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.

The Republican Party And The Disavowal Of Donald Trump

In response to my post yesterday on the liberal ‘impeachment of Donald Trump’ fantasy, which rests on a fallacious delinking of Donald Trump from the Republican Party, Seth Brodsky writes (over at Facebook):

I agree—passionately—that the desperate attempt to delink the GOP from Trump is…a fantasy. But I don’t think it’s a fantasy held only by liberals, whose very identity as a party of no part, a neutral party, is dependent on it….the GOP has this delinking fantasy too, and it was all too well displayed during the primary. But it’s a fantasy framed in a very different way: Trump is the *essence* of the GOP, but an essence that needs to remain hidden, cached, the principle and not the surplus, something to keep skimming off. He is…the purely libidinal patriarch, the undemocratic king-in-the-flesh, that Republican democracy, always gnawing viciously at its own foundations, has to conceal in order to prop itself up as a kind of democratic subject. In order for the fantasy to operate, and the subject to sustain itself, the object of the fantasy must be held at a distance. It can’t actually show up….Republicans don’t actually want the primal father to show up. They *want to want him,* they want to crow to the ends of the earth about how needed he is, how shameful it is that the world doesn’t give his memory proper respect, how angry he’ll be when he finally returns, how he appeared in a dream to them and demanded, for the love of God, that we stop this nonsense, whatever it is. Which is all to say: they want to enjoy the enormous resentment that comes from His absence.

Brodsky is right here–and I thank him for this interjection of a psychoanalytic take into the proceedings. (I wonder what the Good Doctor would have made of this past election season and of the Trump Twitter feed.) The Republican Party treated Trump like an interloper and a gatecrasher and an ‘outsider’ during the primaries–thus tremendously aiding his election prospects–precisely because he was a rude reminder that this was the true beating heart of the party–just a little too vulgar, a little too overt, a little too clumsy at disguising his plain ‘ol boring Republicanness. This treatment as an outsider allowed Republican Trump voters to feel like rebels and iconoclasts, like pioneers on a new American frontier, one once again populated by hordes of shrieking Injuns (immigrants and Muslims and Black Lives Matter protesters and transgender folk clamoring to use public bathrooms for instance.) If Trump were to come to power, the game would be up; there would be nothing left to complain about. The endless whining and self-pity and moaning would have to stop; conservatives would have to admit they got what they wanted. Their loss would not be special any more. (I am merely amplifying Brodsky’s points here, but it is crucial to make note of how important self-pity is to the Republican image; unsurprisingly, Trump’s twitter feed contains many desperately self-pitying cries. Some of his most overt allies, like the police, are famously afflicted with their own deadly self-pity, the kind that causes them to kill again and again.)

They’ve got their primal father now…it’s a huge threat to their identity. But *not* because it’s external to them. Just the opposite: it’s an alien body at the heart of the party, the basis for their repression, formative and disavowed at once….there are quite a few Republicans out there who are confused as fuck, on the level of action and affect both. They’ve got their daddy now, and are not sure what to do.

Part of the problem, as many Republicans are realizing, is that when the dog-whistle is replaced by the klaxon horn, greater disruption ensues: sure, more of the faithful come out of the woodwork, convinced the Messiah is at hand, but the heretics listen too, and they take to the streets to protest like they never did before.

Where I think Brodsky and I gently disagree is that I think Republicans have begun to reconcile themselves to the presence of this realized fantasy; self-pity and dreams of power are intoxicating but so is power itself. All that accumulated misery of the eight years of watching two beautiful black people in the White House, of the wrong folk getting a little too uppity, has to find an outlet somewhere, and perhaps this regime will provide one.  Self-pity and resentment makes the Republican tumescent; power can bring blissful release.

The Donald Trump Impeachment Fantasy

Wishful thinking is in the air: this presidential incompetence is intolerable, it cannot last. Let us take bets on how long Donald Trump will last before he is evicted from the Oval Office by those who cannot put up with his trigger-happy tweeting, his brazen exploitation of the highest office in the land for personal financial gain, his reckless attacks on the independence of this land’s judiciary, his bizarre, unhinged, deployment of illegal executive orders, his juvenile foreign policy. Trump will be impeached before the year is out, before his term is over.

