In Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novella, “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or: How violence develops and where it can lead,” the namesake, a 27-year-old housekeeper living in an unnamed West German city, meets a handsome stranger at a party and takes him back to her apartment. They sleep together, he spends the night, and slips out early the following morning. Seemingly out of nowhere, a heavily-armed police commando unit bashes down the door to Blum’s flat, looking for the mysterious suitor. Completely unbeknownst to Blum, the man who swept her off her feet the previous night is a wanted criminal, a bank robber, and a terrorist. The cops bring her in for questioning, and the next day, a huge photo of Blum appears on the front page of a tabloid newspaper, Die Zeitung (“The Newspaper”), accompanied by a story with the following headline:
ON MALE VISITORS
“For the last two years the Blum woman has regularly received male visitors,” the reporter, a cynical and unscrupulous hack named Werner Tötges, writes. “Was her apartment a conspiracy hangout, a gang’s headquarters, an arms cache?”
For the next hundred pages, the wheels of injustice grind rapidly and Blum is subjected to an unrelenting torment of trial-by-media. A Die Zeitung photographer sneaks into the hospital room of her ailing mother, who subsequently dies. Tötges misquotes Blum’s employer and friends disparaging her as a whore and a communist. She receives threatening phone calls and her mailbox overflows with letters denouncing her as a “filthy bitch.” The persecution and harassment ultimately drive her, in an act of frenzied desperation, to kill Tötges and turn herself in to the police.
A fictional case study in “how violence develops,” the novel is not an apologia for terrorism or press censorship, as some critics alleged, but rather an indictment of media sensationalism and the society that takes such pleasure in these routine spectacles of human misery.
A Nobel laureate, Böll wrote from personal experience. In 1970, a group of left-wing terrorists calling themselves the Red Army Faction launched a bloody campaign of bombings and assassinations across West Germany, eliciting a harsh government crackdown and the imposition of severe restrictions on civil liberties. After Böll published an essay criticizing the Bild-Zeitung, the mass-circulation tabloid published by the Axel Springer press empire, for whipping up populist venom against leftists, students, and other critics of the government’s harsh security measures, the paper vilified him as a terrorist sympathizer. The police proceeded to search his home, harass his family, and wiretap his phone. “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” an indictment of state collusion with the yellow press in the destruction of an individual citizen, was Böll’s conjuration of his own ordeal.
“The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious,” reads Böll’s parody of the ass-covering legal disclaimers tucked within novels and films based on true events. “Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.”
I was reminded of Böll’s novel (and its haunting 1975 film adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta) upon reading the bizarre and much-discussed story in the Washington Post entitled “Blackface incident at Post cartoonist’s 2018 Halloween party resurfaces amid protests.” Written by senior editor Marc Fisher and reporter Sydney Trent, the piece sets an ominous new standard in news judgment that should terrify any American who believes in such things as basic decency and a private sphere. And it also says something disturbing about the revolutionary moment we seem to be entering.
The gist of the 3,000-word article is that, 18 months ago, “a middle-aged white woman” named Sue Schafer attended a Halloween costume party at the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post cartoonist Tom Coles in blackface. Schafer was dressed as Megan Kelly, the former Fox News host who had caused a fuss earlier that week with an indignant defense of blackface as a wholesome rite from her childhood. Lest anyone have erroneously thought Schafer was mocking actual people of color and not the TV talking head, Schafer wore a name tag proclaiming “Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly.”
If this seems like a strange thing for a leading national newspaper to feature on the front page of its lifestyle section, that’s because it appears to have been pressured into doing so by two young party crashers, Lexie Gruber and Lyric Prince, who accosted Schafer. “You look horrible” Prince told her, while Gruber yelled that Schafer was “ugly and had wrinkles.” Schafer explained that she was lampooning the Fox Television host, to no avail, and left the party in tears. She called Toles the next day to apologize profusely and has since spent “many hours in therapy” discussing her faux pas.
Was Schafer tone deaf? Clearly. A vile, racist monster on the level of Derek Chauvin? Surely not. But according to the precepts of our Manichean political debate—the dicta of which are extending further and further into realms of life once considered beyond their reach—there is no room for ambiguity. You are either a “racist” or an “anti-racist,” a “fascist” or an “anti-fascist,” an “ally” or an enemy. And so it was perhaps only a matter of time before Gruber and Prince decided to retail this year-and-a-half-old episode with the world, or as the Post craftily headlined the story, “resurface” it.
