For years the politics of both Left and Right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle, but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities.
This class lives in the United States, but they identify as “citizens of the world.” They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.
And they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress.
Many remember thinking to ourselves, “If fascism were to come to America, I’d know and I’d speak out!” Wasn’t that part of our education, after all? Being taught to recognize the signs of the civic illness beginning to sprout, and asked, “What would you do?”
Of course, we’re well down that right-turn road now, aren’t we? I personally don’t see Trump as leading any such movement; I actually understand him to be far more a symptom of our decline than any cause.
What, however, do we do with the speech Freshman Senator Josh Hawley gave recently? Do we write it off as just another over-enthusiastic presentation of right-wing talking points? Perhaps we could, were it not for repeated renditions of National Socialist rhetoric recognizable to any high school history student. Words like “cosmopolitan”, which is just another way of saying “Jew” and “Jewish”. Perhaps the following quote might ring a familiar bell:
Since the days of the city-state, the republican tradition has always viewed self-government as a project bound to a particular place, practiced by citizens loyal to that place andloyal to the way of life they share together. [Emphasis added]
As Wonkette’s Dr Zoom writes below this blockquote in the above-linked article, ” You might even say they’re bound by blood and soil, we suppose.”
This young, fresh-faced lawmaker has moved far beyond the simple-minded rhetoric of patriotism and a watered-down Christianity of much of our recent Republican politicians. Hawley has opened himself to the Goebbels Manual of Style, and allowed himself to speak quite openly words that drip with the blood of millions. “You’re being alarmist!” people will no doubt say.
They said much the same of some of the earliest refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
This Trumpjungen has no business in any polite or educated or human society. Let alone the United States Senate. When you start sounding just a bit too much like the unlamented Reichfuhrer, without apology, it is time to be very clear where we stand: Either we call Hawley the American National Socialist he is or we surrender now any claim to resistance down the road.
The New is greeted as a brother who has travelled from the region where the sun rises. The sensational wish is in malleable, dull souls itself dull and gullible, in strong souls capable of vision it is thorough. It wants to make sure that [humanity] is not lying crooked, that [humanity] is in tune with [our] place and [our] work. That this work does not fob [us] of with alms, but rather that the same old story of doing without finally comes to an end. . . .
. . . The obsession with what is better remains, even when what is better has been prevented for so long. When what is wished for arrives, it surprises us anyway.
Ours is an age that has forgotten how to hope. Oh, this isn’t anything recent. It is the direct result of a kind of small-minded ideological triumphalism best expressed by the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With the military stand-off in Central Europe gone with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact; with the political stand-off with the Soviet Union ended with the collapse of the Soviet state, Thatcher repeatedly insisted, “There is no alternative.” Thus TINA was born, a phrase that said everything yet said nothing at all. “Alternative” suggests a series of choices available. Once the field is declared clear – There Is No Alternative – there exists nothing left for which human beings might desire. “No alternative”? To what, exactly?
Why, only the ridiculously bloated, increasingly inefficient, and soon-to-be-senescent late capitalism at once given the name New World Order yet bearing a striking resemblance to the same-old same-old of much of the western world since the 19th century. While much of the world looked on as the events of 1989-1991 unfolded with a rare sense of joy as oppressed peoples danced upon the soon-to-collapse walls that once meant death, the leaders of the west moved quickly, even decisively, to declare the events meant one thing and one thing only. Those moments of surprise and happiness were greeted with the dull monotone of the victorious speeches of the mediocrities in Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn. Millions of us watched in wonder, believing that all sorts of things were possible if the very regimes we were told over and over would never fade collapsed under their own dead weight. Wonder, joy, happiness collided with the immovable object of technocratic capitalism. When dullards face something beautiful, they cannot help but make it as bland as themselves.
That era has now reached its logical conclusion in the growing Nazification of America and western Europe. Old hatreds and bitterness, once thought decisively defeated and exposed for the demonic entities they were, have emerged as TINA has forced upon us less and less room to maneuver even as changes continue around us. The dull minds of technocrats have been replaced by the poisoned minds of fascist fears and, the old restraints no longer in place, racist hatreds and we find ourselves facing dangerous times with a dearth of sense about how to move forward.
