Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Sailor off the Bremen" shows that punching Nazis is nothing new

It's only a movie -- or is it? Indiana Jones punches a Nazi in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
USA Today offered its summary of the past weekend: "Analysis: One weekend, two Americas. Are we falling apart?" It examines this past weekend in the U.S., in which Trump was inaugurated as president and concerned citizens protested millions-strong around the the U.S. and the world.  
The article leaves us with chilling words from pollster Frank Luntz:
"We've never had as many people who don't trust the media, don't trust the politicians, don't trust economics, don't trust business," Republican political consultant Frank Luntz said on CBS' Face the Nation. "I think we're going to remember this weekend for a long time to come as not the end, not the campaign being over, but this is the beginning of the most tempestuous ... awful conflict between left and right, between men and women, between young and old." 
He warned, "I think we are breaking apart."  
Luntz works for Republicans. As a pollster, he interviewed scores of potential voters leading up to the election. I watched many of those segments on CBS This Morning, back when I was watching TV news. They were illuminating and scary. Give credit to Luntz for showing us the inklings of the cataclysm that was to come. 
What's next?
Punching Nazis. U.S. Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was punched in the face Saturday during D.C. inauguration activities. It was filmed, and the vid went viral. The #punchingnazis hashtag became a sensation.  Facebookers posted old cartoon panels of Superman punching Nazis during WWII. Hitler memes were big. 
Liberals had a big laugh. Conservatives were silent. Nobody wants to be on the side of the Nazis, even though we thought that this abbreviation for German's National Socialist Party had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Now we call these people alt-right or purveyors of white pride or white identity or white nationalists. They shouted "Hail Trump" at their post-election rally. 
So why not punch Nazis? Because Trump will use public violence as an excuse to clamp down on public protest. One of the reasons we peacefully gathered out in the streets this weekend is that we fear that very thing. Vice President Pence has already stated that it is time to curtail protests. We knew this was coming. 
Punching Nazis is nothing knew. One of Irwin Shaw's best short stories is ":Sailor Off the Bremen." In it, Nazi sailors off the ship Bremen attack anti-fascist demonstrators on the New York docks. One demonstrator is so injured that some of his compatriots decide to punch Nazis.

Shaw has always been one of my favorite short story writers. He lived during the golden age of short story writing and publishing. Yes, short story writers got paid to write in the 1930s. Shaw was featured in some of the best mags of the era. He wrote for radio. He went off to war and kept writing. Many of his novels became best-sellers. One was made into a Brando movie, The Young Lions. Two were made into blockbuster TV miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man and Beggerman, Thief. Shaw lived in Paris. For the most part, he is not studied in M.F.A. writing programs due to his potboiler novels. A shame, really. Many of us could learn storytelling skills from this master.

"Sailor off the Bremen" serves up a pre-war cast of Nazis, communists and tough guys. Nobody really comes off as a hero. A young communist activist gets beat up at a protest against the Nazi-flag-flying Bremen. He loses his eye. His football-playing brother avenges the crime by beating a Nazi almost to death on the streets of New York. Nothing gets solved. The war will begin in September. The beatings and killings will commence on a global scale.

A white nationalist gets punched in the face in D.C. We cheer. White nationalists in Whitefish, Mont., target the Jews in their community. How do we respond to that? Peaceful protest may be the answer. Until it's not.
Lawrence Block included "Sailor off the Bremen" in the 2008 anthology he edited for Akashic Books, Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics. It's a good thing. Shaw's stories are hard to find these days. 
I leave you with a quote by James Fallows from the latest issue of Atlantic Magazine Online. Fallows recently spoke at a conference in Cheyenne. In the Atlantic article, he mentioned Laramie as one of the many places where local citizens are transforming their communities. At the same time, they hold a jaundiced view of national politics.
Fallows wrote this:
And now we have Donald Trump. We have small-town inland America—the culture I think of myself as being from—being credited or blamed for making a man like this the 45th in a sequence that includes Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. I view Trump’s election as the most grievous blow that the American idea has suffered in my lifetime. The Kennedy and King assassinations and the 9/11 attacks were crimes and tragedies. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were disastrous mistakes. But the country recovered. For a democratic process to elevate a man expressing total disregard for democratic norms and institutions is worse. The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.
How many of our fellow citizens do we have to punch to make this right? If you punch, are you prepared to be punched back? Or worse?

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