boy, I believed that there must be something genetically wrong with Germans. After all, I was told that such monstrous crimes could never occur in my country. And yet, look what happened in Germany. But by now, I have read enough to know that the capacity for mass cruelty and atrocities is widespread throughout history and throughout our planet – and that my own country is certainly not immune.

I believe that the underlying cause of both mass atrocities and their denial is the confluence two things: 1) excessive subservience of the masses to authority figures, and 2) the elevation to power of … the wrong kinds of people.

Bob Altemeyer discusses this issue in great detail in his book, “The Authoritarians”. The phenomenon of excessive subservience to authority figures is best depicted by his description of the obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram. In the most famous of these experiments, men were told that they were participating in a “memory” experiment, in which they would play the role of “Teacher”. Their job was to deliver electric shocks to a “Learner” whenever the Learner, who was actually part of the research team, gave the wrong answer to the memory test. Unknown to the Teacher, the “electrical shocks” were fake, as were the Learner’s reactions to the “electrical shocks”. In response to instructions from the authority figure (the Experimenter), the Teacher would continue to deliver progressively higher voltage until his conscience won out over his tendency to obey the authority figure. The results were disappointing, to say the least. 85% of the Teachers went past the point where the “Learner” appeared to be in such pain that he screamed and demanded to be let out of the experiment. 62% of the Teachers went past the point where the “Learner” appeared to be dead.

In other words, the world is filled with people who are way too willing to be led by those who are set up as authority figures. These people are too unwilling to exert independent thought and follow their own independent consciences. So, why do way too many Americans deny the atrocities committed by their own government? Basically, because of their eagerness to believe whatever their authorities tell them.

The biggest problem comes when a society or a nation falls under the sway of what Altemeyer refers to as “social dominators” or “authoritarian leaders”. He describes them as:

inclined to be intimidating, ruthless, and vengeful. They scorn such noble acts as helping others, and being kind, charitable, and forgiving. Instead they would rather be feared than loved, and be viewed as mean, pitiless, and vengeful. They love power, including the power to hurt in their drive to the top…. Social dominators thus admit, anonymously, to striving to manipulate others, and to being dishonest, two-faced, treacherous, and amoral.

What can be done?

Altemeyer sums up the basic problem like this:

The vast majority of us have had practically no training in our lifetimes in openly defying authority. The authorities who brought us up mysteriously forgot to teach that. We may desperately want to say no, but that turns out to be a huge step that most people find impossibly huge – even when the authority is only a psychologist you never heard of running an insane experiment. From our earliest days we are told disobedience is a sin, and obedience is a virtue, the “right” thing to do… I am saying that we as individuals are poorly prepared for a confrontation with evil authority, and some people are especially inclined to submit to such authority and attack in its name.

There are other major problems, of course – racism and militant nationalism, for example. But humanity is taught those things. In fact they are taught those things by the very “social dominators” that Altemeyer describes. Howard Zinn sees the problem in terms very similar to Altemeyer. From his book, “Failure to Quit”:

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country. That's our problem."

If one believes that Altemeyer and Zinn are correct – and I do – the answer then lies in finding a way to facilitate independent thinking. Altemeyer has shown that a college education helps. So does exposure to different kinds of situations and different kinds of people. Altemeyer has noted, for example, that “nothing improves authoritarians’ attitudes toward homosexuals as much as getting to know a homosexual – or learning that they’ve known one for years.” I’m certain that the same thing can be said about racism and nationalism, and any other kind of bigotry – the traits that have been so responsible for humankind’s inhumanity to their fellow humans throughout history.

The common denominator for all these things is expansion of the human mind and heart. But is there enough time for that to happen before humankind destroys itself?
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The Unfulfilled Promise
The Unfulfilled Promise of the American Dream: The Widening Gap between the Reality of the United States and its Highest Ideals

Time for change

Notwithstanding the lofty sentiments and purpose of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the reality of the United States of America did not then – and never has – lived up to its ideal. Our nation remains today a long way from fulfilling the promise implied by those ideals. Yet, our Declaration was a great start, and it has long shone as a beacon of hope for people all over the world.

