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Obama’s ‘Polish Death Camps’ Gaffe Leads To Diplomatic Incident

The ceremony where  the President hands out the Presidential Medal of Freedom isn’t usually supported to be controversial. After all, it’s primarily meant to commemorate the cultural or political contributions of people who are near the end of their careers. Among this year’s recipients, for example, were John Glenn, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Bob Dylan (pictured). Not exactly a controversial bunch. Unfortunately for the President, a badly worded speech about fellow recipient Jan Karski, who was a member of the Polish resistance, has led to a bit of a diplomatic kerfuffle:

Poles and Polish-Americans expressed outrage today at President Obama’s reference earlier to “a Polish death camp” — as opposed to a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland.

“The White House will apologize for this outrageous error,” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted.  Sikorski said that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk “will make a statement in the morning. It’s a pity that this important ceremony was upstaged by ignorance and incompetence.”

The president had been trying to honor a famous Pole, awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter who sneaked behind enemy lines to bear witness to the atrocities being committed against Jews. President Obama referred to him being smuggled “into the Warsaw ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”

Sikorski also tonight tweeted a link to an Economist story noting that “few things annoy Poles more than being blamed for the crimes committed by the Nazi occupiers of their homeland. For many years, Polish media, diplomats and politicians have tried to persuade outsiders to stop using the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ as a shorthand description of Auschwitz and other exemplars of Nazi brutality and mass murder. Unfortunately this seems to have escaped BaracK Obama’s staff seem not to have noticed this.”

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, “The President was referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland. The President has demonstrated in word and deed his rock-solid commitment to our close alliance with Poland.”

This is no doubt true, and when I first heard about this last night I assumed that Obama had mis-spoken, or that there had been an error in the teleprompter, however the prepared remarks released by the White House also contain the “Polish death camps” line. This is something that someone probably should have noticed beforehand and realized that it was not only historically inaccurate but that it would cause our Polish friends to be upset about something that, even 67 years later is still an open wound for them.

This was a dumb mistake that probably should’ve been avoided. I expect we’ll see an apology quite soon.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mattb says:

    Doug, the apology is already issued by proxy:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/29/obama-polish-death-camp_n_1554678.html

    I expect a direct apology is coming soon.

    It was a stupid, though understandable, construction. And the type that both deserves a face plant in retrospect, but should also get a pass (though it won’t) for the “President is stupid meme” (and I’d say the same thing if it had been Bush).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  2. Sikorski also tonight tweeted a link to an Economist story noting that “few things annoy Poles more than being blamed for the crimes committed by the Nazi occupiers of their homeland.

    It may have been undiplomatic, but to suggest that the poles had no part in the operation of the death camps is a whitewash.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 8

  3. Drew says:

    English is ambiguous. When I say “Nicole Simpson’s murder” I could be talking about her being murdered, or a murder she committed.

    A huge proportion of political outrage seems to revolve around: 1) ignoring the existence of linguistic ambiguity , 2) insisting one particular interpretation is ONLY reasonable meaning 3) making sure that one particular interpretation is the one that offends you.

    I can understand things like ambiguity getting lost in translation and thus leading to avoidable misunderstandings. But what’s the excuse for native speakers of English?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Can you fathom the reaction among the chattering classes if a Republican had said something like this? Geez.

    In any event, I’ve long suspected that very recent graduates are responsible for material portions of Obama’s prepared remarks. Generally speaking there’s just something incredibly inexperienced about them. Well, this astonishing fiasco lends credence to that supposition. It’s virtually inconceivable that any educated adult could write the phrase “Polish death camps” in reference to the exploits of a WWII Polish resistance fighter. It’s nearly inconceivable that anyone with a modicum of life’s experiences could proofread a reference to “Polish death camps” and not instantly recognize the negative connotations, especially in this particular context. The only other realistic possibility is that the people responsible for that phrasing are beyond simply airheaded liberals and have crossed over into flatline EEG territory.

    Separate but related topic, when you factor in the abrogation of missile defense, then Obama’s “unplugged” moment with Medvedev, and now “Polish death camps,” it’s almost as if Team Obama is stuck on stupid with respect to the Poles and other Eastern Europeans. That actually is germane to this year’s election, given that Pennsylvania is an older and socially conservative state in which vast numbers of people of Polish and Eastern European descent reside. Axelrod’s blood pressure as we speak is rising…..

