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Eric Francis Blog

Terrible Symmetry | Oct. 10, 2006

View of Birkenau. Posted without comment, except for this excerpt from Adrienne Rich:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.


The Big Lie | Oct. 11, 2006

Photo Above: Young students make their mark in the Earth beside human ash pit, Auschwitz ii -Birkenau, Sept. 27, 2006. Photo by Eric Francis.

BEFORE we wrap up this photo and essay series on Auschwitz, we need to discuss the Big Lie. Everyone who is literate and concerned about the world needs to understand what this historical reference is. It is about something specific, and relevant today.

The Big Lie was a propaganda technique -- more like psychological warfare -- used on the German people so they would fall for the crime we now call the Holocaust. This involved their government and military murdering more than 12 million people in death camps, half of them Jews, and nearly all the Sinti and Romany people, along with waging open war on Europe and England for many years. That is to say, bombing great swaths of Europe, people and all, level to the ground.

We can all agree from the ash pit, depicted above, where hundreds of thousands of human lives were thrown, that the Holocaust was a crime. We must not lose sight of that in discussing how that crime was committed. We need to hold two thoughts at once: the ash pit, and the technique.

Much of how this crime was committed involved the use of fear and violence, but more of it involved the use of deception. The excerpts below explain why deception works so well. You will, I think, probably need to think about them for a while to really grasp the notion. Fraud is a subject I have studied pretty closely, and it's taken me some time to wrap my mind around this idea.

The basis of the Big Lie is that people are more likely to believe a great deception than a small one. Big, as in so big, it is inconceivable that someone ever possibly could do or say something like that. Hitler and his men understood that people tell small lies all the time. They play on this fact. Because people tell small lies as a matter of getting through the day, they expect others to do so. What we do not expect is for someone to be so brazen as to tell a lie so huge it could have absolutely no basis in truth, and yet be used to justify astonishing, outrageous conduct, and to destroy civilization, or some large part of it, at the same time.

Now, if you're thinking: "This is too outrageous to be true. Who told you this?" then you fell for it. You swallowed the hook and it's connected to your television. Be careful, you could get a shock.

First let's check in with the Office of Strategic Services intelligence report which during the war and the peak of Nazi atrocities assessed the psychological tactics of the Nazi government.
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. - OSS report page 51 [2]
Hmm. Does this strategy ring a bell? It should. We've been living with it for the past five years. Never accept blame. Never admit you're wrong. Blame one enemy at a time and blame him for everything. Our civil servants at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are not deviating one iota from the program. I can name a couple who probably have that OSS report in their desk drawer.

But it gets deeper; the OSS report glances over the surface. Here's how Hitler himself put it. Vocabulary word: Impudence. It means gall. Nerve. Audacity. Watch that word. This is from his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf (James Murphy translation, page 134) and the bold type is my addition, as this particular observation is so stunning that somebody ought to posthumously award Hitler the Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to psychology:
All this was inspired by the principle - which is quite true in itself - that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. These people know only too well how to use falsehood for the basest purposes.
When we are looking at the ash pit at Auschwitz, we need to think of the Big Lie. Let's go back to the faces we began with, Hlawica Zdenka and Holan Adalberta. Take a look please, first.

Is it too much to visualize their sincere, gentle faces while they are inhaling cyanide gas? Is it too much to imagine what they thought about as they died, naked, on a concrete floor, if indeed the pain allowed them to think of anything at all? Is it too much to visualize their bodies curling up, in agony, for a lie? Is it too much to imagine them being put into an incinerator semi-conscious, if the gas did not work? I have spent much of the past week thinking about them going through this, and making the connection between all the evidence I've photographed at Auschwitz, all the stories that have been told to me, all I have learned, and these two women, Hlawica and Holan. Women I have grown to love this week, looking at their faces every day, wondering what they felt and what they witnessed.

The real issue with the Nazis was the lies they told, lies that were a conscious part of their strategy of mass murder. I will say this again: What they did could not have been perpetrated in an atmosphere where truth had any value. Indeed, where truth lacks value, where that lack is the primary value, anything at all can happen. This is why we need to breath truth like we breathe oxygen -- remembering WHY it is we breathe. Anything else is Zyklon B.

