At the beginning and end of our recent trip to Europe, I experienced an instructive and unsettling convergence of the past and present.
In Munich I visited the relatively new Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism. It tracks, in exemplary form, the trajectory of those circumstances and individuals, common and particular, that assisted and resisted the rise of the Nazis.
One item on display that caught my eye was the cover of a late 1923 issue of the satirical magazine Simplicissimus. The image depicts a stereotypical “Münchner” male Bürger, with pipe, beer, and walrus mustache, and instead of stars in his eyes, swastikas. The caption at the bottom quotes him, in Bavarian dialect, saying:
I want my peace and quiet – and a revolution. Law and order’s a must, and for the Jews, a pogrom.
Bring on a dictator, whom we’ll soon ban: We’ll show you the way for building Deutschland!
The contradictions in the wish list are evident to the reader, but apparently, they turned out to be advantages to the Nazi movement, allowing its outreach to be more “inclusive” (you should pardon the expression) than it would have been if the program had actually been consistent.
“Shades of the present”, popped into my head.
But the rest of the trip intervened, and we enjoyed landscape, culture, food, drink, and above all the company of family and friends in Germany and France.
Then, on the flight back to Canada, Janet spied the weekend edition of my favourite German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (also a Munich-based publication). In it was a long article on tradition and change in Bavaria and Saxony. It offered an interesting analysis of the rise of the movement / party known as the AfD: Alternative für Deutschland, which has been enjoying success in society and politics, becoming the third-largest party in the Federal Parliament. Analyses of the AfD’s rhetoric and actions (including those by our friend Marcus Funck of the Centre for the Study of Antisemitism in Berlin) show just how close the affinity is to our swastika-struck poster boy.
According to the article in the Süddeutsche, AfD voters are just about as split in their motives and aspirations as the man on the cover of Simplicissimus: They want change (if their circumstances are unsatisfactory; if they see themselves as “losers”), but also continuity and resistance to change (if they see themselves those whose relatively advantageous status is threatened).
The article does not claim, as the Siimplicissimus caption seems to, that individuals encapsulate the contradictory thrusts within themselves. Rather, the party appeals to different people for different reasons. Like the Simplicissimus Bavarian, AfD supporters do not see the contradictions between law and order and its overthrow as a problem.
Now, as then, Angst and rage “trump” reason and fact. And although I don’t like cheap comparisons between the rise, ideology, and practices of Nazism to the current situation in the United States (and elsewhere), I think that, in this case. the similarities are there.
So is the warning.
Thoughts on the anniversary of the November pogroms.
Back when I was regularly visiting the German Southwest during our university’s “Reading Week,” I couldn’t escape the Shrovetide festivities. Once I was jolted awake when a bull-whip cracked like a gunshot just outside my hotel room. After I got over the shock, I stopped worrying and learned to love the chaos.
Some call it “carnival.” And that might work for what goes on in the Rhineland and elsewhere in the world. But for the German Southwest, I prefer “Shrovetide.” It designates the “tide” (=time) of “shriving” (= having penance pronounced for one’s sins), and it emphasizes the Christian framework of the season, even if the activities involved look amazingly irreligious.
One February Sunday in Ulm, I came upon two young American emissaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints eyeing a procession. They were utterly consternated at the loud goings-on on a Sunday afternoon within a stone’s throw of the beautiful gothic minster of Ulm. They asked me what was going on. I explained it was the lead-in to Lent, and a time when all the self-denial and abstemiousness of that pre-Easter period were anticipatorily turned upside-down.
At Shrovetide, the vices that are forbidden during most of the year and for which shriving would be prescribed are permitted – indeed, encouraged. Moderation is out, excess is in. If, as some people think, the word “carnival” is a contraction of “carne vale” – “farewell, fleshliness” in all its carnivorous and lascivious forms – then: “You say goodbye, I say hello.” In the Southwest, Shrovetide reaches its climax (you should pardon the expression) in the days between Fat Thursday and Greasy Tuesday (or Mardi Gras).
The lads from LDS were incredulous and scandalized. The processions of witches, wild-men and -women, devils, animals, birds, fishes, monsters; the orgiastic music; the drinking and carousing; the mock (and sometimes real) abduction of women into the procession; the cross-dressing; the immodesty of all kinds – these things had no place in Christian rite and especially on a Sunday, they objected. That’s when I knew that my friend Achim, the former altar boy from the Lake Constance region, was right when he said: “Catholics have more fun.”
But Shrovetide observances aren’t just (about) depravity. In turning the ordered world topsy-turvy, they also offer a setting in which the “little guys at the bottom” get to talk truth to the “big guys at the top of the heap.” Being Shrovetide, you can probably guess what kind of heap is meant.
