A man kneeling and placing a laurel branch upon a pile of burning books, by Marco Dente (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
I'm okay with that—I kinda have to be; not a whole lot of choice in the matter. The few occasions when I did manage to strike a spark—getting mocked by Rush Limbaugh, for instance, or finding myself ridiculed on Fox News—I quickly felt scorched, and was only too happy to return to normal, and for my cool cloak of anonymity to be wrapped around my smoldering shoulders again.
The Washington pundits and East coast TV babblers—it seems lucrative, but nothing to be proud of. An enormous electronic Punch & Judy Show full of confused shrieking, brickbats flying, babies wailing. Don't get me wrong, I'd jump at the chance. But I'm not too broken up that the chance never came. This is enough.
And yet. There is a joy in being held in contempt by the contemptible—the pride that writers in the 1970s felt at making Richard Nixon's "Enemies List."
So there is one regret I've been harboring in secret: that I never drew the ire of our president, Donald Trump. Hasn't happened yet and probably never will. That isn't surprising. He's pretty much reacting to Fox News, and I'm never there. Still, I think Trump's scorn would be something I could look upon with pride though, as with all badges of honor, there is something embarrassing about even admitting to wanting it. A hunger I would never confess to. But a friend sent me a Bertolt Brecht poem on Saturday—I am blessed with friends who pass along poems, which is better than notoriety—that so perfectly captured the feeling I harbor regarding Trump, I just have to share it, even though doing so requires copping to this shameful desire.
The poem is titled "The Burning of the Books," translated from the German by Michael Burch:
In a thoughtful analysis of the poem, Dutch poet Kamiel Choi points out:
Observe that Brecht writes “burn me” (verbrennt mich) rather than “burn my books.” The famed bon mot by Heine, ‘Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people’ has been fully internalized here.Which leads to an observation of my own. Unlike Hitler in Nazi Germany, Donald Trump was inflicted upon a fairly free and open society. Even so, notice the speed and rigor with which a solid 40 percent of the population lined up behind his lies and cruelty. Willingly, happily, gleefully, without any threat necessary, nor any intimidation stronger than the nasty tweet I covet. Imagine how much greater that exodus from American values would be if there were the whisper of force behind it.
Maybe we won't have to imagine it. Maybe in his second term, he'll move from caging refugee children to caging others. Unimaginable? It always is. As Milan Kundera wrote, the border where all convictions, faith, love, human life lose meaning is not, as we imagine it, "miles away, but a fraction of an inch."
Now it costs nothing to oppose Trump—some trolls on Twitter. But what if you could lose your job? Your life? Who would oppose him then? You? Me? We can only hope we never have to find out.
Brecht fled Germany in 1933, shortly after Hitler took power. The poem above is from a 1939 collection, Svendborg Poems, named for the town in Denmark where he lived early in his exile. I probably should say a few words about him. Known best as a playwright: "The Threepenny Opera" and "Mother Courage and Her Children" Brecht also was a librettist, writing the words for songs such as "Mack the Knife" and "Alabama Song," which I'm sure you've heard, at least the version by the Doors, never knowing the words were written by a German poet. He died in 1956, but as with the best writers, his words live on.