I’ve seen a lot of movies and documentaries about the Holocaust or with themes related to the Holocaust and totalitarianism. Of the films I’ve seen, these are the thirteen that stayed with me. Please note that these movies have adult themes; they may not be suitable for children or teens.
American History X (1998): Searing movie about neo-Nazis and the power of hate. Violent scenes for mature audiences only.
Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001): Excellent dramatization of Anne Frank’s life, to include the tragic end at Bergen-Belsen.
For My Father (2008): A movie about Palestinians, Israelis, and suicide bombers, but also a movie about the difficulties of confronting and overcoming prejudice.
Hotel Rwanda (2004): The genocide in Rwanda, and how one brave man made a difference.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): Powerful indictment of Nazi war criminals after World War II.
Katyn (2007): A reminder that the Nazis weren’t the only mass murderers in World War II.
The Last Days (1998): Incredibly moving documentary that explores the fate of Hungarian Jews. Highly recommended.
Life Is Beautiful (1997): It’s hard to believe that a comedy could be made about the Holocaust. But I think this movie works precisely because the main character is so resourceful and full of life.
The Lives of Others (2006): Astonishing movie about life under a totalitarian regime (East Germany). A “must see” to understand how people can be controlled and cowed and coerced, but also how some find ways to resist.
Lore (2012): Movie about a German teenager who has to survive in the chaos of 1945 as the Third Reich comes crashing down. Various small scenes show the hold that Hitler had over the German people, and the reluctance of many Germans to believe that the Holocaust occurred and that Hitler had ordered it.
Sarah’s Key (2010): Heart-wrenching movie about the roundup of Jews in France, which reminds us that the Nazis had plenty of helpers and collaborators.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005): Inspiring movie about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany. The Scholls were college students who took a courageous stand against the Nazis. Executed as traitors in 1943, they are now celebrated as heroes in Germany.
The Wave (2008): Compelling movie about the allure of fascism and “the Fuhrer (leader) principle.” Highly recommended, especially if you want to know how Hitler got so many young people to follow him.
Today’s title is from James Madison, architect of our Constitution. Madison famously wrote against the perils of forever war. In other words, he wrote about the perils we face today in our ongoing, seemingly unending, war on terror.
Here is what Madison warned us about:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …
Strong words — and words to ponder as we continue to maintain an enormous defense and homeland security complex with bases and commitments around the world.
How, indeed, do you maintain personal liberties and individual freedoms in a garrison state? The short answer: you can’t. Just read Madison.
As a history professor with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering teaching at a technical college after 20 years’ service in the US Air Force, I’m sympathetic to education that connects to the world of doing, of making, of providing goods and services to consumers. Yet we must not allow education itself to become a consumable. When education becomes a commodity and students become consumers, the result is zombie education. Often characterized in practice by the mindless munching of digestible bits of disconnected PowerPoint factoids, zombie education leads to more mindless consumption of commodities after graduation, a result consistent with greed-driven capitalism, but not with ideal-driven democracy.
Mindless consumption is bad enough. But zombies are also mindless in political contexts, which is why totalitarian systems work so hard to create them as a preliminary to taking power. Think here of Hannah Arendt’s critique of Adolf Eichmann as a man devoured by the demands of his job (the extermination of the Jews in Europe), a cliché-ridden careerist who was unable to think outside the constraints of Nazi party ideology.
But let’s return to the economic bottom line. In his signature role as Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) describes the latest generation of college graduates as NINJAs (no income, no jobs, no assets). Basically, they’re screwed, he says. This may even be true if you view a college diploma strictly as a passport to a vocation that pays well.
But true education is much more than that. True education is transformative. It’s soul-enriching and soul-engaging. It opens alternative paths to living that don’t begin and end at the workplace. It measures personal fulfillment in ways that aren’t restricted to take-home pay.
Higher education is (or should be) about enriching your life in terms that are not exclusively financial. It’s about the betterment of character and the development of taste. It’s about becoming a savvier citizen whose appreciation of, and dedication to, democracy is keener and more heartfelt.
And that’s precisely why it’s worthy of greater public funding. State and federal funding of higher education must be restored to previous levels precisely because an informed and empowered citizenry is the best guarantor of individual freedoms as well as communal well-being.
Education, in short, is not a commodity – it’s the commonwealth.
But today’s view of education is often narrowly focused on individual profit or vocational training or STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), a bias that carries with it class-based strictures. Students are told it’s OK to be selfish but also that their role is to be consumers, not creators; conformists, not dreamers.
Powerful institutions at local, state, and federal levels share this bias. Educators currying favors from business and industry spout bromides about “competitiveness.” Business leaders address graduates and tell them the secrets to success in life are a positive attitude, punctuality and smart clothes.
