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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Vichy America

A few nights ago, I watched--again-- the film Casablanca on a movie channel.  It recalled for me a time when I avoided anything European.  After serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, and people asked about the experience and travel in Europe, I said I had no interest in ever visiting Europe again.  (I have relented somewhat since then.)

I went to Germany in a specially trained group labeled O(ver)S(eas)P(ackage)5.  We were sent there to emplace air defense guided missiles to guard against  Soviet air attacks, which seemed a big possibility during the Cold War.  We were met at the Frankfort air base by protesters carrying signs that said "Sputnik, go home!"  The Germans feared that  the emplacement of guided missiles on their soil would entice the Soviets to involve Germany in more rocket warfare rather than discourage it.  Members of OSP 5, and its sister units, were constantly indoctrinated in the importance of being nice to the Germans and how to do it, as part of a public relations campaign to assuage their fears about the guided missiles.

We were instructed not to ask Germans about their sympathies and alliances during World War II.  The official stance was that most Germans were unwilling subjects of the Nazi regime and welcomed liberation by the Allied Forces.  That was partially true, but our interactions with the Germans made us skeptical.  We encountered situations in which the belief in a superior race was still evident.

Similarly, we had doubts about the alliances of people in neighboring France.  The Vichy French regime was set up as a puppet government controlled by the Nazis when German forces invaded and took over parts of France.  The Vichy  regime was purported at the time to be under involuntary control by the Nazis.  Over time a dire fact has emerged.  Many people in Germany aggressively supported and participated in the anti-semitic activities that led to and were part of the Holocaust.  Similarly, Vichy French were engaging in anti-semitic activities long before the Germans invaded.  The claim that people were involuntarily subjected to Naziism by outside force is not true.  Although there was resistance to it, there were plenty of people in both Germany and France who desired the Nazi way and actively pursued it.  Their preference prevailed.  For a time.  And now it has been revived in France's Yellow Vest Movement.

Casablanca is strikingly relevant to our present situation in the U.S. because it is about some people emigrating to escape oppressive regimes and the choices other people make in regard to those regimes.  The film is set in Morocco during World War II when it was a French colony.  The Germans had invaded it and were issuing the orders for the French administrators to carry out.   The major character in the film, Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart, and the French captain in charge of Casablanca, Louie Renault played by Claude Rains, are both cynics interested in exploiting the town for their own interests.  

At one point Captain Renault sums up the attitude:  "I don't have any scruples if that's what you mean. I blow with the wind. And the prevailing wind is from Vichy."   

The night club owned by Rick is a gathering place for all types of people, including  German occupiers,  Vichy French, and refugees trying to flee the expanding Nazi world, and the people who would prey on them.   In the film, refugees needed "letters of transit" to travel in the Nazi-occupied parts of the world in order to reach places from which they could embark for America.  Those letters were a fiction created for the film, but they represent the material effort of the resistance to Naziism to support refugees in their quest to escape persecution and genocide.  Such letters, referred to as "paroles" in American history, were provided to slaves in the South when they were sent on errands for their masters, because black people traveling in the South were stopped and questioned and needed the paroles in order to go about their masters' business.

Casablanca is a film created to portray the insidious spread of Naziism and the way that it could be confronted.  Rick has had a love affair with Ilsa, who is married to Victor, a leader in the French resistance. Rick and Ilsa would like to use some letters of transit to run off together, but Rick is conflicted by the growing Nazi menace.  He manipulates and convinces Ilsa to stay with her husband Victor and support his work with the resistance.

In the end of the film, Ilsa and Victor are on a plane fleeing Casablanca, and Rick and Captain Renault are have created  an anti-Nazi bond.  The character of Captain Renault is used in the film to portray the resolve to join the resistance.  He is present when as Ilsa and Victor are boarding the airplane, the German officer in charge of Casablanca pulls up in a car to prevent the couple from leaving.  Rick shoots the officer, and Captain Renault, who witnessed the killing, responds to it by ordering "Round up the usual suspects,"  as he joins Rick in the resistance.

His conversion to the resistance is seen in a scene with Rick when he pours himself a glass of sparking water.  He glances at the water bottle, notes that it bears the brand "Vichy Water," grimaces, and drops it in a trash can, signifying that he who has accommodated Vichy France is now rejecting it.  It is a subtle but pivotal scene in the film.  Rick has made the statement to Ilsa, "If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die."  Captain Renault has decided to opt with Rick to fight for the world.

That scene embraces the experience facing Americans.  Places such as South Dakota are Vichy states.  They are
dominated by people with racist and class attitudes as the foundation of their political agendas.  Racism, like all malevolent prejudices, is grounded upon the belief in inequality.  Although most people living in a democracy profess a belief in equality, many people betray that belief in their words and actions.  They cling to the social order of the dog pack and the chicken flock as the paradigm according which society operates.  They adhere to the feudal notion of a chain being in which people have ranks of inferiority and superiority.  And these people always place themselves in the higher ranks, which give them license to demean and persecute those they deem in the lower ranks.

Americans are faced with the options of going along with the corruption and racial-based treachery of the Trump regime, a head-in-the-sand tolerance, or an all-out resistance.  Those of us in South Dakota have already had the choice made for us by a majority that has expressed its preference for corruption, administrations of nepotism and cronyism.  South Dakotans elected Kristi Noem, a woman with a political record of fecklessness, nepotism, lying, and playing politics for her personal benefit, much in the line of Trump, to be their governor.  Many others have taken the head-in-the-sand  option.  They seem to adhere to the notion that their malice-harboring neighbors are just people with different political opinions and tend to ignore the ill-will displayed in the political campaigns and the corruption engendered by the dominant party.  And then there are those who see the corruption and the dishonesty as something that must be resisted.  

There is a remote hope in South Dakota that enough people will pull their heads out of the sand and see the lethal effects of drinking the South Dakota version of Vichy water--a belief that their corruption-loving neighbors are fundamentally nice. That hope is that the political process of the ballot box can be a corrective.  But that hope is the depth of foolery in a state where the people have passed an initiative to address the corruption and the legislature successfully dismissed it.  In a democracy, as we found out in the Viet Nam War era, sometimes politics doesn't work.  Politics as a means of change and the rule of honesty and decency has been disabled in South Dakota.

On the national level the relentless dishonesty and corruption of Donald Trump and his mendacious minions has the dedicated support of about a third of the nation.  Although there has been a highly visible and vocal resistance, it has had little effect on stemming the massive onslaught of untruths or the intensity of the malice within his administration and supporters.  As dramatized in Casablanca with Captain Louie Renault, it takes a recognition of where the prevailing political winds are driving us and the resolve to throw the source of our Vichy water into the trash.  Accommodating those who show their hatred for a democracy that strives for liberty, equality, and justice is subversion.  Effective resistance to the malignant that has invaded America will take strong action and cooperative effort of the kind that forges "beautiful friendships," to use Rick's closing words in Casablanca.  

America has to openly recognize its internal enemies and that "If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die."

Vichy America is here.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. You are spot on.

Consider viewing and reading the subtitles of, A Nasty Girl, via NETFLIX. This gives insight into Vichy Germany, and even in the 1980s, the uneducated rabble sympathizing with the Nazis. . Between this background and reading many German books describing the era, it is apparent that the Cold War US 'official story' was a lie; that most citizens overtly or covertly supported the regime. Go along to get along. Not much different attitude than that in SD politics.

The documentary, Impossible Peace, via Amazon Prime and other sources, encapsulates the general political tempo of nations citizens between the world wars.

Thanks again for this and the fraternity piece.

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