In Konstanz itself, which houses our partner university and where Janet and I spent a wonderful sabbatical, Shrovetide includes the mock storming, by revelers in French revolutionary garb, of the City Hall and the trial of the mayor. The university, too, gets “liberated,” and its leadership receives its share of (mostly good-natured) payback.
The hotel where we used to stay (now repurposed) was owned by members of one of the most important and active “Fools’ Guilds” in town, and it overlooked the Market Square. It offered a wonderful base from which to observe (and sometimes sally forth into) “Swabian-Allemanic Shrovetide” customs.
The Fools’ Guilds are the organizational building-blocks of the festivities. That’s because the Fool is the unlikely hero of the piece. The “rough” fools are often outfitted with donkey’s ears (indicating their asininity), a rooster’s comb (cocks-comb, coxcomb: it all goes together), or a fox tail (foxes are too smart for their own good – like the rooster’s comb, their redness allies them with the diabolical forces). The “beautiful” fools dress like Baroque dandies, adorned with beauty marks, and sometimes outfitted with a mirror as symbol and attribute of their vanity.
And that’s actually the key. Fools are foolish precisely because they are vain. They are the sole center of their own (imagined) world. They acknowledge only themselves as having authority – authority to do exactly as they please, without acknowledging a higher order and a duty to others. As it says in Psalm 14 (KJV): “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”
Shrovetide ritualizes and normalizes disorder. For a short time, Vices replace Virtues. But only for a short time. The insanity is allowed precisely because it is the exception, not the rule.
What to do, then, when vanity, self-adoration, self-absorption, self-indulgence, self-reference, self-justification – arch foolishness and vice incarnate, in other words – become the order of the day? And when the biggest fool is the one who gives the most orders?
Shrovetide in the German Southwest has, at times, betrayed its subversive self. It has made fun of the helpless, misunderstood, and outcast in society. It has allowed and covered up violence, including sexual violence. It has permitted itself to become the willing tool of corrupt and dictatorial power.
But when understood and used rightly, it has been a way to speak truth to the powerful, to puncture their self-inflatedness, to point up their lasciviousness and arrogation of privilege, to contest their claim to be the sole authority, to puncture the inflated viciousness of their vice. It’s street theater with wit, bite and purpose. This year, it couldn’t come at a better time. Hail to the Chief (Fool).
DUSSELDORF, GERMANY – FEBRUARY 27: A float featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and the Statue of Liberty prior to the annual Rose Monday parade on February 27, 2017 in Dusseldorf, Germany. Political satire is a traditional cornerstone of the annual parades and the ascension of Trump to the U.S. presidency, the rise of the populist far-right across Europe and the upcoming national elections in Germany provided rich fodder for float designers this year. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)
(Left) Fool-in-Chief imagined as “Stachi” from Villingen; note beauty marks and dyed fox tail as attributes of high office. (Right) The Rhenish carnival tends to be very political (image from Der Spiegel showing a float in Düsseldorf).
Censorship. Entanglement of church and state. Denial of due process. Autocratic rule. Militarism. A surveillance society. A judiciary doing the monarch’s bidding. Government-instigated media campaigns against those identified as “enemies of the state.” Ethnocentrism. Official and unofficial racism. Repression of women’s rights.
Yep, you got it: We’re talking about nineteenth-century German-speaking Europe. And that brings to mind none other than one of the government’s favorite whipping boys, the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
So listen, my children, and you shall hear.
“I was no Nazi. But Heine wasn’t a German.”
That’s what Janet and I heard without really wanting to, as we disembarked from a pleasure boat in Hamburg. ’Twas in the summer of ’75. When hardly a Nazi was still alive. (Actually, it was more like 1981, but that doesn’t rhyme.)
The speaker was a “High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” to use a phrase from Wallace Stevens. The “high-toned” refers as much to her volume and pitch as to her self-perceived social status and defensive assertiveness.
Why did Heine piss her off so? Most likely she was upset about a proposal to name a high school after him. But it could have been a case of: “That’s just Heine.” A guy who loved to piss people off. Sometimes for petty reasons, but often for good cause and to even better effect.
Heine remains one of the all-time masters of the German language. Something that antisemites (oh yeah, he was a Jew!) still couldn’t get over more than a hundred years after his death. True, he had changed his name from Harry to Heinrich and officially converted to Christianity (Protestantism, to be more precise; which fit, since he was by nature a protest-ant). He had hoped his baptismal certificate would serve as his “entrance ticket to European culture.”
It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop him from writing and it probably even contributed to it. Submitting to official censorship was part of the writer’s life in those days, and Heine seems to have developed an almost friendly relationship with “his” censor. Which doesn’t mean he didn’t (1) suffer under that censorship, and (2) look for ways to get around it.
