Let’s seek out the traitors. We know it makes sense.
Posted on September 28, 2019
Bear with me while I tell you about two museum visits I have made in recent years. It’s most definitely not ‘what I did on my holidays’.
The first was a few years ago and it was in Warsaw. A collection of photographs taken there in the early 1930s depicted life in that city’s thriving Jewish community. Fashionably dressed, smiling couples stepped out to the dance halls; proud, round-bellied burghers posed for photographs at tradesmen’s dinners; children larked around happily in school playgrounds. If you had told these good citizens that if they survived the next decade, the only photographs in which they would feature would depict them as blank-eyed living skeletons, you’d have been dismissed as crazy.
The second visit was a few weeks ago to the Museum of National Socialism in Munich. Among a series of disturbing photos, one of the most compelling shows the humiliation of Jewish lawyer Michael Siegel (above) being paraded barefoot through the street, flanked by soldiers, for making a complaint to the authorities. Beside him, people cycle to work, either oblivious to this horrible spectacle or inured to its brutality. As shocking as this image may be, it is rendered even more poignant by a smaller photo of Siegel posing happily in his garden with his young son a few years earlier. Could this accomplished, respectable family man have ever envisaged such a fate for himself in his civilised, developed society? The question seems absurd.
The Munich museum features exhibits which echo what history has taught us. In the early 1930s Hitler was a joke, both as a man and a serious politician. National Socialism was a silly fringe movement, espoused by a tiny, but embittered, part of the electorate. The established institutions of a strong nation, albeit one bruised by defeat in war within living memory, would easily forestall the growth of such a repellent threat.
Just for clarity, I do not think we are on the verge of another attempt at vile genocide in the West – although we do live with the possibility of a thin-skinned, ignoramus of a US President who may precipitate war with his usual toddler-like impetuosity. But what is clear is that no society is immune from gradually sliding into quiet submission to those who posture as strong and decisive, particularly in troubling times. There is a pattern to the behaviour of those who portend to have the simple answer to complex questions and it goes back a long way.
First, they mount attacks on those organisations that may challenge their simplistic narratives. Principal among these is a free press and an independent media. Then they go for the learned – academics, scientists and professionals who may actually have the temerity to know things. Trade unions and their representatives, along with community activists and campaigners of all sorts, are systematically discredited and then, when any of those institutions look to the judiciary to correct the balance, that body is also subject to opprobrium and contempt. If religious organisations can be swiped at along the way, then so much the better. In some societies, the disapproval of governments manifests itself in indiscriminate violence intended to intimidate and quell opposition. That could never happen here.
The lie that these strong men (and it is usually a gender-specific situation) sell to their populations is that it is they who have the interests of ordinary people at heart and it is they who will protect them from privileged, pampered elites who know nothing of their woes. You’ll be well ahead of me here, but the savage irony of this argument in the UK currently coming from the privately educated and trust-funded is utterly risible. But when people have become frustrated, angry and even bored – especially bored – there’s an attraction to this dangerous bluff and bluster.
I suppose I must be part of the elite. I live in the south, I’m a graduate, I’m relatively comfortable financially and I quite like arty-farty things. I follow politics closely, have been a life-long trade unionist and if I ever read a newspaper, it’s The Guardian. So, I’m a lefty elitist. To be honest, this comfortable life in the upper echelons was only to be expected, what with me being the son of a car worker and a wages clerk. My status as an enemy of the people – and as such, a traitor and a spineless surrenderer – can only be further cemented by the fact that I’m ambivalent about Brexit but do want parliament to make and enact our laws. After all, wasn’t that the control that we were promised we were going to get back?
The irresponsible narrative now being so recklessly pursued by the bellowing posh boys – sniggeringly egged on by their sneaky back-room aide – is that it’s the ‘people versus parliament and the elites’. It is the privileged, they tell us, who are holding back our principled position of defending democracy. Let’s shout them down and call them out at every turn. If they feel frightened, and if we appear to give permission to thugs and loudmouths, then they’ve brought it on themselves.
There’s only one lesson for us all here; when these bullying, hollering oafs behave in this way, we stand up to them. When a black woman is reprimanded for calling out racism for what it is, we defend her. When female MPs complain of being intimidated, we support them. When a 16-year-old girl enflames the ire of old white boys, we stick with her. And when even pillars of the judicial system, not normally friends of us woolly liberals, find themselves subjected to the spite of these frothing buffoons, we defend them too.
When tyrants come calling they don’t tell you they’re going to destroy those things that protect you. They don’t tell you they’re going to systematically turn back the clock on those social advances we’ve made over decades. They tell you they’re going to clean up your street and get rid of those people who are a nuisance. And you’ll be safe because you’re the common sense sort who goes quietly about your business and has nothing to hide or worry about.
Until it’s you who becomes the enemy of the people.