Number Two’s home, the Green Dome. A servant serves tea.
Number Two: “I can never remember. One lump or two?”
The Prisoner: “It’s in the file.”
Number Two: “Yes, a matter of fact, yes. But it would save time if you just answered.”
The Prisoner: “Why, are you running out of time?”
Number Two: “Tisk tisk.” He looks in the file. “Does not take sugar.” He chuckles. “Frightened of putting on weight?”
The Prisoner: “No. Nor of being reduced.”
Number Two: “Oh, that’s excellent! I am glad you’re here. You really are a model.”
The Prisoner: “But I don’t run on clockwork.”
Number Two: “You will, my dear chap. You will.”
The Prisoner: “You think so?”
Number Two: “Do you still think you can escape, number six?”
The Prisoner: “Oh, I’m going to do better than that. I’m going to escape and come back.”
Number Two, confused: “Come back?”
The Prisoner: “Escape, come back, wipe this place off the face of the earth, obliterate it. And you with it.”
Number Two, angrily: “Ahh!” He picks up a recording device. “Sub-section six, paragraph four. Add: On the other hand, persecution complex amounting to mania. Paranoid delusions of grandeur.”
The Prisoner demonstratively picks up three sugar lumps and drops them, one by one, in his tea.
Number Two: “Don’t worry, number six. You’ll be cured. I’ll see to it. No more nightmares. If you have so much as a bad dream you will come, whimpering, to tell it to me. Whimpering! Watch. Just watch.”
Later, down at the beach.
Number Two: “There are some people who talk and some people who don’t. Which means there are some people who leave this place and some who do not leave. You are obviously staying.”
The Prisoner: “Has it ever occurred to you that you are just as much a prisoner as I am?”
Number Two: “Oh, my dear chap, of course. I know too much. We are both lifers. But I am definitely an optimist. That’s why it doesn’t matter who Number One is. It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village.”
The Prisoner: “It’s run by one side or the other.”
Number Two: “Oh certainly. But both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created, an international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize they are looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future.”
The Prisoner: “The whole earth, as the Village?”
Number Two: “That is my hope. What’s yours?”
The Prisoner: “I’d like to be the first man on the moon.”
Dialogue from the episode “Chimes” of the classic dystopian spy-show The Prisoner, perhaps the pieces of dialogue that best embodies the entire series.
May 18, 2010
On that point of “intentionally embracing signs of nazism in the hopes that the public at large, knowing about Godwin’s Law, will pretend it isn’t there because by accurately describing their extreme, radical behavior, you are saying extreme and radical things and therefore no-one will take you seriously,” we happen to have an extremely illustrative example right now. Now, I won’t say this was a calculated strategy on his part because I don’t know, but it’s too perfect not to point out. A Republican challenger to a Democratic congressman recently said that it was now ‘hunting season’ on Democrats, declaring:
“If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to “thin” the herd.”
So, here we have a fairly blatant call for the violent suppression of political enemies. Nazi much? So who is this guy, you ask? His name is Goehring. Brad Goehring. Yes, a guy named Goehring used violent eliminationist rhetoric in a political campaign. So what does he do when liberals call him on it? He invokes Godwin’s Law, declaring that he is being unfairly victimized because of his German heritage, and expressing outrage, outrage that anyone would dare be so crass as to point out that he told his supporters that it’s time to murder his political opponents (“This is one more example of radical progressives trying to silence dissent through intimidation”). And compared his political opponents to animals (dare we say “subhuman”?) while he was at it. I mean really, what can you say?
May 18, 2010
«Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!»
-Art Spiegelman, Maus.
Let’s talk about nazis.
The other week I sat up all night getting increasingly drunk while watching Downfall, the German 2004-film about the final days of Hitler. The movie is the source of the «Hitler finds out» meme, in which new subtitles are added to Hitler’s angry rant about how all his advisors and servants have betrayed him. That meme was recently in the news as the film production company has gotten YouTube to remove all the videos from the site. Also, the other week was one of many days marking particular events of World War 2 across the world. All this put together has inspired me to try to write down what I call my nazi rant. Or nazi lecture.
