Volume 30, Number 3

Who Are We, and Who Do We Want to Be?

Fred Schepartz

The story from this issue, “She Couldn’t Say I Told You So,” by Jeff Jacobs contains a line I found quite striking:

“When good people find out what they’re about it will be stopped.”

The story takes place in 1930s America. The Nazis have taken power in Germany. Homegrown American Nazi organizations have sprung up all over the country. The main character, Ella, is a Jew. At the beginning of the story, she has a violent run-in with a group of Bund youths, who likely had been trained at a nearby Bund camp, modeled after the German camps for the Hitler Youth.

Ella has a gentile friend named James. His reaction to the incident and the news about the Bund and the Bund camps is disbelief. When he utters the above-referenced words, Ella views him as well meaning, but naïve.

It should be noted that in the end, James puts his money where his mouth is and chose to act as a good person. And I’ll leave it at that.

As the story points out, the Bund camp in question ends up being shut down. In a small way, in that time and place, good people found out what was going on and stopped it.

Still, not enough good people stepped forward to stop the rise of Nazism and Fascism around the world. Not enough good people stepped forward to prevent the Holocaust, along with related pogroms in central and Eastern Europe.

It took a world war to end that era of tyrants and dictators. Millions of good people finally saw what was going on and stopped it.

But it took a world war.

Another line comes to mind, this time from the movie Isle of Dogs:

“Who are we, and who do we want to be?”

Isle of Dogs is a tremendous film, way better than I expected. It features an engaging story, but more importantly, has a great deal to say about bigotry and the poison of authoritarianism. As described by Google:

When, by executive decree, all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast garbage-dump called Trash Island, 12-year-old Atari sets off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots. There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends, he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture.

Immediately after watching the film, I jotted down Atari’s words and tacked them to my bulletin board. These are truly words to live by, especially in this new age of tyrants and dictators.

Who am I? Who do I want to be?

I guess I would like to be the kind of good person who will find out that injustice is happening and will do my utmost to make it stop.

That’s what we all have to do.

And it seems like there’s a new severe injustice every day. The Amazon is burning out of control due to fires set by wildcat farmers and loggers following the winking encouragement of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who in turn refuses international aid to put out the fires because of perceived insults or slights.

And here, the raving lunatic, the tin-plated dictator with delusions of grandeur, the Giant Baby Man, while those Amazonian fires burn, he skipped out on a G7 meeting about climate change and the Amazonian fires, leaving an empty chair as a powerful symbol of his lack of caring. He even lied about his failure to attend, claiming that he was meeting with German and Indian leaders, who are clearly seen sitting in their chairs at the meeting, next to the vacant American chair.

If he has shown us one thing about his character, it’s that we cannot expect even a modicum of common decency. Exhibit A, just from yesterday’s Democracy Now! headlines:

This was just one day of headlines, Wednesday, August 28.

It can make a person numb, just the sheer volume of outrages, just the sheer level of audacity, almost as if he’s pushing the envelope to get the populace to accept this absurdity as just every-day, ho-hum.

I think about how this editorial was going to be about his racist comments directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.),  Reps. Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) when he said they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” By now, those hideous remarks feel like ancient history, so long ago, buried underneath a mountain of additional outrages.
This is not how I want to be. This is not how I want us to be.

To our collective credit, there was tremendous outcry following the racist attacks launched at Omar, AOC, Pressley and Tlaib. Sad to say, there also was a great deal of Republicans stepping forward to defend Giant Baby Man because, well the so-called Party of Lincoln is now nothing more than the Party of Acquiescence.

This is not who we are. This is not who we want to be.

Acquiescence and tolerance are unacceptable, especially given that it’s become a clear pattern that racist and anti-Semitic attacks and some mass shootings come following the implicit complicity and encouragement from the Thing in the White House.

While considering what to write for this issue, I also thought a great deal about another story included in this volume, “Accomplices,” by Stuart Stromin. It takes place in South Africa during the latter stages of apartheid. The story starts banal enough, featuring what appears to be rather bland South African police officers. The banality doesn’t last long.

Frankly, the story is rather brutal, but strongly rings true as a portrayal of the kind of police state South Africa was under apartheid, at least for black South Africans.

Apartheid ended with the 1994 elections that featured universal suffrage. This followed decades of resistance by black South Africans led by Nelson Mandala, along with significant efforts by white allies, all of which led to negotiations to dismantle apartheid. It should be noted that as it became clear that apartheid would eventually cease to exist, right wing violence increased.

A quick aside, South African musician Johnny Clegg died this summer. He was a white South African and a Jew. He started his musical career in 1986 and was an outspoken anti-apartheid activist. Even under apartheid, he played in integrated bands. He learned to speak Zulu and mastered black South African styles of music and dance.

Apartheid fell because of the never-ending struggle led by Mandela. It also fell because of white allies like Clegg, along with pro-apartheid leaders who finally realized just how wrong the whole system was. And in addition, apartheid fell because of efforts all around the world to pressure the white South African government through the divestiture movement.

But sadly, apartheid was allowed to exist for nearly 50 years.

Yes, James’ words in “She Couldn’t Say I Told You So” are naïve, but in this age of tyrants and dictators, we desperately need this sentiment. I believe people are generally decent, and I would hope that good people will stand up and take a stand against the bullies who are in power right now.

This is true in our country and all over the world. We need to remember Atari’s words and ask ourselves, “Who are we? Who do we want to be?”