Speaking of hope in a moment such as this seems absurd. To speak of it in the tones of an ideological enemy declared defeated seems nonsensical, meaningless. With the loss of any room in which to move, we face the choice either of being crushed by the onrushing nightmare or declaring there are now, and have always been, choices. The emptiness of senescent capitalism offers nothing but its logical conclusion – Gotterdamerung. There is, also, a small glimmer of light. That glimmer is the wish, or dream, or forgotten ideal, that things can be different, even better, more humane.
Bloch’s Marxist social psychology of Hope – for such it is, regardless of other definitions on offer – is a tiny candle in the darkness of our times. In this first part, we read Bloch describing the ways wishes and dreams of all kinds, rooted in class consciousness and socio-economic status, may seem of a piece but in fact seek very different ends. For the ruling class it is a desperate search for an end to boredom brought on by the successes of excess. For the petit bourgeoisie it is the fanned flames of resentment not so much at the rulers who declare an end to alternatives or their own realization of their mediocrity in a world that once rewarded such; instead, their increased bitterness and rage aims at easier targets, those below and outside their own too-small circle of acceptability. Even as global events force a need for real alternatives, we are increasingly left with the nonsense of a fading, aged ruling class or the rage of those no longer able to access corridors of power that once seemed to be their own by right.
And yet there are those who wish and dream for an end of suffering. They desire neither the dullness of “the real” nor the violence of exclusion but rather the friendliness (in the full sense of the word) of people working, struggling together to live a more humane and moral life together for the benefit of all. These dreams of the end to deprivation and suffering are called “utopian” or “foreign” even as they continue to fill the minds of our neighbors who believe it possible to live without fear or boredom. In our Age Of TINA, it seems outlandish, ridiculous, mindless to believe such is possible.
It is with these dreams and wishes, the possibility of alternatives to either the long twilight of our fading capitalist age or the Dark Age of the fascist nightmare, that Bloch begins to lift his candle, giving us the ability to see something that we have been told doesn’t exist. Even in our wishes and dreams, as fanciful as they might be, we see the tiniest light of hope. We are reminded that things can be different. We are not subject only to the gray skies of dullards or the endless night of Nazis.
Hope is there, its small light shining upon things we had forgotten might be possible.
On this third or fourth reading of Bloch’s massive work, I’ll be offering reflections at the end of each Part. Even if no one else encounters them, at least here a light might yet shine in the dimming dusk of a time that seems to offer us nothing but gloom or doom as the ends toward which we move.
In the midst of the horrors of our historical moment, I read something this morning that shocked me far more than I imagined. It was a gut punch in a way even concentration camps, our crumbling civic infrastructure, and our horrible man-boy President have yet to hit me. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the violation. I’m not sure. The headline above is from the IncelTears subreddit, and describes the event in question succinctly. I first saw the story, however, at We Hunted The Mammoth, and at first I refused to believe what I was reading.
Sunday morning, a young man named Brandon Clark allegedly murdered 17-year-old Instagram “e-girl” Bianca Devins, apparently a friend of his, brutally slashing her throat and then slashing his own in an attempt to kill himself. Sometime between the murder and the attempted suicide, he took a photo of her bloody body and uploaded it to 4chan.
The photo quickly spread across social media, including the Incels.co forum, where it was evidently found by a commenter calling himself canino1997, who reacted to the horrific tragedy by masturbating to the picture of Devins’ lifeless body and sending a picture of the resulting “cum tribute” to the girl’s mother (or perhaps her stepmother) as a sort of ‘”lesson” for her.
David Futrelle, ” Incel jerks off to a grisly photo of a murdered girl, claims he sent the resulting “cum tribute” to the girl’s mother”, July 15, 2019
Canino1997 was helpful enough to include a screenshot of the messages he sent to Bianca’s mother along with the photo.
If possible, let us set to one side what is obvious: Bianca’s murderer is a disturbed, entitled individual who, after playing a few online games with a young woman thought he was betrayed because Bianca was living her life. So he killed her, because that seems to be the thing one does. Such entitlement we call male privilege. It is endorsed and supported by men across the political spectrum. It consists of the very simple idea that men, believing themselves the bearers of the work of western society, deserve any woman they so choose to be theirs. No human agency is ascribed to women; they are nothing more than the passive recipients of men’s attention, that thing that drives all women’s behavior. Whether it’s Joe Biden getting a bit too touchy-feely with women without once realizing it is inappropriate, Brett Kavanaugh raping a young woman at a party then bragging about it in his HS yearbook, or our current President assaulting women left and right without any sense of remorse, male privilege is a very real thing, both insidious and dangerous.
