Most people are cowards. Most people don’t want to trouble trouble lest trouble troubles them. Most people go with the flow even when the flow becomes alarmingly steeped in sewage. Most people fear bullies and thugs and avoid standing up to them for the sake of an easy life. Most people avoid confrontation because it is unpleasant. Most people like to persuade themselves that what is vicious must have a reasonable cause and therefore should be understood and accommodated, that what threatens human decency will soon go away, that what is evil is not so evil after all.
Most people are passive in the face of terror. Most people acquiesce in horror if it isn’t actually happening to them. Most people, if they can, retreat into cubbyholes of comfort, thinking that the worst will pass them by. Most people prefer not to call a spade a blood-stained spade when others, including friends, are calling it an ordinary shovel. Most people yearn to hear of self-sacrifice, courage and noble deeds, knowing themselves incapable of these things. Most people, as I say, are cowards. I am like most people. You are like most people. Most people are like most people. It is the way the world works and it is why evil so often wins.
Even the best of people don’t particularly like to act against what is wrong. Even the best of people don’t want to interfere. Even the best of people delude themselves into thinking that the natural course of events is for the good and will soon reassert itself. Even the most intelligent of people doubt that the gutter will ever run through their own front rooms. Even the best of people leave objection and resistance until it is too late: as Pastor Martin Niemöller famously testified – “When they came for the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned; and when they came for the Catholics I was not a Catholic, therefore I was not concerned; and when they came for the Communists I was not a Communist, therefore I was not concerned; and when they came for the Unionists I was not a Unionist, therefore I was not concerned. And then they came for me – and there was nobody left to be concerned for me.”
It is surprising how often the safety of society is left to only a few standing up in time. It is tragic how often the efforts of such people are not enough. Time after time in history determined plotters have won because the multitudes are timid. It is not appreciated how frequently right succumbs to wrong, cruelty overcomes kindness, sanity makes way for dementia. Few realize how the condition of mankind described by Yeats is not exceptional but common:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It is not really realized in the minds and hearts of ordinary good people that decency is not the norm, that civility is mostly not the intercourse of choice between human beings, that democracy is a delicate bloom which most easily wilts, that freedom is what William Hazlitt called a “transient grace.”
“Liberty is short and fleeting, a transient grace that lights upon the earth by stealth and at long intervals… But power is eternal.” There is not a day that passes when mankind is free from “the claims of barefaced power” (another Hazlitt phrase). Man is attracted to power and to freedom – the tug-of-war is eternal and power too often wins. “Ye are many – they are few,” Shelley said, addressing, he believed, the lovers of liberty. He was wrong. Power appeals directly to our interests, freedom appeals to our opinion. And it requires immense resolution and conviction for anyone to risk giving up his interest to assert his opinion.
When did these thoughts come to me? They came as I read the first volume of a biography of Adolph Hitler entitled Hubris, 1889-1936 by Ian Kershaw, a narrative of the rise to power of a brutal “master of the universe.” There you see not only how hard and dangerous it is to confront all-powerful authority but also what bravery and staunchness of spirit it takes to stand up for what is right against the great weight of a different opinion.
We must never forget the lesson. Freedom and an open society are forever balanced near the precipice of power and those who guard against the slide are astonishingly few. But in the end it can be done. The second volume of Kershaw’s great book is entitled Nemesis.