Throughout our history, while many have striven to close the gap between our highest ideals and the reality of our nation, others have focused on the accumulation of private wealth and power, at the expense of everyone else. In recent decades the latter have gained much ground, leading to increasing imperialism abroad and deteriorating democracy at home, characterized by routine (and legal) bribery of our public officials, the fusion of government and private corporate interests (corporatocracy), a corrupt election system largely in the hands of private corporations, a corporate controlled communications media, and the widespread acceptance of Executive Branch secrecy, routinely justified with little if any questioning, by the magic words “national security”. All of this is rapidly turning our country from the democracy proclaimed at our founding into a plutocracy (government by the wealthy and for the wealthy). The result is the most obscene wealth gap our country has ever known, the highest imprisonment rate in the world, rampant militarism, routine flaunting of international law, the least efficient health care system in the developed world, a pending environmental catastrophe that threatens to destroy the life sustaining forces of our planet, and myriad other problems that threaten to destroy our nation and tyrannize our people.

My new book, The Unfulfilled Promise of the American Dream – The Widening Gap between the Reality of the United States and its Highest Ideals, explores the roots and consequences of the demise of our democracy, and why most Americans have been unable to understand this process or even become aware of it. A good understanding of why and how we have deviated so greatly from the ideals of our nation is the first and necessary step towards getting back on the right track and revitalizing our society.

The book is currently being sold in electronic PDF format and can be purchased at for $3.99. It will also soon be available in Amazon Kindle format. DU members who cannot afford to buy the book but would like to read it can pm me with your e-mail address, and I will send you a free PDF copy.

I’ve previously posted on DU a slightly earlier version of the introduction to the book, which is also posted at my site. Here is the Table of Contents, followed by a brief description of the three parts of the book:


Prologue – What is Wrong with the United States of America?

Part I – Root Causes of the Impending Demise of American Democracy
Chapter 1 – Legalized Bribery
Chapter 2 – Human Psychological Factors
Chapter 3 – Corporatocracy
Chapter 4 – Corporate Control of Media
Chapter 5 – Corrupt Election System
Chapter 6 – Government Secrecy
Chapter 7 – American Exceptionalism

Part II – A Sampling of Imperialist Actions
Chapter 8 – Slavery and its Legacy
Chapter 9 – Early U.S. Imperialism
Chapter 10 – U.S. Imperialism in Cold War
Chapter 11 – Iraq War and Occupation
Chapter 12 – Afghanistan War

Part III – Consequences
Chapter 13 – Election of George W. Bush
Chapter 14 – War and Imperialism
Chapter 15 – Class Warfare
Chapter 16 – Predator Financial Class
Chapter 17 – Shock Therapy
Chapter 18 – Contempt for Int. Law
Chapter 19 – The “War on Drugs”
Chapter 20 – Climate Change
Chapter 21 – “War on Terror”
Chapter 22 – Health Care
Chapter 23 – Unaccountable government
Chapter 24 – Response to 9/11 Attacks

PART I – Root Causes of the Impending Demise of American Democracy

It is somewhat difficult to separate the causes of our problems from their consequences, since they combine to form a long chain of cause leading to consequence, leading to more consequences, etcetera. Nevertheless, it seems worth while to identify the root causes of our problems, those that occur early in the chain and lead to so many of the tragic consequences we see today. The only chance we have of reversing the demise of our democracy is through addressing and attacking its root causes.

At the top of the list is the systematic bribery of public officials by the powerful corporations (Chapter 1) whom our government is charged with regulating in the public interest. Instead of calling it bribery, we call it “campaign contributions”, but what we call it isn’t as important as what it is. It is hard to fathom how democracy can survive when such a practice is legal and condoned.

Working in tandem with our system of legalized bribery is the nature of the people who inhabit our country. That is not to say that Americans are inherently substantially different than any other people. Human beings are imperfect, and that is probably a major reason why in a world where civilization began more than five millennia ago, the oldest written national framework of government in the world today – the Constitution of the United States of America – is only a little more than two and a quarter centuries old. Chapter 2 explores the roles of basic human needs, authoritarianism, psychological defense mechanisms used to prevent us from perceiving reality as it is rather than as we’d like it to be, and corrupted ideologies in causing us to passively accept the accumulation of power in the hands of ambitious and ruthless individuals who care about little else than expanding their own wealth and power.

When bribery of public officials is tolerated as an inevitable aspect of public life, government inevitably grows close to the wealthy interests that shower it with money in return for legislative and other favors. A malevolent symbiosis grows between the state and corporate power, resulting in rule by an oligarchy that is highly detrimental to the lives of ordinary people (Chapter 3). Using their accumulated wealth and power to manipulate our legislative process, the oligarchy grabs for more and more control of the communications media (Chapter 4) that are used to control the information available to and shape the attitudes of our nation’s people, in pursuit of their own narrow interests.

