Permission to Vent

Did you know that in the 1960’s, while all of the mainstream media devoted their sports sections to professional baseball, football, basketball, stockcar racing, and hockey, the sport that attracted the most actual fans– in person, in stadiums– was…. ready for it?  Demolition derbies.

In politics, the whacky far right is the demolition derby of ideologies.  Until recently, relegated to the back pages of history.

In spite of all the think-pieces about polarization in American politics, I really think the issue comes down to something much simpler.

Firstly, there has not been a massive change in attitudes or beliefs over the past 70 or 80 years.  A large segment of the U.S. population has always held stupid ideas about culture, education, leadership, the military, and the police.  And, of course, race.  They love guns, hate affirmative action, can’t bear the thought of giving up their massive V-8 powered pick-up trucks, fear black people even if they don’t see themselves as racist (and some aren’t), and hate the idea of foreigners coming into the country and taking away their jobs while they themselves are unwilling to work hard for long hours to get ahead and there is a labour shortage in most areas of the country.  They believe that good manufacturing jobs have been shipped over-seas even though 85% of them were lost to automation.  They believe Republicans when they say they intend to reduce the deficit even though, when in office, they never have and never will.  They seem to think that cutting taxes on the rich will benefit them, because, fuck it, some day I might win the lottery.

Until recently, people with toxic beliefs about society have intuited that they shouldn’t openly express those views because the consensus among politicians, the media, and other leaders is that those views are, in fact, untrue, toxic, and counter-productive, and ignorant.

They always believe crime is on the increase.  Always.   Try to explain to them that if crime was always increasing it would eventually reach 100%, so there must be times when it is actually decreasing (in fact, the crime rate is up only in year-over-year statistics.  Over a longer period of time, it is down, by a clear margin).

They think that somehow making the bail system rational increases crime: no study has shown this.  Not one.

Newt Gingrich came along, and Alex Jones, and Rush Limbaugh, and then Donald Trump, and they all publicly expressed massive approval of these toxic beliefs.  The internet broke the consensus among major media outlets to not give play to ill-founded, idiotic conspiracy theories.  Now every ignorant, ill-informed jack-ass in the country can search online to find that the cause of the wild-fires in California is Jewish space lasers or sun spots.

Try to explain to these people that international trade agreements, on the whole, benefit them.  (Essentially, the lower cost of imported goods frees capital within the local market to pay for more goods, services, and other items which you otherwise could not afford.  Free trade is a net benefit to the average American worker and consumer.  Tariffs take money out of your pocket and give it to the government which in turn subsidizes corporations to the benefit of wealthy shareholders.)

People haven’t changed.  They are just louder and more outspoken and more than happy to enlighten you as to their brilliant insights into the nature of reality and the truth about Biden and the international child porn conspiracy and Hollywood’s Jewish cabal and they way young school-children in small towns all across Iowa are being provided with litter boxes so they can “identify” as a transgender kitten.

Perhaps the most bizarre characteristic of these people is their close identification with Christianity.  Do any of them actually read the Bible?  Do they really see something in Jesus reflected in Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity?  Do they really think God blesses them as they storm the capitol building and threaten to hang Mike Pence?

 

Farewell, Your Irrelevant Highness

Well, farewell to the “The Queen”.

She seemed liked a very nice lady. I like that she learned to be a mechanic 80 years ago. But when people say she did a “great job” I can’t, for the life of me, think of anything she actually “did”, other than, basically, pose for tourists, pose as a tourist, dub things this or dub things that, wave, and stay out of the way of Parliament. As a mother… well… the results are decidedly mixed. And considering the obscene industry her like has inspired– the cult of privileged , narcissistic, self-centred white princesses (don’t kid yourself about the token ethnic entries on the market)– , Disney should have paid her salary.

I doubt that 4-year-old girls will ever aspire to be King Charles III. They might ask for the King Charles dress for birthdays or Christmas (it’s a “kilt”, dearie).

Historically, the best solution to regicide? Make ourselves irrelevant.

The Death of Stalin

You thought “Succession” was hilarious?  The story of minor-league talents battling it out to take over the family business from a toxic patriarch?

