Is this the Death of Neoliberalism?

Invasion of the Putin-Nazis

So, here we are, a little over one hundred days into “The Age of Darkness” and the “racially Orwellian” Trumpian Reich, and, all right, while it’s certainly no party, it appears that those reports we heard of the Death of Neoliberalism were greatly exaggerated. Not only has the entire edifice of Western democracy not been toppled, but the global capitalist ruling classes seem to be going about their business in more or less the usual manner. The Goldman Sachs vampires are back in the White House (as they have been for over one hundred years). The post-Cold War destabilization and restructuring of the Middle East is moving forward right on schedule. The Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and other non-globalist-ball-playing parties remain surrounded by the most ruthlessly murderous military machine in the annals of history. Greece is being debt-enslaved and looted. And so on. Life is back to normal.

Or … OK, not completely normal. Because, despite the fact that editorialists at “respectable” papers like The New York Times (and I’m explicitly referring to Charles M. Blow and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman) have recently dropped the completely ridiculous “Trump is a Putinist agent” propaganda they’d been relentlessly spewing since he won the election, a significant number of deluded persons, having swallowed their official vomitus (i.e., the vomitus of Blow and Krugman, and other neoliberal establishment hacks) like the hungry Adélie penguin chicks in those nature shows narrated by David Attenborough, are convinced (these deluded persons are) that the Russians are waging a global campaign not only to maliciously hack, or interfere with, or marginally influence, free and fair elections throughout the Western world, but to control the minds of Westerners themselves, in some Orwellian, or possibly Wachowskian fashion. Worse yet, these deluded persons are certain, the Russians are now secretly running the White House, and are just using Trump, and the Goldman Sachs gang, and capitalist centurions like General McMaster, as a front for their subversive activities, like denying Americans universal healthcare and privatizing the hell out of everything.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, check out #MarchforTruth on Twitter, or its anonymous Crowdpac fundraising page, which at first glance I took for an elaborate prank, but which seems to be in deadly earnest about “restoring faith in American government,” uncovering Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, and reversing his “subversion of the will of the people.” The plan is, on June 3, 2017, thousands of otherwise rational Americans are going to pour into the streets “demanding answers” from … well, I’m not sure whom, some independent prosecutor, or congressional committee, or intelligence agency, or whomever is responsible for ferreting out the Putin-Nazi infiltrators that “respected” pundits like Blow and Krugman (and stark raving loonies like Louise Mensch) have convinced them are now controlling the government. Weirdly, these same “respected” journalists, the ones who have been assuring the world that The President of the United States is a covert agent working for Russia, have failed to even mention this March for Truth, and are acting like they had nothing to do with whipping these folks up into a frenzy of apoplectic paranoia.

Incidentally, one of my colleagues contacted Mr. Blow directly and inquired as to whether he’d be vociferously supporting or possibly leading the March for Truth, and was chastised by Blow and his Twitter followers. I found this reaction extremely troubling, and asked my colleague to contact Mensch and suggest she check with her handlers at The Times to make sure the Russians haven’t gotten to him. However, just as he was sitting down to do that, the “Comey-firing” brouhaha broke, which seems to have brought Blow back to the fold, albeit in a less hysterical manner than his Rooskie-hunting readers have grown accustomed to. We can only hope that both he and Krugman return to form in the weeks to come as Russiagate builds to its dramatic climax.

Oh, yeah, and if Russiagate isn’t paranoid enough, apparently, the corporate media is now prepared to deploy the “Putin-Nazi Election Hackers” propaganda in any and every election going forward (as they did in the recent French election, and as they tried to do in the Dutch elections, and presumably will in the German elections, and as The Guardian appears to be retroactively doing in regard to the Brexit referendum). Any day now, we should be hearing of the “Putin-Nazi-Corbyn Axis,” and the “Putin-Nazi-Podemos Pact,” and video footage of Martin Schultz and a bevy of former-East German hookers engaging in Odinist sex magick rituals in an FSB-owned bordello in Moscow. Soon, it won’t just be elections … no, we’ll be hearing reports of Russian shipments of rocks, bottles, and pointy sticks to the “Putin-Nazi Palestinian Terrorists,” and … well, who knows how far they’re willing to take this?

