Saturday, 11 February 2017

A Reichstag Fire . . . ?

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Well, three weeks into the new American presidency and the malevolent incompetent (as I heard this man recently described) is fully creating the havoc that his white middle-America base (an appropriate word) seems to believe is going to “Make America Great Again”. Now the president of the United States is at war with American judiciary for blocking his thinly disguised ban on all Muslims from seven countries which are mostly in turmoil as a result of inept American military action in the middle east. 

As this president sees it, the judiciary have prevented him from protecting the American people and it is they (the judiciary) who will be solely responsible for any future terrorist attack. There has been so much written and spoken about this fiasco recently and some analysts have suggested that all this may not be what appears to be gross incompetence but rather it is part of a more sinister strategy to further inflame the fear of Americans. The ultimate goal of these schemes is to consolidate more power and executive authority in the hands of the ultra-conservative right-wing (and white) minority.

This dark view of events seemed all pretty outlandish to me. I subscribed to the idea all these events are more the result of a deeply flawed individual overwhelmed by the enormity of his new job and flying by the seat of his pants. And then I read this article from The New Yorker.

Now I wonder when America is going to have its “Reichstag fire” . . . 

WHEN IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP FASCISM, ACCORDING TO STEFAN ZWEIG

By George Prochnik
February 6, 2017

The Austrian émigré writer Stefan Zweig composed the first draft of his memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” in a feverish rapture during the summer of 1941, as headlines gave every indication that civilization was being swallowed in darkness. Zweig’s beloved France had fallen to the Nazis the previous year. The Blitz had reached a peak in May, with almost fifteen hundred Londoners dying in a single night. Operation Barbarossa, the colossal invasion of the Soviet Union by the Axis powers, in which nearly a million people would die, had launched in June. Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, roared along just behind the Army, massacring Jews and other vilified groups—often with the help of local police and ordinary citizens.

Zweig himself had fled Austria preëmptively, in 1934. During the country’s brief, bloody civil war that February, when Engelbert Dollfuss, the country’s Clerico-Fascist Chancellor, had destroyed the Socialist opposition, Zweig’s Salzburg home had been searched for secret arms to supply the left-wing militias. Zweig at the time was regarded as one of Europe’s most prominent humanist-pacifists, and the absurd crudity of the police action so outraged him that he began packing his things that night. From Austria, Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, went to England, then to the New World, where New York City became his base, despite his aversion to its crowds and abrasive competitiveness. In June of 1941, longing for some respite from the needs of the exiles in Manhattan beseeching him for help with money, work, and connections, the couple rented a modest, rather grim bungalow in Ossining, New York, a mile uphill from Sing Sing Correctional Facility. There, Zweig set to furious work on his autobiography—laboring like “seven devils without a single walk,” as he put it. Some four hundred pages poured out of him in a matter of weeks. His productivity reflected his sense of urgency: the book was conceived as a kind of message to the future. It is a law of history, he wrote, “that contemporaries are denied a recognition of the early beginnings of the great movements which determine their times.” For the benefit of subsequent generations, who would be tasked with rebuilding society from the ruins, he was determined to trace how the Nazis’ reign of terror had become possible, and how he and so many others had been blind to its beginnings.

Zweig noted that he could not remember when he first heard Hitler’s name. It was an era of confusion, filled with ugly agitators. During the early years of Hitler’s rise, Zweig was at the height of his career, and a renowned champion of causes that sought to promote solidarity among European nations. He called for the founding of an international university with branches in all the major European capitals, with a rotating exchange program intended to expose young people to other communities, ethnicities, and religions. He was only too aware that the nationalistic passions expressed in the First World War had been compounded by new racist ideologies in the intervening years. The economic hardship and sense of humiliation that the German citizenry experienced as a consequence of the Versailles Treaty had created a pervasive resentment that could be enlisted to fuel any number of radical, bloodthirsty projects.

