Of the many childhood memories that have surfaced in these last weeks as the hundredth anniversary of my father’s birth came and went, one seems particularly trenchant to consider as this strangest of all presidential campaigns unfolds and we, unsure what to make of it all, look on and wonder only what might happen next.
“It’s impossible,” my dad once told the eleven- or twelve-year-old me, “to walk across a room.” Confused, I asked what he was talking about: obviously, you can walk across a room! How can you not? But no, my dad went on, you can’t. To cross a room widthwise, say, you must first walk through the first half of the space between two facing walls, and then—and only then—may you walk through the other half. But then, as you contemplate crossing the remaining half, it dawns on you that to do this successfully, you now again must cross the first half of what’s left of the room’s width, and then the second half. This you manage, and are now three-quarters of your way to the far wall. But to cross the remaining quarter, you must first traverse the first half of the remaining distance, and then you can cover the second half. But then, as you prepare to cross your final eighth…you realize that you must first cross the first half and only then can you cross the second half. You can all see, I’m sure, where this was going—even the boy-version of myself saw it eventually: no matter how much or how little ground is left to cover, you must first cross the first half and then the rest. So, theoretically, you cannot ever get to the far wall! And that, my father submitted, was why you can’t cross a room from one side to the other.
I was a clever lad, or I liked to think of myself as one, but this flummoxed me entirely. He was obviously wrong, wasn’t he?
How could it possibly be impossible to cross a room on foot? I myself did it all the time! But what about his argument? Where was the flaw in it? I couldn’t find one, yet I also knew his premise was not only wrong, but silly, absurd. And that is where things stood until I finally got to college and learned that my father hadn’t made this up—or at least that others had made it up before him—and that there was a whole thing in philosophy called the sorites paradox. (The Greek word for “heap,” the word sorites correctly pronounced rhymes with “more tripe, please.”) First worked out by the unjustly obscure Eubulides of Miletus, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of Aristotle and who had a thing for paradoxes, the well-named sorites paradox is about the relationship between a grain of sand and a heap. A single grain of sand is obviously not a heap of sand. Nor are two grains side by side. Nor does it make sense to say that something as minuscule as a grain of sand could transform a non-heap into a heap. Still, if you slowly and methodically add grains of sand to the pile, at some point you do have a heap of sand. And although that has to be true, it somehow also has to be not true, since its being true would imply the existence of a specific point at which a heap of sand would stop being a heap if you removed from it one single grain of sand…and that sounds ridiculous. How could removing a single grain of sand possibly ever change the status of a whole heap? How could an onlooker even tell it was missing?
I was reminded of both these versions of the paradox—I wisely omit the version that asks how the loss of a single hair can make a man bald—as I contemplated with dismay the whole controversy about the so-called Hitler salute that Donald Trump has been eliciting from his followers at some rallies as a kind of public pledge to vote for him on primary day.
Attempts to allay my ill ease have, at least so far, only been marginally successful. The long essay by Jessie Guy-Ryan published the other day on the Atlas Obscura website detailing the history of the salute (and referencing—and quoting at length—Hitler’s own explanation that, although the Italian fascists adopted it first, the salute had bona fide German roots that went back at least to the sixteenth century when the entire Diet of Worms used it, apparently spontaneously, to welcome Martin Luther into their midst) only provoked deeper anxiety in me. Nor did it calm me particularly to learn that that claim was apparently entirely bogus, as was too the Italians’ own insistence that the salute had its roots in ancient Rome. (Interested readers can consult Martin Winkler’s very interesting 2009 book, The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology.) I suppose I should admit that I was slightly amused to read that the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance, written by one Francis J. Bellamy at the request of the then-popular Youth’s Companion magazine in 1892, eventually and for many years featured the exact same salute featuring the “right arm straight forward, angling slightly upward, fingers pointing directly ahead.” That Congress actually acted to end the possibility of America’s schoolchildren pledging allegiance to our flag using what by then was widely understood to be a Nazi gesture—the Flag Code was actually amended in December of 1942 to require that the Pledge be recited “with the right hand over the heart”—is, however, merely a historical detail that really only proves my basic premise: that by the middle of the twentieth century, the gesture in question was universally understood as a Nazi salute, not as a patriotic American one…much less a gesture of fealty to the Roman Empire. (If you’re reading this electronically, click here to see Guy-Ryan’s full essay.)
That was certainly how Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist and self-defined “national socialist” who murdered seventy-seven people in 2011 (most of them children) in two separate attacks, understood it when he raised his arm in an Oslo courtroom last week to greet the public with the most overt non-verbal symbol of his own political philosophy he could manage silently.
On this side of the Atlantic, the whole brouhaha surrounding the raised-arm pledge that Donald Trump has been requesting of his followers at some rallies is in some sense a tempest in a teacup. There is an American Nazi party, to be sure, but Donald Trump is neither a member nor a supporter. Nor are his Republican supporters reasonably identified as crypto-Nazis who secretly sympathize with National Socialism. All of that is too much, hyperbole bordering on true craziness. And it surely also bears saying that Donald Trump himself has insisted that the pledge gesture has nothing to do with Nazism and has been intentionally misinterpreted by his detractors as a way of defaming his character. That may well be true—and yet the fact that we have come this quickly to the point at which a salute so widely understood to be an expression of allegiance to Nazism that Congress actually felt compelled to intervene has become something people can do in public without worry, without shame, without fear regarding their own reputations…that’s the sorites moment for me personally, the possible/impossible moment at which a single grain turns a non-heap into a heap. Is this just insensitivity, just tastelessness, just cluelessness? Or is it something else entirely? American Hindus do not walk around with swastikas painted on their heads, after all…and that despite the fact that the origins of the swastika are indeed in ancient India, where it appears to have been in use as a religious symbol as early as 3000 BCE. It may well be an ancient Vedic symbol symbolizing the cycle of seasons or the sun itself, but that’s not what it means today to the overwhelming majority of Americans.
I am a congregational rabbi. I don’t endorse candidates. I don’t encourage people to vote one way or the other. But somehow this whole issue of the Nazi-ish salute, layered over the candidate’s coy and bizarrely delayed repudiation of support from white supremacist and former KKK leader David Duke, his open and as-yet-unretracted remark that Jewish voters are only interested in supporting candidates whom they can control with their money, and my anxiety regarding the question of what the candidate “really” means by the neutrality he intends, if elected, to bring to American policy in the Middle East—the issue of a pledge so strongly reminiscent of the Nazi salute layered over all that makes me wonder which grain of sand it will take fundamentally to alter the sense of security under law American Jews have come to think of as natural and normal. That the candidate has a now-Jewish daughter and is the grandfather of Jewish grandchildren somehow only makes the waters murkier, not clearer, to my mind. Can the candidate really not know what the people whose salute his pledge overtly mimics would have made of his daughter’s choice to embrace Judaism or of his grandchildren’s Jewishness?
I am going to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference next week and am looking forward more than anything to hearing Donald Trump address the conference. (Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz will be there too, and I also look forward to hearing them. But I am eagerest of all to hear Trump, to experience the man personally, to hear him speak with my own ears.) I doubt he will ask the attendees at AIPAC to raise their arms and pledge their support! But I want to be there to listen attentively and count the grains as they gather and to see if I can personally solve Eubilides’ paradox as it applies to the day-to-day dynamics of American politics. Candidate Trump has said many things that feel at odds with our national ethos, with our most basic American values. Yet his numbers continue to rise as he collects more and more delegates to take along to Cleveland in July. Will the raised-arm pledge eventually be seen as that grain of sand that tipped the balance and made of a right-wing Conservative something else entirely? That, of course, remains to be seen.