All joking aside, as I’ve written about previously, what we’re dealing with here is more than just a lame attempt by the Democratic Party to blame its humiliating loss on Putin (although of course it certainly is that in part). The global neoliberal establishment is rolling out a new official narrative. It’s actually just a slight variation on the one it’s been selling us since 2001. I could come up with a sixteen-syllable, academic-sounding name for this narrative, but I’m trying to keep things simple these days … so let’s call it The Normals versus The Extremists, (the Normals being the neoliberals and the Extremists being everyone else). The goal of this narrative is to stigmatize and otherwise marginalize opposition to Neoliberalism, regardless of the nature of that opposition (i.e., whether it comes from the left, right, or from religious, environmentalist, or any other quarters).

Now, as any professional storyteller will tell you, one of the most important aspects of the narrative you’re trying to suck people into is to make your protagonist a likeable underdog, and then pit him or her against a much more powerful and ideally incorrigibly evil enemy. During the Cold War, this was easy to do — the story was Democracy versus the Commies, traditional “good versus evil”-type stuff. Once the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the concept needed major rewrites, as a new evil adversary had to be found. This (i.e., the 1990s) was a rather awkward and frustrating period. The global capitalist ruling classes, giddy with joy after having become the first ever global ideological hegemon in the history of aspiring global hegemons, got all avant-garde for a while, and thought they could do without an “enemy.” This approach, as you’ll recall, did not sell well. No one quite got why we were bombing Yugoslavia, and Bush and Baker had to break out the Hitler schtick to gin up support for rescuing the Kuwaitis from their old friend Saddam. Fortunately, in September 2001, the show runners got the break they were looking for, and the official narrative was instantly switched to Democracy versus The Islamic Terrorists. This re-brand got extremely good ratings, and would have been extended indefinitely if not for what began to unfold in the latter half of 2016. (One could go back and locate the week when the mainstream media officially switched from the “Summer of Terror” narrative they were flogging to the new “Invasion of the Putin-Nazis” narrative … my guess is, it was early to mid-September.) It started with the Brexit referendum, continued with the rise of Trump, and … well, I don’t have to recount it, do I? You remember last year as clearly as I do, how, suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, the Putin-Nazi menace materialized, and took the place of the “self-radicalized terrorist” as the primary target for people’s hatred and fear. OK, sure, at first, there were no Putin-Nazis. It was just that the Brexit folks were fascists, and Trump was Hitler, and Bernie Sanders was some sort of racist hacky sack Communist. But then the Putinists poisoned Clinton, and unleashed their legions of Russian propagandists on the gullible, Oxycodone-addicted denizens of “flyover country,” and, as they say, the rest is history.

In any event, here we are now … stuck inside this simulation of “reality” where Putin-Nazi hackers are coming out of the woodwork, a partyless neoliberal banker has been elected the President of France, Donald Trump is an evil mastermind or a Russian operative, depending on what day it is (as opposed to just a completely incompetent, narcissistic billionaire idiot), and neoliberal propaganda outfits like The New York TimesThe Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, et al., are perceived as “respectable” sources of journalism, as if their role in generating and occasionally revising the official narrative weren’t so insultingly obvious. Personally, I am looking forward to the upcoming German elections this Autumn, wherein Neoliberal Party “A” is challenging Neoliberal Party “B” for the right to continue privatizing Greece (and any other formerly sovereign nations the banks can get their hands on) in a demonstration of European unity, and fiscal austerity … and, you know, whatever.

If this is the Death of Neoliberalism, just imagine what awaits us at the Resurrection.


“American Gods” answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship

Divine drama: Bryan Fuller and Michael Green combine their talents to bring Neil Gaiman’s deity-driven story roaring to life

Divine drama: "American Gods" answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship
American Gods(Credit: Starz)

Take a moment to appreciate the spiritual symmetry Starz’s “American Gods” brings to the next eight Sunday nights. Millions will greet each of those mornings with ceremonial worship and prayer, and a share of those same people, as well as others who are less religious, will end the day watching this drama — a show that questions whether faith gains us anything in the end.

For there’s no question in “American Gods” as to whether deities exist. They walk among us and have done so for centuries, sharing many of the same urges and frustrations as humans do. What the gods are not, however, are interventionists. Pray all you want; odds are they’re not listening. But be careful because the ones who answer may not give the pious the deliverance sought.

“American Gods,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., represents Neil Gaiman’s contemporary take on pantheons merging and colliding, something genre fiction writers played with on page and screen many times over. Readers familiar with Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic books will recognize the insouciant humor and a similarly fluid sense of time and reality in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s television adaptation.