“The Death of Stalin” is a terrific movie about the end of the life of quite possibly the worst dictator the world has ever known.  It is reported to be one of Barack Obama’s favorite films.  It was banned in Russia, which, of course, is hilarious.  It was also criticized by some for historical inaccuracies, which, of course, is also rather absurd: it is a comedy.  The comedy lies in the kind of chaos created when an authoritarian, melomaniac, paranoid leader dies without leaving a clear line of succession.

It drives me insane to read, in IMDB, an explanation of why they made the “strange” decision to have the actors speak in plain English, instead with an amusing Russian accent!  The assumption is that they should have had them speak with Russian accents, which is actually a really, really strange idea.  But these are Russians talking to each other in Russia.   Do viewers think that Russians or Germans or French people speak to each other with funny accents?

If you say, that’s what people expect, it is only because they have been trained to expect that moronic approach, the way they have been trained to believe that bullets arrive at their target simultaneously with the sound of the gun being fired: they have been trained by early Westerns which chose not to allow audiences to learn the truth.

The best solution is for them to speak in their real, native tongue, with subtitles, but having them speak fluent English is a good option, and far, far, better than the stupid accent idea.

Stalin

Estimates vary, as they will, but Stalin was probably singularly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Key players:

Lavrently Beria

  • Became head of the NKVD in November 1938.
  • Proposed and master-minded the Katyn Massacre in March 1940.
  • just before Stalin’s funeral, he had the army units in Moscow replaced with his own NKVD units and cancelled all the trains coming to Moscow.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor)

  • Closely associated with Vladimir Lenin.
  • Ran Soviet Missile Program during World War II.
  • Discredited Georgy Zhukov to curry favor with Stalin who was jealous.
  • Briefly succeeded Stalin as Premiere and “first among equals” (March 5, 1953)
  • Eventually sidelined by Nikita Khrushchev.  Attempted a palace coup against Khrushchev in 1957 and expelled from the Presidium and exiled to Kazakhstan.

Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin)

  • Negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany in 1941.
  • Part of the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death to plot things out.
  • his wife, Polina, had been arrested by Beria, with Molotov’s passive consent.  Three days after Stalin’s death, Beria did indeed release Polina to Molotov, presumably to cultivate support in the ongoing power struggle at the Politburo.

Nicolai Bulganin

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Lazar Kaganovich

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Anastas Mikoyan

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Nikita Khrushchev

  • Brought back from Ukraine to Moscow in 1949
  • Regarded by British Diplomats as mouthy and misinformed and inarticulate.  They were far more impressed b y Malenkov, though the movie portrays him as a bit of a dunce.

Vasily Stalin

  • Stalin’s son
  • Called to his father’s side after his cerebral hemorrhage, he was drunk and angry, shouting at the doctors

Svetlana Stalin

  • Stalin’s daughter.  Reported that her father’s death was “difficult and terrible”.
  • Beria had been very friendly with her as a little girl, like an Uncle

Maria Yudina.

  • famous pianist who played piano at reception at Stalin’s lying in state
  • 9 years before his death (unlike in the movie which places the event the very night of) she had played the concert shown in the movie, and had been roused out of bed to repeat the concert for a recording
  • Wrote a note to Stalin which she placed in the record sleeve saying:  “I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.”  She was not arrested.  She died in 1970.

Georgy Zhukov (died June 1974)

  • got along well with Eisenhower; tried to supply food to Berlin after war
  • however, did nothing to stop the brutal rapes and pillaging by Russian soldiers
  • unlike everyone else around Stalin, he refused to kowtow; openly dismissive of Stalin, and openly contradicted him at times
  • did loot Berlin; was caught and made an abject apology
  • Brilliant Soviet military general who guided the stand-off in Stalingrad.
  • his arrest of Beria did occur, but 3 months after the funeral (June 1953), and Beria did get a trial and was executed in December 1953.
  • supported Khrushchev’s bid for power, but, by 1957 lost favor and was forced to retire
  • never returned to a position of influence after that
  • some historians believe he exaggerated his role in WW II.

Normal Text

 

The Implications

Today it was revealed that the Supreme Court is likely to rule to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Everyone is hopefully clear on the fact that overturning “Roe vs Wade” does not make abortion illegal.  It throws the problem back to the states which now may either ban it, partially ban it, or allow it, depending on the whims of state legislators.

