Political Judo

I hope you had a good August, despite various miseries visited on us by Trump, Kim Jong-un, climate change, and American Nazis.

I had a bit of a hard time vacating at first, but I must say that on returning I find it sort of like people say about soap operas: you can drop off watching and whenever you pick up again, somebody’s long-lost evil twin brother is still in a coma.

It’s a mixed bag blog today—so many words left over from the summer to worry about.

For instance, despite being a peaceable person, I fear I might commit violence on the next columnist or pundit who explains Trump’s behavior as being like that of a child, or his having a New York style, or his being 71 years old. No no no no no.

Having been and having borne a fairly intelligent child and knowing quite a few other small people, I feel strongly that to compare Trump to a child is to demean children—because the main thing about kids is that they’re unquenchably curious.

Similarly, being a New Yorker, I can testify that I love my city because it is so diverse that you hear an average of four different languages or dialects and encounter six different patinas of skin color while walking along a single street; is the de facto capital of the planet in hosting the United Nations; is an inclusive megalopolis composed of small friendly neighborhoods; prides itself on a generosity of spirit; and vibrates with both wit and grit—never more evident than on this day, September 11, 16 years ago. None of which is reflected in Trump. He may have lived here—we go high and low—but he is in no way a real New Yorker.

Furthermore, being in his 70’s hardly explains this man, whose soul had atrophied by the time he was 20. Need I name an honor roll of great, brilliant, talented, wise, hard-working elders to prove my point? Good god, Toni Morrison, Congressman John Lewis, Dolores Huerta, Ursula K. Le Guin, Maxine Hong Kingston! My own Women’s Media Center sister co-founders: Jane Fonda turns an activist 80 this December, and Gloria Steinem’s already beat her by almost 4 years! I’m 76, internally maybe 45, am going strong, and neither missing nor stopping for a beat. Age doesn’t explain Trump any more than address.

Get it through your heads, people! The man playing a president on TV is a sociopath, possibly a psychotic. Nuts. Bat-turd crazy. Ding-dong. Woo woo. A narcissistic egoist with a sadistic bent. Plus ignorant, ill-educated, and wildly insecure to boot. So please stop with the comparisons to kids, old folks, and New Yorkers.

These days I’m also on the rampage at the glut of trendy cliché phrases like “kick the can down the road,” “reach out to,” “unpack this,” and “drilling down.” I would be ecstatic if I never again had to hear Trumpian word-abuse now infecting normal people’s speech—like “you look at . . . ,” and “I can tell you that . . . ,” not to speak (literally please!) of one-word judgments (Bad. Sad.), and hyperbolic exclamations: incredible! unbelievable! magnificent! the biggest the best the most successful blahblahblah. I find myself longing for understatement. Words like “decent,” “pleasant,” “suitable.” Ahhh, so refreshing.

But onward from words to actions—which have quite a lot to do with words. In these dismal days when the Dreamers are the latest political football being cynically tossed around, context helps. Did you know, for example, that the first naturalization laws of the United States Congress limited citizenship to four words: “a free white person”? The additional silent adjective was the word “male,” since citizenship bestows the right to vote, speak in public, and own property, rights which were not then available to women.

And let’s glance at the word “pardon”—in the wake of Trump’s pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio for being in contempt of court after he refused to stop persecuting Latino Americans to such extremes that even conservative Arizonans roundly voted him out of office. It would appear that Trump is not only demonstrably in contempt of the whole court system himself, but that he was warming up his pardon powers early, in preparation to protect those who might otherwise testify against his part in a conspiracy with the Russians to corrupt our elections. Not that such pardoning would be a new idea.

Did you know that the presidential pardon was a matter of considerable contention among the Framers of the Constitution? In fact, George Mason of Virginia, one of the most respected Framers, often referred to as the father of the Bill of Rights, refused to sign the document. In his “Objections to This Constitution of Government” in 1787, he cited the lack of a bill of rights, the defeat of his campaign calling for an immediate end to the slave trade, and also wrote, “The President of the United States has the unrestrained power of granting pardons for treason, which may be sometimes exercised to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the crime, and thereby prevent a discovery of his own guilt.” Pretty prophetic, George!

In closing, I have a delicious story for you—about the use of words and wit to frustrate and eventually impotize violence. I dedicate this story, reported in The Washington Post, to the Klansmen and wannebe Nazis who wielded their tiki torches in Charlottesville and Boston, and who believe that under the Trump banner their fascistic day in America has arrived.

As you may know, Germany has endured a long history of violent clashes between left-wing and right-wing protesters trying to stop each other’s marches. Neo-Nazis have increasingly abused World War II commemorations to organize massive gatherings that end in open street fights with authorities and left-wing activists. But now, a new tactic has risen—one that could be useful to us here in the United States.

Wunsiedel, a German town near the Czech border, has struggled for years with a parade of unwelcome visitors. It was the original burial site of one of Hitler’s deputies, Rudolf Hess, and every year–to residents’ embarrassment and rage–hundreds of neo-Nazis marched to his grave. The town staged counter-demonstrations to dissuade them; it even exhumed Hess’s body and removed his grave marker in 2011. But the neo-Nazis returned to their hallowed fascist ground. So in 2014, the town tried a different tactic, with a campaign called Rechts Gegen Rechts—the Right Against the Right—which turned the march into an involuntary good-cause charity walkathon.

For every meter the neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros (then equivalent to about $12.50) to a program called EXIT Deutschland that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups. (EXIT-Germany, founded by criminologist and former police detective Bernd Wagner and former neo-Nazi leader Ingo Hasselbach, has been working since 2000 to provide assistance to dropouts from extreme and violent right-wing environments, with over 500 individual cases having been successfully completed, and a recidivism rate of only 3 percent.)

A sign at the end of the march route in Wunsiedel thanked the marchers for their contribution to the anti-Nazi cause—€10,000 (close to $12,000). The town applauded and showered the marchers with confetti at the finish line. Apparently the neo-Nazis were totally flummoxed. Some dropped out of the march, muttering in disgust, and went home; some straggled on (confused by the crowd’s cheers of encouragement to keep marching and raise more money), and some even stopped to talk with Exit Deutschland representatives.

The approach has spread to several other German towns and to one in Sweden (where it was billed as Nazis Against Nazis). I pass it along in the hope that it will be adopted in American cities where the extreme right is on the march. In the end, violence requires a violent response to thrive. But there’s nothing violence can do when confronted with intelligence, in a political-judo use of words and action that turns the strength of malevolence against itself.

So watch what people do, certainly—but also watch what people say.