The otherworldly travelers in “American Gods” are immigrants who arrive alongside their human believers but whose relationship with the faithful tends toward the parasitic as opposed to the symbiotic. In an opening scene set in the distant past, Vikings are marooned on an unfriendly North American shore and maim themselves to gain favor from Odin, the All-Father, whose bestowal of a piddly breeze is not commensurate with the stunning orgy of bloodshed that precedes it.

If Odin’s boys could only see him now! Traveling as Mr. Wednesday, the battered and rumpled old god (played sublimely by Ian McShane) merrily, lazily slides into the life of recently released convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow finds out as he’s released that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died unexpectedly, a terrible stroke of fate that brings him into Wednesday’s orbit.

Wednesday cons his way into first class by pretending to be senile and harmless, and Shadow, in a stroke of luck, is bumped up when his seat is double booked. Whether this was actually coincidence or the downward-trending god’s will is the first of many small mysteries “American Gods” sprinkles throughout its initial episodes — and probably the least important.

Mr. Wednesday is up front about who he is: a liar, cheater, swindler, hustler. A few drinks later Mr. Wednesday persuades Shadow to become his paid bodyguard, a job assured to come with a lot of perks as well as a high probability of a violent death. For Wednesday is gathering an army of old deities to take on the New Gods, a coalition of uncaring beings led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover), which includes the bratty Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and the seductive Media (Gillian Anderson).

While the Norse god can count on some truly potent allies, including a tall and pugilistic leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a bloodthirsty Slavic lord of darkness, latter-day humanity’s obsession with material gain and convenience has decided tilted the odds against Mr. Wednesday’s team.

Now capricious creatures of faded glory, these formerly supreme beings have been forgotten, pushed into musty, small spaces and wrapped in dingy, plain clothes. Survival has transformed them from masters over the elements and protectors of humanity into con artists, thugs and killers. Yet they personify timelessness; regardless of the actor playing them, these beings do not seem recognizably young or ancient. Their places of worship may be velvety scarlet dens of supplication or a bank of screens at a big-box store; their altars are dreamscapes of temptation, threats and teeth that catch men by the throat.

“American Gods” takes place at the nexus of classic myth and modern techromancy, archetype and prototype, and wrestles with concepts no less than the churning of an unconcerned and enthralling cosmos.

Gaiman’s new gods, like the old ones, are manifestations of modern beliefs. And what do we believe in these days? The material and the measurable — fame, convenience, wealth. The new gods promise the kind of immortality that can accessed by a search engine, with none of the nonsense about souls or angels or never-ending bliss in union with the infinite.

But the infinite is dazzling, no question. Transitional sequences within each episode convey the wonder of the universe through wide shots of color-saturated natural vistas and skies streaked with carpets of stars. The show’s cinematography and digital imagery emphasize the juxtaposition of the natural world against the synthetic, reality versus the realm of the unreal, impressing upon the viewer how inconsequential man happens to be in the vastness of time and space. It also invites the viewer to see an extra level of magic within floating tufts of dandelion seed.

The drama provides an ideal canvas for Fuller and Green to unleash their creative and collaborative powers. The conscientious visual style that Fuller honed on “Hannibal” achieves riotous new heights of sensuality in this series. Green, a DC Comics veteran whose television credits include serving as an executive producer on “Heroes,” aids in harmonizing the story’s surfeit of histories and personalities into an intelligible and spellbinding structure.

Combining their strengths, Fuller and Green have taken a story long believed to be untamable and channeled its powers into a delirious odyssey that takes its time with character development without putting too much drag on the tale’s velocity.

It doesn’t take long for Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip to become a Technicolor debate about the nature of belief and the power of faith. Mr. Wednesday needs both to continue to exist. Shadow Moon, as his name implies, is a guardian of the threshold between the mortal and the eternal. He believes in nothing. Yet the oddity he witnesses at Wednesday’s side gives him pause.

Fuller and Green co-wrote five of the first season’s eight episodes, and their scripts gives the show’s superlative cast a buffet of opportunities to chew the scenery. Orlando Jones’ introduction as Mr. Nancy is marked by a blazing monologue evocative of Alec Baldwin’s epic “Glengarry Glen Ross” speech and it’s chockablock with just as many cold assurances.

