In the 1968 film “Oliver!,” the murderous Bill Sykes’ doomed lover, Nancy, leads pub revelers in a round of “Oom Pah Pah,” a rolicking repetition of three nonsense syllables into which people read whatever meanings they choose.
“If you’ve got the patience, your own imagination will tell you exactly what you want to hear,” the song goes.
Hearing the song again got me thinking about words and phrases we Americans interpret to suit our own ends.
Take the phrase “judicial activism.” Purportedly, it defines judicial activists as judges who abandon their responsibility to interpret the Constitution and instead decide cases to advance their preferred policies.
All well and good.
But in practice, the true meaning depends upon one’s ideology. A more accurate definition would be: “Whatever jurists with whom I disagree politically do when they’re on the bench.” Of course, when judges I agree with do the same thing, it’s not judicial activism, not at all — it’s “originalism.”
Or take the phrase, “government overreach.” As I’ve come to realize, Democrats and Republicans both “overreach” into the lives of Americans, as any non-biased observer can plainly see. But of course, when “they” do it, it’s overeach, and when “we” do it, it’s nothing of the sort.
Likewise, we Americans like to declare our legal system, flawed as it has shown itself to be at times, as “the best in the world.” Apparently, however, it’s only “best” when it comes down hard on human beings we despise. But when our guy is in the dock, the system suddenly becomes “communist” or “totalitarian.”
That’s what many supporters of former President Donald Trump are saying about his recent indictment by a New York grand jury on charges of falsifying records.
But think about the words “communist,” and “totalitarian” for a moment. Now ask yourself, what would happen to former President Donald Trump if he were in the clutches of a real “communist” or “totalitarian” system?
First, we’d have to jettison any mention of “due process” or “indictment” by a grand jury composed of one’s fellow citizens. In Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, there was no due process, and there were no grand juries.
Don’t take my word for it — the historical record is clear.
Consider how Judge Roland Freisler, the Nazi ideologue and fanatic, conducted the so-called “People’s Court,” whose “trials,” filmed for the “enlightenment of the German masses,” we can now watch on the internet.
Among the examples of the “Freisler method” during the Third Reich, I’ll limit myself to the proceedings on Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, 1944, after the Gestapo arrested some of the people involved in the failed assassination of Hitler one month prior and hauled them before Freisler.
We see Freisler alternating between coolly questioning the defendants, then suddenly lashing out with humiliating, soul- crushing, verbal tirades. At one moment, Freisler screams at Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, as he tries to hold up the old, oversized, beltless pants the court has provided him for his appearance: “You dirty old man, why do you keep fiddling with your trousers?!”
And consider Freisler’s over-the-top theatrics during the “trial” of defendant Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld. There’s the judge, drowning out Schwerin’s testimony about his concern over the German Army’s “numerous murders in Poland” by roaring at him: “You really are a lousy piece of trash!”
Many of the plotters were sentenced to slow, agonizing deaths, twisting on piano wire, which Hitler ordered filmed to sate his lust for revenge. Some of the sentences were carried out within two hours of the verdict.
Stalin’s pleasure was to draw up a list of people he wanted executed. And if the list was a few names short, no problem — he’d order his police services to find other names to flesh it out. Didn’t matter who they were, Stalin said, put them on the list.
No trial, no jury, no possiblity of defending oneself, only death.
Yet, there are American citizens hotly comparing our legal system to the law under those monstrous regimes.
If Trump does go to trial, he will be found guilty or not guilty in an American courtroom that recognizes due process of the law. But if he’d been a defendant under the other regimes I mentioned above, there would have been no due process, just a wire noose, or a bullet to the head.
On the flip side, however, as a prominent person of wealth and power in a despotic system, the former president likely would not have had to answer for anything.
That’s authoritarian justice.
So please, spare us any more BS about “communist show trials.” To say so speaks of ignorance. It speaks of “Oom Pah Pah.”
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.