I watched a family friend turn into a Nazi.
Back when I was a kid and didn’t know very much about the world or people or anything, really, except what was in front of me that I thought was cool or what was around me that hurt, my father owned a business. A number of his customers became friends. One in particular I remember because he was a Character.
Let’s call him Jonah. That wasn’t his name, but he did get swallowed.
You read about these sorts of fellows, amiable, not well-educated folks with mischievous streaks. Jonah was like a great big teddy bear. He stood over six feet, spoke with what might be called a hillbilly drawl. I don’t know what he did for a living, exactly. At ten, eleven, twelve years old that didn’t seem important. He was an avid hunter and that more or less formed the basis of his relationship with my dad.
Jonah was always quick with a joke. He was the first man I ever met who could do sound effects: bird calls, train whistles, animal sounds, machinery. He had a gift for vocal acrobatics that brought to mind commedians on tv. He could get me laughing uncontrollably. I suppose a lot of his humor, while outrageous, could be considered dry because he had a marvelously unstereoptypic deadpan delivery.
Jonah came to our house regularly for a few years, mostly on the weekends. He ate at our table, helped dad with projects occasionally.
He had a wife and a couple of kids. The kids were way younger than me, so I didn’t really have much to do with them. I remember his wife being very quiet. I would say now that she was long-suffering, but I didn’t know what that meant then. She was a rather pretty woman, a bit darker than Jonah with brown hair so dark it was almost black. She wore glasses and tended to plumpness, what we used to call Pleasantly Plump. They lived in a shotgun house with a big backyard.
Which Jonah needed. He collected junk cars. This is what made him rather stereotypic. There were always three or four cars in various stages of deconstruction in his yard, various makes and models. He’d find them. Fifty dollars here, a hundred there. He himself drove a vehicle that probably wouldn’t pass inspection today and he was always fixing on it. He found these cars and would proceed to develop grand plans to cannibalize them and out of the three or four, sometimes five, heaps and he intended to build one magnificent vehicle that would run better than Detroit assembly-line best and last forever. He would get energetic, tearing into them, and according to my dad he exhibited an almost instinctive ability to mix and match parts and actually do engineering on the fly. He came up with some first-rate gizmos out of all this, and from time to time an actual vehicle would begin to take shape.
I can only assume he applied much the same philosophy to the rest of his life. He owned one decent hunting rifle, which my dad managed to improve, but also owned several “clunkers” which he was always bringing in to my dad’s shop to fiddle with.
Jonah never seemed to finish anything.
I didn’t perceive this as a big deal then. I always assumed as a kid that the adults I knew always lived pretty much the kind of life they wanted to. Jonah wore off-the-shelf factory worker clothes all the time, some of them quite old, and big work boots. He seemed always ready to dive into an engine or something else that required getting smeared with grease and oil, knuckles scraped, clothes dirty.
I liked him.
But he never finished anything. My dad joked that if he would just save the money he spent on all those heaps he kept buying and trying to cannibalize, in short order he’d have enough to buy a pretty nice automobile. That wasn’t Jonah’s way, though. Maybe he thought he could do better. He often complained about the way factory-made this or that was inferior. He complained about the laziness of union laborers, especially the UAW.
But he didn’t complain much.
Until one day I heard him and my dad arguing. I went into the living room and found that Jonah had brought over some pamphlets. One of them, I remember, had ornate artwork on the cover and strident, bold lettering, declaring The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Dad was getting heated. I recognized the trajectory. He was genuinely miffed. Jonah sat there, tapping one thick finger on the pamphlets, and kept repeating “You need to read these, Hank. There’s shit goin’ on we don’t know nothin’ about.”
“Bullshit,” was my dad’s curt response. They saw me, Jonah gathered up his pamphlets, and the conversation took a different direction. But dad remained disturbed.
There were a few more visits from Jonah. I was not told to leave the room. I sat and listened to a couple of the arguments. I guess I was about 14 or 15 by then and had begun to do a lot of reading in history. I knew about the Holocaust because of an incident in my seventh year of grade school, when something I said triggered my dad to shout and lecture and thrust books into my hand and instruct me to learn something about Hitler and what he did. I frankly couldn’t get my head around it. The numbers overwhelmed, ran beyond easy comprehension. I’m not sure what I thought war was all about before then, but there was suddenly now an ugliness to WWII that unsettled me in a way I’d never experienced before.
So when I finally understood what he was saying and why my dad was so angry, it really shocked me. I knew this man. How could he believe this stuff? We’d gone hunting together, he made me laugh, he always seemed so…so…
He was in the grip of becoming a Nazi. I confess to being incapable at the time of grasping the full fury of the pathology that was in the process of overwhelming him, but it was clear to me that it was a disease. Jonah was changing, distorting, growing warts and open sores on his personality.
My dad finally barred him from the house. He was not welcome anymore. I’d never seen that happen before. But dad was emphatic. “You’ve got a head full of shit, Jonah. I don’t want that poison in my home.”
“I never thought the Jews owned you, Hank,” Jonah said. That was the last thing he said.