States will now be allowed to compel women to carry a pregnancy to full term whether they wish to or not, even in the case of incest or rape.

If this indeed is going to be the ruling (which will be handed down in June), there are some enormous implications.  Off hand, I can think of these:

  • The Democratic base will be energized going into the fall congressional elections.  This is Mitch McConnell’s nightmare.  Mid-term elections generally favor the opposition party at least partly because the government doesn’t have a burning issue to run against– it is the government many people like to vote against no matter what stripe.  But overturning Roe vs Wade may light a fire under the Democrats.
  • The issue should play well for the Democrats.  About 60-65% of Americans support the general right to abortion, though they also think limits should apply.  Democrats can cite the government telling women what they may or may not do with their bodies.  Republican state governments are going to “compel” women to carry pregnancies to term which can be spun as intrusive or egregious or over-reach or patriarchal.  Republicans cannot really run on “life begins at conception”– at least, I’ll believe it when I see it.
  • Further to that — evangelical Christians will not be satisfied with overturning Roe vs. Wade.  They want the Supreme Court to go further and ban all abortions.  Life, to them, begins at conception.  They may begin to demand that their Republican trolls reflect that in their legislation, which may be a bridge too far for independents and moderate Republican women.
  • Why stop at Roe vs Wade?  There are host of privacy rights implied in the principle that the Constitution does not protect them.  Strip searches?  Infrared scans of homes?  Drones?  Cell phone messages?  Library records?  Who says we (the FBI, Homeland Security) can’t look?   Who says those records are private (unless the police have a warrant)?
  • So when really does life begin?  If state governments begin debating this issue, and pass legislation, and this legislation is appealed to the Supreme Court, we will have an even bigger can of worms.
  • State Senate races in close states could swing.  Susan Collins is safe for now– she has five years left in her term.  Lisa Murkowski– lucky for her– voted against Kavanaugh, so she is probably safe.  But many other Republicans running in purple states will have to answer the question of who they would confirm to Supreme Court given that they might make another really stupid decision.  (Is “stupid” a blunt instrument?  I mean, Alito and Thomas are obviously not fools, but I stand by my conclusion of the fundamental soundness of their reasoning behind their votes on Roe vs Wade.  In the totality of their disregard for history, culture, justice, and just plain common sense: stupid.  Just plain stupid.  It can stand with the Dred Scott decision– that negroes are not “persons”.)

As you would think is obvious, the ruling is at odds with conservative ideals about government being restrained from intruding into areas of personal freedom.  The government should not be able to require you to wear a mask  around vulnerable people even if you could be infected with Covid 19, but it should be allowed to compel you to carry a pregnancy to full term.

 

The Saint

Is there anything that speaks as directly and conclusively to the credibility of the church as the fact that the wife of Nicholas II, Alexandra, has been made a “saint” by the Russian Orthodox Church?

In 1981 Alexandra and her family were acknowledged by The Russian Orthodox Church as martyrs, and in 2000, Empress Alexandra was made a saint by the church. She was canonized as both a saint and as a passion bearer.  From Here.  Don’t click on it: it’s one of those awful click-bait Facebook links.

Seriously?

Can we, in the future, expect to see “Saint” Diana?  Why not? Let’s see: she was famous.  She was rich.  She was vain and self-serving.  She was  a consummate narcissist.   Do we even have to wait for a miracle?

I will concede that she appears to have been faithful to her husband, and she volunteered for nursing duty during the war, along with her daughters.  She didn’t commit any mass slaughters like Olga of Kiev.  But she also may have been at least partly responsible for bringing on the Russian Revolution with her irrational attachment to Rasputin and her belief that he could heal Alexey’s hemophilia– at least, temporarily.  When it was apparent to all of the Czar’s advisers and ministers that Rasputin was widely hated among the populace, she and Nicholas refused to disassociate themselves from him.  When Prime-Minister Stolypin reported in more detail on Rasputin’s lecherous behaviour, he had him exiled but Alexandra persuaded him to allow back.  With the survival of the entire government at stake, it was left to the husband of one of Nicholas’ nephews,  Prince Feliks Yusopov, to try to save the Czar from himself by assassinating him.  As it turns out, it was too late.

