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Ferguson is America

Ferguson is America

I apologize in advance for invoking Godwin’s Law, but as always, Nazism is such the prime historical example of snowballing fascism it’s hard not to bring it up. So I’ll get it out of the way with a brief look at Martin Niemöller’s well known and probably over-quoted poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We know the poem, and we know the message of the poem is supposed to be “speak out before it’s too late.” But I think a more important message of the poem is that fascism never announces its arrival with jackbooted stormtroopers marching down the town square. It arrives slowly, with the creeping support of legitimate and well-intentioned citizens who desire greater safety, more control and maybe more comfort. Friendly politicians with ambitious plans are far more the province of fascism than angry men with beards. There’s that old nickname the Egyptians had for their dictator of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, “La Vache Qui Rit,” The Laughing Cow. It’s easier to convince people to surrender their liberties and critical faculties with a smile on your face and a plan to eradicate undesirables in your back pocket. If these undesirables are socialists or trade unionists or Jews, all the better.

It is also a fact of fascism that ideology comes long before cults of personality dominate the scene. We are historically trained to look for dictators who seek to create fascist societies, but if you read the biographies of dictators it is as likely the dictators are created for the society they live in. They fill the power vacuum created by inept government or a weak economy, or they take advantage of scripture which demands a strongman to usher in a god-fearing society. The fascisms of the world today in full force–whether it’s the monarchical fascism in T h a i l a n d or the Islamofascism of Boko Haram or ISIS or Hamas–started as ideologies in need of leadership. We know where to look when we seek out the hot spots for burgeoning fascism: places where ideology trumps individual liberty, or threatens to do so (Zionism certainly falls into this latter category, as does Russian exceptionalism/Putinism and a host of other almost-fascisms).

Which brings me to another quote from author William Gibson:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It is this quote that has had me thinking the most since protests and the violent police crackdown erupted in Ferguson last week, and the world has been watching images of our country the way we often look in disbelief at images from oppressive regimes all over the world.

I will for the moment suspend my judgement on what happened in the Michael Brown shooting, because we are always too quick to jump to conclusions about things we don’t know based on what the media has told us. I’m not going to participate in speculation about motives or racism. This is what I care about right now:


I am not in the out group this time. I’m not black, I’m not poor, I don’t live in a place where police suspect me and everyone around me, and I don’t think I’m likely to even commit a petty crime that would get the police called on me in the first place. But I see this picture and the first thing I think is, how hard would it be for those guns to become pointed at me? What laws have I broken that no one knows about yet? What situation in this country could lead for more security such that such scenes become commonplace?

The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Despite the fact that most of us remain isolated from this sort of show of force, we’ve known that local police forces in small towns like Ferguson have been acquiring military grade gear for years, including tanks, grenade launchers and assault rifles. And we know that SWAT teams are becoming more and more normal as responses to small crimes, with the inevitable consequences of innocent causalities. And even agencies of our own government are stockpiling ammunition. What does the Department of Homeland Security need with its own military?

The fact that they’re coming for poor black people concerns me, not only because of the wrongness of it on its own, but because I know that somewhere down the line, I’ll be on their target list, too. There’s a long list of types of Americans that other Americans, if they had the means, would love to lock up or outright execute: everyone from petty thieves to looters to drug dealers to the homeless to Muslims to “the 1%” to meat eaters. Do you really want to sit here and take your chances that the police next week don’t have something against you? Especially if we’ve handed them all the tools they need to make your life miserable?

Most Americans are fortunate that we don’t encounter police every day, or situations don’t become tense enough to merit this sort of military presence on our own streets. But we saw during the Boston Marathon Bombing that it takes very little to panic Americans into creating a police state around themselves. And when you create a police shield for yourself, you have to find someone to shield against.

I don’t think the problem is “speaking out.” We all know it’s a problem, and the media–since we have a blissfully free press in this country–has reported constantly on overmilitarization of the police. The problem is despite the fact that we see the images on TV, and we know that one day it’s very possible that our own worlds will be turned upside down by a SWAT raid or a bad shooting in our neighborhoods that tips off a riot or police crackdown, we don’t do anything about it.

