False Starts

In college, studying history, I took a class on Nazi propaganda. An entire semester, three and a half hours a week, sitting in a darkened room watching the entire collection of the Goebbels newsreels, from the mid 1930’s right up till the end. The last newsreel to air (presumably to no one) was May 1st, 1945. A surreally cheerful pastoral study implying that everything was okay…assuming that you lived in an alpine Brigadoon that had been swallowed by the sheltering mists of time and magic.

The newsreels were all lovingly collected, subtitled, remastered, and sold to the public by a front company for some neo-Nazi Midwestern militia. My professor would have me, as part of my work-study duties, place orders with the company for films, music, and pamphlets. Over the semester, it started to become clear that I was speaking to a 280 pound biker in Iowa who was covered in swastika tattoos. The newsreels would flood into the school’s library, eventually becoming the most complete Nazi newsreel collection on the East Coast (and it still is today), and the music would go into the tape deck of my professor’s car. He would then drive around town listening to Nazi marching songs at top volume. I never asked where the pamphlets were going.

My professor assigned plenty of homework, so the exposure went well beyond a handful of eccentric afternoons each week. There were seven required texts, all somewhat questionable and a couple outright pro-Nazi. Or, at least, overly apologetic. A few weeks after the Nazi marching song collection arrived, the class became slightly more than watching newsreels. My professor would suddenly start marching around singing Waffen SS fighting songs, often with no purpose and always followed by hyena-like laughter and strange, awkward silences. The songs still stick in my head. “Sieg Heil Viktoria” is reminiscent of a good Civil War song: Farewell my dear darling, farewell, farewell, adieu. It is about Germany’s glory. All hail victory.

The second verse quickly dispels any similarity to a romanticized Civil War song: Sight and target are set, farewell, farewell, adieu. Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. Farewell, farewell, adieu…

The lesson, I’d like to believe, was how Nazi propaganda reflects modern America. How we defeated one kind of fascism to become agents of another brand of fascism, subtly updated to be less about snappy uniforms and eating babies and more about populism and the illusion of wealth. While on the surface, there was clear cause to suspect my professor of neo-Nazism, the undertext of every lesson was actually a somewhat daring condemnation of America. We are the Nazis. We are the enemy. It was us all along. European fascism rose up against European imperialism and communism and all they did was awaken a sleeping giant – a decadent, overfed nation capable of executing the worst elements of imperialism, fascism, and totalitarianism in one, neat package.

The class ended with a shocking study of the last weeks of the Nazi propaganda machine. As Europe was liberated, the remnants of the great machine produced their final poster – An American tank swarming with hillbilly soldiers all brandishing hamburgers and Coca-Cola bottles, sweeping up women left and right while the tank’s treads tore up roads and historical markers. The caption simply read: “Is this what you want, Europe?”

An eerie bit of prescience to think about as you sit in Brasov, Romania eating a Big Mac and drinking Starbucks coffee…

One of the assigned texts was Mein Kampf – Hitler’s rambling, celebrity-style autobiography-slash-wistful manifesto. Schoolchildren in 1930’s and ‘40’s Germany were taught Mein Kampf, quizzed chapter-by-chapter, and became intimate with the philosophy and the teachings. As did we in our propaganda class. It’s the perfect book for indoctrinating children. It has these mildly amusing Judy Blume elements. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing Adolf Hitler. It’s a bizarre journey down the unlit side streets of a mind that had been warped by bullying and self-doubt. The words of an immature man-child who had surrendered all ambition and hope to one, clear cause: To get even with the kids who pushed him down when he was 14.

Well, no, it’s not that simple. But it is about a man who has become so disillusioned with his world that he’s gone all the way round the bend and back again. In that, Mein Kampf is revolutionary stuff. On one hand, it’s a terrifying journal of a mentally broken man, on the other it’s the great-grandfather of “emo”. The dreamers of each generation are all the same, really, whether good or evil. They’re all broken somewhere deep down and truly dysfunctional and wounded beyond repair, whether they’re founding Microsoft, forging the Declaration of Independence, or exterminating six million Jews without a second thought.

When able to peer into the inner workings of this sort of mind – a unique opportunity provided by Mein Kampf – it’s eye-opening. A thousand historians in a thousand biographies have tried to piece together what, exactly, happened. They’ve tried to explain the truest face of man’s inhumanity to man that history has ever known. There’s never an answer. We understand the Nazis and their allies in World War II only as abstract evil. An archetype that needs no introduction as villain in film or literature as long as that uniform is on. They’re simply evil, on all levels. We even cheer the brutal demise of a couple dozen noncoms and support staff at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, even though those guys standing around are all probably 19 or 20 and just as innocent as our grandfathers were when they marched to war.

