As I have followed the meandering bicycle path these last few months leading from the Dogtown coffee shop to the Villa Aurora and its connections to Germany here in Los Angeles, I ran across an extraordinary ray of light yesterday, one which has illuminated my whole year.
When I say darkness, I mean not simply our descent into the Trumpian dystopia, but I mean the concentration camps that our nation has erected to incarcerate and torture immigrant children.
If this is not wrong, nothing is wrong.
A friend of mine who mediates complex commercial legal disputes now begins each mediation by reminding the parties that we are a nation of laws and that children are being tortured in concentration camps here, in the U.S.A., and she reminds them that no matter how deeply they care about the outcome of their commercial matter, this crime against humanity, committed on our shores under the seal of our president, matters much, much more.
She is not the only one so profoundly disturbed.
The president of Germany
I recently received an invitation to go listen to a speech by the president of Germany. I told a friend about it, and he chuckled. “I think you mean the prime minister,” he said. “Germany doesn’t have a president.”
“No,” I replied, “it does.”
Although the president has no legislative or judicial authority, he signs all legislation, accredits all diplomats, and has the limited ability to veto laws, a power rarely exercised. More importantly, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany is invested with moral powers. He is the person who speaks to the higher aspirations of the nation, who speaks on behalf of his country in times of great tragedy or crisis. Elected last year, Frank-Walter Steinmeier is serving a five-year term, and yesterday he magically appeared in Los Angeles to speak at a symposium called “The Struggle for Democracy.”
Why Los Angeles? Why democracy? And why Germany?
Thomas Mann and the authoritarian state
Thomas Mann is hardly a household name, but this Nobel prizewinning writer fled Germany in 1933 when Hitler seized power, then sought exile in the U.S. when war broke out in 1939. He agitated ceaselessly here in Los Angeles, along with other exiles such as Lion Feuchtwanger, generating propaganda, books, and radio broadcasts criticizing Hitler and the Axis.
Hailed for his work in the fight against fascism, America’s love for Mann faded in the 50’s when Joseph McCarthy falsely labeled him as a communist sympathizer and hounded him from these shores. Mann died in Switzerland in 1955, but refused to renounce his American citizenship. His belief in American democracy and American values were stronger than the lies and hatred directed against him by the very government he had so ardently defended.
Mann’s home, which is located just off Sunset Boulevard near PCH, had fallen into disrepair until it was recently purchased and restored by the German government. It was officially reopened in a private ceremony two days ago, and one of the guest speakers was Michelle Obama. The following day, yesterday, President Steinmeier came to the Getty Museum to give a speech about Mann, about America, and about democracy.
The shock of a great speech
I have to admit that the fellow who introduced President Steinmeier kind of botched it when he talked about the president’s membership in the Reichstag. I’ve come to expect a certain level of nincompoopism when Americans talk about anything related to a foreign country’s institutions, but confusing the Reichstag with the modern Bundestag was a big enough blunder that you could feel a shudder run through the numerous Germans present, quickly replaced by their generous realization that Americans are pretty dumb even on their best of days.
But what really was astounding was to sit and listen to a head of state discuss books and literature. President Steinmeier launched into a discussion of Thomas Mann’s life, and he began unflinchingly with a quote from Mann, who as a young writer had espoused monarchism and was quite contemptuous of parliamentary democracy. This ability of Germany to confront its past is not limited to literature, of course, it is part of the entire postwar mentality that has courageously dealt with its war crimes in a way that the U.S. still cannot do with respect to its history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
The comparison between Steinmeier and Trump couldn’t have been more brutal. Can anyone, even Trump’s most ardent brown shirts, imagine him talking about an author’s body of work, or making reference to important protagonists, as Steinmeier did when he referenced Herr Settembrini in Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”?
Can anyone imagine Trump discussing the main character in a major novel set in biblical times as being a referent for the New Deal and FDR? Anti-intellectualism has and will always be part of the American fabric, but no president until Trump has ever made willful ignorance and blind stupidity points of pride, a fact that Steinmeier highlighted without ever mentioning the word Trump, and instead quoting from Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln.
The moral fiber of a nation
As Steinmeier spoke, he reminded us that our nation was founded on the highest principles of democracy, and he quoted Walt Whitman saying that “America and democracy are convertible terms.” More importantly, he reminded us that our country can only develop democracy abroad when we defend it at home, and that our interests abroad lie not in strategic or economic alliances, but in alliances with nations who share our democratic ideals.
As great as America is, he reminded us, we need partners, and the implication was that we don’t need partners in crime along the lines of Kim Jong-Un, Putin, Assad, Netanyahu, and King Salman, but partners who share our commitment to a nation that is build on laws which respect the dignity and worth of every human being.
Steinmeier recounted how he had stood at Dr. Martin Luther King’s graveside with John Lewis, and asked this titan of civil rights how he found the strength to persevere in the face of all that was and all that continues to be wrong. Lewis’s answer: “I am daily driven by the words in our Constitution, ‘to form a more perfect union.'”
Our job, as Lewis said, is not perfection, but to fight for a more perfect future. We have a future, there is hope, and I’m grateful that the leader of a foreign land destroyed by fascism and rebuilt by democracy took the time to remind us of it.
Steinmeier’s speech ended in tears by many and a rousing, standing ovation by all.
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