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 10

  5. mantis says:

    This is something that someone probably should have noticed beforehand and realized that it was not only historically inaccurate…

    It’s not historically inaccurate. There were death camps in Poland. That the Poles prefer people to phrase it differently to eliminate any ambiguity doesn’t make it inaccurate.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 21 Thumb down 11

  6. mattb says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Fair, but the connotation of “Polish Death Camps” is much broader than the idea of *some* Poles collaborating with the Nazi’s. That said, post-Communist Poland’s history of dealing with the subject of Jew’s and Concentration Camps has been a fraught one at best.

    That said, it was still, in the harsh light of day, an inexcusable phrasing.

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    I’ve long suspected that very recent graduates are responsible for material portions of Obama’s prepared remarks. … It’s nearly inconceivable that anyone with a modicum of life’s experiences could proofread a reference to “Polish death camps” and not instantly recognize the negative connotations, especially in this particular context.

    I agree on point 1, I think this is usually the case. I disagree on point 2, it’s a classic writing mistake which is easy to miss unless you’re looking for it or sensitive to it (it happens a lot, even in Academic writing).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  7. Rob in CT says:

    Yeah, he’ll have to apologize and make the obvious correction: Nazi camps in Poland, not Polish camps. This is a straightforward gaffe.

    That said, I’m guessing that the OUTRAGE from Polish leaders is due to defensiveness over the fact that Poles weren’t exactly Jew-friendly at the time. Indeed, some were quite willing to help the Nazis. That was hardly unique to Poland. I could be wrong, but I think some of the protestation has to do with a wee bit of whitewashing, as Stormy Dragon notes.

    Regarding the “oh, if a Republican had said it…” I can’t speak for anyone but me, but no, I would not have made a big deal of it. I laughed at Bush’s gaffes sometimes, and yes I think he was kinda doofy and poor at diplomacy (not b/c of gaffes, but because he seemed to be surrounded by Conservatives who think diplomacy is when Americans give orders and allies servants carry them out). My outrage was saved for his policies, though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 6

  8. Bill Jempty says:

    While I’m surely the dumbest person to ever have contributed at this blog, I think there’s a fair chance I’m also the only OTB contributor who’s ever been to Auschwitz. In 2000 my wife and I were shown around Poland by a priest friend of ours and we visited the former Nazi concentration camp. It is the bleakest place I’ve ever been to.

    History has long labeled Auschwitz a concentration camp and usually with the Nazi in front of those words. Only the history challenged would think of it as a Polish death camp.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 4

  9. Groty says:

    The progressive totalitarians who invented politically correct speech to achieve political gain, and demand it from everyone else otherwise you’re an insenstive Neanderthal, have created an international incident for not using politically correct speech. How ironic. And embarrassing.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 17

  10. SKI says:

    @Rob in CT:

    That said, I’m guessing that the OUTRAGE from Polish leaders is due to defensiveness over the fact that Poles weren’t exactly Jew-friendly at the time.

    That and the reality that the Polish Foriegn Minister, Radek Sikorsk, is a former columnist for the National Review, fellow at AEI and advisor to Rupert Murdoch. .

    (Which is not to say that your reason isn’t true or a big factor – and I say that as someone who had family killed in Poland both during the Shoah and after the war when they went back to their “hometown.”)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 5

  11. SFC MAC says:

    The “smartest guy in the room” strikes again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 9

  12. al-Ameda says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Yeah, he’ll have to apologize and make the obvious correction: Nazi camps in Poland, not Polish camps. This is a straightforward gaffe.

    You’re exactly right. Still, I find the kabuki over this “incident” to be interesting. This is from Poynter.org. Replete with talking point references to teleprompter usage.

    Polish pols tweeted their outrage. The White House apologized.Kosciuszko Foundation president Alex Storozynski gave ABC’s Jake Tapper a statement calling for a better apology and referencing a peculiar right-wing obsession: “Obama was seen reading this phrase off a teleprompter. The president must acknowledge his mistake and apologize for it.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  13. Rob in CT says:

    @SKI:

    Interesting. However, even if it was a politically motivated shot, and I now suspect it was, a correction is called for. It’s a simple and decent thing to do, and thus should be done (I mean direct apology from O, not surrogate).

