Learning from History


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In an attempt to try and figure out what’s going on now, I have been reading up on the history of Germany in the 1930s. Ever since I first heard about WWII, I’ve been trying to figure out how it could happen. It seems to me that while there are some people in the world who like throwing their weight around, the vast majority are good people who want to help each other. They must have been unhappy with what was happening around them. Could they possibly believe that Jews, Romany, Blacks, the deaf, and labor unionists were a threat to them? Were they able to convince themselves that mass murder wasn’t happening? Were they afraid that they and their families would be attacked if they spoke out? These are the questions that I asked, and others with whom I’ve spoken asked, and decades later, we are still asking. Now we can add the question: Can it happen here? and that one we can answer. Yes it could. Which raises the question: How can we stop it? In turn that begs the question: HOW does it work?  Which is sort of where we started. Because if we don’t know how it works, how can we stop it?

So I look back to history. Other than the too-easy answer of “Anti-semitism”, which boils down to “Fear of other and the unknown”, I am willing to admit that antisemitism is real, as is racism. But in a country based on freedom of religion, where Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were created so that a different kind of Christianity would be legal to practice, people who live here shouldn’t be surprised that while you’re allowed to not like other groups, but you aren’t allowed to attack them because of it. I think it’s because the people who are in charge of enforcing the laws, the police and judges, have been allowed to indulge their biases and enforce the laws according to the local cultural attitudes- against blacks, against Native Americans, against Hispanics, and now, against immigrants. If you have been brought up to believe that blacks or Hispanics or immigrants are naturally criminal, those are the people who are arrested and prosecuted, whereas the good WASP boys have “made a mistake” or are “sowing wild oats” and are told to apologize, and behave better in the future. Sadly, because this is the way it’s “always been”, they see no reason not to continue to do it that way. Just as doctors were offended when Semmelweis told them to wash their freaking hands because their germs were making patients sick, it took nearly a half century before doctors actually started accepting germ theory and practicing antiseptic procedure. We can’t expect people who have come to explain all the problems that seem outside their control on some fantasy (whether racism, manifest destiny, or the Second Coming) to suddenly stop change their world view because the laws change. If they don’t like the laws, they’ll figure out a way to fiddle them, and in the USA, to change them.

litany-against-fearMy generation has embraced a few concepts, like the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear, and Yoda’s advice to Luke.yoda-fear-leads-to-anger  I think the only way to reduce the fear that causes the hatred is to stop giving them something to resist. I’m not saying to allow them to harm other people, but I am saying that we should concentrate our energies on soothing their fears, because when they aren’t afraid, they won’t need someone to blame things on. When the fear doesn’t fuel a need to defend their position, they can relax, and start thinking for themselves, and maybe realize that their experience may support a less fearful position. I’ve recently read about something called the Backfire Effect “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.” This is how exercise makes muscles stronger, and it’s clear that it works with how people’s worldview is strengthened as well. It resembles what was called the Semmelweis reflex  (tendency to reject new evidence or knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms), but we always need to discover things for ourselves.

On the Muslim Ban, Trump says “Until our countries representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We have no choice.” This is Trump’s “Big Lie“, the fear he needs to reinforce in order to be allowed to take more power. In 1933 there was a fire in the German Reichstagsbrand (parliament building), a month after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, and the next day they made a decree suspending most civil liberties including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free association and public assembly. I think we need to keep an eye out for this sort of thing. We must be VERY careful to protect the freedom of the press, and the freedom of expression, as well as the freedom of non-mainstream religions to practice their faiths. They are not the problem, trying to take them away is.

So many times laws are claimed to be to “protect the children” (like what if they saw a trans-person in a public restroom, they could be attacked). We mustn’t let an incident be used to justify stopping what we stand for to be set aside for the illusion of safety. The whole “Homeland Security administration” has created a great deal of “security theater”, but like the Muslim Ban, while it reduces the rights of the many, it has no real impact on the few who might really threaten our security. We have a choice. We can choose to accept that there are a few whackos out there, who are, by their very nature, hard to defend against, or we can choose to treat everyone as a potential threat, turning people against their friends and neighbors. People who are afraid of each other are not secure at all.
We must not let the “protect the children” arguement gain power. Hitler gained a great deal of power by creating the Hitler Youth- an organization like Boy Scouts, where the kids were given handsome uniforms and outings, and trained to be “patriotic”. Back when Justinian was trying to convert the Eastern Roman Empire to Christianity, he started by making laws that banned pagans from teaching (to protect the children), and a few years later from being doctors, then from holding public office, then from being able to pass their property to their children. Full circle from protecting the children to motivating the children to pressure their parents to conform. But it starts with education. For years the backbone of the homeschooling movement has been people who didn’t want to have their children “harmed” by being taught science (evolution) by the public schools. The public school system is what makes a democracy (or even a Republic, like ours) work. If people can’t read and have access to information, how can they decide what to support with their votes?

Another reason people might “go along” with horrible activity around them is the Stockholm Syndrome, which we also see in the behavior of victims of abuse. If your survival depends on it, you make excuses for and even feel affection for your abuser. We have to worry about that one a lot. One thing I’m still trying to figure out is that Hitler seems to have gotten support by giving workers better conditions, shorter work days, longer vacations, more pay, but at the same time, he abolished unions. The Germans who had just undergone a punative depression and inflation between the wars, thought that they were getting better off, and therefore didn’t realize they were not getting rights, but getting handouts that could easily be withdrawn.

Sadly, I still don’t understand how it could happen- although stories of the horrors of living during the depression in Germany help explain how people who finally were able to buy necessities were willing to support the regime that seemed to help with that- until it was too late and they had lost their ability to object. quote-first-they-came-for-the-communists-but-i-was-not-a-communist-so-i-did-not-speak-out-then-they-came-martin-niemoller-285246We must not let our fears lead us to accept scapegoats, and accept restriction of our freedoms. The sooner we draw our line, and say ‘beyond this, I will not be moved’, the better off we will be. We do have a choice, we can choose not to give in to fear mongering, and stand with our neighbors, even if they are different than we are.

I will almost certainly keep reading about the thirties (and other historical periods) to try to find clues on how to keep from being “…doomed to repeat it” (the darker parts of history). democracy-politics-system-concept-flat-d-web-isometric-infographic-politic-tribune-over-abyss-248942326And  I will cling to hope, drawing strength from every judge who defends the constitution, and every person who persists when they know that they are right.


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