Heine and like-minded writers became adept as “idea smugglers.” Ideas were goods you didn’t have to declare at the border. So the progressive writers of the day looked for ways to appear to talk about one thing while really addressing something else. A favorite technique was to talk about a by-gone era (the equivalent of the nineteenth century to us) or a foreign country (like the Germany-speaking lands of Europe), or an innocuous subject (like literary history) while smuggling in references to current events.
Sometimes, however, a writer of Heine’s genius could engage in a head-on attack. One of the things about censorship back then was that criticism of it was censored. It was one of those terror attacks on freedom that were chronically under-reported by the biased press.
Since, in most cases, authors and journalists had to submit to pre-publication censorship, some things never saw the light of day. But sometimes the deadlines were so tight that the censors simply chopped stuff they didn’t like and replaced it with dashes. As in this newspaper discussion of the Polish uprising against Russian domination in the early 1830’s:
The newspaper in question, edited by one of Heine’s sometime buddies, was ostensibly devoted to high culture, in the form of literary reviews. But the attempt to discuss three books on contemporary Poland resulted in #2’s being “dashed.” The asterisked footnote remarks in unobjectionably objective form that #2 cannot be mentioned as it had been confiscated in the State of Saxony.
But I digress. Heine decided to push the envelope a bit. In one of his works (ostensibly about a veteran of Napoleon’s army following its defeat by Russia), he includes the following entire chapter:
You’ll notice that in those days, German used the letter “c” where today it would be a “k” or “z”. So “Kapitel” (chapter) is “Capitel.” And “Zensoren” (censors) is “Censoren.”
“Dummköpfe” I probably don’t have to explain, it’s so obvious.
But not to the censors, apparently. They couldn’t figure out what had been censored (the “censorship” dashes were Heine’s own) and proved Heine’s point by not connecting the . . . dashes. So the chapter cleared censorship as written.
Heine’s concern with censorship was not just author-centric. He presciently foresaw a time in which censorship would be the prelude to mass murder.
In one of his plays, a character speaks the lines: “That was only a prelude. Where people burn books, they end up burning people, too.” The character who speaks this words, a Muslim named Hassan, is remarking on a burning of the Koran by the Inquisition in fourteenth-century Spain. So, a long time ago, in a foreign place. Nothing to do with us.
These words have come down to us through the memorial in Berlin that commemorates the burning of proscribed books – including Heine’s – by the Nazis on May 10, 1933, on a square across from the Humboldt University.
The memorial there now features both Heine’s quotation and a subterranean installation called “Bibliothek” (Library). The empty spaces are not just bookshelves emptied of books. They bring to mind the lost learning, and lost culture, and lost freedom of expression engendered by Nazism. Their void also recalls the missing, burned humans of the crematoria and incineration pits of the Nazi genocide.
Heine is an old-time, old-world, example of the idea that dictatorships (and regimes that aspire to that status) “fertilize the soil” (caution: euphemism at work!) on which satire flourishes. In fact, in such times, satire becomes the highest genre, both desperately needed and resolutely suppressed.
Under trumpocracy, then, we can expect and demand a heightened level and quality of satire. It exposes the emperor’s nakedness, holding it up to ridicule and, if we can stand it, the light of day – unless it’s temporarily hidden by a bathrobe [which, by the way, he never wears and doesn’t have – just sayin’]. And it also holds up ideals worthy of our support and deserving of reinstatement “when blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.”
Finely-honed language rehabilitates ears and minds dulled by subadult vocabularies, truncated (or: trumpated?) syntax, and semantic slides into Con[way]speak. Satire helps us recognize and resist obfuscation, the twisting of facts, the assertion of non-facts, and downright lies. And it sustains and fosters a public that can and does defend and assert its rights coherently and cogently.
In Heine’s reckoning with Germany after a brief return from his self-imposed exile in France, he casts himself as a son of Aristophanes. The Greek writer’s play The Frogs had recently been performed in Berlin, and apparently, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia and Defender of the (Protestant) Faith, had liked it. Heine takes this as an opportunity to address (fictionally, of course) the monarch on poetry, politics and religion (my approximate translation):
O king, I’ve got your interests at heart,
And here’s how you can thrive.
Honor those poets who’ve gone before,
But spare those still alive.
Do not insult the living scribes,
For they wield barbs of fire
More dreadful than Jupiter’s lightning bolts
(Poetic inventions, Sire).
Heine’s satiric travelogue ends as he conjures up a Dantean poetic inferno reserved for the repressive monarch:
No god, no savior will e’er redeem
Him from the conflagration.
