Sunday, July 3, 2016

On Being Afraid to Speak Up

Yesterday, on July 2, 2016, Elie Wiesel died. He was a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and a celebrated writer who brought to life the realities of the Holocaust.

On the same day, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump ran this ad:
Note the use of the Star of David for the speech bubble. An hour later, he changed it to a circle:
It wasn't an accident. No one - especially a publicist in a presidential campaign - accidentally uses an enormously fraught symbol of race and religion.

I read Elie Wiesel's The Gates of the Forest in college, as part of my religious studies major. It's been on my shelf ever since. The protagonist is no hero. In fact, he's weak. He allows others to sacrifice themselves so he can live and he ultimately commits a craven act of betrayal. We had extensive class debates on his motivations. I see it as fear. He was afraid - justifiably so - and let fear run his life.

Our topic this week, appropriately enough, is "The Politics of Writing."

Now, I know that many, many writers will advise staying away from politics. We hand that around a lot. Don't mention personal politics on social media because we don't want to alienate readers. People who disagree with our politics might no longer buy our books.

But isn't that fear?

Writers have a long history of being vitally involved in political and social change. I'll give you a hint: Elie Wiesel didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a treaty or arranging food for the poor. It was for his books.

There's a famous poem by Martin Niemöller which has been perhaps overdone to the point of invisibility. It's also been modified and co-opted numerous times. But it captures an essential truth:

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's been since criticized because Niemöller admitted to his own antisemitism (for which he later apologized) and for the way it frames social responsibility in terms of self-interest. However, it does speak powerfully to the complicity of those who stood by during the Holocaust and to the idea that we can safely refrain from exposing ourselves to difficulty - including people not buying our books - because the problem doesn't relate exactly to us.

Which is cowardly, isn't it?

In some ways, it's fascinating that we're at this place now, where writers advise each other to stay away from politics. As if money is more important than anything else. I'm not talking about agitating over Democrats vs. Republicans.

I'm talking about standing by while the religious and racial persecution of other groups is openly discussed as a viable political position.

Something to ponder.


  1. today at the grocery I saw a trash magazine claiming Hillary is a crook. Timing is suspicious since she's now considered the Democrat front runner. It's all such trash.
    Elie Weisel...such a great man, such a loss

  2. A stirring and meaningful post. I don't write this glibly. "Fear" — that's the killer, isn't it? The ender of lives. The destroyer of truths. The bands which hold us prisoner. Elie Weisel's passing brings this all to the fore.

    1. It really is. The older I get, the more I perceive how fear traps and controls us - and allows others to control us!

    2. Makes you want to memorize the Litany against Fear, from Dune: "Fear is the mind-killer, the little death...." Not that I have or....uh. Yeah.

    3. Very powerful - I loved that bit, too.

  3. Another powerful post, Jeffe. Something to ponder indeed.