Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 91

June 9th, 2012

Why the Witch-Hunt Against Gertrude Stein? Tikkun Magazine

It’s fascinating how the story of Stein’s war years and survival refuses to settle into a consistent story line. I wrote about Assemblyman Dov Hikind, commentator Alan Dershowith and their distortions of history in their attempt to bully the Metropolitan Museum. Dovkind, Dershowitz and others wanted the wall text of the exhibition “The Steins Collect” to follow their own version of the story – i.e. the urban legend based on the rumor-mill of Stein’s detractors. Even the White House got caught in the cauldron of hear-say and allegations against Stein, dis-inviting her on the sly from the official celebration of Jewish Heritage Month. For the details see my essay “Why the Witch-Hunt Against Gertrude Stein?” in Tikkun Magazine.

Tikkun, the left-wing Jewish magazine, offered me its platform for my defense of Stein and, at the same time, questioned (if not attacked) my arguments in an editorial caveat by the publisher of the magazine, Rabbi Michael Lerner. Inviting differing opinions is a policy of Tikkun magazine, a laudible policy – in fact an intrinsic part of the great Jewish Talmudic, Rabbinical tradition which has always maintained the principle of argument. In this tradition, my defense of Stein was and is not aimed at convincing anybody, it is meant to inspire critical thought.

In this case, Tikkun’s policy has triggered a feisty response from Denny Stein, a member of Stein’s family and a writer in her own right:

Letter to the Editor regarding his commentary on the Gertrude Stein “controversy.”
Tikkun editor wrote:
“we believe that artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals are not exempt from the moral obligation to fight against the rise of evil (as manifested in racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, anti-democracy, destruction of human rights, repression of free speech and freedom of assembly, destruction of the environment, militarism, torture, etc.), which becomes most dangerous when these pathologies move from the realm of thought to the realm of political movements that embody or champion them. Like all citizens, they are morally deficient when they fail to challenge the rise of evil in any given society, and all the more so because unlike most citizens, these people typically have greater access to the means of communication than the ordinary person. ”
No matter what the Tikkun editors “believe,” all citizens including writers, artists, poets, etc. are only human. They are not super-human. They do not have capes, or magic weapons, or sonic transport, or extraordinary powers. They are no more capable of rising above the distresses of everyday dangers or historical horrors than the rest of us. Some people do throw themselves in front of tanks or bulldozers, some publish defiant tracts and are arrested, some take up arms. They are many (I am sure) artists who retreat into their own safe worlds of creativity and hope the horrors won’t find them. And there are those who maintain life in their village and support the small community in which they live. No man or woman should be called out for not “rising to” every occasion. And the number of occasions listed by the editor (above) would keep an army of creative citizens so busy that they would have no time to think or create. Sometimes even writing a letter to the editor is too much.
Gertrude Stein may or may not have been a genius, but she was one person in thousands who made it through the war. Should we invent reasons for each survivor “proving” that they were complicit with the enemy in order to survive?
And it is oh so easy to sit in an air-conditioned office, with a title, computer, minions, and opinions, and pronounce judgment on others, especially 66 year old dead women. It is easy to assume Gertrude Stein knew this or that, could have done this or that, and should have done that. It is so easy to take her comments out of context, attribute inflammatory motives to them, then posthumously tar and feather her.
Remember, there is a vast difference between holding distasteful opinions and actually sending Jews, or anyone, to the gas chamber. It is time to put this subject to rest, and file it under “We are all human, no one is perfect.”
Thank you,
Denny Stein
I want to add a quote from the well researched book And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, by Alan Ryding (Knopf, 2010):
“In the face of defeat and occupation … the French responded successively with anger, despair, resignation and accommodation. With the notable exception of those Fascist writers who cheered the Nazi victory, most French artists and intellectuals reacted in much the same way. Initially, at least, they, too, looked to Marshal Pétain to shield France from the worst in what promised to be a long ordeal. Feeling powerless, they adopted attentisme, an on-the-fence posture, which allowed them to get on with their lives—to write, to paint, to perform, to teach – while waiting to be saved by some external force, presumably the United States.”
This passage speaks for itself, and it speaks for Stein as well.

More about the interesting way the Metropolitan Museum managed to resist the bullying, in my next blog.