Friday, April 27, 2007

Bush's Dreams of Glory

A fascinating article by Sidney Blumenthal over at Slate, examining how George Bush's personal and political values are reflected in the kitschy western art he has put on display in the Oval Office. In particular, Blumenthal analyzes the symbolism of a cowboy painting by the German-American magazine artist W.H.D. Koerner, depicting three riders evidently in pursuit of some enemy, titled "A Charge To Keep." Two key paragraphs:

The idea of Bush as a Christian cowboy, dashing upward and onward to fulfill the Lord's commandments, inspired him to title his campaign autobiography (written by his then communications advisor, Karen Hughes) "A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House." Sample: "I could not be governor if I did not believe in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans." . . .

Bush understands his war in Iraq through his Western artifacts--a West, by the way, without any manifestation of Native Americans. The more resistant the reality in Iraq, the tighter he clings to the symbolism of the West. And so do those who support him. "America has a vital interest in preventing the emergence of Iraq as a Wild West for terrorists," Sen. John McCain declared on April 11. But there is a dark side to the Wild West show of the conservative mind (just as there was to the Wild West). "We have to work the dark side," said Vice President Dick Cheney a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It's interesting to note that another wartime leader with a profound sense of his own greatness, a divinely-ordained mission, and a positive duty to disregard opposing voices, was also deeply influenced by the mythology of the American West. Here are some excerpts from an article about a little-known (in America) but highly influential German novelist--"Karl May, The Zane Grey of Germany":
The Karl May novels have been read by generations of German youth. In fact, he is the second most-published author in German history; only Martin Luther's Bible has been published more often. May's Winnetou is today still the most popular adventure novel in Germany, and it, together with Old Surehand and Old Shatterhand, is the foundation upon which Germans base their rather good understanding of the American West. . .

. . . one of the most prominent writers in the country, May became a popular guest and speaker. He always talked about morality and manliness, about Christianity and courage, and he never failed to have a new story from his many adventures. Politicians and intellectuals alike applauded him--or rather applauded Old Shatterhand, the model of uprightness and clean living that lead infallibly to straight shooting, a knock-out punch, and the ability to outwit any villain. . . .

May's influence was not always good. Like Tarzan and other turn-of-the-century heroes, the Karl May creations were Supermen, and doubtless fed the Superman myth that already existed in the Germany of Kaiser Bill. Hitler thought so highly of his heroes that when the generals in Stalingrad were surrounded by their overwhelming foe, Hitler radioed them to read Karl May to see how real fighters would conduct the battle!

No wonder that the East German government discouraged the Karl May cult. But that is surprising in another sense: the communists were true moral puritans, who deplored western books and movies, believing that they glorified cruelty and depravity; they considered movies of the American West even worse.

But for most critics, the question is not whether Karl May stories are suitable, but whether any dime novel is good for youth to read. Not that adults and old people even do not read him, but for many years there was a particular age when one read Karl May--between 12 and 15. For a long time German psychologists called this the "Karl May phase," a period in which youngsters read literature that allows them to identify with powerful, superhuman heroes.
The connections between Hitler's love of Karl May and his ideology are not just superficial:

Hitler drew another example of mass murder from American history. Since his youth he had been obsessed with the Wild West stories of Karl May. He viewed the fighting between cowboys and Indians in racial terms. In many of his speeches he referred with admiration to the victory of the white race in settling the American continent and driving out the inferior peoples, the Indians. With great fascination he listened to stories, which some of his associates who had been in America told him about the massacres of the Indians by the U.S. Calvary. . . .

Always contemptuous of the Russians, Hitler said: 'For them the word 'liberty' means the right to wash only on feast-days. If we arrive bringing soft soap, we'll obtain no sympathy...There's only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins.' Having been a devoted reader of Karl May's books on the American West as a youth, Hitler frequently referred to the Russians as 'Redskins'. He saw a parallel between his effort to conquer and colonize land in Russia with the conquest of the American West by the white man and the subjugation of the Indians or 'Redskins'. 'I don't see why', he said, 'a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat from Canada, we don't think about the despoiled Indians."

There's even a theory that Hitler discovered the swastika symbol while reading May's stories (it was used, in a slightly different form, by some Indian tribes).

Now of course it would be absurd to say that reading Karl May turned Hitler into a murderous racist. (Among other problems with that theory is the fact that the list of Karl May's readers is as long as your arm and includes the humanist Albert Einstein as well as my own father, a committed socialist and a gentle soul if ever there was one.) And by the same token, it would be absurd to blame Bush's crazy and destructive policies on the western artists he favors.

But I definitely think it's a bad sign when a grown-up man who is in charge of a great nation draws inspiration and guidance from the kind of art most people stop admiring when they get to be fifteen years old--especially the kind of art whose emotional charge derives mainly from its ability to nurture adolescent fantasies of invulnerability, super-virility, and power. It has always been disturbing that President John F. Kennedy was a big fan of the James Bond novels and even met with their creator in 1960 to discuss covert methods of ousting Fidel Castro. (Yes, Ian Fleming may be partly to blame for the Bay of Pigs.)

Back in the 1940s, The New Yorker published a series of cartoons by William Steig labeled "Dreams of Glory," depicting kids' fantasies. One showed a nine-year-old in full cowboy regalia (ten-gallon hat, chaps, spurs), using his trusty six-gun to get the drop on a flabbergasted Adolf Hitler in his ornate Berlin office. Pretty ironic, considering Hitler would have thought of himself as the heroic cowboy. But in any case, we expect our presidents to have outgrown that sort of childhood daydream.

So, okay, maybe it is a little middlebrow and cliched for Barack Obama to declare that one of his favorite writers is Reinhold Niebuhr. At least he didn't name someone downright scary.

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