At several papers where I was a reporter, I had a regular opinion column in addition to reporting news. Not quite kosher, but these were small papers, reporters multi-tasked. Here is a column I wrote in 1998 while working in Jackson, Amador County CA.
TARGET PRACTICE: Little things mean a lot
By Jentri Anders
As film buffs line up to see Saving Private Ryan, purportedly the most accurate World War II movie yet, those who actually remember that war are telling their stories again. What they remind us is that, unlike the war that defined my generation, that one was based on a principle many were willing to die for–the value of the individual, the foundation of democracy.
Fascism, the absolute power of the state, was the name of the game in Germany, in Japan, in Italy and, we are now learning, in Great Britain, France and the United States as well. Each of the latter countries had its fascists, just as Germany had an underground. In each case, they were
overruled. Most people know about the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. Historians also know that many groups besides the Jews were targeted and that persecution came in shades. People were fired, evicted, busted, deprived of their possessions, beaten and incarcerated, as well as murdered en masse.
Those groups included Gypsies, Romanians, Communists, people who would now be called developmentally disabled or mentally ill, Seventh Day Adventists, homosexuals and people of African descent. “Pure” Germans were not all exempt, either. Germans with impeccable racial credentials were persecuted for having genetic defects such as dwarfism or albinism and the “purest” of German women were enslaved as breeders for the duration. Who any of these people were as individuals was irrelevant to the state’s purpose.
How could such a thing have happened? Volumes have been written dealing with that question. One startling thing that has emerged is the role played by the intimidation of detail. Raise the wrong question and your boss might get an insinuating memo about you. Rock the boat, you lose your job, your boyfriend, your club membership.
One thing that has saved America, historically, from its own fascists is the value we place on thinking for ourselves. Our democracy is not yet perfect, but we have come a long way. Over time, we expanded the definition of “citizen” to include first the landless, then slaves and, finally, women.
The price is, we fight a lot, but we revere rational discourse as the foundation of democracy. Our laws give citizens the right to question the powerful, if only they have the courage. Why does the individual require courage to exercise those rights? Ask anyone who writes anonymous letters to newspapers. We fear loss of our jobs, reputations, credibility and friends. The devil is in those details and many was the German citizen who learned that too late.
This writer once dipped her own hands into history¹s details working as a part-time assistant archivist in the Washington State University Library. The assignment was six large cartons containing the papers of a man named Hans Rosbaud. Arranged by date, they traced how a thoroughly German, highly respected orchestra conductor and composer was humiliated, demoted and finally exiled into the German hinterlands until after the war.
Rosbaud¹s crime? He liked modern classical music and American jazz, both of which Hitler saw as “Jewish” music. (There¹s a good movie about this, called Swing Kids, but be prepared for violence if you watch it.) Until the insinuations finally got him, Rosbaud was a patron of individual creativity. What kept Rosbaud alive and in Germany was the extent of his reputation. He was so well-known and loved by the German music establishment that the minions of the Third Reich had to work against great resistance in persecuting him. In the beginning, his colleagues fought the denigration campaign. In the end, they were too cowed to utter a peep.
The similarity of Rosbaud¹s experience to that of Charlie Chaplin would be inescapable to anyone who remembers the McCarthy era. Chaplin, too, was forced into exile and unemployment by insinuations contained in letters, phone calls and whispered conversations. Some patriots get tears in their eyes remembering how the United States fought facism abroad with the sacrifice of lives, and that was, indeed, a beautiful thing. But let us not forget our own fascists and that what stops them first are citizens who know their rights and are not afraid to exercise them.