I was browsing wikipedia the other day (several years ago) and happened across this picture. I don’t remember exactly how I got there, really. These things happen. Immediately, I fell in love with it.
On one level it’s not hard to see why. It’s 50-freaking-stories-tall, wields a tommy gun, and has a bomb for a foot. Suck on that Optimus Prime.
On another, on the level of my political sensibilities, it may not. I’m not a fascist, leftist radical, or even anti-American. I rather like us. But, I like the picture and what it has to say about us as a nation, at that time certainly, but very much now as well.
It is racist, Nazi (well, basically Nazi) propaganda, and like all good propaganda, tells half of one truth and none of another. In this example, the United States is destroying the good Ol’ World by bombing the crap out of it. Oh it’s true, but the other half is that Germany conquered and looted it first (and declared war on America). That completes the picture. And of course the poster says nothing at all about the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews, Romani, and other undesirables. I think it neglects that state’s activities altogether.
By the standard of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it does not do well, but is it a lie, except in the literal sense that America did not possess a 50-story-tall monster? No. And that’s why I’m so fond of it.
The Second World War is widely seen as “the last good war” for a lot of Americans, probably as much for the totality of our victory than the moral clarity of the situation. But what moral clarity there was! Japan bombed us, Germany immediately declared war on us, and from Abyssinia to Nanjing to Auschwitz, the Axis powers proved themselves very bad folk. The Allies were clearly the good guys. Well, except for the Soviet Union. But they were on good behavior during the war. Except for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Russo-Finnish War, mass rape of German women… Anyway, the French and the British didn’t do any of that stuff. Besides, they were democracies. Okay, yeah, they were also empires with vast colonial holdings that exploited millions kept in grinding poverty to maintain the homeland’s standard of living. But those citizens at home could vote.
America, though, didn’t have an empire then, or at least not a substantial one, anyhow. There weren’t many Hawaiians still around, and the Philippines had settled down. And hey, the vast majority of the population lived in the continental U.S., and we’d achieved universal suffrage there. Even in the South, black people could vote, they just didn’t for some reason. Or hold any elected offices. Or go to the same schools. Or drink from the same water fountains.
I don’t need to mention Dresden or Hiroshima or internment camps; those get thrown around enough, and I’ve made my point, I think. It is the same point I take from, although not intended by, that poster.
As George Orwell (I like George Orwell) said way back in 1940 and of England, “If I side with Britain and France, it is because I would sooner side with the older imperialisms — decadent, as Hitler rightly calls them — than with the new ones which are completely sure of themselves and therefore completely merciless. Only, for Heaven’s sake let us not pretend we go into this war with clean hands. It is only while we cling to the consciousness that our hands are not clean that we retain the right to defend ourselves.”
The United States then was the Klan and the gangster, the jitterbug and the banker, and the bomber and the war profiteer, and the vain woman and lecherous man, and the Zionist Jew, too. A melting pot of crime and corruption and “mongrelization” and ulterior motives. The Nazis were right to poke fun at calling a war bomber, a machine designed to rain down indiscriminate destruction on what’s below it, “a Liberator.” Sure. But that’s not all we are. We are many good and laudatory things we like to remember, and so they’re easier to remember. It’s just dangerous to forget and deceive the self. Better, better, a thousand times better to deceive yourself and believe you’re something better than what you are than to cease striving and revel in your failure, but better than both beyond compare to be honest and continue striving.
So it’s not as though the Holocaust and Jim Crow have moral equivalence or are so similar we can’t judge Germany poorly for their actions. Obviously, we must. But there is no one good, no not one, and it’s just as important to remember the concentration camps we liberated as we do the ships full of Jews fleeing the Nazis we turned away. Not because that makes us just the same as the Nazis but because by recognizing we have fallen short, rather than staying content as we are, we can be sure to get closer to the ideal.