After Charlottesville Will It Be West Side Story?

If anyone wants to know where we’re heading now after Charlottesville, it’s easy to see. More rallies are planned, more anti-rallies will confront them. The ideologies are diametrically opposed, but the hotheads on both sides are united in their hope  for a good fight and will look for any excuse to lash out. They are the Jets and the Sharks, pounding their chests, as they circle each other singing:

We’re gonna hand ’em a surprise…Tonight.

We’re gonna cut ’em down to size…Tonight.

We said, “O.K., no rumpus,

No tricks.”

But just in case they jump us,

We’re ready to mix….Tonight.

Planning to go to a future rally near you?  Be aware that many young men love the idea of  fighting and violence.

We’re gonna rock it tonight,

We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball!

They’re gonna get it tonight;

The more they turn it on the harder they’ll fall!

You’re not going to have a reasonable discussion with anyone. It’ll be more along the lines of

JETS: Well, they began it!

SHARKS: Well, they began it!

ALL:  And we’re the ones to stop ’em once and for all,   … Tonight!

The answer is not to do nothing, it’s to hold your own rally in a different part of town or, if you find yourself in the presence of speakers or marchers you disagree with,  silently turn your back in protest.

Just a reminder: both the leaders of the Jets and the Sharks ended up dead.

see also Charlottesville and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

 

Charolottesville and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

I was struck by some similarities between the conflict in Charlottesville and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.   Fanatics were the leaders in both cases, and both groups were looking for instant publicity in order to stir up a rebellion: Brown wanted the slaves to rise against their white masters, while the alt-right wants the whites to rise up and claim their putative place in the Home of the Brave. The alt-left or the antifas also want to stir up their side and confront their opponents head-on.   The disciples of violence are primed and ready. More confrontations are being planned.

Watch out! These clashes will only escalate and lead to a Second Civil War, just as Harper’s Ferry led to the first one.   They get everyone going, mad at the other side, spoiling for a fight. Have we learned nothing in 150 years?   Even our saner leaders are not doing enough to head this off.

This is the USA.   Certain things are legal: to carry guns, to march in protest, to say what you want to say in public and private forums.

But…

we could make things illegal and safer if we wanted to by passing new laws that would forbid non-governmental marches and protests in which people are carrying weapons of any kind.   We could outlaw military-style firearms period.   We could censor (yes, dammit, say it proudly, censor!) certain kinds of speech as the Germans have done, in outlawing any support or symbols of the Nazi ideology. The Germans have figured out you need something called “defensive democracy” designed to keep the state safe from demagogues.  German  law bans the incitement of hatred or violence, or ridiculing parts of the population in a manner apt to breach the peace—including racist speech (Volksverhetzung).

This is what’s needed. So, come on, Congress! Step up to the plate and pass some laws for the greater good!

In the meantime, if you disagree with someone’s views, don’t do this:

Yell and scream at them

Throw things at them

Provoke them in any way

Do this: hold your own rally in a different spot of town or stand in silent protest with your back turned to the speakers or marchers that you disagree with.  You could also try to reason with them, but Reason is in short supply these days.

see also Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Free Speech in Germany?  Up to a Point

 

Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Charlottesville goes down in history now. Once again we have people on both sides hell-bent on confrontation–shouting, raging,… you can almost hear their blood boiling as fists are clenched, the curses fly, and the trigger fingers start itching.

What an exercise in futility!   The anitfas are not going to change anyone’s mind this way.   They are just going to make more people on the margins become actively sympathetic to the alt-right.  We all know that the good people of Charlotte did not want to let a white nationalist march go unchallenged, but where does this kind of angry challenge get us?  Innocent people dead and injured.

Ideally, rational people would sit down and talk about their differences and come to a way of working them out. But there comes a time when reason is absent, when people are so brainwashed, so ignorant, or so worked up they can’t think straight. What do you do then?

Suppose someone stands up in a meeting and says something outrageous, like “We should kill all the _________” (fill in the group of your choice).  There are several options for how to deal with it:

1) ignore it.

