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Public Theology: Introducing the Concept of ‘Death Camp Thinking’
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Introducing the Concept of ‘Death Camp Thinking’
When otherwise good people promote policies destroying the lives of millions, such as libertarian thinking today, it should be called what it is.

By Ed Knudson

The political cartoon is by George Hall.

A few months before the 2012 presidential election a long-time friend of mine sent me an email announcing his plans to vote for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. His primary argument was that Romney would “reset” the economy leading to growth and prosperity. Since my friend was inviting conversation, I wrote back asking what effect Romney’s election would have on various categories of persons, poor people, working class folks, black minorities in cities, women, gay and lesbian persons. My thought was that my friend, a very compassionate person, would carefully consider this and we could have a good conversation. I was wrong.

He wrote back to me using all the standard libertarian code words attacking social welfare and the so-called “welfare state” calling it a “nanny state” and claiming that people receiving government assistance should be expected to exercise “personal responsibility” for themselves. I was rather shocked by this. He and I have had many long conversations during many visits with one another over the years. He had never used this type of language before.

I sent him some articles from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the most respected independent resource for analysis of the impacts of public policy on people of limited means, low- and moderate-income Americans. One of these demonstrated what the drastic cuts in the Paul Ryan budget plan would mean for millions and millions of poor people, families with disabled children, the elderly in nursing homes, college students and all sorts of other folks. Another had to do with health care and what the Affordable Health Care Plan (Obamacare) would mean for people without health insurance. This literally has to do with who will live and who will die, who in our country should have access to life-saving health care. Mitt Romney was running on an agenda opposed to Obamacare. He chose as a running mate the same Paul Ryan who was promoting a federal budget that would devastate social welfare programs. Could my friend really vote for someone promoting such policies?

As we exchanged emails I found myself using a phrase to describe the perspective exhibited by my friend, whom I now need to describe as my “corporate friend.” I found myself saying he was engaging in “death camp thinking.” He was thinking in ways that would lead to suffering and death of vast numbers of people and he was justifying it by claiming that they didn’t deserve what they were receiving from government. In fact, he said that these government programs were bad for their recipients, leading them to rely on government rather than themselves. He was ready to let millions of people suffer and die.

This was amazing to me. His corporate, libertarian ideology had become so strong and dominant in his mind that he could not or would not even allow himself to see the devastating results of this type of thinking in terms of actual human lives.

Now, as I have said, this corporate friend of mine is a very good person whom I have respected a great deal. That’s what was shocking to me. In my own intellectual life over many years now I have had some focus on the holocaust in Nazi Germany. Since I am a Lutheran pastor I have especially been concerned to determine what it was in Lutheran theology and ethics that led Lutherans not being able to mount a serious challenge against what Hitler was doing. Germany is the home of the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century and its entire culture is influenced by Martin Luther. One way to phrase the issue is to ask “how could good people allow the holocaust to happen?”

What came to my mind is that we have very large numbers of good people in this country now who are voting for politicians who promise to destroy the social safety net, who, though they don’t always admit it, hate Social Security and Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, who are opposed to government in general, who even dislike the federal postal system and the public school system. This political ideology goes under the name of “conservative” but it is anything but conservative, it is a wholesale destruction of the assumptions and policies under which politics has been operating since the second world war. I don’t think these good people actually know what they are doing. They have been captured by an ideology.

An ideology is a set of ideas. Ideas are the way we “see” the world, how we actually perceive what is happening around us. Ideas are like windows of the mind; we can only see out of the windows of our mind what those windows allow us to see. My corporate friend, though he is a good person, can only see what is out there in the world through the windows of his libertarian ideology. I was surprised how absolute his ideas had become in our discussions about his plans to vote for Mitt Romney. He was actually trained in theology, spent several years as a Lutheran pastor, but most of his career was spent in the corporate world . He has internalized the ways of thinking of that corporate world which these days seems to be so strongly influenced by libertarianism. His most important reference group is other corporate executives. (A “reference group” is those people a person considers most important to them, with whom they seek to agree.) Different groups have different ways of thinking; it is not just a matter of what an “individual” thinks. Individuals think and speak in ways they believe is acceptable to people in the groups in which they desire to be accepted. So when I speak of “death camp thinking” I do consider it a way of “thinking,” an ideology or set of ideas by which people “see” the world around them. That’s why different groups/individuals “see” the world in different ways, they “see” actually different realities. That’s why politics has become so very contentious today. The different political groups and associations literally see different realities.

