When I was a kid and first exposed to Anne Frank’s diary, my first glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust, everything seemed really cut and dried. Of course Miep and the others would work to hide the Franks and their friends. Of course Anne’s dad knew when it was time to go into hiding. Of course it was so painful that the wicked typhus that took Anne and her sister Margot couldn’t have held off just a few months longer until liberation. They were so close to surviving. With the luxury of retrospect, it all seems so clear.
Adulthood has brought to me the confusion of nuance. It turns out that many of Anne Frank’s father’s contemporaries did not “know” when it was time to go. Many others knew but couldn’t find safe harbor. Many, like the Frank family, did the best to protect themselves, and still their lives were first destroyed, then lost. In the sweep of something as vast and evil as the Nazis, millions of people were dragged into disaster and death despite of all their efforts.
Comparisons between the rise of fascism in the early/mid twentieth century and the populist and xenophobic tendencies of today make some people uncomfortable. After all, we can look back on what happened with the Nazis and see all of the consequences. We know that full story, how everything turned out. But in the midst of the changes we see today, it’s hard to know how things will turn out, and so it seems hyperbolic, to some, to make the comparison at all.
But to those of us for whom the lines of comparison become clearer every day aren’t saying that this administration is exactly like the Nazis at their worst. But then the Nazis at their start weren’t the Nazis at their worst, either. They didn’t begin by putting Jews in ovens, although they made their intentions clear through their writing and rhetoric very early. They began by casting an “out group” as the scapegoat for societal ills. They began by telling downtrodden Germans that they were an elite and would rise again. They began with small atrocities, saw what people would stand for, consolidated power, cowed journalists, and devoured an entire continent in their hate and destruction only in stages.
So the question of proportionality, of how to know when “it’s time,” how much to do, has been weighing heavy on me. Increasingly so after seeing the treatment of children at the border. If we are a society where at least a few of us can look at kids crying for their mothers and respond with callousness and indifference, we are further along the path of destruction than I’d ever imagined my beloved country would get. When will it be time to begin harboring people? To actively resist?
The other day I spoke at a “Family Belong Together” rally, and a neighbor took a video of it. I posted it on my Facebook author page. I did it for various reasons, not least of which is that immigration policy is central to the theme of my book, and I was proud of the words I spoke. Someone – a follower whose name I didn’t recognize – replied, “You should keep politics off your author page. I’m unfollowing you.”
I replied, not really for her benefit, because I imagined that she’d followed through on her stated intention of unfollowing me, but for anyone else who felt the same way. My reply said, “I am at peace with that. For me, I am getting to the point where silence equals complicity, and I will not be silent. If this post surprises you, you must not be very familiar with my work.” It would be hard to read Secret Side, or any of my essays, and wonder where I stand on our immigration policy. My reply and her comment disappeared shortly thereafter, presumably deleted by her.
When I first got into this writing business, it was common wisdom that you should keep politics out of your public statements, because both “red state” and “blue state” readers’ money is green, and it is our job to entertain and not to inject our political beliefs into things. And I can see how that may have been valid advice at the time. Things seemed relatively stable, our norms weren’t under attack, and atrocities weren’t being committed in our name. Much has happened in the four years since I published my book, and, at least for me, that position has become untenable. If it will cost me readers to speak out against what’s happening, I am at peace with that.
It’s not particularly courageous to write a blog post which will be seen mostly by people who already like my work. It is not especially brave to speak for four minutes to a group of neighbors who have come out on a hazy, muggy day to show solidarity with immigrants. It feels futile, sometimes, to simply make phone calls and donate money. This is the least I can do, and my heart yearns to know what is the most I can do, and when the time has come to escalate my involvement by putting my own self on the line. The border shelters call to me. The misplaced children cry out to me. In the pitch-dark nightmares, I hear knocks on the door and boots marching. How will we know when it’s time? What if it’s been time for a while now but I’ve missed the call?