When men believing themselves to be so privileged, feel themselves ignored or otherwise scorned by women who should by rights submit to them simply because they’re men, they seethe with bitterness, rage, and a hatred that has been and continues to be murderous. These men call themselves “Incels”, a term originally coined by advocates for the physically disabled to talk describe the “involuntary celibacy” far too many such persons live with. Like all good things, this term has been hijacked by a group of angry, spiteful garbage-people and it has reached something of a nadir with this latest event.
As most people are normal, we are disgusted and enraged by this particular bit of “Incel” action. As if something could be worse than the murder, or the act of the man sending Bianca’s mother those words and photo, there are people who applaud the act and the person who committed it.
What, we wonder, is happening?
As we normal folks look on in horror, it is not at all surprising that a few folks wonder where God is in the midst of all this. After all, God’s supposed to be all powerful, benevolent, yadda-yadda. People all over the place claim God’s blessing for all sorts of good things that happen in their lives. It would seem that if God is willing to bless some few folks with material and social wealth and power, the least God could also do is protect 17-year-old girls from murderous psychopaths. Barring that, perhaps God could prevent sick individuals from continuing to victimize the girl’s family, particularly in this horrible way. Thus the quoted epigram. It is, I think, given so much blather about blessings and such, a fair question to ask.
One would think that our collective history over the past 105 years, from the roughly the beginning of the First World War, might give us pause in our discussions about Divine blessing; might offer us a more sober and realistic view of Divine and human justice, and a tempered understanding of human capacity for radical evil. Whether it is collective or individual, the past century has opened our eyes to the fact that, despite the many vaunted and very real steps we humans have made in making society and our interpersonal relationships more decent, there lies within each of us and all of us the potential to commit acts of violence and hatred that horrify us when we see them played out by others. The only thing more horrible than canino1997 actions is the deep understanding that he is, at heart, no different than any of us.
Except we have built far too many walls – psychological, historical, political – around our century of radical evil to be able to grasp this simple reality. The horrors we see and hear and read about offend us in their cruelty. We call those who commit such acts “monsters”, denying to them the one thing we must never release: these are men and women no different than we. The only difference is such persons grasp the essential reality of the modern age: We are truly free, and that freedom includes the freedom to allow our most basic instincts to run wild. While the rest of us cling to ideas of morality and law, our sense of the need for our common life to be decent and safe, there are those who rightly understand these things to be nothing more than human constructs and habits of mind of recent vintage. Violating them does no violence to some immutable human or divine order; it is the expression of the extent of human freedom.
Such radical evil isn’t only the provenance of our era of mass death. In the late Renaissance, Christian ministers and theologians justified the mass enslavement of subject populations in the Americas and Africa with as little thought to these people’s humanity as they did the slaughter of animals for food. In North America, ministers like Increase and Cotton Mather justified the deliberate murder of surrounding native tribes through a kind of biological warfare by the simple (to them) notion that as the local Indian peoples existed outside Christendom, they weren’t to be of any concern to the colonists whose survival these same Indians has helped sustain.
Around the time of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade wrote a series of novels in which he spelled out in gruesome detail his belief, bolstered by a rigorously rational series of arguments that other people exist solely for our use and pleasure. Men, women, and children only exist to satisfy us. The powerful are entitled to do whatever they would wish to do, up to and including murdering them once their usefulness has been exhausted. We sentimental moderns flinch and blanch at such things, yet not only from disgust; we also understand that such events and their justifications are not at all inhuman. They are, to use Nietzsche’s felicitous and ironic phrase, “Human. All Too Human”.
Which brings me to the whole matter of the role of God in all this. The so-called cri de coeur, the keen to the heavens for an answer in the midst of human suffering, is often noted to be followed by silence. Thus do many reject a God who would claim both Divine forbearance for human beings, and a species of justice meted out in time and history toward those deserving it. The repeated failure of God at the most crucial – that is to say, most painful – moments of our individual and collective lives seems in and for itself enough reason to state what seems obvious: God doesn’t exist.
Except, of course, this ignores the one elephant in the room we choose to refuse to acknowledge: Ourselves. We think far too highly of ourselves, both as individuals and as a species, to acknowledge that the depths of depravity we too often see and hear and read about are not only very real, but very real human possibilities. You want to blame God? Blame God for allowing us the freedom to act even upon the most base thoughts that lie deep inside. Blame God for loving us enough to offer us responsibility for our own actions. Blame God for our ability to study and analyze and consider the depths of evil without ever once seeing it as fully human, in no need of outside instigation or influence. Whether it’s the slaughter bench of history, as Hegel called it, the daily assault of human indignities we see around us, or the increasingly visible acts of human depravity available to the human gaze through the Internet, we see and hear and read these things with our only reaction being, “this isn’t human.”