Interpretations of the holocaust are themselves greatly contested today. But let me just say that I do not believe the large mass of the German people actually could “see” the full reality of the holocaust. Hitler’s officials made every effort to keep secret the fact of what was happening in the death camps. Yes, large numbers of people directly participated in the killings. They later justified their involvement by saying they were just following orders. And people living around the camps must have known what was happening in them.

But the factor I want to lift up here as critically important is that the Jews had been blamed for the problems of Germany as a country; the Jews were responsible for a terrible economy; the Jews were described in horrible terms some even taken from offensive statements by Martin Luther for which Lutherans in this country have officially apologized. According to this way of viewing reality, the Jews did not deserve to participate in the life of the community. Hitler’s rhetoric and practice focused on rounding up Jews and excluding them from society.

The mass of the people went along with this thinking even if they did not comprehend fully what it meant, even if they did not completely realize what was happening when efficient death-causing technologies were being used to kill millions of people systematically through a modern-type bureaucracy. But the people did accept, I believe, the idea that the Jews were to blame for their own problems.

And this idea is at the heart of libertarian thinking in this country today. It is called “blame the victim” by some observers. Poor people have only themselves to blame for their problems, government should not aid them. Sick people do not deserve access to modern health care technology if they can’t afford it or haven’t been able to purchase health insurance. Let them die. In the Southern states of the country there has been for long centuries rejection of the idea of providing social, educational, or economic services through government for fear that such services might aid black people who do not deserve them. It is Southern politicians who primarily lead the Republican Party these days; it is Southern cultural and religious attitudes that especially underlie the idea of blame the victim. The libertarian ideology simply provides a quasi-intellectual justification for a long held Southern cultural attitude.

It is this ideology which now pervades the corporate world from which my friend seeks to be accepted. It is all right to allow millions of people to suffer and die in this country by taking away the programs that make their life possible; they don’t deserve them. In fact, it is such people that are damaging to society, we should get rid of them. This is the central factor of death camp thinking.

If it is difficult to believe that large numbers of people think this way today consider what happened at one of the last debates in the Republican contest for President in 2012. On the question of health care, the moderator asked one candidate whether he would allow a person without health insurance to die. Before the answer could be given the crowd in Texas cheered this idea, let them die. It is not unlike the crowd in Jerusalem shouting “crucify him”. The poor and the sick without health insurance have become scapegoats upon which to pile up the sins of the world, the sins of that very corporate world which is failing to do what is good and necessary for the lives of the American people. This is the ideology that is promoted in the many, many think tanks so well funded by corporate money, a libertarian ideology blind to social facts and opposed to the social teachings of most of Christian faith.

If we were to talk personally with most of those folks in Texas cheering to let people die we would no doubt find most of them to be what we would call “good people” but these good people are promoting policy ideas which I am calling “death camp thinking.” I believe that they “know not what they are doing” because they are not actually doing the hard analysis necessary to engage in responsible policy thinking. They are not taking into account the consequences of their thinking. Their minds are captured by an ideology that does not let them see the realities of suffering and death that would occur if what they want actually became the policies of the government.

Some of them may object that they do not intend for the poor to suffer. Their idea is that churches and private institutions should do what government is now doing in social welfare but funded by private donations from the wealthy or those who can afford it. Many pastors of the religious right dream of creating social welfare empires. But these proposals are completely unrealistic. Recently a committee of the House of Representatives wanted to make a large cut to the food stamp program and proposed that the difference could be made up by churches who would aid the hungry. But the amount of the food stamp cut would require funds of over fifty thousand dollars from every church in the country to make up the difference, a totally unrealistic expectation. Yet this is what these leaders are doing again and again, ideology trumping facts. Again, they “know not what they do” when they are willing to crucify the poor. They have no idea of the actual scale of federal programs in a large country like the United States.