Can you imagine some sequence of thought or imagination in which a genuinely spiritual person in a Church based on the gospel of Jesus Christ has an authentic experience of encountering qualities in  the story of Alexandra that would inspire you to exclaim, “what a saint!  What a model and paragon of Christian virtue and humility!  What an inspiration to all of mankind!  Think of all the suffering she alleviated!  Think of her purity and modesty!  Think of how constantly she placed others ahead of herself!”

But then, we are talking about a movement–I do mean broadly, Christianity itself– that bloviated constantly about purity and humility and spirituality and service to mankind and truth and dignity… and then voted– overwhelmingly– for Donald Trump in a real election.

How can anything said by its adherents be taken seriously anymore?

And to those who rejected Donald Trump but insist they are Christians, I cannot imagine how you rationalize a faith that itself proclaims that you can and should judge people by their fruits.

 

Martin Vrieze

When I did a search for a philosophy professor I took a course with 40 years ago at Trinity Christian College, I found nothing.  Except for one indirect reference.

This is shocking to me.  Can a man devote so large part of his life to teaching philosophy to hundreds of students and disappear with barely a trace on the Internet?  Well, of course, this was all before the Internet, but still, you would think there would be a few pages somewhere honoring his memory.  Maybe some former student fondly remembering the required perspectives courses we all had to take our first year (What is this?  A chair?  How you know it’s a chair and not an umbrella?)

Here is my note on Dr. Marin Vrieze, so there is at least one page somewhere devoted to him:

2 plus 2 does not Equal 4

Probably the best course I took at Trinity was Dr. Vrieze’s “Philosophy of History” class.

Until then, we had studied philosophy in various eras, medieval, modern, 19th Century. We studied Kant and Descartes and Hume, all relics of a different era, relevant but quaintly insular. Who really cares about Kant’s categories of being in the era of Woodstock and Watergate and Viet Nam and Bob Dylan and the Beatles?

The revolutionary aspect of Vrieze’s course was it’s reliance on current, living philosophers, and the course texts consisted of periodicals instead of text books. It was here I was introduced to Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, Schopenhauer, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. And it was here, for the first time, I was convinced that 2 plus 2 might not equal 4. This mathematical equation was not some transcendent logic that would always be true no matter what you believed about God or reality or physics. It was the product of rigid doctrines promulgated by the rationalists and the 19th century systematizers.

To be clear, I didn’t necessarily believe that 2 plus 2 was a subjective idea that could be discarded at will. I was skeptical of that too. But my readings, especially of Feyerabend and Lakatos, convinced me that you could make an argument for the idea that it really was an arbitrary construct judged by presuppositions about the nature of physical reality, and that if you assumed a different nature of reality— say, for example, that time is a river, not sequence of atomic moments— you could end up with a universe in which 2 plus 2 does not equal 4.

Karl Popper presented the idea of paradigms: that we can understand the world in the framework of a model or set of assumptions which endure as long as they are “useful” and productive in some way. This idea has been useful to me over and over again: look at the people who support Donald Trump. They operate according to a different paradigm. And it is almost impossible to shift someone’s paradigm until it begins to break down or disintegrate under them.
Wittgenstein believed that all of reality is essentially the product of language. It was in the language expression itself that constructs our experience of the world. I found this idea very intriguing.

Mark Vandervennen who was in the course with me kept asking, “what is the Christian response to these philosophies? How do we answer them with our own truth?” Until then, every course on philosophy concluded with a survey of the “correct” Christian response to these pagan ideas. Most of the time, this consisted of nominally Christian thinkers like Herman Dooyeweerd who rather obviously adapted parts of the pagan ideas into his own scheme, in Dooyeweerd’s case, particularly, categories of being.


Vrieze steadfastly refused to provide an out. He would sometimes repeat the question to the class: “How do we respond to Wittgenstein? Tell me.”
I began to believe that this course was Vrieze’s revenge on the entire edifice of Christian College philosophy and theology. He seemed to be demonstrating to me that none of the pat answers we received in all of our earlier perspective and philosophy courses were adequate to address the real issues raised by the most powerful living philosophers.  Perhaps he was addressing his own professional disappointments.  He never seemed to rise to a position of prestige or professional recognition that I think he felt he deserved.

