Last Saturday afternoon, my husband and I sat curled up side by side on the couch with a fire in the fireplace as we both reread George Orwell’s 1984. It is not a comfortable read, especially given the events unfolding around us in the country—the world, really, as a result of our country’s actions. Nonetheless, I was comfortable. The dogs were with us, and we were warm, still happy from a morning of taking tons of food from my union hall to a local food bank to feed homeless teenagers.
I looked up from my book at the fireplace and wondered if someday I would need this memory to sustain me somewhere cold with my husband’s whereabouts unknown to me. You see, we have both agreed that, should there come a day when Muslims are required to register with our government, we (I, a Unitarian Universalist, and he, an unaffiliated atheist) will place our names on that registry. We will do this having no idea what the long-term consequences will be. We are both well aware that the U.S. has interned its citizens in the past, and given the actions of our government over the past weekend, I have no confidence that history will not repeat itself.
I cannot believe I am having these thoughts! I cannot fathom what has happened to my country! The last time I read 1984, I was in my early 20s. Reagan was in the White House, and it was morning in America. This book was about the U.S.S.R., and Big Brother was Joseph Stalin. It had nothing to do with me, and it didn’t really stick with me.
This time, of course I recognize all the elements that are about old Soviet-style Communism, but doublethink and blackwhite, how can I read these and not have them resonate in my new world of “alternative facts”? Winston Smith changes the past for a living. How different is he from Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer?
Next Saturday I am attending a demonstration in support of Muslims in the U.S. Presumably, we will also be thinking of all the Syrian refugees who, like European Jews in the 1930s, are desperately seeking to save themselves and their families from unimaginable suffering and destruction and who, like European Jews in the 1930s, are being turned away by a callous, isolationist U.S. Their blood will stain the hem of Lady Liberty’s robes for a long time to come.
Do I consider the possibility that there will be violence, not on the part of peaceful protesters, but on the part of some unstable, inflamed supporter of authoritarianism, isolationism, and xenophobia? Yes. One does not work where I work (Columbine High School) and believe oneself immune to violence. “It can’t happen to me” is no longer part of my paradigm.
But how can I stay by my warm fire, reading 1984 and tut-tutting, without acting? Without risking something of myself?
In high school, I had a bit of an obsession with fascism. After all, it was not so far in the past to me. My grandparents’ generation had fought, and many died, eliminating fascism from Europe and making the world safe for democracy. I read accounts of and even watched 4 hours of interviews with average non-Jewish Germans talking about life in Nazi Germany. I will never forget the almost baffled looks on their faces as they grappled with their own complicity. They hadn’t gassed anyone. They just…well, everyone had been talking about how the Jews had ruined the economy for “real” Germans, how many Jews were actually Communists, all that. These non-Jewish Germans only wanted to make things better for their own children, and they had believed it when they were told that the Jews were to blame for all Germany’s woes. So when Jews were marched by the hundreds down the streets to rail stations and cattle cars, these other Germans went back inside their homes to finish cooking dinner or inside their offices to finish tasks at hand. Their lives, after all, were no different than they had been before, and they were dreaming of a Germany made great again…
I just can’t bear for that to be me someday, staring at an interviewer, stumbling over my words, trying to justify to him—but more so to myself—how I had gone back to my husband, my dogs, my book, and my fire.