It is not a matter of good intentions. Many people with good intentions do terrible things. Ethics in public policy is a matter not only of good intentions but willingness to calculate realistic consequences. Withholding health care will cause immense suffering and death; it is just a fact. No ideology should be allowed to obfuscate that fact. Yet the Republican Party these days seems nearly entirely captured by a very nasty libertarian ideology.

The nastiness and plain cruelty of this ideology is not surprising given its intellectual origins in the terribly flawed philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose books Paul Ryan, again the vice-presidential candidate of the Republican Party in the election of 2012, encourages his staff to read. These books portray the poor as the scum of the earth. This is also the way the poor are spoken of by the many libertarian talk show hosts in the conservative radio networks. It is very easy to be a libertarian talk show host, all you have to do is attack the government again and again. You don’t have to be responsible for the actual consequences of what you are saying. You just speak in such a way as to encourage the prejudices of large audiences. And this message, “kill the poor,” has been repeated now daily again and again since changes in communication policies allowed the growth of conservative radio. Even many regular folks, ordinary Americans, listening to this day after day are now willing to join the crowd in yelling “kill the poor.”

That is why conservative politicians right now are not interested in any policy bargains which make sense for the country. What they want is to do that which actually punishes the poor and anyone who receives any federal help of any kind. Cut food stamps, make people hungry, that will teach them.

Even though I sent my corporate friend papers doing a careful analysis of the effects of the Ryan budget, for example, he rejected this analysis. He believes people on welfare or food stamps are dependent on the “nanny state” and it would be best for them to be forced to take care of themselves, with no understanding of what it means to live today in a very complex and urban society. He is a good person who is also promoting nasty and even cruel public policy because his mind has been captured by what I am here calling “death camp thinking” of libertarian philosophy.

This philosophy serves corporate interests. And the degree to which it dominates corporate thinking has been revealed in Florida when Mitt Romney spoke his true attitudes at a fund raising dinner where he made the famous “47 percent” comment. Forty seven percent of the American people, he said, would not vote for him because they are reliant upon government programs, so he does not have to be concerned about them.

Now, just think about this. If you want to know how the wealthy, or corporate leaders, think, you might do a poll asking them questions. But you would not get the whole truth. If you want to know the truth about the corporate mentality you could attend a fund-raising dinner of a presidential candidate seeking contributions. That candidate would speak in ways he hopes will resonate with his listeners, other wealthy persons. He wants to speak in a way that they will agree with him and even reward him with their money gifts. What Romney said at that dinner reveals not only his own thoughts but the thinking of the corporate leaders listening to him. And what Romney said may have been the turning point of the election; the public learned how wealthy people think and didn’t like it.

Now let us grant that Romney is a good person, and even a very smart person. And the people listening to him paid $50,000 to eat with him and listen to him. These are probably very smart people too, they have risen to high leadership positions in corporate America. But these smart people when they get together agree that forty seven percent of the American people do not want to take care of themselves and want to rely on government programs, they want to just take from the rich through taxes and do not exercise personal responsibility.

These very smart people do not realize that the comment is simply, patently, untrue, not even close to the facts. People working for the government are not all Democrats and not all wards of the state, they are people doing important public work, such as protecting the country through military service. People on Social Security are not all Democrats, they are mostly Republican one could surmise from the numbers of older persons involved in the Tea Party movement, for example. And older folks on Social Security are not all deadbeats but responsible adults active in many ways in the life of their families and communities, and consumers who are able to buy the products of business because they have some money in their pockets even in their old age. These smart people are not so smart after all if they even begin to agree with Mitt Romney on his forty seven percent comment.

That’s because their minds have been captured by the death camp thinking of libertarian philosophy. It seems to be true only because they have heard it so much they have come to believe it, even though they haven’t really thought about it carefully. It does help them justify the attitude that they don't have to be concerned with the poor.

