Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Cabaret" and "Inherit the Wind": Will we again reap what is being sowed?


Last year at this time, March 31, 2010, I wrote a piece about Obama and the Seder: Freedom and Multiculturalism, trying to capture the importance of the concept of freedom, and the historical relationship between African-Americans and Jews in this story of emancipation. In addition to enslavement, ancient for one and much more recent for the other, the two groups share both oppression, and, to a large extent, empathy for the oppression of others, and Passover is a good time to remember this. This weekend it is also Easter (after all, the Last Supper was a seder), during which Christians celebrate the resurrection of a prophet who preached against oppression and for peace.

Recently, I saw a very good performance of “Cabaret” at the Kansas City Repertory Theater. Of course, I had seen it before, or rather, had seen the Bob Fosse film version of this Kander and Ebb musical starring Liza Minelli. It has a long pedigree: the musical is an adaptation of the 1951 play “I am a Camera”, by John Van Druten, which was also made into a film in 1955 (both starring Julie Harris). It, in turn, was based on the story “Sally Bowles”, written by Christopher Isherwood and published in 1941. In 1972, when the movie “Cabaret” came out, it was a period piece, portraying the libertine “degeneracy” of Weimar Berlin set against the rise of the Nazis. The horror of this was not lost on me, or on the rest of the audience; for my generation, born soon after WW II, with fathers who had fought in the war, it was not that far away. For those of us who are Jewish, whose grandparents were immigrants, whose grandparents entire families were wiped out in the Holocaust, the story was more bitter than sweet. After all, 1972 was much closer to WWII than it is to the present; it was only 27 years after the end of the war, but it was 39 years ago.

Despite the pain, however, the events that were portrayed, we knew, were in the past, bad memories. 1972 was really still part of the “‘60s”. We believed that this was all behind us and we were in a new world, a new era. “Cabaret” was there to remind us of how bad things had been; most of us did not see it as a warning that it could happen again, to us. I’m not sure that this is still true. I am not sure we will not be seeing it again. I mean Nazism. Not as an accusation made as often by the right against those to their left as vice versa, but for real.

Let’s see. We have very serious, financially well-backed efforts to reverse not only the social changes implemented beginning about the time of “Cabaret” by the New Deal, but of even earlier changes, from the “Progressive Era” at the turn of the 20th century. We have attacks on government and taxation, funded by billionaires but apparently bought into by regular people. (Question: How will they – the regular people, not the billionaires -- hire their own police and build their own roads?)  We have attacks on collective bargaining and the very existence of unions. We have increasingly restrictive laws about who we can be in relationships or have sex with (“gay marriage”), whether we can control our own bodies, whether we can use contraception or have abortions. State, and sometimes the federal, governments, led by those who say are against any kind of government regulation, are dictating how people should carry out the most personal of acts. I guess they are only against regulation of what they want to do; they’re into regulating things they don’t like. We have a tax breaks for billionaires and policies (pro-finance, anti-regulation) that have essentially transferred everyone’s wealth to those billionaires. Since they and their corporations don’t pay taxes, and those who are left no longer have enough money to pay enough taxes, we are getting cuts in essential services. And we are fighting several unfunded wars, we have demagogues demonizing “the other” (currently Muslims), and we are pretty far down the road to a religiously-driven, corporate funded, hypocritically moralistic military state.

OK, fascism. That’s where we’re headed. A state that is geared toward the interests of corporate power, that regulates people’s lives, that is militaristic and intolerant. But surely not Nazism? After all, they are not calling for the extermination of the Jews.


“Cabaret” is not the only musical that may be more literally relevant now than when it first appeared. A few years ago I saw a wonderful production of “Inherit the Wind” on Broadway with Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. When the play was written in 1955, and later (1960) made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March (with several versions since then), it was conceived of by its authors, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, as a metaphor for the McCarthy era. The actual topic, the Scopes “monkey trial” in which a high school teacher is found guilty of teaching evolution, was not really the topic; after all, that had been nearly 40 years earlier. By the late 1950s no one doubted evolution. It was settled. But it made a great allegory for the close-mindedness and repression of that period.

They thought. But a few years ago, the state school board in Kansas, where I live, branded evolution a “theory” and mandated teaching “alternative theories” – such as creationism. The supporters of that policy were defeated in a later election, but turnout is light in school board elections and they could be back. No one doubts it could happen again. Powerful interests are questioning science; leading politicians attack those who question “American exceptionalism” – that we are different from everyone else, and programs that work in other countries are not for us. Is this different from the righteous xenophobia of the Master Race?

I do not mean to imply that the only or greatest racist threat is to Jews. Clearly, in this country the oppression of African-Americans is built into our very fabric. The great post-911 hostility is to Muslims. Jews are “our friends” (well, Israel is). Jews are powerful in Washington, as the American Israel Political Action Committee. Some Jews are even right-wing leaders. To the extent that they worry about oppression of Jews, they try to isolate anti-Semitism and oppose it, separating it from anti-Muslim hate (as the Israeli government is so good at), from racism.

They are a minority of Jews and they are outside the tradition of a people that has always recognized its own oppression in the oppression of others. Who were the majority of the international volunteers who fought in Spain against Franco and fascism. Who, way out of proportion to their numbers in the population, were active in the civil rights movement in the US and in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Who are disproportionately represented among scientists and human rights attorneys and advocates for social justice. They are also disproportionately represented among the leaders of the rapacious finance industry that led us to the Great Recession.

What a combination! A small number of people, tiny in comparison to white Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Blacks, Asians. Who have the poor judgment to both be out-front critics of racism and oppression, members and leaders of every progressive movement from unionism to socialism, and to have among them the leaders of the financial class that has wreaked havoc on the world’s economy. What a great target! No wonder Hitler could demonize them!

But it couldn’t happen here. At least we don’t think so now. Like Herr Schultz, the fruit merchant in “Cabaret”, who says “I am Jewish, but I am also German!” as he minimizes the significance of the broken windows in his store, who stays in denial for a long time. A lot of good it did him.

We have to fight all forms of intolerance, of racism, of know-nothingness. All forms of oppression and repression. All forms of “we are better than them” which can lead to “let’s kill them” pretty quickly. The memory of the Holocaust is “never to forgive, never to forget”. And to not forget that Jews can still be victims, and that they will never be safe as long as anyone is a victim. It is never too early to oppose bigotry, hate, and the loss of human rights.

Or we will surely inherit the wind.

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