In the summer of 2016 after James Comey announced that he would be investigating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said he would welcome help from the Russians in finding Clinton’s emails, the Steiny Road Poet had dinner with two new friends. What we three had in common was an acute sense of loss—we each had lost our spouses within the last year and we were worried that Clinton would lose to one of the most unlikely Republican nominees ever advanced by the GOP. In the dusky light of the quiet restaurant we were enjoying, we three pledged that if Trump won, we would have to leave the United States. Yes, move to another country. Even then, we believed that our democracy would be endangered by this disreputable businessman who had made himself a vindictive tv celebrity.
Steiny did not move to another country and neither did her friends. Steiny got active in helping elect Democrats to the House of Representatives. However, the fear that things could get worse looms large.
Steiny just finished reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s Holocaust book The Lost: A search for Six of Six Million. While the book was first published in 2007, the story of Mendelsohn’s investigative search for what happened to his maternal uncle and aunt and their four daughters in World War II has currency in today’s climate of disrespect for the US Constitution, the Republican preference to appease a president who thinks he is above the law, the Republicans who kowtow to the wealthiest one percent and Trump’s base, Trump’s love of strongmen—especially Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s embrace of White Nationalism, and the alarming rise in anti-Semitism.
The aspect of Mendelsohn’s book that particularly grips Steiny is the theme of what happens when a person cannot let go of a toxic place. In the case of Mendelsohn’s Uncle Shmiel Jager, here was a man who came to the United States to emigrate along with some of his siblings but decided to go back to the family village in East Poland and make a life there. At that time between the worldwide wars, in his village of Bolechow, Jews, Poles, and Ukraines lived together harmoniously. However, this polite peace turned out to be a delicate balance somewhat like what has been revealed in the US with the rise of White Nationalism and anti-Semitism. To his uncle’s story, Mendelsohn applies the biblical story of Lot’s wife at the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife (never given her own name) and her family are told not to look back. She does and she turns into a pillar of salt which Mendelsohn
says describes not a punishment but her state of irreconcilable grief. The salt comes from her tears.
In The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress, Gertrude Stein depicts a personal family story that is similar to Uncle Shmiel’s story. Both men of the Jager and Hersland (Stein’s family in her novel) families are butchers, who have at one time or another the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. Jager tries it out but decides he will be better off back in Poland. Hersland, succoming to his wife’s large ambition to be rich and make a better life for themselves and their children, sells his butcher shop but hops off the wagon taking the family west to run back and see the village they are leaving. However, Hersland’s wife stops the wagon and coaxes the husband to come with the family. The difference in who survives is that logic is thrown out the window in Stein’s story. There is no guarantee that the
Herslands will flourish in America. As in the annihilation story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his children survive because they follow God’s instruction, a clear case of belief versus logic. After all, why should Lot’s wife believe that her home will be destroyed?
On December 12, 2019, Trump signed an Executive Order to ostensibly stop anti-Semitism in the halls of higher education. The order mandates that US government departments enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. It’s a long list of items that includes terrorism against Jews, especially because they support Israel, and denying that the Holocaust of WWII ever happened. Because Title VI does not address religious discrimination, this executive order suggests that Title VI can be applied to Jews who are all connected as a people to Israel. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
While critics say this order will have a chilling effect on free speech and particularly targets Palestinians, Steiny sees this as perverse act that singles out Jews and will increase anti-Semitism. Steiny also thinks this is Trump, who never speaks against White Nationalists, lending support to strongman Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Jews who swear never again to Holocaust, well, some of them are supporting Mr. Trump who often speaks against Jews. Let’s not kid ourselves, strongmen around the globe continue to kill off whole communities of people who are not like the ruling party.
The nature of evil comes cloaked in many disguises. Steiny knows that there are many well educated and religious people both of upper and lower economic circumstances who support Donald Trump no matter what he does or says. Logic and truth do not play in the blind faith to this president who invites foreign powers to interfere with our elections and to breach our Constitution. Steiny struggles now with these questions. Will it be possible to elect a Democrat president if foreign influence has overtaken our election process again? Is there time to influence Senate elections to break the Republican hold on that branch of our government? Or has it come to this—is it time to vacate America before the salt of our grief poisons the land we call home?