There’s no need to stop and explain the motivations of the archetypal Nazi villain. No need to even portray human aspects, or hint at an internal conflict. When we do so – as Spielberg did in Schindler’s List and >em>Saving Private Ryan – the result is weird and uncomfortable. As Amon Goeth– a commandant capable of unfathomable evil – struggles beneath the kind face of Ralph Fiennes, we see a misplaced need to try and explain the Nazis. The same with the cosmopolitan, likable Nazi prisoner in Saving Private Ryan who pulls the wool over the eyes of the good old boys and returns improbably at the head of an ahistorical D-Day counter-attack.

The truth is that we cannot understand the motivation. We can understand why people followed them – we see that mirrored in our politics today. But the men who orchestrated the horror? If we ever really understand them, then that means we’re sociopaths ourselves.

But Mein Kampf brings you close to understanding. After a while, it starts to make sense. It’s the evolution of Hitler’s madness charted as if in a (poorly written) novel. It also drives home the reality of what happened. Something that often escapes those of us born in a time of relative prosperity and peace, where we allow fear to be processed and fed to us in bite-sized chunks as opposed to watching a menacing Swastika creep across the map towards our backyards.

We always forget our history. That’s why it repeats itself. We get shook up, and emerge from the ashes to carve out a new world in horrified, bitter silence, and then we wait for the next terrible thing to happen. Sometimes it takes 20 years. Sometimes 100. That’s the pattern of history whether the nations of the world are a house divided, or subjugated by a sole empire.

I finished Mein Kampf and turned in my term paper. Unlike my peers, I was obsessive about essays and writing assignments, as well as reading. I would pour through the required reading in the first month of the semester, sequestering myself to the dorm room with stolen loaves of bread, cases of MGD, Dr. Pepper, and coffee. I would read for hours, and then hammer out term papers months before they were due.

Because of this habit, I usually ended up with a vast swath of free time for the remainder of the semester. I would spend that spare time at various dive bars off of the circuit favored by my peers and sit quietly in corners, scribbling notes in little reporter notebooks. These notes would be half-formed story ideas, failed novels, and wild political rants. When asked about politics, I always described myself as a “conservative anarchist,” and refused to explain anymore. While this was initially a tactic to drive people away so that I could maintain my solitude, it led to the creation of hackneyed little manifestos. A sort of hybrid of libertarianism and socialism that was chiefly concerned with how I would survive a fairly comfortable apocalypse and wander the Earth doing all the stuff I’ve always wanted to do.

With Mein Kampf rolling around in my brain, though, my free time for that semester took a new turn. I went to the bars in the grim little West Virginia town that hosted my college and I began to write The Struggle.
* * *
I took off the 93-94 school year to work myself to the bone at about five jobs and, hopefully, accrue enough to afford the tuition required to get me back into college in the fall of 94. It was the sort of time where work became life. My main two jobs were both at the same location — a very posh, and very haunted mansion in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I clocked in seven day work weeks, 12 and sometimes 24 hour shifts, and slept in the third floor offices, going days at a time where I never left the mansion, but shuffled, zombie-like, between shifts. Often, when co-workers told ghost stories, I would recognize them as my own movements in the early hours, creeping out of disused offices, showering in a bathroom that hadn’t been touched in ten years except by me, and emerging from the shadows ready for another shift.

I eventually burned out, of course. By early May, 1994, I walked away from the mind-numbing madness of five jobs, made up my mind to return to classes the following fall, and spent the summer working for my friend’s parents, landscaping their Chevy Chase home. Work that, under normal circumstances would have only taken a day or so, was stretched out artificially over three months. At $15 an hour, I spent those long, hot months in their backyard moving Azalea bushes (which I would eventually kill) from point A to point B and back again. Each time I finished some bullshit task, my friend’s mother would step out and say she didn’t like it and would order me to switch it around again.

The money, paid under the counter, was a godsend. An act of extreme generosity in a life that hadn’t before known such kindness.

The Zen of gardening, no matter how pointless, settled in sometime in mid-July, when my brain was boiling and no task seemed too absurd. I entered a zone of peace, detached from my worries, and probably enjoyed the purest moments of my life.

Returning to school in the fall, and finding myself in a class on Nazi propaganda with a vast gulf of free time to kill at the bar, I looked back at my summer under the sun, digging holes and filling them back in again.

