Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

Trump Campaign Rallies And Presidential Imagery

Donald Trump kicked off the 2020 election season with a campaign rally in Florida last night. These campaign rallies enable Trump to keep lines of communication–besides his Twitter account–open to his faithful; they rejuvenate his ego, one presumably battered by the endless ridicule heaped on him by his political opponents; they enable him to switch from his usual self-pitying moaning to his preferred mode of narcissistic boasting; they allow him to send out a message that will be faithfully amplified by a media eager for ‘newsworthy events’; he is, after all, the President.

If the staging of these rallies is any indication, they will supply a stream of rhetorically powerful imagery–the awesome paraphernalia of the American Presidency is now Trump’s to command–that will animate his public presence over the next four years. Trump is not just any ordinary candidate now; he is an elected President running for reelection, supported by a party which controls both houses of the legislative branch.

The American polity should have thought long and hard about how it has, over the years, allowed the pomp and circumstance of the Presidency to continue to increase to levels that resemble those of the monarchs of days gone by. Servant of the people? I think not. Those who occupied the Oval Office before Trump have left many loaded weapons lying around for him to use: the disregard of the legislative branch in the declarations of war; disrespect of the judicial branch; and of course, a wallowing in the perks and privileges of residency in the White House.

During the 2012 election season–in response to Charles Blow criticizing Mitt Romney for speaking ‘rudely’ to Barack Obama during a presidential debate–I made note here of how we seemed to have become excessively reverential of the presidency, and by association, of presidents too:

Blow feels the need to remind us, in a tone of reverential, devotional awe: ‘the president of the united states!’  Is he hoping to make us fall on our knees? This is the president, the unitary executive, the person put in place to ensure a republic which would otherwise do just fine with a legislative branch also possesses an entity capable of making snap decisions. Why, then, the need for such excessive deference?

Blow is not alone in these constant provisions of reminders to respect and be suitably awed by the president and his office. The White House, the presidential galas, the gun salutes; these are archaic expressions of monarchical times gone by. But the president is a political leader; he has arisen from conflict; he presides over conflict. It’s acceptable to be in conflict with him and his office. The president can be disagreed with, he can be debated; he needs to explain himself and his actions like anyone else.  Disagreements with the president need not be confined to print, they can be verbal too. And when they are verbal, they can sound edgy (like most disagreements between adults are). ‘Déclassé and indecorous’? Dunno. Politics isn’t really the space for decorum.

Well, the indecorous are here, and they intend to use the presumption of respect to their fullest advantage.

Note: The perennial election season, a perpetual motion electoral machine, has long been staring the American polity in the face, nipping at its heels, breathing down its neck–pick your favorite metaphor, and it works–for many years now. It is finally here. Talk of opposing Democratic candidates began on November 10th, 2016, and it won’t stop till November 3rd, 2020. Talk of the 2024 election will, of course, begin on November 4th 2020. Trump filed papers as a candidate for the 2020 election on the day he was inaugurated. His filing was a deft political move:

Having filed…as a candidate, Trump would be able to coordinate with PACs and other similar organizations. More importantly, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations would no longer be able to engage in “political speech” which could theoretically affect the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election without running the risk of losing their nonprofit status. The move effectively bars interest groups from creating nonprofits which they could funnel money into for the purposes of opposing Trump’s initiatives. This will likely create chaos for political opponents of Trump such as George Soros, who has sunk significant amounts of money into various nonprofit groups with the intent of opposing Trump’s government.

On Encountering Resistance And Lovin’ It

This morning my four-year old daughter marched into our living room, and clutching a ‘storybook’–a collection of tales based on Disney’s Frozensaid, “Papa, this is my favorite storybook. I like it a lot. I know you don’t like it, because I know you don’t like princesses.” Having made this announcement, she walked over to the couch, sat down, and thumbing through its pages, began ‘reading’ aloud to herself. (My daughter cannot as yet read, but she likes to make up her own versions of the stories she has had read to her; needless to say, some rather interesting plot twists result in her recountings.)

I listened to her announcement and watched her ‘read’ with some pride.

