[NOTE: Following are remarks delivered by Thomas Adcock – in an condensed version – to an audience of writers, editors, translators, filmmakers and television producers gathered in Köln in late September for KrimisMachen 4. They have been adapted for publication here.]
KÖLN – Germany
With each new decade of my life, I have heard this expression: “The world’s gone mad!” Until recently, I considered this an overstatement by friends and family—people I love and admire for caring about the good things of life: peace among nations, human fulfillment, art and literature, education, civility, environmental health. Good people who care about preserving these good things.
We have known the cruelty of wars and greed and want and stupidity and ignorance and disasters wrought by Mother Nature—old hellbat! And, on occasion, a given society does indeed go mad. Even the most sophisticated countries go mad. Certainly mine has. But what of that time-worn expression now?
Just this: What I used to slough off as exaggeration has grown true. Indeed, the world’s gone mad.
In essays for CulturMag, I have reflected on the resistible rise of a Fascist International, evident or barely concealed in many lands: Hungary under Victor Orbán, Poland under Andrzej Duda, Italy with Matteo Salvini and his Lega Nord, the Golden Dawn in Greece, the AfD of Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party of Great Britain, Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro.
—And in my own country, under the regime of Donald John Trump: grandson of German émigré Friedrich Drumpf, who amassed a fortune as a bordello baron during the nineteenth century gold rush days in the Yukon territory of Canada; son of Fredrick Trump, arrested with comrades of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s for assaulting New York police officers, and who, as a New York landlord, was twice prosecuted by the United States government for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans.
I like to think that all of us in this room are people I can love and admire, people who care about those good things of life I mentioned. So I ask you—all of you: What shall we do about this madness?
Let me divide the question in two: the good news, and the bad. Bad news first:
A malignant stew of anger, despair, economic injustice, racial and religious bigotry, misogyny, and deadly violence poisons great nations today—by which I mean democracies, where trust in public institutions and reliance on basic human decency were the bulwarks of civic life. Compounding the stew is the age-old curse of stupidity. As the eighteenth century writer Friedrich von Schiller famously observed, “Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend—in vain.”
The focus of my remarks—about what I see as clear and present danger in this world, and the writer’s responsibility to sound alarms—shall be that which I know best: America, which for reasons of economic prominence and cultural swagger has outsized global effect.
It does not please me to say, at this dark moment of history, that what is happening today in my country seems the framework for what could become a post-democratic world—a world of tyranny. It is unsettling for me to realize—to cheer—the end of post-World War II American geopolitical leadership; to recognize that my country is neither capable nor worthy of such a rôle. Not now, perhaps not ever again.
Not when faced with the unsettling fact of our hypocrisy: In the 2016 presidential election, sixty-three million of my fellow Americans, including fifty-two percent of white women, voted for a man they knew to be a notorious fraudster, a white supremacist and anti-Semite, an anti-science ignoramus, a pathological liar, an anti-immigrant fear-mongerer. A lout of a man who engaged in sexual escapades with a pornographic movie star and a nude model for a lad magazine—during his immigrant wife’s pregnancy. A man who categorizes women he disfavors as either “fat pigs” or “slobs” or “dogs.”
A nation’s greatness is diminished when its flaws go unacknowledged, when it departs from a collective insistence on compassionate regard for its citizens and for the rest of the world. My country has drifted from its founding purpose, as stated in 1776 by our revolutionary forebears. In their feisty Declaration of Independence from British authoritarian rule, they proclaimed a new nation aspiring to “form a more perfect union.”
That worthy purpose that must be revived, if not by our political leaders then by our writers—men and women whose art makes the invisible visible, who shatter the clichés and self-serving narratives used by the powerful to camouflage reality for the rest of us, whose fiction reveals truth behind mere facts; men and women of literature to encourage Americans to continue a pursuit of perfection, never mind present obstacles.
And never mind the seeming contradiction of the phrase “more perfect,” as if to suggest that perfection may be achieved by pursuit. Pursuit is the revolutionary root of perfection.
Hear the grand words of some fine American revolutionists, our fellow writers:
• “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity. No need for silence. No room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” — Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
• “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” — Edward Abbey (1927-1989)
• “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” — James Baldwin (1924-1987)
• “I refuse to live in a country like this, and I am not leaving.” — Michael Moore
We have a long way to go toward achieving a more perfect union. Along this improbable path (after all, we Americans are an improbable people) we must accomplish two difficult things: Honestly face the truth of our history—for better and for worse, in the past and at present—and then reconcile the shameful with the noble. Other nations have made such difficult accountings; so should we in America.