Zweig did take notice of the discipline and financial resources on display at the rallies of the National Socialists—their eerily synchronized drilling and spanking-new uniforms, and the remarkable fleets of automobiles, motorcycles, and trucks they paraded. Zweig often travelled across the German border to the little resort town of Berchtesgaden, where he saw “small but ever-growing squads of young fellows in riding boots and brown shirts, each with a loud-colored swastika on his sleeve.” These young men were clearly trained for attack, Zweig recalled. But after the crushing of Hitler’s attempted putsch, in 1923, Zweig seems hardly to have given the National Socialists another thought until the elections of 1930, when support for the Party exploded—from under a million votes two years earlier to more than six million. At that point, still oblivious to what this popular affirmation might portend, Zweig applauded the enthusiastic passion expressed in the elections. He blamed the stuffiness of the country’s old-fashioned democrats for the Nazi victory, calling the results at the time “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics.’ “

In his memoir, Zweig did not excuse himself or his intellectual peers for failing early on to reckon with Hitler’s significance. “The few among writers who had taken the trouble to read Hitler’s book, ridiculed the bombast of his stilted prose instead of occupying themselves with his program,” he wrote. They took him neither seriously nor literally. Even into the nineteen-thirties, “the big democratic newspapers, instead of warning their readers, reassured them day by day, that the movement . . . would inevitably collapse in no time.” Prideful of their own higher learning and cultivation, the intellectual classes could not absorb the idea that, thanks to “invisible wire-pullers”—the self-interested groups and individuals who believed they could manipulate the charismatic maverick for their own gain—this uneducated “beer-hall agitator” had already amassed vast support. After all, Germany was a state where the law rested on a firm foundation, where a majority in parliament was opposed to Hitler, and where every citizen believed that “his liberty and equal rights were secured by the solemnly affirmed constitution.”

Zweig recognized that propaganda had played a crucial role in eroding the conscience of the world. He described how, as the tide of propaganda rose during the First World War, saturating newspapers, magazines, and radio, the sensibilities of readers became deadened. Eventually, even well-meaning journalists and intellectuals became guilty of what he called “the ‘doping’ of excitement”—an artificial incitement of emotion that culminated, inevitably, in mass hatred and fear. Describing the healthy uproar that ensued after one artist’s eloquent outcry against the war in the autumn of 1914, Zweig observed that, at that point, “the word still had power. It had not yet been done to death by the organization of lies, by ‘propaganda.’ “ But Hitler “elevated lying to a matter of course,” Zweig wrote, just as he turned “anti-humanitarianism to law.” By 1939, he observed, “Not a single pronouncement by any writer had the slightest effect . . . no book, pamphlet, essay, or poem” could inspire the masses to resist Hitler’s push to war.

Propaganda both whipped up Hitler’s base and provided cover for his regime’s most brutal aggressions. It also allowed truth seeking to blur into wishful thinking, as Europeans’ yearning for a benign resolution to the global crisis trumped all rational skepticism. “Hitler merely had to utter the word ‘peace’ in a speech to arouse the newspapers to enthusiasm, to make them forget all his past deeds, and desist from asking why, after all, Germany was arming so madly,” Zweig wrote. Even as one heard rumors about the construction of special internment camps, and of secret chambers where innocent people were eliminated without trial, Zweig recounted, people refused to believe that the new reality could persist. “This could only be an eruption of an initial, senseless rage, one told oneself. That sort of thing could not last in the twentieth century.” In one of the most affecting scenes in his autobiography, Zweig describes seeing the first refugees from Germany climbing over the Salzburg mountains and fording the streams into Austria shortly after Hitler’s appointment to the Chancellorship. “Starved, shabby, agitated . . . they were the leaders in the panicked flight from inhumanity which was to spread over the whole earth. But even then I did not suspect when I looked at those fugitives that I ought to perceive in those pale faces, as in a mirror, my own life, and that we all, we all, we all would become victims of the lust for power of this one man.”

Zweig was miserable in the United States. Americans seemed indifferent to the suffering of émigrés; Europe, he said repeatedly, was committing suicide. He told one friend that he felt as if he were living a “posthumous” existence. In a desperate effort to renew his will to live, he travelled to Brazil in August of 1941, where, on previous visits, the country’s people had treated him as a superstar, and where the visible intermixing of the races had struck Zweig as the only way forward for humanity. In letters from the time he sounds chronically wistful, as if he has travelled back to before the world of yesterday. And yet, for all his fondness for the Brazilian people and appreciation of the country’s natural beauty, his loneliness grew more and more acute. Many of his closest friends were dead. The others were thousands of miles away. His dream of a borderless, tolerant Europe (always his true, spiritual homeland) had been destroyed. He wrote to the author Jules Romains, “My inner crisis consists in that I am not able to identify myself with the me of passport, the self of exile.” In February of 1942, together with Lotte, Zweig took an overdose of sleeping pills. In the formal suicide message he left behind, Zweig wrote that it seemed better to withdraw with dignity while he still could, having lived “a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.”

