The Double-Edged Sword of Collaboration

A few weeks ago, a corporate client asked me to look up the definition of "collaboration" and to animate it in a glitzy PowerPoint presentation. I complied.

However, they were mortified to learn (and quick to censor) the double-edged sword unsheathed by the definition of the word:

1. To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
2. To cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country.
As we debate the notions of collaboration and cooperation, there is a darker side to this topic we're kicking around. Perhaps I am affected by the years I spent in Poland in the early '90s right after the Wall came down. I lived in Krakow, a train ride away from Auschwitz, during a period in which "cooperation" meant forced labor and State control of private assets, and "collaboration" was most often followed by the words "with the enemy".

The image that comes to mind is a grainy b/w photo taking by Robert Capa in 1944. A handful of French women with heads freshly shaved, some with babes in arms, are running a gauntlet of jeering townfolk, furious at them for collaborating with German soldiers as mistresses.

(To see these images and more, visit search with the keyword phrase "Collaborator with the enemy". You must register in order to view photos.)

History is fed by mass graves of people deemed as dangerous through thought, deed, affiliation, ethnicity or social standing.

As the memory of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Milosovicz (along with the list of lesser known functionaries, bureaucrats and blacklist makers) all fade to black, we have an emerging class of new collaborators and collaboration-hunters in our own midst:

-- The Enron trial is arguing that the leader of a company can't possibly know what's going on.
-- The White House is ferreting out the source of security leaks.
-- Google and Yahoo are coughing up Chinese free-thinkers in order to "comply with local laws".
-- The high mortality and attrition rates within the ranks of the Iraqi police forces.
-- The military is court-martialing low ranking soldiers for "mishandling" detainees, while insisting that the chain of command is out-of-scope.

The gradient of collaboration, at least in this pejorative sense, usually comes down to "who knew what by when" and "who tried to get out and when".

To collaborate in this sense can often be interpreted as just being there. Or simply knowing someone who knows something, but choosing not to stop the action or report it. It becomes less about active participation and more about association. And, as has often happened in history, the accusation is presented as a simple analog axiom, without much room for debate or complex thinking: "You are either with us or against us."