I have, as an almost fifty-six year old gay man, witnessed some history throughout the course of my over half a century on this planet. When I was young, I used to hear about the great wisdom you acquire with age; I’m still waiting for that to happen. I remember when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot; I remember the Tet offensive and when the first man walked on the moon. I remember the Watergate break-in, the scandal that followed, and how a newspaper toppled a corrupt presidency that was abusing its power. I remember the Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostage in the embassy in Teheran; I remember the slaughter of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich. I remember watching my gay brethren die from AIDS while the political establishment laughed and made jokes about the right people dying; and I remember the Towers falling that beautiful September day in 2001. I watched CNN non-stop while a military coalition liberated Kuwait, when the Berlin Wall fell, when Communism in eastern Europe collapsed.
There have been times in my life when I’ve shaken my head over the actions of my government, the ruling of our courts, and at legislation debated and passed by Congress.
But never did I imagine, in my wildest dreams, that I would bear witness to Nazis marching with torches in a college town in support of white supremacy, bigotry, anti-semitism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia in the United States of America in 2017–or that scores of people would be defending them.
Have I been a good ally to the oppressed people of this nation? I don’t know, but I tend to doubt it. I tend to focus, as most people do, on my own rights and that of my community; I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for my rights as a gay man but have always advocated for people of color and women, because I do recognize that the oppression of one is the oppression of all; that none of us are truly equal until we are all equal. I’ve studied history; I’ve studied civics; I’ve studied the Constitution. The entire point of learning and studying is history is to learn from the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them.
Sinclair Lewis was an extraordinary social critic and fiction writer who probably isn’t remembered, and studied, as much as he should be in this modern day. I’ve not read enough of Lewis; most of his canon remains, sadly, unread by me. But I did read Elmer Gantry about ten years ago, and was stunned by how true it was; and how it still applied in so many ways today. Shortly after that I read It Can’t Happen Here, which is one of his lesser known works and considered to be highly flawed in terms of being a novel. The point of the book, written and published in the 1930’s, was that so many Americans of the time didn’t believe what was going on in Italy and Germany could happen in the United States; Lewis, ever the social critic and commentarian, took that as a challenge and titled his book that, and wrote a novel detailing exactly how fascism could rise in the US and take over our government. It was chilling reading it, in the wake of some of the laws and executive orders passed in the wake of 9/11. I don’t really remember much of the story, frankly; the days when I could remember plots and characters and quotations from every book I read have long passed. But it is, I think, due for a reread.
We often wonder how the good German people allowed what happened there to happen. It is easy for evil to persuade basically decent people to take its side, and how, when things are going well, incredibly easy it is for people to only look at the good and turn their heads away from the bad. The towns near the concentration camps, who claimed they didn’t know what was going on? Bitch, please. You never noticed the smell? You never wondered what that smell was? But, hey, I’m prospering and we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from and how to keep the lights on, and aren’t the streets clean and the trains running on time? I don’t believe those stories we’re hearing about what’s happening to the Jews! And since they’ve been oppressed, look at how much better things are!
That’s how it happens, people.
I will do better. We all must do better. No one is free and equal until we are all free and equal.
In 2006 I was invited to speak at the Virginia Book Festival in Charlottesville. I was given a tour of the town and a tour of the University of Virginia campus; I was shown where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he was a student there and other landmarks. I was not only impressed with how beautiful the town and campus were, by how friendly and welcoming the people who lived there were. I always meant to go back again, to spend more time there–I didn’t get to see Monticello–and it was with horror that I watched the news over the weekend, seeing what was going on in the lovely little town I remembered, appalled and ashamed that this was being broadcast to the entire world.
This is unacceptable. The state of the union is unacceptable.
I have to do better. We all have to do better. As a nation we can do better by our most vulnerable citizens, and we must.
The eyes of history are on us.
Have you ever wondered what you would do if you’d been a German in the 1930’s? What you would do during the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s?
This is your chance to find out who you are as a human being and as an American.
This is Heather Heyer, who gave her life on Saturday to oppose evil. May she never be forgotten.