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?

Why is the queen always evil?

"We have princesses and a king and a dragon," one seven-year-old girl gushes.

I'm sitting with my daughter and her friends, playing with marionettes and our home puppet stage.

"I'll be the queen," I suggest. 

"No, the queen is too mean," my daughter says, pushing a knight into my hands. "You be a knight." 

It was unconscious. The kids hadn't yet decided on a plot line or a premise for their fairy tale, but one given is apparently that the queen is always evil.

Public domain image from the  LBJ Library

Public domain image from the  LBJ Library

The printable flashcards I use with my ESL students make a similar assumption. In the fantasy set, there is a king, a princess, a prince and a knight who are all nice-looking protagonists. Then among the antagonists there is a green monster, a sadistic wizard and an evil queen with a dripping, red-stained dagger.

I have started noticing this trend and searching for positive "queen" stories and symbols. There is of course the age-old British obsession with their queen, who is considered a benevolent figure. But there are few others in the modern world. Very rarely does a Disney movie feature even a neutral queen.

And when I come to think of it, a large part of the attraction of the British queen is that she is a symbol of wealth and celebrity but has very little power in the world. 

Consider what our popular culture conceives of as a good king--the qualities that make a king truly admirable in the modern imagination. You don't have to look only at kings to see this. Anyone who is in a king-like position (with a measure of absolute power in a certain area), whether it is a lord of a domain in a fantasy novel or a Star Trek captain, fulfills the "king" archetype.

In modern culture today, a king should be strong and able to protect his people, first and foremost. He should make hard and even harsh decisions bravely and only for the true common good of his people. He should be a warrior, willing to go first into battle. If he is ever called upon to sacrifice one of his people to save the others, he must insist that he will be the sacrifice. How many plot-lines use this device? 

Women are never portrayed in this way. They can sacrifice themselves for the people, sure. But they cannot hold such power at the same time. If a woman holds massive power over an area or a people, she is always portrayed negatively in modern western culture. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Green

Creative Commons image by Tim Green

I just tried googling "queens in popular culture." Google didn't even initially want me to put the query and tried to insist on "drag queens in popular culture." Then when I finally typed out the whole query, the first result was titled literally, "Evil Queens in Pop Culture." No result on the first page of Google results has positive messages about queens.

There are "drag queens" and "evil queens." There are "welfare queens," "queen bees," "drama queens," and "ice queens." But there is no role model, no symbol, no archetype in the great common subconscious of a strong, honorable queen, such as we have for the strong, honorable male leader.

Wildly popular female heroines do exist in popular culture, of course. and there are positive examples. But they are universally young and rebellious. There are Katniss, Tris and a host of recent plucky Disney heroines. Even Hermione Granger gets harsh judgement from my teenage English students when they write about the Harry Potter series, because she is not rebellious enough! 

One only needs to look at the wildly popular Game of Thrones to see how young, strong but relatively powerless heroines compare to older, powerful queens in the popular imagination. Young girls can have their flaws, but they are essentially sympathetic as long as they don't have much power. They can even be ruthless and not be seen as evil. 

But a queen with power is immediately the object of hatred and disgust. 

And I have to wonder why.

Does this hatred of queens stem from some deep historical wound? Or are powerful, good queens just generally unknown in history? There have been a few but mostly their names are much less known than the female rebels. How many more people have heard of Joan of Arc than have heard of Boudicca? Not many westerners beyond history buffs know the names Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hatshepsut, Empress Theodora or Empress Wu Zetian.

Those who did study Maria Theresa of Austria, Elizabeth I of England and Catherine II of Russia in mandatory school textbooks found them described as cold, harsh and cruel for decisions that were no more harsh or calculated than those of similarly positioned kings. 

But at least the British for a very long time did have a popular, kindly concept of the queen and the phrase "God save the queen" was often said with all sincerity. So, I am not certain that history can be blamed entirely for our modern antipathy toward queens. 

Is it a backlash then against the feminism of the late 20th century? Is there an instinctual fear among men and women alike that female power will result in tyranny? 

Surely, this ubiquitous undertone of negativity about women with political and military power hurt Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. And at the same time she contributed to that stereotype by being cold, out of touch and--I'll try to be diplomatic here--strategic. 

