My husband has been reading voraciously about the French Revolution and its aftermath, and compared it to our time, in the sense that people followed the developments addictively, not knowing which way the world was going to turn. I feel somewhat less insane for following the news so closely.
Following the past week’s foray into Trumpian foreign policy, there can be no question in anyone’s mind that the world is in a very dangerous moment. The American president has clearly shown where he feels most comfortable: with the dictators whose only conception of human rights is their right to absolute power. He is a fish out of water in a milieu committed to democracy, rule of law, human rights and peace. In the spiritual desert of his soul that has too many times betrayed others and itself, values are like the punishing sun.
While Trump cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler – a question that has been posed to me and other experts on the Third Reich in the media - a reading of Mein Kampf sheds light on the politics of America today. How is it possible that America’s current elected political leadership can propose measures that will seriously impair the lives of ordinary citizens and set the country on a rapid downward trajectory? It seems a mystery until you read Mein Kampf in which anything is justifiable, as long as it serves the interests of the ruling group which regards itself as superior to all of the others. This group defines itself as humanity – all of the rest fall outside of that definition, are inferior, and therefore there is no reason to serve them. In fact, certain groups are so inferior that their very existence threatens the ruling group. This is ample justification for not only getting rid of them, but for purging culture and society of their memory. Suddenly, what seems outrageous makes sense. The lesson of the Third Reich (i.e. the unfolding of Mein Kampf) is that the crowds that voted for this group will continue to show support for the Party, which has become the be-all and end-all of society, even when they know that it is acting contrary to their interests.
Many have heaved a sigh of (semi) relief and concluded that Trump is just a fool. This label seems benign, even strangely endearing. Fools in Shakespeare can be cocky but often unifying figures, dwelling as they do in the borderland between the audience and the stage. Not so in this case. This is a bully who aligns himself with forces to which a sense of common humanity and freedom are anathema.
My hope is that the rest of the free world finds patience with Americans in this moment, and also finds the strength to lead when America cannot. We are in a dark space, and must let the slow wheels of democracy and justice turn, and do their job. With continued and mounting pressure from Americans themselves and the free world, we may be able to protect those wheels from being broken, and eventually take the country in a new direction. As the large crowd that gathered in Berlin yesterday to listen to that Axis of Reason - Obama and Merkel, both figures that have overcome great obstacles personally - discussing hope and the future before the ghost of a wall, a symbol of tyranny that is no more, it was clear that there are many determined to keep the torches burning. Now is the time of engagement.
It just didn't seem possible. How could a deaf man, no matter his musical genius, compose a symphony that was to become the most recognized piece in the western musical canon? At the premiere in Vienna in 1824, the 20-year-old contralto, Caroline Unger, allegedly turned Beethoven to face the audience so that he could at least see their response. There were five encores, and he couldn't hear a single clap.
Of all of the qualities that made this piece endure, there is one that goes amiss on no one who listens to it: its obsession with the experience of “Freude” or joy. Both Beethoven and Schiller, whose poem, “Ode to Joy,” the composer used for his choral symphony, came into the world at the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment that soon gave way to the carnage of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Like us, they lived in times of dramatic change with terrible loss of human life. Yet, through all of it they were able to give us this piece that wrenches closed hearts open and transcends division with its extraordinary beauty.
As I watched the lone young man in the black overcoat wearing a sober dark tie walking with unmistakable purpose through the empty grounds of the Louvre as the sound of that choral symphony rose, I felt “Freude.” It had been gone for such a long time, when it seemed that we were on our way forward to a past whose atrocities we knew all too well.
Was I just being a gullible romantic, and wasn’t this just the overly-confident, green young French President Elect giving a premature finger to the nationalists and autocrats who said that the European project was over?
The young man gave a speech in which he said he would serve “with love.” Joy, love, reason, morality. They just hadn’t seemed possible any more - not in the same breath. But he offered us a drop of that magical serum called hope and the interconnections became like the beams between the musical notes in the fourth movement of that unforgettable symphony.
He had campaigned for one year through none of the established political parties on a platform that many said was a dead end. The media had tried to make a soap opera out of his unconventional marriage (similar to mine), and the superpowers had actively attempted to undermine his campaign in favor of extremist, anti-democratic forces that seemed to be engulfing the world. His winning just didn’t seem possible.
The question remains as to why all of these Goliaths could not bring down David. The reason, I believe, lies in his appeal to what has been missing. I have found myself beginning to unsubscribe to e-mails threatening that the sky will fall down if I don’t provide another USD 50 to this or that Congressman or woman. This inspires nothing in me except dread about the long string of e-mails that will most certainly follow about the horrible catastrophe that will befall us if I do not contribute.
Into this vacuum of imagination suddenly there landed the seed of everything unlikely that ever happened. Its name was joy.