Tuesday, March 20, 2007

An imaginary exercise

* I updated this a little bit and added three sentences.

In these unusual times we live in, I hope you'll join me in what might be a fruitful imaginary exercise for a moment, the better to examine the lessons of the past. When people think about the Holocaust, they often marvel that six million modern, savvy, well-off people could be led to their deaths so easily. Scholars examine this, and they determine that one of the reasons that so many went to their deaths so passively is because a lot of the Jews were cooperating more closely with the Nazis, as basically subordinates in dealing with the Jews. This helped the Nazis conduct the final solution more efficiently, because they dealt with their victims through intermediaries who knew about them, and the faith the Jews had in their leaders led them to trust the voices who were telling them that their problems might be solved if they'd only abandon all their property, go live in a camp for a while, or give up their business to an ethnic German or wear a yellow star on their clothes, or whatever other surrender of rights was called for. That these leaders got some of the Jews to participate gave an air of legitimacy to following the orders, and the others Jews who would not have followed in the absence of seeing some other people follow were won over. Then, a bandwagon effect was created, and even people who wouldn't think too much about who to trust or who remained very skeptical of the Nazis' orders went along. So all these people went unknowingly to their deaths until it was too late, and despite hearing rumors that the camps Jews were being sent off to were actually death camps. If we live in interesting times today, it may be worthwhile to consider what is the equivalent in America of getting some of the people to cooperate to make oppression of the rest possible.

So people can screw you over the best by getting help from some of your own. Now begins the exercise: let's say you're a liberal. Now, people come to see you who you suspect of being Republicans, or think are totally nonpartisan, or you suspect of being slightly conservative. They decide to tell you some fantastic things, and they ask you to help them in their project. The question is, are they really complete ideologues, like the George Bush White House, complete Rush Limbaugh nuts who are only working for partisan advancement, or are they regular people who have legitimate goals? They talk very nicely to you, without any open contempt. They tell you that they need your help in dealing with a threat posed by someone who, in the absence of what they're telling you, seems to be a very nice person. Why shouldn't you think that these people who have come to talk to you are totally legit?

The answer comes from something we learned in law school: giving 'em the headlines. If you want to be persuasive, and get people on your side, you want to be the first one that tells them everything. You don't want the other side to tell them anything having to do with your problem you haven't told them first. At best, you don't want the other side to get to tell his side of the story at all. This is why the Rush Limbaugh types, the Republicans might actually try to get you on their side first, and not be openly disdainful of you as a liberal, even if what they're trying to get you to do is participate in something totally wrong- like the political firings of the prosecutors, and all the other scandals and abuses of power Republicans created- if they can get you to believe it. This is why it's preferable, at the best for them, to effectively make unscrupulous conservative efforts look like bona fide legitimate causes with true bipartisan appeal.

This also provides great cover- if it ever gets out into the open what they're doing, they'll be able to say that they were working on what they were doing with you, the biggest liberal in the world, and whoever else, and you all thought it was ok. Also, you're not really necessarily going to know what's going on. If the Republicans are coming to you, the biggest liberal of all, and asking you to help them, if you're not too penetrating and skeptical about people, you'll take it for granted that they're not doing something abusive, partisan, and wrong, and you'll really hesitate, maybe even when you think you're not hesitating, to really perceive what's going on and what it is you're being asked to help with.