So you watch out, or else we will
Consign you to damnation.
So: Aristophanes’ and Heine’s living heirs, not least among them SNL: You have a time and place thrust upon you in which you can achieve greatness, poetic and political. Learning, Science, Literacy, Culture, and Democracy itself are at stake.
To paraphrase one of Heine’s allies, at a time when dueling fraternities were still admired in Germany: “Prose is a weapon. We need to go sharpen it.”
PS – These days I think often, fondly, and with gratitude of my teacher and adviser Jeffrey L. Sammons, one of the world’s great Heine scholars.
One of my favorite historical figures is Æþelræd Unræd, an English king who lived about a thousand years ago. Not that I know that much about him – it’s his name I have liked and remembered ever since Janet, who had taken advanced Old English and who sailed through Old Norse when I was struggling in the same course, introduced me to it.
In modern English, he’s usually called Ethelred the Unready, and he came to mind recently when I was thinking about the presumptive King of the United States, Donald Unræd. Actually, I had been day-dreaming about Hamlet, including his notion that “the readiness is all.” And up popped Unræd.
As usual with me, the fascinating thing, and the way into and out of the subject, is language and the meaning of words. “Readiness,” in Hamlet’s terms, is being unreservedly open to what will come (in the immediate context: death). But of course, being ready in our terms also involves preparedness.
Enter King Donald from an unpredictable direction. Is there any person who has ever been as unprepared for the presidency and who seems not to know that the colonists fought a revolution to free themselves from kings and princes? So: Donald Unræd, Donald, the Unready.
Except that unræd doesn’t mean “unready.” It’s true, the first syllable (un) comes right over into modern English as negating the next element in the word. But ræd is related to German Rat, meaning counsel, advice. The conclusion: Ethelred (whose first name seems to suggest that he was of noble counsel) was un-advised, or ill-advised, or unwilling to take advice. (All this is available in Wikipedia.)
I admit that I’m projecting, and not playing by historical facts or established meanings of words. Kind of like the guy I’m projecting onto. Think of it as an alternate interpretation.
To summarize: I see Donald as a presumptive and presumptuous king, as woefully unprepared, as someone unwilling to take advice from experts except for those of his own narrow and warped mindset, who give him the poor advice he craves.
End of Act One. Exit King Donald, simultaneously in all directions.
Setting: A barren rock island. Keenan Wynn, reprising his role in Dr. Strangelove, enters to find the place covered with white droppings. Except this time, though we’re dealing with a kind of battiness, it’s not bats who have festooned that rock. It’s gulls.
Gulls like to hang out on barren rock islands. Most prevalent in our neck of the woods are Herring Gulls. They are fierce protectors of their chicks. They range out in wide aerial patrols to check for intruders, then scream in alarm when a foreign paddler approaches too near the rock they claim as home, and try to dive-bomb him into retreating. They also specialize in harassing other creatures who actually work for a living. As the Cornell Ornithology Lab website says, “they are loud and competitive scavengers, happy to snatch another bird’s meal.”
Hmm. Loud and competitive scavengers. Harassers. Self-entitled gullocistic bullies. Remind you of anyone?
There are other aspects of gull-ness that apply, too. As in the word “gullible.” My brother and I used to joke about “Gullible’s Travels,” but that was just a cheap pun of the kind that reminded us of a favorite book, Twisted Tales from Shakespeare. No, I’m talking about gullibility – the quality of being gulled, or even being a gull.
When I started thinking about gullibility and linking it back to the bird, I assumed that the “gullible” ones were the other birds of whom the gulls make fools, letting them “snatch … [their] meal.” Like that part of the American electorate that actually believed that King Donald Unræd was on their side and would “drain the swamp” of which he is a prime polluter. The folks who believed that he would pay people for their labors instead of stiffing them and then blaming them for shoddy work. The folks who have yet to tweak to the fact that he is focused only on his own Donaldness, his monarchy, his throne, and the gratification of his obsessive need to be the center of attention and adulation.
It turns out, however, that the noun “gull” can designate not only the fooler, but also the foolee – the fool himself. A “dupe or simpleton,” as Emma Phipson glosses it in The Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time (thankfully available in relevant part on Google).
Along with Emma, I’m not sure that “gull” here actually refers to birds of the genus Larus. It might be that less ornithologically precise categories in the past treated other seabirds, like maybe boobies, as gulls. And boobies, I don’t need to remind you, are not considered the brightest birds in the world.
