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Don't Touch That Wrap
David Daker and Sheila Fern in Time Bandits, just before they touch absolute evil.
In sitting down to write this wrap, I discovered a subterranean theme to my two pieces of the week.
In a one-party state, as California increasingly is, democracy can get quite attenuated. When the real power struggles happen inside rather than between parties, the power of activists and favored insiders increases, and the minority dispensation gets more and more alienated from the process of government. Moreover, when there's really only one viable party, whoever is in charge becomes very hard to dislodge, even when their performance falls short.
California's initiative process does provide one mechanism to check a distant government in Sacramento — one the voters have used repeatedly, often surprising observers when this blue state doesn't toe the liberal line (most recently on affirmative action). But I'm leery of direct democracy. Voters really shouldn't be making policy; they should be voting for representatives to do that — and, if they aren't happy with the results, they should throw the bums out.
That's why I have a twinge of envy right now. Thanks to the recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom, California has an opportunity to throw one of the bums out — and the Democratic Party is increasingly terrified that they just might do it.
If I were actually a California voter, I strongly suspect that I would vote to retain Newsom in office. That’s because the mechanics of the recall election are bonkers: if Newsom is recalled, he’ll be replaced by whoever wins the vote on the second question, and the leading candidate on that ballot is currently Larry Elder, and even if I thought Elder were a plausible governor of California, the idea of electing someone with only 20% of the vote is an affront to the very idea of democracy. But there are other affronts to democracy, and cake-walk reelections for failed incumbents is one of them. I’m a New York voter, and no one I know was happy when Bill de Blasio won reelection for mayor, or Andrew Cuomo won reelection for governor, very much including the people who voted for them. They were Democrats, and in Cuomo’s case a relatively moderate Democrat, so they won, even though people were sick of them and they weren’t doing a good job.
America seriously needs to reckon with the problem of single-party states and localities, which is a consequence of politics being increasingly reduced to questions of identity. For much of American history, one region of the country—the South—had no real competition for office, largely as a consequence of identity politics: to vote for the party of Lincoln was to betray your ancestors. That region was, during the same period, the most economically and culturally moribund region of the country. I don’t think the second fact is unrelated to the first. Today, more and more Americans live in areas where one party overwhelmingly predominates, and, funnily enough, people increasingly consider their government unresponsive. We’ve got to do something about that.
What we do, I’m not sure. But some better-designed version of the California kludge—letting voters recall an executive they are sick of but would still vote for to keep out the hated other party—seems like it might be necessary if we want our elected officials to fear losing their jobs for poor performance.
A Million Antigones Now
My only piece for this space, meanwhile, was a meditation on Yakov Gens, of all people. Gens was the Jewish head of the Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, and was responsible not only for maintaining order but for selecting Jews to be deported to their deaths, and for hunting down partisans who were fighting the Nazis. He sounds like an obvious villain, but as I argue in the piece, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Why did the first generation to write about the Holocaust despise Gens so? The answer may seem obvious—he was a coward! a collaborator!—but Gens is hard to portray accurately with such terms. He was a staunch Revisionist Zionist and a military veteran, for one thing, and the head of the Jewish hospital before he was the head of the Jewish police. He truly believed that the actions he was taking, including selecting innocent people for extermination, were the best way to save the most lives possible.
I think Gens’s odiators, like Hannah Arendt, despised him so because they thought that if ever there was a time that called for an Antigone, it was the Vilna Ghetto in 1942. But was it that time that called for an Antigone? Or was it their time that retrospectively did so? I think the latter. They were alive, and they were alive by an accident of fate, not by any virtue of their own. They needed to look back and find something more redemptive than victimhood, find Jews who had died nobly refusing to be part of the machinery of death. With such an unimaginable toll of destruction, they didn’t really need survivors. They needed existential heroes.
But existential heroes are, in a sense, the opposite of political actors. Whatever they do, they do because that defines who they are, on their own terms. Antigone’s defiance in burying her brother isn’t about founding a community on a bedrock of principle; it’s a declaration that her sense of right and wrong is more important than the survival of the community. A community that makes, or accedes to that choice forfeits the memory even of that defining principled action, because it forfeits itself. We remember Creon as the villain because we remember him at all, and we can do that because while his family was ruined by his verdict against Antigone, Thebes itself survived, which it might not had Antigone reignited the passions of Polynices’s lost cause. And actually, Gens (or Creon) can also be an existential hero. As Gens saw it, he had voluntarily taken on the moral responsibility of the most terrible decisions; to do otherwise was moral cowardice. We don’t know what he thought when the Gestapo killed him, but it is at least plausible that he thought: I remain proud that I did what I thought was right. If we imagine otherwise, isn’t it because we want to?
I started out writing about Gens because I feel like so many of our political arguments these days boil down to, “Mom! Dad! It’s evil! Don’t touch it!” And you simply can’t do politics that way. Politics is a game where everybody constantly touches everybody else; that’s how we primates get along. Every single political hero you have, if they actually accomplished anything at all, did business with individuals and forces they considered—or should have considered—not just wrong but actually evil. On some level we all know this, but we want to deny it, either by pretending that they didn’t compromise or pretending that what they compromised isn’t really evil. We do this because if we didn’t, then the awful responsibility of knowing when to compromise and when to stand on principle, and the knotty problem of how to sustain the power of principle at all when one knows that there is always some extremis in which one would compromise it, would fall on us, because there’s nobody else for it to fall on. And we would know it.
Anyway, being me, I took that problem and said: Let’s examine it in the context of the most extreme of extremis, where the evil we’re dealing with is absolute and unqualified, with no complications or no masks to hide behind. That led me down a pretty dark path. If you want to join me there, I encourage you to read the piece. And, as always, if there’s someone else you want to bum out, please share it with them.