‘Kiss Me!’ says Bibi to Boehner
Published in 1929, Thomas Mann’s novella Mario and the Magician compellingly evokes the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. It is also a character template for egotistical megalomaniacs enamored of their (delusional) self-importance and nationalistic jingoism. Collectively, these tyrants share one pathological obsession: they love to give speeches to adoring audiences.
How like Bibi Netanyahu.
Set in a late 1920s Italian seaside resort, Mann chooses a German bourgeois mouthpiece to create a fictional prose work in which the dramatic action unfolds in two major scenes. In the first, the narrator introduces the reader to his family’s holiday experiences in the warm Mediterranean. The reader is immediately alerted to the narrator’s condescending attitude towards Italians, a breed he considers culturally inferior to his own. The same sentiments regarding Mediterranean populations exist among hate groups, political parties, and some government officials across northern Europe.
The second part of the novella is set in a large audience-packed auditorium of mostly Italians, including the narrator and his family. Mann uses the narrator’s ocular and mental perspectives to frame the events by focusing on Cavaliere Cipolla, a deformed, hunchbacked magician-hypnotist who is the master of ceremonies. What Cipolla lacks in appearance he compensates for with his oratorical skills to manipulate his audience into spellbinding silence and adoration. Cipolla’s braggadocio and his ability to use his mental powers are laced with nationalistic themes crafted in diabolical rhetoric. An impresario par excellence, Cippola entrances his audience by summoning up the grandeur of Augustan and imperial Rome.
As the evening grinds on, Cipolla, armed with a whip, is emboldened; he argues with a Roman gentleman; he banters with an Italian socialite; he lures, manipulates, and captivates his audience; he brazenly and perversely humiliates his docile audience; he elicits dancing from a handful of hypnotized young women. As the restive crowd is steered to a crescendo of hypnotically induced, frenzied approbation, Cipolla uses his whip as a pointer to zero in on young Mario, a local Italian waiter. Mann aptly describes Cipolla’s repulsive impish appearance: “The red rings around his eyes had got larger, they looked as though they were painted on. His thick lips parted.”
In an admixture of linguistic manipulation and a groveling povero me! (poor me), Cipolla challenges Mario’s manliness about Silvestra, his paramour, and convinces him that his sweetheart is not as faithful as Mario imagines her to be:
“It is time that he should see and understand, my chosen one! It is time that you see me and recognize me, Mario, my beloved! Tell me, who am I?
“It was so grisly, the way the betrayer made himself irresistible, wreathed and coquetted with crooked shoulder, languished with puffy eyes, and showed his splintered teeth in a sickly smile. And alas, at his beguiling words, what was come of our Mario?”
Leading Mario to believe that he was the beautiful Silvestra, Cipolla forces Mario to kiss him. “‘Kiss me!’ said the hunchback. ‘Trust me, I love thee. Kiss me here.’ And with the tip of his index finger, ... he pointed to his cheek, near the mouth. And Mario bent and kissed him.”
Shamed and demeaned at having his masculinity questioned, angry at himself for succumbing to Cipolla’s mind games, mortified at the crowd’s favorable and admiring responses elicited at his expense, and horrified by Cipolla’s relishing the moment as though it were a sexual conquest, Mario pulls out his derringer and kills the predator.
In the final passage the German narrator assumes the role of an omniscient character and says: “that was the end. An end of horror, a fatal end. And yet a liberation — for I could not, and I cannot, but find it so!”
By 1929 Thomas Mann had Mussolini and Stalin in mind, and might very well have anticipated Hitler’s 1933 and Franco’s 1939 rise to power and the fascist dictatorships in Germany and Spain.
Stranger than fiction
Just as Cipolla incites his audience with smug assurance and is able to manipulate his gullible spectators by bending them to his will, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu’s narcissistic aplomb has earned him three invitations to address the Joint Congress of the United States.
Hailed as a hero by US Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, on 10 July 1996, during Bill Clinton’s tenure, Netanyahu strode, much like a Roman pro consul, to the podium of the most powerful nation on the planet, and delivered a speech in which he lectured America’s representatives about the strong bond between Israel and her subservient cash cow. Presenting himself as the savior whose finger is plugging the dike against evil Iran and terrorism, he lectured his paymasters about their obligation for access to as much gold as Fort Knox should spare.