And what can we do? Knowing your rights is a good place to start. But what’s the best response as citizens to an omnipresent, obviously growing threat from the police of America to our own freedoms? Should we all buy guns, as people near Ferguson are doing right now? Other than arming and waiting patiently, how do we stop the rising tide of police violence and intimidation in America? Or do we just hope that at some point, our politicians come to their senses and limit their own power? Historically speaking, I don’t think that’s very likely.

I welcome ideas in the comments for immediate, actionable things that citizens can do right now to stop the tide of police militarization in America before we all get swallowed up by it.

August 25, 20147 commentsRead More
Morning in Vienna

Morning in Vienna

Sunday mornings are silent in Vienna, punctuated only by the dull hum of a tram or the chirping of birds in the hundreds of parks in the city.  The wind coming out of the Danube valley rushes down the wide boulevards, amplifying their desolateness.  I am in Burgengarten, looking at the backside of the Hofburg palace with HIS • AEDIBUS • ADHAERET • CONCORS • POPULORUM • AMOR emblazoned in Latin across the frieze.  As far as European palaces go, Hofburg is pretty disappointing.  Tour groups wander in and out of the grounds, following their herders with disconnected interest.  One group removed itself even more from human contact by donning headphones which were all connected to the tour guide’s microphone.  This group can’t even interact with each other in person, let alone the drone at the front of the pack leading them through a sanitized history lesson with practiced monotony.  In Michaelerplatz, horse-drawn carriages shuttle tourists around the roundabout.  Students are dragged by invisible leashes through the grounds as their eyes remain fixated on their phones.

I got in yesterday evening, after deciding on a whim to visit this city I once visited ten years ago.  There hasn’t been much change, and my feelings about it remain the same.  It is sprawling, scrubbed down, impersonal, and boring.  Classical German romantic façades make carbon copies of each other on street after street, with the occasional rusted dome popping up above the fray.  When I got in, I took the metro right to Landßrase where I thought, mistakenly, there would be something to see or do.  Instead I was among residential complexes, so I decided to walk to the Danube, not anticipating my journey across less than 10% of the city would take two hours.

On the way there, I saw a park that would be a convenient shortcut to the water.  The door was labeled “Hundezone,” and I saw a couple dogs inside with their owners, but thought nothing of it.  I walked into the park, and almost immediately the dogs, who were calm and playful before, started barking angrily and going for me.  I made it halfway up the hill before I had one dog right on me, with another dog, that came up to my chest, sniffing at me aggressively.  The owner was yelling in German, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling at the dogs or at me.  I didn’t feel very safe, and he wasn’t doing much to dispel my fears, as he just stood there and let his dogs threaten violence on me.  I’m glad I don’t understand German because I don’t want to know what he was saying.  Was he egging them on?  His family was picnicking 30 feet away, and they were watching the spectacle but didn’t seem to pay it much mind.  Meanwhile, I’m about to have my limbs torn off by at least five dogs, none of whom were nicer than your average French waiter.  I quickly turned tail and got out of the dog zone, which I thought might have led to a misunderstanding.  Maybe it was specifically for ill trained dogs?  But I couldn’t find anything out about it online later.  By the time I reached the Danube, the sun was just about to start going down and I realized, against all intuition, the Danube is an urban wasteland in Vienna.  There is an office park across the way, one high span bridge every two miles, and nothing but bike paths along the shore.  It took an hour to walk back to the nearest metro stop.

One thing I did notice on my walk through the back streets of Vienna was the abundance of graffiti.  I feel you can tell a lot about a society through its rogue artwork, and it is not surprising that a land where certain thoughts of an Aryan nature are not permitted by law, the Nazification of the urban landscape would be close at hand.  Vienna does not disappoint.  It is one of those cruel ironies of free speech that the less free the speech, the more in bursts to the surface, and in this case, it is clear how the fringe (at least I hope the fringe) of Austrian society finds its outlet, how the stormy, angry undercurrent shows through cracks in the stony, impersonal, buttoned-up façade of the city.