I wonder how far along the scale of moral degeneration Zweig would judge America to be in its current state. We have a magnetic leader, one who lies continually and remorselessly—not pathologically but strategically, to placate his opponents, to inflame the furies of his core constituency, and to foment chaos. The American people are confused and benumbed by a flood of fake news and misinformation. Reading in Zweig’s memoir how, during the years of Hitler’s rise to power, many well-meaning people “could not or did not wish to perceive that a new technique of conscious cynical amorality was at work,” it’s difficult not to think of our own present predicament. Last week, as Trump signed a drastic immigration ban that led to an outcry across the country and the world, then sought to mitigate those protests by small palliative measures and denials, I thought of one other crucial technique that Zweig identified in Hitler and his ministers: they introduced their most extreme measures gradually—strategically—in order to gauge how each new outrage was received. “Only a single pill at a time and then a moment of waiting to observe the effect of its strength, to see whether the world conscience would still digest the dose,” Zweig wrote. “The doses became progressively stronger until all Europe finally perished from them.”

And still Zweig might have noted that, as of today, President Trump and his sinister “wire-pullers” have not yet locked the protocols for their exercise of power into place. One tragic lesson offered by “The World of Yesterday” is that, even in a culture where misinformation has become omnipresent, where an angry base, supported by disparate, well-heeled interests, feels empowered by the relentless lying of a charismatic leader, the center might still hold. In Zweig’s view, the final toxin needed to precipitate German catastrophe came in February of 1933, with the burning of the national parliament building in Berlin–an arson attack Hitler blamed on the Communists but which some historians still believe was carried out by the Nazis themselves. “At one blow all of justice in Germany was smashed,” Zweig recalled. The destruction of a symbolic edifice—a blaze that caused no loss of life—became the pretext for the government to begin terrorizing its own civilian population. That fateful conflagration took place less than thirty days after Hitler became Chancellor. The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.

George Prochnik is the author of “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World” and “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem,” which is out in March from Other Press.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Well, Russia Is Happy

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Well it has happened. A great day for Russia I guess as "The Donald" has now been inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. This was something that I did not think was possible - that such a buffoon could be elected to the most powerful office in the world. To be so wrong in my understanding of what I believed the American voters would never allow is unnerving and depressing.

During the past year, the coverage of the election and the focus on "The Donald" has been staggering. The alarm bells have been ringing since day one of his campaign and now he is at the switch to cut the power to those bells. So much has been written about what is at stake with this man's presidency but I think this “Against the Logicians” blog sums up what we are in for.
A very frightening article indeed.

My Brother

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It has been such a long time since I last wrote a blog. In fact I have not written a blog in the entire year of 2016. I am not exactly certain why this is. It isn't because there was not a lot going on in the world in 2016 or that I'm not interested in current events. It certainly isn't because there had been no changes in my personal life. Perhaps it has been because there have been so many changes but one is the most significant.
Our last talk - our birthday 2016
This was the year my twin brother died. Jim had been sick with cancer for some time and had been taking a number of treatments seeking a cure. In April of 2016, for the first time in more years than I could remember we were together for our birthday. We spent the afternoon in his living room at home talking - mostly of the memories we shared, photography and cameras. He was hopeful that a new course of treatment soon to be started would improve his health. It would be the last time he spoke with me. Weeks later, at the end of May Paula and Emma, Jim's wife and daughter asked for me to come back to Toronto. Jim's treatment had not gone well and he had rapidly deteriorated. He was in a coma and did not have much more time. I arrived on Saturday and sat with him, Paula and Emma, and Gay, our sister, for the next two days as family and friends came to share their love for Jim.
On Monday evening (May 30th) with everyone gone, an exhausted Paula and Emma went home for a much needed rest. I was alone with Jim. Later in the evening his breathing slowed. Around 10:30, ever so gently, his breathing stopped. I was with him when he came into this world and I was with him when he left it. Even though I am writing this more than half a year after his death, I still don't think I have fully hoisted it in that he is gone.
He was such a good man and I miss him so much . . . Jims Obituary



Wednesday, 9 December 2015

American Politics


Its been awhile since I stirred to post my thoughts about anything.  Not sure why I am reticent, there is so much going on in this world that keeps me thinking.  For some reason American politics is one of those things that has always intrigued me and it does moves me to make comment (or, in this case, to post someone else's comments).

