Tyranny creeps up on us. History has shown that it is not as if we wake up one morning and a tyrant is in power and all democratic rights have disappeared. Not at all. What usually happens is that small moves are made by the potential tyrant which, either because they cause minor adjustments in life, or don’t affect us dramatically, or are not even known, become law. And the buildup of such actions over time erodes our democratic values until one day we wake up and we are living in a different and much less free world.
Two things happened last week in the US which made me think of this. The first occurred at a meeting of senior agency officials of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. A list of prohibited terms was distributed, terms which can no longer be used in “budget and supporting materials.” Those terms are: transgender, fetus, diversity, entitlement, vulnerable, evidence-based and science-based. It is not clear why such a directive was issued but one can assume that many of them are “safe space sensitive” in today’s jargon which means that for some people the use of those terms is a trigger for discomfort and a feeling of being “unsafe.” Can you believe?
In Washington last week, at a meeting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a 3-2 vote along party lines reversed legislation passed during the Obama administration to keep the internet “neutral.” For those not aware of the implications of this action, net neutrality ensures that no big brother of the internet like Comcast, for example, can decide to favor the download speeds of one site over another. In a word, all internet traffic travels at the same rate. Without net neutrality we, the public, are at the mercy of the Comcasts of the world who can decide what we should see immediately and what it is ok for us to wait 10 minutes for a download. Net neutrality is a good thing for those of us who are consumers but, of course, not so good for the profit makers who would like to control the internet.
Of course, we here in Israel have plenty of similar examples. Today’s papers report that Ministry of Culture Miri Regev has urged the Mayor of Haifa not to allow a privately funded production entitled “Nakba and Return” which deals with how the Palestinians view the re-establishment of Israel in 1948 and its effect on them. In her words the production “undermines our sovereignty and the very existence of the state of Israel.”
But why should words such as fetus and vulnerable not be allowed to be included in a budget presentation of an agency charged with guarding the nation’s health? Why shouldn’t the government protect us from the predatory practices of internet providers whose only motivation is generating profits? Why shouldn’t private funders be allowed to stage a theatrical production that portrays a side of history that reflects what a large portion of the population believes is true?
But they are all such small points why let them bother us? The normal human condition is to accept reality and move on. But history, especially Jewish history, has shown that we do so at our own peril. The worst case in the last 100 years of the erosion of democratic rights that resulted in tyranny and later unprecedented genocide was, of course, the Holocaust. But it did not surface overnight. One by one laws were enacted that took away personal freedoms and people adjusted rather than object. Lack of vigilance in the face of threats to personal freedom was the framework that allowed tyranny to take over.
Haile Selassie, the former Emperor of Ethiopia once said: “The preservation of peace and the guaranteeing of man’s basic freedoms and rights require courage and eternal vigilance: courage to speak and act – and if necessary, to suffer and die – for truth and justice; (we need) eternal vigilance, that the least transgression of international morality shall not go undetected and un-remedied. While he has been dead for over 40 years, his words ring as true today as ever and need to be heeded by all of us.