The power of the delayed response

Camus on how the Resistance found its footing

We have now had thousands of children ripped from their parents and caged in our names as Americans, state sponsored kidnapping and child abuse, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is upset because she was asked to leave a restaurant. She was politely asked to leave because the staff was uncomfortable serving an accomplice to child abuse.

Are we Americans aroused yet?

You may be uncomfortable with the word “Nazi” but Donald Trump himself is surprisingly comfortable with it. He said the Nazi group that carried swastika flags attacked and killed people in Charlottesville included “some very fine people.”

Donald Trump is openly authoritarian, and increasingly obvious about it. There is no mystery about it. So isn’t it past the time when we have to be so concerned with being polite to the Trump regime? The Democrats seem to always go with a knife to a battle with semi-automatic rifles.

But at this point it’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s an all-out attack on what America historically has been. Now it’s democracy versus fascism.

It has the look of an endgame, this assault on our country by a small minority of greedy and power-hungry people who are intent on tearing apart the historical social order of the country, destroying the innovations of the New Deal period. They want to destroy all social programs and to take the country back to the 19th century when private industrial barons ruled the land and the great majority were like leaves in the winds of vast economic forces they had no means to resist.

We are beginning to resemble a failed state.

We Americans have some fine traditions to maintain, including a sense of humanity and belief in human rights and dignity that would preclude these barbaric practices against children and families. And yet they are happening, and in our names.

Let us not go down in history as our generation’s version of the “Good Germans” who went along with Nazism passively, without evil intent, and yet their compliance was essential to the success of a small minority of fanatics in seizing control of the country and using it as a vehicle to act out their insane visions.

Those Americans who do not want to be a party to such crimes against humanity need to get beyond the hesitation and to take action, whatever that may be, to ward off this infection of American values, the very things that have made the country great in the past. We cannot allow our country to lose the luster of the values on which it was founded. That is our greatest strength.

History repeats

In the past, when this country fought fascists, they were an enemy outside of the country. Now we have the rise of fascism playing out within the United States. It didn’t start with Trump, but Trump seems to be the ultimate coup, the drive of the right wing to take over, wipe out all opposition and drop any pretense of belief in democracy.

Trump is increasingly open in his hatred of any restraints from law or the powers of the co-equal branches of government. He wants to do what he pleases with immigrants and everything else and doesn’t want to have to comply with any kinds of legal restrictions or courts.

The hesitation and the compulsion to be polite and behave by the rules has been well exploited by the right wing during the last 50 years or so. In our time it seems like the Democrats are always outwitted or overwhelmed, and often it is because the right wing will use the Democrats’ insistence on being just and in the right as a weakness. In the moment of hesitation they are overwhelmed and defeated by a determined, vicious and amoral enemy.

I discovered some very encouraging writing on this subject by Albert Camus in the book “Resistance, Rebellion and Death.” It was based on Camus’ experience as part of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. Oddly enough, Nazis are Nazis and as surprising as this turn of events may be, what we are dealing with in America now is very similar to what happened under the Nazis in France.

The French, and the Western democracies in general, were hesitant in facing the Nazi threat. They were caught off guard by the brutal Blitzkrieg. The behavior of the Nazis was so far beyond the normal decorum of the time. They blatantly broke their word and seized whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. Anything that attempted to resist them was mowed down brutally.

The Nazis respected nothing but power and brute force. It took a while for the West to regroup in the face of such a lethal enemy. But in the end, the Nazis fell, probably almost as much from their own inner corruption and sickness as from the attacks from the West.

How to defeat fascists, even with a late start

Camus, in Combat, his newspaper for the French resistance to the Nazi occupation, published a series of letters between him and a former friend who was a German who supported the Nazis. It follows the brutal introspection that took place by the French during the occupation as the allies prepared to match the Nazi savagery with brute force of their own.

Camus wrote of how the French hesitation cost them dearly in having to experience the brutal, humiliating occupation of their country. But when they did reach the point at which they were outraged enough to take up the sword themselves and feel justified to murder, they had the added advantage of having the sense of justice being on their side.

Camus’ letters are the timeless cry of rage of a freedom-loving man to tyrants.

In an argument with his German friend a few years before the war, Camus had said, “No, I don’t believe everything can be subordinated to a single end. There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

His German friend said he put his country “above truth, and beyond despair.” If Camus would refuse to do the same, it meant, “You don’t love your country.”

How do you defeat people who will go to any length to get their way and will never have any moral or legal restraint? Could be a tough question for a person who has a moral code and tries to live within it.

After three years of Nazi occupation, of being dominated and suppressed by violence and murder, an embittered Camus had the answer to the question of how freedom-loving people are able to defeat tyrants. And in another letter to his former friend, he articulated it passionately and eloquently.