McShane ascends to his usual level of brilliance, but Whittle’s Shadow wields a seductive, brooding charm that stands up to the “Deadwood” star well enough. And their partnership gives credence to the idea that the gods could be a little insane.

But Fuller and Green accentuate the comedic side of these gods and goddesses much more than their cruelty (the exception being Yetide Badaki’s divinely concupiscent Bilquis) which imbues “American Gods” with a cheeky flair. And if the performances by the likes of Jones, Stormare, Schreiber and Cloris Leachman seem outsized, that’s proportional to the beings they play.

So numerous are the number of gods that we don’t even meet them all in the first four episodes. Those who are introduced, however, are fascinating enough to purchase the viewers’ patience with the relatively leisurely speed that “American Gods” travels through the plot. It takes time to construct a world worthy of worship.

Why Trumpian Conspiracy Theories and Anti-Semitism Are Intimately Connected


Our modern political climate has helped bolster the oldest conspiracy theory of all.

Photo Credit: (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock

Earlier this month, white nationalists found cause to rejoice. The culprit behind many of the bomb threats plaguing JCCs and Jewish schools around the country — a young American-Israeli man living in Ashkelon, in the south of Israel — was arrested. The teenager, apparently utilizing sophisticated identity-masking methods, was responsible for a yet-unknown but apparently large proportion of the bomb threats terrorizing toddlers, schoolchildren, and Jews at prayer, according to Israeli police.

For white nationalists like David Duke, the suspect’s religion was proof of a theory they had championed: that Jews, in a coordinated plot, had created the attacks to “get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda.” A popular meme, “Hey rabbi…watcha doin’?,” resurfaced: It depicts a hook-nosed Jewish stereotype spray-painting a swastika onto the wall of a synagogue. Reactions to the unlikely arrest further proved the durability, in a conspiratorial age, of the oldest conspiracy theory of all: anti-Semitism.

Defenders of Donald Trump viewed the arrest as a vindication of the president, whose few months in office have coincided with a striking rise in hate crimes. In a press briefing last week, Sean Spicer used the JCC bomb threat arrest to dismiss a question about an unrelated offense, urging the public not to “jump to conclusions” about the perpetrators of hate crimes — and stating that “the president was right.”

When asked in February about the steadily climbing number of anti-Semitic incidents during his time in office, including the bomb threats, President Trump had reportedly suggested that the Jewish community at large was behind the incidents.

“Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad,” Trump said, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was present at a meeting between Trump and state attorneys general.

It was this insinuation that Spicer claimed the arrest of a 19-year-old in Ashkelon had vindicated. But in his conversation with the attorneys general, Trump did not cite evidence from a months-long joint investigation between the F.B.I. and Israeli authorities that led to Ashkelon’s arrest. Nor would it be right to draw conclusions about the political motivations of a single, warped individual whose lawyer has stated that a brain tumor may have contributed to his alarming behavior. Moreover, most of the 330 incidents of anti-Semitic hate crime ProPublica has documented since January have been impossible to conduct remotely, such as the swastikas daubed on sidewalks and synagogues. The NYPD cites a 94% increase in anti-Semitic hate crime compared to this time last year; meanwhile, several high-profile incidents of cemetery vandalism — resulting in the toppling of hundreds of Jewish gravestones in Philadelphia and St. Louis — as yet have no confirmed culprits.

What is certain, however, is that Trump’s answer on anti-Semitism — positing, without citing evidence, a political plot — encapsulates his tendency to think conspiratorially. It’s a tendency he’s shown for years, before and throughout his presidential campaign and ascent to power, from birtherism to phantom wiretaps. But it manifests most clearly in the way he clings to falsehood, no matter how many times he is presented with fact. Trump has been a guest on InfoWars, Alex Jones’ notorious conspiracy-peddling radio show; he prefers the expostulations of 9/11 truther and ousted Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano to those of his own Department of Justice. In the President’s mind, Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill JFK, Barack Obama literally founded ISIS, and the Jews, as a whole, are threatening their own kindergartens. (The tenacity of these beliefs was put on astonishing display in a recent interview with Time magazine.)

The mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking and the rise in overt hostility towards Jews are intimately connected. As Alana Newhouse put it in Tablet Magazine, anti-Semitism is not a social prejudice against Jews. It has very little to do, Newhouse writes, with any individual’s distaste for perceived Jewish traits, or even antipathy towards specific Jews. Anti-Semitism in its classic sense is the belief that there is a malevolent entity behind the curtain, pulling the strings, and that that entity is a Jew.

