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In Praise Of Progressive Bravery & Not Looking Away
“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet nonetheless go out to meet it” -- Thucydides
I write today to praise bravery. Your bravery for subscribing to, reading, and sharing this newsletter. For not looking away.
Thucydides, who had one of the clearest eyes in history about the dangers faced by democracies, said, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet nonetheless go out to meet it.”
I have dear friends and family members who refuse altogether to engage with politics. Some say they consider it too crass for their taste, or irrelevant to their lives. Others have told me that it terrifies them: they’d rather not know what’s going on, in the hope that its consequences will never visit them.
I honor their choices, although I’m haunted by the voices of people in the past who did the same.
Milton Mayer chronicled the consequences of this “see no evil” approach to maintaining an apolitical life during a time of political upheaval.
He was a Chicago reporter who, following World War II, went to Germany to interview “average Germans” to try to learn how such a terrible thing could have happened and, hopefully, thus prevent it from ever happening here.
“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people,” Mayer wrote, “little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security....”
He wrote about living there and the ten Germans he befriended: I found his description of a college professor to be the most poignant. As Mayer’s professor friend noted, and Mayer recorded in his book, They Thought They Were Free:
“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...
“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
In this conversation, Mayer’s friend suggests that he wasn’t making an excuse for not resisting the rise of the fascists, but is simply pointing out what happens when you keep your head down and just “do your job” without engaging in politics.
“Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing: and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing.
“And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something - but then it was too late.”
Mayer acknowledged the man’s story; it was a familiar one to him by then, told to him by German after German.
“You see,” Mayer’s friend continued, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.
“You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not? Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. …
“In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’
“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. ...
“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked - if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33.
“But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.
“The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.
“But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.”
Mayer’s German professor friend pointed out the terrible challenge faced then by average Germans, and today by many Americans as authoritarians have taken over the Republican Party and are now openly trying to overturn our form of government.
“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?” Mayer’s friend asked rhetorically. And, without the benefit of a previous, recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, he had to candidly answer: “Frankly, I do not know.”
This was the great problem that Mayer’s Germans and so many in their day faced. They couldn’t see the full arc of fascism’s evil history because it had not yet happened and was merely in process.
Just like many Americans today who refuse to keep up with the news, to acknowledge the fascist parallels to the Trump movement within the GOP, to involve themselves with politics.
As Mayer’s German friend noted:
“I do not see, even now [how we could have stopped it]. Many, many times since it all happened, I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice - ‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?”
Mayer’s German friends — and a few old Germans I got to know when I lived in Germany in the 1980s — didn’t have the benefit of history to see how a democracy could be turned to fascism by the will of a small group of people willing to bend or break the rules and employ threats of violence.
We, however, do have that ability — that gift of history — and I commend your bravery for joining the very real and often very difficult work to retain freedom in our democratic republic.
The neofascists who have seized hold of the GOP will never give up: neither can we.