After checking into my hostel (itself far on the outskirts of the city with a gorgeous view of the valley), I took the bus back into town and checked out a couple of the popular metro stops.  I once met a girl in Moscow in 2010 who told me her philosophy on travel was to “go where the party was at,” so I hopped onto the subway and got off at where the most people got off, in this case Stefansplatz.  This was a charming area, with a cathedral, several open squares in close succession, with music, restaurants and fountains sharing one crowded space on the cobblestones.  I ended up in a bar talking with high schoolers from an American school in Vienna, and at one point shots of lemon vodka got passed around.

I hopped on the metro again and went to Schwedenplatz, where I was told there would be “an assortment of good and bad places.”  I don’t know what good places there were to be had.  It was worse that Wrigleyville in Chicago for its drunkenness and worse than Las Vegas for grittiness.  I was glad to hop back on the train and go to Thaliaßrase where I was told there would be a series of arcades under the train tracks with bars and clubs.  There were, with Viennese and foreigners mixing in an orgy of popular music, booze and lights.  The party capital of Austria is no different from the party capital of Anywhere…in the cities of the world, all humans party the same.

After getting back to my hostel, I met a couple from Mexico City doing a tour in Europe on their way to Budapest, and a couple from Arizona doing a tour in the other direction.  Hostels are one of those rare places where you are always destined to meet people with interesting stories, shared experiences, and there is always an element of fate.  Every day the crowd changes, and thus every day new possibilities about who you can meet anywhere in the world.  In one night’s stay at a hostel I made new “friends” in Canada, Mexico, and Arizona.  My new “friends” from Canada were interesting. They were a couple from Vancouver Island who lived on an organic dairy farm.  I asked them if they ate organic in Europe, and they said that ignorance was bliss.  The guy, Jeremy, said there were two kinds of non-organic contaminants: crop-specific, which are added by farmers deliberately to their crops (and can be chosen out by conscientious consumers) and environmental, which affect all crops in the form of air, soil and water contaminants, which he was more concerned about.  I found the distinction interesting because it’s basically a choice between free choice and neighborhood effects, always an interesting problem in economics.

Which brings me back to Burgengarten.  The “free” wifi is spotty at 1 KB/s max, clearly a tragedy of the commons.  Every family in the park has 2 kids, one boy and one girl.  No one raises their voice above a whisper.  Every dog is football sized and on a leash.  The grass is immaculate.  The park is square and the fountain in the pond makes perfect ripples which radiate outwards rhythmically.  It is the same feeling you get throughout this city.  The subways and trams and busses arrive the second they are supposed to and are cleaned by hand so they glisten, even in the underworld.  Viennese pedestrians wait for red lights at empty intersections.  Every cobblestone in this city is in perfect place with its perfect purpose, although that purpose remains, as so many things in this city, beneath the surface.  I’m fairly certain that no one here poops.

Yet even with the concerted effort for utopian sameness, there are signs of decay in the republic.  Scratched paint at the bus stops. Public garbage bags stretched open. Puddles left undrained in the road.  The air is stale, the food has been bland and the people have been mildly entertaining at best.  It has copied the cultural milieu of Germany with none of its work ethic, proud history and heritage, or national heroes.  There is an undercurrent of national arrogance, reminding me of that old joke about Austria:  “The Austrians have only accomplished two things: to convince the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Viennese.”  In short, I remain, as before, underwhelmed with what Vienna has to offer.

I will be glad to get back to Budapest tonight.

June 17, 20122 commentsRead More
Thoughts on Visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum

Thoughts on Visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum

Because I have Jewish heritage it is only natural for me to have been inundated from birth with stories of the Holocaust, and of course it is only natural for me to have heard of the crimes of the non-Jewish witnesses of this 20th century horror. As my family was at Auschwitz and most lost their lives there, Poland and the Polish people have occupied a particular place in my family’s historial memory, as attested to by questions my older family members have posed rhetorically: “Why did the Poles send their neighbors to their deaths? Why did the Poles allow Hitler to kill 2-3 million Polish Jews? Why were they complicit in mass murder?” And of course, it is very easy to engage in the same sort of factionalism and national hatred that has characterized so many brutal regimes, for the same reasons: we seek someone to blame, someone proximate, someone whose better human nature may have prevented them from engaging in evil but who somehow went down the wrong path. This may be natural, but I don’t think it is right. It is much like blaming a rape victim for her travesty; after all, her presence and gender was a prerequisite for her attack. But the history of the Poles in World War II is on the whole more complicated than a Nazi historiographer or Jewish victim would like to see. I am reminded of that scene from the Israeli documentary “Antisemitism,” where a bunch of Israeli teenagers visiting Warsaw encounter some old Poles. The old Poles try to communicate innocently, but the Israelis think they are being antisemitic (of course, with the benefit of translators, we know that they are not). The scene is supposed to make us think about this Jewish-Polish divide, this hatred that has seemingly existed for decades, even though the reality of the history makes it so much harder to believe in this feud.

In recently reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands–a history of the lands between Hitler and Stalin in World War II–what has amazed me was not what I knew from my laser-focused, self-interested history of the war–deportations of Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Belarussian Jews to their deaths–but what I didn’t know. Mass starvations in eastern Europe predicated by Stalin’s obsession with national collectivism, as Hitler’s ideology of racial purity de facto sentenced millions of non-German, and non-Jewish, nationalities to their deaths. Bloodlands gave me a first detailed look into the history of Poland under the Nazis, and it is not a pretty picture.

Poland’s history is a history of a homeland savaged, conquered, destroyed, raped, pillaged, and chopped up by both Hitler and Stalin. As one force came in from the east and the other from the west, the Poles had nowhere to run and hide and millions of them were butchered like cattle. After being invaded, no one came to Poland’s aid. One million Poles died in the defense of the homeland and another million as prisoners of war–executed by Hitler and Stalin as their unforgiving pincers closed in on Warsaw. The British and French declared war on Germany but it took 6 years to liberate Poland herself. The Polish government in exile pleaded for an earlier intervention but to no avail. In those 6 years, the Nazis and Soviets butchered Poland, an ideological and political enemy for so many reasons on both sides: it was independent, Catholic, diverse, possessed former German or Russian territory, capitalistic and industrialist, a breadbasket, and free. They were the prize of Eastern Europe and their defeat heralded the symbolic triumph of [National] Socialism.

When I visited Warsaw in October I had the opportunity to see the Rising Museum, a testament to the Polish uprising against the Nazis (and later the Soviets), and in general of 15 years of terror in Warsaw from the invasion of Germany to the “relaxation” of Soviet control in the mid-50’s. Poland especially was so brutalized, so raped, by the combined German and Soviet regimes that it is no wonder that Poles today feel a sense of pride in their country’s ability to rebuild and reclaim what was lost. This pride, and the horrors of the past, come to life in the Rising Museum, and especially so for me, for as a Jew, I was struck with an incredible sense of connection–not disparagement–with the Polish people after seeing the suffering, humiliation and bouts of mass murder that the Poles themselves faced at the hands of the Nazis. The Poles, like the Jews, were stripped of their national heritage. Intelligentsia and priests were butchered by both Stalin and Hitler–the former to empower the proletariat and the latter to pacify resistance (which obviously didn’t work). Catholic institutions like Churches and orphanages were burned to the ground with people inside. Mental hospital patients were butchered by the thousands.

In Warsaw, the Rising itself only came about because the Soviets had reached the edge of the city and the Poles believed their resistance would be saved. Instead, the Soviets looked on callously as their one-time German allies put the Rising down and slaughtered its participants. In one day, one Nazi general executed 70,000 Poles. On the Soviet side, Poles were rounded up by three-men execution tribunals (troikas) who sentenced people to death for participation in the resistance (which had not really existed against the Soviets) and they were shot within 3 hours of being sentenced in a choreographed show of summary justice. Polish communists were shot for being Poles, and Polish Soviets were shot for not being communists. In one town, a troika took a phone book and sentenced everyone with a Polish sounding name to death. The troikas would murder 300 people per day, with the same painstaking record keeping characteristic of the Nazi regime. In Warsaw, especially, Poles were rounded up by the thousands. The very existence of the Jewish ghetto was predicated on the forced deportation of thousands of Poles who lived in that quarter of the city–most of whom no doubt were executed as well.