More than half a century has passed since the Nazi disaster, and the conduct of all those who let it go on without saying boo; without daring to complain. We know the terrible results of the German police state. We have all heard about it. We have all seen the movie. We were there in the shower room with the people in Schindler's List. None of us can claim ignorance. Some of us know the remnants of the Nazi scientific and military establishment found homes in US corporations such as Dow Chemical, and the CIA.

I've been hearing from a lot of readers this week about this series, and one letter came from a writer I respect greatly who was concerned that I was not addressing the issue of the "Nazi within." I would like to address that one now. Yes, I agree we all have an inner Nazi. But contrary to most images of this being, the domestic version of someone who might kick an innocent camp inmate in the ribs, to death, for no reason other than as a rite of passage (true fact, learned at Buchenwald), I have a different image of the Inner Nazi.

This is the well-meaning person within us who is willing to believe anything. It's the person who is unwilling to challenge the lies we are told, unwilling to even see them, unwilling to admit we are wrong or were fooled. It is the person within us for whom the truth is inconvenient. The Inner Nazi watches a lot of TV these days and feels well informed, but doesn't get angry. Hey, it's all good, things will work out.

I have read many spiritual philosophies, studied and become acquainted with many therapy philosophies, and read Brad Blanton's book Radical Honesty, which I bought and checked out because I know him. He's someone who understands lying because he's studied liars so much (and he works near Washington DC). He is very eloquent and yet there is one thing I have not been able to get him to discuss.

With the notable exception of A Course in Miracles, not in any of these books, or presented, published teachings, have I come across the idea that there's something seriously wrong if we consistently believe what is not true. This is the one rather unusual thing that A Course in Miracles states explicitly: That we believe lies, and this is the cause of all our suffering. But it's funny, I don't see that message going too far.

In the sanctity of our therapy room, not in print and not in a class, my own therapist Joe Trusso most definitely held the value that what was true was what mattered, in terms of what we accept and live for. In essence, that was the theme of our work. My impression of those years was that he was deeply aware of the sham our parents pulled on us, however "well intentioned," and how important it is to get past that veil. And this is directly related to the Big Lie, because the presumed, unquestioned infallibility of our parents is the first setup for the government doing no wrong, or being excused when it does.

Please be assured, I know how far people (Monsanto salesmen, and those individuals who produce cigarette ads, for instance) can go to foist their Big Lies on people; how smooth and seductive they are. How friendly. And I know how, if you were paying attention, that your common sense would vomit in their faces, on the spot. I know from my environmental coverage, where I came into contact with many, many contamination victims, nearly all of whom told me to fuck off -- and I did feel like throwing up. Has nobody mentioned this little notion out loud, in public political discourse? That if you believe lies, you've got a problem? And your problem becomes our problem?

If not, please, allow me to be the first to raise the point.

Leaving | Oct. 12, 2006

AUSCHWITZ was just part of my trip to Poland, a beautifully alive place. I think Krakow may have been the most pleasant, vital city I've ever visited in Europe. The great thing about it from my viewpoint is that you can basically talk to anyone; they are for the most part curious and friendly people.

Through much of western Europe and England I find that people look down at the ground when they walk, or they walk past you like a horse wearing blinders staring straight ahead. In Poland I saw a lot of eyes looking back at me.

What I'll remember from my trip to Auschwitz - Birkenau are the young people I met there. One thing everyone who gets to that horrendous place has in common is that they're willing to face the truth. Whether it's for curiosity or to observe the tragedy, the willingness is the same. Every day, thousands of people come there seeking the truth. It is like a temple to reality.

Two students I met there stand out in memory. One was a guy named Robert, who I met when I cozied up with the group from Norway and Sweden, and sat down on the lawn outside gas chamber/crematorium #2. Someone in the group asked about this in-ground, concrete pool of water that was standing next to the train tracks as you came into the camp.

Leonard (pictured earlier this week), who was giving the presentation, said, well, it's like this. The Nazis wanted to insure their facility, and the insurance company required them to have a little reservoir in case they needed to fight a fire.

Robert turned to me and said, "Isn't that sick? They took out an insurance policy on a death camp."

The irony was unbearable. We were sitting in front of a crematorium, where everyone wound up getting burned anyway.

"That's not Nazism," I said. "That's capitalism. But they're close cousins."

After the talk, we were milling around the memorial and I shared a little about Dick Cheney and Halliburton and its $400 million contract to build detention centers in the United States, none of which they had not heard of -- but I scribbled the references on the back of my business card, along with the word "Wikipedia." (The detention center bit I read an article about in Le New York Times, if you trust them.)

