Othello, the Boulevard, Teabaggers and Lattes on the Rim of the Volcano

Othello isn't only about jealousy, any more than Hamlet is about revenge. Othello's great sin is his assumption that because you are Good, all others must necessarily be trustworthy as well.

If I were sent back with a warning to the Belle Epoque in Paris, Vienna and Berlin, how many of the boulavardiers could perceive the deadly earnestness with which the children of that time were training to become mass murderers? Would any of them have been able to strangle the infant Hitler in his cradle? Albert Speer said that it was hard to recognize the Devil when he's standing by your shoulder.

From what I’ve seen in Cultural Amnesia and Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals the people in the cafes thought of militarists as clowns, no real threat, certainly not builders of death factories— and if the militarists did succeed in finding a war, well, they mostly hurt themselves and young fellows stupid enough to follow them. War, however terrible, was fought between armies in a field outside of town-- sophisticates didn't realize what industrialization could do to weaponry and the practice of total war.

The Dreyfuss affair was the argument of that time. It was injustice and anti-Semitism that sent Colonel Dreyfuss off to Devil’s Island on a trumped up charge, but no one thought of The Affair as a blueprint.

So there I am on the boulevard with my coffee, laughing at someting Tristan Bernard just said, sighing at a stray tendril of hair on the neck of a passing girl who might have modeled for Mucha—- but how could I tell them what I know? That the 20th century will be a bloodbath, that industrialization will turn the front line into an abbatoir, with my friends from the cafes and salons-- Tristan Bernard's own grandson Francois-- at the bottom of the pile in Matthausen? How many of them would believe me?

They would smile and nod and exclaim mais certainment! if I’d predicted that a militarist would blow himself up with some diabolical device, that a head of state would be caught in a sex scandal, or a minister sent to prison for embezzlement. They would recognize our own all-too-human sins, folly, arrogance, lust and greed. But would anyone on the boulevard believe a prediction of the ash pit, the soap factories, the pillows stuffed with human hair? A medievalist might recognize the precedent for Ilsa Koch, but like trusting Othello, most would not be able to countenance the sick rantings of the so-called man from the future. When the most dreadful thing you can imagine in others is limited your own capacity for evil, you never see what's coming until it’s too late.

This is not to paint a sentimental picture of bohemians caught napping by the wicked military-industrialists— it was a failed water-color painter, Hitler, an amateur mythologist (Himmler) an advertising genius (Goebbels), and a country full of worshipful rubes who dreamed the iron dream. Never underestimate the resentment and malevolence of a failed artist-- from Beck to Norman Podhoretz, O'Reilly, Midge Decter and the Kristols, angry failures have found a home on the right because the hipsters made fun of them and wouldn’t invite them to the cool parties. This may be oversimplify the motivations of Limbaugh and Goerring, but not by much.

The bad guys can fall into the same trap as Othello. Krupp sponsored the Nazis because they could not imagine a wickedness greater than their own capacity for greed and political control. German militarists and industrialists thought they would use the Nazis to get rid of the labor unions and the liberals, and in the end the Nazis used them. American conservatives thought they could use the emotion of the Teabaggers and the the Know-Nothings to disguise their plutocracy as populism. The Bohemian Grove made Ronald Reagan, patron of idiots, who didn’t know, didn’t care and didn’t think it mattered how many were ground in the wheels beneath his chariot. Now of course, the tail is wagging the dog, with Limbaugh and Palin the soul of the party.

Othello is a supreme success in his own field, but battle savvy doesn't transfer to the parade-ground. He knows only two kinds of women-- his sainted mother and voracious camp-followers, and if Desdemona isn't a saint, then she must be a whore. In the world of men, he thinks his combat instinct has taught him all he needs to know about reading men; if he's fought alongside me, then he must be a pal. It is naivete and self-assurance that destroys him, long before the first whisper from Iago.

One morning in an inner city classroom, three sharp explosions went off outside and I turned to see that all the kids near the window had hit the floor without any comment. In most classrooms, anything out of the ordinary from first snowflakes to fornicating dogs will draw a mob to the glass. "Missa Fountain," Wayne scolded, "you might want to get away from the window." I was the sophisticate, but in the words of a forgotten punk-rock magazine, "Goerring said 'When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun'. When someone mentions guns, a liberal reaches for his culture." Shades of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

Now we are in a political cycle with candidates mined from the Jerry Springer show, deviance defined downward. It is permissible among people like Sharon Angle and Rick Barber to make physical threats against their opponents, to talk of secession, to shout down reason. Palin smiles more broadly the crazier the talk gets. They see themselves as perpetual victims, giving them psychological permission to use "any means necessary" against their oppressors.

I wonder about my own complacency. Having a wonderful time, sipping my latte on the rim of the volcano, but keeping one eye on the exit and hoping my friends and I have enough sense to jump to Canada before it blows. When do the clowns cross the line from buffoon to monster?

1 comment:

Michael Roberts said...

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