First They Came

Pastor Martin Niemöller

Reading time – 1:22; Viewing time – 2:32  .  .  .

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.

“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

It always arrives wrapped in a flag and starts small. We humans are nearly insensitive to and largely tolerate small changes, but small changes accumulate and become an avalanche that overwhelms. Pastor Martin Niemöller knew that as he railed against the cowardice of German intellectuals when the Nazis came to power. Note that the Nazis arrived on a wave of German frustration and rage over terrible economic circumstances and that they were democratically elected. Does that pattern sound at all familiar?

When I was a young teenager I confidently told my mother that the human atrocity that was the Nazis couldn’t happen here – not here in America. She looked me in the eyes fiercely and told me that it could. I didn’t believe her, even as her words scared me.

Now Donald Trump has told us that he will be coming for the Hispanics and then he said he’ll come for the Muslims. Who do you suppose will be next? And next after that? This pattern has been followed repeatedly throughout history, so it should come as no surprise to any of us that an unrestrained populism of angry people led by a sociopath always has catastrophic results. It’s already started. Watch for the guest essay on Wednesday and you’ll see. And Trump has already begun his excuses.the-work-goes-on

This is your country, so what will you do to prevent that from happening? What will you do to ensure that this is a country of hope and inclusion, the kind of America you believe in? We have seen that phantom idealism in the form of protest votes and abstaining from voting produce nothing more than a temporary illusion of self-satisfied purity, even as they allow the worst to happen. I assure you that ignoring the situation, refraining from speaking up and waiting for others to take action will not help. In fact, being passive will make things far worse.

What will you do?


Ed. note: There is much in America that needs fixing and we are on a path to continually fail to make things better. It is my goal to make a difference – perhaps to be a catalyst for things to get better. That is the reason for these posts. To accomplish the goal requires reaching many thousands of people and a robust dialogue.

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10 Responses to First They Came
  1. Jim Altschuler Reply

    When it is time to vote citizens of the United States have the freedom to speak through their ballot to make themselves heard . . . they also have the responsibility as a citizen to vote. Failing to vote is an abrogation of each person’s job. Do your job!

    It seems that all of us came across a “school-yard bully” when we were in school and even after we finished school we still ran into bullies in business, on freeways and commuter buses/trains/subways. It seems that there are always bullies around, and the only way to stop them is to stand up to them. Whether they are verbally or physically assaulting you or the person next to you or a co-worker, you have to stand up to them. As quickly as possible. They must be stopped.

    The sociopaths referred to in this blog are just a different kind of bully. I have asked recently in my own blogs whether any of the recipients saw any similarities between what is happening now and what happened in Germany in 1933. “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

    Do we really want to repeat that again? If not then we have to stop the bullies NOW!

  2. dominickpalella Reply

    Remember that our elected representatives have no obligation to listen or respond to us (SCOTUS: 465 U.S. 271 1984). So you can speak up as much as you want to them, or to their corporate backed private political parties, at least for the time being.

    First Amendment rights do not grant ordinary citizens having any influence over their elected representatives after they take office. This is an undeniable fact of political life. If you don’t understand this, visit my web site, where I spell out what you can do to elect honest people to represent you.

  3. Steve Grossman Reply

    Thanks, Jack. Powerfully, accurately and clearly put.

    But what is the answer to your last question—what will WE DO? This IS our moment of resistance.

    • Jack Altschuler Reply

      That is the right question, Steve: What will WE DO? That’s “WE” as in all of us. I believe that it must be far more than resistance. Resisting means being defensive, and while that sometimes helps to get the desired results, I think it will take offense – pressure for change in the right direction.

      The demonstrations in the streets of so many of our cities make it clear that what we fear we will see is not acceptable, and we must continue to make our voices heard. I have begun discussions with clergy to investigate what we can do to stem the tide of hate that has been unleashed by our president-elect. Copy/paste for a sampling of what’s going on.

      Beyond that, I offer your question to readers of this series:

      Specifically, what will WE DO? What ideas do you have. Post them here.

  4. Frank Levy Reply

    To paraphrase Edmund Burke, “All that it takes for evil to succeed is for people of good will to stand by and do nothing.”

    Jack – I was a follower of your mom. I have always kept my virtual “bag” packed knowing one day we would be be asked, or forced to leave. It is our legacy. It is the inevitable, painful, insult to the “other”, however named, among us. My dad taught me Martin Niemoller’s famous saying as a teenager, and also taught me that I had a responsibility to speak up, act up, and to stand with the oppressed against the oppressors and tyrants, wherever and whenever they reared they ugly heads. In a way I have always assumed there would be a knock on the door, if not for me and my family, then for anyone the spoiled, privileged, white Christian, majority feared and felt threatened by. Now, today, is a time for courage and commitment. Courage to stand up against the tyranny and oppression that most certainly will come, and commitment to the ideals and law on which this country was founded. For now, until we have a clear picture of what actions we need to take to defeat this tyranny, we need to spend our days committing random acts of kindness and compassion, defending our planet, and standing with the poor, with people of color, and with our homeless, disabled, refugee, immigrant, LGBT, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, brothers and sisters to ensure their safety, and to ensure their access to basic human rights, justice, and fairness under the law.