Then there was Amalia. She was part of the same group. I walked up to her and some of her friends who were standing around by the memorial, in front of the ruins of gas chamber/crematorium #3. Such a beautiful young woman with loops of long brown hair -- secretly, I swooned a little, and took a deep breath of her energy.

She was wearing a Star of David and a crucifix. Interesting image in that moment. She turned out to be Armenian, but was now living up north. I said, "Ah, the first Christian nation." Any Armenian will smile at that. Hardly anyone knows. Then I opened my mouth and said, "May I photograph that?"

"Sure," she nodded.

I took a few photos of her neckline, and thanked her. Later, we walked back toward the main gate, which was open and which we were free to walk through; and walking past old brick barracks, talked about what we experienced, and how we felt about it. That's the feeling I took from that place with me.

Auschwitz: Afterword by Judith Gayle | Oct. 13. 2006

NATONALISM, which is a form of tribalism, is a frightening business and one which we must grow out of if we are to become a peaceful global entity. Yes, we love our country, and we love our flag -- or maybe the vote is out on that ... maybe some of us in the US of A are mature enough to see that this nation is not always right, and as much as we love the flag we wince when we see it now, knowing what it represents.  Will that get us kicked out of the tribe?  Or worse -- shot at dawn?
There is a lie at the base of nationalism that is too often misused by the powerful -- that we're better than everyone else.  Everyone outside of our big national tent is just a "stranger," not to be trusted; in a nation formed by an amalgam of immigrants, that's not been an effortless sell ... but the spin on 9/11 swept us away.  We're us -- they're them.  Where it gets dicey is when there is perceived threat. It is then that we're called upon to sacrifice [rights, liberties, individualism, treasure, moral judgment, dissent] to the state in order to empower it against that which threatens it. The National Socialists used such mythology to drive their own to blindness, and ultimately, madness.  Interestingly, both Germany in the 30's and America in the last few years have entered into such a situation without an actual, a specific, enemy.
The mood of mainstream Germany had been ploughed by years of circumstance -- a growing decadence that alarmed the straight-laced, the loss of a world war, long periods of economic scarcity -- so that a heavy-handed maniac like Hitler could produce an instant harvest when he planted a few lies into that fertile national soil. The Big Lie was easy enough for a defeated and deflated public to buy ... we are superior and I will lead you to the greatness you deserve.

It should be noted that Hitler and his minions created an emergency, declared one, and swept aside the German constitution in order to deal with it.  It happened so quickly that most citizens weren't aware of the magnitude of it, or the danger. After that ... well ... history tells that tale.  So the Biggest Lie was that there was REASON for the rise of the Fatherland, other than cold, calculated ambition.