To this end, I will speak of godawful truths. And when I fall exhausted from horrible truth, I shall pivot to optimism; after all, we Americans are improbably optimistic.
The media keep us duly informed of the numbing frequency of gun massacres in America. When I began drafting these remarks, on the two hundred and seventeenth day of 2019, my country had recorded two hundred and fifty-five massacres—defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as four or more persons slaughtered, excluding the killer. Notice what the numbers mean: we knew more incidents of mass murder than days of the year.
Guns outnumber people in the U.S. The latest survey from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva counts three hundred and ninety-three million privately owned guns in America, which has a population of three hundred and twenty-nine million. Most massacres over the past decade—nearly sixty percent of it, according to statistics maintained by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League—have been committed by young white men, most of them armed with a weapon of war: the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, easily converted to a fully automatic machine gun.
Mass murderers in the U.S. are incited to killing rage by the fevered fantasies of a right-wing media network, and by the hateful rhetoric of Donald J. Trump, whose political rallies give oxygen to a dangerous cult. A cult that ignores the president’s loathsome personal conduct, his obligations to Kremlin oligarchs, and his admiration for murderous monsters—Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin-Salman. At his own rallies, Mr. Trump’s scorn is heaped upon the same targets as the Hitler-eraNuremberg rallies of the 1920s and ‘30s: Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, the physically disabled.
Lest you think I exaggerate: An old man of my acquaintance, a German-born Jew, died a few years ago at age ninety-nine. He feared the celebratory meaning of the old Nuremberg rallies—the joy of hatred. Soon after Kristallnacht in November of 1938, he abandoned his property and fled from Berlin with his family—first to England, thence to Canada. On his deathbed in Montréal, these were his last words: “It’s happening again.”
The old man’s son is a New Yorker nowadays, a writer and a Broadway actor and a dear friend of mine. As a caring artist, he tells his father’s story as a warning sign for our time.
Lately, Mr. Trump has homed in on new targets of his hate: refugees from the Spanish-speaking countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—countries lost to poverty and social chaos, in part due to violence against women, in part to gang wars, in part to decades of U.S. military interference and corporate profiteering. Refugees from these forsaken lands now petition for asylum in America, as is their right under both U.S. and international law.
In a casual meeting with reporters last April, Mr. Trump said of these refugees—many of them women from Guatemala arrived on foot with their children, in flight from husbands and boyfriends who have beaten them nearly to death after raping them—“They’re coming like it’s a picnic, like ‘let’s go to Disneyland.’”
As refugee families cross the border and surrender themselves to U.S. authorities as asylum seekers, Mr. Trump’s official policy is to separate children from their parents. The whole world has seen television news film of these children, sobbing and frightened, locked in cages and/or herded into concentration camps for indeterminate periods, without access to showers or tooth brushes—because the president of the United States has declared showers and toothbrushes unneeded by traumatized children in the custody of the current U.S. government. Donald Trump may let these children live, but he has gravely wounded their future.
According to attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, the whereabouts of nearly two thousand such children are unknown to their frantic mothers and fathers. Further, press reports occur on an outrageously frequent basis about such children being abused by concentration camp guards—abused verbally, physically, and sexually.
Cruelty is not the effect of Trump policy. Cruelty is the point.
But now for the good news I mentioned.
We Americans are improbably optimistic, as mentioned, and this is why:
• In November of 2017, a local election in the city of Helena—capital of the small, far western state of Montana—resulted in the ouster of its longtime mayor, a strident white racist and anti-immigrant loudmouth. Consider the demographics: the state of Montana is 98 percent white; the city of Helena, 97 percent white. The incumbent mayor campaigned on his loyalty to Donald Trump and his agenda of hate—especially hatred for refugees from nonwhite countries. The challenger wore out several pair of shoes walking around the city introducing himself, enlisting his neighbors’ help in a campaign for local improvement. The challenger won. His name is Wilmot Collins. He is a refugee from the African nation of Liberia.
