Intolerance and other drugs

Published in The Wisconsin State Journal on March 16, 2011

Intolerance, and Other Drugs

 by Karl Garson

 I finished reading Nina Revoyr’s “Wingshooters” on my flight back from New York. Manhattan to Madison; La Guardia to Dane County Regional afforded a near-perfect juxtapositonal fit for a novel about mid-1970s intolerance in the fictional, central Wisconsin city of Deerhorn.

I’d been in New York to attend a retrospective on the music of Kurt Weill at Lincoln Center. The Saturday evening program began with music Weill composed in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht during the Weimar Republic, the 1919-1933 period of liberal democracy in Germany overthrown by Hitler’s  Third Reich.

Revoyr’s novel follows a brief, chaotic period in the life of Michelle “Mickey” LeBeau, a pre-teen, Japanese-American girl forced by circumstance to live with her grandparents in Deerhorn after arriving from Japan, where she was born, and being abandoned by her father. In Deerhorn she is bullied by her classmates and shunned by their parents. Her grandfather, Charlie, a respected native resident, provides her only fighter cover, protection that becomes less necessary when the Garretts, a black couple, arrive in Deerhorn; he to substitute teach at Mickey’s elementary school, she to work as a nurse at the local clinic. The venom Deerhorn aims at the Garretts makes Mickey, now less a victim, witness to the distilled hatred small towns and cities, populated as they are by adults with small minds and zero tolerance, reserve for outsiders. The Deerhorn Revoyr describes could be in Wisconsin, Arizona,  Kentucky or the other 47. But in Wisconsin hatred and intolerance becomes doubly offensive by hiding behind the hypocrisy of Upper Midwestern Nice.

The path Kurt Weill followed from his native Germany to the United States in the 1930s was not unlike Mickey LeBeau’s journey from Japan to Deerhorn. Weill, who wrote “The Three Penny Opera” in collaboration with Marxist poet Bertolt Brecht, was a socialist with populist leanings. He was also Jewish. Had he been allowed his socialism as the Weimar Republic crumbled before the Third Reich, he wouldn’t have survived the other two, especially the latter. In 1933 he fled to France before arriving in New York in 1935. During the next and final 15 years of his life he adapted his music to give us a beauty that belied the ugly chaos of his past through songs like  “My Ship,” “September Song” and “Lost in the Stars.”

Nina Revoyr’s young Mickey LeBeau found beauty too. How she accomplished that and the bigotry, cruelty and inbred hate she had to endure the novel tells. It’s an excellent read, but an even better reminder of how low we can sink under the influence of those easily taken drugs, hatred and intolerance.

Mickey LeBeau’s fictional journey and Kurt Weill’s path through reality spring to mind as I consider what we’ve lapsed into in Wisconsin and America by clinging to polar opposites that sedate us from the realization of what we might be, numbing polarities like red vs blue, labor unions vs right to work, liberal vs conservative, Obama vs Palin, Mike Huckabee vs Natalie Portman.

Polar opposites leave open space between them, a power vacuum that can either be filled by those with voices of reason or by fashionable madmen. Weill’s 30s and 40s were changed for the worse by a strong-willed leader who offered prosperity in exchange for freedom. In Deerhorn, young Mickey LeBeau would be left unmolested only if she chose to swallow the toxic beliefs of the people surrounding her.

Kurt Weill and Mickey LeBeau show us that something far better can be accomplished by replacing intolerance and hatred with understanding and compromise – a lesson we not only seem to have forgotten, but never to have known.

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