Monday, August 5, 2019

Burn me!

A man kneeling and placing a laurel branch upon a pile of burning books, by Marco Dente (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    My columns and blog posts are not exactly setting the world on fire. Not raging across the dry tinder of social media. More like sending out a quiet ripple in a puddle of regular readers. On good days. 
    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. 


  1. An open letter to Donald J. Trump:
    Dear Mr. President (AKA Abbie Normal),
    If perchance you find it necessary to direct a vitriolic Tweet towards Chicago Suntimes journalist Neil Steinberg, be sure to append "and his deluded followers." Thank you for your attention to this matter.
    Bernie, Bitter Scribe, Clark St, Coey, Tom Evans, FME, Paul Fredrick, Tony Galati, NikkiD, SandyK, Shari P, John Tate, WendyC, and oh of course Grizz65.

    1. But please don't stop our Social Security and Medicare.


    2. Thank you for including me. I flat out hate that fake billionaire!

    3. Thanks Bernie. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    4. Of course Grizz Mr.S...I'm OOTT (One Of the Tribe). No, not THAT Tribe (Cleveland Indians). We're both Jews. And Jews are Socialists and supporters of the Democrat Party, doncha know. So we could easily be king of the list (of targeted individuals) and top of the heap (of burned people).

      All bets are off if Agent Orange wins a second term--he has nothing to lose. But some of us could easily lose a helluva lot. Like our freedom, or even our lives. Even at my advanced age, Canada and Costa Rica are looking better every goddamn day.

    5. Grizz 65,
      Let me bring to your attention a prior comment in Saturday Snapshot #7. The photo was three miles away from my Mom and Aunt's stomping grounds. That was a school or should I say schule, behind a long gone Synagogue. It was one of the few Congregations that allowed girls to attend Hebrew classes at that time. So if your Mom ever said she learned Hebrew, there is a good chance that was the place, which would make us cousins of sorts.

    6. I just looked at that image again, from last fall. It was at 16th and Homan? That puts it roughly a mile from my grandmother's candy store. So that was not my mother's school...regardless of whether it was a Chicago public school or a private Jewish school.

      My mother never learned Hebrew...nor did she ever attend Hebrew school. She spoke only Yiddish until she started public school at five. BIG difference. the language of today's Israel is Hebrew (along with Arabic, I suppose), and they learn English as well. Yiddish-speakers in Israel are the old people, the "alter kackers" (old farts, translating it politely). My mother would have turned 100 next year. Nearly all of the Yiddish speakers are now gone. It's a dying language, which to me is very sad. I grew up hearing it.

      On the other hoof, I did attend a Hebrew school for two years, and even in the Fifties, it was still almost exclusively male. My cousin's wife was Bat Mitzvahed around 1955, which was almost unheard-of...and she was a Hebrew teacher for many years. A girl I knew had a bat mitzvah in 1960. Even that created quite a buzz. The suburban culture I come from was not big on feminism. That began later, when my kid sister was coming up.

  2. Call me naive, but I don't think there's much danger of Trump becoming truly, dangerously oppressive, as in dictatorship style, because 1) he's too unfocused and scatterbrained for the sustained effort it would require, and 2) his resentments and enmities are as shallow as the rest of his psyche, meaning he can hate you today and be your best friend tomorrow, a la Kim Jong Un.

  3. Can poetry ever survive translation? The idea can, but isn't poetry tied forever to the language of the poet. I assume that Alabama Song is not a teen age drinking game in Brecht's original. Remembering Ernie Kovacs take on Mackie Messer makes me think that Bobby Darin changed the tone of the song. Perhaps Trump is just an artist with a deeper message than rational people can never understand. No, he's an idiot, fortunately too ignorant of real knowledge to fear it.

  4. Not being blessed by the orange clown keeps you on the journey. It's the getting there that keeps us going. Plus, I think he doesn't read, only watches TV.

  5. What Neil is suggesting is not off base. Trump may not be the sharpest tack in the box but neither were other dictators who had their way for a time (e.g. Idi Amin and Manuel Noriega to name a couple).
    They had people doing their dirty work for them as well as the support of their military to slowly erode the democracy.
    Those forty percent are forever locked into their ideology and will follow the next nutcase after Trump disappears.

  6. You may have failed to attract our Dear Leader's attention, but he did display a nonpareil grasp of your home state. Citizens of Toledo must be proud.

    Louis Armstrong turned "Mack the Knife" into something else. But it became iconic in a way.


  7. Neil, you might also enjoy the lyrics to the song "The List" by the Prince Myshkins. It's about the post-9/11 Clear Channel wholesale banning of many, many popular songs, and the central conceit is "Why aren't WE on the list?"

  8. Oh, the actual song is also up on their website: Man, I loved those guys, and mourn their retirement.


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