When I was a boy, everyone said the epitome of Shakespeare is Hamlet’s soliloquy. The soliloquy, the one from Act III, the one that poses the question: “To be, or not to be.”
Those words, like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, are instantly recognizable, a pocket summary of an entire cultural tradition. The phrases that follow, one after another, dot our language: “What dreams may come,” “this mortal coil,” “the insolence of office,” “the undiscovered country,” etc., etc., etc.
You could hardly escape Hamlet’s soliloquy. In movies, it got the classic treatment by Olivier, was taken up by a melancholy Doc Holliday in “My Darling Clementine,” was played for laughs by Jack Benny in (what else?) “To Be or Not to Be,” and (later on) given an explosive reading by Schwarzenegger in “Last Action Hero.” And that’s just one slice of pop culture. Wherever it turns up, and however it is rendered, the soliloquy is said to be the Bard’s most penetrating insight into the human condition.
I couldn’t see it. What was so hard about the question, “To be or not to be”? Doesn’t everybody want to be? Why all this chin-tugging?
What I didn’t understand—what I never suspected—was that Hamlet was speaking of the shared experience of humanity. Through the centuries, people have been in his shoes. They have had to choose between subservience and struggle—to choose whether to live on your knees or die on your feet. In my sheltered 1950s world, I had no idea of that.
Was my sheltered world normal? Not really. Life has a way of teaching bitter lessons to those who’ve been sitting pretty, sometimes bit by bit and sometimes all at once.
On 9/11, for example, a cloud of flames, dust and death billowed over lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania pasture. All of us were getting it, right in the face. In Tennessee, someone asked a law professor and budding “Instapundit” named Glenn Reynolds when life in America would ever get back to normal.
“This is normal,” he replied. Then Reynolds wrote: “For most of human history, wondering when somebody from another tribe was going to try to kill you was the standard activity. In much of the world, it still is. … It’s only in comparatively strong and wealthy Western nations that we can pretend that safety is normal.”
These dour thoughts were brought to mind by the recent dust-up among the Democrats over crosstown school busing. That policy, which aimed at integrating widely separated urban schools, was a small matter compared with 9/11, but in the 1970s, it was pretty traumatic for a lot of people. In South Boston, a decision in 1974 to swap busloads of high-schoolers with students from a largely black school a few miles away in Roxbury sparked months of furious protests. (A scene from one such protest is this story’s featured image: A woman wearing a “Stop Forced Busing” button seeks safety as mounted police disperse the crowd. She and the others had gathered at South Boston High School after a black student stabbed a white student there.)
The rioting reached a climax more than a year later, when white students picketing City Hall attacked a black lawyer who happened to cross their path. The confrontation produced an image that shocked a nation accustomed to thinking of Boston as a citadel of liberal civility, not like those dens of Southern yahoos in Little Rock and Selma.
Race riots in the heart of liberaldom were explained away by pointing at “Southie,” the home of Boston’s Irish working class. No one had yet coined the word “deplorables,” but that is what liberals were thinking. What they weren’t thinking about—what they had already forgotten, if indeed they ever had even noticed—was that only a few months earlier, a white woman living in Roxbury had been burned alive by a gang of black teenagers a few blocks from her home. Dying in a hospital bed, she told police her attackers said they didn’t want any whites in their neighborhood. And Southie’s kids were supposed to be bused there?
That woman, Evelyn Wagler, is not a household name, like, say, Emmett Till. But she, no less than he, bore witness to the savagery that can erupt when people from hostile tribes collide. Those who promote tribalism in America—which is what “identity politics” boils down to—should take heed.
I advise Joe Biden’s rivals to cut him some slack, then. So what if he opposed busing in the 1970s? The policy wasn’t popular then, and it wouldn’t be loved now.
But set aside the business about busing, tribalism and identity politics. Such things are not what bothered Hamlet. The people who were giving him fits were not only Danes like him, they were his own flesh and blood. What is worse, they were his superiors in rank. His uncle Claudius, who had murdered his father and married his mother, was now his king.
What to do when your ruler is a murderer? Knuckle under, or fight and die?
Adolf Hitler established his credentials as a murderous ruler quite early in his reign over Germany. On the night of June 30 into July 1, 1934, he had several thousand Nazi rivals, personal enemies, and assorted inconvenient individuals shot, without trial, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. The firing squads had to be relieved from time to time because of the mental stress it was putting on the soldiers. Winston Churchill recounts the events dispassionately, in the first volume of his World War II memoirs, and then comments:
This massacre, however explicable by the hideous forces at work, showed that the new Master of Germany would stop at nothing, and that conditions in Germany bore no resemblance to those of a civilized country. A Dictatorship based upon terror and reeking with blood had confronted the world.
It was bad enough to have to fight such a monstrosity from the outside. How much worse was it to be inside, among Hitler’s subjects, or, even worse, among those whose military duty involved carrying out his crimes!
One of the many World War II survivors interviewed for the British documentary series “The World at War” was Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman who had married a German and consequently spent the war in Germany. She told the interviewer several heartbreaking stories, sometimes literally wringing her hands. (An example starts at 35:40 in this link.) Among them was this one:
Near the end of the war, I had to travel from Berlin to the Black Forest, and I happened to travel in the same [train] carriage as an SS man. . . . He explained to me that he was on his way to the front now and all he wanted was to get killed. . . .
