Who would I have been in the days leading up to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or US slavery times?

In 1996, I sat in a class of American college students on a study-abroad program in Olomouc in the Czech Republic. A Czech man just a few years older than us came in to give a lecture about life in the 1980s under Stalinist totalitarianism and the Soviet occupation. I don’t remember the exact details of the lecture but it was good. It was moving and detailed and real.

I was the only one in the class who knew much of it already and who spoke Czech. I had been to the country before in 1992 and had my mind exploded during a week in a rustic cabin with a group of young people who had been quiet dissidents three years earlier, copying down illegal protest songs by hand in tattered notebooks.

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

I absorbed the university lecture eagerly, asking several questions at the end to draw out interesting parts of the man’s story. Then I made myself stop. I didn’t want to hog the space and I knew I should let the others ask. But when I looked around there was not one hand raised.

One of the American college students, sprawled in a chair at the back of the class, drawled, “Yeah, that’s the difference over here. Americans would never have put up with that.”

It sounds like a cliche but I really felt like something hit me in the chest. I had no breath. Before I could recover, the class broke up and the lecturer exited quickly, while my classmates put their notebooks away and went out for an afternoon of Czech beer.

Listening to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US supreme Court and the protesters screaming for all they were worth from the gallery, I thought of that remark and of Jan Palach, the student who lit himself on fire in protest of the Soviet invasion of 1968. Palach is a symbol of the final and most extreme protest when oppression has become so immense that dissent is easily silenced, dismissed, buried or imprisoned.

Things have gone from bad to worse in the US in the past two years. The quiet corporate coop that made a mockery of electoral democracy for decades has become overt. The extreme racist, misogynist, eco-cidal ideology that was threatening before has taken more and more power by more and more unjustifiable means.

Plenty of readers will sneer at my title and say that I should not compare this to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Czechoslovakia or slavery times. We are not seeing people shot in the streets… well, except when they are black and vaguely suspected of something. We can still protest. We cannot compare ourselves to Jan Palach and those who had all of their other options taken away.

And that is true. We still can protest. And that is why those screams made me think of Jan Palach. Those protesters hauled off by security were mocked by many. They screamed as a man credibly accused of sexual assault, a man with clearly stated misogynist and extremist views was given lifetime power over us.

They yelled and made a scene and they were ultimately powerless to do anything. The charade of “democracy” went on with smug indifference. Those in power snicker and call their “tantrums” futile and petty.

But it is not nothing to scream at injustice and the destruction of a democratic country. It is not nothing. It is the one thing that still stands between us and the likes of Jan Palach. We can still scream where it is heard. He couldn’t without ending up being tortured in a dark cell.

There is a meme on Facebook that says “You now know what you would have done in Nazi Germany. You’re doing it right now.”

The idea is that the early days of Nazi Germany did not look so different from our current situation, a terribly polarized country with a ridiculous, extreme right-wing faction gaining popular support among a certain frustrated portion of the population while most of the traditional powers tut-tutted and insisted that any resistance be done through their channels. Most of the middle class and intellectuals were sure for a very long time that it wasn’t really that bad, that these nuts would not get total control. They considered the Nazis to be deplorable certainly but not a real threat.

And most people either were swept up into the extremism because they were easily swayed by advertising and razzle-dazzle or they disliked the extremists who gained power but just grumbled quietly about it and mostly made sure not to take any great personal risks.

The thinking behind the meme is that the beginnings of Nazi Germany looked a lot like the United States today and so it is now easy to tell what kind of person you would have been then. And in some ways that meme is right. We have far different technology and public discourse and we are more aware of totalitarianism than most people were then. But the same dynamic is clearly visible, the same divided groups and the same vulnerability to manipulative extremism.

I don’t compare our times to the height of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or slavery times. I do compare our times to the run-up to such moments in history. We are still in the stage where we can scream and not be shot—most of us. We are not yet faced with the choice Jan Palach perceived—to live in utter oppression or to die loudly enough that the scream will at least break the oppressive silence.

And so I ask myself who would I have been in the days leading up to the darkest times in history?

And today I know the answer.