As they progress towards the election of a new president in 2016, the American political machines are now in full throttle and will be so until next November.  In 2012 I was in some dismay when it appeared that the extreme right wing had hijacked the Republican party.  The eventual republican candidate, Mitt Romney, lost the election and America seemed sane again.  Well . . . maybe not.  If I was concerned about the 2012 slate of Republican candidates and their ideas, I am in horror of what they offer for 2016.  In many ways it is deeply disturbing and the following article by Andrew O'Hehir  pretty much explains why.

Trump's dark victory:

Even Republicans are speaking out against the Donald's hateful Mussolini parody. But can the damage be undone?

ANDREW O'HEHIR | December 08, 2015 20:00 in SALON

It is time, brothers and sisters, to haul out the clichés, because for once they are not unwarranted. For most of my adult lifetime, which extends well back into the 20th century, people on the American left have been complaining about the slow march toward fascism. Now we have reached the day when such expressions no longer feel like metaphorical overkill.

When a purportedly major presidential candidate, leading in the polls less than two months before the first votes are cast, proposes that we keep people out of the country based entirely on their religion – well, it feels like apocalyptic science-fiction, as if we were all living inside “The Man in the High Castle,” but I can only conclude that the moment to stand up and be counted is upon us. This is the moment to draw a line in the political sand and the moment to observe that it can happen here. It’s the moment to ask yourself whose side you’re on, and the moment to observe that those who would sacrifice essential liberty for the sake of temporary safety will get neither. Would you have spoken out in Germany in 1933, or 1936, or 1939, risking your own safety and that of your family, or would you have kept on going with your head down? It is time for those questions too, and also for the one that U.S. Army chief counsel Joseph N. Welch famously asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

We don’t have to ask that question about Donald Trump, whose chief selling point has been his thoroughgoing lack of decency, along with his complete disconnection from political reality, legal plausibility and rational discourse. But all those questions apply with bitter and urgent relevance, however, to the rest of us. Trump, c’est nous -- or at least it is we who have created him and enabled his outrages. Now we face Victor Frankenstein’s problem: Having unleashed evil upon the world, largely because we wanted to see what would happen, how do we unmake the monster or undo his deeds? Win or lose, as Heather Digby Parton has noted, Trump has left his reeking polecat stench on American politics. From now on, the wholesale deportation of all immigrants, or the exclusion and persecution of all adherents to a particular faith, are mainstream political positions and not just the province of white supremacists with weird beards and multicolored Geocities-style websites.

Trump dropped his latest xenophobic bombshell on Monday, quite likely in response to a dip in his Iowa poll numbers, by suggesting that all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States “until we get ahold of what’s going on.” Here’s one thing that’s going on: We should not dignify such a blatantly unconstitutional piece of rhetorical pandering by calling it a “proposal” or even an “idea.” It’s more like a masturbatory fantasy for the disempowered Trumpian demographic, a little blue pill of super-concentrated hate that will take us back to a magic land of full employment for white people, where campus radicals and transgender people will disappear and black lives demonstrably do not matter.

Has Trump finally gone too far? Well, by now we ought to understand that’s a stupid question. His job is to go too far, and to drag the rest of us along with him, inch by inch. Everyone who wants to be seen as respectable in politics and media and any other arena of public life has backed away from Trump’s latest policy brain-fart in pearl-clutching horror, including most but not quite all of the other Republican presidential candidates. That’s better than hearing people agree with him, I guess, and it’s somewhat reassuring to discover that even in this year of upside-down politics there are things that still strike almost everyone as beyond the pale. But in some cases you have to be surprised that the words of shock and dismay didn’t curdle on their lips, or that the phrases of righteous indignation didn’t turn into scorpions and sting their utterers to death on the way out.

When Chris Christie has argued that not even 5-year-old children from Syria should be admitted to the United States as refugees, and Jeb Bush has suggested that we should admit only those refugees who happen to be Christians, and Marco Rubio has argued whatever version of the no-refugees position he has been told puts him slightly to the right of Bush and slightly to the left of Trump and Ted Cruz, what possible right do those craven and spineless hypocrites, those mollusks of the shifting ideological tides, have to object to Trump pushing those ideas toward their logical extreme? Without even considering the 24/7 Father Coughlin-style demagoguery of Fox News, which has been spreading indiscriminate anti-Muslim hatred for the last 14 years, what right do Joe Scarborough or Chris Matthews or the false-equivalence talking heads of CNN have to pull long faces and announce that this, at last, is unacceptable and un-American, whereas all the crazy stuff we were talking about yesterday was totally fine.

