Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sunday Reading

A Prayer — From October 1997.  Rest in peace, Elie Wiesel.

Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry?

More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted. Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it. They learned to build on ruins. Family life was re-created. Children were born, friendships struck. They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women. Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts. No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are. Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness. For them every moment is grace.

Oh, they do not forgive the killers and their accomplices, nor should they. Nor should you, Master of the Universe. But they no longer look at every passer-by with suspicion. Nor do they see a dagger in every hand.

Does this mean that the wounds in their soul have healed? They will never heal. As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in their memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.

What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?

But my faith was no longer pure. How could it be? It was filled with anguish rather than fervor, with perplexity more than piety. In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my ”problem” with you, Master of the Universe. In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from you.

Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades. You have vocal defenders, you know. Many theological answers were given me, such as: ”God is God. He alone knows what He is doing. One has no right to question Him or His ways.” Or: ”Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry’s sins of assimilation and/or Zionism.” And: ”Isn’t Israel the solution? Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel.”

I reject all these answers. Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God. At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well. Ought we not to think of your pain, too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?

As we Jews now enter the High Holidays again, preparing ourselves to pray for a year of peace and happiness for our people and all people, let us make up, Master of the Universe. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.

Liberals Need White Men — Eric Levitz in New York on why Democrats ignore the white working class at their peril.

A specter haunts the left’s last bastions of white working-class support — the specter of right-wing populism. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn notes, outside of London, Labour’s working-class districts bucked their party’s leadership by voting for a Brexit campaign led by right-wing nationalists. Recent elections in Austria, Denmark, and Germany have produced a similar pattern; in all three countries, working-class areas that once voted with the Social Democrats or the center-left embraced far-right populists who promised to stem the tide of globalization.

Donald Trump has brought his own idiosyncratic brand of reactionary populism to our shores. And it’s playing well in the Democrats’ white working-class strongholds. According to Cohn, Trump’s most reliable voters in the GOP primary were “self-identified Republicans who nonetheless remain registered as Democrats.” On Tuesday, the presumptive GOP nominee made it clear that his general-election campaign will be aimed squarely at these voters. Contradicting decades of conservative free-market doctrine, Trump debuted a seven-point plan for reviving domestic manufacturing through trade protection.

Even if this message resonates with its target audience, current polling suggests Trump will have a tough time winning in November. But if issues of globalization continue to gain political salience, it could drive a wedge between the Democratic Party’s white working-class voters — who disproportionately favor restricting immigration — and the rest of the party’s base, which has been moving steadily toward an embrace of open borders. This is no small threat to Team Blue: White voters without college degrees made up a full 34 percent of the Obama coalition in 2012.

Liberals can’t give these voters what they want (in the aggregate) on immigration. To retain the party’s current share of the demographic, Democrats will need to make their economic pitch more salient than the right-wing’s nationalist appeals. There are many ways to go about this task. But a good first step would be to stop insinuating that non–college educated workers are destined to live miserable lives because their skills are obsolete.

If that strikes you as something liberals never do, you should listen to last week’s edition of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. During a discussion on the links between Brexit-backers and the Trumpian proletariat, NPR’s economics reporter Adam Davidson offered the following explanation for right-wing populism’s current appeal:

I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.

[…] The threshold for wages has gone up. There was a long period in the 20th century where, simply being willing to go to a building reliably everyday for eight hours or 12 hours and do what you’re told was worth a lot. […] And you didn’t need to read, you didn’t need to write, you didn’t need to have any kind of education. Those jobs are all but fully gone. […] So in this country, we don’t have demand for the high-school-only graduates and the high-school dropouts we have, and that’s a big population. Something like 80 million people.

The “accurate, right answer” is that your life is going to get worse because you’ve fallen beneath the threshold for wages. This is how a well-sourced reporter summarizes the consensus of the Democratic nominee’s policy team. And we wonder why so many voters disdain elite expertise.

The Origins of Mordor — Joseph Loconte on what inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create his mythological Hell.

In the summer of 1916, a young Oxford academic embarked for France as a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force. The Great War, as World War I was known, was only half-done, but already its industrial carnage had no parallel in European history.

“Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute,” recalled J. R. R. Tolkien. “Parting from my wife,” he wrote, doubting that he would survive the trenches, “was like a death.”

