A Time to Object

The riot at the Capitol last week brought to mind the Martin Niemöller poem, First They Came, about Germany in the 1930’s. For example, in the first lines below, substitute “Black” for “Communist”.

They came for the Communists, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t

a Communist;

The Civil War freed slaves and gave black men voting rights. Taking advantage of Lincoln’s death, Southern white supremacists took just a few years to undo those advances. As a result, the fight for black equality has continued ever since, from Jim Crow laws, to school desegregation, to voter suppression, to a racist Justice System, to rioters – almost all white – at the Capitol last week shouting white supremacy slogans.

They came for the Socialists, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Socialist;

In spite of the rioters’ aversion to socialism, this country is no stranger to it. We’ve had public schools since the 1800’s. We’ve had Social Security since the 1930’s. Eisenhower proposed national health insurance in the 1950’s (the head of GM at the time told him it was unnecessary). In the 60’s Johnson added Medicare.

Most of those who fear socialism mistake it for communism which, in today’s world, is really dictatorship. Which the right extremists abhor even as they follow a man who dictates.

They came for the labor leaders, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t a labor leader;

Republican administrations, along with corporations, have worked to weaken unions since Herbert Hoover. The Trump administration touts support for unions, but has further weakened them. Over the last 50 years union membership has shrunk from a third of the workforce to a tenth of the workforce. Workers at the country’s largest employer, Walmart, for example, have no union and qualify for Food Stamps. 

They came for the Jews, and I didn’t

object – For I wasn’t a Jew;

At the riot last week “The Proud Boys”, part of the white evangelical movement, stopped to kneel in the street and pray for God to restore their “value systems”, after which their leader told the media to “get the hell out of my way” as they moved on to assault the Capitol building and Congress.

Anti-semitism has been a theme of White Supremacists since, well, forever. It was a rallying cry of the Charlottesville violence, at the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and at the Capitol last week with the “Camp Auschwitz”  hoodie and anti-semitic T-shirts.

Then they came for me –

And there was no one left to object.

So Hitler won. 

Martin Niemöller’s poem describes the apathy many Germans had toward Hitler’s fascists. It was as though a Boa Constrictor had surreptitiously encircled the German soul and Germans had no idea until it was too late.

The scenes last week of rioters with assault rifles, knives, Molotov cocktails, and pipe bombs, searching for elected leaders who could only hunker down, recalled the black and white images I was shown as a kid, during history lessons on Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, and WWII. But that history has faded and is rarely taught today. A big mistake.

Has “I didn’t object” happened here? Not this week. In fact most of the country has objected at the top of our lungs. But for several thousand anti-semitic incidents over the last four years, from Charlottesville to numerous other venues, we haven’t objected loudly or forcefully enough, because the rate and intensity has grown every year.

There are also clear differences between Germany then and the US now. Our population isn’t penniless and furious at having to pay reparations for the last fifteen years. It has been dealing with a recession, but not a world-wide depression. More fundamentally, we have a culture and heritage deeply rooted in democracy and capitalism.

Which brings up another irony. Donald Trump, the rioters, and Conservatives in general, want less regulation, less government, and more emphasis on “letting the market decide,” because private enterprise is quicker to react and more innovative. 

Guess what happened after Trump’s riot? While the House, the Senate, and VP Pence were discussing the pros and cons of impeachment vs the 25th Amendment, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,  and Amazon simply locked the Inciter-In-Chief out of the Internet. The PGA, Deutsch Bank, Signature Bank, Marriott, and others refused to do business with him. Multiple other companies will no longer donate to Trump or the 147 Republicans who tried to stop the vote count. The market decided – quickly and innovatively.

Now the rest of us need to follow their lead: stand up to thugs, insist on truth over lies, and object, object, object!

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Trump Enters, Stage Right

Act One: He is raised by father who teaches him one goal (winning), one value (loyalty), and one god, himself. His father sets an example of paying off power brokers and building a business that rolls over the poor, non-whites, and anyone else in his way.  

Act Two: He follows the rubric that power trumps righteousness, lies trump truth, and he is the most important person in any room. He declares bankruptcy six times, each time leaving with more money for himself and zilch for others. He builds a career based on lies, broken promises, and corruption.

He runs for President from the right on a platform of arrogance, white supremacy, and lies.

“They say I have the most loyal people — did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” he said .“It’s like incredible.”  

Normal people scoff, but white supremacists and fascists cheer. He insults a national war hero. “Tisk. Tsk” say Republican as they leave the hero behind. His next opponent – equally arrogant, but more disconnected – calls his followers “Deplorables”, which only galvanizes them. He fakes Republican orthodoxy and patriotism, sucking in legitimately conservative Republicans.  He lies. He ridicules the disabled, women, non-Christians. 

His slogan, “Make America Great Again”, is brilliant not for what it says, but for its hidden promise – a return of white supremacy. Racists swoon. Fascists roar. Dictators reach out in camaraderie.  He is elected President.  

As the curtain falls, America shudders.

Act Three: Republicans nationwide support and encourage each act of infamy as he sweeps experienced, qualified members from the government like scattered trash: National Security Adviser H.R McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohen, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter and so many more. He replaces them with sycophants and shysters. 

He weaponizes the web. He applies Hitler’s and Goebbels’ “Big Lie” strategy – tell a lie so outrageous, no-one will believe it’s a lie; then repeat, repeat, repeat.  The press – all but Fox News – becomes Fake News. His attacks are relentless.