I would have been a writer who wrote the truth even if it meant losing jobs—and eventually a career—over it. I have done that. I have lost jobs and lost my hard-fought career in newspaper journalism with one of the best national newspapers in large part because I wouldn’t tow the line and I broke out of the mold of the celebrity-focused, reality-impaired news too often. I had a couple of run-ins with censorship of historical facts and ended up on the NRA’s journalist “hit list” before I was done.

I would have been a member of a vulnerable group who could not get work or participate in mainstream society in my own country because of the self-destructive way that country was organized which directly excluded my group. Because of that I would have been forced to leave the country and spend my life far from my home and family. I left the United States twenty years ago because as a legally blind person I could not be independent and fully participate in society without public transportation, which is today one of the greatest needs for everyone to combat climate change. Because I am legally blind, the community I emigrated to does not entirely accept me either, but I do have public transportation and so I can have a normal life, a family and a job. The same was true of many who fled destructive regimes for other reasons—less-than enthusiastic welcome but a chance to live.

Whether I stayed or left, I would have been active in protest movements, organizing as long and as hard as I could. I led protests against the war in Iraq in my city, even though it cost me another job and impacted my health. But for a long time I would not have been among those who dropped everything to protest full-time or risked the most. I participated in actions to support Greenpeace blockaders who did risk their lives to protest US imperialism and environmental destruction. I was terribly afraid when I was almost caught by military police while bringing food to an encampment. All I risked that time was a trip to the local jail, a fine and a record. But I quaked with fear and because I was trying to adopt children and didn’t want the possible bureaucratic repercussions, I didn’t ask to take on a riskier role in the protests.

In those other times, I still would have adopted children from a vulnerable group, despite disapproval from many sides. I have done that. I would have been one of those people who held down a hearth and cooked food and let people traveling to protests or fleeing from danger sleep in their home. That too I have done.

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

I would also have been among those who eventually became too exhausted by hand-to-mouth work and health problems to go to most protests. I am exhausted. Most protests are too far and too difficult for me to get to anymore. Then again, needy children keep me tied down. I would have been one of those who found a small corner to hide in when I got older and less physically strong. I would have continued in small ways to resist personally and to give help to the endangered ones who crossed my path.

I would have been among those who wished to do something significant, to join the “real resistance,” but didn’t first because of fear and later because of those who already depended on me. I have fantasies of helping refugees from war-torn and climate-devastated regions. I have fantasies of going off to live in camps at places like Standing Rock to put my body between the corporations and the destruction of the earth’s climate and our children’s future. But I haven’t done it. I am less afraid now that I am older. There is less at stake because there is less of my life and no career or adoption process left to lose.

I would have been a quiet ally to those most targeted by the oppression. I would have stood up for them against social bullying and helped if I could. But I wouldn’t have had either the energy or the capacity to do much that really mattered, because I am also not among the privileged and because even when I don’t fear for my own life and livelihood, I fear for my children, and because of distance and lack of funds and reticence toward cold, hard living.

I would not have been a hero or one remembered by history. I would not have been a collaborator or someone who willfully didn’t see what was happening. I would have been willing to sacrifice a job or a career, but not my family in order to tell the truth. I would have done small things to help those worst affected and felt guilty that I didn’t do more. I would have been among those taking carefully measured risks. And unless I was among the unlucky few—like say Heather Heyer— I wouldn’t have paid the highest price. I know because that is the kind of character I am in our current story.

Have you let yourself think this through? Who would you have been?

Avoid falsely easy answers. You may be among those targeted by hate today but there are likely others who are in greater danger—assuming you have the leisure to be reading my blog.

If you are among those most targeted today, consider that victims also had options back then. Would you have been among those who left early, who found a way out or a way to fight back? Would you have been among those who covered their ears and prayed that it would not go so far? Would you have been among those who blamed your friends and neighbors or joined with them in mutual aid to survive? What is it you are doing today? Are you lashing out at allies or frozen with fear or getting your children to safety and building alliances?

And if you are part of a group that is not yet targeted, who would you have been then? Would you have been the bystander who knew a bit of what was going on but chose not to get too involved? Would you have been the one who who shut their ears and eyes to the suffering of others and the devastation of their homes? Would you have had the courage to use what rights you had to say “no,” to protest loudly when you could and to give aid quietly?

Who would you have been? A lot of the wondering has been resolved in the past two years. Who are you now?

How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.