Whatever the taxonomic details, the etymological lesson in the noun-verb “gull” seems to be that the deceiver can be the victim of his own deceit. That is, to return to Hamlet, a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”
But wait, there’s more:
It turns out there was a King Donald, ruler of the Picts, about whom Wikipedia reports: “Donald is given the epithet Dásachtach, ‘the Madman’, by the Prophecy of Berchán.” Note 2 goes on to specify: “ESSH, p. 358; Kelly, Early Irish Law, pp. 92–93 & 308: ‘The dásachtach is the person with manic symptoms who is liable to behave in a violent and destructive manner.’ The dásachtach is not responsible for his actions. The same word is used of enraged cattle.”
Exeunt omnes, shaking their heads.
And if you order today, you get a free poem excerpt – just pay shipping and handling:
No! He is no Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
No attendant lord, but one that loves
To swell his member, make a scene or two,
Tweet his outrage. Never uneasy, but no less a tool.
Showing no deference, glad to shout abuse,
Not politic, cautious, or meticulous,
Full of high dudgeon, defiantly obtuse;
Shamelessly, indeed, ridiculous—
Shamelessly a fool.
Just after the U.S. election, I wrote a whistling-in-the-dark piece suggesting how Trump might be good for Jews. Now, just after the inauguration, it strikes me (putting my lips together again), that he might be good for Americans.
That thought popped up after Janet informed me that, among his first presidential acts, he had proclaimed a “National Day of Patriotism.” “Just what we need,” I thought. “But typical – maybe even diagnostic – for a guy who acts as if just proclaiming something makes it real.”
But then came the realization: Trump’s campaign, his inauguration, his whole life, are instantiations and essentializations of the fight between winning and losing. Between being a WINNER and being a LOSER. Not a psychomachia in the sense of a battle between diabolical and angelic forces for the individual soul, but more like a psycho macher.
Trump has shown us that there are not just poor losers (aside: in his mind, being poor is proof negative of loser-dom), but poor winners as well. He himself is the best proof.
When I was an election observer in Germany in 2005, during the federal election campaign that resulted in Angela Merkel’s first term as chancellor, there was a lot of talk about “winners and losers of German unification.” At one rally at the Burgplatz in Leipzig, I wandered around as Gregor Gysi’s party, the heirs to the East German communists, put out their message. As I reflected on the crowd, I ended up focusing (also in the photographic sense) on vests and shoes. Near the front were the shoes of people who considered themselves losers in the unification game, and whose social and financial status in fact bespoke their failure-to-thrive in the New Germany.
Trump garnered his votes by telling people who consider themselves losers that they can become winners. And that the real losers are the people who put them into that position. He himself is always a winner, and they can be winners, too, if they associate with winners. Like him. So he has a whole cabinet of winners. It doesn’t take a Gregor Gysi and the PDS to figure out that Trump and his merry band of winners are the very folks who know nothing of the losers except that they are ripe for the picking (Robin Hood they ain’t – maybe more Robbing Hood. The losers don’t know that – yet. And they probably won’t figure it out soon enough.)
BUT: If Trump institutes a few feel-good holidays (or not-holidays, just days that allow a media circus), might this not be a good move to overcome what is part of the American trauma right now?
Because my sense of the States is that, in addition to all the real problems of social disparity, injustice, lack of education and health care, racism, etc. etc., there is a pervasive depression that arises from a sense of loser-dom that goes far beyond what Trump is talking about. Vietnam, and 9/11, and other perceived slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, have led to a state of mind that couples fear with resentful rage. A deadly marriage.
In the heady 1960’s, when we thought that world history marched (though not without some ups and downs) upwards towards the light, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich published a book based on their psychiatric work with patients in post-war (West) Germany. In it, they diagnosed an Inability to Mourn (as the English title reads), meaning that the loss of their beloved Führer, and the loss of the war, had been too much for many to bear. So they repressed it and instead dedicated themselves to the material rebuilding of the country.
The situation in the States, as I see it, is different, but it is also marked by inability. There is a widespread inability or unwillingness to come to terms with conditions in the country, and also to acknowledge the virtues that the Constitution proclaims and enshrines. It is as if, in a Kafka-esque move, Justice has had her blindfold yanked off so that the new partisanship can reign. That blindfold has instead been forced over the eyes of the Statue of Liberty who now stands unseeing and unwelcoming.
The turning away from self-knowledge is not new with Trump. An anecdote from student life in Germany is suggestive. Just after the attacks of September 11, American and Canadian students on exchange in Heidelberg were talking. One of the Americans asked incredulously: “Why does the world hate us?” When his Canadian colleague replied: “Where do you want me to start?” the friendship was over.
So on the one hand, we have a country whose power and whose political values and whose ambition have made it the “leader of the free world.” And on the other hand, we have an immensely insular, non-self-reflective society that is (willfully) blind to its own ignorance and weaknesses but that senses acutely and lashes out against every slight and threat, real and imagined. The Trump administration is a result of this mindset, and, as its beneficiary, will seek to reinforce it.