This is an exceedingly curious fantasy to entertain. Impeachment of a president requires the House of Representatives to vote to do so. (It also requires the Senate to conduct a trial and issue a verdict.) Do the proponents of these bizarre speculations imagine that a House of Representatives which is controlled by the Republican Party will ever float such a motion and act on it? And that a Republican Party-controlled Senate will issue an impeachment verdict to follow up? This the Republican Party that, lest we forget, has voted in lockstep to confirm all of Trump’s cabinet nominees, each one more spectacularly unqualified for the task. (So dogged has its defense of this cavalcade of incompetents been that yesterday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell invoked a slavery era rule–during Black History Month–to prevent Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King, written back in 1986, which had opposed Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship because of his civil rights record.) This is also the Republican Party that has expressed virtually no public opposition to any of Trump’s policies–they’ve all either been cowed down by his relentless tweeting, or they do not find anything objectionable in his policies. After all, as McConnell put it, ““I think there is a high level of satisfaction with the new administration.”

This is not a party that is going to impeach.

These fantasies remind me, all over again, of the feverish frenzy that broke out during the election season when commentator after commentator wrote about the ‘implosion’ of the Republican Party, its death-throes, its being torn apart by the conflicting impulses that had been induced by the Trump candidacy. Precisely none of that happened. The Republican Party rolled on, won the election, maintained its majorities in both houses, and found itself a new President, who now sits in the Oval Office.

One of the biggest mistakes made by political pundits in writing about the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency has been to imagine that there is a separation between it and the Republican Party, that this administration represents some radical break with the past, that Republicans of yesteryear were milder, less ideologically unhinged, less racist, less xenophobic, less invested in taking this country to the cleaners. It has let the Republican Party off the hook; but Trump is their creation, he is of a piece with the history of this party. This present moment does not represent a discontinuity or disjuncture with the past; it represents its logical continuation.

Trump will not be impeached by the Republican Party. To hope or wish for it is just that, a fantasy. There are far better fantasies to inform your politics with.

The Trump-Bannon Executive Order ‘Strategy’ And Its Rhetorical Value

The flurry of executive orders signed by Donald Trump since January 20th was designed to accomplish several objectives.

First, on attaining office, establish continuity between the ‘campaigning candidate Trump’ and ‘President Trump’ by acting to ‘implement’ the most visible campaign trail promises–the ones packing the most rhetorical punch. This should be done without regard to the legality, constitutionality, or practicality of implementation of the orders. These orders should bear the distinct impress of dynamic, purposeful action; their signings should be staged in impressive settings reeking of power; the president’s pen should resemble a sword cutting through legislative red tape. Their failure, their rollback, their rewriting, will obviously proceed in far more subtle fashion, perhaps under cover of the night. In press parlance, the whopper makes it to the front page, the correction finds its way to page seventeen. Red meat, even if tainted, needs to be thrown to the ‘base;’ the resultant feeding frenzy will keep them busy and distracted for a while. Passing laws is boring and staid; it speaks of negotiation and compromise; executive orders execute. Or at least, they seem to, which in the present circumstances might amount to the same thing–at least as far as the spectators are concerned.

Second, when these orders encounter political resistance in the form of citizens’ protests, as they almost certainly will, emphasize the source and nature of the opposition, even if these demonstrations and protests appear to be large and organized: focus on the marches in ‘elite, out-of-touch’ cities like New York and San Francisco; emphasize that the protesters are opposing action and appear happy with the status quo, in direct opposition to the dynamism of the president. (Useful idiots in the media can be relied upon to offer commentary like “these protesters seem to have made up their mind to oppose the president no matter what he does” etc. A few close-ups of women yelling slogans–to emphasize the ‘hysterical’ nature of the protests, and some of black protesters to make the claim that ‘they have nothing better to do’ will certainly make the rounds.) This will also allow the deployment of the usual ‘anti-American’ tropes.

Third, when the orders encounter legal resistance in the form of pushback from legal advisers, civil liberties lawyers, and Federal judges, emphasize again, its ‘elite’ nature: meddling, lying, lawyers; unelected activist judges imposing their self-indulgent wills on the general will of the people; law will now become synonymous with ‘red tape,’ regulations,’ and ‘rules.’ The bureaucratic nature of the legal system will be emphasized.

This is all great grist for the Bannon propaganda mill. The executive orders might not ‘work’ in one sense; they certainly will in another.

These strategies are not new; they are old and honorable members of the Republican Party’s playbook. They will, however, be implemented with unapologetic ferocity by an ideologically determined crew, using all the available machinery–sophistical and sophisticated–of modern communications at hand. The only weakness in this strategy is that it might not have anticipated the resultant ferocity of the opposition to it, and the unintended consequence of uniting an opposition that before the elections appeared disparate and disunited.

The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

Stopping The ‘Muslim Registry’: A Serious Approach

A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims,  then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)

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