Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar*

*Human dignity is inviolable (The first sentence of Article I of the postwar Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany)

If we actually wanted any further proof of Santayana’s contention that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we’d need look no further than the current resurgence of fascist sentiment in Europe and the United States, and the rising support worldwide for authoritarian governments devoted primarily to exclusion, punishment, and degradation.

The Germans, of all people, should know better. They did know better in 1949, when their remarkable postwar constitution was written and enacted in the western half of their still divided country. If the strutting members of the AfD have already forgotten what motivated their great-grandparents to enshrine Article I as the only article which by law cannot ever be amended or repealed, there seems little hope that any of the rest of us will remember our considerably more ambiguous commitments to the same principle.

There are reasons why the Nazis are back in Germany, why a paranoid and vicious authoritarianism is once again the shiniest of political baubles everywhere in the world. As comforting as it might be for those who dread what’s coming to think so, none of them are solely attributable to the historical blindness of the generations born since the end of World War II. The truth of the matter is that neither democracy nor capitalism, as practiced by our supposedly enlightened postwar governments, has ever been overly concerned with the dignity of all human beings.

It should surprise no one who’s been paying attention that in the nearly eighty years since the end of World War II, the distribution of wealth and power in western democracies has gradually come to resemble that of some of the worst hierarchical societies of the past. The disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disenchanted armies of the underemployed and unrepresented are back with us, and they will absolutely not be mollified any more easily by our well-meant homilies about human dignity than they were in 1933. As right-wingers in the United States like to say, the die is cast. It’s hard to see how there’s any good news in that for anybody.

Punishments To Fit the Crime

Donald Trump: Strip him of his iPhone, his Secret Service protection and all his assets. Dress him in overalls and a court-mandated ankle bracelet. Give him a bible, a bullhorn, and a family-size bottle of Oxycontin. Order him to remain within the city limits of Bluefield, West Virginia for the rest of his life.

John Bolton: Equip him with an M4, a Ka-Bar, a pair of camouflage cargo pants, and a Rambo wig. Parachute him at midnight into the outskirts of Teheran or Aleppo or Pyongyang.

Betsy DeVos: Require that henceforth everyone who performs a service for her, from plumbing to asset management to sex, be educated exclusively at the University of Phoenix.

Stephen Miller: Confiscate his passport and deny him access to currency or credit of any kind. Require him to choose between being chased barefoot across rural Mississippi for the next 20 years by mounted prison guards and bloodhounds or speaking only Spanish for the rest of his life. Depending on which he chooses, make sure he wakes up outside the Parchman Farm perimeter fence, or in the center of Tegucigalpa.

Mitch McConnell: Confiscate his principal residence in Kentucky under federal asset forfeiture laws. Provide him with a new principal residence in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. Require him henceforth to run for the Senate from California.

Dick Cheney: Waterboarding, I think. No less than 183 times. Then, if he survives, Guantanamo for, oh, I don’t know how long. Until the last of the other detainees is released, maybe. Let me think about it.

Sean Hannity: Arrange (through the customary diplomatic channels) a papal order of excommunication. Deliver him, bound and gagged, to the leadership of Opus Dei. Invite them, as true servants of the Living God, and of Holy Mother Church, to perform the first auto da fé in almost 200 years.

21st Century Character Studies, Part I

Ryan Zinke — and the horse he rode in on — are finally on their way out of Washington. In the Trump era his resignation surprises no one, and bothers no one much except his erstwhile supporters at Breitbart and the Washington Times. Most of us expect these paragons of Western libertarianism to get caught with their hands in the public till from time to time — and to be unrepentant about it when they do — because we know that in Washington, if not yet in the rest of the country, the performance of virtue has come to be indistinguishable from virtue itself.

When asked by the press to react to his downfall, Secretary Zinke did what is now customary for embarrassed Trumpistas. He blamed the irrational partisanship of his political enemies, and assured everyone that he nevertheless remained steadfast and undaunted. There’s an old saying, he reminded us, that a man should do right and fear no one. That’s what he’d always done, and what he planned to do in the future, come what may.

There’s an old saying. Yes, there is — a very old saying, as it turns out. Like so many other ancient proverbs brandished by the right wing, it sounds more authentic in the original German. Here’s one of the earliest recorded examples, from 1592:

Fürcht Got, Thue recht, Schew niemandt

Fear God, do the right thing, stand in awe of no one. Fearing God has gone by the wayside over the years, even among Christian fundamentalists, but the rest has apparently carried a whiff of Lutheran rectitude across the centuries and continents all the way to present-day Montana, and to Ryan Zinke. Given that Zinke is actually a German name, it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a Zinke great-grandfather’s words of wisdom detached from their original context and turned into a utilitarian political bumpersticker by a descendant who has no real idea who he is, or where he came from. It’s a common American story, this. From Saint Patrick’s Day parades to mariachi concerts in the park on Cinco de Mayo, we both are, and are not, who we think we are.

Is Secretary Zinke who he thinks he is? Does he really embody this ancient teutonic motto that he’s so fond of quoting, or is he simply a hypocrite? The truth is that we have no reliable way of knowing. In a media environment which seems to evaluate politicians in the same way it does film stars, it’s all too easy to confuse performance with reality. For those of us who actually do want to distinguish between the two, and who are continually tormented by that sinking feeling that we’ve seen this film before, context is everything. Fortunately for us, there’s a scene in a film — the classic German film, Der Blaue Engel — which illustrates almost too precisely the context at issue here.

The plot of the film is well known: a bourgeois professor is seduced, humiliated, and destroyed by a bohemian showgirl who doesn’t share his supposed values, but understands his suppressed passions all too well. The famous scene in which Professor Rath first awakens to Lola’s seductive charms, and the farce first begins its turn toward tragedy, is followed directly by a closeup of the painted motto above the now empty bed in the professor’s flat, which reads:

Tue Recht und scheue Niemand

The German is more modern than the Sixteenth Century version, and the fear of God is already long gone, but the motto is the same as the one Secretary Zinke is so fond of repeating. The problem with his use of it is that, just as in the case of Professor Rath, the moral of his personal story isn’t at all the one that he’s trying to sell us. It’s actually irrelevant to our interest as citizens, and as voters, whether or not he believes it himself.

Professor Rath was undone by lust, Secretary Zinke by greed. Both are human failings, to which every one of us is susceptible. It’s not that doing right and fearing no one is per se a bad ideal of personal conduct, especially in a democracy, it’s that when one can’t manage to live up to such ideals, a confession is in order, not least of all to oneself. What Secretary Zinke doesn’t get — or doesn’t think that we’ll get — is that ideals must always of necessity be leavened with a little humility. In a just society, or more to the point, a society in which every public figure’s conduct is under surveillance 24/7/365, setting oneself up as a paragon of virtue is not just a bad defense for influence peddling, it’s a ticket to social and political oblivion.