Cable TV and social media and the amphetamine-fueled mania of the news cycle have nurtured and fed Donald Trump all along – he isn’t the first politician to be a celebrity first, but he’s the first to have been a reality TV star before he was a candidate – and has delighted in the fact that it couldn’t quite control him or predict what he would do next. As Trump and Roger Ailes were both clearly aware, their semi-manufactured feud was beneficial for both of their brands and for the ultimate cause they both serve, which has a scary name I will try to avoid saying again, lest sensitive readers get the vapors. (F-word trigger warning!) For now let’s just call it “replacing our screwed-up political system with something awesome.”

From the beginning of his campaign, Trump has served as the release valve for the Republican Id, saying things that we all know many “base voters” and “ordinary Americans” are thinking – you don’t need me to decode those terms, I imagine -- but that the party’s “establishment” candidates feel compelled to pussyfoot around or cloak in euphemism. He has repeatedly stripped those cloaks of euphemism and equivocation away from his rivals, and especially Rubio and Bush, the two candidates whom the Koch brothers and other deep-pockets GOP backers would presumably prefer.

Those guys (and Christie, to a lesser extent) have variously tried to tack with the Trumpian wind and then against it, tried to stay in his shadow, and tried to attach themselves to him like limpets, suggesting that they will accomplish almost the same impossible things he has promised without being quite as mean. Once again he has played them for fools, and forced them to face an unpalatable political choice: They can slither closer to the Trump position than they have already, revealing themselves to be craven, soulless panderers who will stop at nothing. Maybe we can bar Muslim tourists on alternate days? Or subject them to cavity searches and blasts of radiation? Or exclude the ones who really “look Muslim”? Failing that, Trump’s rivals can stand there like doofuses, soberly announcing that the Donald has finally gone too far, and revealing themselves to the Republican electorate as Obama-loving, terrorist-coddling pantywaist traitors.

Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham at least deserve credit for political clarity, if nothing else, although the results of their strategies are quite different. Cruz has never distanced himself from Trump to any meaningful extent, and has not done so this week. He has wrapped himself around Trump’s trunk like the Serpent around the Tree of Knowledge, waiting for that apple to fall into his mouth. Cruz’s only response to the ban-all-Muslims notion has been to say “that is not my policy,” while making clear yet again that he feels the pain of the Trump demographic and shares their deep concern about the impending Islamic takeover of America, and that if they ultimately decide they want someone a little smoother, with a bit more book-learning and less obvious signs of mental illness, he is available. Trump scares me plenty, but I think Cruz scares me more.

Graham, on the other hand, is an old-time Bush-Cheney neocon who forcefully supported the war that got us into this mess in the first place and now wants to wage another, bigger one. He is wrong on virtually every substantive policy issue and has absolutely no chance of being nominated or winning the election (albeit for reasons unrelated to his wrongness). But God love the guy, he is not a fascist and has seen from the beginning that the big 2015 swerve into Muslim-bashing and immigrant-bashing is terrible news for his political party and the entire country. On Tuesday morning, Graham called in to Scarborough’s show to describe Trump as “a xenophobic, race-baiting religious bigot.” That was by far the strongest language of any GOP candidate, and was entirely consistent with what Graham has said all along.

You will notice, of course, which of those guys presents a threat to Trump’s front-runner status and which is running a Don Quixote campaign to save the Republican Party’s soul. We keep pretending to be surprised by the current of ugly sentiment that Trump has ridden for months now, but the time for shock and disbelief is now over. Trump’s new plan to combat the Muslim menace overlapped on Monday with the news from France, where Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim National Front scored big gains in local and regional elections. One should not overstate the parallels; the European right and the American right are different creatures with different histories and major areas of divergence. (On Christianity, for instance.) But those events are hardly coincidental, and the obvious symbiotic relationship between them is deeply disturbing.

I was an early adopter of the journalistic thesis that Trump and Bernie Sanders were closely related phenomena, and represented opposing faces of populist resistance to the failed politics of the Republicrat duopoly. That remains a valid analysis, to some limited extent, but my enraged Bernie-loving friends were right about its limitations. Trump’s gargoyle act isn’t funny or useful or “provocative” anymore, and his comic-opera portrayal of Benito Mussolini -- can you parody someone who was a parody in the first place? – is getting closer to the real thing with every passing day. Has Trump gone too far? It’s the wrong question. America has gone much too far down a dark road, and we don’t have a light or a map to find our way back.