Sunday, July 3, 2016
Elie Wiesel's last warning
Elie Wiesel died yesterday. The internet was instantly flush with his warnings about complacency in the face of evil, arriving within hours of the Donald Trump campaign re-tweeting an image of Hillary Clinton juxtaposed against piles of cash and a Jewish star, an image taken from a white supremacist web site in an act of either utter stunning ignorance or sneering anti-Semitism, and which is worse?
That seemed apt, as Wiesel's life after being liberated from Buchenwald was one of warning — his most famous book, "Night," begins with a villager returning to his home with tales of death camps that nobody believes.
The warnings always seem overblown. Evil strikes people as unbelievable—it can't be serious. That's why evil thrives. You don't believe what's happening until it's too late.
Today, it isn't that nobody believes Trump is a racist and a bigot—it really can't be argued, with his blanket condemnations of Mexicans and Hispanics, his mockery of women and the disabled. But rather that a swath of America doesn't care. Worse, it's the reason they like him. Trump gives permission for bigots—who are bullies and thus cowards at heart—to strut about in mid-day, suddenly halfway decent.
And in this they are in keeping with the rest of the world, where globalism and diversity are under attack by those who feel the world has changed too much, and who want to go back to some imagined earlier life when they were isolated and in charge, at least in their own perceptions.
In that sense, it must always be remembered that Trump is a symptom, not a cause. First we had to have a despised serf class of 11 million undocumented immigrants allowed to fester, blocked the road to citizenship that our parents and grandparents enjoyed. We needed 20 years of Republican assault on the media, on the idea of facts, of knowledge, of experience, of science, where a man who has never been elected to public office can flog that as a qualification for the presidency, out of one corner of his mouth, while the other corner interviews vice presidential candidates who know their way around government.
The Jewish Star pinned to Hillary had just enough deniability—a graphic error. Unlike Muslims, Jews can't be reviled directly, unless it is through the ploy of anti-Zionism, where Israel is held up as some kind of unique transgressor nation that shouldn't exist. If you're wondering why the horrors of Syria unfold with muted outrage on college campus, while every sophomore is ready to man the ramparts damning Israel, it's because the killing fields of Syria are done by Syrians, and who knows a Syrian? While Israel's unfortunate and unwise occupation of the Palestinians are done by Jews. The easiest way to clarity there—not that many are searching to clarity—is to remember that in 1966, when Gaza was occupied by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan, nobody knew or cared about either and Israel still had to be destroyed, and its neighbors were poised to try. That is where the territories came from. They too, like Trump, are more a symptom than a cause and, like Trump, should they go away, the larger problem will remain.
"I'm a frightened Jew," Wiesel said, at a luncheon for the United States Holocaust Museum in Chicago in 2007. I remember thinking, sitting in the audience, that that was over-stating the case—are Jews not now enmeshed in the fabric of American society? Of Western democracy? Maybe not so much, based on the not-subtle dog whistles that Trump is sending out to his white nationalist friends. Not so much, based on the rise of Le Pen and the other pro-Fascists in Europe. Not so much, seeing how England would scuttle its economy and international standing for a decade if not forever in order to disentangle itself from the framework Europe set up after World War II in a vastly successful bid to grow economically and not fall to killing each other again.
If the Brits will leap out the window, a self-inflicted defenestration to avoid having to comply with lumber standards, imagine what they'll do to others.
That's the problem with warnings — you never know which ones are important. The genie of nationalism and identity, once let out of the bottle, is very hard to put back in. In keeping with his campaign of fraudulence and fear, Donald Trump is playing upon the worst instincts of America, and a much wider swath—not quite half, not yet, but that could change—is responding. Maybe that means he goes down in epic defeat in November. Maybe that means he wins. Nobody knows, but we're going to find out, and if you're optimistic, you shouldn't be.
I keep thinking of another classic, almost as important as Wiesel's Night—Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. A speculative historical novel where anti-Semite aviator Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the United States begins to lope after Germany in repression of Jews. It's a chilling book, because it is so real. People have a wide range of capacity for good and ill, and it comes down to who is leading them and what they are being told.
America is being told lies by a demagogue who would divide and ruin the country. Elie Wiesel warned of such people in life and, in death, he warns us still. Anyone who doesn't view the election of 2016 as a looming disaster that must be avoided just isn't paying attention, to the present or the past.