Would Hitler’s Germany have been any more acceptable had they not had expansionist ambitions? Certainly not! Would it have been any more tolerated by the other nations of the world? Probably so. As Trump unmasks the fear and willingness to react violently and with hate, as we live into a representation of 1930’s Germany, albeit perhaps minus the intent to militarily overtake our neighboring nations, how do we in the US respond? How does the world respond?
This past November I had the great fortune of spending a few days in Berlin. I also happened to be reading Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, an historical fiction of the century beginning in the late-1800’s and going through the late-1900’s. Combined, these brought home some of the factors leading to World Wars one and two, and the atrocities of Nazi Germany. But I was already keenly aware of some of those, with relatives who fought for the Allies, those who were in the Nazi youth program, and those who were refuges from the fighting during World War II (my mom was in that latter group, especially from the time she was 4-8 years old). I’ve also studied some about pacifism and just peace.
I am quite convinced that we are on a dangerous path in the United States. While no one can predict the future, there is most definitely cause for sufficient concern that we should be mobilizing now for a peace offensive in order to ward of the risk of needing to agonize over whether to participate in violent forms of defense later. This may seem an over reaction to the current political context, and perhaps it is. But it also may not be, and regardless people are today all around the country are already paying a price, sometimes with their lives, for the hate-filled rhetoric in the Republican presidential campaign.
Charles Blow’s article “Demagogue for President” in the New York Times outlines some of the reasons it is likely as serious as I am painting it to be. Neal Gabler highlights in “How The Media Enabled Donald Trump By Destroying Politics First” the ways media’s interest in show over substance has brought us the first pseudo-campaign of a pseudo-candidate. Amanda Taub has written a great post called “The Rise of American Authoritarianism” provides a research-driven context for what appears to be happening with regard to a longer trend of fear-based politics.Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver look further into claims of authoritarianism and instead argue that Trump supporters may be true populists in their Washington Post article “Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?” These are all helpful perspectives of the “dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism” as Rahn and Oliver suggest, but do they provide any sense of what we can and should do now to prevent worse?
I believe rather than finger pointing, we need to take ownership in the phenomenon and personal responsibility for correcting this nefarious trend.
I came across this quote by Nazi prison camp survivor Reverend Martin Niemöller in Anne Bishop’s book Becoming an Ally:
First they arrested the communists — but I was not a Communist, so I did nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats — but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then they arrested the Trade Unionists — and I did nothing, because I was not one. And then they came for the Jews, and then the Catholics, but I was neither a Jew nor a Catholic, and I did nothing. At last they came and arrested me — and there was no one left to do anything about it.
Today we can and must do something about the hate-filled speech and actions around us. If we hear someone expressing hatred or distrust towards people groups such as Muslims, or immigrants, or people of color, we need to immediately make it clear it is unacceptable. If we find our own words and actions accusing people groups we need to check ourselves and ask why. Study after study has shown how our nature leads us to overly trust people we perceive to be like us and distrust those who are different. And while a certain level of generalization and even stereotyping has evolved as a helpful tool to let us respond quickly in new contexts, it is almost always based on weak correlations that need to be constantly challenged. We must not make important legal/political decisions based on such, and it is unproductive to enter into even casual conversation from such a starting point. If we don’t defend others now, it will be our turn later. And that’s not to speak of the horrors happening already to people on the receiving ends of such speech and actions! We need to hold each other accountable as a commitment to justice.
Much of the fear- and hate-filled speech has served the interests of a few over others. Whether it serves to entertain, and in so doing extract resources from some to the benefit of others, or to motivate political choices, or to justify our large military, prison, petroleum, and other industrial complexes, most of us lose. There are real reasons to worry, but too often we are left tilting at windmills rather than looking at the root causes of which we should be concerned and should take action. Each of us need to develop a richer set of lenses with which to question why our political and business leaders, media, advertising, peers, and other “trusted” sources say what they say. And we need to question why we respond as we respond. We then need to learn to ask why we answered what we did to those questions, digging two, three, and four times deeper than we’re used to going. We need to do this in dialogue with others, and especially with those different from ourselves. Indeed, many have suggested it is in this type of community of inquiry across difference that we begin to see true democracy form.
But ultimately I think really getting to the root is going to require that we, as a nation, come to terms with our historical acts of genocide and oppression. Indeed, our very existence as a nation is founded upon these acts. It is interesting that we will be quick to take pride in the wonderful things generations past have done in the name of our nation — and there have been many. But bring up the slaughter of Native Americans, or the ownership of Africans forcefully imported and then labeled as only 3/5ths human and the claim is that it wasn’t us. We need to take shame in these acts and repent of them as much as we take pride in the other acts and take motivation from them. Only in this process of truth and reconciliation, a process that will require years and decades of committed effort, will we truly begin a peace offensive that will help reduce further hate-filled acts against our fellow humans here and abroad. And along the way, perhaps we can right the significant oppressions to which we contribute each and every day right now.
The alternative is to face the agony known by people committed to justice in places like Nazi Germany because too late did they take the threat seriously and act urgently upon it.