by Jeremy Fassler
Benjamin Zuskin couldn’t sleep. The year was 1952, and as a former member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow, he knew that Stalin could come for him at any moment. The head of the organization, stage actor Solomon Mikhoels, had been murdered three years prior, and had his body placed underneath a car to have it look like an accident. Fearing that he could be next, he became an insomniac. When he couldn’t take it any longer, he was sent to a hospital for nervous exhaustion, where they gave him a sleeping drug. By the time he woke up, he had already been taken to prison. He would be killed along with thirteen other Russian Jews on August 12th of that year, on a night referred to as “The Night of the Murdered Poets.”
What would Josef Stalin desire to accomplish by killing these thirteen men? As Jews, he feared that they were open to Western influences, particularly after the Second World War, when the Soviet Union received more exposure from the Western world than it had since its founding. He branded those who dared to dissent against his government as “Cosmopolites,” a word defined in a Politico article as “a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more w/like-minded people regardless of their nationality.” Stalin used that word to target the few Jews left in the Soviet Union who had not already been killed in the Holocaust.
I tell this story because it connects to Count Chocula twin Stephen Miller’s use of the word in yesterday’s White House press briefing, as a way of admonishing CNN correspondent Jim Acosta. As Miller argued that we should only allow immigrants into the country who can speak English, Acosta retorted, asking if this meant we could only allow people from Great Britain and Australia. Miller demeaned Acosta’s remarks as “show[ing] your cosmopolitan bias“ (italics mine).
My disgust for Miller runs deep, as he hails from my hometown of Santa Monica, California, and went to high school at SAMOHI, less than fifteen minutes from my home where I’m typing this. The town is a bastion of liberalism – I went to a predominantly liberal private high school and many of my best friends shared my views. But I was always aware of the way the few conservatives I knew back then played victim, claiming, for example that our liberal history teachers were offending them by including liberal New Yorker cartoons on our weekly syllabi. Those who did support George W. Bush did so with a vengeance, and wrote articles about him that were little more than mere provocation – a rush of blood to the liberal outrage core of the brain that satisfied them when everyone got “offended.”
It’s no surprise that Miller would also engage in such behavior, but much more overtly and with a greater contempt for those who disagreed. When he was in high school, he waged battle with clubs who fought for social progress, and wrote columns in both the school paper and The Santa Monica Lookout expressing disappointment that the morning announcements were read in both English and Spanish, “preventing Spanish speakers from standing on their own.” Most disturbingly, he ran for SAMOHI student council and made a speech attacking the Latino janitors which got him booed off the stage. The damning quote is in this video below, at 2:01.
For those who’ve been keeping tabs on Miller for a long time, his white nationalism is nothing new. What’s disturbing is that he would dare to use the word “cosmopolitan.” Justin Rosario wrote today about Trump feeding this raw meat to the base, since his poll numbers have slipped to 33% and nothing gets them angrier than, to quote Aaron Sorkin, “making you afraid…and telling you who’s to blame for it.” But worse than that is the isolationism the word represents, especially in the context of Miller’s full remarks on immigration: the White House is signaling that America cannot tolerate having people from other countries contaminate us with their ideas.
This conflict has been at the core of Russia’s thousand-year history: whether or not the country should be open to ideas and people from other cultures, or remain firm in their “Russianness,” their sense that they are different from the rest of Western Europe and the United States of America. They have always resisted any influence from other countries, and when that influence has arrived, the reaction against it has been swift. The symbolism of Lenin moving the capital from St. Petersburg, Russia’s “window onto Europe,” to the medieval city of Moscow was not lost on his supporters – it was a way of rejecting the order that came before him.
The old order, at that time, also included a Duma, the Russian parliament that Tsar Nicholas II founded after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1905. Nicholas, Russia’s Tommen Baratheon, was a well-meaning man whose inability to reform came from his tutelage under Peter Pobedonotsev; who taught him, as a child, that because the Tsar was appointed by God to rule over Russia, establishing a parliament would be a sin. In his own words:
“Among the falsest of political principles is the principle of the sovereignty of the people…which has unhappily infatuated certain foolish Russians…Parliament is an institution serving for the satisfaction of the personal ambition, vanity, and self-interest of its members. The institution of Parliament is indeed one of the greatest illustrations of human delusion…Providence has preserved our Russia, with its heterogenous racial composition, from like misfortunes. It is terrible to think of our condition if destiny had sent us the fatal gift—an all Russian Parliament. But that will never be.”
The dissolution of the Duma under Lenin was another sign that Russians would once again be completely subservient to a strong man, who was given god-like powers through the use of religious symbolism. Even though Russia still has a Duma, it is completely subservient to Vladimir Putin’s authority, as is the media, which is stocked with Putin fans and mocks its left-leaning guests with the same fervor a Real Time with Bill Maher audience boos the conservatives.
Given Russia’s influence over the US government, it is no surprise that the members of Trump’s cabinet would adopt Russian tactics to further their policies. Stephen Miller is responsible for much of the rhetoric in both Trump’s RNC address and his inaugural, which included the fascist dog-whistle “I alone can fix it,” which come straight from the playbooks of dictators throughout history. After the travel ban was struck down, Miller, who had shepherded the policy, went on Face the Nation and said that “the powers of the President to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Miller, like Trump, would rather live in a United States where Congress, the judiciary, and the media were all subservient to the man at its helm, no questions asked.
Miller and Trump’s inability to take any criticism is another sign of how fascism has manifested itself in this country since his election. In Umberto Eco’s brilliant essay “Ur-Fascism,” he outlines the commonalities between all fascist governments, and one of them is a rejection of modernism. The Nazis and the Stalinists wanted to take Europe back to the age prior to the Enlightenment, before people began to question authority, just as the Republicans want to take this party back to the 1950s, to an era before feminism, Stonewall, and the Civil Rights movement. The ability to recognize injustice when it happens, to them, is a sign of modernism, since those who are marginalized, through their art and their activism, provoke those with less to lose by asking us to see things from their perspective, challenging us to face the contradictions we must all live with, whether we’re Americans, Russians, Japanese, or Mexican. This is why fascist governments always target artists and activists when they rise to power – like the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
With the word “Cosmopolitan,” Stephen Miller has confirmed the Russian infiltration in our government wasn’t achieved only through email hacking; it was achieved by installing people hostile to our democracy and its traditions, with loyalties and sympathies to governments that thrived on oppression of any who dared question its motives. I have not yet become an insomniac, but, like Benjamin Zuskin, I realize that the past never dies, it is merely reincarnated.
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