This sounds bad, and it is. Yet there may be an up-side. Two up-sides, in fact.
The first is that (as I argued in the piece about Jewish self-searching) the talent, ingenuity, intelligence, knowledge, energy, dedication to constitutional government, and compassion that are also deeply rooted and widespread in the U.S., will be re-invigorated. They (we) will not repress their (our) loss in the Electoral College, but will parlay the rage and disappointment into renewed dedication and action, as my brother Alan and others have urged (http://robertreich.org/post/153401540180). The marches today are an example and a start.
This will provide some solace and perhaps avert some bad things. But for those who feel or fear themselves to be “losers” to return to a more generous and open way of dealing with others, they will first have to become more generous and open with themselves. If Trump can contribute to a lifting of the Vietnam-9/11 sense of loss and threat, if U.S. society broadly can see itself back among the winners, then it might grant itself the grace and wisdom to recover some of its lost ethos.
This is a big “if.” And because “making America great again” (whatever time in the past the “again” is meant to invoke) seems to mean speaking loudly and shaking a big . . . finger, there is a huge danger that the risks inherent with this move will tip whatever potential it has into the negative.
But as Lauren Bacall tells Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not: “All you have to do is whistle.” And, if you remember the story, join the resistance.
Mousetraps aren’t my thing. More accurately: weren’t my thing. For the past several years, they have become my thing, though. That’s because I find myself in charge of mouse recycling.
It didn’t use to be that way. At 63 Tealwood Drive, we boys were too squeamish to take care of the odd mouse. My father, the softy who reportedly cried when his comrades were killed during a German attack in World War II (the fellow soldier who recorded this felt that made him a bad soldier – I thought it showed his humanity), left this kind of work to my mother.
She was the outdoorsy one anyhow. She fished and hunted, mentored by my grandfather. She plucked the Mallards and Wood Ducks they shot. She taught us baseball, football and swimming. And she took us shooting at the Olin Mathieson range in East Alton. By default (and we males were the defaulters in this case) she also handled the mice.
In those days, the traps were dangerous, and not only to the rodents. These were the old wooden snap-traps. Having positioned the cheese on the trigger platform, you had to force the killing bar back and position the hold-down bar without endangering your fingers. And then you had to put the thing down. In case of success (for you, not the mouse), there was the question of disposal. I remember some blood and guts were involved, and that strengthened my resolve not to be involved myself.
For a long stretch, after I had moved out, mice were not on the agenda. Then we came to Canada and built the cottage on Anchor Island. You’d think that, on an island, the numbers of critters would be limited. You’d be wrong. In the Canadian winter, no island is an island. We found evidence of wolf-killed deer on the island after we returned in the spring. There were moles and voles and red squirrels, too. And of course mice.
Once, when we opened up the cottage in May, Janet sniffed loudly. “There’s something dead in here.” It was still pretty cool in May, and I really didn’t smell anything (or didn’t want to). So I went about my work transporting things from the dock up to the cottage. “I’m telling you, something’s really ripe,” she insisted.
We found it in the toilet. Somehow, we had forgotten to put down the lid when we closed up the cottage in the fall. I can’t remember if we had left the critters a “present” in the form of mouse bait – I think that came later, after we had found nests of Kleenex in some of the chests. In any case, the ex-animal in the toilet was so far gone that it was not possible to identify it. Not even by smell. Janet, being the Northerner and bush denizen, took over and disposed of it. I stayed as far away as possible.
Later in our life on the island, a family of red squirrels managed to eat their way into the cottage’s double roof, making a nice cozy place to raise a family among the insulation. We could hear them running around over our heads. The time had come for me to show I could do dirty work, too.
The problem was, I wasn’t into the creation or disposal of corpses. I’d shown this when the beaver whose lodge was on the island started taking trees very close to the cottage. One evening, while doing the dishes, I watched a sapling march past, nearly upright, on its way to the water.
What to do? Janet’s father referred me to the local game warden. He explained that trapping was not an option, as the trapper with that area had already taken his limit of beaver from the lodge. He suggested I borrow my father-in-law’s rifle and take care of the problem that way. “Should I tell you when it’s done?” I asked naively. “You and I haven’t talked and I don’t want to know anything about it,” came the predictable reply.
In the event, I did borrow a .22 (familiar from those Olin Mathieson days and my exploits on the Country Day rifle team) and a few rounds of ammunition, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. The only time I ever did was pheasant hunting with Gramp, Mom, and Uncle Jack at a pheasant farm in Illinois. I decided then that, as with Mom’s ducks, the birds were more beautiful alive than dead. So I didn’t eat the one I shot, and I haven’t shot at living things since then.