Creative Commons image by  Carole Raddato

Creative Commons image by  Carole Raddato

But I have to wonder if the reason why the women who have come anywhere close to power in recent decades have been so cold and ruthless is that it requires harsh calculation for a woman to reach that pinnacle of power in today's world. Among activists and rebels, there are certainly plenty of positive figures who are warm and capable of leadership, but they never seem to rise high in power if they are female 

Maybe that's all it is. It has been a long time since we have seen a good and honorable queen-like figure, because the patriarchal system screens out women with those qualities from political power. 

After imbibing a lot of popular culture myself, I find that I cannot even conceive of a strong, powerful and protective queen figure without doubts about cold and ruthless women creeping in.

Take a moment, if you will, to imagine a female queen or general who must protect her people and tackle complex ethical issues. What qualities would such a leader embody? Could the same qualities that make a good king--honor, protection, ethics, the setting of clear boundaries and guarding of borders and self-sacrifice--transfer directly across?. 

Would these same qualities make an ideal queen whom the popular imagination could embrace? I have thought on it for a long time, trying to come up with the plot for a fantasy novel in which a queen possesses these same qualities. And it just doesn't quite work. Such a queen would inevitably be seen as too cold.

Where Captain Archer of Star Trek Enterprise can make questionably ethical decisions to save humanity and still be admired, a queen would be judged as "evil." Captain Janeway of Star Trek Voyager, the series' one admirable attempt to switch the gender roles, lets an alien who stole the lungs of one of her crew members keep them to save the alien's life. And still she is perceived of as cold and sexless. Captain Archer employs torture and kills massively in his quest to save Earth, and he never loses the viewer's sympathy or his cult of sexual attraction. 

After skimming through many modern and historical stories, my search finally led me to the ancient Celtic concept of a Brig, a great lady. The time is so remote and there are no written documents from the ancient Celtic culture, so we cannot be entirely sure of details. But we do know that a Brig was a judge, a woman of great power. 

The term appears in the name of the goddess Brigid/Bride and Saint Brigid. This is a figure of vast importance to Celtic cultures and very likely originated with an ancient woman or women of power. And through this legend it is possible to grasp at the qualities that might just make an ideal, good queen in the popular imagination.

The Goddess Brigid was traditionally the lady of the hearth, ruling fire and the great hall. She is anything but cold. She is a mother of the community, an authority but also a refuge. 

She was also the keeper of the well and a powerful healer of body and soul. She is connected with inspiration and creativity as well as protection. While much of her legend appears very feminine and homey, there are the ancient stories of Brigid as a warrior queen. In these legends she does not ride forth often. But she does go into battle to put injustices right, to fight for the dispossessed and the downtrodden, for innocent outcasts and for ill-treated orphans. 

I am beginning now to get a picture of a good queen, one a Disney movie or a popular fantasy series could embrace. She must be keeper of the hall and castle, much as the king is. But her power will be in the creation of abundance more than in the destruction of enemies. She is creative and she integrates inner and outer worlds. 

Beyond that she is a healer and a giver of solace, and not only for her own people. She is generous without exhaustion for she can always create more plenty through her wise policies. Rather than holding iron borders to protect her people, she protects through the forging of alliances and the invitation of wanderers to add their talents to her realm. Still she can defend boundaries when there is true need.

She is maker, artist, poet, healer and mother of the people. But she is also the judge, who weighs both logic and compassion, ethics and organic fairness. Her boundaries are strong, but made of reason and prudence rather than of iron or stone. And like the  mythical good king, she is protective, although she is rarely roused to battle. When she sees injustice and no one but her to cut it down, she will go. 

As for self-sacrifice... The male commanders of today's popular culture are always insisting that they will go into battle first or lead the impossible mission to save humanity. Their supporters try to dissuade them, telling them that they are needed to lead the people and that their death would be too great a blow to the cause. By all logic, another should go. But the male hero's answer is always that he will not order another to attempt a suicide mission.

What is the ideal queen's version of this? I know that surely this ideal queen would go hungry rather than see her people starve. She would fight for justice. But I do not see her abandoning her post for some mission that will eventually bring her great glory if she somehow wins through.

She would stake her power, her position, her livelihood on being right in a gamble to save her people. But she would not leave the hard work to others while she went off to win acclaim. She would risk her own safety but she would most likely not bet on a risky mission in which one solitary individual has to save the world through an insanely risky act. 

She would use diplomacy, wit and the strength of nature for protection and justice. She would risk more than her life to save her people. She would, unlike most male heroes, sacrifice even the memory of her name and her deeds. She would do what must be done, even if it meant that her name and her very existence would be forgotten by future generations.  Such would be my ideal queen.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.