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Potential Arson

Technology enables us to not

experience the world, by isolating us from heat

and cold, so we can as it were boycott

whatever’s natural, but can’t make it obsolete

since ultimately we are tightly bound

to circumstances that we can’t escape, because the earth

is of all our existences the ground

that will not let us go, except of course by means of mirth,

which is the only method that releases

man from reality. Though bad religion often tries,

its premises then tend to fall to pieces

once we’re aware that help does not come from the skies,

and does this too, when we do not protest,

as Biedermann did not, against potential arson,

their arson being hate of Jews whom they detest,

preaching prejudice just like a primrose parson.

In the 12/13/22 NYT Bret Stephens alludes to a play by Max Frisch (“Evil Clowns and Cowardly Lions”):

The problem with evil clowns is that it’s the clownishness, not the evil, they soon shed.

This is not a new problem. Communist dictatorships came to power in Central Europe after World War II by pretending to play by democratic rules, until they didn’t. The Nazis came to power in Germany the same way. They joined the institutions they intended to destroy. And the people who were supposed to be the keepers of those institutions, the guardians at the gate, allowed — and sometimes even helped — them to do it.

Why?

A good explanation comes in Max Frisch’s 1958 play, “Biedermann and the Fire Raisers” (also translated from German as “The Arsonists” or “The Firebugs”). It tells the story of a self-satisfied businessman named Gottlieb Biedermann who reads the news that arsonists have been sweet-talking their way into people’s houses and then, after being allowed to sleep in the attic, blowing them up.

“They should hang the lot of them,” says the outraged Biedermann at the beginning of the play. But he’s their next victim.

The arsonists wheedle their way into his house with a combination of servile pleading, subtle bullying and appeals to Biedermann’s moral vanity. And Biedermann, who nurses a hidden feeling of guilt and fears open confrontation, is their ideal mark. By the end of the play, he’s handing the arsonists the matches with which they are going to blow up the house. He can’t conceive that he’s no longer in charge. He thinks he and the arsonists are in on a big joke, never realizing that he’s become the butt of the joke itself.

It’s not hard to figure out who today’s arsonists are. They aren’t just Trump, Greene and Vladimir Putin. They are also the ideological entrepreneurs in universities, businesses, publishing houses and news media working almost openly to undermine the missions of these institutions— intellectual excellence, profitability, free expression, objectivity — in the name of higher social goals like representation, sustainability, sensitivity and “moral clarity.” Their aim isn’t to make their homes better. It’s to blow them up.

The harder challenge is to recognize our present-day Biedermanns: The university president who claims to believe in academic freedom, until he joins the arsonists in destroying the career of tenured faculty members; the magazine editor who claims to believe in vigorous debate, until he capitulates to those who don’t; the Republican House member who says enough is enough after Jan. 6, until he finds it much more convenient to let bygones be bygones.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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