His fans buy into his Big Lie. Republican Senators and Representatives applaud each move, in abject displays of loyalty to him, but also in pursuit of their personal goal: to keep and grow their power. McConnell single-handedly rebuilds the Justice system to his design. Racist state leaders continue suppressing minority votes. Crooked politicians line their pockets with inside trading as he lines his with hotel rentals to foreign and local leaders and his kids’ with sweetheart business deals.

Institutions crack at the edges and more. The EPA is neutered, the CDC weakened and politicized, the FBI brought to heel, the State Department undercut. Allies are insulted, alliances broken. 

When the 100 year pandemic arrives, carefully laid plans for it have been tossed, experts dismissed. Instead of leading the struggle, he focusses on re-election. States are left on their own like lifeboats from the Titanic.  He turns health safety measures into political statements; his faithful reject facemasks, social distancing, and personal hygiene out of loyalty, endangering everyone else.

20 million sick, 360,000 deaths – and mounting. 30 million out of work.   

His small lie count passes 10,000.

When he loses to Biden, he turns to another Big Lie: the election was stolen from him.

60 judges rule against him. He repeats this Big Lie on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. They do virtually nothing to stop him. Even so, the country moves toward the new president.

So he commits treason.

He exhorts his followers to physically attack Congress and overturn the election on the very day it is certifying the votes. They storm the Capitol packing pipe bombs. They chase Senators and Representatives into hiding, replace the American flag with a Trump flag, and desecrate history. Four people die.

Yes, it is incredible. Really.

At first he hides in the White House and watches on TV. Then he tells his followers to stop even as he repeats the Big Lie. 

As the drama ends, the world’s brightest democracy struggles for breath. A few shreds of decency float around the Capitol grounds: Congress comes out of hiding and certifies Biden as the next President; faint voices are heard discussing the 25th Amendment or impeachment as a way of restoring dignity and credibility to the government. 

And the rest of us, trapped into this theater of the absurd, say in shock and dismay:

“Trump Exits, Stage Right. Forever.”

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

It’s all about balance

Freedom of speech, not to mention democracy itself, has always been about balance. Someone says something stupid, like: “Trump didn’t lose the election, it was stolen”; I get to counter with “Where’s the evidence, Mr. Trump?”

We argue back and forth, presenting facts and beliefs. Hopefully, one wins the argument, the other admits it, and we go one with life. Freedom of speech only works if everyone has the freedom.

That’s balance.

Sometimes it involves deeply held beliefs. You’re a believer in Trumpism;  I’m a believer in Democracy. We argue, but never reach agreement. That’s OK. We are each allowed to say what we want, however stupid it might be.

If, on the other hand, you spread lies about me, there’s a consequence: I can sue you and we can debate it in court where a judge will decide.  The basic tenent: my speech is just as important as yours.

That’s balance.

The philosophy behind this is that it’s better to give contrary views the light of day, to allow them to be debated fully and openly, than to quash them or hide them in a dark place – like weird places on the internet.

The concept was cast in concrete in our Constitution. 

Actually, it was cast in ink, not concrete. Concrete wasn’t applied to freedom of speech until the Mafia used it to curtail the swimming ability of those whose freedom of speech they disliked. In the 1920’s Mussolini expanded that version of freedom of speech to all of Italy,.. which inspired Hitler in the 1930’s,.. which led to WWII,… which contributed to our involvement,… which ended up expanding freedom of speech to many other parts of the world.  

That’s balance in a different but larger context.

With the advent of the internet, freedom of speech met a new enemy, almost as powerful Mussolini, Hitler, and now Xi and Putin, specifically: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which said that internet platforms are not liable for content their users post.

It seemed like a good idea at the time because it prevented internet companies from controlling their users’ freedom of speech. But then came the giants: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tic Tok, etc… They are now bigger and more powerful than  many countries. 

They reach millions, yet Section 230 frees them from the responsibility for content required of print, broadcast, and cable companies. The result: anyone can push lies on the internet with impunity. And the more followers, the more dangerous the lie.

That’s imbalance.

And yes, Section 230 is the law my least favorite demagogue is attacking; he’s angry that Twitter and others, while not deleting his lies, are posting warnings about them. (Even Lucifer has a point once in awhile). I think he’s right in this case, but for the wrong reason. In fact, I’d like to seeTwitter, Facebook, and the rest sued for not deleting the lies Trump has posted.)

By allowing a situation in which lies can be spread without consequence, Congress is also allowing these virtual monopolies to control freedom of speech.

I’m not supposing it would be easy for the internet giants to police content. It wouldn’t. But freedom of speech in which one voice drowns out all others is not freedom of speech. It’s a return to pre-Revolutionary times.

One recent example: Trump’s call to Georgia election officials in which he claimed election fraud and pressured them to change the election results in Georgia. “I just want to find 11,780 votes”, he told them, which would give him one more vote than Biden got.

It is worth noting that these officials, staunch Republicans all, said no – very courteously, but very firmly – to a guy with 70 million frothing followers. Yes, all you screaming Democrats, Republicans can have integrity too.  

The Washington Post posted the entire hour long phone call, knowing full well they can be sued to oblivion because they are not protected by Section 230.

Trump fans, on the other hand, can and do post false material on Facebook, Twitter, etc… every day of the week including all those  false claims of election fraud.

To be clear, the problem with Section 230 is not just political garbage. 60 Minutes just did a piece about an American woman who was falsely accused on the internet of having the first case of Covid 19 and carrying it to Wuhan. Between death threats and other attacks, her life is ruined. And she can’t do a thing about it.

It’s all about balance.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)