2) suppress it. We are loath to do that in our country because of the First Amendment.

3) shout them down. That’s what the counter-protesters were trying to do in Charlottesville.

4) indicate your disapproval publically but silently.   Stand up in the meeting and turn your back. Line the march with counter-protesters but silently fold your arms, shake your heads.

The fourth way is the best and is something I’ve heard the Quakers sometimes do. The third will almost surely lead to increasingly violent conflicts and ultimately deaths. It breathes oxygen into a smoldering fire.    The second way has its place, and every country in the world does outlaw certain kinds of speech, but this will lead to underground movements espousing forbidden causes. The first runs the risk of outrageous viewpoints spreading, which also is the case with the third.

This issue of the Confederate monuments is a difficult one. Of course Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side of history, defending a horrible institution, but is there a better way to go about this than rubbing the noses of the soldiers’ descendents in their defeat?

How about a competition to commemorate all sides in the War Between the States—more monuments to be placed near Lee’s, representing slavery, emancipation and most importantly, reconciliation.   I believe the leaders of Charlottesville are wise enough to realize that simply telling the alt-right to “Go home!” as the governor of Virginia did is not the answer. They ARE home and we have to live with them, just as they have to live with us.

see also Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland and Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

The Perfect Song for the Trump Administration: Ship of Fools (Narrenschiff)

These days anyone in Germany who is a fan of Reinhard Mey, one of their great performers, must be thinking of his 1997 song “Narrenschiff” (Ship of Fools) as they gaze across the Atlantic at what was once the United States of America. Mey is one of those rarities: a poet who can also write his own music, sing his own songs, and powerfully deliver either a personal or political message.   What Georges Brassens did for France, Mey is doing for Germany.

I’m not sure what was going on politically in Germany in 1997 to get Mey so steamed up, but this song really packs a punch today. It’s about a ship full of idiotic passengers more interested in partying and money than in getting somewhere safely. They ignore the high seas outside and are focused only on the high life on board.  The crew is even worse. The chorus goes like this (it’s better in rhyming couplets of course):

The helmsman is a liar, the captain is drunk

And the engineer has sunk into a dull stupor

The crew, pure lying scoundrels,

The radioman too cowardly to send an SOS,

The Klabautermann is steering the Ship of Fools:

Full speed ahead and set course for the reef!

Now, this Klabautermann (Hobgoblin) is an interesting guy in German folklore. He’s a kind of invisible water spirit of the Baltic who can be quite amusing at times.   He sometimes helps sailors in distress, but if you ever actually see him, the legends say, your vessel is doomed.

The ship is full of pimps, money launderers, and slot-machine barons (casino-builders!) on their way to a “treasure island”,

…..where even the president

Has lost his shame and doesn’t hesitate

To adorn his entourage with the tax dodger.

So much of this song applies to the Trump administration and Donald Trump in particular, it’s really uncanny:

And smug old men strut around brashly

On the upper deck with ladies who are always much too young

Who warm their flabby limbs and chew their food for them

Mey wrote this song as a warning.   All of us have the capacity to blind ourselves to what’s going on around us to an incredible degree.   He could have been writing about global warming, or speculation on Wall Street, or our culture in general with its overemphasis on buying stuff and good times.  Too many of us are ignoring the signs:

The lookout calls from the highest mast: Endtime in sight!

But it’s like they’re turned to stone and they don’t hear him

They follow like lemmings in hordes, their wills gone,

It’s as if everyone had lost their reason

Sworn themselves to destruction and decay

And a will-o’-the-wisp has become their guiding light.

 

 

Wonder Woman, Is All You Need Love?

Just saw Wonder Woman where the writers pose some interesting questions.   For example, the bad guy (Ares, the god of war) claims that he was given a bum rap when he led a failed rebellion against Zeus in the good old days. All he was trying to do was to get things back the way they were before Zeus stupidly created the human race. Humans, he argues, are such horrible, selfish creatures that the only thing to do with them is destroy them, or have them destroy themselves in war. Once the last human has been exterminated, then the gods can go back to living in a paradise. Humans are so debased that they will inevitably sink to the vilest, most despicable behaviors. This calls to mind  Hobbes’ state of nature where we are all at each others’ throats in the blink of an eye, out only for ourselves, and what we can gain.

The picture Ares describes has a lot of similarities with Trumpworld, where our main concern is being “great,” whether as an individual or as a nation. You can’t be great unless someone else is not great, right? So it’s all about competition, getting ahead, out-maneuvering someone else. It’s a tough-guy, belligerent, pushy kind of world, where if you don’t give me what I want, I’d just as soon knock you over the head to get it.   Nice guys finish last, you losers.

But Wonder Woman learns that love can triumph over anger, greed, and war. In the final battle, she snatches victory from the jaws of defeat by drawing on the power of love that her friend Steve has shown her. The message is that we must accept the fact that human beings are flawed, but redeemable.   Wonder Woman’s mission is now to help us find our higher selves and keep that Ares-side in check. Not a bad moral. I could hear John Lennon’s voice ringing in my ears:  “All you need is love!”

But unfortunately, that’s wrong, that’s not all we need.   All we need is justice.   No one should know this better than Gal Gadot who plays Wonder Woman and comes from Israel where justice is in short supply.   You can flood the Middle East with as much love as you want, but until you solve the land issue—who owns what parcels, who can build where, who will be empowered to make decisions—you’re never going to have peace. Maybe Gal Gadot could use her newfound status as a superhero to smack some sense into the extremists on both sides who are holding that whole blighted region hostage and doing so much to make the world a more dangerous place.   Ares has been hard at work there for decades, but in disguise as Jehovah and Allah, in whose name the extremists claim the right to the land they’re killing each other for.  Time to unmask him and get serious about some practical solutions, not built on the impossible notion of what land God gave to whom, but rather on what would be fairest to everyone.  Love would help of course, and friendships need to be built, but any kind of peace has to be a just peace if it’s going to stick.

Next film up with Wonder Woman is the Justice League—how timely.

Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland

 

More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.

 

Free Speech in Germany? Up to a Point

Free speech is in the news again as a German court ruled this week that a comedian, Jan Boehmermann, may not repeat parts of a poem critical of Turkish president Erdogan. Did the judges get it right? Let’s look at the details.

The poem came in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists in his country and accuses him of treating minorities badly.   Surprisingly, Germany still has a law on its books dating from the 19th century that forbids criticism of foreign heads of state. Boehmermann broke that law. He knows he broke it, and wanted, in fact, to challenge it. The German government agrees that law should go and is going to repeal it soon. Chalk one up for freedom of speech. No person, not even a head of state, should be immune from criticism.

But the other part of the ruling had to do with the way in which our comedian chose to criticize.   He did it by stating that Erdogan watched child pornography, was a gang rapist, and had sex with animals. This is reminiscent of Hustler magazine’s scurrilous “jokes” about Rev. Jerry Falwell, humor that the US Supreme Court ruled was allowed under free speech protections. The German court found the exact opposite, saying this was a type of speech not covered by German law.   So who was right? If you’re a moral relativist you might say both—it’s a cultural thing. I don’t think so.

It’s important to note that the Germans use the word “Meinungsfreiheit”—Freedom of Opinion—instead of “freedom of speech.” It’s a good distinction to make. Article 5 of the German Constitution has this to say:

1) Everyone has the right to express their opinion in speech, writing, or in pictures.

2) This right is limited by the laws that protect children and by the right of personal honor (der persönlichen Ehre).

3) Art and science, research and teaching are protected freedoms.

Boehmermann claimed he was exercising his artistic freedom. But the court noted that art must give way to Erdogan’s right to maintain his honor, or we might say his personal dignity. That seems unquestionably the correct way to look at this.   You shouldn’t be able to just spit out obscenities about anyone in the name of art.

