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After the Shock Waves of the US Elections, How Do We Locate Ourselves?

By Linda Mannheim.

How do we locate ourselves?

Photograph by Gregg Brekke

The shadow of my parents’ history always slid into the room when I was a child, slips in still, is visible sometimes in the corners.

1965: My mother’s voice tightens when she talks about the country she had to flee when she was a girl. But mostly, she does not want to talk about it. She is an American now, a New Yorker. I picture her in a calf-length skirt and blouse, going about the housework she hates to do in our big and rundown apartment in upper Manhattan. I’m sitting on the floor of the living room, playing with blocks, piling them up and knocking them down again.

1970: My father is telling the story again of his incarceration in Buchenwald Concentration Camp: of the humiliation, the fear and the violence. It is a story I have known my whole life, know so well that I can’t identify when I first heard it. It is a story that defines the very essence of who my father is – a man who escaped, a man who lifts me into his arms when he comes home at the end of the day and kisses me hello as if celebrating the normalcy of his post-war existence. He does not mind the scruffiness and squalor of the streets outside; the unpredictability and bursts of violence in New York during this time is irrelevant in a country that seems safe in more important ways.

2016: I can’t stop shaking. I have woken after two hours sleep and have seen the news stories online. It’s official: Donald Trump has been declared the winner of the presidential election. It’s 9am in Berlin, where I am reading the news. I am in an apartment that’s a fifteen minute walk from the apartment my great grandmother lived in before she was forced to leave it and died in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. And now, a fear of that kind violence falls upon me, seeps into my body, grips me.

*

Life as the descendant of refugees is sometimes wearying – there’s no shortage of people who want to know all about the personal tragedies and struggles faced by your family, as if each chapter of your family history is there to be picked up off the library shelf by acquaintances you meet at parties, dispensed by you for their edification. Questions usually range from the intrusive (“How did they get out”?) to the inane (“But why didn’t more people leave?”). But almost always, there is a simplistic and inadequate narrative that the questioner is clinging to: an inexplicable and unfathomably terrible thing happened in Germany, but everyone should have seen it coming and run away from the danger.

I bring this up now because, after the shock waves following the US election, I am also seeing some simplistic and inadequate narratives for how we got to be where we are: the Democrats chose the wrong candidate; this was all about old white men clinging to old structures to maintain their privilege; it happened because one segment of society was out of touch with another and couldn’t see what was coming. There is truth to each of these statements, yet none of them, on their own, explain the outcome of this election. The strategic release of irrelevant information from Wikileaks that weakened the Democratic party at the moment when cohesion was needed most, the FBI’s announcement that equalled an accusation of corruption in the minds of many but amounted to nothing, and people who considered themselves progressive proclaiming that both candidates were a bad choice and in doing so discouraged participation in the elections. All of these played a role in what happened too. And again, none of them adequately explain it all.

I can’t help viewing the recent US elections, and many of the reactions to it, through the lens of someone who has been forced, by an accident of birth, to try to understand and explain something that my parents and grandparents lived through. And one of the things that infuriates me is the way people in the present day try to wedge themselves into that period of history and claim that they themselves are smarter and more capable than the people who actually lived through that time. They would have seen the trouble coming. They would have been brave and challenged the fascists as they gained power. They would have been canny enough and resourceful enough to figure out a way to leave in time.

During this past year, working on a book about the historical events that marked my father’s flight to America (and he travelled there the long way, as refugees often do), I have been trying to understand how Germany became what it did during the Nazi Era, and how it came to be that so few countries agreed to admit refugees. I have to confess, I still can’t get my head around what happened – still.

I think about Bern Brent, who, like my father, fled Germany only to find himself arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ in England in 1940 and deported to an internment camp in Australia. Now 93 years old, Bern sat in his living room in Canberra, explaining to me that he understood why, even though he was a refugee in England, he was interned – there was a war on; he was coming from an enemy country. People don’t think about how the world actually looked then, Bern said. Just like, in Germany, until well into the Nazi reign, “the Jewish people had no idea what was coming. They had no idea.”

And when my partner and I walk around the lake here in Berlin, and we pass the families out for a wander on a Sunday afternoon, and we nod hello at them, and know how many will next go to a cafe for coffee and cake, the brutality that this country descended into is even harder to comprehend. There is no innate inhumanity that was part of German culture. The German people adopted that inhumanity by degrees as the Nazi era progressed, gradually allowing it to become the norm, and only discarded it after literal bombardment by the allies.