Instead of nailing the beaver, I nailed chicken wire around the trees beavers seemed to favor on the island. Eventually the beavers moved on, and except for one short spell, they haven’t been back. The den on the bank is still visible, but it’s been vacant for many a year.
When the squirrels showed their hand and handiwork, I knew what to do. I went right out and bought a “Havahart” live trap from Canadian Tire. Our neighbor on the mainland, Jenn Levean, told me that Skippy Crunchy Peanut Butter was the only thing, so I put some on a cracker, set the trap, and waited. It didn’t take long for success. I ended up trapping eight animals before I decided the roof space was empty and the gnaw-holes ready to be wired shut.
Whenever I caught a squirrel, I would take the trap down to the boat and motor over to a cove on the far mainland. And then I would try to release the little bastard. Squirrels don’t like being caught, but they also tend to resist being released. The animals would cling to the cage and I would often have to tip it and prod it gently so it could go find a new home. Whether this was doing the squirrel a favor, I don’t know. Being free in a new and unfamiliar territory might not be conducive to longevity (such as it is for red squirrels). On the other hand, it was conducive to my having a clear conscience.
Jenn, on the other hand, was outraged. When I thanked her for her advice on the bait, and told her about releasing the captives, she couldn’t believe it. “You did what? They’ll just come back over here and eat my garden,” she enlightened me. “You have to drown the little bastards.”
Drowning was out of the question, although I did have to drown the empty cage once the squirrels were released, since captivity seemed to have a laxative effect: being “scared shitless” is not just a metaphor.
Here at the house on the mainland, we had mice from day one. The construction crew blamed it on openings left during the construction process, but assured us that the foundation, built with insulated concrete forms, would not have any cracks. Once we eliminated the founding generation, the problem would be over.
Despite my putting up chicken wire and foaming presumed points of entrance, they kept coming. Somehow, I had morphed into the critter guy, but I was still not into killing. We started with live traps that would sometimes get up to three mice at a time.
I read up on these mice. They weren’t city mice, and the weren’t the meadow voles we saw on the island. They were Deer Mice (Peromyscus sp.), so-called because of their beautiful deer-like coloring, they were immune to the sonic devices that claimed they would keep house mice out, and they were known to carry Hantavirus among other nasty things.
So being careful, gloved and masked, I would transport the captured mice several kilometers away and release them. They pooped too, but they needed no encouragement to depart. The problem with catch-and-release, when it comes to mice, is that you never know if they are making their way back to the house almost as fast you do. The mice kept coming; I kept catching and ferrying them.
At some point, my resolve changed. Maybe I just got tired of the fact that I seemed to be the one on the treadmill. Anyhow, we switched to poison, as we had at the cottage. Warfarin is a blood thinner, and apparently it dehydrates the animals so that they seek water. Was that the fate of the animal in the cottage? The idea is that the animals, once poisoned, will vacate the house in search of water and die conveniently out of sight and smell.
Except there’s not only no evidence they do that, but we had irrefutable counter-evidence (of sight and smell) that they don’t. And then there was the problem of poisoned mice out in the environment. I didn’t want to be contributing poisoned food for the ravens, foxes, and other predators and scavengers to find.
So we stopped the bait. And switched to dead-trapping. But not with those old wooden finger-snappers. And not with the low-tech homemade traps that folks around here favor for hunt-camps, for example. They take a large bucket or plastic container, fit a wire across the top around which an old soft-drink can rotates, smear a bit of peanut butter on the can, provide a walk-up ramp, fill the container with water or (in the case of hunt-camps that might be used only intermittently) environmental antifreeze, and wait for the mice to march up the ramp, spin out on the can, and flip into the water to drown.
This is ingenious. But it poses a number of problems. First, you still have to dispose of the little corpses. And if they’re as far gone as the animal in the cottage toilet, this will not be pleasant or tidy. Second, if you use propylene glycol (“environmental antifreeze”) to stop or mask the smell, anything eating the corpse may still be adversely affected. Third, you then have to find a responsible way to dispose of the antifreeze. And fourth, softy that I am, I don’t like the idea of a less-than-instant death for the mice.
Now we’re using those modern plastic traps which are easily and safely set and can be reused (even without rebaiting, practice shows) many times. The traps we use seem to have enough spring tension to kill the critters, but not enough to splatter them. I just pick up the trap, carry it outside, and in a practiced swing, flip the dead mice into the bush. The parabola they describe is uplifting, but like the officer flung out by the trap-like machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, they quickly return to earth without having attained heaven or enlightenment.