So who is this comedian anyway? One news report noted that Herr Boehmermann is one of the most “incisive satirists” in Germany with his own show on a TV network. Really? And this is the kind of material he comes up with? What is going on over in Germany? This sounds about as incisive as any snickering schoolboy could come up with on his day off. The question I have is, did anyone think it was funny? Or was it just a stunt to challenge that old law?

Whatever the answer to that question, can we agree he was way off base? Just as in the Charlie Hebdo case, there should be limits on speech, writing, and pictures. That limit could be summed up in the word respect.   Let’s have your opinions by all means, but choose your words with care.   To adopt Boehmermann’s tactic only makes you look like an idiot and undercuts your message. The German law has it right and should be a model for every other nation.

How Democracy Dies: Austria 1933, USA 2017

In case you were asleep that day in high school when you covered events leading up to World War II, pay attention now. In 1933, hit hard by the worldwide depression, the young republic in Austria suffered a fatal blow through the carelessness of its legislative leaders.   The main parties in Parliament were very evenly divided that year. In fact, the voting on certain bills was so close that the Speaker (who by law could not vote) stepped down from that position, so he could vote with his party and tip the balance on an important issue of the day. This prompted the two deputy speakers to resign their posts as well, so they could also vote and tip the balance in turn. That left Parliament without anyone to lead the sessions, and no rules on what was supposed to happen in a case like this.  Consequently the session couldn’t close, and the parties were in such a snit they couldn’t agree on what to do next.

That left room for a guy named Dollfuss, the Chancellor of Austria, to announce that the Parliament had, in effect, shut itself down. His word for it was die Ausschaltung—the “self-deactivation.” He said “They pushed the off button, but I’m here, so don’t worry.”  He got the police to block the doors of Parliament when the members tried to reconvene, and it was as simple as that: the end of democracy in Austria until 1945. Dollfuss became a Mussolini-style dictator, and was assassinated by a group of Nazis a year later, paving the way for Hitler to annex the the whole country a few years after that.

Our country is also evenly divided in Congress, reflecting the divisions in the nation at large.  We’ve got the Democrats walking out of committee meetings, Republicans refusing to consider Supreme Court nominees, a tie vote on a nomination to the Cabinet, talk of secession in California, accusations, recriminations, and prognostications all served up with  huge helping of mediocrity and mendacity.   It doesn’t get much worse.

But it could.   It sometimes seems as though the old idea of give-and-take is a forgotten art, and yet it’s central to what politics is all about.   I’m talking to both parties here.   Could we have more cooperation, please!     There are always Dollfusses waiting in the wings, waiting for any excuse to grab more power.

Watch out.

Kurt Vonnegut and the Women’s March

After reading The Sirens of Titan again, it finally became clear to me what the meaning of 2016’s madness was.   Vonnegut’s masterpiece is brilliant in so many ways, but what got to me was the part about the invasion of Earth by an army from Mars.   The reasons for this attack are complicated, but the main thing is that our entire planet rallies to the defense: implacable enemies like the Soviet Union, China, the US and all the Western World come together in the face of this interplanetary menace and they utterly annihilate the Martians.   The world becomes one and a new dawn of cooperation breaks for our ailing planet.

This is what 2016 has begun to do.   We haven’t been attacked by Mars, but the new crop of leaders in Washington may as well be a pod of aliens as far as the feminists of the world are concerned. Now the Women’s March has galvanized an intercontinental movement that began with the outrage of finding that an unrepentant, predatory satyr could boast his way into the White House.   The women (and men) who were at these marches are as determined as Vonnegut’s defenders to wipe that smirk off the face of the current commander-in-chief, the Ober-gropen-führer*, as one sign at the March succinctly put it. But lest we forget:

42% of American women overall voted for Trump

53% of white women

62% of white women without college degrees

These women weren’t at the March. In a New York Times interview in a small town in Michigan, some women didn’t even know the march was taking place, and when they were told about it, dismissed it as a bunch of pro-choicers. One woman said she didn’t think her husband would approve of her going to the March.

