Kristallnacht 2016

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 1
January – February 2017
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The morning after our presidential election was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938), when paramilitary forces as well as civilians carried out a pogrom throughout Nazi Germany. The authorities stood by and did nothing. At least 91 people were killed, over a thousand synagogues were burned, over seven thousand businesses destroyed or damaged. Homes, schools, and hospitals felt the force of sledgehammers. Ginned up by the assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew, the attacks signaled the beginning of the end for Jews under the Reich. What had been pent up for so long became glaringly visible amid the shards of broken glass.

Obviously nothing that outrageous occurred last November 8th. Nor should we turn the operative image around and play with it by saying that the glass (as in ceiling) was not shattered. This is not the time for verbal gamesmanship.

Something, however, broke open that night. The election of Donald Trump revealed more than the numbed surprise of pundits and commentators. His election exposed what so many in America are blind to, namely that those who haven’t risen in our society, those whose lives go unnoticed, found a raucous way to be heard. For almost a year and a half a mindless candidate, aided and abetted by the feckless hunger of a twenty-four-seven news cycle, had played the proverbial bull in the china shop. That authoritarian voice cried havoc and unleashed the hounds of fear and instability that bayed out the experience of multitudinous working class voters, who felt lost in the maelstrom of global economic power plays and were consistently undervalued by politicians who worried more over failing financial giants.

In short, many people were broken and had been broken for some time reaching back two, three, and four administrations. People were hurting and looking for someone who could acknowledge their pain. At the same time, targets, floating in our culture, became easy ways of sluicing off the pain. As Nancy Isenberg notes in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016), the history of America repeats again and again the ways the moneyed class plays the poor off against each other. Poor whites have been consistently encouraged to beat down poor blacks and immigrants, the very ones who could join in an historical alliance. Instead of framing a conversation that could include the other and discover imaginative ways through economic peril, people settled for the simplicity of demonizing one another.

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Meanwhile, the final months of the election campaign continued to aggravate the fractures in our commonwealth. Faced with two distinct candidates, the American people ultimately did what they usually do: gravitate to the one who appears genuine. If a candidate betrays any discomfort about himself or herself, they can smell it out. We have seen how they would rather have a beer with someone who was at peace at being a C+ student than with one who could not feel comfortable in jeans. Despite Trump’s losing the overall popular vote, enough of the citizenry felt this way in states that would sway the Electoral College. They sensed a man confident in his brash displays and a woman who had to prepare to be at ease in a public forum. It did not matter what was said as much as how the candidate was perceived. The election was rigged indeed from the outset, for a reality show veteran could easily out maneuver any politico who needed to study her notes. Running on instincts and gut feelings connected better with a population not interested in the facts. The frozen tundra of Washington could only be cracked by someone from outside that ice palace.

Something broke open that night. What became visible was that this election was a return, not to make America great again, but to make America repeat the negations of our success, to freeze the advance of our history with a nostalgic tableau. The Thirteenth Amendment has been mauled by increasing mass incarcerations. The brief flicker of Reconstruction was snuffed out by Jim Crow laws. The songs and marches of the sixties were lost to the roar of the volatile red-hatted crowds. The achievements of our first black president would soon be negated by a revenging chorus of angels in all branches of government. None of this has been news to American Blacks, Hispanics, or Muslims. But for white liberals it came as a shattering experience.

A dear colleague shared with me a story that happened on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. His adopted Haitian son, aged seven, woke up and asked “Who won”? Upon being told, he immediately began to cry. “Papa, I’m afraid. Donald Trump wants to erase brown people.” The little one repeated the fear that he sensed in the past weeks. He knew instinctively the message that had arrived so long ago with indentured servants and slaves: that some people were “trash,” destined to be used and rubbed out. Many wealthy Americans have never shivered at such a fate. Is it any wonder that those long degraded as “white trash” would be eager to shed that shame by transferring it to people different than them? But as we stand among the shattered glass menagerie of our democratic dreams we might finally catch a reflection of what James Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) calls “a cruel radiation of what is.” We might finally see ourselves reflected in the harsh glare of a broken world and perhaps have the courage to look each other in the eye.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.