A year or so later we learned that his wife had left him. The house with the junkers was sold, the cars disappeared. Some time after that I saw him outside a Steak’n’Shake handing out pamphlets, wearing a swastika armband. I don’t think he recognized me.
I have no way of knowing all the components of Jonah’s life. But what I did see, what I heard, what I knew about, eventually came to paint a picture for me of a man who never really got a handle on his own life. This in no way made him unique. I said he never finished anything. All his plans came to nothing. He would start on something, draw up the designs in his head, spin great dreams about how this would do this and that would happen. He would work for a while. And then do something else, the Great Scheme unfinished. In memory I see now that he never had much money. He didn’t save for a good car because he didn’t have the experience of saving, nothing to tell him that it would ever be worthwhile, that the only way to “get ahead” was to acquire success all in one big lump. That’s how the fat cats do it. The rich people. Plodding, consistent work, day in and day out, didn’t lead there. Whatever job or jobs he held, it must have been clear that he would never climb out of where he was through them.
Nothing unusual about that, many people find themselves in such ruts. Sometimes it’s lack of education, other times it’s a character flaw, or perhaps they simply don’t have the level of intelligence needed to do better than they’ve ever done. Sometimes they just don’t have the inclination. They do what they can, they live their lives, they get by, and we assume they find a way to be all right with that, or at least make it acceptable.
A few blame someone for it.
Not even that is remarkable and sometimes it’s even true. It’s possible for blame to be legitimately cast on a parent who makes life so miserable and difficult that a child’s schooling cannot overcome the deficits of environment. Tough to do homework in a house with a loud drunk or an abuser or any number of other circumstances that destroys any kind of sense of safety and security. True, people overcome this kind of situation all the time, but it’s much harder, and a little blame is reasonable.
But for some the blaming takes on the added component of persecution, like the universe is somehow against them. If not the universe, then, maybe, well….Those People.
It is a pathology, hating. Hating that looks to be fed. Most people perhaps have hated in their lives, but hate is a fire that burns hot and fast and for the sane person it consumes itself and becomes something less volatile. But some hating is like a fusion reactor, taking matter in and combining it with the stuff of the hate, and thereby establishing a feed line that provides fuel so it never burns out. Like cancer that creates its own blood source to feed.
People who cannot accept that what may have gone wrong in their lives is their fault. But more than that, it is not only not their fault, it is very much someone else’s fault, there are people who act against them. What possible control can you exercise when hidden forces counter your efforts at every turn? How can you succeed when the very ground upon which that success might be built is stolen by people who want to keep you from succeeding? How can you be anything more when the world is permeated with those who take advantage of the strong to perpetuate their existence at our expense?
And suddenly the full flower of your own self-forgiveness opens. Nothing is your fault. It is Them. Without Them, you could do great things, but They prevent you. Why? Because you and not One Of Them. You’re different.
You’re not a Jew.
I watched this pathology overtake and destroy a man who I thought of as a friend. He was a Good Guy. And then one day he decided being a Good Guy meant hating people he thought were plotting against all Good Guys.
And he was just smart enough to follow the trail laid down by those like him who survive on hate.
You can create systems that seem to explain things that actually don’t support fact or truth. It’s done all the time. Selecting details, combining them in enticing ways… just look at The DaVinci Code as an example. The historical details the underlie that book’s premise are there. The way Brown, and earlier the two men who wrote the “nonfiction” source, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, merely strung these details together in such a way as to point to a conclusion that…
Well, it is more or less the same process by which the centuries long litany of charges leveled against the Jewish people has been cobbled together to form what seems to be a consistent and damning chain of evidence of plots and secret societies.
Oh, and you need to leave certain details out to make sure only the parts that support your conclusion are presented. Anything that might undermine the central argument, well, that needn’t be there.
People like Jonah are not equipped to do the research to find out the truth. Not that they would anyway. They seem to be predisposed to accept the conclusions of the haters.
It’s easier than actually fixing their own lives.
Here is the Washington Post story of the man who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum. His name is James W. van Brunn and he is 88 years old. Here is an article about his background. He is one of those who has kept alive the nonsense allegations about Obama’s supposedly “questionable” birth certificate.
He is a full time hater.
Personally, I don’t believe it much matters what such people hate. They hate. It’s what drives them. They center their lives on it, it gives them purpose, it forms something by which they can feel important. It feeds.
Endlessly countering their lousy grasp of history, the errors in their statements, the false premises upon which they base their attacks is important only insofar as it offers those around them—and us—alternatives to simply accepting the fever dream confabulations of their imagined causes. I doubt it will change them.
Years ago I read an interview with a man who was a former White Supremacist. He left them not because he realized they were wrong about their history, that their arguments were tight-looped tautologies, that collectively they were destructive to anything good in the world. No. He left because his child was born handicapped and these people were all about racial “purity” and one day they came to him and told him it was time for him to “do something” about his mutant. It struck home then, with an icy precision, that this was not just an exercise in intellectual (or anti-intellectual) culture war, but personal, with personal consequences that were…unacceptable.
Yet he had joined them. He had at some point decided to accept the Us or Them nonthink of the haters, because he could not see a way to live in the world without blaming everyone else for how he was.
Because ultimately, that’s where it begins.