Letter Three to Germany: Visiting Chicago Under Trump
In February 2019, Berlin-based author Esther Dischereit observes St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago
Esther Dischereit is a distinguished poet and public intellectual, described by her publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, as “possibly the preeminent German-Jewish voice of the post-Shoah generation.” We met at the University of Virginia, where she held the Max Kade Professorship, when I presented a lecture “To Write Poetry After Auschwitz is (NOT!) Barbaric,” later published here. This past year, Esther was the DAAD Chair in Contemporary Poetics at NYU. While there, she spent time with us at Public Seminar and we published a review of her homage to the victims of Germany’s Neo-Nazis.
During her stay in the United States, Esther wrote three letters for broadcast on German radio in which she described the mood of the United States under President Trump. Here is the third of those letters, in an English translation by Linda Frazee Baker.
This article was originally published in German in Deutschlandfunk Kultur on April 24, 2019 and has been slightly revised. It is reprinted with the kind permission of Deutschlandfunk Kultur.
I met Mickey on the Chicago River. “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” said her T-shirt. Her husband, John, a programmer, says that St. Patrick’s Day has become a kind of public event. The Asian American family on their block was also there with their children. After the parade, groups of people thronged the streets, drank beer, and were wearing the greenest possible outfits, an allusion to the shamrock, the national symbol of Ireland.
Mickey, who works in a bank, says she feels profoundly unmoored. She doesn’t have the slightest idea what will happen tomorrow. And that is an attitude toward life that bothers her. “It didn’t used to be like this,” she says. Diagonally across the street, the president’s name has been mounted in enormous letters on his tower. Attempts to remove it by legal means have failed. A disgrace, John’s daughter said when she came home from college. She was close to tears.
It is truly strange that my neighbor keeps going out again and doing the shopping and so on, but every day she too thinks about it and about how she is being governed. You asked me what has changed now? Nothing and in fact everything.
Ulrich Baer, Professor at New York University, wrote an article in which he said that freedom of speech must reach its limits where openly racist or anti-Semitic hate are concerned. In the local context this was an unheard-of intervention. Freedom of scientific and academic work could also be restricted if a hate-filled rabble rouser like Richard Spencer were to be denied access to a university campus. The New York Times had to shut down its comment space after over a thousand entries.
Many people who consider themselves to be political opponents contribute money to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), so that civil society can hire lawyers and conduct lawsuits. This organization has received more than 83 million dollars in donations, and its membership has multiplied. But the ACLU has also undertaken to defend hate groups with the justification that, as a matter of principle, they too should have the right to be able to represent their views in Charlottesville without restriction.
The idea that freedom of opinion must be defended is taken very far in the USA. At the time, the justification was that representing one’s opponent is honorable and praiseworthy. On the other hand, the ACLU has taken a case that concerns the discrimination against women who have to stay in a marriage to avoid losing their health insurance.
Recently, I saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young Democratic representative and bringer of hope who is viewed as radical, on the side of a wall: a mural in the style of “La Pasionaria,” the revolutionary from the Spanish Civil War.
“I love immigrant America.” Or, “Make America America again.” In ever-new creations, text writers make buttons like the one that says, “When nobody knows what’s wrong with Trump, I don’t know either and I can’t explain it.”
More often than ever, a discussion is taking place as to whether socialism should be a goal or whether it is a disgrace. Bernie Sanders is the person who advocates making the word socialism respectable again. These debates lead to questions about taxing the wealthy, health insurance, and long overdue criminal justice reform.
Or they lead to the question of access to education. This is becoming ever more difficult for elementary school students with African American or Hispanic backgrounds. For example, the results for next year’s class at Stuyvesant High School in New York are that 895 students were accepted, 587 of Asian descent, 194 white, 33 Latinx, and 7 African American.
Even in the Bronx, the situation is in principle exactly the same, although Black people form the largest share of the population, with 36 percent. It’s no different in Brooklyn: of the 1,825 students accepted into an elite high school, 95 are Black. Well-off parents pay for private tutoring long before the entrance exam so their children will pass the test. The result is that Black and Latinx children are left waiting outside the door.
The perception of Native Americans, however, is changing little by little. The Chicago Steppenwolf Theater has an announcement read out loud before the play begins. The building, the institution itself, has been erected on territory that belonged to the tribe of the Three Fires. Who were driven out 200 years ago. Nevertheless, one must be conscious of the fact that more than a dozen other tribes hold meetings here and that over 100,000 tribal members remained in the state of Illinois. The theatre wants to show respect and say thank you to the tribe for their right to hospitality. And to announce that they belong to a group of people who illegally appropriated the land.
And Trump? Sometimes I have the impression that people are tired of hearing the news about the president.
Esther Dischereit writes in many genres including fiction, essays, and plays for radio and the stage. Her poetry was published in the United States by Dimensions, the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, the Bitter Oleander, No Man’s Land, World Literature Today , and others. She lives in Berlin.
Linda Frazee Baker is a writer and literary translator living in New York. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Drunken Boat, Sakura Review, and Folio.