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One down, one to go

By Michael J. Smith on Monday February 11, 2008 07:13 PM

Mike Flugennock passed this welcome bit of news along:


U.S. Rep. Lantos, Holocaust survivor, dies

Rep. Tom Lantos, the only survivor of the Holocaust elected to the U.S. Congress... died on Monday after recently being diagnosed with cancer.... Lantos was born in Hungary and as a teenager twice escaped Nazi labor camps. He was active in the anti-Nazi underground before coming to the United States in 1947 on an academic scholarship....

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Lantos was "the embodiment of what it meant to have one's freedom denied and then to find it and to insist that America stand for spreading the benefits of freedom and prosperity for others."


Whether they like or not, Condi might have added.

Chuck Schumer apparently was kept away from the microphone on this occasion, contrary to the Washington proverb -- which just shows, perhaps, what Beltway wisdom is worth. But there was one inevitable, ineluctable, incurable nuisance who predictably jostled his long melancholy face into the frame:


Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel, speaking on CNN, said of Lantos: "He was one of those spokesman in Congress whose voices are needed ... whenever he spoke it was always for the victims; victims of injustice, of forgetting, victims of diseases, victims of dictatorships and totalitarianism."


The "victims of forgetting"! Why, exactly, does this phrase make me laugh? Partly, it's the tin-eared, algebraic way that Wal-Marters of rhetoric like Wiesel put together their tropes. It's a purely combinatorial exercise: start with "victims" and then list some bad things -- flatulence, haemorrhoids, a hyperactive gag reflex.

Of course the world offers a vast harvest of miscellaneous victims, all presumed to be crying out for representation and memory -- highly selective memory, for the most part -- from the likes of Wiesel and Lantos. But the victims of forgetting! Man, there's a passel of those. Doing them justice is a tall order even for a guy who repeatedly outsmarted the Nazis -- to hear him tell it.

But it's not just the visible machinery of the rhetoric that amuses me so about Wiesel. It's also the relentlessly weepy emotional register, shallow and stereotyped as its means of expression may be.

Everybody has heard singers or fiddlers with an unvarying exaggerated vibrato -- a vibrato wide enough to walk on and fast enough to induce convulsions. They use it for Rossini, they use it for Handel. It's the same vibrato when they sing piano and when they sing forte. It's the same on long notes and short ones, dissonances and consonances, on-beat and off-beat, important notes and passing tones, appoggiature and acciaccature... a uniform inch-thick gelcoat of expressive treacle slathered obsessively over every visible surface.

Wiesel's reflexive threnodies always make me hear, in my mind's ear, some such Gypsy violinist or suburban chazzan. Boot him up, and the elegiac warble quickly crescendos to ear-splitting volume and crystal-shattering pitch. You can't turn it down, you can't mute it, where the hell is the remote -- only recourse is to pull the plug.

So let's look forward to the day when Lantos and Wiesel are reunited in that great schmaltzitorium in the sky, to wail in good close tremulant harmony for all the "victims" of anything anywhere, to whatever audience Heaven may afford. Since it's Heaven, of course, we know that every ham will there receive his longed-for, endless encores.

Comments (3)


Oh, and by the way, don't you think there's something that stinks to high heaven of spookery about that 1947 "scholarship" -- right in that murky cuspy time when old OSS was morphing into new CIA?

Now that you mention is, it does seem rather...spooky, especially the "morphing" part.

Still, aren't vampires supposed to be shape-shifting beings?


old jewish proverb

if you never
knew of it
in the first place
and then you forgot it
well that is going
to be
really hard to remember

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