It is, though. It was human beings who believed the old woman living in the falling down house was somehow an agent of a supernatural evil, deserving of torture, strangulation, and burning. It was human beings who thought nothing of executing hundreds of other human beings, placing their twisted bodies on cross-trees along the sides of well-traveled roads as a message regarding the fate of political rebels. It was human beings who thought it a Christian duty to poison whole populations with disease to clear the land for its possession by the righteous. It was human beings who considered the simple act of the existence of human difference an affront to human society, deserving of death on an industrial scale never seen before.
It was a human being who thought it was justified to sexualize the death of a young girl, taunting that girl’s family with words and deeds to further their pain and suffering.
Where was God in all this, we ask?
God was right there. allowing human beings to act on their freedom, including the freedom for depravity. It was and continues to be human beings who allow these things to happen. We claim we know better. We claim we understand the lessons of history, that “never again” will we allow the dehumanization of others lead to mass death. We claim we understand the capacity for evil such that we seek to prevent it before it claims others. These comforting lies we tell ourselves, proved false again and again by things that actually happen, show that it is not God who stands not only accused but convicted of complicity for such things.
It’s us. All of us. Each of us. We allow these things to happen. We excuse ourselves through claims of powerlessness, through a kind of just-desserts appeal that some victims of human evil receive whatever is their due. We appeal to some made-up “right” to speech and expression, as if we even understood what any of those words might mean in the real world. We purposely blind ourselves to our complicity in events far too shocking to accept as the simple expression of human freedom over and against all restraints we claim exist to prevent them. When the restraints are shed, which they are each and every day, turning and blaming God is a bit like yelling at the river for flooding after too much rain. We could prevent such flooding, of course, but we don’t. So, too, we could prevent much of the monstrous evil we encounter each day, but we don’t do so precisely because we’ve rationalized that such evil is actually outside the possibility of human action; thus responsibility for such evil lies outside human agency. It is either the result of some supernatural being whose existence is evil; or it is the responsibility of a negligent God who has surrendered Divine responsibility for the creation that wails in agony.
Why is it necessary to drag God into discussions of evil? We human being, really, are all that’s needed for evil to exist and, occasionally, triumph.
Moving from Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times to Jack Forstman’s Christian Faith In Dark Times was easy. For one thing, both Arendt and Forstman offer insight into how different people of amazing intellectual force and moral power struggled with and either lost or won their battles with particular “dark times”. Unlike Arendt, however, Forstman offers us a view of six of the most creative theological minds in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War as they faced the twin krises of their times: the emergence of Dialectical Theology in the 1920’s and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. Unlike Arendt, who seems willing to give some failures a pass (read her essay on Brecht), Forstman is unsparing in making it clear that theologians (under discussion here are Friedrich Gogarten, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch) who sided first with the German Christian Church and the National Socialist Party and its leader failed the most crucial test any Christian must face.*
Serving as an excellent introduction to the early years and controversies of Dialectical Theology and its opponents, supporters and hangers-on (this last would include Paul Tillich and, after a fashion, Rudolf Bultmann who considered himself a part of the movement in the mid-20’s but distanced himself over time from Barth’s stridency), Forstman offers readers a bird’s-eye view of an important historical moment in the life of Christian theology in the West. Born in the disillusionment that flowed from the collapse of the West in the First World War, its initial proponents, Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, sought to reaffirm that most basic proclamation of the Christian faith – that God is God, not a predicate of any human construct nor the subject of human activity and inquiry. While shifting his emphasis over the decades of his long career, Barth never lost this most basic point: God is. Everything else is not God. That distinction, what Barth called after Kierkegaard an “infinite qualitative distinction” should humble our statements regarding theological possibilities. For Barth, the far-too-enthusiastic participation of the German churches and theological faculty in prosecuting the war** showed the emptiness at the heart of then-regnant Liberal Theology.