This 1996 address was merely a dry run and warm up for Netanyahu’s 11 May 2011 address to the US Congress. Hailed as King Bibi at home, he began his second speech: “How many House votes would you get for an amendment to allow Israelis to run for prez [sic]? 300? 350?”
Dressed in a fashionable tailor-made suit, Bibi, to use his own terminology, presented a “telegenic” image. And much like Cipolla the magician, he hypnotized 535 subserviently mesmerized elected officials who gave him not a few, but 29 standing ovations (to Obama’s 25 ovations during his January 2011 State of the Union address). Does that say anything about the US Congress?
Primed with diagrams and an infantile graphic, on 27 September 2012, Netanyahu delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly in which he urged the world body not to negotiate with Iran. It was the same old povero me (we have suffered for centuries) motif; we are an extension of Western civilization; we love democracy; Israel/West good, Iran/Arabs/Muslims bad; we are civilized, they are not; we want peace/Palestinians incite. The international body would not give him the same adulatory standing ovations of servility as Congress. Towards the end of his speech Netanyahu held up a stringed balloon-like diagram and stated: “This is a bomb. This is a fuse.” As in a Shakespearean tragedy, comic relief is essential.
Which brings us to the most recent Netanyahu escapade, that delusional fetish about speeches, self-aggrandizement, self-adoration and power — that same seductive power and sway Cipolla held over his audience — and all for the sake of hanging on to power in the upcoming March Israeli elections.
Cipolla-style, “Kiss me!” Bibi said to US Speaker John Boehner, a Republican. To humiliate Obama on his final homestretch — for yet another grandstanding finale — Boehner eagerly complied.
While Boehner’s Machiavellian invitation to Netanyahu is intended to flank the Democrats in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections, the Republicans’ last best shot at humiliating Obama, it has, if timidly, exposed the fault lines in America’s special relationship with Israel. Like the spoilt brat who’s gotten his way for far too long, Bibi is not likely to back down and disinvite himself.
Like Mann’s Italian impresario, Bibi has “Cipollatized” successive Israeli hardliners and settlers by leading his own people to the abyss. More tragic still has been Bibi’s ability to Cipollatize successive US Administrations and Congresses, forcing them to a “[knighthood] of the serviette[hood],” all the time reducing them to a “wreathed and coquetted” servitude in waiting on him, Mario style: waiting on his reckless expansionist zeal, and forcing them to kiss him as he pursues his dreams of a greater Israel.
John Boehner’s challenge to Obama, to his manhood, his presidency and his legacy, is insulting to the dignity of all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation.
If there is a silver lining in this embarrassing debacle, it is to be found in the multitude of irate responses across the United States. When the news of the invitation became public, FOX NEWS’ Chris Wallace stated: “I have to say, I’m shocked;” Shepard Smith stated that it was “a deliberate and pretty egregious snub;” CNN’s Dana Bash referred to it as “unusual and bizarre”; JStreet called it “a mistake”; Nancy Pelosi said it was “out of order”; Jewish Voices for Peace charged that US lawmakers are out of touch. And many in the American Jewish community, including numerous rabbis, have been deeply irked and embarrassed by this charade. Even the Israeli Ha’aretz, quoting a US official, wrote: “We thought we’ve seen everything. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s not a way to behave.”
Postscript: President Barak Obama could capitalize on the fallout from this sham. He can, in the words of the narrator, put an “end to [the] horror” and declare “a liberation.” For starters, he has to discard the waiter’s apron to which he and Congress are reduced by AIPAC and take ownership of the store, and sign a deal with Iran. Second, by bringing an equitable resolution to the Israel/Palestine thorn in the world’s side, he will be able to deflate much of the anger and frustration that have been the oxygen fueling the senseless and barbaric IS/Al-Qaida madness that has thrived in the region because of ill-advised wars that have made blowback inevitable. This will also liberate America from AIPAC’s stranglehold. Third, hold the Arab theocrats, dictators and the tyrannical oil sheikhs and other Arab Cipollas accountable for their crimes and press them to honor their people’s aspirations in joining the modern — free — world.
Simply put, President Obama should have the moral fortitude to say to Bibi and the Arab thugs: “This is a bomb. This is a string. We are not going to let you pull it.”
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a writer, a photographer, a sculptor, a peace activist, and an avid gardener.
Copyright © 2015 Le Monde diplomatique—distributed by Agence Global