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Michael Agonistes and the Fear of Eating Ash

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

To be clear, the real hero of the public Cohen hearings in the House of Representatives was Elijah Cummings who, if he persists with the majestic demeanor demonstrated by his official conduct so far, will have his memory enshrined along with those of Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, and Barack Obama as Black men who are also stirring role models for minority children who need encouragement to engage in the gritty pitfalls of a career of public service. 

Did I seem to imply they, (the coming generation?) need this? Actually, it’s all of us who desperately need young brown men and women to be so inspired whether or not they’re moved to be part of the same push as the likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. And all of us urgently need “white” youths to also be so moved, under the sway (we hope) of the “better angels of our nature”.

But the darkest attraction echoed out from the glum persona of Michael Dean Cohen, now destined to be perhaps immortally disfigured in operatic pop culture portrayals as a 21st-century scoundrel now battling for redemption. His most likely emblem is the marginal law student and shady practitioner whose professional niche was taking on the types of “legal” work more ethical lawyers skirted away from. A real-life Saul Goodman.

Cohen himself was more surprising than any of his testimony which actually revealed little that was actually “news” although one can’t help but hope the evidence he provides will finally tip the scales toward some version of a just comeuppance for our current president* and his hollow enablers. Despite the childish taunting of the impish Republican placards “Liar. Liar. Pants on Fire!” (. . . ?) Cohen was as sharp and composed as he was humble.

“Fool” was one of his responses to malicious queries about how he should characterize himself. Yet the use of the word “fool” was entangled in the bitter context of a man who forthrightly confessed to shattering the "safety and security" of his family and who has been sentenced to years in a federal penitentiary which he will enter after being publicly labeled by the President* of the United States of America as a “rat” which in the criminal ethos is only a few slim nachos above the status and vulnerability of a child molester.

“I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now, for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years. I can only warn people — the more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

Somehow Michael Cohen was able to forcefully use the words “fool” and “silliness” to get to the heart of criminal venality even when the human consequences for certain transgressions are more brutal, bleak, and savage than we can seriously bear to imagine. Michael Cohen is, as he reminded us more than once, a child of Holocaust survivors.

I think of him driving with trimp through a “challenged neighborhood” in some sleek limousine. “Only Black people can live like this.” Somehow Cohen was able to convey the painful twinges of conscience that must have flickered dimly and uncomfortable at odd moments throughout his career as a henchman.

Now Cohen’s days of joyriding with the rich and infantile are over. Now Michael is, in the words of an apt commentator, “eating ashes”. Somehow though, without excuses or pleas for sympathy, he is performing with a dignity which makes one willing to believe in the possibility of redemption. Somehow we see a man who cavorted with and served the purposes of criminals, and who did so as much because of as despite the enervating insecurity of the outsider trembling in the resounding aftershocks of the Holocaust. 

And now he is eating ash.

There was something admirable in Michael’s stance of calm opposition to his blinkered afflicters on the Republican side of his inquisition. There is a difference, after all, to mountains of documented evidence assembled in an official proceeding as opposed to the blizzards of everyday iniquity and the never-ending shitstorms of the early 21st-century news cycle. Unfortunately, no such distinction seemed to register with the Republican representatives, and perhaps it never will, complicit as they are with their president* and forced to play to the unyielding sentiments of their deplorable and demented base. Can it be lost on Michael Cohen that the spiteful refusal to contend either with evidence or honestly established ways of interpreting it is what fascism depends on?  

Isn't it ironic how this refusal is probably so entwined with the fear of eating ash?

Detractors will focus on how Michael was playing to the multiple squads of prosecutors tightening their furious circle around both the trimp administration* and the “Trump organization”. No doubt there’s something to that. But Michael had a more intimate audience packed with such an immensity of more humane compulsion. Elijah Cummings acknowledged this in his final statement addressed as much to the broken individual before him as to a tattered nation beleaguered by fruitless greed and instigated division.

Elijah Cummings specifically referenced Michael’s children, just on the cusp of adulthood. Every one of us, whether we can face up to it or not, is incessantly shaken by the reverberations of grand historical atrocities like the Holocaust and slavery, just as every one of us is made brittle by our own daily failings and venality, just as every one of us is tormented by the dark legacies of nature which transcend and predate humanity. 

But still, desperate and incomplete, we dream of making our children whole.

. . . Let me tell you something about injustice and why we’ll never get away. I know from this because of something she read. (to Greta) That’s right, nothing any of us say is nothing you don’t know. Remember AIDS? When it started we thought it was a scourge on the fagelas. We did. But it wasn’t and it didn’t even really start with them and their fairy ways. It came from a monkey, didn’t it?
Greta: A chimpanzee. And I didn’t read about it, it was on NPR.
Zeyde: That’s right. How was that? What about dis chimpanzee?
Greta: (She joins him upstage) Some man in Africa ate a chimpanzee maybe right before you were even born.
Zeyde: That’s right. 
Greta: The man killed it for meat and its blood had the virus. So, he got it.
Zeyde: But was that how it started?
Greta: No. Maybe a million years before another chimp ate two different monkeys with two different viruses inside ‘em.
Zeyde: And how does a big chimpanzee eat a little bitty monkey?
Greta: He just catches ‘em and eats ‘em alive. They scream and scream.
Zeyde: The little monkeys scream and scream while the chimp gouges into them for some tasty organ morsel.
Greta: And they scream and scream in terrible agony. And that’s how they die in merciless pain.
Zeyde: Is that injustice?
Greta: I dunno.
Zeyde: Is that injustice to the monkey?
Greta:  It’s pain.
Zeyde: To the chimp?
Greta:  It’s food.
Zeyde: It’s life. Does injustice exist to animals, the ones who are not human?

Joe Panzica (Author of Democracy STRUGGLES! and Saint Gredible and Her Fat Dad's Mass for which he is seeking an agent . . .)

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