  5. John Calia Reply

    The first thing I’ll do is ignore your warning. You are overreacting much like the #notmypresident protestors tearing up cities across the land. We have endured terrible presidents before — Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover — and we will endure this one. And, don’t forget, Trump hasn’t shown us his hand yet. His campaign rhetoric was so filled with hyperbole and invective, it’s hard to know what he will do.

    • Jack Altschuler Reply

      John speaks for many and with accuracy, except for the comment about protesters “tearing up cities”. Every report I’ve seen declares that these are peaceful and are being carried out without property damage – nothing is being torn up. Protests have a way of making people uncomfortable. The Brits didn’t much like protesters 240 years ago. Nevertheless, we in America consistently declare that peaceful protest is legal, first because it is Constitutionally protected and second because this is how change starts – with people making their voices heard. Check with Rep. John Lewis about the civil rights protests of the 60s on that.

      However well we have endured terrible presidents before, the stakes are now so very high. We endured George W. Bush, but we continue to pay the price for his having started two unnecessary wars that are incalculable in their cost to the world. We continue to suffer the compounding debt he crafted by dramatically lowering taxes during a time of war. We’re in a deep hole and nobody knows if we will survive all that as the kind of America we believe ourselves to be.

      We are faced with an incoming president and we do not know if his campaign rhetoric was hyperbole. His absolute claims of the actions he will take against Hispanics and Muslims and the stereotyping and “other-ing” he did against African-Americans all leave us with plenty of reasons to fear his actions to come. His coziness with Putin and the connections to Russia of his confidants, layered with Trump inappropriately wanting to meet with Putin even before taking office makes many people very afraid of a terrible influence on America.

      The list of concerns is long and frightening. To ignore what is right in front of us is potentially self-defeating. We have been warned.

      There is another side to this. Those who voted for Trump but who do not share his racist, xenophobic, misogynistic views have an obligation to speak out when they hear hate speech. And those who voted against Trump have an obligation to support him when he champions the right side of our national issues.

      • John Calia Reply

        Protests don’t make me uncomfortable. However, this round of protests strikes me as comical. What are they protesting? Something that hasn’t happened yet? Perhaps my perspective is borne of my recall of protests in the 60’s. We had a war to protest then. Where was this crowd in 2003 when we invaded Iraq?

        Before the election, liberals were worried about Trump supporters taking to the streets if he lost. Where are those voices now? Moreover, why haven’t we heard from the President? Shouldn’t he be calming the public by reminding us that American Democracy works? “We’ve had an election just as we have had every four years since 1788,” he might say. “You may not like the result. However, now is the time for us to pull together, unite behind our new president and work for his success. His success will be our success.”

        But, that would require leadership that has always been beyond the scope of this president.

        Indeed, I wonder why he wouldn’t be on your list of terrible presidents. Unlike his two predecessors, he was unable to advance any ideas that may have been anathema to his parties as did Bush with Medicare Part D and Clinton with NAFTA. Indeed, when he endeavored to advance his own legislative agenda, he left it to Democrats in Congress to craft signature legislation. So, we are left with the Affordable Care Act that made care less affordable and Dodd-Frank which might be called “The Too-Big-To-Fail Preservation Act” as it has allowed Wall Street to continue the practices that lead to the financial crisis. Then, of course, there was the $800B stimulus that failed to stimulate the economy.

        The hate speech in which Trump engaged during the campaign was, well, hateful. And, Trump may actually govern according to those egregious beliefs. But, he hasn’t yet. Let’s all take a deep breath and see what happens.

        Personally, I haven’t voted for a presidential candidate who has won in 20 years. So, I am rarely happy with the results. Perhaps that’s why I am willing to take a wait and see attitude.

        So, to answer your original question: what will I do?

        I will continue to advocate that leadership – even the voices of obscure bloggers like you and me – counsel calm. Protest what you don’t like when and if it happens. Support what you find to be in our best interests.

        And, by all means, try not to behave like the person of whom you are so critical.

  6. Pascal Reply

    I’m not giving up and neither should you

  7. Ed Reply

    I will do the only things I can do: Stay involved in the political process, continue to speak out in favor of social justice, and vote according to my conscience.