There is little doubt in my mind the American political system is under attack by a home-grown demagogue using the Fascist playbook to marginalize people of color, who is enabled by a Congress controlled by a political party that is too afraid to stand up for our system of governance or too eager to benefit from personal and policy gains. The result is a slow-motion collapse of many of our democratic institutions. As we are dragged down this path, we will need rescuers who will resist and save us from our very own American Authoritarianism. This essay explores where the ranks of heroes will come from.
I have previously discussed some aspects of this phenomenon in my last essay, “Where Do You Draw Your Resistance Line in the Sand,” where I compared the similarities between the Trump regime’s war on Latinos, and the actions taken by the Nazi regime against Jews and other so-called “undesirables” during World War II. I am not the first to make this observation, and certainly won’t be the last, but the implications are truly frightening because, as Umair Haque notes, Fascists believe “that some people are born better than others …better as in more vicious, ruthless, and cruel — more capable of dominating the weak [and that]… the weak are impure, biologically, genetically, racially, tribally.” This belief in their own superiority opens the door to all sorts of aberrant and abhorrent behaviors, such as the active marginalization and demonization of “the other,” and over time, taking their jobs, confiscating their wealth, rounding them up, imprisoning them, deporting them, or even eliminating them. This is what confronts us in America today, and since our governmental and civic institutions are failing, and in many cases even abetting this attack on people of color, I ask myself, who will step up and help stop this madness when most of us won’t even acknowledge that our situation is so dire and are living our lives as if all this is normal.
In my last essay I asked when the time is to intercede. Using the “death by a thousand cuts” metaphor, I wondered whether the time to act is when band-aids are enough to staunch the bleeding, or do we wait until combat bandages and tourniquets are needed? I think the answer to the question really depends on who you are. Some people are already answering emphatically through their actions that the time is now, and many others through their inaction are saying the time has not yet arrived. So, maybe one factor in the decision to act is the willingness to accept the severity of our situation.
But in addition, there is a combination of personal characteristics, beliefs, and experiences that shape a person’s willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to protect those targeted for injustice by the regime.
So, what compels someone to act in the face of injustice? To answer this question, I turn again to the situation of the Jews in Nazi Europe, and those non-Jews who intervened on their behalf. Over 24,300 rescuers have been identified and honored by Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research institution). Many of the rescuers were interviewed both by Yad Vashem and others studying this phenomenon, and several characteristics were identified. According to Nechama Tec, Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, many shared a family tradition of tolerance, altruism and social activism. This sensitized them to the suffering of others and encouraged in them a sense of compassion for others. It was natural for them to identify with and come to the aid of the oppressed. They were independent and self-confident people who didn’t blend into their communities, and they acted on their own principles. Doing the right thing did not seem extraordinary to them, and they did not see themselves as brave or as heroes. They also did not see themselves as acting irrationally, because doing the right thing came to them automatically. Many had a history of political activism, which combined with an adventurous spirit, led them to an active anti-regime posture. And finally, their personal experiences, including backgrounds such as religious training, familial tolerance or intolerance toward Jews, and living in close proximity to Jews, informed their views.
And so back to our current situation. The above-mentioned combination of characteristics, beliefs, and experiences appear quite rarely in day to day life, especially when the potential costs of intercession, such as physical violence, threats to one’s livelihood, and social isolation, can be so high.
Many of you already understand that the indifference of bystanders is in the end a choice not to intercede, which ultimately leads to death, destruction and societal damage that can take generations to reverse. And I know those amongst you with the requisite and unique blend of characteristics are out there, and all that is missing is the right set of experiences or triggers to spur you to action. Each potential rescuer has a point at which they will have witnessed enough to intercede, and so let us hope it happens before those in need are beyond our help, and before we as a nation are beyond redemption.
Originally published at weintercede.net on August 18, 2018.