When interviewed by the Post, Schafer, in a clear appeal for mercy, said she would like to speak with the two young women in order to offer a personal apology for any offense she caused. “With this story, they’ll get the public humiliation they want, but it won’t foster any real dialogue between us,” she pleaded. “I wish they would talk to me.” What could (and should) have been resolved privately between the affected parties, however, was superseded by the imperative to air this kerfuffle in public. When Schafer informed her employer that a major Post exposé was imminent, she says she was promptly fired.
Americans, take note: In the new dispensation that has arisen in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, an ill-considered Halloween costume from your private past is now fair game for coverage by the paper that broke Watergate.
Just as it didn’t matter to Die Zeitung that Katharina Blum was the model of a law-abiding citizen, so did it not matter to Gruber and Prince, nor to their collaborators at the Post, that Sue Schafer is an earnest liberal, posting on her Facebook page “about her opposition to President Trump and her support of immigrants, gun control, gay rights and anti-racism causes, including photos she took at marches and demonstrations she attended.” Similarly irrelevant is the absence of any verifiable racism in the life or work of Tom Toles (who, ironically, once published a piece mocking the self-pitying rich entitled, “Is criticizing billionaires the new blackface?”). On the contrary, their liberal bona fides prove their racism to be even more insidious, as it lurks behind a facade of enlightened sensibility. According to a statement issued by a Postspokesperson, Toles was at fault for hosting a party “attended by media figures only two years ago where an individual in blackface was not told promptly to leave.” Presumably, if Toles had shown Schafer the door more swiftly and made a public stink about it, the pitiless scrutiny of his own employer would never have been visited upon him.
Journalists from across the political spectrum condemned the Post for publishing the article, which the paper’s spokesperson justified by stating that, “America’s grappling with racism has entered a phase in which people who once felt they should keep quiet are now raising their voices in public. The story is a microcosm of what the country is going through right now.” Leave aside the strangeness of assigning the defense of a controversial piece of journalism not to the editorial leadership responsible for producing it but to a PR flack. This story is indeed a “microcosm of what the country is going through right now,” just not at all in the way the paper thinks.
To understand why, we can turn once again to the pages of 20th century German history, to the erstwhile land that existed behind the late and unlamented barrier dividing it from the country in which Heinrich Böll wrote. The duty of the inoffizieller mitarbeiter, or unofficial collaborator, was to deliver information to the Stasi, “Sword and Shield” of the one-party state that oxymoronically called itself the German Democratic Republic. No citizen was exempt from suspicion of harboring “subversive” tendencies, and it was the zealous inoffizieller mitarbeiter who informed on their neighbors, friends, and even relatives.
Which brings us back to the Post story, the origins of which read like a low-rent beltway parody of “The Lives of Others.” Instead of a blood-soaked intelligence service recruiting and exploiting the petty ambitions and vanities of everyday people to further its ideological agenda, individuals are taking the initiative to denounce each other all on their own, with large institutions bending to the fury of the zealous. Earlier this month, inspired by the “nationwide reckoning over race,” Gruber wrote Toles an email demanding to know the identity of the woman she had confronted at his party 18 months ago. “I understand that you are not responsible for the behavior of your guests, but at the party, a woman was in Blackface. She harassed me and my friend—the only two women of color—and it was clear she made her ‘costume’ with racist intent.”
Toles initially declined to rat out a family friend to someone who had shown up to his home uninvited. That act of compassion only confirmed his racism. “Hiding her name is a deliberate act of white privilege and cowardice, not friendship,” Gruber warned him. “As you well know, we are an extension of the company we keep.” In a separate, essentially extortionist email “seeking Post coverage of the incident,” Gruber wrote of her indignation “that a party full of prominent people in Washington welcomed a person in blackface, danced and drank with her, and watched in silence as she harassed two young women of color.” (Remember, it was Gruber and Prince who accosted Schafer, not the other way around).
“Washington Post, if it is indeed an ally of democracy, needs to examine the culture that is currently in its editorial and news staff and understand how even passive racism can have devastating financial, mental, and emotional consequences,” Prince declares on her Facebook page. “This is indeed a cultural war, that we are sometimes fighting even within ourselves.”
In news circles, rumors are flying that a major media company has established a secret back channel for employees to report the insufficiently woke behavior of their colleagues. Not long ago, at another prominent outlet, a group of millennial staffers, upset over an article by an older writer, filed a workplace harassment complaint against this person—who does not even go to the office—with the Human Resources department. Further afield, American high school students are compiling lists and creating anonymous social media accounts to “call out their peers for racist behavior.” From the credentialed journalists who rushed to judge a group of Catholic high school boys last year to the self-appointed Twitter commissars who spend every waking hour finding the next colleague to cancel with their digital Salem tactics, we are becoming a society replete with narcs, hall monitors, and banal snitches.