Over the ensuing years, Dialectical Theology served much the same function as, in a different context, punk music served in Great Britain in the 1970’s. While punk was a living, vibrant, edgy scene that offered to those who understood it a way out of the morass of the over-corporatized megagroup music then in favor, the truth is it was a commercial failure and was, as even Elvis Costello would say, an “elitist” approach to musical revolution. So, too, with Dialectical Theology; while from our perspective a century after the publication of Barth’s Romerbrief it’s easy enough to see the change it and subsequent publications in much the same vein brought to European and later American theology, at the time it was loud only because Barth was his own best publicist and had a very loud, one might say strident, voice.
As the times changed, however, attention shifted to the growing power and influence of a political movement few intellectuals took very seriously. Philosopher Hans Georg-Gadamer, in an anecdote Forstman includes in a footnote, was at the time (the early 1930’s) a student at Marburg and one of a circle of young disciples of Rudolf Bultmann. Gadamer knew nothing about the National Socialists other than their outrageous views, criminal activities and thought it nonsense that such a thing might one day become powerful enough to rule Germany. Intellectually and practically, Hitler and National Socialism up to the moment it seized power, was an improbable joke.
Only when the National Socialists became the second largest party in the Reichstag in elections in 1931 did people suddenly realize that if Hitler were a joke, no one was laughing anymore. Due to the volatility and ineptitude of Weimar Republic German politics and politicians, Hitler was reluctantly appointed Chancellor of a coalition government by President von Hindenburg. After an attempted arson on the Reichstag building, the Nazis moved swiftly to consolidate power through the passage of what was unceremoniously called “Enabling Legislation” granting to the Chancellor a series of emergency powers that resulted in the destruction of rival parties, the jailing of opposition leadership in hastily-built concentration camps, and the emergence of an enforced Cult of Personality that included requisite loyalty oaths to the National Socialist State and the person of Adolf Hitler.
Not long after the enabling legislation was passed, Tillich lost his teaching position but was offered a soft landing at Union Seminary in New York City, thanks in part to the intervention of Richard Niebuhr and his brother Reinhold. Others – Gogarten, Hirsch, and Althaus – not only signed the oath but Hirsch and Althaus wrote offering an enthusiastic “Yes” to the person of Hitler and the work of the Nazi Part in the State. Karl Barth would only sign an oath if a qualifying sentence would be added; after much back-and-forth, the state accepted, Barth signed, then a week later was dismissed from the theological faculty in Gottingen. Like Tillich, Barth had a soft landing in his hometown of Basel on the Swiss/French/German border.
The unlikeliest of heroes, Rudolf Bultmann emerges from Forstman’s text as the most courageous of the men investigated. He refused to sign the oath but never lost his teaching position. He continued to be critical both of Nazism and the German Christian movement throughout the war years, preaching often at local churches and never shying away from speaking the Gospel in a demon-haunted land. He always faced opposition, even protest, but he kept his position, continued to teach, and after the War became known in the English-speaking world for his exegetical work on New Testament texts.
The question Forstman asks at the beginning of the book – “[A]re there in Christian faith understandings of God, self, and the world that can help one recognize the demonic before it shows itself boldly?” – has become ever more relevant. I first purchased and read this book in 1992. At the time, there were certainly troubles and frustrations, both within the churches in the United States and in our political life. In the ensuing quarter century, however, what was only nascent if at all has become our own kairos. We Christians living in America have faced over recent history moments of choice; by and large, the majority of American Christians have chosen poorly. This has harmed both the churches in America as well as our common life as American citizens. I know there are some, perhaps many, who wouldn’t abide the idea that our politics has become demonic; that this fiendish infiltration took root first in the churches before spreading itself out, allowing for the election of our very own clownish, ridiculous leader, Donald Trump.
Here we are, however. I think that the best Christian theology offers tools for those willing to use them to be able to stand in critical distance from our own moment and shout a “No!” that would make Karl Barth proud. Alas, I think too few people use these tools. Thus it is we find ourselves in our current state of affairs. Forstman’s book, then, is hardly at all dated; like Arendt before him, Forstman challenges his readers to recognize the fallen angels of our time, to wrestle with them honestly and fearlessly, and be able to call them by name even as they continue to ravage our churches and world.
*The exception seems to be his rather more tentative statements regarding Hirsch. Considering Hirsch never repudiated his membership in the Nazi Party, held fast to the virulent anti-Semitism of the Party, and accepted exile from academic life rather than deny his adherence to Nazi ideas, this hesitancy seems more than a little misplaced. Yes, Hirsch was brilliant, as those things can be understood, in the depth and breadth of his intellect. To call an unrepentant Nazi “extremely ethical”, as Forstman does, does violence to the word.