Whenever the subject of nazis or Germany comes up in conversation when my mother is around she will relate how she, a baby boomer, has always been prejudiced against Germans, and how when me and my siblings were in school she did not want any of us to learn German. I believe this prejudice of hers was finally quashed some years back when she became friends with a German neighbour. Anyway, whenever this comes up I try to explain to her exactly why it is wrong to dislike Germany on account of nazism.
To begin with, we can take a look at this old NYT article about the meme:
«When “Downfall” first appeared in German and Austrian theaters, critics charged that it humanized Hitler beyond recognition and sapped the historical horror by turning Hitler and his henchmen into soap-operatic archetypes, transforming their undoing into an ordinary human tragedy.»
Yes, it does that. In fact one of the main goals of the film, as I understood it, was to present Hitler not as some alien monster from outer space who simply is-evil-and-that’s-the-end-of-it, but as a human being. Now, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Hitler was human, and so were all his henchmen and the whole of the German populace. «Soap-operatic» is actually a very apt term to describe the people around Hitler in Downfall. All the human vices are on display, soap-opera style. Squabblers and schemers with varying degrees of loyalty to the Cause and varying degrees of connection to reality, from the true believers and unthinking devotees to the pragmatists, the realists, and even at times the downright sympathetic. (The actor who plays) Albert Speer in particular stood out as an example to me. Even though he only appears for two or three scenes, he manages to speak wonders: merely by acting very stiff and formal he seems so incredibly sane compared to the other non-military officers around Hitler, who all seem utterly and completely delusional, firmly believing that absolute victory is hours away while the Russians lay waste to Berlin. The military officers, meanwhile, all know the real state of the battle and know that the German army is on its last legs, and that the fall of Berlin is inevitable within a few hours. Yet even then: when they have the choice between saving civilian lives from needless slaughter, and obeying the Fuhrer’s obviously delusional orders, they obey.
I have long been skeptical about Godwin’s Law, that hallmark of Internet discussion, which states that «As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,» and as commonly used also means that the person who made the comparison has immediately lost the argument. The reason I am skeptical is firstly because there are in fact actual nazis in the world, and one should be allowed to point out this fact. Secondly, and while this may sound bizarre I have come to believe it is possible, it opens up for a kind of refuge in extremism – certain actors may decide to intentionally embrace signs of nazism in the hopes that the public at large, knowing about Godwin’s Law, will pretend it isn’t there because by accurately describing their extreme, radical behavior, you are saying extreme and radical things and therefore no-one will take you seriously.
(On that note: some audiences to the 2005 film «Good Night and Good Luck,» about newsman Edward Murrow’s stand against Senator Joe McCarthy, said that the actor playing McCarthy was unrealistically over the top, which presumably made him less believable. That was in fact no actor at all, but real footage of the real Joe McCarthy.)
In one of his novels, the Norwegian author Jens Bjorneboe had an African man tell the European narrator something like this: «I can’t for the life of me understand why you white people are so obsessed with your Hitler. There was nothing new about what Hitler did. There were a few technical innovations here and there but really, Hitler was only doing to other Europeans what Europeans have always done to outsiders.» This is from memory, and is not by any stretch of the imagination a direct quote. I do not have the opportunity to go hunting for the exact word at this time.
I suspect that a lot of people subconsciously think of Hitler as being this almost supernatural force of pure evil, utterly removed from the human condition the rest of us live in. That the scariness of Hitler is the that he is the other, the alien monster-scariness. But this kind of thinking may then lead you to infer that the German people, who put this monster in charge of their government, must have at least a touch of that alien monster in them as well, that they are somehow more disposed to atrocity than other nations. Even if we don’t consciously think that way we human beings have always blamed people for the crimes of their ancestors. Right here in this country the children of native women and German soldiers were brutally discriminated against for many years after the war. And I don’t know the name of it but some time last year or thereabouts an acquaintance showed me a standup comedian discussing this plight of the German people, that no matter what they say everyone around them is thinking «HITLER HITLER HITLER HITLER HITLER HITLER HITLER.» The reality, however, is that there were nazis and nazi-sympathisers in every country, including mine and including yours. And there still are. But this kind of thinking, that nazism is something other, something alien and foreign, blinds us to the homegrown extremists of today.
