Friday, June 17, 2005

DAVID GELERNTER'S op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he attacks schools for teaching a false version of American history is itself a demonstration of how shallow the right's understandings of our collective past often is.

The focus of Gelernter's rant is Sen. Dick Durban's comparison of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo to the atrocities committed under Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

Ignorance of history destroys our judgment. Consider Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who just compared the Guantanamo Bay detention center to Stalin's gulag and to the death camps of Hitler and Pol Pot — an astonishing, obscene piece of ignorance. Between 15 million and 30 million people died from 1918 through 1956 in the prisons and labor camps of the Soviet gulag. Historian Robert Conquest gives some facts. A prisoner at the Kholodnaya Gora prison had to stuff his ears with bread before sleeping on account of the shrieks of women being interrogated. At the Kolyma in Siberia, inmates labored through 12-hour days in cheap canvas shoes, on almost no food, in temperatures that could go to minus-58. At one camp, 1,300 of 3,000 inmates died in one year.

"Gulag" must not go the way of "Nazi" and become virtually meaningless. Europeans love calling Israelis "Nazis" — a transparent attempt to slough off their guilt like rattlesnakes shedding skin. ("See, the Jews are as bad as we were!") I'd like to ban the word "Nazi" except when applied to … Nazis. Lawbreakers would be ordered to learn what Nazi actually means.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gelernter's point that the word "Nazi" should only be used to describe Nazis. But Gelernter seems to have forgotten that Republicans and right-wingers have used that word indiscriminately: to describe Saddam Hussein, to describe feminists (remember feminazis?), to describe Hillary Clinton, to describe, really, anyone they disagree with. If Dick Durbin had left the word "Nazis" out of his comparison, the outrages against human rights to which he referred would still be just as real and just as heinous.

And although, as Barbara O'Brien points out, Sen. Durbin was not talking about numbers, if Gelernter wants to take the position that torture and atrocities are not real unless millions of people die as a result, then U.S. history can certainly give Stalin or Hitler a run for their money on those grounds, too. Historians of slavery estimate that between 10 million and 50 million Africans died as a result of slavery: This figure takes into account only deaths in the first generation of slaves taken from Africa; it includes those who died in holding pens waiting to be shipped, those who died on the transatlantic crossing, and those who died in the first year of slavery, which was euphemistically called "the seasoning year." The death toll for black people born into slavery who died as a result of the condition of slavery, and the many horrors that entailed, over a period of 200 years, also certainly numbers in the millions.

And I can assure Gelernter that the shrieks of slaves being whipped for the most trivial of offenses (like openly crying at another slave's whipping*); the screams of slaves having salt in generous amounts rubbed into their bleeding wounds right after being whipped;** the cries of the descendants of slaves being burned alive for supposedly raping white women; and the wails and sobs of wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters, seeing the men they loved hanging dead from tree branches, reached the ears of many white people. Maybe some of them even tried to stuff their ears with bread.

The fact that slavery ended in 1865 does not change the fact that this happened in our country, and that it was an American holocaust. In 1918 -- the start of the 38-year period in which 15 million to 30 million people died in the Soviet gulag -- thousands of black Americans who had been born into slavery were still alive. In the two-year period from 1936 to 1938, more than 2,300 of these former slaves were interviewed by the WPA, and their accounts of slavery preserved in writing.

David Gelernter writes that many younger Americans aren't familiar with John F. Kennedy's promise that "America would 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and the success of liberty.' " He writes further that "President Bush remembers that speech, and it's lucky he does."

The truth is that Pres. Bush does not act as if he remembers Kennedy's words at all. It's not "ensuring the survival and the success of liberty" to invade a country that has not threatened American liberty and poses no threat to American survival. It's not "ensuring the survival and the success of liberty" to fix intelligence around a pre-existing plan to invade a country before such a plan has been authorized by Congress or the United Nations (of which the U.S. is a member). It's not "ensuring the survival and the success of liberty" to tell Congress and the American people that there are no firm plans to invade a country, that all options are on the table, and that attempts are being made to resolve the conflict by peaceful means, when in reality the plan is ironclad and no action taken by the other side will prevent it. It's not "ensuring the survival and the success of liberty" when Pres. Bush says he will veto the re-authorization of the Patriot Act unless it continues to allow the Justice Department and the FBI to surveil Americans' reading choices without authorization by a judge or a grand jury.

And it is not "ensuring the survival and the success of liberty" to imprison thousands of people indefinitely, often in secret, with no charges, no evidence, no access to an attorney, and no trial; and to interrogate them in the manner described by an FBI agent:

"On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold....On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor."

I challenge David Gelernter and his right-wing admirers to answer Dick Durbin's question: If this description was read to you, and you did not know where it had happened, would you think it had happened in the Soviet gulag, or under Hitler or Pol Pot? Would you think it was something that couldn't and shouldn't happen at the hands of Americans?

* From Julius Lester's book, To Be A Slave.
** From Born a Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina, by Norrance T. Jones.

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