The death of Icarus

How foolish can the president’s wife be? Very foolish indeed, it seems, unless what recently was reported and I witnessed on TV is totally misunderstood by me. On her trip to “inspect” a recently government created detention camp for children separated from their undocumented refugee parents and would be immigrants, Melania Trump wore a jacket with the inscription on the back, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Is this a statement suggesting that she does not care what reporters write about her fashion choices, or her disregard for the plight of the detained children and their desperate parents? While I think this is probably meant for the photographers and reporters, I find the choice of the inscription unbelievably stupid.

It was an interesting coincidence that Gail and I, the other evening, watched a TV reportage about the famous Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose painting entitled “Landschap met de val van Icarus” or “Landscape with the fall of Icarus” addresses Melania jacket’s scribbled inscription. In a way it also addresses our president and his dedicated collaborators and followers who, in all probability, prefer to think about children’s forced separation from parents in the more Trumpian literary form of “I don’t give a damn. Do U?”

Just in case you do not know the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, here is a brief summary.

In Greek mythology Icarus is the son of an Athenian creative genius and craftsman by name of Daedalus. The latter created the labyrinth near king Minos’ palace at Knossos to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull. King Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the labyrinth because he gave his daughter Ariadne a ball of string in order to help Theseus, the enemy of Minos, to survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete by using artificial wings made from feathers, held together by wax. The father cautions his son of the danger of flying too low or too high. If too low, the sea’s humidity might clog the feathers; if too high, the sun might melt the wax. The two take off and Icarus the son, emboldened and giddy by their success, ignores his father’s advice. Soaring into the sky, he gets too close to the sun, loses the wings as the wax melts, falls into the sea and drowns. The area where the tragedy supposedly occurred is called the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.

As we watched the TV program, it occurred to me that during my five year stay in Brussels, Belgium, long ago, I bought a few reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings one of which was Icarus’ fall, now hanging in our dining area. Quickly I got it from its place on the wall and reacquainted myself with its content.

While there have been many attempts to make intelligent guesses of what Bruegel meant by giving us his painted interpretation of Icarus’ fall and death, I came to the conclusion that master Bruegel, predating by roughly six centuries our own recent catastrophic events of children being ripped from their parents at our southern border by US law, carries a lesson for us all.

If this is of interest to you, use our phenomenal electronic wizardry and make Bruegel’s picture appear on your computer screen. I will try to guide you.

The scene is taken from a hilltop. In the left lower corner in the foreground a man behind a plow pulled by a horse prepares furrows for planting. This takes all his attention. In the far distance we see outlines of a city on the shore of the sea which stretches toward the horizon. Below the plowman graze a bunch of sheep. The shepherd stands with his back toward the sea as he looks into the sky as if in deep meditation. The sea holds several sail boats and two ships, one of them, the larger one, is seen in the right lower corner of the picture, as it is sailing into the harbor. Between that ship and the peremptory where the plowman works and the shepherd below gazes upwards, there is a narrow sea passage. Looking carefully into that area in the lower right of the picture, beyond a fishing fellow sitting on the shore, one can see two legs of a partially submerged drowning individual – obviously those belonging to Icarus, fallen from the sky and drowning in the sea.

No one knows what master Bruegel had in mind when he painted the picture. As I read its meaning, it suggests the sad reality that relatively few people pay attention or desire to pay attention to tragedies happening in their close purview. We close our eyes and ears so as not to hear; so as not to get involved; so as not to be drawn into the tragedy ourselves. The plowman sees nothing nor does the shepherd. The fisherman watches his line and disregards the man plummeting from the sky and drowning.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Thus, having compassion means to participate and to share in the suffering person’s lot. This, in turn, means that to be compassionate means taking risks. We all know that words are cheap compared to actions which can be dangerous and costly.

The recent and ongoing crisis of children being separated from their refugee parents at our southern border and the public outcry against this practice heard throughout the land – yes, even among some of our Republican fellow citizens – and the subsequent forced backpedaling by the president who rescinded this inhuman practice demonstrates clearly that when there is the will to resist injustice perpetrated by even the highest authority in our land, things happen and the will of the people prevails.

My congratulations go the United Methodist Church for censuring their member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his directing I.C.E. to carry out these inhuman activities.

Let us not turn a blind eye to other human being’s suffering, and remember Hillel’s teaching, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Morality falling through the cracks.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…!”

This is a biblical exhortation in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) addressed to liberated Israel which especially Holocaust survivors must never forget. Remember!

Slaves have few if any rights. I and my fellow Jews under the German Nazi regime during WWII were slaves who had no rights and no recourse against coercion and violence, no appeal courts to which we could have taken our complaints about being mistreated.

Still in our hometown, after having been occupied by Nazi evil, but before deportation, we were never safe, whether in our homes or in the street. On many occasions we were simply taken off the street, corralled by the German police and then forced into forced labor such as street cleaning which involved sweeping and shoveling horse droppings, to the entertainment of fellow towns folk, or cleaning government buildings, etc.

Now imagine that innocent children, all under 16 years of age brought to our country by their parents who came here illegally, whichever their mode of entry may have been, now live in fear of being taken off the street or from their homes and deported by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Deported to where? To their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the United States. These young people, totally Americanized, 72% of whom profited from higher education, do not even speak their native country’s language.

Having become political footballs, they now live in fear. The DREAMERS’ (as they are called) dreams of legally becoming US citizens demolished. What a sad end for them and for us, a nation of fellow immigrants and dreamers of a safe and good land.

So I ask, what is it with our law makers in Washington: don’t they have children they love? Have they lost their morality, their sense of what is right? Has their access to power transformed them into non-thinking and non-feeling monsters? Has human-made law, which often in history turns out to be deeply flawed, trumped humaneness and empathy whose origins come from more authoritative sources as we tend to affirm in our religious and humanistic traditions?

In polls, the majority of Americans expressed the view that the DREAMERS “should be allowed to stay and become American citizens if they meet certain requirements.” The average age of these DREAMERS is 24. Those 25 and younger make up two-thirds of DACA recipients. A truly disgraceful situation when one considers that these 800,000 young people, who are Americans in every sense of the term with the one exception of long overdue citizenship, make up less than one third of one percent of our population. It has been estimated that the US would lose about $ 460 billion in GDP over the next 10 years with the elimination of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation and the deportation of the DREAMERS.

In the so-called omnibus federal budget of 1.3 trillion which is to allow our government to operate until September 2018, which most of our legislators have not seen, let alone studied, because it was cobbled together behind closed doors by a chosen few, and needs to be signed into law no later than in three days, the DACA issue is not included.

Any compassion for those poor youngsters? Obviously not. Their daily insecurity must continue. This is truly shameful behavior by the president and our lawmakers.