Christopher Norris

Now you've this bunch of gangster-types

Who sound, from what you say, like they're nearly as bad

As some of those swine we had

To cope with back then even if the leopard's stripes

Have somewhat changed since even fascism has to adjust

Its strategies to changed circumstance and must,

For a while, make sure it pipes

Tunes of the well-known and popular sort it can trust

The Fox News viewers to go along with until

Its power-base is strong and the brainwashed majority glad

To blink at any evil in the name of the popular will.

 

'Well, that was a tough one while it lasted,

But don't rest on your laurels yet, you men.

Although we all stood up and stopped the bastard,

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.'[2]

 

That's from 'The Resistible Rise

Of Arturo Ui', the parable-play – OK, the didactic Lehrstuck – I wrote

About Hitler in the guise of a cut-throat

Two-bit Chicago gangster whose violent rule and eventual demise

Are shown as having come about solely through

The too-long failure to do

Anything decisive about it by a whole bunch of victims wise

After the event but so convinced they'd screw

Up any effort to get shot of him along with his fellow thugs

And their protection racket that they failed to organize

Any collective resistance and were taken for mugs.

 

In some ways you've got the worst

Of bad situations: not just a strutting fascist moron

Whose ranting you can shut the door on

Temporarily but, in this man Trump, perhaps the first

In a whole new breed

Of mass-mediatized demagogues claiming to lead

And speak for whatever grievances are nursed

By large sections of a populace guaranteed

To revile everything that reminds them of an old,

Decrepit 'liberal' order that they've declared war on,

And to cheer those scheming bastards by whom they're thought-controlled.

The philosophers might just come

In handy here even if Marx famously said that they’d

Only interpreted the world and not made,

So far at least, any effort to change it or add to the sum

Of human benefits. Fair

Enough, you may think, since that lot have done their share

(Think Frankfurt School) to keep the intellectuals stumm

On any issue beyond the reach of armchair

Dialectics. Still there’s something to be learned

From those who finally called a spade a spade

Even if the lesson comes late and is clearly hard-earned.

 

Think of Aristotle, he who went in

For all that metaphysical stuff and thought that having slaves

Was part of the natural order but who finally saves

Himself from mortal sin,

So far as we’re concerned, by having logic find room

Not just for whatever statements he could groom

Into purebred syllogistic form but for their worldly kin,

The ‘practical syllogism’, where the upshot, pace Hume,

Of two or more propositions about (say) Donald Trump

Plus others about how any decent human being behaves

Would yield the conclusion: he’s for the high jump.

 

So that's my feeling, everything taken

Into account: that if you don't soon do something about

This Trump guy then I've no doubt

That he and his mates will make sure to save their own bacon

By packing the Supreme Court, filling all major posts

With corrupt place-men, and gagging talk-show hosts

By press-laws banning anything that might awaken

Civic conscience and so once again raise toasts

To the spirit of resistance among folk

Who never really believed all the lies and imbecile stuff he'd spout

But opted, like many in the '30s, to take it all as a joke.

The philosophers might just come

In handy here even if Marx famously said that they’d

Only interpreted the world and not made,

So far at least, any effort to change it or add to the sum

Of human benefits. Fair

Enough, you may think, since that lot have done their share

(Think Frankfurt School) to keep the intellectuals stumm

On any issue beyond the reach of armchair

Dialectics. Still there’s something to be learned

From those who finally called a spade a spade

Even if the lesson comes late and is clearly hard-earned.

 

Think of Aristotle, he who went in

For all that metaphysical stuff and thought that having slaves

Was part of the natural order but who finally saves

Himself from mortal sin,

So far as we’re concerned, by having logic find room

Not just for whatever statements he could groom

Into purebred syllogistic form but for their worldly kin,

The ‘practical syllogism’, where the upshot, pace Hume,

Of two or more propositions about (say) Donald Trump

Plus others about how any decent human being behaves

Would yield the conclusion: he’s for the high jump.

 

So that's my feeling, everything taken

Into account: that if you don't soon do something about

This Trump guy then I've no doubt

That he and his mates will make sure to save their own bacon

By packing the Supreme Court, filling all major posts

With corrupt place-men, and gagging talk-show hosts

By press-laws banning anything that might awaken

Civic conscience and so once again raise toasts

To the spirit of resistance among folk

Who never really believed all the lies and imbecile stuff he'd spout

But opted, like many in the '30s, to take it all as a joke.

Best way to remove him: impeach,

Nail a really big lie, get those FBI spooks on his case

(Don't mock this about-face

From a past victim!), or bring to light some major breach

Of law constitutional or criminal – surely plenty of scope

To put the legal boot in. But if there's no hope

Of that, then think what history has to teach

Those poised once again above the slippery slope

To disaster. This gang of thieves got lucky, like Arturo

And the House-Painter, by ways and means so base

That maybe it’s for you now to put right and not some Federal Bureau.

 

________________________________________

Notes

 

[1] ‘The House-Painter’: Brecht’s nickname for Hitler, who for a short period during his youth worked in Munich as a house painter (decorator) and, as some have conjectured, later found the memory all the more galling on account of his failed ambitions as an artist.

