The Problem With “No One Will Be There To Help Me”

In the current presidential election cycle, where Donald Trump seems to gain popularity each day, liberals, progressives, radicals, and even many conservatives are watching in shock as things play out. Will Trump really win the Republican nomination? And if so, could he actually be elected president?

It is a terrifying, shudder-inducing prospect for many of us, especially for immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, all of whom would face significant personal and community oppression if Trump is elected.

A group of dozens of chanting people of all races and genders, mostly young.
Protesters against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump chant after it was announced that a rally for Trump was canceled. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press) Source: http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-trailguide-03112016-htmlstory.html.

In an attempt to rally people to oppose this racist, sexist, xenophobic, and puerile candidate, i have seen many posts on Facebook of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem from after World War II:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

While the sentiments in Niemöller’s poem are certainly well taken and relevant, i find them incredibly problematic. Niemöller’s basic premise is that i should stand up for those who are oppressed because someday there might not be anyone to speak out for me.

Not because all oppression is wrong.

Not because i find [fill in the Oppression du Jour] problematic.

Not because i love people who are [fill in the name of the Oppressed Group du Jour].

But because someday none of those people may be around to help save my own hide.

How selfish and egocentric. And what a very sad statement on reasons to oppose oppression.

Certainly, Niemöller confronts many folks’ reticence to get involved in social justice movements if they aren’t (or don’t think they are) personally impacted by something. This dynamic is one of the deepest weaknesses of identity politics.

And the violence of the context about which he wrote – up to and including the state-run execution of Nazi opponents – would instill fear of being outspoken in just about anyone.

But his bottom line – “and there was no one left to speak for me” – is telling.

I am not involved in antiracist activism because i stand to benefit personally (although i do). I’m not an LGBTQ advocate because i’m queer (although i am). I don’t oppose xenophobia because i’m an immigrant (i’m not). I don’t support multilingual education and culture because i’m bilingual (how i wish that i was!).

I do all of those things because they are right. Because they’re ethical. Because they will lessen the burden of oppression faced by millions of people in the US.

If you’ve (re)posted or been touched by Niemöller’s poem, either recently or in the past, i urge you to step beyond his bottom line.

Please get out there and oppose not just Donald Trump but all forms of oppression – not because it might someday save your own self but because you truly want to help other people and to make the world a better place.

First they came for the Socialists, and I spoke out—

Because Capitalism ruins the lives of untold numbers of people.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I spoke out—

Because Unions improve conditions for workers in many industries.

Then they came for the Jews, and I spoke out—

Because anti-Semitism has a long history that I refuse to let continue unchecked.

Then they came for me—and I continued to speak out—

Both for myself and for every other group for which they’d come.

And even if I lost my self, I knew that the world had improved because of my voice.

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