** I do not know if Barth ever knew this, but the infamous speech Kaiser Wilhelm gave in defense of his declaration of war – infamous both because of the content of the speech as well as a photograph of the event shows very clearly a young Austrian immigrant, Adolf Hitler, looking on in rapture as Wilhelm spoke – was written in large part by Barth’s teacher, one of the greatest historians of Christian teachings, Adolf von Harnack.
Was it Trump going off-script again, trying to ad lib even though he is incapable of doing so? Was it a misreading of “ports” on blurry teleprompters brought about by heavy rain? Was it an ignorant – or perhaps playful – speechwriter? Regardless of the circumstances, Trump’s mangled attempt to portray the honor and bravery of our revolutionary forbears is now the stuff of Internet legend. Searching the hashtag #RevolutionaryWarAirports on Twitter offers up a view of creative ridicule that should stand the test of time.
It is fitting that, over the past couple days, I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times, a series of essays on men (and two women, Rosa Luxemborg and Isaak Dinesen) who let their light shine, even if only dimly, in the midst of the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. One of the many benefits of the essays is to see how different people responded to the catastrophes of the years 1914-1945 in ways that allowed even a tiny bit of light to shine. Even Walter Benjamin, perhaps the darkest portrait (because the most beset character) in the collection, comes off as the true prophet sine qua non of an era whose legacy we still struggle to comprehend. Precisely because Benjamin saw himself, as described so beautifully by Arendt, as a collector of the detritus of a tradition once-for-all smashed to bits by the excesses of War, Revolution, Anti-Semitism, and Barbarism, he lived wholly in and of the historical moment, taking its darkness upon himself in order to keep it from obscuring the light of his insights and kritik.
We who are living in our own Dark Times search for some bit of light to keep from being overwhelmed. It is hardly just the political situation in which we find ourselves; the climate crisis presses itself all around us, not just as Americans but around the world. Wars and injustice rooted in our rapidly changing climate, creating refugees seeking nothing more than a quiet life are creating conditions in which a spreading fascism becomes ever-more a viable alternative. Precisely because there is, now perhaps too late, a sense of the limits we as a species face, there also appears (far too easily among a vocal few) a willingness to offer those most vulnerable as a sacrifice for the salvation of the rest of us.
With an American President attempting a self-aggrandizing military parade on our Day of Independence was insulting enough. Coming as it does amidst a daily assault on every attempt to make our land somewhat more livable, more humane, it seemed another step on a march toward a peculiarly American fascism. Lucky for us, however, as he did recently in his canceled attack on Iran, Trump demonstrated he is not so much to be feared as he is to be ridiculed. A master of no plans, his inability to lead only overshadowed by his ineptitude at even the most basic civic functions, Trump’s attempt to offer stunning visuals of himself surrounded by American military might turned into a rain-soaked farce that was topped with a series of misstatements that have become a source for much entertainment.
And why not laugh at the absurdity? The man himself, Donald Trump, is as absurd a figure as history has thought fit to toss our way. This Mini-Mart Mussolini doesn’t even have the wherewithal to understand how ludicrous he really is. Far better to laugh than to rage in any event; not for nothing do tyrants (even wannabes like Trump) fear laughter more than anything precisely because mockery exposes the reality of weakness and fear behind every autocrat. Even as we rage and sorrow over the treatment of children in our care (and do so, on both left and right, with a remarkable historical blindness to such treatment being part and parcel of American history); even as we witness the degradation and destruction of our institutions in the name of momentary political advantage; even as some actually get angry about a shoe company; why the hell not laugh when someone says that the Continental Army sought to control airports?
After all, I think that’s the reason for the reaction (perhaps overreaction?) so many on social media have had. Even as we worry about what might yet await us, there is at least the comforting thought our pretend President isn’t smart enough to know there were no airports in the 18th century. We can, for a moment or two, laugh at Trump’s absurdity. stupidity, and vacuousness before we return – as we always must – to the darkness of our present moment. Why begrudge our laughter at the expense of someone so well-suited to derision?
The above, much of the second stanza of Auden’s poem, is quoted by Larry McMurtry in the Introduction to his essay collection Sacagawea’s Nickname. Offering it as a warning to those who might seek in history answers to questions that cannot be answered, McMurtry writes: “Vast book has followed vast book, and yet no one is still quite able to say with precision why that particular culture went mad.” (p.x) As it was with the German descent into barbarism, so, too, I think will be the case with historians trying, at some point in the future, to understand just what happened with the United States during “those years”. Should, that is, we survive it to have historians to ask the question.
