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.
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.
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?