Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Simple

Watching "Berlin Babylon"  about the year 1929 in Berlin, you get this eerie feeling of deja vu.

In Berlin at that time there were few Nazis. There were far more Communists and there were "monarchists" who wanted to reinstate the Kaiser, who felt democracy was a fool's dream and could not reign in the passions of competing groups. But Nazis were most definitely a fringe group, apparently mostly a regional phenomenon, trying to gain hold in more rural parts of the country, in the southern parts, Bavaria.

Mad Dog can say all this because he is untutored. Never took a college course in history. Last course in world history was in high school taught by a true dolt, a twenty something who was never more than one page ahead of his students, except when he had read some pamphlet he handed out as if Saint Peter himself had written and published it for the young. 

Mad Dog is not sure Madeline Albright is much of a historian, but she's written a book about fascism.  
A historian goes to primary sources, and as Nancy Isenberg notes in her wonderful preface to her equally wonderful book about Aaron Burr, "History is not a bedtime story." 

Mad Dog discovered the essential wisdom of this listening to the Lyndon Johnson tapes, which he first heard on NPR and are available through the Johnson library on line.  
In them you hear Johnson at his best, talking to some young Ivy Leaguer, an official in the Dept of Agriculture, who reports to Johnson the farm state Congressmen are being unreasonable in negotiations about some farm bill, arguing over three cents per pound in some provision about beef, and Johnson interrupts him and says, "Whoa! When you're talking about a 1,000 pound heifer and you've got 10,000 head on your ranch, that's $3 million, that's real money to a rancher." So, when he is on familiar ground, he's very sharp. 
And you hear him talking with his old chums, Southern Senators, about the civil rights bill, men who he clearly likes and respects like Richard Russell of Georgia, you can hear how patiently but stubbornly, he pushes the cause of equal rights.  
He's not doing this for political gain--you are sure of that much, listening. In fact, he knows he's going to lose a lot of votes over this. But he really believes Negroes must be liberated. And the fact is, the author of Profiles in Courage showed a lot less of that quality than Johnson did about Civil Rights. 

But when you hear him on Vietnam, that's when you realize how obscure history can be.  Mad Dog remembers that history. That's history he lived through. And he remembers Johnson on TV sounding like a perfect horse's ass, talking about defending freedom.
But on the tapes you hear him talking with Richard Russell, who tells him, "You know, Mr. President, you really do not want to be in Vietnam."
"Yes," Johnson agrees that's true. "It's the damndest mess I ever heard of and I wish to Hell we'd never got in. We just can't stay there forever."
"Thing is," Russell tells him. "Them Cong, they know that, too."
"Yup," Johnson muses. "I think you're right about that."

History is one long argument. Like all memory, it changes as new information surfaces and as our needs to use history for present day purposes change. 

But, even given the limitations of history, there is something eerie about listening to Adolph Hitler, even today, from this American moment: 
"I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them...I on the other hand...reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me."

This is why that Alabama which exists in between the urban centers in every state voted Trump: Simple answers. 

As Jake Lamotta says in "Raging Bull" when someone asks him why he is so angry, and why he needs to fight. "At least in the ring," Lamotta says, "I know who to hit."

For some folk, that's the problem. Problems are complex. Just point them in the direction of who they should hit, to solve them. Immigrants. The media. The Koreans. Anyone, just show them who to hit.

Obama was a joy to listen to, but he embraced complexity and while that was his great strength, it was also his great weakness. He would, like the Constitutional scholar he is, look at every problem from one side, then the other. 

And he was a compromiser. And he followed the rules. When the Secret Service and his West Wing staff took his computer and his cell phone from him, he acquiesced. Trump's West Wing staff tried to do the same thing, get Trump off Twitter and he told them to go to Hell--he was President and he'd damn well do what he wanted to do. And he was right and his base, which will re elect him, loves it. It is revolutionary, a new "fire side chat" putting him directly in touch with the people.

He was right, of course. And unless the Democrats can do better than Bernie Sanders, that doggedness will carry Trump to a second term.

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