So there you go. We certainly haven’t reached the point of Vonnegut’s unifying alliance because it seems that many women either don’t care about sexual predation, or shrug it off as normal and what can you do about it anyway, or they buy into the old male-dominated way of life that seems to suit them just fine. Or maybe they just hated Hilary Clinton too much (20% of voters said they disliked Trump but voted for him anyway). Put another way, these women are less worried about sexual harassment and more about the deterioration of the country they thought they knew: the drug problems, the factories closing, the loss of small-town American values at the hands of ….of who? I would say, of guys like Trump. But they see him as a businessman who knows how to get things done.

So, sisters, you’ve got your work cut out for you.  You’ve got some people to convince–not the leadership currently moving in down in DC–save your breath with those guys–but those ladies in communities all across America who don’t yet see eye-to-eye with you on the issues you care about most.  Until you can persuade them that we have to unite to stop sexual harassment, you can march all you want, and write letters to Congress, but all you’ll get is another four years of This, whatever This is.

For more on the March :  The Womens March: God vs. the Goddess

*It’s terrible to have to explain your allusions, but I’ll do it anyway.   In The Man in the High Castle, the excellent series on Amazon starring Rufus Sewell, the premise is that the Nazis won WWII and the USA is ruled by an American offshoot of the SS. One of the top brass is Obergruppenführer Smith, played by Sewell. It means chief-group-leader in German, and was a rank second only to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.

Trump and the Lord of the Rings

I finally understand Donald Trump.  We decided to watch the first part of The Lord of the Rings again last week, and at the very end—do you remember?—when Frodo has brought the One Ring safely to the elf-home in Rivendell and everyone has gathered to decide what to do about it, there’s that scene where the ring is sitting on a pedestal and they all begin to argue about what to do next:  Use it to fight Mordor! Destroy it! Lose it in the ocean!    These are all good people from the different races of Middle Earth, and they all want to do the right thing, but the power of the ring is so great and so sinister that the argument becomes super-heated. Suddenly we see a close up of the ring itself and reflected in it are the angry faces of the elves, dwarves, hobbits and men, shouting at each other, growing red in the face, about to come to blows—a perfect image of the ring’s power to bend them to its will.

That’s what Trump does. He is the ring, making everybody crazy around him. Every time he opens his mouth or hits twitter there’s another round of media attention and everyone goes berserk.  At rallies, on talk-radio, on NPR, on TV good people get mad and start yelling at other good people. No one listens to anyone else, they just holler and scream and mock and tweet and sometimes even lash out, punching whoever is closest.  We’re all in its thrall, and by “its” I mean the power of anger.

Where does this analogy take us?   Where is our Mt. Doom, that place where we can un-make this power?   Is it in a protest march? A prayer for a speedy impeachment?   Or what?

Protests are fine –we need them too to send messages to our leaders–but what we also need  is  to recognize how reactive we’ve become and do something about it.   Limiting the time we spend with the media would help.  This 24-hour news cycle is making us all nutty.      Of course we have to keep up with events, but so many of us have become news junkies, that’s all we think about.    It’s eating away at us, devouring our very beings. Before you know it we’ll all be like Tolkien’s Nazgul, those black riders, the ring-wraiths, who were once men but are now the mere shadows of human beings, their bodies and spirits destroyed by the power of the Dark.

Let’s stop providing the fertile soil for the chaos the ring sows. Let’s turn off the radio and the screens and go play with our kids or  go to a community supper.   Perhaps instead of reacting to tweets, we could turn directly to our fellow citizens and try to understand what they’re telling us. Let’s get better at listening, and go into conversations willing to learn something we didn’t know before, and let’s hope our interlocutors are willing to do the same thing. Let’s be the change we want to see, as the old saying goes, and model the kinds of behaviors we wish to see take root.