• One year later, state and municipal elections throughout the country in were virtual referenda on Mr. Trump and his criminal posse. A tsunami of progressive candidates—including more women than ever before; more ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities than ever before—were swept into public office, most for the first time. (Including my own daughter, if I may be allowed a papa’s boast.) In my state of New York, the new attorney general—our chief law enforcer—is the first woman and the first African American to have won that important office. Her name is Letitia James. While it is not legally permissible to launch criminal proceedings against a sitting U.S. president, Tish James, as she’s known, stands ready to prosecute Donald Trump for numerous and obvious crimes committed in New York. Indictments from Ms. James’ office will be served upon Mr. Trump the very moment he leaves Washington, accusing him of state crimes that could result in decades of imprisonment for a 73-year-old ex-president.
• On August 18, the New York Times devoted its entire Sunday magazine section to what it calls “The 1619 Project: We’ve Got to Tell the Unvarnished Truth.” The magazine is a collection of literary essays authored by black writers, each of whom chose as subject material key moments in African American history—America’s history.
The journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her introductory essay, wrote: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal, and a lie.” She wrote further of the cultural contribution of those enslaved from 1619 to 1863, and of later victims of racist crime:
“When the world listens to quintessential American music, it is our voice they hear. The sorrow songs we sang in the fields to soothe our physical pain and find hope in a freedom we did not expect to know until we died became American gospel. Amid the devastating violence and poverty of the Mississippi delta, we birthed jazz and blues. And it was in the deeply impoverished and segregated neighborhoods where white Americans forced the descendants of the enslaved to live that teenagers too poor to buy instruments used old vinyl records to create a new music known as hip-hop.”
Despite our shameful president and his true believers, America is capable of redemption. Ironically, the election of a shameful man has most of us Americans listening to our better angels—as President Abraham Lincoln urged us to do in an earlier time of violence and madness. I speak of America’s most brutal crime: chattel slavery, lasting two hundred and forty-four years—from 1619 when the first kidnapped Africans landed at Port Comfort in the English colony of Virginia, until 1863 when Mr. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed four million slaves then living in my country—a number greater than the combined populations of Berlin and Frankfurt.
Two steps forward and one step back is an historical shuffle that can blind us to evidence of civil progress. Despite the present-day legacy of American slavery—namely, a white supremacist impulse fueled by guns and a fascist president—there is an undercurrent of hopefulness in America.
Hopefulness became fully evident on the afternoon of September 24 when Nancy Pelosi, a pivotal force in the U.S. Congress, began a political avalanche known as the impeachment process that will surely end Mr. Trump’s regime, an unpatriotic enterprise in violation of all positive principles of American nationhood. She reminded the citizens of my country, including the current president, “No one is above the law.” The legal mechanics of removing Mr. Trump from the White House are now underway. It will take many months leading up to the presidential election in November of next year to extricate him, but extricated he will be.
Meanwhile, it would do well for Americans to ignore the Fox circus—and even, to some degree the polite press, helplessly obliged to report Donald Trump’s vile utterances and bizarre midnight tweets. Instead, proposes former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges: “It is necessary to turn to poets, writers, and other artists. These artists…are our prophets.”
In a recent essay, Mr. Hedges quoted the Cuban-born American author and painter Enrique Martínez Celaya, whose artwork has been exhibited worldwide, including in Leipzig and Berlin:
What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and most other prophets have in common is a strong ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals—the obvious ones, as well as those lurking beneath the surface.
They also share urgency.
We need artists more than ever to be the conscience of the moment, to reflect back to us in the mirror what this society and this moment is, so that we can see it. We cannot see it because of the creations, fabrications, and reality TV.
I keep wishing that Dostoevsky could be born again so he can actually write a book of this moment.
My friends and colleagues, it is you who must write the books and of this moment—and the hard news of poetry.
William Carlos Williams, the American poet who left us in 1963, has told us, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Please write in the artistic spirit of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who left us in 1966.
At the height of Stalin’s cruel regime of the 1940s and ‘50s, Anna Akhmatova visited a prison in Leningrad—now St. Petersburg. A woman approached. With the shadow of a sad smile on her face, she asked the poet, “Can you describe this place?” Ms. Akhmatova’s answered with her elegy “Requiem,” in which she tells of finding in that chance encounter the despair, grief, and loss that occurs under tyranny:
Then I learned how faces fall apart
How fear looks out from under the eyelids
How deep are the hieroglyphics
Cut by suffering on people’s cheeks.
And finally—please honor your cultural responsibility as true chroniclers of who we really are, as artists who can offer hope in a world gone mad. Culture, in times of distress, is not a luxury. It is a life raft.
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag.
His essays with us here.