Has anybody seen the choir?

Has anybody seen the choir?
I want to preach to the converted
I want to see them rising up
Don’t wanna see one gaze averted

The full lyrics and a link to a performance of Emma’s Revolution’s song “Choir” can be found at the end of this post.  The song touches on an issue that we have been wrestling with since November 2016.  Or should I say “wrestling with more urgently than before“?  To what extent should we or can we talk with Trumpsters in order to restore civic and civil discourse?

As I’ve mentioned before, Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years describes his struggles to survive through the ascendency of fascist rulers in Romania, their alliance with Nazi Germany, and their perpetration of genocide against his fellow Jews.  The irony of Sebastian’s story is that he was a member of Romania’s intellectual elite, friend or colleague of writers, playwrights, actors, lawyers, and politicians who “came out” as deeply anti-semitic, anti-democratic, and ultra-nationalist during this period.  For them, he would always be the Jew “Iosif Hechter,” not the widely read writer and playwright known by his pen name “Mihail Sebastian.”

Given our debates over how to deal with friends and relatives who continue to support Trump no matter what he does, or how many lies he’s caught telling, I find it helpful to read how Sebastian continued to meet and talk with openly fascist anti-semites.  The large arc of his reflections on these experiences seems to shift from disillusionment over their betrayal of civilized norms to disgust at himself that he even talks with them out of sheer need for food and shelter.

The paradoxes of Sebastian’s social relationships preceded the years covered by his Journal.  His intellectual mentor was Nae Ionescu, a rabid anti-semite who had a cultish following in the university.  As I’ve mentioned previously, Sebastian’s popular novel For Two Thousand Years tells the story of some young Romanian Jews in the 1920s and early 30s attacked by fascist thugs trying to drive them physically out of the university.  When Sebastian asked Ionescu to write an introduction to the novel, Ionescu provided an anti-semitic diatribe.  And Sebastian let it be printed in the published novel.  I have yet to hear a convincing explanation as to why.

With his acquaintance Mircea Eliade, Sebastian’s disillusionment didn’t start with the Jews.  Eliade was an anti-semite, but that just seemed to go with the territory.  In 1937, when Sebastian represented the poet Geo Bogza in court against charges of “pornography” for some “scandalous” poems, he was flabbergasted to hear Eliade supporting the judge, who confirmed the arrest, all the while with

a mockingly skeptical smile on his face, looking as absent as someone propping spa bar in a café.  I felt that, whatever was said, the verdict had been fixed in advance—fixed by his position on the bench, his lack of sensitivity, his force of habit, his indifference.  What power in the world can jolt the shriveled conscience a judge with the mind of a bureaucrat? …

I used to think that there could be no disagreement on such questions among people of the same background as mine; that, once a threshold of sensitivity was reached, certain things were accepted as a matter of course.  Well, how astounded I was at lunch today to realize that Mircea Eliade sides with [the judge] rather than [the poet].

Sebastian sounds like me when I’m talking about New Jersey Republicans whom I thought knew and were better than to defend Trump.  This incident also illustrates the connection between attacks on free speech and on ethnic minorities.

When Sebastian demurred, Eliade started shouting the typical what-about line concerning some young fascist thugs who were arrested for beating up a left-wing politician.  In Eliade’s eyes, “those youngsters are being martyred with ten years’ imprisonment.”  Sebastian made him stop.

I couldn’t take the rest: not only because it seemed stupid to hear him repeating Nae [Ionescu] word for word, but because I was scared at the way his mind was succumbing to platitude.

I stopped him.

‘Mircea, old man, I think we should change the subject.  It’s Sunday.  I haven’t seen you for four weeks.  Let’s talk about something else—otherwise I feel we won’t reach the end of our lunch.  That would be a pity.”

And we did change the subject.

But is friendship possible under such circumstances?

In 1938, Eliade was arrested for supporting an attempted putsch by the ultra-right Iron Guard, only later to be released and sent as a diplomat, spending most of the war in Portugal.  This distance probably enabled him to escape prosecution after the war and to go on to a career as a professor at the University of Chicago.  His name may be familiar to you from his three volume History of Religious Ideas and other writings on religion.  Having read Sebastian’s Journal, I find the Wikipedia entry on Eliade to be a disgraceful attempt to play down his fascist activities.

The Romanian regime, its fascist cohorts, and its supporters in the intelligentsia didn’t just spout anti-semitic sentiments and hope for Nazi victory, they progressively attacked Romanian Jews, starting with the deprivation of civil rights, then jobs, then housing, then food, then deportations, all the while extorting money from the Jewish community.

As the situation became progressively worse, Sebastian interacted with such people more and more as a matter of survival, feeling disgusted with himself afterwards.

In 1943 as Sebastian followed the back-and-forth of the war in North Africa, he entered into his diary the following quote from G.K. Chesterton about Thomas Hardy.

I will not pretend to sympathize with his philosophy as truth, but I think it is possible to sympathize with it as an error; or, in other words, to understand how the error arose.

Sebastian adds the following comment:

This is a possible motto for a portrait of a friend in the opposite camp.  But is such a friendship possible?

A question I’ve faced repeatedly over the last year and a half.  Sometimes I just get tired of asking and want to sing with the choir.


Has anybody seen the choir?
I want to preach to the converted
I want to see them rising up
Don’t wanna see one gaze averted
Don’t wanna have to prove a point
Just wanna know they’re on my side
Just wanna smile and inspire
Has anybody seen the choir?

Has anybody seen the church?
Maybe that’s where I can find them
Standing tall against the fray
Strength and unity behind them
Have they gathered at the river?
Are they washed upon the shore?
Have they set the world on fire?
Has anybody seen the choir?

Are they teaching in the schools?
Are they drinking in the bars?
Are they making all the rules?
Are they fighting in the wars?
All I wanna do is get a glimpse of who
they are
Has anybody ever seen the choir?

Though we may never reach consensus
Hope is still within our reach
We can learn to move together
Put some motion in our speech
We are a mighty congregation
With strength beyond our means
We have the passion and desire
Has anybody seen the choir?

© 2005 Pat Humphries
Moving Forward Music, BMI www.emmasrevolution.com
As performed at the Vancouver Folk Festival in 2010.

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