Even the owner of the convenience store I frequent knew better than them that if Republicans go over that fiscal cliff and shut down the government so that Social Security checks and student checks would not be delivered he would lose his business immediately. Death camp thinking screens out the reality of the scale of the role of the federal government in communities today. It is a simple fact that if people in a capitalistic economy do not have the money to buy the products business provides the economy cannot succeed. If the wealthy gather to themselves more and more of the wealth of the country, as has been happening now since the 1980s and has reached obscene levels, regular folks will not be able to participate in the life of the community. To justify this on the basis that “they don’t deserve it” is to claim that only the wealthy have a right to life. Death camp thinking is not only wrong, it is ridiculous, yet it pervades much of the corporate mentality and the Republican Party.

Very large majorities of Americans support social welfare programs when asked specifically about them. They want health care for those who can’t afford it, they want income security for the elderly, they want good education for the young, they want to aid families with disabled children, they want mental health services for people, they want the government to make sure meat and drugs are safe, they want police and fire protection, they want a good postal service. Politicians like Paul Ryan know this. That’s why they cannot be specific about the cuts they want to make, they know the American people want these programs. Paul Ryan’s first budget, and the one he has recently released, and the House, under the control of Republicans, is about to pass, do not actually list the specific cuts necessary to allow his over-all tax cuts for the wealthy to make sense. Neither of them lists the actual tax deductions he would remove because these would have to include popular items helpful to the vast middle class like the deduction for mortgage interest. What Ryan and others with his ideology do is castigate “welfare” programs and high taxes in general and then refuse to get specific hoping large numbers of uninformed voters will elect them. That is a form of public lying which is despicable. It is a central practice of death camp thinking which leads to mass delusion.

Millions of ordinary Republicans are voting for politicians based on delusions and illusions, just the sort of thing that was happening also in Nazi Germany. Too many voters will vote for a politician who attacks people on “welfare” not realizing that they themselves benefit from specific welfare programs such as Social Security and Medicare. A politician like Paul Ryan who engages in systematic public lying of this sort is relying on and encouraging death camp thinking.

It may be objected that the use of the term “death camp” is not appropriate, the United States is not rounding up people and killing them in death camps. Death camps were particular institutions at particular geographic locations. But one of the elements of death camp thinking is the tendency to screen out of our minds those things which we do not want to acknowledge or think about. We do not want to acknowledge widespread suffering of our fellow human beings because it is depressing and confronts us with the demand to do something about it. And one of the ways this is most true over the last several decades is what has been happening to the major cities of the country. The inner cities of most of the major metropolitan areas of our nation have become death camps, places where the poor and minorities and the elderly are forced to live, places of high degrees of violence, poverty, drug use, social chaos, suffering and death, places that those who live in suburbs avoid and try not to think about.

When asked who is to blame for this too many people believe that it is the people who live in such places who are responsible for their conditions, forgetting the terrible history of segregated housing, the federal policies encouraging growth of suburbs, and systematic disinvestment by economic institutions, both banks and corporations. In the 1970s I was working in the field of metropolitan planning and had occasion to read a report of the League of Cities called “Throw-away Cities.” The report detailed what was happening to cities across the country, that we were, in effect, throwing cities away, allowing them to degenerate into places of social and economic chaos. At the time I thought surely as people and politicians become aware of this they will strive to do something. Alas, the inner cities of this country have become what can only be called “death camps,” places where millions of people are forced to live and die while the rest of society turns their backs on them. Just look at Detroit, Michigan. What kind of thinking allows a whole city to be literally destroyed?

There is in economic theory a widely-held notion called "creative destruction". The idea is that growth and prosperity results from creative investment of money in new enterprise which destroys the old. So the destruction of cities is just the natural workings of capitalism. This idea justifies the practice of corporations being allowed to do whatever they want without the interference of democratic government. Such philosophy has influenced both Republican and Democratic administrations over the decades since the 1980s. The result has been the destruction of the major cities of the nation. Is this what people really want? But there is another factor at work here too.

This factor is continuing racial prejudice in the politics of the country. It is black people who live in inner cities and white people have turned their backs against them. The idea of death camp thinking, that “those people” deserve to suffer because they are themselves the cause of their problems, lies deep in the racist past of this country. The civil war is not so long ago, in the 1860s. It was another one hundred years before black people actually were able, through the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to gain for themselves voting rights and the right to participate equally in public institutions.

