In many concerts Arlo Guthrie has expressed a sense that he remembers the ‘60s more fondly than he experienced the famous decade. In the course of life and protest music, every week it seemed there was another cause and two kinds of people: those who gave a damn and those who didn’t. I’ve listened to him express the sentiment countless times.
I struggle so much with my liberal arts education. I want things to be simple, and if adulthood has taught me anything, it is how humans and the human experience are far from simple. The example I frequently use in conversation is that of Leni Riefenstahl.
Riefenstahl was the filmmaker responsible for “Triumph of the Will,” arguably one of the most famous and effective propaganda pieces put into film. She fascinates me for many reasons: As a filmmaker she was incredibly innovative and technically savvy by developing action footage techniques (especially for “Olympia,” her film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics) that became standard for sports photography. But her work was funded by, and greatly benefited, The Third Reich. To put it bluntly, she made the most persuasive propaganda for them that Gobbles could have hoped for. Many have seen her work, even if they don’t realize it. A lot of stock footage used in documentaries about WWII utilize images of life in Nazi Germany, and at Nazi rallies—all of which come from her work. Footage of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics is made by Riefenstahl.
“She was a Nazi. She was a collaborator. That is unforgivable.” That was my father’s position on her life and work. To a certain extent, he had a point. That’s a pretty big stumbling block to get past. Though she escaped war-crimes prosecution by claiming she didn’t know and ultimately was labeled a “fellow traveler” rather than “war criminal,” there can be no doubt “Triumph of the Will” was a major piece of the Nazi propaganda machine and that her work was a cornerstone of The Third Reich’s success. Everything she did in her artistic and professional life after was judged against it and in relation to it.
She never apologized. She never recanted.
Most Saturdays I get to guide downtown’s Literary History Walking Tour. We talk a lot about 1898 on the tour, as we cover a lot of the geography that surrounded events. We talk about several books that have been written on the topic. Try and explain 1898 under 20 minutes to someone who has never heard of it. A successful government coup on American soil? And a massacre of the African-American community that looks like a dress rehearsal for Kristallnacht? In Wilmington?
Where we are standing?
Yes, it can be a lot to digest.
“There was this woman in Georgia, named ‘Rebecca Felton,’ and I don’t know if I believe in hell, but I hope there is a very hot place saved for her…” a gentleman pointed out a month ago during this part of the tour.
Felton gave a speech, which was published, calling for the lynching of black men to protect white women from the threat of rape. Alex Manley, editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, ran a response to the speech. His response was picked up by several white-owned newspapers in the state.
Felton was a tireless fighter for women’s suffrage, education, children’s rights, and went on to become the first woman to serve in the Senate.
So that little box doesn’t fit so easily.
All of it is true. She was quite the firebrand suffragist. She did serve for one day as the sworn-in senator of Georgia. She was tireless in her fight for education. If I went down that checklist alone and hit those boxes, then, yes, I should adore her. The first woman to serve in the US Senate? Suffragist? Crusader for public education?
She also was a slave owner. She was an avowed white supremacist, and though she fought hard for education of whites (including vocational training for young, poor, white girls, which was highly unusual at the time), she derided any attempts at African-American education and bitterly fought against public spending for black schools.
It’s not so easy, is it?
Her speech was reproduced across the South and was one of the propaganda tools effectively wielded to inflame and pander to the base for the events of 1898 to be successful (from the perpetrator’s point of view).
Like Riefenstahl, she never apologized. She never recanted. The difference is she also never walked away from her views. She carried that torch publicly and vocally all of her life.
And that is where I struggle. I struggle so much. I want it all to be simple. I want people to be clear-cut and obvious, without human failings and foibles.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think I would like to sit down to dinner with either women. I don’t think we could be friends. For me these albatrosses loom too large. I can’t see past them. That’s my failing. Partly, it is because their words and actions are responsible both directly and indirectly for countless deaths.
What I am attempting to do is not put the people in my daily life in little boxes. Because it is all too easy.
“Yeah, but he voted for Trump, so what do you expect?” That’s an easy little box to shut down conversation. I admit I am guilty. Pete Seeger admonished, “It’s a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with.” It is also very hard to do. I don’t think Rebecca Felton ever learned to do it. I don’t think Leni Riefenstahl cared.
But I do.
I want to learn from their mistakes, not emulate them.
It also is not lost on me how I have chosen quotes from two artists and white men to try to distill a message. It could lead to two entire conversations: one about the role of artists in society for interpreting messages with which people connect. The other about whose voice has been heard the most loudly for the longest. Whose voice has been silenced?
To get back to the topic at hand: It is really difficult—especially when convinced you are right about something—to listen to someone evangelize for a position you consider evil. The tendency is to turn away or argue. Neither are effective. Engaging in reasonable conversation is something both parties are rarely prepared to do.
I try hard to focus on substance and not sparkle. But it takes some effort; we all like to be charmed. Beyond the pretty smile, what is the message? That’s a question I need to ask more and more these days. More so, I need to learn to find one likable thing about each person I meet—even the people with whom I disagree. Otherwise, the journey together on this planet loses meaning, hope and purpose.