“Racism is a prejudice, but it’s not rooted in conspiracy theory, as anti-Semitism is,” Deborah Lipstadt, a prominent scholar of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, told me in an interview last September. Anti-Semitism is present, too, in nearly every conspiracy-theory community; Lipstadt noted, for example, the outsize presence of the Mossad in “alternate” theories of 9/11. Even people from deeply marginal movements, like those who embrace Flat Earth Theory — the belief, as the name suggests, that the earth is really flat and NASA is a sinister fraud — frequently blame the Jews for their role in the “cover-up” of earth’s flatness. As one poster on the Flat Earth Society message board put it, space missions are “all lies…as you’d expect from a media/government/academia totally controlled by jews[sic].”

Trump’s campaign — and presidency — have played repeatedly into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. One infamous tweet juxtaposed Hillary Clinton, a Jewish star, and piles of cash. And a late-stage campaign ad depicted American Jews like Janet Yellen and George Soros as a narrator solemnly intoned about “trillions of dollars” in the hands of “global special interests.” Behind the anti-Semitic dog whistles lurked a braying pack of alt-right hounds who did not hesitate to savage Jewish critics and their supporters alike.

The notion that some malevolence lurks in Jewish singularity, that a refusal to assimilate is a cover for darker impulses, is an ancient one. In the Medieval era, Jews were said to have poisoned wells, to bake the blood of Christian children into matzahs. With the advent of industrialization, theories of Jewish malevolence grew broader and darker: 19th-century nationalists depicted Jews as inherently disloyal to their countries, their purported loyalty to the nebulous entity of “world Jewry” supplanting their loyalty to their own homelands. In the last century, Nazi cartoons depicted the Jew as an octopus encircling the globe, slimy tentacles smothering every continent. A 1940 Nazi film sought to cast this characterization as a timeless truth: It was called “The Eternal Jew.”

Last year, the term “fake news” came into prominence to describe a rash of false accounts, of dubious and possibly Russian origin, promulgated in the lead-up to the Presidential election. Since then, the term has boomeranged against its makers — and is frequently to be heard from a President openly hostile to the media. For Jews, however, the original “fake news” (also, incidentally, of Russian origin), dates back more than a century, to the 1903 publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the principal modern text of anti-Semitic conspiracy — and an object lesson in how difficult it is to debunk appealing falsehoods.

Top: Cover page from “Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Bottom: poster from ‘The Eternal Jew.’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Protocols purported to be a record of a meeting between Jewish leaders, and was initially presented as the minutes of the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897. The text listed arenas of the modern world over which Jews sought to establish control — from banks to the press to modern states themselves, and their wars; the Elders’ plan would culminate in a totalistic Jewish domination of the world. After its original appearance in the Russian newspaper Znamya in 1903, it was translated into German and widely disseminated in 1920; it was presented to American audiences as The International Jew the same yearWhat is remarkable — and sadly illustrative — about the text was that its debunking was nearly simultaneous with its promulgation. In 1920 the Protocols were revealed to be a clumsy fake, largely plagiarized from a 19th-century French work of political satire, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The Times of London ran a 1921 exposé; in 1924, a German-language debunking was published by journalist Benjamin Segel.

And yet Hitler used it extensively in his campaign to illustrate Jewish malevolence; so, too, did Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, in the United States. Forty-three years after the New York Herald first published its takedown of the Protocols, “The History of a Lie,” the Senate Judiciary Committee felt compelled to publish its own report, calling the work “A Fabricated ‘Historic’ Document” in 1964. But the work continues to be published all over the world, and is readily available online, to astound first-time readers who may feel as if the curtain is finally being lifted — the dark plot undergirding their unhappiness at last unveiled. The continual success of the Protocols is a stark illustration of the swift spread of alluring untruths, and the ways in which debunking fake news cannot curb its continual appeal.

Fake news — like conspiracy theories — can be immune to fact-based reproach. They resonate with devotees precisely because they contradict the consensus view of reality with which they are unhappy, and purport to vanquish defenders of the status quo.