The current online flap over whether or not to call the detention centers “concentration camps” – centers where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently house thousands of men, women, and children who have tried to enter the United States in deplorable, unsanitary, unhealthy conditions that are, apart from their illegality, understaffed or staffed with unaccountable (to the American people) private contractors who are already accused of abuse, violence, and rape – brings the question Auden thought worth asking, “What happened at Linz?” to the forefront in a most immediate way.
It is all too easy, I think, to believe that pretty much everything is up for debate. “You say tomato, I say tomahto” seems to be a model for a kind of pseudo-democratic public sphere. Is the earth getting warmer? Did we humans have a significant role in that warming? What does this climate event mean for human societies going forward? Are reparations for slavery still a just answer to the crime of slavery? Is the United States operating “concentration camps” in the historical understanding of that term? These are questions that everyone seems to have an answer to, even if they don’t understand what’s actually at stake in creating a question out of a statement. The internet has created a false sense of expertise, a notion that every opinion, every thought, every point of view is equally legitimate; therefore we must, by the demands of some pseudo-democratic rule, accord equal measure to cranks and historians, ideologues and pragmatists, honest brokers and those with agendas. All responses to these and other questions in our current public discourse are of the same validity, we are told, therefore demand thoughtful responses.
Of course, this isn’t really how things are. There really are people who know things in a depth and detail that can be astounding. Part of their task, often, is teaching; not just offering information (although God knows that’s too often lacking) but a way to think about things. One of the first things the best teachers confer is a critical awareness that, despite what our grade-school teachers told us, there really is such a thing as a stupid question. Consider, for example, the discussion about reparations. The case for them is pretty straight forward and sensible. An “argument” against them that I often see is, “No one living today has ever owned a slave. Therefore no one living today owes black folk anything.” The problem with this statement, of course, is it doesn’t address the matter of reparations at all; it is, rather, an attempted evasion of personal responsibility for a situation of ongoing collective injustice against a population still facing structural barriers to full participation in American life. A person might soothe their conscience by saying such things; it also is meaningless to the matter or reparations.
As with the reparations debate, so, too, with the matter of concentration camps. The term was first used by the British during the Boer War to describe large prison camps where the Afrikaans population of British South Africa were housed to prevent their participation in actions against the British. When Hitler was granted the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933, one of his first acts was mass arrests of communists, socialists, intellectuals, and other “undesirables” and the creation of a system of camps where they could be held indefinitely outside the judicial processes of the state. They were not the same thing as the killing centers, the latter built in what was called the Poland General-Government. These latter didn’t appear until after the Wansee Conference in 1942 at which the “Final Solution” to the so-called Judenfrage was determined to be human slaughter on an industrial scale. At the concentration camps in Germany, renegade clergy, religious minorities, sexual minorities, the old, the developmentally disabled, political dissidents, and others were housed in conditions that led to mass death through malign neglect. The killing centers – Auschwitz and Sobibor and Treblinka and the rest – existed only to kill millions of people as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Obviously, we haven’t yet built killing centers. We have, however, built concentration camps. And not for the first time in our history. What were the Indian reservations but large unfenced and unguarded prisons where the indigenous populations were left to rot and die? The internment camps for Japanese during World War II were nothing other than a variation on concentration camps. The United States even exported the idea to South Vietnam, calling them “strategic hamlets” but actually little more than a way of corralling and neglecting a hostile people. To pretend that the US is somehow immune to the charge of having built and used concentration camps, either in the past or present, ignores things that really happened and are happening right now.
I have seen many on the right complain that, since the previous Administration did much the same thing without a hue and cry, doing so now amounts to little more than opportunism would have more merit if there weren’t many people on the American left who indeed called what the Obama Administration did deplorable and criminal. They used the same words, up to and including concentration camps, to talk about the conditions under which people were being held without trial or any adjudication at all. The Obama Administration isn’t off the hook for its crimes; history will judge it just as harshly. Pointing out the criminal and offensive nature of the act now may perhaps be a kind of partisan or ideological blindness or hypocrisy; that doesn’t make the statement any less true.