Since the 1980s an orchestrated campaign has been underway to demonize “big government”, thereby paving the way for private corporate control over more and more functions that were previously deemed intrinsic functions of government. Among those functions is the running of public elections (Chapter 5) – the function that symbolizes democracy perhaps more than any other single function. Consequently, the purging of selected registered voters from our computerized voter rolls has become a routine recurring event throughout much of our country, and without a doubt determined the results of the 2000 – and probably 2004 as well – presidential election. Just as bad, more and more of the counting of votes in our public elections have been turned over to private corporations, which count our votes using electronic machines using secret software to produce vote counts that cannot be verified by anyone.

Bribery, the fusion of government and private interest, fake and biased news, and corrupt elections are not things that government and its corporate allies want us to know about. Consequently, they construct walls of secrecy (Chapter 6) to keep us from obtaining information that sheds light on their activities. The perfect phrase for facilitating this is “national security”. When our government tells us that the “national security” requires that certain things be kept secret from us, the understanding is that to question such a pronouncement is unpatriotic, and to actually attempt to obtain the “secret” information may be treasonous.

But indefinitely maintaining secrets from the American people can be very difficult, because at least some people want to know what their government is up to. So in addition to the formal mechanisms of secrecy, informal mechanisms are constructed (Chapter 7) to keep vital information away from us. One of the primary methods for doing this is to make certain sensitive subjects taboo – that is, to create the widespread belief that discussion of these topics is so outside the bounds of acceptable human discourse that anyone who discusses them should be shunned by society, or worse. The most common issue that falls into this category is any discussion that sheds light on the disparity between American ideals and the reality of life in our country today.

PART II – A Sampling of Imperialist Actions in U.S. History

Notwithstanding the fact that our founding document says that “all men are created equal” and speaks of the inalienable rights of humankind, the United States has throughout its history partaken of massive exploitation of other peoples.

It is estimated that at the time of our birth, 18% of our population was black slaves. In our expansion westwards during the late 18th and 19th centuries, we decimated the original inhabitants of our continent, and often treated them with great cruelty. In 1846 we manufactured an excuse for war with our neighbor Mexico, in which we continued to expand our country westwards and southwards. In 1893 we began our overseas imperialism with the conquest of Hawaii. Our overseas expansion was greatly accelerated in 1898 with our participation in the Spanish-American War, which led to our conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. With our arrival at world superpower status at the end of World War II, we began the Cold War, which led to and served as a rationalization for covert and/or direct military actions against myriad foreign nations over the next 46 years. With the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, we declared a perpetual “War on Terror”, which served and continues to serve as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, nations that posed no threat to us. We do not know when or if this perpetual war will ever end. We don’t know how many additional imperial conquests it will lead to.

Most Americans don’t think much about all this. Many of these actions are done in secrecy, and the American people don’t find out about them until many years later – or we never find out about them at all. Those that we do know about are spun into the most favorable light, to make them seem benign or even noble.

But these actions come at great costs: in the lives of our soldiers; in the ruined lives of the peoples of the victim countries; in trillions of dollars cost to our people and their future generations; in our international reputation; in anti-American hatred leading to terrorism; and, to our democracy itself. For how can a nation claim to believe in the inalienable rights of humankind specified in its founding document, while making a mockery of that belief in the way it treats other peoples? For that reason alone it is worth while to take a brief look at our long history of imperialist actions.

PART III – Consequences

In the Prologue I give a brief account of what I see as some of the worst and tragic consequences of the root causes that I discuss in Part I – to enable the reader to see where this book is heading. When elections of our public officials are for sale to the highest bidder… when our public officials are so addicted to the “campaign contributions” of their wealthiest constituents that they develop a symbiotic relationship with them… when our communications media are owned and controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy elites… when our citizenry lack the ability to differentiate propaganda from reality… when we allow machines provided by private corporations to count our votes using secret electronic software… then we should expect that the consequences will not be pretty or comfortable for the vast majority of our citizens.

In Part III, I explore those consequences in much greater detail, in the hope that the reader will agree with me that these are very serious problems, and that they must be successfully addressed if our country is ever to fulfill the promise of its ideals, or even make progress in that direction. When enough Americans recognize our problems as problems, stripped of the gloss and spin put on them by our oligarchy, they will rise up and do something about them. Until then there will be no progress, and we are very likely to head in the direction of all the former empires of our planet, ending in chaos, widespread catastrophe, suffering, and ignominy.

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