If we view education as an ephemeral commodity in a world of goods, so too will our students. They’ll lump it together with all the other trivial, product-based, corporate-funded information with which they’re constantly bombarded. Critical thinking? Informed citizenship? Boring. And could you shut up a minute? I need to take this call/send this tweet/update my Facebook.
Staring vacantly into electronic gizmos as they shuffle to and from class, students are already halfway to joining the zombie ranks. Let’s not infect them further with commodity-based zombie education.
What is to be done? History is a guide. Consider the words of John Tyndall, eminent rationalist and promoter of science. In “An Address to Students” in 1868, or 145 years ago, Tyndall opined that:
“The object of [a student’s] education is, or ought to be, to provide wise exercise for his capacities, wise direction for his tendencies, and through this exercise and this direction to furnish his mind with such knowledge as may contribute to the usefulness, the beauty, and the nobleness of his life.”
Of course, back then such an education was reserved for young men. We congratulate ourselves today for including the “her” with the “his,” of promoting “diversity,” usually defined in racial or gender or ethnic terms.
But what about the diversity of a college education that embraces, not just hardheaded utility or the politics of identity, but ideals about the beauty and nobility of life? What about the fostering of judgment, the ability to go beyond prefabricated, binary thought processes of ideology to a form of thinking that can assess the value and significance of events, situations, and choices on their own terms?
But zombies don’t care about beauty or nobility. They’re not worried about making judgments, especially moral ones. All they want is to consume. Defined by their appetite, they are hollow people, easily led – and easily misled.
As long as we market education as a consumable, the zombies will come. They may even find ways to pay their tuition. Just don’t expect them to de-zombify upon graduation. Just don’t expect them to become noble citizens inspired by, and willing to stand up for, the beauty of true democracy.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has always been highly classified, a fact captured by the joke that NSA really stands for Nonesuch Agency.
Lately, with all the revelations by Edward Snowden about “inadvertent” and “unintentional” spying on Americans, the NSA seems to be defining a new acronym for itself. Call it the
Nothing to See here, move Along, outfit.
The American people are being told by their government and their media that NSA domestic spying is a non-story. The headline is something like: They’ve always done it, or They’re doing it to keep you safe, or You can trust powerful government agencies that have access to your private data.
In other words, nothing to see here, move along.
A true democracy jealously guards the rights of its citizens, notably the right to privacy. A true democracy also has sufficient checks to guard against the acquisition of power and influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-intelligence complex. We are no longer such a democracy.
Perhaps the biggest “reveal” of the whole Snowden affair is how much of government intelligence is not government. It’s been outsourced, privatized. We’ve added the profit motive to spying, ostensibly in the name of efficiency.
So, along with acquiescing to government spying, we’ve now made it a for-profit business in which lobbyists give money to Congress to ensure that this intelligence complex continues to grow in power and reach. All in the name of keeping us safe, naturally.
The Army has an off-color saying: Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Please don’t tell me you’re spying on me and mining my data so that I’m “safer.”
There is something to see here, citizens. And what it is is not pretty.
Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.
And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.
Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).
Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.
America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.
Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.
But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.
Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.”
So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.
I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.
As “Dirty Harry” said in a different context, “I know what you’re thinking.” Free health care for all is simply too expensive. We say this even as we spend a trillion dollars a year on national defense and homeland security, to include the funding of 16 intelligence agencies to watch over us.
A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.
One of my favorite quotations comes from the Jamaican bobsled coach. Remember how the Jamaican bobsled team captured the world’s fancy? A bobsled team from the Caribbean … how crazy is that? They weren’t very good, but so what? They gave it their all.
Anyway, here’s the quotation:
“If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”
As soon as I read it, I recognized the wisdom and truth of those words.
Medals, trophies, awards, titles: they won’t fill the emptiness inside. Oh, they’ll make you feel good for a few hours or a few days, but the feeling soon wears out.
We live in a hyper-competitive society in which it’s all about “winning,” whatever that means. So focused are we on winning — which is usually both short-term and ephemeral — that we forget what’s really important in life. Family, friends, health, a life of meaning and service, stuff like that. Stuff that you may not win a gold medal for, but the stuff that truly matters.
A society based on competition and consumerism always pressures us to associate winning with acquisition. I need that gold medal for affirmation! And if I can’t get that, at least I can buy that Lexus SUV, that Kate Spade bag, or some other shiny object that feeds my ego.
Forget about medals and ribbons and titles. Living a life of meaning is its own reward.
Here, as promised, is what I hope is some fresh thinking. I also posted this at Huffington Post.
Currently, so-called “fresh” thinking on national security from the Obama administration includes the pivot to Asia, more emphasis on cyberwar and drones, continued expansion of Special Forces, a withdrawal from Afghanistan in super-slow motion, and intervention (sending arms at minimum; troops possibly to follow) in Syria. “Defense” budgets are to remain high, with each service getting its usual assortment of high-priced weapons (most notoriously, the $400 billion devoted to procure the F-35 joint strike fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines).
