Jews of my generation are trained from infancy to sense which way the wind is blowing. If you descend as I do from a long line of nomads and refugees—if your family tree is stunted, the branches disappearing into cracks in history, if the images of children being torn from their parents’ arms are imprinted just behind your eyes—you develop a keen sense of impending disaster. And so the question that reverberates is simple: Is it now? Is this it?
I’m afraid so.
The Present Occupant of the White House is trumpeting his policy of separating families at the border as a clever negotiating tactic, hinting he’ll stop if Congress gives him the wall and other expensive, vicious tools of othering.
I like to know what to do. I like it so much that sometimes I forget that before one can have a hope of truly knowing what to do, it is necessary to understand what is happening. What I think is happening is brought home in this New Yorker piece by George Packer, in which Dr. Ruth describes the last time she saw her father.
I watch the gulf grow. The possibilities of ordinary life persist, the world of normalcy endures, a jumble of small-world pleasures and heartaches, moments of love and luck tumbling into the present: have a taste of this, let’s see a movie, come get a hug. And all along, on a parallel track, cruel, cynical, terrifying deeds are being committed in our name and we are becoming inured to them.
In a recent interview on Fox & Friends, the president said this:
Hey, he [Kim Jong-un] is the head of a country, and I mean he is the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.
The spirit of democracy is stuck in an abusive relationship with a larger-than-life broken bully. Can she be rescued? Every day I hear someone say, “I’m not surprised” at the latest outrage. Maybe not, but surprise and shock are two different things. It hurts to be beaten even if you see it coming.
In the small world of the family, the pain of being tortured by the person who should be looking after you is amplified by indifference of others. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a survivor of horrific childhood abuse say, “the people next door must have heard the screams, but they said nothing, did nothing.”
There is a powerful pressure to normalize the present regime, to call people into line for violating conventional political decorum by speaking out too harshly. Here’s the New York Times’ Frank Bruni taking Robert De Niro and Samantha Bee to task for excessive emotion in their denunciations, dismissing comparisons between this administration and facist regimes.
That’s the voice on one side: this is America, Trump was elected (if only by the Electoral College, and who knows about all that Russia stuff?), keep calm and carry on as before and things will sort themselves out. And on the other side: those pictures of children at the border, those presidential statements establishing ownership of the body politic, the Big Lies and small coming every day. When do you suppose was the moment that Jews in Germany saw through the scrim of normalcy and sounds of reassurance that all is well, the institutions are holding and will protect us? Enough who had the means to escape chose to stay to make me think that even under conditions that blaze crystal-clear in hindsight, the lulling voice has power.
Sometimes “the people next door [who] must have heard the screams, but said nothing, did nothing” live in our own heads.
It may not be possible to know with absolute certainty. We may be in the grip of an historical process larger than any of us, one that is still playing out toward an unknown end. Or stopping the sadistic manipulation of children’s suffering for a bully’s political gain may be precisely the thing that turns the process around. There are so many ways to stand and be counted. But in doing so, we must bear in mind that this is not an isolated instance. It is one thread in a fabric of lying, self-dealing, white supremacist thinking and action, realpolitik justifying the embrace of evil, democracy eliding to fascism.
Is it now? Is this it?
I’m afraid so. And you? If we have any hope of discernment, any way to shine a light on reality, I feel it starts with bringing these questions everyplace we go.
“The Needle’s Eye” by the late, great Gil Scott-Heron.