Tuesday, April 05, 2011
Belief Without Doubt?
"Stones from the River" is the story of a young German woman growing up before, and living through, the Second World War. Written by German-American author Ursula Hegi, it's not a new book: a copy has been floating around my office and it was my turn to read it. It was published in the early 1990s and at some point achieved the dubious award of being an Oprah book club selection. Anyway the perspective of the book's heroine, Trudi Montag, is quite unique. She's an outsider in her community since she was born a "little person," or dwarf. It's a satisfying story with, of course, more than its share of tragedy given the setting. Trudi isn't an international spy or resistance hero, she's just a person trying to live her life, though her personal morality helps her to make important decisions to reject the national chauvinism and anti-Semitism rising with the Nazification of the world around her.
Anyway one passage caused me to fold up the corner of the page it resonated so clearly. It's about the time she hears Hitler give a speech shortly after he took over the government. At the risk of invoking the dread Godwin's Law, I thought this little bit of fiction shined a spotlight on a phenomenon I worry about in our own trying times. Which isn't to say any of the current wave of political demagogues out there are quite so genocidally single-minded or precipitously bound for dictatorship as was Hitler. History doesn't repeat itself exactly, but it makes one grateful that the current crop of hateful idiots out there in the public square seem to lack the charisma necessary to truly rise above the mobs in which they are ensconsed.
Here's the excerpt:
"He was not nearly as tall as she'd expected from newspaper photos, and he look straight at her when he talked, not excluding her like the assistant pastor, Freidrich Beier, who spoke above her head as if she were too insignificant to be included.... Herr Hitler's mouth moved independently of his eyes. There was something wrong with his face: the features didn't work together. But he looked directly at her — at everyone in the swollen crowd — like a magician performing some amazing trick of singling out everyone at once, and it was that gaze — filled with an immeasurable greed — that held all of them while his high-pitched voice spun silken ropes around them.
She fought the excitement of his gaze and voice because what he wanted from her was only too familiar — belief without doubts — something she'd resisted since first grade.
She fought him by reminding herself what her father had said to Emil Hesping — that they lived in a country where believing had taken the place of knowing..... Trudi had a sudden image of him, alone in his bedroom.... The greed she'd felt in him, the greed which had sucked all those people into his influence, was still in the room with him, and she was seized by a deep fear for the world." [emphasis added by me]
Isn't that it exactly? "Belief without doubts" and "a country where believing has taken the place of knowing" seem to sum up exactly what I find so terrifying about the right-wing in America. There is no factual discussion to be had; no argument that can be won on its own merits. In line with yesterday's musings on lies and liars, today's demagogues are free to say whatever they want because people are greedy for easy solutions, for easy answers, and they know that there is an audience out there who will not question or doubt what they say. Trying times indeed.
Image is a 1933 German propaganda postcard from the online German Propaganda Archive.