For decades now, ever since the truth of the Holocaust began to sink into American culture, people have enjoyed scaring and flattering themselves with a fun little parlor game that the author Nathan Englander bitterly sends up in his recent short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. To play, all you have to do is ask yourself and your friends and family what all y’all would have done if you’d been bystanders during the Holocaust. Christians, say, in an occupied country like France or Holland or Denmark when the Germans were rounding up their Jewish neighbors.
Well, I have good news for the people who like to play these self-congratulatory little moral games. Trump is now well ahead of Biden in the latest major poll, CNN is donating free airtime to him again, Tucker Carlson is about to debut an even more virulent version of his Two Minutes’ Hate on Twitter, and House Republicans are about to assassinate the national economy so as to further fan the flames of fascism. In short, the time is almost here when you get to play Hero or Bystander for realsies! Realer than the realest “reality TV show,” gentle reader. Realer than the consequences Ms. Reality Winner faced when she stole classified documents to play a little FAFO. Because, as I wrote in my last blog post, it sure smells like there are one or more genocides cooking in American society. To riff on Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, first they are coming for the trans and the gays and the undocumented, then the black people, then the Jews, and then it’s really open season on anyone who is not a white, straight “God-fearing” Christian who would sooner kick their own pregnant daughter out of the house than help her get an illegal abortion. So, if you are not in one of the first groups targeted, you will soon learn the truth about yourself.
Chances are, gentle reader, that you’ll be one of the majority—a guilty bystander. A Floridian, let’s say, someone who may have voted for DeSantis because he lifted all those irksome COVID shutdowns that were saving a bunch of lives you didn’t care about. Now you’re telling yourself that hey, it’s just a lot of political noise, this Don’t Say Gay stuff, and the forced busing north of undocumented immigrants, and I hate politics anyway, and the economy and the weather here in Florida are great! In that case, you’ll never pay attention to an alarmist like me pointing out that we are witnessing in real time the legal and social death of LGBTQ people that necessarily precedes their physical extermination, and forced population transfers of those dehumanized “illegal aliens,” which are an integral part of the genocidal process.
If that’s you, you’ll also pretend not to notice a year or two from now when Mark, the fun queeny guy at work, suddenly stops coming into the office, and visibly pregnant Haley in accounting is denounced and arrested for her illegal abortion. Not your business, right? Nor will you be unhealthily curious when Rosa, who did such a great job cleaning your house that time, and José, her hard-working gardener husband who did such a bang-up job on your azaleas, are nowhere to be found. Will you, gentle reader, be one of the legions telling themselves that oh, Mark and Haley found other jobs, José and Rosa must’ve gone back to Salvador, and the economy seems to be doing just fine and I still have a job and did I mention I fucking hate politics, so why rock the boat?
Or will you be one of the few who gives Rosa and José and Haley enough money to flee the state instead of being rounded up and taken to a concentration camp? One of the few who will risk your own neck to hide a “groomer” like Mark in your own home, even though you’ve always found homosexuality a little gross and the penalty Governor DeSantis just signed into law is to be labeled a sex offender yourself?
See, I’m nobody, gentle reader. For realsies: I’m a writer you’ve never heard of who can’t even make a living as a journalist and editor anymore, because in the twilight of Weimar America, “journalism is dead,” as a former colleague of mine succinctly points out. But I do read a lot of history, more than is really good for me, and it’s led me to make some “wildly pessimistic,” disturbingly accurate predictions about the course of U.S. politics in recent years. Take it from me, then: History has heard all of the guilty bystanders’ excuses, so you cannot come up with a novel alibi for your cowardice and your apathy. And history, gentle reader, will not forget.