    Groty: PC exists on both the Right and the Left. Both sides police language. And frankly, *some* amount of PC makes sense – shunning obnoxious aholes is sometimes the right call. Take it too far and you stunt the discourse, though. Like the flap over Chris Hayes’ Memorial Day comments. Or reflexive accusations of anti-semitism anytime anyone criticizes Israeli government policy re: the occupied territories. There are many other examples. Your mistake is the apparent belief that the Left “invented” political correctness. That’s absurd, because policing public discourse has been going on for… well, I suspect for as long as there have been human societies. People have always been arguing over what is and isn’t “beyond the Pale,.”

    But then here I am trying to have a reasonable discussion with someone who uses the term “progressive totalitarians” in relation to US liberals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2

  14. Gustopher says:

    It’s a pity that Polish jokes have fallen out of favor, since “Polish Death Camp” is ripe with possibilities.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 5

  15. Groty says:

    @Rob in CT:

    You apparently don’t know that Frankfurt School Marxist intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse imported ideas that we now short handedly refer to as “political correctness” into the U.S. from Germany. The German Marxists were unhappy that Western society – even after times of economic crisis – were reluctant to embrace economic Marxism. They Frankfurt Schoolers attributed the reluctance to Christian religious morality and nationalism. So they set about to change the culture. The result is “cultural Marxism”, or political correctness. It’s used to destroy the cultural norms and religious morality that’s been the bedrock of Western Civilization for thousands of years.

    If you want to be brought up to speed, here’s an enlightening read:

    http://www.academia.org/the-origins-of-political-correctness/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 10

  16. Rob in CT says:

    Oh, I see, so “Political Correctness” only means when leftists police discourse. What do you call it when Right wingers do it?

    Also, too: are there commies are under your bed? Did they put flouride in your water to poison your bodily fluids and weaken your essence?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  17. Rob in CT says:

    By the way, for anyone considering the offered link, I give you the opening sentence:

    Where does all this stuff that you’ve heard about this morning – the victim feminism, the gay rights movement, the invented statistics, the rewritten history, the lies, the demands, all the rest of it – where does it come from?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  18. mattb says:

    Wow… awesome and totally unbiased link @Grotys! I love how the author totally avoided hyperbole in this particular passage from the same speech:

    The totalitarian nature of Political Correctness is revealed nowhere more clearly than on college campuses, many of which at this point are small ivy covered North Koreas, where the student or faculty member who dares to cross any of the lines set up by the gender feminist or the homosexual-rights activists, or the local black or Hispanic group, or any of the other sainted “victims” groups that PC revolves around, quickly find themselves in judicial trouble.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  19. al-Ameda says:

    @Groty:

    You apparently don’t know that Frankfurt School Marxist intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse imported ideas that we now short handedly refer to as “political correctness” into the U.S. from Germany.

    LOL!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  20. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Yes, I suppose we must be precise, and note that the WWII death camps, while *in* Poland, were run by the Nazis. Not to be confused with the pograms that occurred in Poland, conducted by Poles, between 1881 and 1941. We must be precise about which massacres of Jews were conducted in Poland by Poles, and which were merely conducted in Poland.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

  21. Gromitt Gunn says:

    If the White House isn’t careful, they might next admit that a few Armenians died, and that some Turks were in the area when it happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  22. Rob in CT says:

    It’s funny that two different posts on OTB made my think of my father. The Memorial Day one and this one.

    The connection to this post is a story my dad tells about when he moved down to the States from Canada in the 60s.

    Americans, or at least the Americans he knew (top-level business executives in publishing and, later on, broadcasting), were terrified of being called a communist. So much so that my dad, who can be obnoxious at times, delighted in occasionally spouting “oh, now you’re talking like a communist” and enjoying the sputtering reaction. He claims it totally shut down conversation.

    Mind you, this is a Thatcher & Reagan-loving Conservative who blames Barney Frank, Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter for the real estate bubble and the resulting 2008 financial panic. Which is to say he’s no liberal, nor is he uniquely brilliant. He’s susceptible to bullshit like everyone else (especially so in his 80s, watching Fox a lot). But he has an outside perspective on American culture, and that can be interesting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Franklin says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “Can you fathom the reaction among the chattering classes if a Republican had said something like this?”