Anti-Semitism is non-partisan. It exists both on the right and on the left (though leftist anti-Semites often sub in “Zionists” for “Jews”) lurking on the fringes, wherever counter-narratives to established truth are offered to eager listeners. (I am not conflating anti-Zionism, or harsh criticism of the Israeli government, with anti-Semitism; rather, I refer to those on the far left who are eager to explain how Zionists rig elections worldwide, and how global capitalism is shaped by Jewish greed and Rothschild gold.) In times that feel profoundly unstable, and in which the nature of reality is drawn into question by the executive branch of the American government itself, alternative explanations, with their sinister Soroses, are more appealing than ever.

For American Jews, many of whom have felt profound comfort and inclusion in the past half-century — and who have, in turn, shaped American culture in profound ways — the events of the past few months have been deeply unsettling. Warning knells sounded throughout a conspiracy-laced campaign, as Jewish journalists covering Trump faced unprecedented volumes of anti-Semitic abuse. But the two-fronted attack on preschools and cemeteries, children and the dead, coupled with swastika graffiti cropping up on street corners and synagogues, have left a sense of profound unease in their wake. (“Are Jews White?” asked a December headline in the Atlantic, a potent summation of these fears.)

A popular European story in the 15th century told the tale of the “Wandering Jew,” an immortal Jerusalem shoemaker cursed to wander from place to place for eternity. The term became a metonym for the Jewish people themselves— illustrative of both their immortality and the impermanence of their residence in any one country. While this was — and continues to be — cast as a malevolent Jewish trait, the central irony is that that impermanence is caused by the rise of prejudice against a minority that has retained its separateness, and its traditions, for millennia. The postwar embrace of Jews in America felt giddy, complete, perhaps eternal. And yet thousands of Jews facing hate crimes across the country have been driven to question that permanence this year.

In an era in which reality itself is in dispute, can America’s Jews dodge the rise of the most enduring conspiracy theory of all?

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Life and heroism in wartime Warsaw

By Joanne Laurier
5 April 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; screenplay by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman

New Zealand-born filmmaker Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper s Wife recounts the true story of the rescue of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland that began in 1939.

Adapted from the non-fiction book of the same title by Diane Ackerman, Caro’s movie dramatizes the heroic efforts by Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński, to turn their bombed out Warsaw zoo into a safe haven and route to freedom for some 300 Jewish men, women and children. Ackerman’s work relied on various sources, particularly Antonina’s memoirs and letters, along with diaries, memoirs, articles and other writings by Ghetto inhabitants.

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

It is an intriguing and little known episode of the Holocaust. Metaphorically, this “zoo” story underscores the vile character of the Nazis’ racist-chauvinist view that other peoples, especially the Jews, were subhuman species.

The Żabińskis put themselves and their children at grave risk at a time when even offering a Jewish person a cup of water in Warsaw was punishable by death.

Spanning seven years, starting in 1939, the movie opens with sequences revealing the intensely compassionate relationship that Antonina (Jessica Chastain) has with the zoo animals. On the eve of the German army’s assault, she awakens her young son Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford, and later by Val Maloku), who is peacefully sleeping alongside two lion cubs. Antonia makes her morning rounds, cycling through the zoo, followed by a galloping baby camel. It is feeding time when she greets her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and other staff members. The relationship between the Żabińskis and their exotic beasts seems idyllic.

But soon German bombs rain down on Warsaw, and whistling fire-balls destroy much of the city and devastate the zoo. Buildings and cages collapse, killing a good many of the animals. (Ackerman writes: “Miraculously, some animals survived at the zoo and many escaped across the bridge, entering Old Town while the capital burned. People brave enough to stand by their windows, or unlucky enough to be outside, watched a biblical hallucination unfolding as the zoo emptied into Warsaw’s streets. Seals waddled along the banks of the Vistula, camels and llamas wandered down alleyways, hooves skidding on cobblestone, ostriches and antelope trotted beside foxes and wolves, anteaters called out hatchee, hatchee as they scuttled over bricks.”)

German forces enter the zoo and shoot many of the remaining animals and confiscate others. After an unsuccessful attempt to flee Warsaw, the Żabińskis are forced to make a proposal to an acquaintance and fellow zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), head of Berlin’s zoo and now a committed Nazi. Antonina and Jan request permission from Heck to transform the shattered facility into a pig farm. They suggest that the garbage from the Jewish Ghetto be used to feed the swine that, in turn, will feed the German army.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Heck is thrilled with the prospect of using the zoo’s facility in his attempt to genetically resurrect the long-extinct bull, the aurochs, and promote it as a symbol of Aryan strength and purity. Under Heck’s nose, however, Jan begins smuggling out Ghetto residents hidden in large containers of garbage. The refugees are then concealed in the cages and tunnels of the zoo.