The 24-year-old Tolkien arrived in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme, a campaign intended to break the stalemate between the Allies and Central Powers. It did not.

The first day of the battle, July 1, produced a frenzy of bloodletting. Unaware that its artillery had failed to obliterate the German dugouts, the British Army rushed to slaughter.

Before nightfall, 19,240 British soldiers — Prime Minister David Lloyd George called them “the choicest and best of our young manhood” — lay dead. That day, 100 years ago, remains the most lethal in Britain’s military history.

Though the debt is largely overlooked, Tolkien’s supreme literary achievement, “The Lord of the Rings,” owes a great deal to his experience at the Somme. Reaching the front shortly after the offensive began, Tolkien served for four months as a battalion signals officer with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers in the Picardy region of France.

Using telephones, flares, signal lights, pigeons and runners, he maintained communications between the army staff directing the battles from the rear and the officers in the field. According to the British historian Martin Gilbert, who interviewed Tolkien decades later about his combat experience, he came under intense enemy fire. He had heard “the fearful cries of men who had been hit,” Gilbert wrote. “Tolkien and his signalers were always vulnerable.”

Tolkien’s creative mind found an outlet. He began writing the first drafts of his mythology about Middle-earth, as he recalled, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” In 1917, recuperating from trench fever, Tolkien composed a series of tales involving “gnomes,” dwarves and orcs engaged in a great struggle for his imaginary realm.

In the rent earth of the Somme Valley, he laid the foundation of his epic trilogy.

The descriptions of battle scenes in “The Lord of the Rings” seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud. In the Siege of Gondor, hateful orcs are “digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring,” while others maneuver “great engines for the casting of missiles.”

On the path to Mordor, stronghold of Sauron, the Dark Lord, the air is “filled with a bitter reek that caught their breath and parched their mouths.” Tolkien later acknowledged that the Dead Marshes, with their pools of muck and floating corpses, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”

In a lecture delivered in 1939, “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien explained that his youthful love of mythology had been “quickened to full life by war.” Yet he chose not to write a war memoir, and in this he departed from contemporaries like Robert Graves and Vera Brittain.

In the postwar years, the Somme exemplified the waste and futility of battle, symbolizing disillusionment not only with war, but with the very idea of heroism. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon back at Oxford, Tolkien preferred the moral landscape of Arthur and Beowulf. His aim was to produce a modern version of the medieval quest: an account of both the terrors and virtues of war, clothed in the language of myth.

In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front.

“I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds,” he explained. The Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” made small of stature to emphasize “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ ”

When the Somme offensive was finally called off in November 1916, a total of about 1.5 million soldiers were dead or wounded. Winston Churchill, who served on the front lines as a lieutenant colonel, criticized the campaign as “a welter of slaughter.” Two of Tolkien’s closest friends, Robert Gilson and Ralph Payton, perished in the battle, and another, Geoffrey Smith, was killed shortly afterward.

Beside the courage of ordinary men, the carnage of war seems also to have opened Tolkien’s eyes to a primal fact about the human condition: the will to power. This is the force animating Sauron, the sorcerer-warlord and great enemy of Middle-earth. “But the only measure that he knows is desire,” explains the wizard Gandalf, “desire for power.” Not even Frodo, the Ring-bearer and chief protagonist, escapes the temptation.

When Tolkien’s trilogy was published, shortly after World War II, many readers assumed that the story of the Ring was a warning about the nuclear age. Tolkien set them straight: “Of course my story is not an allegory of atomic power, but of power (exerted for domination).”

Even this was not the whole story. For Tolkien, there was a spiritual dimension: In the human soul’s struggle against evil, there was a force of grace and goodness stronger than the will to power. Even in a forsaken land, at the threshold of Mordor, Samwise Gamgee apprehends this: “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: There was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

Good triumphs, yet Tolkien’s epic does not lapse into escapism. His protagonists are nearly overwhelmed by fear and anguish, even their own lust for power. When Frodo returns to the Shire, his quest at an end, he resembles not so much the conquering hero as a shellshocked veteran. Here is a war story, wrapped in fantasy, that delivers painful truths about the human predicament.

Tolkien used the language of myth not to escape the world, but to reveal a mythic and heroic quality in the world as we find it. Perhaps this was the greatest tribute he could pay to the fallen of the Somme.

Doonesbury — Sameness.