The scary thing about the nazis isn’t that they were inhuman monsters. It is exactly the opposite, that they were human beings just like you and me. You and me and everyone else are all just as capable of falling into nazi-style extremism.
This is what the Stanford prison study and the Milgram experiment taught us. Joseph Conrad knew it over sixty years earlier, when he wrote Heart of Darkness: power corrupts, and humans are weak. Give us power over our fellows, and we become willing to inflict horrible abuse upon them, when previously we would never have believed ourselves capable of it. Put an authority figure next next to us, and we will obey him even when he tells us to violate our consciences. Therein lies the roots of authoritarianism, whether you call it nazism, fascism or communism. It is our human frailty, and it is not limited in time or place.
The Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison study are the two seminal psychological investigations about the nature of authority and its effects on mankind. If you’re reading this you are more than likely already familiar with them, but I will summarize them here just in case.
In 1961 Professor Milgram at Yale University conducted an experiment to try to explain why the German people went along with the holocaust. The experiment went like this: the test subject (the ‘teacher’) was told that he was taking part in a test to see how people learn: the teacher would ask a question to another man (the ‘learner’), and if the learner got the answer wrong, the teacher was to press a button to give the learner an electric shock. The shocks were made more powerful each time the learner got a question wrong, until he was howling in pain and begging to be released.
In reality there were no shocks and the learner was an actor, only pretending to be in pain. The real experiment was to see if this ordinary guy would be willing to give powerful electric shocks to his fellow man just because a scientist was standing next to him telling him to do so. The results were stark: over 60% of the test subjects continued administering shocks until the actor feigned death or unconsciousness from the shocks.
Recently the experiment was reproduced in France as a false reality/gameshow entitled «the game of death,» wherein the test subject had the added pressure of a cheering studio audience loudly encouraging him to shock the learner. Needless to say the results were much the same. The studio audience, incidentally, also did not know it was an experiment, and while they were of course directed to cheer enthusiastically, as studio audiences always are, it is interesting that they, like the test subject, were willing to obey.
The Stanford prison study took place ten years after Milgram, in 1971. Volunteers were designated as inmates or guards in a simulated prison environment. The setting was designed to induce disorientation and depersonalization. Almost immediately the guards, otherwise normal and mentally stable people, lost themselves in the role and began abusing their power, growing steadily more cruel and sadistic over time. The prisoners began to suffer emotional and mental problems, even though they knew it was all a simulation. The study was originally planned to last two weeks, but after six days it was abruptly called off when the leader and designer of the study realized how far it had gone. Ordinary people, upon merely being told to pretend that they have power over their fellow man, immediately began to abuse that power in real, non-pretend ways.
But my point here isn’t to say that this or that politician that I dislike is a nazi. My point is not to accuse others. It is to warn people. It is to warn us, the first person plural. We can become nazis. And each of us is only in a position to try to stop it from happening to him or herself. We must consider how much of what we read and see on television everyday is propaganda, how much it shapes our entire worldview, what are the things we are told that we just accept that we just accept without thinking. We must observe our own movements, our own influences, critically. If we simply accept things, well, the things we are told to accept may not be «the jews and gypsies and homos are human vermin that deserve to die,» but it could just as well be. Once you stop thinking, it becomes harder to tell the difference between one unexamined belief and another.
Critical thinking is the only thing that saves us, that raises us higher. The Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison study and yes Heart of Darkness serve us as warnings. I hope that if I am ever put in that position I will see the similarities, and realize what I am doing. If nothing else, the next time they re-enact Milgram the numbers will be slightly less misanthropic.