Part of the way we as a people will recover from our current season of civic, social, and political madness is to be honest with ourselves about things that really are happening. We must, even in the midst of so confusing and exhausting a time as now, do our best to unearth the whole offense if we are to committed to repenting our current madness. It is never easy to say of one’s own country, “We are committing horrific acts against innocent people.” Yet we Americans do so frequently. In this particular instance, saying the state is operating concentration camps isn’t a matter for debate. It is, or at least should be, a matter for contrition, for action to end them, and to seek penance for the crimes we are committing.
The other day, while we were out walking our dogs, my wife and I were talking about her experience at a recent meeting of United Methodist leaders from around the country. Held in Leawood, KS, just outside Kansas City, this meeting was coordinated by Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of one of the largest UMC congregations in the country. The reason for the meeting was to try to figure out, in a way consonant with our faith history and traditions, how we as a denomination move forward in the face of legalized discrimination within the body. It was to be a safe space, a place where people could come and speak their minds without fear of reprisal.
Truth is, I was and am wary of Hamilton’s motives. While certainly a popular writer – his numerous study books are used by UM and other churches around the country for small group learning, sermon and worship series, and devotional guides – Hamilton has not been able to translate that popularity into political capital. While a perpetual delegate to our larger denominational meetings, he has little influence and less power. With the denomination drifting into two unequal pieces, I am wary of yet another white man trying to become the “leader” of a movement. I agree, rather, with United Methodist pastor Pamela Lightsey who insists that any future UMC that does not come from those explicitly excluded and sidelined by current and historic polity and practice isn’t legitimate. At all. Ours is a movement that began with a renegade preacher going around England, cast out and excluded from pulpits, preaching in fields, down mine shafts, bringing the Gospel to those the society didn’t want to acknowledge. If we don’t begin there, again, we betray the heart of what it is to be a United Methodist.
Part of the reason I think Hamilton, while certainly popular, has little political power within the denomination is simple: he has always been a voice of moderation in a denomination that has, historically, not been moderate on matters of the human rights and the divine worth of all persons. Even as we continue to struggle with race and gender, human sexuality has become the straw that broke our connectional back. Much of the struggle over the past thirty or so years hasn’t been making clear the full worth and dignity and divine love for all persons, but rather with institutional maintenance through accommodation. The aim of far too much energy has been on making sure everyone has a place at our table rather than making clear that before everyone can come to the table, everyone has to accept and celebrate everyone else. Hamilton’s voice has consistently been one with those who sought some kind of moderation in the midst of dehumanization. By and large, that has not been and is not either a practical or moral position to take.
I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.
Tayari Jones, “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”, Time Magazine, October 25, 2018
In both our secular and sectarian politics, we have long past the time when unity for its own sake is neither desirable nor workable. Such a desire ignores the reality there are forces of ignorance, hatred, exclusion, and even violence that have already made clear their refusal to live together with those with whom they disagree. Why should those who sit on the other side of this divide that already exists try to find common ground in a middle that is nothing more than the abyss, staring at us?
We have become such an oh-so-careful people. Oh-so-careful to the point of being passive-aggressive in much of our public discourse. For example, we don’t want to call anyone a liar. After all, “we don’t know what they’re thinking, do we?” Except, of course, that is hardly the test for lying. Stating a falsehood, particularly one people know to be false, well . . . that’s lying. Whether it’s saying, “Hillary Clinton is a crook,” or “gay people are incompatible with Christian teach” both are false, known to be false, yet repeated ad nauseum in our secular and sectarian discourse as if they were of equal worth as their opposites. This “democritization” of our discourse renders impossible any attempt to find common ground precisely because there are people who accept falsehoods as expressions of real states of affairs. The wise thing to do, the honest thing to do, is publicly to acknowledge this, viz., there are people who believe things about the world that are patently false, and move on.
Of course it’s going to hurt people’s feelings. It’s going to make people angry. The thing is, folks are already angry. Folks’ feelings are more than hurt by the reality that some percentage of the American people continue to dehumanize, discriminate, and even perpetuate violence against them. As I wrote earlier this week after the murder of a trans activist, those whose rhetoric and actions create safe spaces for hatred to lash out with violence share the burden of some responsibility for an atmosphere in which such violence is accepted. The only way we achieve moral clarity on these and other issues of public import is making this point clear.
The UMC is splitting. That cannot be stopped now. I have no interest at all being in communion or holy conference with people who not only dehumanize others, but seek out to punish those who refuse to do so. What do I have in common with such people? What would I want to have in common with them? There is no “center” that either can or should hold up a place where a meeting of such disparate people might meet.