“I was raised with these people,” Jan tells Antonina. “Jews, Gentiles, it never mattered to me.” For Antonina, her “human zoo” will help mend the wounds of those like Urszule (Shira Haas), a traumatized teenage girl brutally raped by two German soldiers. The cunning and dangerous operation also involves fabricating identity papers. Of all the hundreds of Jews brought out by the Żabińskis, only two were murdered.

When the liquidation of the Ghetto begins in July 1942 and thousands of people are herded into trains bound for concentration camps, Jan joins the uprising (Ackerman: “Sixty-three days of ferocious street-to-street fighting”) and stockpiles weapons in the zoo. During the fighting, he is shot and wounded, and sent to a German internment camp. Antonina, who has given birth to their daughter, is kept in the dark about his fate, forcing her to once again tangle with the pernicious Heck.

A commercial production like The Zookeepers Wife—and, in fact, perhaps any artistic rendering—almost inevitably involves a smoothing and rounding off of complex history. But despite weaknesses on this score, the film makes a genuine effort to show that the Żabińskis compassion is extended to all living creatures. They are non-Jews (Jan was raised as an atheist), a cultured pair who felt compelled to make a supreme sacrifice to oppose the Nazi onslaught.

Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, McFarland, USA) has chosen a legitimate subject to recreate, treating it with a degree of skill and imagination. The scenes of the zoo’s demolishing are wrenching. As Ackerman puts it, the menagerie was “guillotined by the war.” While the movie is not the be-all-and-end-all in terms of psychological depth, it takes a stand for solidarity and unity.

This has elicited a negative reaction from a number of critics, who see the film as insufficiently dark, i.e., The Zookeeper’s Wife does not argue that human beings are essentially rotten and selfish.

There is much to be said for the performances. The English-language film requires the actors to speak with a Polish accent, not an easy task for Chastain. But regardless of the flaws in her delivery, she embodies sincere human emotion, an appropriate counterweight to the fascist inhumanity.

In an interview, Caro describes the remarkable scene in which Chastain’s Antonina saves a newborn elephant from suffocation: “We shot overnight for two nights in the freezing cold. Jessica was barefoot, on her knees, in a tiny cocktail dress, on concrete, underneath the feet of an elephant. And the rest of us were wearing four pairs of pants, millions of ski jackets. And Lily’s [the elephant who had just given birth] trunk was all over Jessica, searching for apples that Jessica had concealed under her skirt. All of the animal work was all completely natural. I never wanted an animal to have to do a particular trick or action.”

One of the most haunting sequences occurs when the Nazis are packing the Ghetto inmates into cattle cars. As scores of children are lifted onto the train, German soldiers are throwing suitcases into a big pile—the cold, impersonal discarding of possessions and identities of those headed for the gas chambers. Other notable moments include the evocative image of ashes falling like snow from the Ghetto’s incineration and the children’s colored drawings on the walls of the Żabińskis’ dank basement sanctuary.

Lacking in The Zookeeper’s Wife, as in almost every other recent film on the subject of the Holocaust and World War II, is a significant historical framework and context. How did fascism arise and conquer? What political forces were responsible?

The Zookeeper’s Wife

In her book, Ackerman observes that the “Nazi goal of more ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) applied pointedly to Poland, where Hitler had ordered his troops to ‘kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the Lebensraum we need.’” But this does not help explain how Hitler came to power in the first place.

Abram Leon (1918-1944), a Jewish Trotskyist born in Warsaw who fought against the Nazi occupation of Belgium, wrote, “The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth.” In the face of the ruinous crisis of German imperialism following World War I, the betrayals of the working class by social democracy and Stalinism opened the door to the fascist barbarism.

Caro told an interviewer: “We started out making a historical drama and world events have shown us that we’ve made a profoundly contemporary film. I hope people go and see it and revisit what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, and recognize that there are horrifying parallels to what is happening right now.” It seems fair to assume that she is referring to developments like the Donald Trump presidency and the general rise of right-wing, nationalist parties.

The Żabińskis’ daughter, Teresa, explained to People magazine, “My parents told me that they did only what should have been done—it was their obligation to do that. They were just decent people. They said decent people should do the same, nothing else. I’d like as many people as possible to understand what actually happened here in Warsaw during the war, and how much humanity and love can do.”

