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A clash of rights: Part two



For dictators, the denial of freedom of speech is often coupled with their own production of hate speech. Adolf Hitler is, of course, the most notorious example (books were burned, and Jews and others vilified and murdered). In today’s world we see a rise of narrow, nationalist politics, the most fertile breeding-ground for this kind of murderous intolerance. Sure, the democratic institutions of the USA proved strong enough to rid us of Trump. But, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn (pronounced Coburn) recently put it: “populist nationalist governments from Brazil to Israel, Hungary to India and Turkey to the Philippines never seem to be displaced once they have seized the levers of power.” And these governments regularly, systematically, generate hate speech aimed at groups of their own citizens. They are, too, expert at identifying or even inventing the ‘other’ for their deluded, misled people to vilify. The range of ‘others’ targeted by dictators is wide, although the rhetorical tricks they employ to stir up hatred are depressingly familiar (one remembers here that brilliant song from South Pacific, the plot of which focuses on racism, “You’ve got to be taught to fear and hate.”) Hitler’s Nazis are remembered most for their slaughter of Jews (remembered most, because of the mind-blowing numbers of victims involved). But on the hit-list, too, were gypsies (Europe’s nomads), LGBTI people, communists, trade unionists, and blacks. Fortunately, when the Nazis came to power Germany had only a small black population—mostly from former colonies such as Togo, Cameroun and Namibia—and most were sensible enough to get out of the country before it was too late. That observation on the breadth of the Nazis’ hit-list leads me into an aside, a discussion of one of the most famous poems of the last century, “First they came”, which was triggered by the Nazi atrocities. This poem was written by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoeller when he was arrested and thrown into a Nazi concentration camp. When Hitler first came to power Niemoeller was acquiescent; only later did he speak out, and in his poem he focuses on the cowardice of some German intellectuals and clergymen following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets. Here’s the poem: First they came for the Jews And I did not speak out for I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists And I did not speak out for I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out for I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics And I did not speak out for I am a Protestant. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. It is horrifying to record that, as time goes by and our world grows no less depraved, there are on the internet sites for contemporary “First they came” poems, including one run by Amnesty International. To be continued

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