Friday, November 18, 2016

Do the Wrong Thing

"Don't just stand there, Lieutenant they told us again and again at Officers' Basic School; Do something, even if it's wrong."

--Broken Vessels: Essays (1991), by Andre Dubus, a former Marine

I've also heard that Marine teaching put this way:
The best thing to do in a crisis is the right thing;
the next best thing to do is the wrong thing;
and the worst thing to do is nothing.
I was lying awake last night, pondering the post-Brexit/Trumpit popular use of the safety pin, meant to symbolize support for people at risk in these benighted times. I had painted pins to give away, four days after the election, wanting to do something hopeful.

The pin as a symbol is not universally liked, however. You can google it and read the perspective that it's a sign of white privilege:
trite, pointless, no-risk, fashionable outrage. Etc.

So, in the middle of the night I was wondering, should I drop it?

I decided no. 
I thought of the Dubus story. I'd rather look like the insipid white person that I am, (I'm no revolutionary!) who's trying and getting it wrong, as a member of a  privileged class who "means well" (the crushing contempt of those words, and yet…)
than look like someone who doesn't try, or doesn't care, or doesn't even notice something's going on.

I also thought of Elie Wiesel. 
He said that the hardest thing to understand as a Jewish boy who alone of his immediate family survived the Nazi concentration camps wasn't the viciousness of the guards but the silence of the bystanders who watched him and his family and all the others be deported and didn't say anything.
(Yes, I know some people say Wiesel was a problematic person but that hardly invalidates his points.)

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he spoke of and to his young self [boldface mine]:
"I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember he asked his father: "Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?"
I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.
We must take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere."
Finally, I invoke the Good Samaritan law:
if you, an ordinary civilian, in good faith try to help someone in danger, say, a stranger having a heart attack in front of you, and you end up getting it wrong, you cannot be sued.

At least you didn't just cross the road.

When we who believe in speaking up come up with a symbol that everyone agrees on, I'll wear that. But until then, I'll stick with the safety pin to represent even just the possibility of a pinprick of light in the darkness.


ArtSparker said...

I'm thinking ACLU. First amendment will be under attack for some time to come.

The Crow said...

How about a rainbow striped megaphone? All the colors of the rainbow, alternating with all the colors of peoples?

Frex said...


CROW: Ah, you might think you'd be safe with a rainbow, but alas again, the rainbow comes in for some of the same criticisms the safety pin does:
that liberal "armchair allies" co-opt it.

Personally I'm not sure any of us can afford any longer to be so picky about who our allies are.
Though I hate to put it in terms of "enemies",
perhaps the time is ripe for us all to think more along the lines of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Let's see... how to rephrase that?
Those who stand for peace are my friends, even if we don't agree on the details. HARDLY punchy though. :)

Fresca said...

P.S. Sparker---re the ACLU, i've always loved the quote from Nat Hentoff,
"The remedy to "bad speech" is more speech."

bink said...

Heard some positive pin stories lately...and why not? Like you say, there isn't another universally recognized symbol of goodwill to all.

But, wait!-- that could be the cross; the crescent moon; the star of David...oh, yeah, never mind...let's go back to the safety pin.