Amazing and Agonizing Transformations

by Seymour Schechtman

It is often said that "he who does not remember history is condemned to repeat its mistakes". This clearly implies that trends in place will inevitably continue and we can depend on their inherent momentum to structure our life styles around their continued existence. And yet, at times, we respect the possibility that "no army can resist the power of an idea whose time has come". And sometimes there is a blending and melding of these two opposite concepts which makes the study of history, and human behavior in general, the fascinating thing that it is. Consider the following seminal events for us all and individually too, in the last instances cited below.

About two thousand years ago, at the beginning of our so called Christian era, a devoted Jew named Saul was on a trip to Damascus, when he had a mind altering experience. Legend has it that he fell off his horse, picked himself up and was no longer the same person. Ostensibly, before the fall, he was on a mission ordered by his revered Rabbi, to correct wayward Jews of the "Jesus sect"---- those who believed that Jesus was the revealed Messiah predicted by the prophet Isaiah. This set them apart from mainstream Judaism--then and now--that the advent of the Messiah was not yet at hand.

When he rose from his fall Saul was now Paul, with a mind altering vision that gradually changed the course of the western world. Now Paul preached that observance of the commandments--the mitzvoth of the Law--were not the essential elements to be followed. Only faith in Jesus as the Messiah who had suffered on the cross for the sins of humanity was necessary for redemption and salvation. "We conclude that a man is put right with God only through faith and not by doing what the law commands."

The relatively onerous burdens of the Torah--the stringent dietary laws known as kashruth, prayer three times a day, and circumcision among them-- were no longer necessary. Paul went throughout the near east preaching this far less rigorous interpretation of the meaning of Jesus, at great variance to the band of Christís original disciples, such as James, Jesusí brother, and Peter, who was regarded as the first pope by the Catholic church. Paul, who had never known Jesus, went throughout the Near East preaching this expanded, more permissive doctrine of Jesus, and gained many converts who were not originally born Jewish. In Jerusalem, the "homeland" those still preaching Christ the Messiah in terms of full acceptance of the Mosaic Law and the Torah made slow progress. Gradually Paulís doctrine, as we know, prevailed and the birth of the Christian religion became a fact; no longer a small faction of dissident Jews.

At that time, however, the Jews were the important factor to contend with. The ruling world power, Rome, had to Marshall its best legions to put down the Jewish Revolt at about the time of Paulís unheralded missionary journeys. Only many years later were his efforts overtly to bear fruit when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. And only then did the official persecution of the Jews begin, as unbelievers who refused to accept Christís divinity and were eternally damned.

Some nineteen hundred years later a fanatic, much more secular saviour ---Adolf Hitler--- was rising to power in Germany, and one of his fundamental dogmas was the Communist conspiracy that was in place in Soviet Russia. Indeed, the start of his Third Reich literally began with the Reichstag fire, the German parliamentary building in Berlin, on February 27, l933. According to Goebbelsí diary this was really preplanned, at least in theory if not in fact. "In a conference with the Fuehrer we lay down the line for the fight against the Red terrror. The Bolshevik attempt at revolution must first burst in flame. At the proper moment we shall strike." While the full truth of the Reichstag fire may still be in doubt, the Nazis served up a somewhat demented communist "culprit" who had publicly boasted of wanting to set fire to the building. Only several weeks later national elections were held, and Hitlerís National Socialist Party won convincingly, mainly on the pledge to prevent the Bolshevik threat from the east from taking over (represented by the large German Communist Party already in place in the country).

Hitler, throughout his 13 years of power always emphasized the contradictory threats of the capitalist Jew and the demon of Bolshevik communism as Germanyís twin enemies.

These twin allegations, like many extreme untruths, always had those necessary shreds of truth to convince the susceptible and willing dupes yearning to be led. But this was also true on the opposing side, the great Union of Democratic Soviet Socialist Republics, who always masqueraded under the banner of freedom and equality not only for the great Soviet worker, now happily free from capitalist oppression, but also for the international worker, whose freedom they urged and promoted with the International Comintern, devoted to spread Communism world wide. And especially to liberate their fellow German workers from the "fascists beasts" now in control in Nazi Germany.

But lo! in late August of 1941 these two prime producers of vitriolic prose against each other signed a non aggression pact which surprised the civilized world, friend and foe alike. It was on the brink of Hitlerís planned invasion of Poland; he wanted the assurance that the Soviets would not intervene when the Nazis invaded. But Stalin held out while Hitler dithered and ranted, finally relenting in giving the Russians a secret protocol dividing up Poland between them both. This secret provision the Russians denied until l989, trying to continue posing as invading Poland from the East--two weeks after the Nazis did from the West-- purely for defensive reasons!

Shocking as this treaty was to the French and English, who hoped to keep the Soviets neutral if not actively on their side, it was a mortal blow to many intelligentsia world wide who held sacred the cause of the poor and oppressed---The workers of the World!--who would some day establish a utopia such as they still fervently hoped Soviet Russia was striving to build. Soon after Soviet Russia attacked tiny Finland, which had become a "bastion of Capitalist Imperialism and corruption".

This amazing turnabout, of course, served both sides temporarily, giving them time to pursue their immediate goals. But less then two years later the Nazis were back on Stalinís, doorstep with ever increasing strength and fury, after the relatively easy Polish conquest and the rest of continental Europe. That was in July l941 and began the penultimate phase of the war, finally culminating with our entry in December of that year and as the Russians in brutal combat and much loss of life ultimately stemmed the Nazi tide deep in Russia and began to roll them back.

