Café Américain

What with the Republican approved method of mailing bombs to Democrats (and, interestingly, not vice-versa) I have to wonder if democracy is gone for good.  I recently watched Casablanca again with my wife.  What struck me about it this time around was how, although many of the characters clearly hated one another, they were civil—downright polite—unless safely locked out of sight by the Nazis.  It also struck me that in the 1940s Nazis were bad whereas now they are the legitimate nickname of the GOP.  It used to be calm, collected enemies playing by the rules even with their hatred intact.  Now politics has become gaming the system itself so that the other side can’t win to the point that Major Strasser looks like Colonel Klink.

I suppose what’s most distressing about all of this is that moderate Republicans have so quickly acquiesced to Trump’s agenda of hatred.  Not one speaks out against him, fearing his money.  Somehow they manage to sleep at night.  I’m guess that if they watch Casablanca they don’t see what some of us do.  There comes a point, when a game gets too serious, that most of us know to back off and do something else for a while.  When we were kids we knew it instinctively.  What began as playful rivalry started to feel like hatred.  The twelve year old knows that at this point it’s time to back away, otherwise it will come to blows and we will feel regret.  There is no regret in the Grand Old Party.  They only regret that Tricky Dicky didn’t get away with it.  Welcome to the most unfair democracy in the world.

Ah, but I digress from Rick’s.  It we come downstairs we will hear Victor Laszlo leading the band in “La Marseillaise,”a national anthem far more robust than bombs bursting in the air.  These, after all, are patriots, not panderers after personal power.  Even Major Strasser doesn’t start lobbing pipe-bombs in Rick’s Café Américain, and he orders Captain Renault to find a legal reason to shut the place down.  This is the rule of law, no matter how crooked.  In the end, however, Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund are on a plane to Lisbon, and Rick and Louis are planning their flight from the city to take on more noble pursuits.  The swamp in the desert has been left by those of any integrity, save the underground.  Casablanca, after all, translates to “white house.”


Sell-by Date

Labels give us the information we need to enact our prejudices immediately. Having been on the receiving end of great cruelty by “conservatives,” for example, I’m immediately cautious of anyone bearing that brand. A strange confession, perhaps, from someone who grew up in that camp. I struggle to remind myself that a label’s not a person. For example, I had a very good education at Grove City College, a conservative school. It wasn’t uniformly that way, of course. Now having a better sense of higher education politics I can see how this might happen—how a school committed to a doctrine might inadvertently challenge that view in the name of education. Quite a few things swayed me to broaden my view as a religion major at Grove City. One of those collegiate experiences was watching Cabaret.

Enough time has passed that I can’t recall the exact context of the film. I suspect it was a weekend entertainment required by some humanities intro course. For a kid from the sticks, seeing a ménage à trois on the big screen made a deep impression when I’d always thought of the world in binary terms. The larger message of the film was not lost on me, however, that those who are prejudiced will always find ways of expressing their hatred, if society will let them. Last night I watched Cabaret again. As a movie it hasn’t aged a day. Society, however, seems to have regressed back to those days when a Nazi could stand and proudly sing at a social gathering and others, distressed by economic hardship, would willingly  overlook the evil that lay in plain sight in the hope of change.

Back when the film was made I suspect the Vietnam War was on the public mind. We thought we’d safely gotten beyond the fascist threat. In the scene where the boarding house residents are complaining about conspiracies between “Jewish bankers and Communists” it became clear that people fall for the same tactics time and again. Rumors, fear, and economic disappointment are a dangerous combination in a democracy. The players have changed but the fact of fascism hasn’t. We can see it being enacted plainly, as it has been every day since 11/9. Accommodation is more deadly than conservatism. As the story opens Nazis aren’t welcome at the Cabaret. By the end they predominate there. Their hateful agenda had been accommodated, normalized by the press. And who can forget the song that could well be the anthem of the current administration, “Money Makes the World Go Round”? There’s an accurate label for that, I’m sure.