She was right in surmising that I ‘don’t like princesses.’ I’ve often said uncomplimentary things about ‘princesses’ in front of my daughter: they dress up too much; their clothes won’t allow them to play in the playground, or go climbing or hiking; they seem to spend too much worrying about what they look like. When we see a video of a sportswoman or a female performing artists, I make sure to point out that the athlete looks nothing like a ‘princess’; princesses don’t play guitars or the drums; and so on. You know, the usual things a parent concerned about the relentless ideological assault of the pink princess advertising machine–the toys, the T-shirts, the make-up kits, the stories of being rescued by princes, the unrealistic body images of skinny, blond, white girls–would do. My daughter has clearly been listening and watching; she knows her father doesn’t ‘like princesses.’

But she does like the adventures of Anna and Elsa, and all the excitement, magic, monsters, and animals that seems to enter their lives. (I’ve still not seen Frozen and I don’t think I ever will but I’ve read out a couple of the stories from that book to her so I have some idea of what entertains my daughter.)

But over and above the fact that my daughter is capable of spending time by herself with a book, what about her remark made me regard it with some pride? Well, she does seem to have established some crucial distance between what I want and what she wants for herself; she doesn’t seem to be entirely reliant on seeking my approval–she did not, after all, walk up to me and plaintively ask me for permission to read her book. Rather, she acknowledged a disagreement between the two of us, and then went ahead and did what she wanted. (I would like to think she regards Anna and Elsa’s adventures as showcasing activities that the princesses I don’t ‘like’ don’t seem to engage in–those two get up to considerably more action than the typical princess–and so, in some ways, even her liking the tales in Frozen reflected my interactions with her.) I’ve often told my daughter that she should ‘do what she wants’ and not ‘worry about what other people say.’ Today, she did just that, and what’s better, she didn’t care about what someone in a position of authority had to say about what she liked and wanted to do.

On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

The Most Likely Fate Of The Trump Presidency

Should Americans be cheering as the Deep State brings down an American President? Expressed in abstract schema form, this question requires an answer considerably more nuanced than the simple ‘yes’ that results if asking ‘Should Americans be cheering as the Deep State brings down an American President as clownishly, offensively incompetent as Donald Trump? (Today’s rambling press conference was merely the latest in a series of incoherent public speaking performances.) Unelected string-pullers bringing down an elected representative of the people–even if one who jets off to a golfing resort every weekend–sounds like the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Cheer now if you will, and pay later when the Deep State happens to dislike a representative you do like. (My ‘yes’ clashes with the anguished ‘no’ that would emanate from the millions of Trumpistas still hoping their anointed Savior will, any moment now, stop bragging about his election and actually get down to some work.)

That things have come to this is an acute indication of just how far through the looking-glass our polity has gone; the national security apparatus–or at least, its intelligence component–is in open warfare with the executive branch, and it is not clear that this battle will end any time soon. If more dirt emerges on the President, including evidence of illegal activity–such as directing Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian intelligence–this Presidency would be over. (As before, I do not think Trump will be impeached but I think he could be persuaded to resign by his legal advisers. Easier money, even if not as plentiful, will be waiting on the paranoid conservative talk show and lecture circuit; book deals and bestseller lists are all but guaranteed; our culture is truly degraded, and will make ample room for Trump even if he is exiled from the White House.)

There is another possibility, of course. Which is that the Republican Party, whose ability to plumb the depths is apparently still not clear to those who hope that an investigation will be launched into Trump’s malfeasance, will bring in an experienced operator–perhaps someone like James Baker–to calm the waters, negotiate a truce, and start running day-to-day affairs at the White House. The Republican Party will then have the best of all worlds: they will be able to keep a President in power, the loss of whose loyal ‘base’ cannot be afforded; they will be able to exert some control over policy and legislation; and they will be able to keep the most hostile components of the opposition to Trump at bay. I expect this to be the most likely outcome of the current ‘fubar‘ state of affairs. Such a development will certainly come as some disappointment to those of us who were settling down with the popcorn to see what further entertainment was coming down the pike, but I think most of the other President Pence possibilities that have been floated are extremely unlikely. The Republican Party’s bottom line has always been party above country, and all other outcomes put the country first.

American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.