Google Dr. Martin Vrieze. It is shocking to me that there is almost references to him on the Internet. I need to do a page and make the link: someone should have a tribute to this gregarious, entertaining, provocative teacher.

The Insomniac

Philip K. Dick first came up with the idea for his novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ in 1962, when researching ‘The Man in the High Castle’ which deals with the Nazis conquering the planet in the 1940s. Dick had been granted access to archived World War II Gestapo documents in the University of California at Berkley, and had come across diaries written by S.S. men stationed in Poland, which he found almost unreadable in their casual cruelty and lack of human empathy. One sentence in particular troubled him: “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick was so horrified by this sentence that he reasoned there was obviously something wrong with the man who wrote it. This led him to hypothesize that Nazism in general was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally flawed that the word human could not be applied to them; their lack of empathy was so pronounced that Dick reasoned they couldn’t be referred to as human beings, even though their outward appearance seemed to indicate that they were human. The novel sprang from this. [From the IMDB “trivia” on “Blade Runner”.]

Remember– Arendt believed Eichmann when he claimed he did not personally intend to send tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths. He was, infamously, just following orders.

As were these SS men in Poland. Disturbed from their beauty rest by the cries of starving children.

Arendt would, I believe, declare that these men were not “evil” in the sense we usually think of it. They were just following orders. They were parts of a system that produced an evil result.

And again, I think she is right in the sense that these men are average. They are human. They behave the way most people behave. The difference is, Arendt doesn’t think that this character should be thought of as “evil”. It’s a deficiency in character. They haven’t self-actualized. They don’t experience empathy.

They obviously can’t see things from the perspective of the starving children.

Von Trotta Diminishes Hannah Arendt: the Banality of Banality

Margarethe Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” is an odd, diffuse film. I never quite got what it thought it was bringing us: Hannah Arendt as martyr? Hannah Arendt as the that beautiful, desirable, intelligent philosopher? Hannah Arendt the victim? Hannah Arendt cheered on by her students as she slaps those insolent leftists silly with her ruthless dissection of the morals of the bourgeoisie?

Hannah Arendt travels to Jerusalem on behalf of New Yorker Magazine to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. For the life of me, I don’t understand why the movie goes on at length about how much the New Yorker wanted her to finish her articles (and her book), except, perhaps, because someone wanted us to know more about William Shawn and Mary McCarthy.

There is a practical dimension to Arendt’s theory: the evil of the Holocaust derives from a system of colluding parts, of inauthentic people unable to see the world through any perspective but their own, and desiring power and control. So, to prevent evil in the future, we need to make sure we don’t recreate that kind of system. And, jeez, yeah, it does sound a lot more lame now than it did in the movie. Because it’s hard to apply this kind of analysis to, say, Syria, or the Japanese in Shanghai, or Kosovo, or Srebrenica. It just seems… lame.

At the same time, she is right. The solution to suicide bombers is not to find some way to communicate to the potential suicide bomber that what he is thinking of doing is wrong. The solution is to attack the system that produces young men willing to kill themselves for this cause.


According to Arendt– I can’t speak for her, so, to be fair, she might think otherwise– Calley too may have just been part of an inauthentic system the actions of which produced evil– the slaughter of 500 civilians in My Lai, Viet Nam in 1968. But the comments of Ron Ridenhour, among others, are very telling. When he told friends and family at home what had happened in My Lai they all, to a person, warned him to shut up about it. Not one of these people cared enough about justice to advise him to inform the authorities. Not one. Not one. Not one.

Were they all part of a machine? Were they all, individually, not responsible in part for the murders of 500 people? Yes, they were normal people. Yes, normal is permeated with something I would call “evil”. And yes, they were monsters, every one of them. And if you say that to an average person today, they will get angry at you because they know, deep down in their hearts, that they would have done the same thing. And that is about as harsh a thing as you can say about humanity but it’s true and Arendt really is on the wrong side of this question.

