These are desperate times and so I have resorted to desperate measures: I have changed my Facebook avatar.
A little joke, of course, yet I actually have done that.
My new Facebook avatar comes from the movie “Cabaret.” An old man, he speaks no lines and appears for about seven seconds total, in the beer garden. You know the scene: Brian and Maximilian, tete a tete, stop talking when the Hitlerjugend begins singing the folksy anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in which the Fatherland urges the German people to “Arise! Arise!” Others at their tables, drawn in, rise one by one, the singing growing fierce, terrifying, overwhelming.
We see my avatar first after the singing has gone on a minute or so. The Nazi next to him is already standing; the young woman to his left has abruptly stood, and we see him look at her with surprise and disdain: “What, seriously?” he seems to wonder, then turns away.
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After another minute of lusty singing and rising, we see him again, close up. To my eyes he appears stunned. How quickly, I imagine him thinking, how quickly it has come. He recognizes what he sees, and he knows that if the average citizens around him have fallen, hope is gone. He is old, powerless, alone. “Again,” I imagine him thinking. “Again.”
As we think now.
In fact, we’re right on schedule. We like to posit the rise of Nazism as some sort of unsurprising consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, but in any case 15 years after something went wrong, the German people madly embraced the buffoon who drove the world to ruin. We’re a bit more than 14 years after our terrible moment – 9/11 – so we seem right on time to embrace the madness of blaming some Other for all our problems.
I – and so many others – have often said that 9/11 was a terrible day but that a much worse one followed on 9/12, because that was the day we began carrying terrorists’ water and embraced a view of the world in which some Bad Guys were out there and our only job was to find them and “take them out,” in the hideously Orwellian language of the day. (“Murder” just sounds so Old Testament, does it not?)
A lesson in jingoism
Since then I have often told the story of the moment I came to fear it was already too late. Immediately post-9/11, I visited my sister in New York for Thanksgiving, and that weekend the bunch of us went to dinner. As my extended family and I sat around a big table, there was some kind of hubbub across the restaurant. In those nervous days, we responded anxiously – tensed muscles, sat up, craned necks. Soon, though, it became apparent: It was just a drunk, standing up, waving a bottle of wine around, singing, as one did, “God Bless America.”
You scarcely need me to describe: the touching, the hugging, the tears, as the whole restaurant swayed and sang together.
The whole restaurant, that is, except for me and my brother-in-law. We sat across from each other, sunk in our chairs, faces set, arms crossed – not unlike my new avatar from “Cabaret.” After the song came the recriminations. What was wrong with us? What was wrong with a display of patriotism? Why couldn’t we just enjoy the moment?
My brother-in-law delivered a small lecture about the word “jingoism,” as I recall, though nobody was buying. I came at it from a different angle.
“You think you are in the Marseillaise scene from ‘Casablanca,’” I said. “But you are not.
“You are in the beer garden scene from ‘Cabaret.’”
The metaphor has actually gotten even worse. I don’t think we imagine ourselves anymore the scattered Free French, bravely plotting in Casablanca. I think now we imagine ourselves in the Edelweiss scene from “The Sound of Music.” We imagine ourselves, like those Austrians singing with the Von Trapps, the core of a once-proud people, brought low by some external force. Muslims, I guess, or some variety of brown people, or liberals, or women, or better yet all of the above.
But the fakery of that scene fits our time. However the Von Trapps responded and however it pleased the producers of “The Sound of Music” to cast the Austrians, the vast majority of them cheered the Anschluss – it was one big Trump rally in Austria in 1938. My point is I am far more afraid of Trump’s supporters than I am of Trump.
Two other cultural touchstones remind us that if we identify Trump and his minions as some hated Other, we’re doing the same thing he does: finding someone to blame. And if it’s not the Muslims, it’s the Jews, and if it’s not them, it’s the Mexicans or the immigrants, and if it’s not the conservatives, it’s the liberals, and the point is, like the man in the beer garden knows: It’s not them that’s the problem. It’s us.
Consider. Of all our current Nazi touchstones, I love most “The Man in the High Castle,” the alternative history produced by Netflix and based on the Philip K. Dick novel in which the Germans and Japanese win World War II, dividing North America between them. In the pilot, Joe, a man of uncertain loyalty, is driving across the Nazi portion of the continent when he has a blowout. He is helped by a sheriff, who not only fixes his tire (and checks his papers) but also gives him an extra sandwich his wife had made. Joe looks up quizzically when he notices gray flecks falling like snow. “The hospitals,” the sheriff explains blithely. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill. Drag on the state.”
Good guy. Wife makes him sandwiches, and he shares them. Helps change a tire. Fought in the war – says he doesn’t remember why. He’s your conservative uncle who loves Trump and O’Reilly and Cruz, and you don’t bother to argue with him because, what’s the point? And you know that despite his idiot political beliefs, he’s not a bad person, down inside there.
Yet there are tens of millions of not bad people who think we should kill terrorists’ families or rough up those who disagree with us politically or prevent them from voting or shoot at people we think are doing something wrong. Tens of millions right here at home.
Cheerful freelance torturers
Which all leads back to my final touchstone: “Brazil,” the Terry Gilliam masterpiece about totalitarianism and the corporate terror state that introduced cheerful freelance torturers two decades before Abu Ghraib. In his essay on Gilliam, Clive James mentions everyone from the Gestapo to Ivan the Terrible. “The frightening thing,” he says, “is that any regime dedicated to ruling by terror so easily finds a sufficient supply of lethal myrmidons.” The parade of Republican candidates advocating torture – and Trump’s pledge to kill the families of terrorists – removes any doubt of who we hope to become.
We pretend Trump represents something new, but we don’t have to look hard – McCarthy; the Klan; the Japanese internment; movements against Italians, Irish, African-Americans, Catholics, Jews; Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act – to see that we’re no different from any population in history.
So, sure, I worry about Trump, but I worry more about his supporters – the ones who beat the counter-demonstrator, the ones who pushed out the Latino demonstrators, and on and on. The beatings bring us back to the twin beating scenes in “Cabaret.” Early in the film, Nazis solicit the Kit-Kat Club guests and are forcibly thrown out; later, Nazis beat up the club’s owner. It makes a nice counterpoint for the film, underscoring a fundamental fact: Once it’s just a matter of who is strong enough to beat up whom, the game is over.
And so I suspect even powerfully conservative planners are now asking one another what progressives have been asking all along – what in “Cabaret” Brian asks Maximilian as they leave the beer garden: “Still think you can control them?” Only now instead of them, we’re asking about us. And the answer is still no.
The answer is always no.
Scott Huler of Raleigh is the author of six books of nonfiction and a former Piedmont Laureate. A small part of this essay originally appeared in 2011 as part of the Piedmont Laureate Words of the Month.