Monday, November 3, 2014

Liberal Fascism Watch: Electing another people

Bertolt Brecht–Helene Weigel House in Buckow, Brandenburg. Wikipedia.
Well, on Senator Mary Landrieu suggesting that some element of President Obama's unpopularity might be ascribable to a lingering racism among some persons, I give you Mr. Jonah Goldberg:
In Die Lösung Brecht famously quipped that if the people lose faith in the government it would be better if the government dissolved the people and elected another. For progressives it’s always five minutes to Brecht-O-Clock. What I mean is this desire to fix the people, not the government always seems to be lurking behind liberalism. It was there when Woodrow Wilson said the first job of an educator is to make your children as unlike you as possible....
Ah, not quite. For one thing, and regardless of whether or not it is appropriate to most of a 10-line poem as a "quip" in the poem, that isn't what Brecht wrote. Goldberg has misunderstood it, partly because of an inadequate grasp not of the German original but of its English Wikipedia translation (he doesn't quite get the use of the word "forfeit"), but also for reasons that are interesting enough to work through at some length.

On June 16 1953, construction workers in East Berlin, angry about the ongoing Stalinization of eastern Germany culminating in threats to dock their pay unless they met raised work quotas, took a protest march down the Stalinallee, igniting a general uprising among the country's workers the next day, known to history as the June 17 uprising, which was violently put down by the authorities, including occupying Soviet troops.

Bertolt Brecht, the great playwright and Communist sympathizer (not a party member, but certainly a believer), who had returned to what was now the German Democratic Republic in 1949 to run the Berliner Ensemble theater company, spending the summer in his retreat outside the city in Buckow, reacted to the news in a way that was not exactly courageous, sending a brief note to the Communist Party's general secretary Walter Ulbricht:
History will applaud the revolutionary impatience of the German Socialist Unity Party. The great debate with the masses over the tempo of socialist construction will lead to an assessment and reinforcement of the socialist achievement. I regard it as an obligation at this time to articulate my ties to the Germany Socialist Unity Party. [my translations]
But the hint in the second sentence that there was some kind of "debate" going on between the "masses" and the ruling party was a little too adventurous for the authorities, and when they published the note in the party's newspaper Neues Deutschland, on June 21, they left the sentence out.

Meanwhile, an essay by the First Secretary of the Writers' Union of the GDR, Kurt Barthel (known as KuBa, a party official and author of a 13-page Kantate auf Stalin set to music by the forgotten Jean Kurt Forest, 1950), appeared in Neues Deutschland on the 20th. It was entitled Wie ich mich schäme (How ashamed I am), and included these lines addressed to the refractory construction workers:
You will have to build a great deal, and build well, and behave very prudently in the future before this ignominy will be forgotten. Is is easy to repair destroyed houses. Rebuilding trust once it has been destroyed is very, very difficult. [from, which is my main source for the whole story]
Brecht may or may not have felt those strong ties to the party (he certainly felt strong ties to the dream job and socioeconomic status they'd given him), but the spectacle of the self-described workers' party complaining that it couldn't trust the workers was more than he could tolerate, and he wrote a tiny, acid poem about it, not for publication (it came out only in West Germany after his death, in the Hamburg paper Die Welt in 1959, and in the East not until 1969):
The Solution

After the uprising of 17th June
the secretary of the writers' union had
fliers distributed in the Stalinallee
in which one could read that the people
had lost the government's confidence
and only through redoubled efforts
could they get it back. Wouldn't it then
be simpler still if the government
dissolved the people and
elected another?
Playing, if I have to explain it, on the conventional language of parliamentary democracy, in which the government is required to keep the "confidence" of the majority of the members, or else be "dissolved" to make way for an election (where you might say, "They're unable to govern, they'll have to go to the country") , and Barthel's vile little dig turned this normal democratic operation upside down.

In the English Wikipedia version, though, the verb in the fifth line is "forfeited" (the German verb is verscherzen, meaning literally something like "joke away" or "lose through one's frivolity"), and Jonah reads it wrong, as saying that the people had lost confidence in the government rather than that the government had lost confidence in the people, making nonsense of the whole thing (he can't have actually read it through, because the party hack secretary obviously would not have said that).

Jonah wants to read it wrong, because he's not really a conservative but a reactionary, and the concept of "dissolving the government" puts in his mind an irresistible thought of something different: not the normal meaning in countries like the UK of replacing the officers of the government, the prime minister and cabinet, but the whole thing: going back to 1916, as it were —he's the one who brings up Wilson—and the Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, Clayton Antitrust Act, Federal Farm Loan Act and measures against child labor and in favor of the eight-hour working day, and above all the income tax! It's his fantasy to have the people rise to dissolve the 20th century.

Only the people don't want to, and that's what's ironic, I guess. That and what happens if you try to imagine what "electing another people" might entail. It's the perpetual reactionary fantasy that you could somehow annul the people, and have a government that wouldn't have to listen to their endless whining, and it's what Republican state governments have been assiduously working at achieving since the 2010 census: gerrymandering the House districts to create long-term Republican majorities so that, as everybody has heard by now, the 2012 elections gave them a majority of 50 or so seats even though they got a million-plus fewer votes; and creating a host of state voting regulations meant to discourage the "wrong" sort of person from voting (as Governor Christie was acknowledging not too long ago)—creating a new, more docile, electorate.

And—scratch an accusation of "liberal fascism" and you'll usually find a case of libertarian fascism, a commitment to sacred liberty but only for the Right People who know how to use it—Jonah Goldberg thinks voting ought to be restricted further by age:
Personally, I think the voting age should be much, higher, not lower. I think it was a mistake to lower it to 18, to be brutally honest….[I]t is a simple fact of science that nothing correlates more with ignorance and stupidity than youth. We’re all born idiots, and we only get over that condition as we get less young. And yet there’s this thing in this culture where, ‘Oh, young people are for it so it must be special.’ No, the reason young people are for it because they don’t know better. That’s why we call them young people. [...]
He also said on Election Eve that Lena Dunham shouldn't be allowed to vote (via Edroso).

Brecht came up with the idea of "electing another people" as an absurdity, as a way of indicting the authoritarianism of the East German party-state. US Republicans have been working on a way of making the idea real.

They can't get away with it, though, if we all vote.

Image via Reboot Illinois.

Die Lösung

Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
zurückerobern könne. Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?

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