He told me that in Poland, he had belonged to one of the commandos that were called the extermination commandos, and on one particular occasion when the Jews were standing around in a semicircle, with the half-dug graves behind them, that the machine guns had been set up, and out of the ranks of the Jews that were standing there, [a rabbi] had come towards him . . . and said, “God is watching what you do.”
And he said, “We shot him down before he returned to the semicircle.” Another [among the Jews], a little boy … had asked him, “Am I standing straight enough?” And, he told me, these things he could never forget and that he only, as I say, now wanted to die.
That soldier’s dilemma was dramatized in “A Time to Love and a Time to Die,” a 1958 American movie made by German-born director Douglas Sirk from Erich Maria Remarque’s World War II novel. The film tells of German private Ernst Graeber’s experiences on the Russian front and during a bittersweet home furlough. In its early Russian scenes, it features a brief appearance by the boyish actor Jim Hutton in the role of Hirschland, a new recruit who can’t believe he’s being ordered to kill unarmed civilians. Film critic Glenn Kenny describes Hirschland’s reaction:
“What if I shoot over their heads?” he desperately asks Ernst. “We’ve all tried that,” Ernst says, himself almost as weary as death. “We only had to do it again. It’s like . . . executing them twice.” The Germans then make light of their task, trying to get drunk on the “good Russian vodka” they’ve pilfered from their victims, only to end up squabbling like hens and destroying their loot. And Hirschland blows his brains out.
Shall we state the obvious? No American today is facing anything like such an extremity. Those who prattle about Donald Trump being another Hitler are in no actual danger of being snatched by the Gestapo in the night, any more than they were under George W. “Chimp/Hitler” Bush.
It’s a fact of modern life, however, that controversial public figures often receive death threats. And, though it shames us to have to say so, the basement-dwelling loons who emit such threats do include among them some Trump supporters as well as many of his foes. So it’s not as if the Trump haters have nothing at all to worry about.
Even so, when prominent Trump critics go on book tours, land lucrative endorsement deals, or deliver profanity-laced tirades at glitzy, televised celebrity affairs—all while congratulating themselves for having the “courage” to “speak truth to power” in “fascist AmeriKKKa”—one must wonder where self-flattery ends and lunacy begins.
While the classical picture of a lunatic is someone who thinks he’s Napoleon, a lot of people today seem to think they’re Hamlet. They see Trump as a usurper like Claudius, and themselves as being deprived, as Hamlet was, of their birthright—which evidently is to occupy positions of power from which to rule over us.
And, like Hamlet, they are spurring themselves toward a violent conclusion. We’ve already seen bits of it, in the murderous attack on a congressional GOP baseball practice and the brutal assaults by Antifa thugs on any conservative who ventures within their reach.
How can we minimize the harm such people do? By minimizing their influence. By isolating them, cutting the support out from under them, and thus depriving them of the power to bully others the way they do now.
Let’s reflect that while America is far from becoming anything like Hitler’s Germany, some of the evils of which Hamlet complained have appeared, and indeed have been with us for a very long time.
Hamlet spoke of “the law’s delay.” Americans get a lot of that. Evelyn Wagler, for example, suffered a fate as dire as that suffered by any of Hitler’s victims. You’d think the law would lose no time in avenging her. You’d think wrong. No one was ever identified, let alone arrested, prosecuted, convicted, or executed, in connection with her murder. Yet with “the insolence of office,” the powers that be were soon sending Boston’s finest out on horseback to chase protesters away from Southie’s high school, which had become the scene of further violence. The unhappy woman pictured at the top of this article was living in Hamlet’s world.
No one wants to live in Hamlet’s world, and that includes the very people the Left presumes to speak for. As I wrote more than six years ago:
Many among liberalism’s special clientele—poor people, minorities, feminists, gays, unions, the homeless, etc.—are sick to death of gangs and violence and would love to see that all swept away.
So let’s focus on the violence. Let’s focus on crime and punishment.
Let us fight fire with fire. We should set about hanging murderers, to the point that death for murder becomes the rule rather than the extremely rare exception. And we should keep on locking up the murderers’ lesser fellows for as long as necessary, until violent crime once again is as rare as it was when I was a boy—indeed, even rarer.
Liberals may fret and fuss about “legalized murder” in the first case, and “the new Jim Crow” in the second. Ordinary people like the ones quoted here, here, here, here, here and here will know better. Fight the Left on this battleground, and more and more of those ordinary people will walk away from their leftist leaders, until that fine day when the leaders turn around and, sick with impotent fury, realize no one is following them any more.
Crime should be crushed for the victims’ sake, of course, regardless of any partisan considerations. But in the coming electoral showdown, those considerations are not to be ignored. Have you got it in for liberal Democrats? Then take it out on their pets, the hoodlums who have been shedding our blood these many years. There’s no surer way of bringing about the liberals’ downfall, and securing everyone else’s safety.
While public safety may not be normal in historical terms, it’s the goal we should strive to achieve. Liberals stand in the way, as they have for decades. Today they enjoy an added sense of heroism in “resisting” Orange Man, but such vainglory is nothing new to them. Why should we indulge them any longer? Time’s up! On the issue of crime and punishment, liberals are overdue for a comeuppance, so let’s bring it on.
The more the Left tries to preserve the law’s delay, the sooner it will come to rue its insolence of office.
Photo Credit: Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images