    I sure can, because it’s the exact same as what we’re seeing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  24. … it was not only historically inaccurate but that it would cause our Polish friends to be upset about something that, even 67 years later is still an open wound for them.”

    Yes, and I wonder why it’s still an open wound for them. I think it’s for the same reason that the Armenian genocide is still an open wound for Turkey.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 6

  25. “If the White House isn’t careful, they might next admit that a few Armenians died, and that some Turks were in the area when it happened. ”

    Ha! I hadn’t even read this when I posted my, similar, comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  26. It’s not historically inaccurate. There were death camps in Poland. That the Poles prefer people to phrase it differently to eliminate any ambiguity doesn’t make it inaccurate.

    Yes, but it’s not the point that there were death camps in Poland. The point — the reason why it’s so disingenuous of the Polish government to get so outraged about Obama referring to “Polish death camp” instead of “Nazi death camp located in Poland” — is that a significant portion of the Polish people either actively or indirectly collaborated with the Nazis. Poland, in fact, is and has always been, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 10

  27. Rufus T. Firefly says:

    I contend that none of this would have happened if Michelle hadn’t insisted that Barack hang up the moose head on the same day the White House was having a fire drill.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Phillip says:

    Only the history challenged

    At least 90 % of the U.S. population, easy. I’m being generous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  29. Jeremy R says:

    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/05/president-obama-causes-outrage-with-reference-to-polish-death-camp/

    “The White House will apologize for this outrageous error,” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted.

    Here’s the Foreign Ministry again earlier this year, successfully getting a jewish Canadian paper to publish an apology:

    http://www.thenews.pl/1/10/Artykul/85244,Jewish-Tribune-corrects-Polish-death-camps-gaffe

    After a protest by Poland’s Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Tribune in Canada has apologised for the use of the term “Polish death camp” in one of its articles.

    Looking about it seems they’ve been most successful in the UK at getting media to stop using the phrase and in the U.S. they’ve been partially successful. AP updated their style guidlines just a couple of months ago:
    Poynter: Campaign to eliminate media mentions of ‘Polish death camps’ claims success with AP Stylebook change

    As of this morning the Kosciuszko Foundation still listed, “The Washington Post, The New York Post, FOX News, TIME magazine”, in their petition on the subject, as news orgs that they were lobbying to stop using the phrase. As of this moment their petition has been changed to not call any specific news media org out, so perhaps this controversy has been good for the Foundation. I’m guessing, for example, Fox, was all to eager to sign on so they could cover the story with the proper moralizing tone and without being accused of hypocrisy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  30. WR says:

    @Kathy Kattenburg: “Yes, and I wonder why it’s still an open wound for them. I think it’s for the same reason that the Armenian genocide is still an open wound for Turkey. ”

    Or the struggle against civil rights for blacks is still an open wound for Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  31. @WR:

    One of the reasons that World War II is still an open wound in Poland is because it was immediately followed by their occupation and domination by another foreign power, a condition that did not end for another 46 years

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  32. anjin-san says:

    One of the reasons that World War II is still an open wound in Poland is because it was immediately followed by their occupation and domination by another foreign power, a condition that did not end for another 46 years

    Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that Poland and Russia (in one form or another) have been making war on each other on and off for a thousand years. The occupation of Poland by the USSR is an event that took place along a long continuum, it did not come out of left field.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  33. Tim Upham says:

    I think the Poles have a right to be outraged. Poland had the second highest civilian death rate of any country during World War II, after the Soviet Union. Many Poles were incarcerated in concentration camps, which was shown in popular culture with the motion picture “Sophie’s Choice.” Whenever I mention about my trip to Auschwitz, I always say a Nazi death camp within Poland. It is not that difficult to remember either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  34. Scott says:

    Since when did the Republicans care what other countries think and why do they insist on an apology. Maybe they go on a tour.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  35. Tadeusz says:

    @Kathy Kattenburg:
    That’s strange. How do you know that? Have you been in Poland during WWII?
    Then how it happened that there is no such many people from other nations on the list of those who helped Jewish. And Poland was the only place where Germans were killing the person and all his family, if they found him helping Jewish. And how it happened that Polish nation was the second one after Jewish to pay depth price during the war with 3000 000 killed in those depth camps and more during fights with Germans and Russians.
    Maybe you should be quiet or try to learn a bit about history.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  36. Netzach says:

    @Kathy Kattenburg:
    Perhaps that’s why the Jews went to Poland when they were kicked out of other europeans countries. If the Poles are anti-semitic, please explain me how it is possible that they had a Polish-Jewish Minister of Foreign Affair (Adam Rotfeld, the guy who accepted the award for Karski)? Also check The Righteous among the Nation list. More than 6000 Poles there. About 700 of them murdered by Nazis for hiding Jews.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  37. Tim Upham says:

    @Netzach: During the Middle Ages, Jews were not accepted for humanitarian reasons, but were accepted for economic gain. Casimir the Great accept Jews into Poland, because countries such as Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, invited foreigners from the West in to rebuild after the Mongol invasion. The Christian religion did not allow usury, so money lending became a Jewish profession. Also, to belong to a guild, one had to take a Christian oath to join, so Jews formed their own guilds, such as money lending. Such a situation happened again, when Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire, welcomed the Sephardim from Spain, saying “Spain’s lost will be my gain.” After being expelled from Portugal in 1497, many went to the Netherlands, where they controlled the banking institutions like they did in Portugal. It is just after that Portugal lost the spice trade in the East Indies to the Dutch after the Sephardim arrived. When the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion started, all of those weapons were purchased from the Polish Home Army. So really economic necessity outweighs humanitarian motives.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  38. Netzach says:

    @Tim Upham
    Do you say those Poles who helped Jews during WW2 did it only for money?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  39. Tim Upham says:

    @Netzach: No, because I am sure a lot of those names I saw in the Avenue of the Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem, that were commemorating people from Poland, were doing that because they were moved to help their fellow human beings. But I am sure the historical monarchs, were doing it because of financial gain for their realms. But I do not think the Polish Home Army during World War II, would have volunteered their arms to the partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto. Because people in Nazi-occupied Poland needed money to survive, even though the majority of Warsaw was buying on the black market.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  40. al-Ameda says:

    This is from Poynter.org.
    Notice the ubiquitous echo-chamber reference to Obama’s use of a teleprompter.

    Polish pols tweeted their outrage. The White House apologized.Kosciuszko Foundation president Alex Storozynski gave ABC’s Jake Tapper a statement calling for a better apology and referencing a peculiar right-wing obsession: “Obama was seen reading this phrase off a teleprompter. The president must acknowledge his mistake and apologize for it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  41. Michelle says:

    @Bill Jempty: I know it’s not the same thing, but I have visited the Latvian concentration camp at Salaspils. I lived with elderly Latvian Jews there and I know what they had to go through, both under the Soviets and the Latvians.

    Additionally, my mother-in-law is Polish and has described many times the Polish treatment of Jews she witnessed as a young girl (she’s in her 80′s). I visited Gdansk in the 1990′s and found most Poles to be friendly, but there’s always that one and she happened to be the person I rented a room from. Crazy Lady squared. So there’s that.

    I think there is more to it than just what Obama said. Why upstage the recognition of the Medal of Freedom recipient?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  42. Tim Upham says:

    @Michelle: I was in Gdansk in 2002, for the grand opening of the motion picture “The Pianst.” The Poles seems to be proud of that film, because it was filmed in Poland, and giving the outside world a view of life in Nazi-occupied Poland.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  43. jd says:

    Sitting in his Quiet Corner, the Vice President smiles broadly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  44. Tim Upham says:

    @jd: Joe Biden was one of the people who got the East European Bank for Reconstruction and Development started. It was responsible for cleaning up Poland after the horrible environmental abuses that took place during the Communist Era. The Vistula was almost declared a dead river, but it has been so cleaned up, that the city of Warsaw is now getting its drinking water from it. All Polish factories have been equipped with wet scrubbers, so pollutants are no longer causing acid rain, which almost killed all of Scandinavia’s lakes. Wildlife populations have been recovered, so that wisent are being reintroduced into former habitats. So if Joe Biden ever did anything good, its was starting that bank, which really has cleaned up Central Europe from its environmental horror story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  45. Peter says:

    @Rob in CT: @Stormy Dragon: @Tim Upham:
    Read better this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%BBegota

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  46. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Don’t think much of the turn this thread took toward the end, but I do like the image of “little ivy covered North Koreas.” Very evocative!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0