Troubled Times

Troubled Times

Echoes of America’s violent history reverberate in the age of Obama

By Lionel Rolfe 11/19/2009

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It’s been nearly 20 years since my fateful meeting with Yehudi Menuhin in the Pasadena Hilton Hotel. In case you don’t remember the name, Yehudi, who died in 1999, was one of the two greatest violinists of the 20th century, the other being Jascha Heifetz. Yehudi was also regarded as the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart. He began his career in San Francisco in the ’20s, in brilliant performances as a youngster of 6, immediately drawing international acclaim.
He was also my uncle.

The craze for Indian music in this country began when Yehudi introduced his old sitarist friend, Ravi Shankar, to the West. They had met in the ’30s at an Indonesian music festival. And in the 1950s, Yehudi made yoga very popular by appearing in a multi-page layout in Life Magazine, doing what were then highly esoteric yoga positions. I remember one morning Marlon Brando calling my mother, Yaltah, to ask her about yoga because he had seen the layout.
Yehudi was also not just a musician, but a major intellectual and humanitarian. Bela Bartok, arguably the greatest composer of the last century, wrote some of his greatest works for Yehudi, and Yehudi was his patron during his last years in New York.

The queen of England made him a lord.

On that occasion in Pasadena, Yehudi dispensed with the usual lecture about the virtues of not eating meat and told me that he regarded me as the most intelligent and creative of my eight cousins, including his own children. Since he was not a man given to base flattery, I took what he said seriously. He saw me as the only one left to carry on in the grand tradition of artistic creativity from which our family sprang.

Something about the barely serviceable and in no way grand nature of that mundane hotel made this particular meeting all the more memorable.

I think he was staying at the hotel because that’s where he was housing the English String Orchestra, which was actually known as The Menuhin Players, composed of London’s top musicians. They were a large group playing chamber music, and this time they were making an appearance at the Ambassador Auditorium, and this necessitated trying to be more economical than usual.

Had he been a soloist at the Shrine Auditorium or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Hollywood Bowl, like he had been so many times in the past, he would undoubtedly have been ensconced in a finer place.

Still, I let my uncle buy me a delicious lamb dinner, and he seemed more congenial and amused by this than in the past. He was a vegetarian. So he indulged me because he wanted to talk seriously.

Yehudi was never one to be given to pessimism. He had stared down history on more than one occasion. He spent the war years on the front lines, giving concerts for the soldiers. He was the first player to perform for the survivors of Auschwitz, as well as the war-weary denizens of Germany. When the United Nations first gathered in San Francisco, he played the greatest piece of violin music of all times — the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

But this time what he had to say left me shaken and grim beyond belief.

“Do you know, Lionel, the world is going to become an increasingly ugly place in the next few years,” he said. What with global tensions, starvation, drought and wars and military coups, the future was bleak, he said.

He said that social activism might become very dangerous in the future. Yehudi himself had not been afraid to stand up to power. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir presented him the Wolf Prize, Israel’s highest honor, he took the opportunity to lecture him publicly on the need to recognize the rights of the Palestinian Arabs.

He spoke out in Moscow against artistic oppression when he made one of the first appearances of a major artist behind the Iron Curtain. But all that had been earlier; he was now in the final years of his life.

Perhaps half a decade after our meeting, I was attending a memorial for Yehudi at Westminster Abbey. I heard Desmond Tutu talking about his own childhood memories of Yehudi coming to Soweto to play for the youth of one of the most notorious slums of apartheid South Africa. The event had been arranged by Yehudi’s good friend, Alan Paton, who wrote “Cry, the Beloved Country.” Yehudi was warned not to give the concert, and it was his first act of defiance against apartheid. He began the international artist boycott that help lead to the end of the South African regime. Thus, his talk of the impending nightmare he felt mankind was now embarking upon was the wisdom of a man who had seen and done much.

Nonetheless, I had at least superficially forgotten his final bursts of pessimism.

But I had an epiphany following some of the recent events surrounding President Barack Obama. I know that I’m not alone in that. Back in August, this very newspaper received an anonymous and chilling envelope with words and bloody images of bullet holes in Obama’s chest. The Secret Service never identified its source, even though a reporter was attacked in the missive for what he had written about the president’s wife.

It’s only gotten worse since then, the rise of the fascist right in this country, what with the killing at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and with people openly and publicly carrying semi-automatic weapons to Obama’s appearances. I’m sure there are people out there figuring they might not be able to win an election, but they might be able to grab power by assassinating Obama.

Think of what happened in Israel in 1995 when then-candidate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave speech after speech against the incumbent Yitzhak Rabin, saying Rabin had committed treason by signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu not so subtly called for Rabin’s death over and over again, and soon, a right-wing yeshiva student accommodated Netanyahu’s wishes.

I remembered what happened well, because I was then editing the old Bnai B’rith Messenger, the pioneering paper that the Los Angeles Jewish community had been reading for decades. I was keenly aware that a nation whose founding fathers were socialists or even more to the left had been taken over by its own jackbooted thugs. It was a pattern that Bush & Co. tried to copy in this country in 2000. In fairness, Bush et al. tried to turn the country into a right-wing police state by more methodical means. But the goal was the same.

You might say Rolfe is overreacting by seeing the pathetic hundreds who attended the so-called “tea parties” against Obama recently as an army of jackbooted thugs. All totaled, when they tried for a big putsch on the National Mall, there were less than 50,000 there.

Still, I felt as if we were starting to relive the narrative told in the pages of William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

The same dance of the nativist American fascists had preceded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The event was the first of the “lone assassins” that have taken their aim at progressive leaders in this country for many decades now.

When Kennedy ventured into Dallas, I was not alone in fearing that something horrible was about to happen. It was there in the rumblings from the right. They were prepared for murder, just as the same forces are preparing to murder this young president.

I knew the whole Lee Harvey Oswald as “lone assassin” story was a lie from Day One. I had been glued to ABC radio, listening to the events unfold as his motorcade drove into Dallas. Just as they got to Dealey Plaza, the shots rang out. And suddenly the newsman on the scene shouted, “Shots are coming from the grassy knoll.” And he saw men running from the scene.

The official script about Oswald and Ruby and Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit was written later.

Kennedy had wanted to end the war in Vietnam, and that’s one of the reasons he had to die. He challenged the ruling class, of which he was a member, in many ways. And it was the fact of his assassination that made the struggle to end the war in Vietnam so massive.

Make no mistake: People who think that way have not gone away just because Obama won. Down in San Diego one recent balmy night, a friend spent time at a party among some top Air Force types. He was shocked that they were talking about the need to assassinate Obama.

Into the mix comes the great Gore Vidal, telling The Times of London that Obama would soon be assassinated and we would have a full-blown dictatorship.

“Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it’s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not; they’re fascists.”

And raising his finger to signify a gun, he muttered to the interviewer:

“Bang, bang ... Just a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital.”

The country is “rotting away at a funereal pace,” Vidal said, predicting that we’ll “have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together.”

I know that Vidal is probably much more of a professional cynic than my uncle ever was. I don’t really know what difference it would have really made even if I had taken Yehudi seriously through the last two decades since that meeting.

But you’ll have to excuse me if I’m wallowing in pessimism these days. Nothing else seems appropriate, despite Obama having won the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, when Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Prize in 1964, the news was greeted with  the same widespread derision from yahoos that is happening now with Obama. But they got the last laugh — King was dead from an assassin’s bullet four years later.

Lionel Rolfe’s new ebook, “Presidents & Near Presidents I Have Known,” is available at This essay is included in that book.


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