If we don’t want the United States to follow the path of Germany in the 1930s, those of us who believe in the humanist values of basic rights, equality under the law, and progress for all must speak now, Greg Camp writes.
First published in July 2019.
In an article for Slate, Christopher Hitchens wrote about his experiences as one of the few journalists to observe North Korea directly. The horrors of that nation are well known. As a writer who cared about the craft, though, he objected to what the Kim regime – a trinity of vicious deities, as he pointed out in debates – compels the mind to leap to, a comparison with George Orwell’s 1984. This is one of the clichés of political discussion whenever totalitarian states come up, but as Hitchens speculates, it is difficult not to imagine that Kim Il Sung read the text and thought, “Hmmm… good book. Let’s see if we can make it work.”
It is the nature of tyrants to shrink matters down to the exercise of force alone. The nuances of evidence and sound reasoning and a concern for what is best for human beings undermine autocratic rule, whereas marching on the same page of the hymnal – and yes, I am deliberately mixing metaphors here – shoves everyone toward the same uniforms of thought and deed. Slogans whip up rage, raising the Other as a revolting enemy that we must destroy – one enemy after another until everyone is dead, whether in the death of the body or in the death of the soul by absorption into the ego of the leader.
I present this as context for a rally held in North Carolina this week. Donald Trump, sticking with his racist tweets over the weekend, renewed his attacks on four progressive member of Congress, drawing chants of “send her back” from his audience in reference to one of the group, Ilhan Omar.
My mind immediately races down the flow chart here that ends in pictures of the Nuremberg rallies. Omar is a duly elected representative who has done nothing other than exercise her right to express her opinions, and when the supporters of the president demand her expulsion, this sounds all too much like a search for a final solution. Yes, I mean exactly that. Whoever originally said that while history does not repeat, it does rhyme – it was not Mark Twain – had not seen the era of Trump. Today, the Republican Party is unironically copying lines from fascist Germany.
The difference between a cliché and a principle is that the latter holds up under analysis. A principle asks us to think, rather than ordering us to cease that process. One example of this is found in Martin Niemöller’s oft-quoted summary of the rise of fascism. First the Nazis came for the Other, and Niemöller was silent. When they came for him, no number of words that he could speak stopped them.
In the almost four decades of my political awareness, I have witnessed Pat Buchanan declare the nation to be in a state of cultural war between his godly brigades and the rest of us. I have witnessed right wing AM radio insist that any position not in line with Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage is communism. I have witnessed voters in state after state pass referenda against marriage equality. And I have witnessed Donald Trump call for and then impose illegal bans on travel to this country of particular groups of people, bans based on their religion or race.
What good has all this observation done? I do hope to be to some degree immunized against the appeal of marching tunes and waving flags. Others would label me as cynical. I know from my interactions with my fellow Americans on social media and in the real world that I am not alone in perceiving the dark turn of the right wing toward theocracy and fascism. As a nation, we like to think of ourselves as an independently minded bunch, but pleasant myths must be tested against reality.
A truly oppositional people would have risen up in daily revolution after the massive violations of basic rights that we have, in fact, tolerated since 9/11. If we lived up to our loudly stated values, we would put a stop to the excesses of police power seen in our war on drugs and in the treatment of minorities. Rather than talking about throwing the bums out of Congress, those who are genuinely unruly would not put up with congressional incumbency rates in the nineties, given how angry we claim to be about such politicians. Instead, too many of us sit in meekness, not only saying nothing against these abuses, but shushing the few who do object.
And while balance is the declared ideal of commercial media, the facts do not allow a conclusion that both sides are equally to blame or to be praised. I am sorry to have to say that Republicans like John McCain – Republicans who would, for example, tell a supporter that Obama is a decent American with whom he disagreed but who was not a cause for alarm – are an endangered species. But there are a few remaining among the party’s politicians, and if polls are any guide, Trump’s disapproval numbers are high, as is dissatisfaction with the direction that the country is going, indicating that there is cause for hope.
That can only be sustained if we commit to speaking out. Attacks on immigrants, on non-Christians, or on GSRM (gender, sexual, and romantic minorities) must be unacceptable anywhere we find them. More than that, the implicit acceptance of an equation of patriotism with the holding of right-wing ideology cannot be allowed to pass without comment. A Republican could convince me that universal healthcare, say, is a bad idea by presenting sufficient evidence that is assembled into a valid argument, but I will not be told that I am unpatriotic for wishing to see everyone receive necessary medical treatment. The science of climate change is always subject to adjustments if new evidence comes in, but a desire for a clean environment in which human civilization can flourish is an expression of love for one’s homeland. Religious doctrines command a variety of beliefs, but religious freedom is at the core of who we are supposed to be. And I will not be silent about these principles.
The political cliché comes back again and again not because it is easy to understand – it is not rational – but because it creates a catch in the voice, a tremor in the nerves, a buzzing in the brain. Trump’s ideology, expressed at his rallies where his supporters chant “send her back” depends on silencing independent thought and on stoking rage and fear.
If we do not want our country to follow the path of Germany in the 1930s, those of us who believe in the humanist values of basic rights, equality under the law, and progress for all must place ourselves athwart the marching columns. We must speak in favor of our vision of the country. If we do not, we will have to say with Martin Niemöller that there was no one left to speak for us.🔷
Share this article now:
Tell us your story:
Have you got a story to share
with our readers?
You can share your experience today
by submitting your story to us: