UPDATE: Following publication of this post, it was discovered that HBO is about to present a limited series based on the novel. It premieres on March 16th. See trailer below.
In the 1930s it was hard to convince Americans that democracy was in the first stages of dying in Europe and the world or that it was something that America should be involved in anyway. Some of the biggest American companies were doing business with what they considered a benign and profitable dictatorship. The media didn’t know quite what to make of this unusual Hitler guy, but he seemed to be a fascinating new face on the scene, and always good copy. Some Americans even thought they heard something from Hitler that sounded like cultural music to their ears. Above all, this had nothing to do with democracy in America, which no matter what, was never in danger.
Three years ago, I wrote about Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004). It is an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh—Nazi sympathizer and supporter of Hitler—defeats FDR in 1940 to become President of the United States.
“Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five
Last week was the 75th anniversary of the Dresden firebombings in World War II. If you didn’t know that, chalk it up to a gap in learning and the media being preoccupied. On February 13 and 15, 1945, with Germany on its way to inevitable defeat, the Allies rained fire on the beautiful and culturally significant German city of Dresden, destroying much of it and killing no less than 25,000 people. To this day, the moral questions surrounding that attack are still debated.
When the author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died in 2007, here is what a writer in The Economist wrote:
Kurt Vonnegut Jr died yesterday at the age of 84. So it goes. The New York Times offers up a halfway decent obituary, but it is hard to capture the impact of such a man in a few thousand words, let alone a blog post. His best novels—”Cat’s Cradle”, “God Bless You, Mr Rosewater” and the epic, heartbreaking “Slaughterhouse-Five”—spoke to the deepest doubts and fears of a generation. But his books weren’t just beautifully written. They were hilarious, too.
A generation did embrace Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is listed as one of the 100 best novels of all time. The plot, as with most Vonnegut novels, is impossible to condense in short form. Significant is that Vonnegut himself witnessed Dresden as a prisoner of war, as does the main character Billy Pilgrim. In the novel, this has a profound effect on an already fragile Billy Pilgrim, who “comes unstuck in time” and is visited by aliens, learning new and different ways of viewing life and history.
Slaughterhouse-Five had obvious appeal as an anti-war novel, with young readers opposing a pointless and, in 1969, seemingly endless war. More than that, it offered those just starting out in life and history the possibility that there were other ways of being and doing. It turned out that other ways of being and doing are not so easy, but just like reading Kurt Vonnegut, it can be lots of fun. And occasionally helpful.
In America, and globally, what we are witnessing may have us feeling that we are coming unstuck in time. There are plenty of places and distractions to retreat into, which given the currents and demands of our lives, is perfectly understandable. But there remain opportunities for other ways of knowing and being, even if you don’t learn it from aliens. Young or old, be adventurous and bold.
Mistake after mistake: 將錯就錯 [shōshaku jushaku], literally, take a file (rasp) and work on the file. File a file about something. Take up a mistake and settle in with the mistake. Mistakes surpass mistakes.
“When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!” Dogen-zenji said, “Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.”
–Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind
“We should understand that, in reality, mistakes are called learning, and the state of no mistake is called nowness. In nowness there is no before or after, no goals, agendas, or fixed direction. Like the meandering river, it twists and turns in accord with circumstances but always knows how to find its way to the great ocean. If you wish to travel like this, you must go alone, not carry any baggage, and trust yourself implicitly.”
–Dogen, The True Dharma Eye
Don’t be fooled. Don’t let them fool you. Don’t think they are fooling themselves. Many Republicans, especially Senators, sleep badly and fitfully in a dark night.
The restless nights began for some when they saw Trump likely to win the nomination, as he ultimately did. They were comforted by the uneasy thought that, rooting against their own candidate, he had slim chance of being elected.
By the time of the inauguration, the difficult nights set in. At first, and for years to come, rationalizations, some very practical, such as holding on to their seats, helped. Delusions, drink and drugs might provide a little rest and respite.
But at some quiet moments, awake and alone in the dark with their thoughts, reality grips them. For the more religious, they realize that they can relentlessly lie to America, lie to themselves, but God is too smart for that. Others who have some sense of history imagine the history books they will spend the rest of their lives trying, against the current, to criticize and correct. History books that will paint them at best as selfish dupes, at worst as enablers and accomplices.
Many people have dark nights, brought on by the unavoidable tragedies of capricious life. Those nights are not wished on anyone. Sometimes it is the anguish of bad choices made. Sometimes the sleepless nights never ever end.