It is very easy to look at the history of Jews in Poland and blame the Poles, but the politics of mass murder go beyond neighborly betrayal. The Nazis viewed Poles and Jews as animals, and like animals we were expected to scramble an compete for survival, every child, every last scrap of food. It is not surprising that the animosity felt by our Jewish ancestors exists, but we must be careful to leave their hatred a the door of open inquiry.

On a secondary note, the museum also made me reminiscent of other museums of national suffering, in particular the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, which I have also written about.

January 13, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

I was reading recently about a peculiar custom in Israel of not performing Richard Wagner. Although the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of this custom isn’t legal, it still continues to be an ongoing, rampant phenomenon in a country that has an established tradition of free speech. In recent years, Israeli musicians planning to travel abroad to perform Wagner have been lambasted and widely condemned.

The reason? Both Wagner’s documented antisemitism and his great admirers, the Nazi Party of Germany and its leader Adolf Hitler.

Truth be told, art has been used too often as a weapon by the evil and powerful, and not often enough as a line of defense against them. Artists like Richard Wagner and the film director Leni Riefenstahl were instrumental to the propaganda of the Nazi movement. Wagner’s works were performed extensively throughout the Third Reich and Riefenstahls’ cinematic masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, was as efficacious to the Nazi media campaign as the Blitzkrieg was to the war campaign.

At the same time, artists are often the first to be targeted by regimes: they are those on whom the hardest tests for free speech and a free society are conducted, upon whom an understanding of a national culture and way of life are based, and with whom a true cultural life would not be possible. It is the artists who are the first to criticize accepted beliefs and the first who pay for it. The history of banning artists is as long as the history of regimes. The Romans had a long history of censoring Etruscan and Carthaginian authors and artisans, not to mention early Christian art from both Romans and non-Romans. More recently the Beatles were banned in the USSR as if they were poison to the regime: nothing more than words and music in a language understood by less than 10% of the population, and yet somehow they posed as much a threat to the country as an invading army. (The “British invasion” carried much more weight in this context.) Today, artists such as Ai Weiwei in China languish in prison for their critical art.

In almost all cases, the source of the ban is a belief that the ideas presented in art are somehow dangerous. If enough people believe those ideas, the fabric of society itself will be torn apart. As a particular columnist writes, “That Israel’s Wagner ban serves as a still-useful reminder that ideas have consequences — and that those who spread evil ideas should be held responsible for their evil consequences. Even geniuses.” After all, how many regimes have been shattered or created by the power of ideas? The ideas of Jefferson, of Marx, of Mao, of Herzl, and today, the ideas of millions across the Arab world.

But it’s a universally accepted belief among scholars–even those who don’t follow their own advice–that free and open expression is a necessary condition for a free society. So I won’t continue to preach to the choir.

What is outrageous about the Israeli practice is the fact that Wagner’s art is not banned in Israel for its ideas–after all, music is an abstraction that is fully interpretive–but it is banned for its admirers and its composer. It has been tried and convicted by guilt by association: It is banned because its composer held antisemitic beliefs, and its admirers went on to perpetrate the greatest mass murder in world history. But Richard Wagner, though known to have been an antisemite in his lifetime, was not known for his published works or his writings on Jews, no more so than Hitler was known for his art. And yet the politics of Richard Wagner are under as much scrutiny today as his music, if not more so.

But what I find the most ironic is that Wagner’s opinion on art, that he presented in his masterpiece opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, is the finest repudiation of Israel’s practice that unfortunately can never be heard there:

Honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!

The idea that art is transcendent of regime, is bigger and more grand than any individual or government, is precisely why Israel needs to hear Wagner. The people of Israel would benefit from the presence of transcendent, abstract art which calls for the lifting of souls and the perseverance of culture.

Would an Israeli know a Wagner if he heard it? If not, would he not be as moved to emotional exuberance as any other listener. Would his heart not vibrate? The time has come for free regimes to put aside the ghosts of the past and embrace the music that can set them free.

April 16, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More