Above is a photo of Prescott Bush with Adolf Hitler. Prescott Bush was the grandfather of George W. and Jeb Bush. It is proof irrefutable that the Bushes have been associated with evil since the dawn of time, right? Evil must just be in their DNA.
But if you root through the musty, sopping archives of the Internet, you’ll also find Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Roseanne, and Dora the Explorer posing with the icon of all things evil in the 20th century. Dig around some more, and you’ll find a version of that Prescott Bush photo that Prescott Bush isn’t even in, involving British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain looking so unhappy to be in his place that his mustache seems to be trying to get away.
Occupy Portland and some other websites posted the Prescott Bush photo as their proof irrefutable that evil is just evil and needs to be fought tooth and nail. This is wrong. It’s not just wrong because it’s historically make-believe. It’s not just wrong because it does more to harm Occupy’s stance than endorse it. It’s wrong because it boils down a complicated moment in history that required the complicity of entire nations to: “Hitler did it.”
As official blog sister Ariela Valdez puts it, “What always bothers me is that while Hitler was a very bad man, he did not act alone. He got a lot of other people to follow him. Then those people got a lot of other people to look the other way. To me, that is more terrifying. One bad man can only do so much. Each time we say ‘as bad as Hitler,’ I feel like we do more than just exaggerate. I feel like we simplify history until all the evil is stored in the memory we have of one horrible man instead of a more comprehensive memory of how one evil man brought out the evil in others.”
Here’s the real photo over which the Prescott Bush version was photoshopped:
You’ll notice this version is much better quality. An earlier version of the Prescott Bush fake betrays that Prescott’s photographic overlay shows a finer photographic grain than Hitler’s – this means that the photo from which Prescott was taken had gone through fewer reproductions than the photo in which Hitler stands.
It makes the forgery of the thing stand out, which is why the version at the top has been intentionally blurred – it hides these details. There’s some cleverness to the fake, however. While the background has been reversed, it preserves Hitler’s original orientation. Why go to that much trouble? Anyone who’s researched World War II knows that Hitler’s signature look was combing his hair over his left eye, with the part on the right. Reversing this would be a dead giveaway that the photo had been retouched. Compare the early fake below to the late fake at the top and the middle original.
This took less than 10 minutes of research to uncover. Look, I long called myself a Democrat. I’m now more generally liberal, because I have issues with too many Democrats thinking the way to negotiate is to run away while shouting, “Please don’t hurt me.” You may be a conservative or you may not be, but you know how much being a Democrat or being a Republican or Libertarian or Green Partier or anything matters to this kind of meme? It doesn’t. I’m of half a mind to start my own party – the Research Party.
There are claims that Prescott Bush funded the Nazi party. The world was still pretty global, even in the 1930s, and Prescott was one of seven co-directors of the bank UBC, which had investments in Nazi Germany. Most major American businesses – like GM – had similar investments, just like they had investments in every other major Western power. UBC divested from Germany after Kristallnacht (“The Night of Shattered Glass”) in 1938, during which Nazi supporters destroyed the storefronts of and looted from businesses owned by Jews in Germany. UBC was later investigated for these investments and found not guilty of anything. If anything, UBC divested from Germany much more quickly than many major American banks and investors.
Prescott Bush had himself fought against Germany in World War I. As for political involvement, he was a Republican. His position as a treasurer with Planned Parenthood lost him his first election to the Senate in Connecticut. He served as one of the chairmen of the United Negro College Fund, which still fights today for African-Americans to get scholarships to go to college. Prescott was also a key ally of Democratic president Harry Truman. Once he became a senator, Prescott Bush was a leading voice in censuring Joseph McCarthy, he became an important ally in passing civil rights legislation, and he helped establish the Peace Corps.
So what does this fake photo do? It takes someone who was a good person, who risked his life fighting for our country, who bridged the gap between his own Republican party and the Democrats, who helped us pass civil rights and establish one of the most useful and enduring diplomatic avenues for peace the world has ever seen, and it throws him under the bus by posing him with Hitler, simply because his grandson betrayed many of the ideals he himself championed.
It seeks to inaccurately portray the Bush family as generationally evil, to apply a Darth Vader-styled origin story to them. It puts the onus on some impossible recognition of “evil in men,” as if somehow we liberals are qualified to make that judgment, as if it’s our campaign poster to become the Internet’s Thought Police. It blames a system that’s gone off the rails on villains that don’t really exist and casts them all with Alan Rickman, rather than on flaws and faults in our government and economic system themselves. It takes our eye off the ball, liberal and conservative alike.
Furthermore, it’s insulting. It removes the complex story reality has to tell about Nazi Germany, about how evil really evolves to not just inhabit one man, but an entire country, an entire region, half a continent.
Even if you’re just looking for effect, to rally the troops, you know who reacts to these photos? The ones you don’t really have to work to get any more riled up, that’s who. People on the fence are repulsed. People whose politics lie in the middle, who you might have convinced to support your ideals, are now less likely to do so, especially once they discover your propaganda is fake. It preaches to a choir that doesn’t need any more preaching, and chases the curious and those willing to learn more – the very future of your cause – straight out.
I’ve always said, for a real protest – one that changes things – I’d rather have 10 people who know the material, who have done their research, who know the history of protest and the art of it, the positive and negative effects different types of protest risk. I’d rather have those 10 people than 100 or 1,000 protestors who don’t know why they’re there or what they’re doing or the history of a movement. You can always rally masses of people, after all, especially in this day and age, but when rallying people becomes easier and easier, doing it effectively becomes so much more difficult.
Occupy Portland may have seen a photo that paints a picture of politics as they see them, but so many others aside from myself will see a photo that ignores historical and political fact in order to further drive a wedge between people who face the same problems, and really aren’t as different as they’re led to believe by people who make up photos like this.
That’s what I mean by the negative risks of protest. People think any act of protest drives their cause forward. This is as false an idea as that photo. This post on Occupy Portland’s page is rife with people calling foul, with those citing the forgery. That photo didn’t strengthen Occupy Portland’s position or galvanize their supporters. It created doubt. It weakened the effect of anything else they have to say. Now, even if they say something truthful, more people won’t interpret it that way. Now, when they need people to show up and rally, it won’t be the curious and those willing to learn more – the future of their cause. It will be the ones who don’t analyze, who don’t research, the ones least effective in ever causing anything to change.
Protest can be a beautiful thing, but it’s useless without knowing what type of protest will cause what type of change. It’s useless without knowing how it can help your cause and how it can hurt your cause. If you go into it with no knowledge of what you’re doing, you may as well join the side you’re protesting against, because you’ll cause less damage that way. In an age of meme and quickly replicated information taking the place of real, researched fact, one of the most effective tactics corporations and politicians employ in fighting protest is introducing photos like the one above. There’s no quicker way to illegitimize a movement than to associate it with forgery and lies.
So, for the sake of still being able to change the world going forward, I beg you: do a few minutes of research before you post a meme. Please make sure that the piece of information you’re about to pass along is worth being represented alongside your image.