As good a summary as I have seen on Arendt’s views of Eichmann:

Arendt’s book is justly famous because it posed this deeply important question and offered an answer that has, over time, come to be seen as persuasively right. In short, it is the case that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who, while they support the general goals of the regime, would not otherwise imagine themselves criminals and murderers. These people act out of conviction, but they seek to justify what they do in clichés and bureaucratic language. They take pride not only in their dutifulness, but also in their initiative and support for carrying out the goals of the regime. Ordinary in many ways and far from being cold-blooded killers, they nevertheless willingly and even enthusiastically participate in an administrative machinery of death. They are able to do so, Arendt suggested, because they close themselves off from others and come to think in an echo chamber where they hear and credit no opinions that challenge their own. This shallow thoughtlessness—Arendt elsewhere calls dumbness—is what she names the banality that allows modern regimes of evil to cause such horrifically and decidedly non-banal evil.

There’s a lot that’s right in her analysis. Where I fundamentally disagree with her is her implication that Eichmann is not really evil because he is merely part of a system (as Eichmann himself claimed). On the contrary, I believe that each member of an evil system really is evil. I believe that the majority of Americans who voted for Richard Nixon, and Johnson, and Reagan, and Bush, are culpable for the deaths of the victims of American military aggression during those years.

What Arendt points to is the fact that we have developed complex and sophisticated ways of pretending to be morally good– one of the most prominent of which is the enthusiastic condemnation of others who do what we secretly want to do: kill our enemies.

Fedor Von Bock

The ideal soldier fulfills his duty to the utmost, obeys without even thinking, thinks only when ordered to do so, and has as his only desire to die the honorable death of a soldier killed in action”. Field Marshall Fedor von Bock

Field Marshall Fedor von Bock was not a Nazi. He was, so they say, an “honorable” German, straight Bundeswehr, army, and loyal monarchist. In fact, it is said he despised Hitler, and made no secret of it. Hitler tolerated his outspokenness because he was good at his job: destroying Poland and France, annihilating their armies, so the Schutzstaffel (SS) could enter unimpeded and murder Jews. But he was not a Nazi. Understand?

But he also despised those who wanted to overthrow Hitler. He thought they were unpatriotic. So this outspokenness he is famous for did not extend to standing in the way of mass murder and genocide. He was, after all, just one of the honorable generals of the Bundeswehr.

Fedor von Bock was sent to a military academy at the age of eight, where he was “steeped” in traditional Prussian militaristic values, loyalty to the state, self-discipline, and cleanliness. He could speak passable English, and Russian, and was fluent in French, which came in handy when the nation demanded of his loyalty that he go kill a number of French men. He loved to speak to soldiers. He told them nothing was more glorious than to die in the service of me, a giant dick, who will receive medals and riches if you manage to kill some other impressionable young men whose own generals told them the same thing.

We’ll build a monument on the pile of bodies.

Had he survived the war, I suspect he would not have been tried at Nuremburg. Me might even have eventually served in the reconstructed German government after the war. Loyal. Patriotic. Generous to a fault: lucky you, young man, get to die, like an insect, a dumb animal, an insignificant flea, for the glories of the Reich!

How did Germany lose the war against Russia? With von Bock racing to Moscow in the fall of 1942, Hitler kept issuing orders for Bock to stop and join an encirclement movement, or take some other city along the way that Bock felt should be bypassed in favor of reaching Moscow before the winter– and before the Russians had the chance to fortify their defenses. These delays pushed the advance to Moscow back so that they arrived at the outskirts of the capital city in November! So first there was rain and muck and the trucks bogged down. Then came the bitter, bitter cold– the coldest winter in 50 years. Bock bitterly informed his family that the war would be lost because of interference by the high command.

Was he right?

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that he might well have been right: Russia, at the beginning of the war was weak militarily and the Bolsheviks would have been vulnerable had von Bock taken Moscow, and had von Manstein proceeded directly to Stalingrad at the same time. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume the Germans could have sustained their control of such large swaths of territory given the determination and raw numbers of the Russians and the inevitable entry of the U.S. into the war.

It is really interesting to consider how history might have unfolded had Hitler, in this instance, left the war to the generals. Would Communist Russia have been overthrown by the Germans? What kind of government would Russia have had after the war? Would Germany even have lost the war?

Any man who would trust his soul to a man like Bock, or any of the other patriots, deserves to lose it. It is because of people like you that creatures like Assad and Hussein and Pinochet and Putin and Josh Bolton thrive.

