Story and photos by Diane Joy Schmidt
Winner, Personal Columns, Society Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies, 2017 2nd place.
The forces of light and darkness are fighting for control of the soul of Donald Trump. Suddenly overnight, Trump seems to have turned into a beacon of light to Jews, after getting Egypt to withdraw their UN resolution on Thursday, after his condemnation of the U.S. abstention Friday, and the very pro-Israel policies that he is signaling. It is as if the scales have fallen from our eyes and the seeming enormous dark shadowy monster has turned out to be a normal person after all. But I believe that the dramatically oversimplified, heavy-handed approach we have to expect Trump will favor will not, in the long run, serve Israel. So, I returned to reading the very critical words I wrote earlier this month, if only to remind myself that while he may do things now and then that are redemptive, most of what he has set in motion is not. I believe we must actively pray for his very mercurial soul to seek the light, as we increase the light for the next eight days of Hanukkah. No, we don’t want it darker.
The first shall be last – One for the money.
At 27, I was a young photojournalist on my first foreign assignment, covering the civil war in El Salvador. It was 1981. I had joined the ABC-TV crew, and we learned there had been a massacre of a family in San Jose Primero, a mountain village. After a tortuous sharp climb on dirt packed roads that cut through narrow passes we encountered a man in a straw hat carrying a machete who waved to us to follow him. He was a relative of the family that had been killed during the night. He took us to the hut and acted out how the men had come shooting through the door, kicking it open and finishing off everyone inside. There were fresh bullet holes in the door of the adobe hut and pools of blood still coagulated on the floor inside and outside in the dirt.
The man was tall, and very thin and bony, and as his hand arched into the air and pointed into the hut it seemed to take on a separate existence, horrified itself by the words of his retelling. As he talked, a man dressed in city clothes, wearing black sunglasses and a watch, sauntered up and stood watching with his arms crossed, the local paramilitary informer. With the TV camera trained on him and this other man watching, the campesino told us it must have been leftist guerrillas who had done the shooting. Two of those killed had been little girls, aged five and seven. He told us there was one survivor, his brother, who lay dying in the charity hospital in San Salvador.
We hurried back to the capital to the hospital, and found the dying man, who said that it was not leftist guerrillas, that it was the soldiers from the local cuartel who had come in the middle of the night.
Later I was having dinner in the palace with Carlos, press attaché to the president appointed to head the military junta. I said, “The only person I believe is a man who is dying.”
He smiled. “You are learning, gringita.”
This and other experiences like it shaped my approach to journalism; to drill down, to find out the truth behind what may be politically expedient or distorted. I believe most journalists are driven by a passion for and dedication to finding out the truth.
Most of the newspapers in the U.S. did not endorse Trump for president. This had little influence. Belatedly, we have come to realize, people are no longer getting their news from reading newspapers. Instead, they get the news now from what their friends share on social media, and that much of that will continue to be completely fake news. Opinions are formed and swayed by taunts and slogans and simplistic promises.
The first shall be last – Two for the show.
Leonard Cohen, the great poet-bard, grandson of an orthodox rabbi, wrote his greatest album “You Want It Darker” at age 82 while dying of cancer. The album was released on his birthday, October 21 and then he passed away, the result of a fall, sometime during the night of November 7th, making his exit like a staged pratfall just a quick step ahead of the triumph of Trump, Election Day, Nov. 8th. The title song is his parting gift to us, and lays bare what we are facing today in the way that only truly great poetry can.
The wisdom of his years only added strength and clarity and sharpness to his lyrics. In an interview shortly before he died, he said that when he writes, “that if I write enough verses, and keep discarding the slogans, even the hip ones, even the subtle ones, that something will emerge that represents.” (represents, I took to mean, a higher spiritual reality.)
When I first heard “You Want It Darker” in late October, the central stanza in the lyrics spoke directly to me, about the crowds of people who were flocking to the Trump rallies and who were unashamedly kicking and beating anti-Trump protestors.
“They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker”
People don’t want to believe that Trump is going to do what he promised he would, but every day that goes by, every cabinet pick, every tweet, shows that he will.
Next Cohen intones, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my lord.” It sounds as much like a dirge as a profession of faith and willingness to do what God asks of us. Hineni, “Here I am” is the Hebrew word in the Bible that Abraham, and then later Moses, spoke to God, an offer of willingness to serve even to sacrifice.
Then the second stanza repeats:
“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame”
The song ends with a repetition of the word Hineni, sung with a holy quaver by the cantor of the synagogue in Montreal where Cohen grew up and was bar mitzvahed. Hearing it following Cohen’s words, my mind suddenly coalesced and understood the eternal sacrifices, the anguish of the sublime, made by the Jewish people over the centuries to seek the light.
The first shall be last – three to get ready.
The ferocious bombing by Russia that targeted all the hospitals of Aleppo came green-lighted by Trump’s election. I was reminded of how a month after Reagan was elected in 1980, and just after his advance team made a visit to El Salvador, on December 4th, four American churchwomen were kidnapped, raped and murdered by six National Guardsmen.
George Orwell wrote an essay in 1944 called “What is Fascism?” He noted a survey that found that most people really didn’t know what Fascism was. He said, “It is usually assumed, for instance, that Fascism is inherently warlike, that it thrives in an atmosphere of war hysteria and can only solve its economic problems by means of war preparation or foreign conquests.” He concluded by saying that a fascist regime may take different forms, but that in all cases, it is not a democracy, and a fascist is always a bully.
War hysteria was certainly true during Hitler’s rise to power during a worldwide depression caused by the U.S. stock market collapse of 1929. In 1931 in Germany, people were starving, there were no jobs, and it took a barrel of paper money to buy a loaf of bread. It took that precarious of an economic climate, and the burning of the Reichstag, conveniently pinned on the Communists, to open the way for the house painter, Hitler, to become supreme chancellor.
Today it seems we only need the barest of excuses, any potential threat to America, to rally the troops, to point out an ‘other,’ a foreigner, an enemy. Trump’s pick for national security advisor, Lt. General Michael Flynn, said in a speech in August at a synagogue in Massachusetts, “We are facing another ‘ism,’ just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism. This is Islamism, it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.” How lovely, he’s found the perfect disease that keeps on giving, a war without end.
The first shall be last – four to go.
In Orwell’s best-known book “1984,” any vestige of history, any newspaper clipping that contradicted the official party line, was incinerated. Today, the ephemeral, glittery world of social media, particularly FaceBook, has become a hive mind fed by endless and malleable propaganda that can influence real events. Not exactly the noosphere that Teilhard de Chardin posited as the next step up of human evolution.
America is not in a Great Depression – not yet anyway, and hardly in the dire straits of Germany, 1931. Yet, to convince people today to throw over democratic ideals, we’ve only needed a pervasive sense of having been lied to, an awareness that things aren’t getting better for Main Street while Wall Street is scooping up billions, and a vague uneasiness that the digital age is leaving most white collar workers behind, (while new jobs for blue collar workers require retraining, and service workers barely survive on minimum wages). Throw in the promise of a few prizes in the crackerjack box. Yet, everything is moving so much faster.
What concerns me now is that as events unfold here and reverberate around the world in the coming months, our electorate will not understand them; that having put their faith in this new president-elect they will not be able to see why the economy does not become ‘great again,’ except to blame others. They will not have the opportunity to learn the truth from the lips of a man who is dying.