But they have not been able to achieve adequate levels of economic opportunity partly because so many are trapped in the death camps of the inner city. And the political backlash to the gains of blacks in the 1960s, a backlash carried by the Republican Party as it became a party primarily of Southern white people, promoted a “law and order” agenda which led to a widespread systematic effort to build more prisons to remove black men from the community rather than give them an education and a job. Politics these past several decades has been primarily influenced by those white people who would not support the social, educational, economic programs which may have helped black people improve their lives, such as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. But those white people of the so-called conservative movement certainly did support more police and spending billions to build more prisons to keep black people in line, especially black men. This has been the Republican agenda, ever since Richard Nixon and his “Southern strategy” and it is called conservative, but it is anything but conservative, it is a Southern backlash against the idea that black people should have an equal chance at a dignified and respectable life. The prisons today are full of black men. These prisons are death camps, and the inner cities are death camps without the actual walls. Just as race was a central factor in the death camps of Nazi Germany so it is also a central factor in inner city death camps of the United States.

And there is another factor which is very important to consider. The Nazi death camps relied on systematic and organized violence to enforce the will of the Nazi regime on the bodies of Jewish people. Death camp thinking is quick to believe that only violence can save us: use the organized violence of the police to save us from those terrible black people in the inner city who threaten us. Build gated communities to keep the black criminals out. Imagine the billions of dollars people spend for personal security today, locks on doors, surveillance systems, all to protect us from those who would hurt us, all based on fears that someone would use violence against us.

The more the American people believe in violence as the solution the more they fear violence; the more police the more violence. Just as Hitler created a society organized around violence to destroy the Jews and engage in military campaigns against his neighbor countries, so the United States has become a militarized society organized by belief in the efficacy of violence in both domestic and international affairs. The degree to which this is true is now being demonstrated in the debates over gun safety. The Newtown massacre of children has raised the issue of guns to a high level. But Republican lawmakers are so dominated by the belief that guns are the solution to violence that they are now voting as a block in Senate committee meetings against nearly all proposals to reduce the number of guns in our communities. The solution to violence is more access to the means of violence. Such belief in violence is destroying the peace and order of communities across the country. It leads to the violent death of thousands of people every year. It is a major factor in what I am calling death camp thinking.

I have been struck by the hysterical rantings of gun advocates in the current debate. We are hearing those advocates claim that they must be able to use military-style weapons to protect themselves against social breakdown and chaos. I think these people know intuitively that the society is so unjust racially and economically that there may be outbreaks of social revolt; they need guns to protect themselves from the poor and minorities who may someday revolt and refuse to accept the conditions under which they have been forced to live. The inner city death camps might explode. It is racially motivated fear. It dominates the Republican Party which now has its base in Southern cultural attitudes which have been propagated in the North as well as the South. It is fear that those who have been violently mistreated may someday decide to violently resist.

If politics is to take a different turn in this country it is necessary to try to tell the truth about what has been happening, to name the underlying habits of thought and feeling that have been driving our political culture. I believe the concept of “death camp thinking” as I have presented it here tells the truth about key factors in current political consciousness. I hope my corporate friend will be able to try to use the concept himself to be able to “see” the facts of what is happening to our country.


Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Their latest report demonstrates that non-disabled recipients of food stamps (now called SNAP) have high work rates, precisely the opposite of the prejudicial image of such people as dead beats.

Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Baumen.

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: THE NEW JIM CROW

The Making of the "Other" Chicago. Both my corporate friend and I worked in the inner city of Chicago in the 1960s. Allowing corporations to do whatever they want in society has not worked very well for Chicago over these decades. In fact, the conditions of Chicago have created a market for gun manufacturers who benefit greatly from the idea of the National Rifle Association that the answer to gun violence is more guns. When Martin Luther King came to Chicago in the 1960s to organize a movement of poor black people he called it an "End Slums" movement because his analysis was that "slums are profitable." People make money on slums, that's what causes them, not the people who are forced to live in slums. Just think of the immense amounts of money slum landlords made by collecting rents but refusing to do the necessary upkeep and maintenance of the buildings. Read this article through the window of "death camp thinking".

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Date Added: 3/22/2013 Date Revised: 3/22/2013 2:56:39 PM

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