The other day I was reminded that I’m no Vonnegut, nothing like the writer who started writing as a corporate PR man, who worked long and diligently, and faced years of rejection and lack of appreciation, to make himself into a marketable commodity, both his writing and his folksy wit on the speaking circuit. After many years of hard work he wound up well paid and beloved for both. Today I was urged not to use the word “struggle” in the title of the book I might work on, if all else fails, as appears may well be the case, my imaginary city burning as I fiddle here.
“Not ‘Struggle'” my friend said, to remind me of what I myself noted a few weeks ago here– people don’t want to read about a losing, against the odds struggle, unless the protagonist miraculously prevails, in which case he becomes an inspiring winner and the story an uplifting fable about the power of individual imagination, resourcefulness and perseverance.
I assured him I’d call it something else, tempting as it is, as I indisputably struggle, to puckishly riff on Mein Kampf, after the shortened German title editors insisted on as an improvement of the original “My Struggle Against Seven Years of Lies and Hypocrisy and the Fucking Jews and Other Filthy Maggots Who Want to Bugger Me Even Though I Have Never Enjoyed Buggery of Any Kind and I’ll Kill Anyone Who Says I Like To Take It Up The Ass!“. The future Fuhrer was persuaded that the book would sell better with a strong, forceful, more succinct title. “Those first two words, so powerful and perfect!” he was assured obsequiously, “the rest of the title, excellent though it also is, would be a distraction, and hard to fit on the spine.”
“You lay it all out so beautifully in the book, Adolf, no point giving away all that for free in the title. Build the suspense a little. Make them buy the book if they want all that,” another cajoled, fawningly. The author of that book, a strong-willed mentally deranged autodidact who had dictated it to a functional illiterate, was not a man to be trifled with. He was a writer who needed flattery more than most. In later years he’d have men hung by piano wire for offenses far less grave than second guessing the best title for his own book about his unspeakable struggle against forces hell bent on making the world a nightmare. In that department, he was an expert.
“Did something bad happen to you today?” she asked, eyes looking sad.
“Shut up,” I said.
“You’re no Hitler,” she snapped, turning back to her computer game.
I understand. Anyway, Mein Kampf was a main source of Hitler’s livelihood until he went on the public payroll years later as Chancellor of Germany. It was a best seller in Germany during those wild years. The best selling book that nobody ever read, it was a popular wedding present and also given for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, confirmations and, by black-humored wags, bar mitzvahs. Try reading it some time. It’s impossible to get through more than a couple of pages, although the short section on propaganda is breathtakingly chilling and very well presented.
Much as I am biased against him, horrific as his own nightmare childhood undoubtedly was, as much as I hate the man, if I’m being totally honest here, I have to give him this much: he was a visionary as far as how to sell an idea to the public and he forever changed the way it’s done by most governments and virtually every advertiser of political campaigns:
You want to influence the masses with facts and reason, logic and persuasion? HA! You stupid bastard, I’ll hang you from a meathook by your ass! You want to influence the public, my friend? You stir their emotions, shake their emotions, stomp violently on their emotions, mainly their fear. You TERRIFY THEM! Yes, that’s what the Allies did, inspired terror and hatred of the German army in the World War. That was the right thing to do!
Our commanders were no different than others, in fact, a few vomited when they saw what the fucking Turks did to the Armenians (don’t get me started on the Turks, or the Armenians, for that matter). But our propagandists took the high road in the Great War and lost the war for hearts and minds, the war itself, even though our military was far superior. They idiotically stuck to the truth, told our people that we were a superior culture and a great nation and that we deserved to win because we represented the highest values civilization had so far attained, and the Americans, English and French were inferior and contemptible. All true, but useless as engines to drive war machines of hatred and revenge.
The Allies were smart and effective, they were ruthless and not hobbled by quaint scruples about what was true, sportsmanlike, decent. They knew that primal fear and visceral hatred motivate far better than intellectual appeals to pride and contempt. They used any lie they could think of to make their people, and their troops, fear and hate the Germans. The filthier the lie, the more brazen and sickening the lie, the better. The Allies had it right, alas!