Also cited in People article was Stephania Kenigswain Stibon, three years old when she, her mother and brother escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and were saved by the Żabińskis in 1943: “I remember that we ran around the house when we could, because usually we were in the basement or in the cages. But what I remember most is that the Germans used to come from time to time, and when the people at the gate saw them coming, they gave a signal to the villa and Antonina used to sit by the piano and start to play and my brother and I knew we had to hide. My brother would always say, ‘Come, come, we have to hide so they don’t kill mom.’”

Stibon’s family hid in the zoo for over two months—the longest period anyone stayed there.


What white liberals so often get wrong about racism and Donald Trump

Bernie is wrong and Malcolm was right:

White progressives have a tough time confronting racism — as Bernie Sanders, a hero in many ways, has made clear

Bernie is wrong and Malcolm was right: What white liberals so often get wrong about racism and Donald Trump
Bernie Sanders; Malcolm X (Credit: AP/Craig Ruttle)

In the United States, white liberals and progressives have historically shown a serious inability to grapple with the realities of the color line and the enduring power of white supremacy. Many of them are either unable or unwilling to understand that fighting against class inequality does not necessarily remedy the specific harms done to African-Americans and other people of color by white racism.

For example, last Friday Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke in Boston at the Our Revolution Rally, where he said this:

Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.

Given Sanders’ long history of fighting for human rights, his comments are profoundly disappointing. They also demonstrate the blind spot and willful myopia that too many white liberals and progressives have toward white racism in America.

Sanders’ defense of Donald Trump’s “white working class” voters can be evaluated on empirical grounds. This is not a case of “unknown unknowns.”  What do public opinion and other data actually tell us about the 2016 presidential election?

Donald Trump’s voters — like Republicans and conservatives on average — are much more likely to hold negative attitudes toward African-Americans and other people of color. Social scientists have consistently demonstrated that a mix of “old-fashioned” white racism, white racial resentment (what is known as “modern racism”), xenophobia, ethnocentrism, sexism and nativism heavily influenced white conservatives and right-leaning independents to vote for Donald Trump.

Trump voters are also more authoritarian than Republicans as a whole. Trump voters possess a fantastical belief that white Americans are “oppressed” and thus somehow victims of racism.

Polling experts such as Cornell Belcher have placed Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton within the broader context of a racist backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency among white voters.

And one must also not overlook how Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and victory inspired a wave of hate crimes across the United States against Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, First Nations people, gays and lesbians and those of other marginalized communities. Donald Trump used a megaphone of racism and bigotry to win the 2016 presidential election. His supporters heard those signals loud and clear.

Sanders is also committing another error in reasoning and inference, one that is common among white Americans in the post-civil rights era. Racism and white supremacy are not a function of what is in peoples’ hearts, what they tell you about their beliefs or the intentions behind their words or deeds. In reality, racism and white supremacy are a function of outcomes and structures. Moreover, the “nice people” that Sanders is talking about benefit from white privilege and the other unearned advantages that come from being white in America.

Sanders’ statement is also a reminder of the incorrect lessons that the Democratic Party is in danger of learning from its 2016 defeat.

Chasing the largely mythical “white working-class voters whose loyalties went from “Obama to Trump” will not win future elections. The white working-class voters they covet are solidly Republican.

Alienating people of color and women by embracing Trump’s base of human deplorables will not strengthen the Democratic Party. It will only drive away those voters who are the Democratic Party’s most reliable supporters.

Sanders has unintentionally exemplified the way that both white liberals and white conservatives are heavily influenced by the white racial frame. As such, both sides of the ideological divide are desperate to see the best in their fellow white Americans, despite the latter’s racist behavior.

This is why “white allies” are often viewed with great suspicion by people of color. Malcolm X discussed this point in 1963:

In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negroes (i.e., the race problem, the integration and civil rights issues) are nothing but tools, used by one group of whites called Liberals against another group of whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power. Among whites here in America, the political teams are no longer divided into Democrats and Republicans. The whites who are now struggling for control of the American political throne are divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps. The white liberals from both parties cross party lines to work together toward the same goal, and white conservatives from both parties do likewise.

The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political “football game” that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.

Bernie Sanders’ comments on Friday serve as an unintentional reminder of Malcolm X’s wisdom.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.