When I was a kid, I had a book filled with little biography blurbs. I remember reading an especially short one about Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer I had never heard of and didn’t care to learn anything about. The last sentence caught my eye. It went something like, “Distraught by the rise of Nazism, he committed suicide in 1940.”
I immediately envisioned that he looked out of his window, saw the jack boots and swastikas and said, “welp, I’m out” and grabbed a gun or poison and was later found slumped on the desk where he wrote all the impenetrably boring, smart things that got him in the book. (Years later, I would learn that his offing himself was considerably more involved than that, but no matter.)
At 11, I was already enough of a history geek to know that in 1940 the Nazis looked like they were going to steamroll the planet and make good on the 1000-year thing, plunging the world into darkness, etc. etc. I also knew the German fortunes changed rapidly in the next few years and none of those things happened. Because Russian winter and (far bigger reason) America got involved, I would have said. And good must always win over evil, eventually, no matter how bad it gets. I’m sure I implicitly believed that as a child, because it was evident in every historical and cinematic narrative I had in my brain. I think I still inwardly believed it until very recently.
In reading that line in Walter Benjamin’s blurb, I thought, “dude, bad decision, don’t do it! This bizarro crap is gonna pass so much faster than you think, anybody would think in 1940, and in five years God will be back in control like before. Just hold on!”
This isn’t 1940 and there are no comparisons to Nazism and our current situation being made here. Beyond just despicable grand notions and a weary, divided populace who mistakenly thought a big shake-up surely couldn’t hurt, the Nazis had organized leadership, the discipline to be methodical and actual, real plans. Those last three qualities are largely absent from the current internal threats in the United States.
What I am attempting to locate today is that pure, childishly optimistic reaction I had to Walter Benjamin’s simplistic blurb in that book 35 years ago. “Long-dead scared man, I know things look hopelessly, unbelievably bad, but I also know even more unbelievable things are coming soon, so just hold on. What happens is…just trust me, this doesn’t last. And really, how could you think it could?”
I don’t have that optimism today. I learned something last night, when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, about what America has become. I didn’t expect it. My naiveté was ripped out of my heart and force-fed to me. I’m an American, and given that I deserve whatever comes from this. Because whatever wrought it, I’m a part of that. I can’t run from it; it’s a problem of humanity, not politics.
In the extremely slim chance there’s some 11-year-old history nerd reading this decades from now, I hope he laughs at my despondency and tells me that more unbelievable stuff is coming–events that are too big to comprehend or fraught with nasty tradeoffs, but indisputably in the “good for the world” column. So much so that future documentaries will play inspiring orchestral music while showing them unfold.
If I’ve got the years left, the ability and the chance to be a tiny contributor to that new turn, I hope I have the foresight to see it and the courage to jump in and do more than assume good will eventually win out. Because that’s unforgivably arrogant and, like I’ve mulled endlessly in the last 14 hours, unforgivably naive.
I’m hoping for this turn to come. Ideally, sooner than I’d believe right now. More ideally, without exacting a fearsome price. But come, however it must.
It’s not impossible. It’s happened before.
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