 

[2] My own very loose translation of the lines from Brecht’s play Arturo Ui, based on versions by John Willett, Ralph Mannheim and others. See Bertholt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, ed. and trans. Willett and Mannheim (London: Methuen, 1976).

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Bertolt Brecht Offers Advice to Those

Living in the Age of Donald Trump

 

 

Events cast long shadows before.

One such event would be a war.

But how are shadows to be seen

When total darkness fills the screen?

 

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Alphabet’, from ‘Five Children's Songs’ (1934),

trans. John Willett

 

 

All the gang of those who rule us

Hope our quarrels never stop

Helping them to split and fool us

So they can remain on top.

 

Brecht, ‘Solidarity Song’, trans. Willett

 

 

OK, you asked for it so here's

The best advice I have on how to see them through,

These worst of times that you

Tell me you’re facing now after just seventy years

When things went quiet, at least for those

Who lived a good way from the trouble-spots and chose

To block their otherwise ultra-sensitive ears

To what was going on, or close

Their minds to any bit of news that might,

If mindfully attended to,

Disturb their liberal consciences or cause a sleepless night.

 

From what you've said the case strikes me

As very like ours in the early to mid-

'Thirties when (let's not kid

Ourselves) we German leftists didn't exactly see

Eye to eye and fought such a lot

Of internal feuds that we lost the larger plot,

Put tactics ahead of everything that we

Were meant to stand for, and (here's what

You chiefly need to know) afforded just the chance

Those bastards needed to get rid

Of the few last obstacles to Hitler's advance.

Not that we can afford to ignore

Questions of tactics on the left, God knows,

But what 'all history shows'

(If you’ll allow me to take the role of sermonizing bore

Just for once) is how incredibly fast things went

Downhill from the time we spent

On endless internecine squabbles and bouts of score-

Settling to that pure stage-event,

The Reichstag Fire, expertly planned for max effect

As if to signal the echt-Wagnerian close

Of tottering Weimar and herald a new age of savagery unchecked.

 

My point is, you're now stuck with this

Monster in the White House along with his gang of crooks

After an electoral fix that looks

To me like the same sort of political abyss

We were peering into back then,

In the dog-days of Kristallnacht and the big Nazi rallies when

We were in shock or denial, so that those hit-or-miss

Efforts by a few brave, isolated women and men

To end the agony all failed for lack

Of coordination and went down in the history-books

As having, if anything, set the resistance back.

 

That's my main message to you now

In this age of resurgent barbarism aiming to turn

Progress on its head: just learn

From what went wrong, and more than anything how

To manage love and hate

So that with lovers, comrades, and those close to us we create

Bonds strong as any pledge of amity or wedding-vow,

While toward enemies maintaining always a state

Of readiness to take

Actions that an ethic of rational self-concern

Would rule out but for the huge difference they could make.

Still let me not wax too pious on

That point about behaving as kindly or lovingly as we can

Toward those in our own family or clan,

Or those – lovers especially – with some foregone

Claim on our affection. Truth is, I

Messed up in that respect and certainly won't try

To act the part of one who shone

As an example that good socialists can hold high

With pride. I treated not a few

Of my own best comrades, women included, worse than

I'd care to admit here in front of you.

 

Then there's the other side, the way

I so often misjudged things in the political-strategic line.

Just ask those old comrades of mine

Who'll confirm this auto-critique by having lots to say

About my many and well-known faults

Of didacticism, lack of empathy, and constant assaults

On those who'd sit through a Brecht play

And find nothing that exalts

The human spirit or yields, as Aristotle taught

Ancient Greek and modern bourgeois audiences, the fine

Idea of tragic catharsis that kills critical thought.

 

So – my point in all this – I'm no

Role-model or source of 100% reliable advice,

Whether it's a matter of being nice

Enough to other people or getting stagecraft to go

Along with dialectics, yet managing to grip

Your audience without having the whole thing tip

Over into bourgeois pathos. Still I’ve some wisdom to show

For the portions of my life that weren't just an ego-trip

But spent fighting fascism in the two, very different forms

It took during my lifetime, making me twice-

Over the right weather-man for these latest political storms.

 

First Nazi Germany, then the US post-war

With McCarthyism rampant, witch-hunts everywhere,

And talk of the red scare

Thrown at us artists and thinkers who dared to explore

The resemblances – though of course the differences too –

Between what we experienced in our new

Place of domicile and what we remembered from before

Our going into exile, as the Nazi menace grew

And the hate-word 'communist' took its place,

Along with 'gypsy', 'trade-unionist', and – most lethal – ‘Jew',

In the House-Painter's plan to get his Volk more living-space.[1]

Chris Norris is a philosopher at Cardiff University and lives in Swansea. He has published many books about philosophy, literary theory, and music along with several collections of poetry including For the Tempus-Fugitives (Sussex Academic Press) and The Winnowing Fan (Bloomsbury), both in 2017, and The Trouble With Monsters (Culture Matters).

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