“I want to tell you at once what kind of greatness keeps us going,” he said. “But this amounts to telling you what kind of courage we applaud, which is not your kind. For it is not much to be able to do violence when you have been simply preparing for it for years and when violence is more natural to you than thinking.”

The Nazis saw intelligence as weakness. Pausing to think, to ponder ethical questions, to yield to humanitarian impulses—all that was weakness. And in one moment of weakness you could be overpowered by an attacker.

At first, Camus said, there was a desire to emulate their oppressors. “For there is always something in us that yields to instinct, to contempt for intelligence, to the cult of efficiency. We become ashamed of our intelligence, and sometimes we imagine some barbarous state where truth would be effortless.

“But the cure for this is easy; you are there to show us what such imagining would lead to, and we mend our ways.”

Having a conscience is a weakness when you are up against someone who has no restraint or hesitation.

The time it took to recognize the threat and act was well exploited by the Nazis in their blitzkrieg. Camus said, “This is why we were defeated in the beginning: because we were so concerned, while you were falling upon us, to determine in our hearts whether right was on our side.”

The French also had to overcome their “image of a peaceful destiny,” Camus said, their reluctance to mutilate mankind.

While the French were trying to determine their own truth, they were defeated. Camus said they had to make a “detour” to get to where they were ready to fight.

“It is a detour that safeguarded justice and put truth on the side of those who questioned themselves,” he wrote. “And, without a doubt, we paid very dearly for it. We paid for it with humiliations and silences, with bitter experiences, with prison sentences, with executions at dawn, with desertions and separations, with daily pangs of hunger, with emaciated children, and, above all, with humiliation of our human dignity.

“But that was natural. It took us all that time to find out if we had the right to kill men, if we were allowed to add to the frightful misery of the world. And because of that time lost and recaptured, our defeat accepted and surmounted, those scruples paid for with blood, we French had the right to think today that we entered this war with hands clean—clean as victims and the condemned are—and that we are going to come out of it with hands clean—but clean this time with a great victory won against injustice and against ourselves.

“For we shall be victorious, you may be sure. But we shall be victorious thanks to that very defeat, to that long, slow progress during which we found our justification, to that suffering which, in all its injustice, taught us a lesson. It taught us the secret of any victory, and if we don’t lose the secret, we shall know final victory. It taught us that, contrary to what we used to think, the spirit is of no avail against the sword, but that the spirit together with the sword will always win out over the sword alone. That is why we have now accepted the sword, after making sure that the spirit was on our side.

“ . . . this is why we were the stronger—because of the detour that took us out of our way to seek our justification, because of the delay occasioned by worry about our rights, because of the crazy insistence of ours of reconciling everything that we loved. . . . we paid dearly for that detour. Rather than running the risk of injustice we preferred disorder. But at the same time that very detour constitutes our strength today, and as a result we are within sight of victory . . .

“For three years you have brought night to our towns and to our hearts. For three years we have been developing in the dark the thought which now emerges fully to face you. Now I can speak to you of the intelligence.”

For you Europe is a property

“What is spirit?” asked Camus. “ We know its opposite, which is murder. What is man? There I stop you, for we know. Man is that force which ultimately cancels all tyrants and gods. He is the force of evidence . . .

“If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has meaning . . .

“Even the gods are mobilized in your country. They are on your side, as they say, but only as a result of coercion. You no longer distinguish anything; you are nothing but a single impulse. And now you are fighting with the resources of blind anger, with your mind on weapons and feats of arms rather than on ideas, stubbornly confusing every issue and following your obsession. We, on the other hand, started from the intelligence and its hesitations. We were powerless against wrath. But now our detour is finished. It took only a dead child for us to add wrath to intelligence, and now we are two against one. “

“ . . . among the reasons we have for fighting you . . . there is none more fundamental than our awareness of having been, not only mutilated in our country, wounded in our very flesh, but also divested of our most beautiful images, for you gave the world a hateful and ridiculous version of them. The most painful thing is seeing a mockery made of what one loves . . .

“You speak of Europe, but the difference is that for you, Europe is a property, whereas we feel that we belong to it . . .

“For all those landscapes, those flowers and those plowed fields, the oldest of lands, show you every spring that there are things you cannot choke in blood. That is the image on which I can close. It would not be enough for me to think that all the great shades of the West and that thirty nations were on our side; I could not do it without the soil. And so I know that everything in Europe, both landscape and spirit, calmly negates you without feeling any rash hatred, but with the calm strength of victory . . . The battle we are waging is sure of victory because it is as obstinate as spring . . .

“Henceforth we have a superiority that will destroy you . . .”

David Cogswell publishes HeadBlast.

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