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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dear Senators and Congresscritters:
Posted by Jill | 9:02 PM
Yes, I'm talking to you. All of you. Particularly YOU, Senator Schumer, but really all of you. And I have an urgent request:


Why is it that you guys are perfectly willing to devote the Senate's valuable time investigating whether Ticketmaster scalped Bruce Springsteen tickets through a subsidiary, but you're so reluctant to investigate the crimes of Bush Administration officials?

I mean, come on: You let George W. Bush and Dick Cheney shit all over the Constitution for eight years, but a few people being unable to get Springsteen tickets except through scalpers is somehow more important than trying to restore the laws on which our nation was founded? Look, I've been to my share of concerts, and I've had my share of disappointments when the band that used to be easy to see is now impossible. But look, it's a freaking concert. It's two hours of entertainment. It's not the goddamn Constitution. I realize that this is heresy to say here in New Jersey, but can we please get real?

Oh, sure, Pat Leahy is out there once again fighting the good fight, and talking about a "truth commission" -- a possibility which is getting some lukewarm, toe-in-the-water quasi-support from a few other Senators. But as distasteful as it may seem, you don't really have a whole lot of choice here, not if you want the pomp and procedure that you hold so dear to actually mean something.

This morning I was reading the rather compelling case laid out by Ron Rosenbaum on why The Reader shouldn't receive an Academy Award:
This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution. The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it's a "Holocaust film," it must be worthy of approbation, end of story. And so a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer and intimates that "ordinary Germans" were ignorant of the extermination until after the war, now stands a good chance of getting a golden statuette.


What, exactly, was the Kate Winslet character's "personal triumph"? While in prison for participation in an act of mass murder that was particularly gruesome and personal, given the generally impersonal extermination process—as a death camp guard, she helped ensure 300 Jewish women locked in a burning church would die in the fire—she taught herself to read! What a heartwarming fable about the wonders of literacy and its ability to improve the life of an Auschwitz mass murderer!

True, she's unrepentant for the most part about allowing those women and children to burn to death. (Although we do see one scene in which it turns out she's saved some pennies in prison that she wants to be given to the children of the women she murdered—thanks!) But most of what we see of her prison experience is her excitement at her growing literacy skills. Get a load of those pages turning! Reading is fun!

It's been argued that no fictional film can do justice to the events of 1939-45, that only documentaries like Alan Resnais' Night and Fog or Claude Lanzmann's nine-plus-hour-long Shoah can begin to convey the reality of the evil. And there certainly have been execrable failures (example: Life Is Beautiful). I've argued that most of the fictionalized efforts either exhibit a false redemptiveness or an offensive sexual exploitiveness—what some critics have called "Nazi porn." But in recent years, a new mode of misconstrual has prevailed—the desire to exculpate the German people of guilt for the crimes of the Hitler era. I spoke recently with Mark Weitzman, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's New York office, who went so far as to say that The Reader was a symptom of a kind of "Holocaust revisionism," which used to be the euphemistic term for Holocaust denial.

It takes some guts to make an argument like this, particularly at a time when German Prime Minister Angela Merkel deserves credit for recognizing the symbolism of ex-Nazi Pope Benedict's decision to restore a Holocaust-denying bishop, and applying pressure to make this restoration contingent on a recantation of Richard Williamson's repulsive and false views. It's not enough for me, of course, but Merkel deserves credit for at least trying.

I know that there is simultaneously a recognition among Germans of their special obligation to squelch the kind of anti-Semitism represented by people like Richard Williamson, and also an underlying resentment that takes the form of Just How Long Do We Have To Do Penance for what Previous Generations Did. Merkel represents the former, and I once had a co-worker in a previous job express the latter sentiment, which is, let's face it, a sentiment shared by many Americans where slavery is concerned.

But the larger issue isn't about the Cinema of Nazi Redemption; it's about the notion of collective guilt for what one's leaders do. Rosenbaum rightfully bashes the underlying assumption of movies like The Reader for implying that Hitler was some kind of lone wolf who committed his atrocities completely unbeknownst to his countrymen. And so we come back to the Leahy request for a "truth commission".

We know for certain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney personally authorized torture. We know about waterboarding. What we don't know is what other kinds of torture these two psychopathic men authorized and committed IN OUR NAME. President Obama may want to look to the future, and one can hardly blame him, given the multitude of disasters on his plate. But we as patriotic Americans cannot afford to allow him to ignore the past and look only to the future, any more than Angela Merkel felt she could ignore a past that took place before she was even born. We have an obligation to our country, to the Constitution, and to all the people who came before us and who died defending this nation over the past 233 years, to hold these criminals accountable for their actions -- actions that they committed while we sat by and allowed them to invade a country that did nothing to us and grab people off the streets and "disappear" them. Germany works tirelessly to come to terms with its past. We must do the same work to come to terms with our present. If we do not hold them accountable, no matter how difficult or inconvenient it may be, then the blood of everyone who died from the crimes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney policies is on our hands. This is a far more pressing issue than the scalping of Bruce Springsteen tickets.


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Blogger D. said...
I've linked to this, but I can't expunge the "I am shocked...shocked! that there is ticket scalping!" vision.

I hadn't even seen reviews for The Reader, but my sympathy pool for Nazis is currently residing in a thimble.

Blogger Charles D said...
At first, I might have found Lynndie England to be the modern Hanna Schmitz but there is a very serious difference. While those who participated in the Holocaust as minor players - cogs in the death machine - had reason to fear for their lives if they protested, that cannot be said of any American who participated in the torture and abuse ordered by the Bush Administration. However, if The Reader is a form of Holocaust denial, then excusing the behavior of the American soldiers and civilians who participated in torture is also a form of denial.

At every level, it was possible for Americans to say no. They might have lost their jobs or their security clearances, but they would remain alive and able to witness to the horrors they were commanded to perform.

As with the Nazis however, it is imperative that those at the top who set the policy be tried and convicted first and that all the evidence of their crimes be made public. Only then should the culpability of America's Hanna Schmidts be considered.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I have not been able to decide if I can watch the film "The Reader." I suspect it might make a cogent point about under-education making one susceptible to being led into acts of ultimate evil; but that cannot explain it all away. Something in my mind is irreversibly broken, I think, to even need to consider what led young Americans to act like young Nazis.
I have known many old Germans, who described their youth in Nazi Germany, and the pervasive sense of threat if you didn't go along. I look at the last eight years of talk radio and books calling Liberals traitorous and suddenly see how it all began. Those at the top in America will escape, I fear...and with them their third level minions who pumped the hate that fueled the shooter at the UU Church. If we don't answer these questions, we will have to all consider "German" culpability in the not so distant future---in order to gauge our own.