The egocentrism and arrogance I have seen post-election – much of it from people who I think share the same ideals as I do – leaves me worried for how we will find our way after this election. How can we figure out where to go if we don’t know where we are? During the past few days, I have seen the following statements posted and shared on social media by people I like: a five point list advising people of what to do following the election, some of which is interesting, some of which contains statements like these: “Everyone must stop saying they are ‘stunned’ and ‘shocked.’ What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair.” I’ve seen demands that Americans stop saying – joking or not – that they want to move to Canada. I have also seen a writer who I respect try to place what has happened within the context of “an era in which neo-fascism rears its ugly head in so many parts of the world.”

Here is what I think when I read these things: people have a right to feel stunned or shocked; that doesn’t mean they were unaware of suffering in the US, only that they didn’t believe this – the election of a demagogue – would be the response to that suffering. People have a right to say or joke they are leaving the US. The decision about where to live, who to live with and how to fight for the world you want to live in is a personal one. This is indeed a time when the seedlings of neo-fascism are taking root, but the situation of the United States is exceptional. It is a place that, in the twentieth century, as fascism swept across the world, managed to defy fascism. That is not to say that it defied brutality, which in particular flourished in the segregated South. But there has never been a moment like this, either in the United States, or the world. There has never been a time before when a man who lacks the intellectual and moral qualities of a leader, who has no respect for the law, has managed to gain access to a superbly destructive nuclear arsenal and the leadership of the most powerful country in the world.

I can’t help viewing what is happening through the shadows of my family history – the possibility of brutality in a place you once considered safe, the possible need that the people you care about might need to prepare for sudden flight, the idea that the time when you can flee or change things may quickly pass; there might come a time when it’s too late. I would like to think that my fear is irrational, an overreaction, a symptom of being told about trauma and violence for as long as I can remember. But I know that while the particular shape of my fear might be influenced by my family history, the substance of it is not. Too many other people I know have reported fear as a dominant response to the idea of a Trump presidency. Trevor Noah, host of the American Daily Show, who knows all about growing up under a repressive and violent government in South Africa, reported that the US election results had him shitting in his pants. We are right to be afraid. A madman is about to become head of the most powerful country in the world. The system of checks and balances is flawed. America is about to have a president who has not historically obeyed the rule of law. We have no reason to believe that the usual rules and expectations, which we are comforted by, will apply here.

But let’s remember this: the country that has placed a dangerous and unpredictable man in a role of enormous power (largely through a flawed and archaic electoral system) is also the country that produced black liberation, second wave feminism and a gay rights movement that changed the world. Malcolm X’s leadership inspired and informed black consciousness in Africa and the Caribbean. The constraints and inequalities of womens’ lives in prosperous 1960s America erupted into a women’s rights movement that blazed across the world. Gay pride marches in many places are named Christopher Street Parades because they are named for the street in New York City where the first protest arose in response to police harassment of gay men who frequented the Stonewall Inn. The creativity and courage that informed these movements can be summoned again.

The grief and fear that I feel right now reminds me most of the grief and fear that I felt in the weeks after 9/11 – a place that I had thought of as relatively safe becoming unsafe, the country I had grown up in about to change in ways that would make it unrecognisable, and a response from an inadequate president that would result in destruction in other parts of the world. In the weeks after the attack on the World Trade Towers, I returned to my home town. Near the bottom of Manhattan, in the tangled streets that wind through the financial district and China Town, I found myself lost in a city that I knew better than anywhere else in the world. The World Trade Center, which I had always used as a landmark to guide me, was gone.

Let’s figure out where we are before we make plans about where we’re going next. Let’s not pretend that we had a simple journey to this terrible place that we – all of us, not just Americans – are now. Let’s stop proclaiming we know what to do next when part of our work is figuring that out together, mapping the territory of a place that we don’t yet know and might not easily be able to get out of.

 

Linda Mannheim

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Mannheim‘s most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press).  Eimear McBride said: “Mannheim’s restive tales of her desiccated stretch of New York provoke and abide like a slap.”  ‘Ghosts: Managua 1986,’ a new Kindle Single, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 12th, 2016.