In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual at the Pentagon.
How about some truly fresh thinking on national security? Here are five ideas that are more visionary than anything our sclerotic and self-absorbed bureaucracy will ever produce:
1. Eliminate nuclear weapons in U.S. military arsenals by the year 2025.
The U.S. remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It would send a powerful message to the world if we took the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet. And we can afford to take this risk. Why? Precisely because of our enormous conventional (non-nuclear) military might. Such a bold step would also help to restore our moral standing in the world.
2. Get out of Afghanistan now.
If the Afghan National Army (ANA) isn’t ready to take charge after a decade of U.S. training and scores of billions of dollars, it never will be. The U.S. effort to train the ANA was always a case of putting the cart before the horse, since you can hardly create a national army where there is no nation. It’s time to cut our losses and leave.
3. Define a new “Good Neighbor” Policy.
Remember when FDR declared a “Good Neighbor” policy to improve relations with Latin American countries? Yes, it was eight decades ago. It’s high time that we reach out again to our immediate neighbors, even the “bad boy” ones like Cuba and Venezuela, rather than wasting resources in faraway places like Afghanistan.
4. Renew the Monroe Doctrine — With A Twist.
Remember the Monroe Doctrine? In the early 19th century, we said “hands off our hemisphere” to the other major powers of the world. Backed up by the power of Britain’s Royal Navy, we helped to keep foreign meddling in the Americas to a minimum (we, of course, filled the gap and did plenty of meddling of our own).
Related to (3) above, we need a new Monroe Doctrine, one in which we vow to keep our hands off of other hemispheres.
It’s time to come home, America. We’ve got plenty of problems to fix here. The kind that can’t be fixed by buying more ultra-expensive jet fighters, unwanted main battle tanks, and superfluous nuclear attack submarines.
5. Put an end to threat inflation. In other words, grow up.
Do we have to react like Chicken Little to every threat, real or unreal? China has a stealth fighter! So? We’ve had them for four decades. China has an aircraft carrier (Russian-built)! And they’re building another one! So? We have 10 carrier task forces and 90 years’ experience operating them. Indeed, our Navy must be ecstatic: Finally a problem we understand!
These are not “threats,” unless you’re trying to justify business as usual at the Pentagon and among major defense contractors.
The same goes for terrorist attacks, whether successful or failed. How long are we supposed to doff our shoes at airport security checkpoints because of the inept “shoe bomber”? Another 10 years? Twenty? Forever?
Most Americans know the world is a dangerous place. But the greatest danger isn’t Chinese stealth fighters or the occasional terrorist attack (however tragic for the victims). The greatest danger is the ongoing erosion of our rights as citizens as we continue to expand the militarization of our society in the name of “safety” and “patriotism.”
America is slowly being turned into an enormous prison in which we meekly acquiesce to being monitored and even “locked down” (for our own safety, naturally). This is not the nation of John Wayne and Gary Cooper that I admired in countless westerns I watched as a boy.
Well, there are my five steps to a better national security policy. As a bonus step (and an obvious one), the U.S. must close Gitmo. The prison there is a blot on our nation’s moral standing in the world, and a cause célèbre for would-be terrorists everywhere.
Finally, and perhaps most of all, we need to change our mentality. We need a much broader definition of what “national security” really means. It’s not about having the biggest military or 16 intelligence agencies or expensive weapons. It’s about living a life worth living in which we respect others.
After all, the U.S. is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, not a bristling citadel on a hill.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:
When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete. The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness. The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently. Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.
Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.
Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives). Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year. Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that. Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.
Why has this happened? One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy. Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.
With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008. It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future. Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.
Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless. And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.
Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.
In our media and our culture today, there’s an unfortunate tendency to see military service as uniquely efficacious and ennobling, and to see war as necessary and even to view it as antiseptic (notably our so-called “surgical” drone strikes).
But real war is dirty. It’s as likely to infect us, to spread sepsis through our bodies and souls, as it is to ennoble us by calling forth sacrifice.
This dark reality is captured in this quotation by the cultural critic Louis Menand:
War is specially terrible not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.
Think here of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan, who plead guilty to the premeditated murder of sixteen Afghan civilians. Think here of the atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam, harrowingly documented in Nick Turse’s recent book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (2013).
The point is not to condemn American troops, who generally serve honorably under challenging, even horrendous, conditions. The point is to condemn war.
War warps. War corrupts. War murders. It warps men’s souls, corrupts their morals, murders their innocence.
Just posted a new article to Huffington Post. Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):
The expression “bread and circuses” captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.
There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.
In her words:
Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…
Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”
I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.
Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.
Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.
At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”
All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”
At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?