Several years later a young politician fresh from World War Two, ---Richard Nixon--- was influenced by the rising tide of distrust for our great ally of that war--- Communist Russia. That was the time that an "Iron Curtain" was descending over middle Europe, to use Churchillís famous expression. Stalinís "peaceful" aggression placed this new boundary across the middle of Europe by his acquisition, uncontested, of political control over many eastern European regimes. And many in western countries became skeptical and uneasy about our former allies who had suffered so heroically during the war. And this unease traveled very well across the Atlantic. Anti Communism, like anti Semitism, is a virulent hate that survives and flourishes when needed to vent lifeís frustrations.

Indeed, Nixon, at that time a fledgling member of the House of Representatives, became very influential on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, a very active group concerned with the inroads of native and foreign "Reds" in this country. He was active in the prosecution of Alger Hiss, accused of spying for Soviet Russia. This case was made famous--the Pumpkin Papers-- by the using of a large pumpkin as a repository for documents that Hiss secreted in the pumpkin for pickup by his accuser, Whitaker Chambers, who then delivered the papers to Soviet agents. Hiss was convicted and sentenced to many years imprisonment--only recently released.

Many of us, still under the thrall of Russia as our heroic wartime ally, were reluctant to accept the Hiss verdict, as also the Rosenbergs death sentence for spying for the Soviets. Only in the last ten years did we realize how guilty they really were with the release of classified Soviet documents clearly implicating Hiss and the Rosenbergs in spying for the Russians.

Gaining national attention by his career as a congressman with his active anti communist stance, Nixon next ran for the Senate, in l950, defeating Helen Gahagan Douglas, wife of famed actor Melvyn Douglas, by painting her as too liberal and inclined to favor communist initiatives. These innuendoes and implications labeled him, by his enemies, as "Tricky Dick". Indeed, Eisenhower picked him as his Vice Presidential running mate because of his avowed anti communist stance. And he further added to this image by his friendly confrontation, as vice president, with Premier Kruschev at a Moscow trade fair where they both were upholding the merits of their respective refrigerators. According to the American media version Nixon ably, but politely and firmly, held his ground in the face of Kruschevís boastful glorification of Soviet industry. (At that time, you may remember, Kruschev confidently insisted that "We will bury you!").

All of this was prologue to the astonishing turnabout in 1971 and 72, when Nixon was president. Up until 71 and 72 Nixon and fellow Republicans had always reliably pilloried their opponents as "being soft on communism" with great political reward. Now, in reponse to careful and secret overtures from the Chinese leaders delegations from both sides began negotiating, then came the famous ping pong tournaments in China and then NIxonís state visit, the first by an American president while in office. We recognized in principle the One China principle and that Taiwan is part of China.

Criticism centered around the Taiwan aspect. " We got egg rolls, and they got Taiwan." But that is egregiously wide of the of the mark. Gradually China became a trading partner of great scope with us, so much so that our trading position now is heavily in their favor because they are producing for us so much cheap and competently made goods.

And, of course, cultural exchanges are increasing, as is interaction between the people on many social levels. Nixonís surprise turnaround has so far born much fruit, only something that "Tricky Dickie" could bring off. Only an avowed "enemy, tough on the ĎCommiesí, could have the trust of the people to bring it off--- some one who wasnít selling us a bill of goods!" Also, as we became friendlier with the Chinese the Russians gave us more attention and concessions in their policy dealings with us.

Great personal transformations in oneís lifetime, agonizing but mostly rewarding, also are our lot in the rapidly accelerating social centrifuge that is our culture. When I walked into a pharmacy (drug store) at the beginning of my adult life I had no trouble discerning my favorite brand of cigarette, and much difficulty in procuring what was most compelling and alluring then for my use and enjoyment--condoms. That was almost sixty years ago, when smoking and tobacco were still a thing of pleasant contemplation and enjoyment, and objects of sexual utility--condoms--were an embarrassment to display publicly. Indeed, buying condoms was a surreptitious maneuver, usually conducted only with a male employee and in a low voice. The various brands of cigarettes, some cigars, and pipe tobaccos were all around in often garish display; today of course the reverse is true! Buying cigarettes is almost an embarrassment because of its proven lethalness and all over the store, often in garish display, are the condoms, douches, (and even vibrators!) for your contemplation and buying delectation. (And for the cigarettes you need prove of age; but for the sex objects I believe you only need money!)

Also a somewhat harsh but dramatically compelling word---Bastard!--is no longer available for correct, proper usage. Even illegitimate child is improper. "Born out of wedlock" is the gentle, understanding way to apprehend this previously embarrassing contretemps. This is because we have made an startling about face in the last fifty years in our sexual mores. Virginity is a stigma that must be confronted and confounded; chastity is a backward, reactionary way to deal with the interplay between the sexes, and hence having children has to be accommodated by abortion or their awkward arrival at any time. And marriage is really a state not of grace but a holding pattern until you can get your life together and move on.

A corollary transformation, and a good thing this time, is the acceptance of gays. In my lifetime this too has turned the corner, and our social and civic intercourse is much more realistic and healthful because of our understanding and acceptance of their alternate life style. Also there is the astonishing ascent up the power rungs of society of our female mates in general. Viva feminism--up to a point, of course!. (They really should not try take away all our special privileges---we deserve some of them! After all who made the world save for democracy, brought Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Sunday Football, and all the other goodies too plentiful to mention).

Thinking it all over---maybe we are now spinning around too fast. But when you are having so much fun life does seem to spin around somewhat breathlessly. Or should we slow down before we get too dizzy??