FEAR and HATRED, I’ll say it again, that’s the goal and the more explosive and terrifying the lie, the more gigantic and atrocious the lie, and, YOU KEEP SCREAMING IT UNTIL THEY ARE QUAKING IN THEIR SMELLY BOOTS, the better. You get them TERRIFIED! TERROR!!! You fill them with nightmares until they shit themselves. BOOO!!! VOOO-OOO!!!!! Then they will listen eagerly when you tell them what they must do to save themselves, they are ready to obey, march in columns to kill. Their savior will assure them with absolute confidence: we will face this fearsome enemy together, bravely, our complete and glorious triumph is preordained by GOD. Follow me and we will KILL THE MONSTER! And they will lean forward, hushed and expectant, to hear the details, commit any acts necessary to KILL THE MONSTERS!!! You have them in the palm of your hand, agents of your will, if you keep them in terror. And simple, terrible, unimaginable lies endlessly repeated are the best way to keep them terrified.
Not long after Hitler outmaneuvered the rest of the complacent German right and had himself named Chancellor, the Reichstag, the German Parliament Building, went up in flames. The man who started the fire, amazingly in twenty places simultaneously on several floors of the huge building, was captured, tried and executed. The convicted arsonist, a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, is referred to in at least one famous historian’s account as a “Dutch half-wit”. The lone arsonist was tried and beheaded, although symbolic justice was eventually done.
The Reichstag fire was as instrumental to Hitler’s dictatorship as the 9/11 attacks were to extreme right wing American politicians who seized the chance to consolidate all kinds of special extra-constitutional powers in their executive and themselves. The Weimar Constitution needed no revision the day after the Reichstag fire– an Enabling Act, triggered by the national emergency, was immediately passed and Mr. Hitler ruled under the emergency powers granted by the unamended Weimar Constitution until the day twelve years later he killed his newly wed wife and his beloved dog and shot himself in the mouth. It must be noted that it’s hard to blame him for those final acts, though he might have spared his wife and his faithful Alsatian. And at the risk of sounding opinionated, the only shame is that he didn’t put the gun in his mouth twenty years earlier.
And also, at the risk of sounding opinionated and slyly insinuating, both, I note that it was not until the massive and sweeping Patriot Act was passed immediately after the attacks on September 11, 2001, that the word “Homeland” came into general use here to describe the land of the free and the home of the brave. Naomi Wolf, in The End of America, pointed out that this was a direct translation of Hitler’s preferred term for the German Reich, die Heimat. Ditto “war footing” which we were on until Shock and Awe began, which was another Nazi coinage, kreigsfuss. Not for nothing, I’m just saying.
But I digress.
We live in a world made black and white by paid haters on both sides, and the hissing flames are tended by the hate profiteers, self-made millionaire professional dealers in partisan hatred. There is a bottom line, non-negotiable and debated not with an exchange of reasoned arguments, but emotionally, from roaring throats with veins distended. Freedom or tyranny! Liberty or Death! In theory freedom is the right to do whatever increases your happiness or protects your interests without harming others. Tyranny is force used ruthlessly against the exercise of freedom.
There’s theory, and each side marshals its simplified version of the truth to support their ‘theory’, loaded and problematic terms like “the free market”, “democracy” and “justice” are angrily spat back and forth into the open spittoon of public discourse, and then there’s reality on the ground. It is in the reality on the ground, as both sides argue deafeningly over the moral high ground, where faces are being stomped into the dirt with heavy boots.
Thinking back to my friend’s excellent advice, I’ll leave the word “struggle” out of my title and work with something like “Love and the Empowering Echoes of Hope”, something that might sell in liberal arts college bookstores. He’s right, to hell with the incessant Hitler jokes. Hitler was an asshole, and about as funny as a meathook to the old trapezius.