It's not difficult to find a parallel in the United States to this same lethal nationalism.  Leaving out the obvious -- that the far Right wants to distance from, if not destroy, everything that does not look and think exactly as do they -- in the early 90's, Newt Gingrich launched a war against the "obscene" [that being whatever he decided it was] and began a great harangue about the declining morals of our country that was echoed by the evangelicals in their uber-moralism.  In the same way that Hitler dressed up the pretty young frauleins like milkmaid's and had them volkstanz by the thousands to summon memories of homespun "values," Gingrich and his ilk [i.e., Robertson, Falwell, Dobson] set out to remake us into little prototypes of Norman Rockwell's America, praying devoutly over our Thanksgiving turkey and guarding the chastity of our children.
Our embarrassing war effort?  We took a great drubbing on that Viet Nam affair and averted our eyes in shame, reeling back to the old reliable Cold War to keep our military industrial complex spinning ... and when that came to an abrupt halt, we were suddenly without an enemy -- how would we show our military superiority without one?  How would we float our economic boat?  We needed a new enemy ... and fast.  
And what about that economy?  Well -- the Clinton years were flush, but they'd already showed us a dark underbelly of personal debt and desire for instant gratification.  Now we know it also gave us loosey-goosey accounting practices and a ruthless streak of get-rich-quick'ism.  And let's never forget that the American consciousness has been sold lies for generations in corporate advertising.  When I was a little kid, I remember Lucy lighting up on camera and telling me how much smoother and more delicious a [Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Camel ... who remembers!] was than any other brand -- and hey!  It was Lucy that said it, beloved redhead and television icon.  What?  We weren't going to believe Lucy?
We're sold a bill of goods from dawn til dusk in this nation, we're used to being lied to, and now we even accept that we'll be victimized by business. After 9/11, when those of us who remembered wars of the past expected to be asked to sacrifice for the national good, we were told to shop til we drop.  Consume, citizen!  Keep the corporate money going, Patriot!  Keep the lies and the commerce moving along.  We were told that the terrorists would win if we didn't go on with our daily lives ... but the terrorist within had already won; the emergency that was required for amping of militarism and conquest had already been established.  It was our job is continue to fund it.
Until recently, we considered the press a different entity than advertisement, but that's moot at this point ... news is held to a corporate standard, stockholders must be pleased and profit must be made.  News is sold to the American public to direct them toward compliance with the most profitable outcome.  Since Americans are a decent, if distractable, lot, and make decisions on what we understand to be true, truth is substituted with truthiness, the facts kept from us as corporate and political policy -- keep 'em shopping, keep 'em producing, keep 'em calm. You know -- a kind of Arbeit Macht Frei, but with an iPod and without the barbed wire.  That's old news in this nation, actually -- what Henry David Thoreau called the quiet desperation of the average man; but it's the improved, upbeat version of drudgery and servitude in our new century.
And that hook-up ... the quickly-fading hope for a better life than the last century, and the frantic race to achieve it ... is like a decades-long heroin drip, delivering us a kind of faux-freedom -- it leaves us disconnected from the earth that feeds us, distant from family ties that ground us, and hysterical lest something interfere with the privileges of our selected "lifestyle."  We scramble like rats in a maze to keep the drip coming ... and we'd fight to the death if somebody took it away. The Soma of Huxley's Brave New World is our rampant consumerism, and we're lost in its dreams.
We were ripe for some sharp little despot to come along and tell us we're not safe -- and we bought it hook, line and sinker, offered up our liberties to keep the rat race protected, the children chaste and the flag waving.  We have all the makings of serious fascism going on here, today -- nationalism, corporatism, religious fervor, and a kind of public apathy that defies description.  It's hard ... almost impossible ... to accept that we've made these same egregious mistakes that history has warned us of [we should have guessed when we heard the term Homeland] or that this kind of prevarication has found purchase in the American national soul.  But we did and it has ... and the fault lies in ourselves, not our stars.
The biggest lies of all are the ones we tell ourselves, the ones our ego's whisper to us in the night. They're not like us.  We're morally superior. God is on our side.  What we do, we do for the benefit of all.  What we do is necessary.  The government will keep us safe.  Winning is everything. And the worst of them ... They want to hurt us; we have to kill them.

The chatter of ages.  Big lies. The oldest lies, the one's that have delivered nations into obscurity for eons ... but not without first leveling them for their arrogance and aggression, leaving a legacy of repression and mass murder behind as their "comma" in the history books.
Freedom isn't free. It requires constant diligence. It requires us to want it badly enough to fight for it, to guard against it's erosion -- our failed delivery of "democracy" in Iraq should tell us that it can't be given, it must be earned. The Righty's will tell us the price of freedom is the sacrifice of our liberties in these troubled times, and the acceptance of the loss of our children deployed to kill those who are deemed enemies.  But freedom isn't about killing others to keep it ... it's about policing the mythologies and illusions about who we are as a nation and entering the uncomfortable space of taking responsibility for every policy and action. Freedom isn't a condition of the body, it's a state of the soul.
Hitler's Germany compromised it's soul to care for the "rise" of it's body ... and in so doing it stacked the actual bodies of the poor, frightened "enemy" ... innocents all, including children and old people ... like cord wood for the fire.  America has compromised her soul by allowing herself to be led by cowards and liars ... how different is Bush's policy of preemption than Hitler's Blitzkrieg?   How different are Hitler's earliest concentration camps [designed to incarcerate political prisoners ... called enemies of the regime ... and security risks] than Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and the thousands of nameless, faceless political prisoners [called enemy combatants] they hold?  How different is Hitler's Aryan Brotherhood fantasies than George Bush's Onward Christian Soldiers jihad?  Aren't the mythologies they sell us -- return to a grandeur we never actually embodied and the notion that the end justifies the means -- chillingly similar?
Lies.  Big ones. They ripped the world apart in the last century, within our memory -- they're being used to do it again.  I guess the only question left to us is ... what's freedom worth to us?  And what are we going to do about it?