Every time I see politicians screaming at each other, crying out and cursing immigrants and refugees, the last lines of a poem resonate in the back of my head. It was written by Willem Wilmink, a Dutch poet and song writer.
As with some poems that are very dear to me I know it by heart (yes, you may try me on that). It tells the story of Michel Velleman, a magician who worked under the alias of Ben Ali Libi. He was killed in Sobibor in 1943, simply because he was seen as different; a Jew.
Unfortunately there was only a Dutch version, so I tried make an English translation. It’s a faint attempt – the original is much better, much more subtle and elegant – but I hope it covers the essence.
Ben Ali Libi
On a list of artists, killed in the war,
was a name I heard never before,
so I looked in wonder at the name of that man:
Ben Ali Libi. Magician.
With a laugh and a sham and a magic box
and an alibi that he chose with care,
he scratched up a small living:
Ben Ali Libi, the magician
The friends of the Widow Rost*
felt the Netherlands were dangerously lost
to a worldwide Jewish-Bolshevik plan.
They naturally meant that magician.
He who had hidden a pigeon or flower before,
couldn’t hide himself, when they knocked on the door.
There already stood a van,
for Ben Ali Libi, the magician.
In the concentration camp he has perhaps
shown his best tricks sometime again
with a smile and a sham, a misleading sign
Ben Ali Libi, the magician.
And always when there’s a shouter to see
with an alternative for democracy
I think: your paradise, how much space is there
for Ben Ali Libi, the magician?
For Ben Ali Libi, the little schlemiel
he rest in peace, God have his soul.
– Willem Wilmink –
Especially those last lines “And always when there’s a shouter to see with an alternative for democracy (…) in your paradise, how much space is there for Ben Ali Libi, the magician?”. They are like a touchstone for politicians and make an appeal to all of us: How much space do we give others. How hospitable are we? Do we give others room to live, or do we close ourselves up in our ivory towers? Do we see other people as equals? Do we really SEE other people? Do we see them as humans? Or are we afraid to look at them? It’s easier to overlook them, dehumanize them. Because if they aren’t human, it releases us from taking responsibility.
One of the philosophers whose work I keep in high regard is Hannah Arendt. She wrote about totalitarian regimes, dictators and the mechanisms that led to genocide. Over the last months I have been re-reading some of her works and what I see happening in our society is alarming. Hate towards minorities and refugees has become bon ton, dominating the political debate. Ignorance and rudeness are celebrated as achievements.
Hate and fear are cultivated and we have become used to covert racist views disguised as political speeches. But it’s too easy to push the supporters of these politicians aside as ignorant dummies. Last week I found this article by Emma Lindsay, who views the incentives of Trump supporters in terms of fear to be shamed in their social status and a loss of dignity tied in with that. It makes sense.
I don’t think the politicians who lead these parties are evil geniuses. They are merely opportunists who thrive on the fear of their followers. It is in their own interest to cultivate this fear in order to gain power. At the events they organize they give their followers what they want: a place where they can shout and hear someone cry out ‘fuck you’ at everything they fear.
But this brings me back to those lines: How much space is there in our own envisioned paradise, for someone like that little old magician?
*) The Rost widow was the wife of Meinoud Rost van Tonningen, a prominent Dutch Nazi. He was captured by the Canadian allies and died in 1945 before the end of his trial. His wife held on to – and defended – the Nazi ideology until her death in 2007.