Acts of Apostles

“Manifesto,” the poem that launched Banned Book Week 2010, was written by banned author Ellen Hopkins. As a perspicacious undergraduate I know pointed out, each stanza of this poem addresses an aspect of that strange cultural fear known as Banned Book Week. Her line, “false
patriots who live in fear of discourse,” in stanza one makes me tremble each time. You see, it is easy to believe that censorship applies only to Nazis goose-stepping around bonfires with books flying through the air like a Steven Spielberg movie, or even, more recently, The Book Thief (the book is better than the movie), or godless Communists. That fear, however, travels both forward and backward in time. The Patriot Act has been at work effacing liberty for several years now, and people too fond of fear are unwilling to withdraw it. The world of frightening ideas in which we live, however, is nothing new. Literary artists bring us to uncomfortable places. That’s why we read them.

If we turn history’s pages back to the Nazis, we find ourselves sitting in judgment over their cowardly act of book burning. Those who never read of the phoenix are swift to recreate the myth. But we do history a disservice if we stop there. I was recently reminded that burning books has a biblical precedent. According to Acts 19.19, while Paul was performing miracles in Ephesus, those who were converted brought out their books of magic and burned them, to the approval of the nascent Christian movement. A Bible that advocates the burning of books is ironic, for the Bible itself has been banned in parts of the world. What greater crime against humanity can there be than the deliberate destruction of its own cultural heritage? We don’t believe in magic any more, but we still burn books.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfVice

Owen Davies, in his book Grimoires, shows that the practice goes back even further, with Romans burning books of magic as early as 186 B.C.E. There is a perverse symbolism at work here. As someone who admires, but can’t afford, antique books, the thought of ancient documents intentionally destroyed appears as one of the most easily preventable of cultural crimes. Sometimes as I hurry through the Port Authority Bus Terminal to reach my gate, I see the military guards with machine guns and full combat fatigues and I hope that they don’t stop me to search my bag. The only thing I’m carrying is books. Books, however, convey ideas. Banned Book Week reminds us each year that ideas are essential to the life of the mind. They may be burned or banned, but they will live on. The cost, however, may never be fully recovered by the society that permits its ideas to be incinerated.


Nazis with Bibles

Some years back, when the Internet was young, I had just learned about email. Even today it seems incredible that only twenty years ago we still sent physical letters to communicate, and that we used paper maps and telephone books to get information. The main problem with email then was that not everyone was on it. I signed up for an Ancient Near East/Biblical studies discussion group. My barren inbox (being a scholar at a non-prestige school) was suddenly full every day. New discoveries, research ideas, online debates. It was all very exciting. Then someone voiced the fraught question: should we ignore the research of scholars who were later revealed to have been Nazis? The rancor raised forced the moderator of the discussion group eventually to make this a forbidden topic. Because I could not keep up with the inundation of emails and because of the vitriol (do people use the world vitriol anymore?) on the Internet universe, I eventually unsubscribed. Nothing raises hackles like Nazis. Especially in the field of biblical studies, which, naturally enough, revolves around issues of Jewish interest. I saw a blog post recently which brought this whole episode back to mind.

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The issue of political conviction and professional neutrality is a vexed one. Critical study of the Bible began, to a large extent, in German universities. Biblical studies in higher education was mainly a Christian enterprise, and many of the questions were, well, only academic. If someone was a Nazi, did he (and they were pretty much all he’s) have a hidden agenda? Today the question of agenda is often raised with conservative biblical scholars. Can someone who believes in the Virgin Birth and in Moses parting the Red Sea really interact critically with the biblical text? Just throw that question out there and watch the fun. (It helps if it is tossed out on a blog that actually has readers, rather than my insignificant efforts here.) Who can make the claims for true objectivity? Can a Nazi correctly parse that verb? Do one’s political views gainsay one’s credibility?

We are all children of our environment. Even the most empirical of scientists will admit that true objectivity is not what it seems. We are not, after all, gods. And even the gods seem to have distinct tastes. Evil done in the name of politics seems slightly less heinous than evil done in the name of religion, but people are people and we have convictions sprouting out all over the place. Nobody intentionally believes falsehoods. Motivations are notoriously difficult to untangle. Can’t we all be professional about this? Emotions, however, do play favorites. If there’s any doubt, consider the question of using a person as an experimental subject with no regard for what they feel. We know it’s wrong. We won’t allow it. Of course, that’s in an ideal world. Right now there are more pressing matters at hand, such as how to hire more adjuncts without destroying our credibility. It’s not a matter of wanting to hurt others, it’s just good business. Everything else is merely academic.