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Wilhelm Busch, Meet George Bush


Have you seen these two people?

To anyone born in Germany since, oh, 1865 or so (or almost anyone who's taken a German literature course), they are quite familiar faces: Max and Moritz. Wilhelm Busch, their creator, died 99 years ago today, and his work inspired the Katzenjammer Kids, and through them, the entire American newspaper comic strip industry.

In an era when German children's books had titles like "Of Proper Children" and were filled with positive images of obedient little munchkins, Busch presented the complete opposite – juvenile delinquents without peer.  He tells his story with rhyming poetry and delightful images, akin to (and perhaps inspiring) what Dr. Seuss would do with words and pictures a century later.

Ah, how oft we read or hear of
Boys we almost stand in fear of!
For example, take these stories
Of two youths, named Max and Moritz,
Who, instead of early turning
Their young minds to useful learning,
Often leered with horrid features
At their lessons and their teachers.
Look now at the empty head: he
Is for mischief always ready.
Teasing creatures – climbing fences,
Stealing apples, pears, and quinces,
Is, of course, a deal more pleasant,
And far easier for the present,
Than to sit in schools or churches,
Fixed like roosters on their perches
But O dear, O dear, O deary,
When the end comes sad and dreary !
'Tis a dreadful thing to tell
That on Max and Moritz fell !
All they did this book rehearses,
Both in pictures and in verses.

Mischief doesn't begin to describe this pair. In the opening scene, they torture and kill a poor widow's beloved rooster and three hens. When the widow discovers her chickens hanging from a tree branch, she weeps and mourns, then brings them in to make herself a feast. She puts them over the fire to roast, then goes down to the cellar to get something. Max and Moritz climb the roof and use a fishing pole to snag the chickens through the chimney, which they proceed to devour. The widow returns to the kitchen, sees the chickens gone, then blames the dog for eating them, beating him with a ladle.

Hmmm … torture, growing fat by stealing from widows, casting the blame elsewhere … sound like anyone you know? Don't answer yet, because this story's just getting started.

They boobytrap a bridge outside the tailor's house, then entice the tailor to chase them by shouting insults at him. He runs onto the bridge, it collapses, he is drenched in the water, and catches cold. They fill their hated teacher's favorite pipe with gunpowder, which explodes in his face. They collect maybugs and put them in their Uncle Fritz's bed, ruining his sleep. They break into the baker's kitchen, looking for sweets, and make a mess of the whole place. They tumble into a trough of dough, just as the baker returns. He takes these two dough-covered boys, fashions them into two boy-shaped loaves, puts them in the oven to bake, then removes the pair to let them cool. But our Anti-Heroes still have their wits about them, and eat their way out of the bread to make their escape.

Wilhelm Busch, meet George Bush.

It is apparent that the folks at BushCo Industries have been taking Max and Moritz as inspirational figures for their hard work of governing. Get what you can while you can, and don't worry about how it affects anyone else. For Max, Moritz, and their cronies at BushCo, it's all about power and the exercise thereof. Just look at a few of the items on the BushCo "Max and Moritz" scorecard: 

  • Katrina – too many residents of New Orleans are still waiting for substantive help, but don't worry: DHS/FEMA contractors have been taken care of. Handsomely, I might add.
  • More than a few 9-11 Commission recommendations remain unaddressed, but don't worry: the markets for quart-sized ziploc bags and 3 oz bottles of lotions, shampoos, and other toiletries have gone through the roof.
  • Torture, rendition, and secret prison camps. But don't worry: they're only for the bad guys. Or the people we think are bad guys. Or the people that someone told us were bad guys, after we paid them for every bad guy they brought us. [pdf] 
  • Disregard for habeas corpus, the Geneva Convention, and the Bill of Rights. Warrants for domestic wiretapping? Don't worry: Max and Moritz didn't need any stinking warrants! (Great links in the last thread to Glenn Greenwald, assuming blogger gets its act together. Thanks, scarecrow.)
  • Signing statements that proclaim "I'll do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want, no matter what you say."
  • A feast of tax breaks for the wealthy and well connected, and increasingly expensive doughnut holes for the poor widows on Medicare who need prescription drugs. 
  • Stifling and twisting scientific inquiry at the behest of TheoCon fundamentalists. 
  • Outing an undercover CIA agent in a fit of personal pique at something her husband wrote, then lying to cover it up.
  • K Street shills, earmarks, and all the other pay-for-play games.

Yep – it's Max and Moritz, role models for the Bush Administration.

But if the mischiefmakers at BushCo have read Wilhelm Busch's story and are using it for policy planning, the escape from the baker is probably as far as they got, because at this point things take a turn for the worse for Max and Moritz. You'd think that their close call would have taught them a lesson, but of course it doesn't . . .

Max and Moritz sneak into the farmer's storehouse, and cut slits into sacks of corn. When the farmer picks up a sack, the grain all spills out onto the floor. His anger turns to delight, however, when he spots Max and Moritz, grabs them, and ties them up in a sack. He takes the sack to the miller, has the pair of scoundrels ground up in the mill, and the resulting "grain" is eaten by the miller's ducks. RIP, Max and Moritz.

(Yes, this is a children's story, in the same vein as the old Brothers Grimm children's fairytales. Not the Disneyfied "santized for your protection" Brothers Grimm stories, but the originals with parents that abandon their kids in the woods and with evil creatures that eat little girls and boys.) 

Such is the end of Max and Moritz, and there was no grieving in the town at their demise:

Through the place in short there went
One wide murmur of content:
"God be praised! the town is free
From this great rascality!"

After six years of pranks, even DC has had enough. There's a whole raft of farmers and millers, ready to start holding these folks accountable: Waxman (House Oversight and Govt Reform), Conyers (House Judiciary), Skelton (House Armed Services), Lantos (House International Relations), Levin (Senate Armed Services), Leahy (Senate Judicary), Durbin, Feingold, Rockefeller (Senate Intelligence), and a host of Blue America newcomers are anxious to crank up the gristmills for the modern-day mischiefmakers. (Sorry there are only a few links for the Senate committees, but it seems they are still stuck in the 109th Congress on their websites when it comes to their committees – they still show their old GOP chairs!) Abramoff is already in the grinder, along with Ney and Cunningham, but there are plenty more where they came from. Fitz is ready to put Irving into the mill, and who knows what will come out when the gears start to pinch.

Crank up the mills of Congressional Oversight, and bring in the federal juries: Max and Moritz are on their way over.

Rest in peace, Wilhelm; George is making sure your name lives on. While we're at it, let's hear it for other great political cartoonists! San Francisco's Mark Fiore of SFGate is always a lot of fun (do click through his archive – you won't be sorry!), as is Tom Tomorrow . . . and of course, darkblack. If you want to show some love to any of your local favorites, give us a link in the comments.

(h/t to the Department of Foreign Languages at Virginia Commonwealth University for hosting an online version of Max Und Moritz and for providing its translation.)

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.