The Kitsch Thief

In both the book and movie versions of the Nazi-literacy-kitsch product “The Book Thief”, Hans Holberman and his wife Rosa take in a 20 year old Jewish refugee because his father saved Hans’ life during the first global war. Thus the potentially most interesting aspect of Holberman’s actions is emasculated: he owed the guy’s father. And thus the psychological perversity of this entire story is accentuated. He is repaying what is due. If someone is nice to you, you should be nice to them.

There were many people who took in Jews during the war– not nearly enough– but the percentage of them who were “owed” something by the people they took them in was undoubtedly ridiculously small. That’s not why good people did a good thing. It’s not why people risked their lives to help others. Do we really need another movie to tell us that we are essentially good–nay, saintly– when we merely repay those who we believe owe us something?

It’s psychologically perverse, because if Markus Zusak had the ability to penetrate the surface of his own constructions, he would have revealled just how fraught with moral ambiguity such a relationship would be: the Jew is asking the Holbermans to risk their lives on his behalf. The Holbermans are not idiots: they know that as perverse as a refusal would be, Max, the Jew, is also forced into a horrible position, that of burdening others with enormous risk for his personal benefit. It’s the Nazi-kitsch equivalent of the stranger who rescues the toddler from certain death in traffic as the mother has dozed off in the playground. In Zusak’s vision, the mother is eternally grateful to the stranger, and the stranger feels entitled pride in his achievement. But a real mother is not going to be eternally grateful to someone who makes her look like a terrible mother. Better yet– she might be, but her gratitude is not unalloyed.

When Max, who was forced to leave the Holbermans because of a stupid act by Hans– for which the novelist forgives him instantly– is marched through town, Liesel defies the German soldiers by racing to his side, in a scene reminiscent of James Garner climbing over the beds to get to his beloved Allie at the end of an equally overwrought story, “The Notebook”, where the nursing staff find both of them the next morning, dead, in each others arms! This scene reeks contrivance: Zusak is desperate to clobber us over the head with just how utterly saintly Liesel is and he doesn’t trust his reader to get it: she has to do something patently absurd, instead. The only thing missing was rain.

Graham Greene, better than anybody else ever, pointed out the essential narcissism of stories like this in “The Power and the Glory”, and the damage they do to our understanding of good and evil. When we measure real actions against melodrama, we will fail to recognize the genuine heroism of people who were smart enough not to attract the attention of the Nazis when you are hiding a Jew in your house. Zusak wants it both ways: he wants you to wallow in the impetuous generosity of Hans Holberman when he can’t stand to see the suffering Jews marching through town without water or food, and then he wants you to forget how foolish that action was by refusing to describe the conversation Hans must have had with Max in which he had to explain why he had to flee the house, to certain death.

It should be added that I think Zusak thinks the Nazis didn’t have much use for reading. He doesn’t make much sense of the fact that Liesel’s act of “subversion” is to learn how to read– the Nazis loved education, literature, science, and music. Yes, she takes a book from a book-burning, suggesting that she stands against censorship, but it isn’t developed into anything. The books are rather random and irrelevant, and Zusak doesn’t make anything of that either.

The Nazis, of course, loved culture. They were enthralled with Schiller and Goethe and Wagner. Why does Zusak act like Leisel’s reading is an act of subversion? Other than an appeal to that kind of nebulous dignity and intelligence we attribute to ourselves for loving literature?

The ultimate subversion is this: antiseptic accounts of Nazi resistance don’t do anyone any good if they miss the point, that people who resisted Nazism were not always adorable and those who loved Nazism were not always repulsive.


I will acknowledge here that it was a New York Times Review that first used the word “kitsch” in connection with this work.

Am I too demanding? “The Diary of Anne Frank” is brilliantly evocative of the ambivalences involved with citizens who protected Jews during the war. And this was a 14 year old girl. The difference is, Anne Frank was writing honestly about what it was like to have this experience. Zusak is writing about what he thinks people think the experience was like– and catering to their inhibited sensibilities about the Nazis and little girls and reading and cranky old men with hearts of gold.

Some reviewers commented favorably about the novel idea of having Death narrate the book. If Zusak had actually written some interesting observations or comments by this character…

Don’t let anyone tell you that the movie isn’t as good as the book. The book was singularly unimpressive.