“After many sleepless nights, I have reluctantly concluded that the evidence is sufficient to convict the President for both abuse of power and obstruction of Congress….Very early on I implored my colleagues in both houses of Congress to stay out of their partisan corners. Many did, but so many did not. The country deserves better.”
Statement to the Senate by Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat who may pay a political price in his 2020 reelection bid, about why his voting to convict Trump today is simply doing the right thing:
“On the day I was sworn in as a United States Senator, I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. At the beginning of the impeachment trial, I took a second oath to do ‘impartial justice’ according to the same Constitution I swore to protect.
“These solemn oaths have been my guides during what has been a difficult time for our country, for my state, and for me personally. I did not run for Senate hoping to participate in the impeachment trial of a duly-elected President, but I cannot and will not shrink from my duty to defend the Constitution and to do impartial justice.
“In keeping with my oaths, I resolved that throughout this process I would keep an open mind and hear all of the evidence before making a final decision on the charges against the President. For months, I have been studying the facts of this case exhaustively. I have read thousands of pages of transcripts, watched videos of testimony, taken copious notes, reviewed history and precedents and discussed this case with colleagues, staff, and constituents, in addition to having participated in the Senate trial over the past two weeks. After many sleepless nights, I have reluctantly concluded that the evidence is sufficient to convict the President for both abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
“With the eyes of history upon us, I am acutely aware of the precedents this impeachment trial will set for future presidencies and Congresses. Unfortunately, I do not believe those precedents are good ones. I am particularly concerned that we have now set a precedent that a fair trial in the Senate does not include witnesses and documentary evidence, even when those witnesses have first-hand information and the evidence would provide the Senate and the American people with a more complete picture of the truth.
“I am also deeply troubled by the partisan nature of these proceedings from start to finish. Very early on I implored my colleagues in both houses of Congress to stay out of their partisan corners. Many did, but so many did not. The country deserves better. We must find a way to rise above the things that divide us and find the common good.
“Having done my best to see through the fog of partisanship, I am deeply troubled by the arguments put forth by the President’s lawyers in favor of virtually unchecked presidential power. In this case, the evidence clearly proves the President used the weight of his office and that of the United States government to seek to coerce a foreign government to interfere in our election for his personal political benefit. The President’s actions placed his personal interests well above the national interests and threatened the security of the United States, our allies in Europe, and our ally Ukraine. His actions were more than simply inappropriate. They were an abuse of power. With impeachment as the only check on such presidential wrongdoing, I felt I must vote to convict on the first charge of abuse of power.
“The second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, gave me even more pause. I have struggled to understand the House’s strategy in their pursuit of documents and witnesses and wished they had done more. However, after careful consideration of the evidence developed in the hearings, the public disclosures, the legal precedents, and the trial, I believe the President deliberately and unconstitutionally obstructed Congress by refusing to cooperate with the investigation in any way. While I am sensitive to protecting the privileges and immunities afforded to the President and his advisors, I believe it is critical to our constitutional structure that we protect Congress’ authorities also. In this matter it was clear from the outset that the President had no intention whatsoever of any accommodation with Congress when he blocked both witnesses and documents from being produced. In addition, he engaged in a course of conduct to threaten potential witnesses and smear the reputations of the civil servants who did come forward and provide testimony. The President’s actions demonstrate a belief that he is above the law, that Congress has no power whatsoever in questioning or examining his actions, and that all who do so, do so at their peril. That belief, unprecedented in the history of this country, simply must not be permitted to stand. To do otherwise risks guaranteeing that no future whistleblower or witness will ever come forward and no future President — Democrat or Republican — will be subject to Congressional oversight as mandated by the Constitution.
“Senators are elected to make tough choices. We are required to study the facts of each issue before us and exercise our independent judgment in keeping with the oaths we take. The gravity of this moment, the seriousness of the charges, and the implications for future presidencies and Congresses all contributed to the difficulty with which I have arrived at my decision.
“This has been a divisive time for our country, but I think it has nonetheless been an important constitutional process for us to follow. As this chapter of history draws to a close, one thing is clear: our country deserves better than this. We must find a way to come together, to set aside partisan differences, and to focus on what we have in common as Americans. We are facing great challenges both domestically and internationally, but it remains my firm belief that united, we can conquer them and remain the greatest hope for people around the world.”