First They Came…

First they came for the communists,

I did not speak out

because I was not a communist.

When they came for the social democrats,

I did not speak out

because I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists

I did not speak out

because I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews

I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew;

And when they came for me,

there was no one left to speak out.

Pastor Martin Niemöller (translated from the German)

This poem is the kind of eye-opening, social consciousness inspiring sentiment that I probably first read on a poster in high school. At the time I found it quite moving, but now it bothers me. In retrospect it’s easy to look back at Hitler’s policies and see how each small Nazi atrocity led to the next. But what about the present? This poem often comes to mind when I’m reading the news, because it’s not so obvious to determine which developments now will add up to some great injustice later.

The poem supposes that it’s easy to see the slippery slope, and that all you need is simple vigilance to fight it. But for most people, vigilance (especially in modern American politics) is tiring to the point of sisyphean. How many times on Boingboing has an alert gone out about the broadcast flag getting slipped into another bill? What are the long term implications for two Bush appointments to the Supreme Court? What will be the final effect of the Christian Right on American politics and culture? What are the real risks of the FBI diverting resources from national security to fight a “war on pornography”? What is the long term effect on civil rights and privacy of a permanent “Patriot” Act?

Every day it seems there’s a new injustice, and every day I let many pass while trying do something about one or two. Usually all I have the energy for is a link. A simple link to point to an injustice and vote no. Less frequently I’ll write a letter to a senator about something I feel distinctly passionate about, and post their idiotic form letter response to my blog. But so often I do nothing, and I think that’s alright, because I believe bad ideas, bad laws, even bad presidents (thank god for the 22nd amendment) are corrected over time. Is it worth my time and effort to fight the president at every step or can I hedge my bets that the current administration will hang themselves by their own rope (exhibit: Karl Rove).

I find some solace in this quote, whose source is unknown, “no one ever said democracy is the most efficient form of government.” It suggests to me that not every disappointment necessarily means we’re going to hell in a handbasket. I guess that’s always been the hardest lesson of adulthood to accept, that life is less like an ascent to some platonic ideal and more like a constantly equilibrating pendulum. However comforting that knowledge, it doesn’t ease the apparent cost of that inefficiency, in terms of both capital and most importantly, human life.


Wonderful post.

Concentrate on the little battles. Not the whole war against injustice.

(That was the best advice ever given to me. It can keep you sane.)

i disagree. winning the little battles might make you feel better, but it only affects the system as a whole if everyone else is doing the same thing.

of course, my solution is apathy and withdrawl, so i’m not sure if that’s really a solution per se…

i guess end in the end you just need faith that the institutions of our government are stronger than the idiots who control them. and enough perspective to realize that most of what’s ‘going wrong’ are the rough edges of history.

Thank Goodness we are just a tiny speck in the tail of the Milky Way Galaxy! Just as all the idiots were given brains to think Mother Nature has the power to ‘correct’ things overtime as sometimes the best way to correct something is to simply get rid of or destroy it!

Well said. I feel the same way. There’s a balance point each one of us has to find, a space between doing too much and not doing anything, a real place where we’re involved but haven’t lost ourselves.



the people, they seem to appreciate your introspection.

Kerinin, Let me clairify… all the little battles put together make up the whole war. I don’t deny the whole system when I focus on the little battles. At least this is what I hope to do. Strategically speaking we can all contemplate the totality AND the details of things simultaneously. If only just a few seconds between each. One step at a time. Respect.

I actually think the poem is about the fact that it’s really HARD to see the slippery slope. I take it as a reminder not to ignore injustice against others since you may be next.

For example, it’s not difficult to look at current events and see how the Bush administration is chipping away at the rights and freedoms of women, non-christians, poor people, non-whites, urban dwellers, non-Americans, etc.

Long ago I reached the point where outrage was the norm, and it sounds like you’re getting there too. Don’t let it get you down. Just keep resisting in whatever small ways you can, always be plotting for the big strategic action you can do to undo some of the bullshit.

If you think there’s more you can be doing ot make the world better, maybe you should be doing it. I can’t think of anything better to do with my time.

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