find the most constructive ways to engage and challenge the
conservative audience for my radio shows in Virginia.</em>
It's said that trauma reverberates through the generations, that people
are affected by the impact on their ancestors of the disasters and
nightmares they lived through. That can be true of the private traumas
of families terrible deaths, ruinous disasters or of the collective
traumas of whole peoples.
For example, it appears to be the case that the traumatic "Burning"
that the Shenandoah Valley suffered in the last years of the Civil War
leaves an imprint on the culture here that's detectable still.
Traumas can disable people, or they can sensitize people. I'm the heir
of an ancestral trauma that, I believe, has made me more able than most
to recognize the toxic smell of hatred as it seeps into a land, more
aware of the ugly and destructive possibilities the spirit of hatred
I grew up in the Midwest, an American boy who spent his hours
trying to hone his skills in football, basketball and baseball;
watching John Wayne movies and singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."
Proud to be part of the country that had just rescued the world from
fascism, of the country where, at the entrance to the harbor of the
nation's pre-eminent city there stands a Statue of Liberty in whose
base are inscribed the famous words inviting to come the world's
"huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
In my case, it's only two generations back that my ancestors all four
of my grandparents were among those coming to America with that
yearning to breathe free. It's only two generations back, little more
than a century ago, that my mother's mother and her family experienced
the trauma that drove them here to escape the terror of a land in which
the spirit of hatred had been let loose by the use of hateful lies.
It's a story I heard, many times, in my childhood. It was my mother who
told me, just as it had been her own mother the one who'd actually
experienced it who'd told her. That's one way that traumatic
experience can be transmitted, though I understand that the imprint of
such nightmares can be passed along even if not a word about it is
My grandmother was a little girl, five or six years old, hiding with
her family and several other families in the attic of the main building
of their little village in Czarist Russia. Their village was under
attack, and they all had to be perfectly silent so no one would know
they were there. When the dawn came, my grandmother looked down through
a knothole in the floorboards and was startled to see an open eye
staring up at her. And then she saw: it was the eye of a corpse, a dead
man, lying on top of a stack of bodies their murderers had placed there
during the night.
That's the story, short and simple. But the meaning of it opens up a
bigger picture. In Czarist Russia, the ruling powers felt threatened by
the discontent of the population they'd oppressed and exploited for
generations. To safeguard their power, a century or so ago, these
powers worked to redirect the people's fear and rage: "It's not we,
your oppressors, who are your enemy," was the essence of the message of
these ruling forces, "it's these other people who are different from
It's an ancient trick, used by evil rulers from time imemmorial: divide
people, and channel the angry and fearful energies of your followers
against some "other," something not like "Us."
In Czarist Russia, this ugly ploy resulted in a wave of pogroms against
the Jews violent attacks like the one my grandmother lived through.
And at the heart of the strategy --by which these peasants were led to
hate the scapegoat and ally themselves with their oppressors-- was the
use of the hateful lie.
In the Russia of the Czars, for example, the peasants' minds were
poisoned with lies about the Jews' murdering Christian children and
using their blood in ritual. Absolutely nothing to it. But people who
believe such lies can themselves do unspeakable things.
In that same Russia of a century ago there was first circulated also
the most famous perhaps of all lies, a complete forgery called THE
PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, a fabrication to make people fear the
supposed power of a defenseless people.
Such hateful lies produced the atrocities that traumatized my
grandmother and, incidentally, affronted the entire civilized world of
the early twentieth century.
It also led to a huge exodus of people from Russia two million people including my four grandparents.