In The Struggle, a young woman seeking a breakthrough for her University of Maryland paper stumbles across a lonely gardener in Chevy Chase. A man inching through the motions of landscaping a house along East West Highway. She recognizes this man as a failed revolutionary — a blend of Kennedy, Huey Long, and Lenin. A man who brought America to its knees, led marches that toppled governments, and changed the face of the world… Then simply vanished. A Hitlerian figure, perhaps, since Mein Kampf was my primary inspiration. But a Hitler who, like Cincinnatus, quit the dictatorship peaceably prior to raining shit down on the world.  Or, at least, that was the intention.

After her discovery, a cat and mouse game (which is also the roots of a romantic subplot for the story) begins. First she must get him to admit that he is who she thinks he is. Then, as she teaches him love, he shares his story. How he never intended to be a great leader… How the whole thing was a mistake, a misunderstanding, and got wildly out of control.

The Struggle was Mein Kampf meets Mark Leyner’s Et Tu Babe. A comically fictional memoir about a misguided revolutionary who only succeeded in tearing down his own world.

Like all of my novel projects, it was another false start. It got up to 100 pages, transcribed from little notebooks and bar napkins, and then petered out. With the end of the Nazi propaganda class, and a new round of classes and projects, my personal writing was again derailed by responsibility and a new batch of ideas and inspiration.

The Struggle is now a forgotten Wordperfect file from late 1994, and most of it still on musty notebooks crammed in a box in a storage shed somewhere. A lost attempt to make peace with the horrifying history I was reading, and, perhaps, also a manifesto of my own disillusionment. My reaction to an unkind world that had offered me nothing but hardship. Purification and general madness were not themes in The Struggle. The revolutionary’s mission was to change the world for the better. To take to the streets and fight against the wave of Political Correctness and Gentrification that, in those early Clintonian years, was becoming omnipresent. Nixon’s government homogenized America and stripped the radicalism out of all of us, and his successors saw to it that we passed under the yoke and behaved ourselves. By 1992, we moved to the next level. We were forging the embryo for today’s society – institutionalized racism hidden by a veneer of PC smiles. A labeling of certain peoples and their ouster from the urban and suburban centers. The creation of far-suburban ghettos without gates through development and high rent. In DC, where there were projects in 1992, there are now $3000-a-month loft apartments. Increasingly, there is no middle ground. We have embraced the have/have-not society hook, line, and sinker.

The turning point – when we became this weird, pseudo-Orwellian society, this Americanized fascist state – was in 1993 when Eden Jacobowitz, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, leaned out of his window during final exams and shouted to a rowdy group of sorority sisters: “Shut up you water buffalos.”

Though he was one of many to shout out at them, and though the group of frat girls was of mixed race, he was singled out as having shouted a racist remark. The University demanded that he apologize, attend racial sensitivity seminars, and accept a verdict of “guilty of racial harassment” on his permanent record.

He refused.

The University claimed that “water buffalo” was a racially charged term because “a water buffalo is a dark primitive animal that lives in Africa.” Easily my favorite quote from 1993 since, of course, it’s not quite accurate.

The media latched onto this story, decrying the “language police” and the encroachment against personal rights at the nation’s universities. All a real concern, to those of us paying attention, as the story grew larger and larger. The story stretched on for months, with Jacobowitz refusing to back down. The University tried to evade the media and, generally, made a fool of themselves until, finally, the 15 women – again both white and black – held a press conference saying that they were dropping the charges “because the media attention would not allow for a fair trial.”

When interviewed 15 years later, the vice-provost said, “The issue is also, you know, language in my mind is neutral. It’s a question of the context in which language is used.” In 2007, he was drummed out of his position at Duke University for discrimination and harassment.

As I entered into my Zen summer of gardening, and returned to college to be indoctrinated by Nazis, the water buffalo incident was at the front of my mind. Anti-PC attitudes found their way into The Struggle and, beneath the lame comedy and bar napkin philosophy, The Struggle was about fighting against the “language police,” and political correctness run amuck. While the intentions may be good, it’s not the solution. We may know now not to use the word “nigger,” but does that absolve White Guilt as we move black people from their neighborhoods to make way for a Harris Teeter, and high-priced loft apartments? When we urbanize our suburbs and, again, pressure minorities into fleeing farther and farther out? In those cases, we simply exchange racism for classism. And classism, in America, is founded on racism. The whites are always the ones who have the better opportunities to advance and evolve.

But… The blacks can take heart that they will no longer be called bad names as they watch their ancestral homes get bulldozed – some run-down rowhouse or small framehouse that is their great-grandparent’s only concession for the never delivered 40 acres and a mule.