Absurdities and Atrocities
I’ve just returned from this weekend’s SCBWI Falling Leaves workshop, where I listened to craft lectures and met with editors about my verse novel in progress. I was hoping to report more on what I learned there, but after yesterday’s lectures and meetings I found out that a white male gunman, an avowed anti-Semite, had murdered 11 worshippers and wounded 6 others at the Tree of Life synagogue outside Pittsburgh.
The eighteenth century Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire proclaimed, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” The gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, cited claims that Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros, who had escaped both the Holocaust and Communism in his native Hungary, was funding the 7,000-person caravan of “terrorists” (in fact, desperate refugees from violence in their own countries) traveling from Central America through Mexico and to the United States. Those claims had come directly from U.S. President Donald Trump, midterm political advertisements from the Republican National Committee, FOX News, Breitbart, and other far-right news sources. Mainstream media have debunked these claims, but a significant portion of the U.S. public believes them regardless of how bizarre and illogical they may be.
Absurd claims about Jewish financiers, Jewish communists, and other Jews whose existence has become a scapegoat for a variety of economic and social ills has been a staple of dictators and wannabe dictators for centuries. Similar accusations and imagery propelled Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, with a legislative victory shortly thereafter that allowed him to consolidate his power. That legislative election was Germany’s last until the country’s defeat in the Second World War — and those living in the Soviet zone of East Germany would not vote in elections again until the 1990s. Within a few years, the absurdities that the German people accepted led to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
We in the United States face a similar crossroads today. Will the legislative election in 10 days place a check on an extremist president and ruling party that uses its money and media to spread absurd claims, scapegoating, and fear among the population? Even before the Tree of Life atrocity, the nation witnessed a pro-Trump fanatic’s attempted assassination by pipe bomb of a dozen Democratic leaders and funders, including former President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, all of whom had been singled out for demonization on Twitter by the current president himself. We also saw the murder of two African-American shoppers at a Kroger’s by a white supremacist who had tried to shoot up a Black church but failed to gain entry.
I don’t know what the next week will bring, though I’m concerned about escalating violence, an election that may not be free and fair, and one that may, as in Germany in the 1930s, bring out a groundswell of people who have given up human rights, tolerance, and democracy in favor of the siren song of an authoritarian demagogue and his easy solutions to their problems. Over the summer, I traveled with my daughter to that country where her paternal grandparents grew up and which they fled to escape the Nazi terror. Several weeks after I returned, I wrote a poem, “Bebelplatz,” inspired by seeing the square in front of Humboldt University in Berlin where in May 1933, students burned “subversive” and “decadent” books on orders of the Nazi regime and their propaganda outlets.
The light draws you in
over the roofs of buildings
over the silhouettes of the crowd,
their shouts rising like flames
in the darkest night.
They are not burning their textbooks
or notebooks at the end of a school year
but the entire library, stripping the shelves
bare. The smoke is warm, cozy,
the aroma of something old,
You will never forget that smell,
trees turned to paper turned to dust
turned to ash, tinged with the perfume
of ink that once made sense
of our world.
The rich scent of leather binding,
now roasting like the skin of an animal
on a spit, over the flame.
You can almost taste the juice,
the charbroiled edges of a world
as the fires of savagery