On the other hand, their new “groundedness” provides a quick and easy form of recycling. It’s a consummation that, even if not devoutly to be wished, is as inevitable for mice as it is for men.
Notice I said “could,” not “will.” Notice more particularly that I said “Jews” and not “the Jews.” Folks who habitually begin their post-factual pronouncements with “The Jews . . .” (or worse, “The Jew . . .”) are at least halfway down the slippery slope of antisemitism.
The title’s claim seems counter-intuitive. After all, Trump (1) surrounds himself with; (2) takes aid, comfort, and advice from; and (3) enables and encourages, people steeped in, and expressive of, old and new tropes of antisemitism. (One particularly drastic example: Richard Spencer’s “Hail Trump, . . . Hail Victory” [in other words: Heil Trump, Sieg Heil] speech as reported in The Atlantic and now on YouTube: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/richard-spencer-speech-npi/508379/).
Trump doesn’t bother to reproach or contradict his court antisemites, basking in the knowledge that “some of his best friends” and relatives are Jewish. As if this were proof of his bona fides. Not that he seems to have any fidem at all, except to his own self-aggrandizement. But professed admiration for supposed Jewish strengths (recall his comment on the “little short guys that wear yarmulkes”) or having Jewish family or Jewish friends, or even being Jewish – aren’t defenses against being antisemitic or tolerating antisemites and antisemitism.
Antisemites, like Jews, come in all flavors and forms. Jews can be – and some have been or are – antisemites. That’s another reason not to talk about “the Jews.”
Even the most virulent antisemites can also have their “good Jews.” Here’s an excerpt from Himmler’s speech of 4 October 1943 to the SS leadership on the difficulties of carrying out the Holocaust with rigor and consistency:
“The Jewish people will be exterminated,” every party member says, “quite clear, it’s in our party platform, elimination of the Jews, extermination, we’ll do it.” And then they all come, these obedient 80 million Germans, and each one has his own decent Jew. It’s clear, sure, the others are swine, but this one is one topnotch Jew.*
Against this background, it seems safe to surmise that the Trump administration and especially some of its vocal supporters seem emboldened to express their contempt for Jews, whether from racialist, religious, or other motives.
This would not seem to bode well for Jews. So again: How come the title of this piece?
It is proceeds from the notion that Trump’s ascendancy as a propagator, protector, and executor of ethnic and religious hatred can be both a reality check and a call to rediscover and practice our ethical values. It reminds us that, even in North America, we were not always as comfortable, complacent, and protected as we are now (or thought we were).
Crucially, it makes it clear that other groups sorely need the solidarity and support that were so often lacking to us and that we can now help to provide.
In response to the exclusion and discrimination that Trump & Co. preach and practice, we are enjoined (constrained!) to exercise empathy and solidarity with those who are constructed, identified, and targeted as aliens, strangers, non-believers and non-belongers – all those others who, like us, are “othered.”
As we are reminded insistently in scripture, liturgy, and now in daily life, and in the words we recite at the Passover seder: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger”; and “When strangers reside with you in the land, you shall not wrong them . . . . You shall love them as yourself; and “Always remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 16:12).
Those who are singled out by Trump should unite to provide mutual support and to resist discrimination and prejudice. Without pretending to uniformities that do not exist, we should, in the words of Levinas, take asserted difference as a summons to practice “non-indifference” – in other words, empathy and solidarity.
A late nineteenth-century American reworking of an older German translation of a medieval Hebrew poem ends by invoking “. . . the message cheering / That the time is nearing / Which will see / All men [!] free, Tyrants disappearing.”
The American version moves from the particular (Jews having been singled out for oppression, discrimination, deportation and sometimes pre-Holocaust mass murder) to the universal (the liberation of all human beings from slavery and dictatorship).
In these post-factual days, as nativism and “White nationalism” obliterate enlightenment, the text expresses an optimism that seems misplaced. But that optimism could be earned back if it motivated people to proclaim liberty so as to ensure that the tyrants actually do disappear. In that case, it would be a high form of performance art.
Art (and that certainly includes theater) is not there to provide a “safe space,” but to shake us to the core precisely in order to render that core visible, liberate it, and make it the foundation of new and better action.
So – if Trump’s presidency and Trumpian America remind us of our core values and our common humanity, there could be some redeeming goodness to the situation. And not just for Jews.
* Source: Der Prozess gegen die Hauptkriegsverbrecher vor dem Internationalen Militärgerichtshof. Nürnberg, 14. November 1945 – 1. Oktober 1946. Band XXIX. Amtlicher Text. Deutsche Ausgabe. Urkunden und anderes Beweismaterial. Nürnberg, 1948. Dokument 1919-PS; my translation.