People often wonder how it was that, despite the fact that Hitler was very clear about his feelings of anti-Semitism in particular and xenophobia in general, he managed to quite legally (if very sneakily using rather questionable loopholes and mass intimidation) become dictator of Germany in the 1930s. We wonder, when we look back, how it was that people were convinced to let him even hold office, when only a few years earlier, he’d tried to overthrow the government.
Leaving aside some of the more complicated reasons—such as entrenched racism in Europe or issues pertaining to the German psyche and how it reacts to authority—for another time, it’s worth considering the historical and cultural context of this event. Germany had just come out of a World War in which it had, to put it mildly, fared badly. Whether or not reparations were unsustainably or unreasonably high, the people were suffering. So when someone came along to tell them who they should blame, and what he would do to change things for the better, they listened. Fear of the future, fear of hunger and unemployment and the unknown, all of these were powerful catalysts and made these people all the more malleable to Hitler’s very persuasive rhetoric.
I would have liked to think that since then, we’ve evolved emotionally. That perhaps we’re more alert to the kinds of half-truths we’re told, or the sensationalism which leads to scape-goating of different groups. And I think most of us believe that we are more aware of the propaganda, and we like to think we have more information at our disposal, that we’re more suspicious of the kinds of claims politicians make about how much better the future will be with them, and how dangerous The Outsiders are.
We’re not, though, are we?
We haven’t evolved. Take recent examples: George W Bush was elected to a second term, even though it was obvious the War On Terror had disintegrated into a quagmire comparable to Vietnam. Even though it was apparent by then that the reasons for going into Iraq had been proven to be false.
In Australia, we (and by ‘we’, you know I mean the majority, rather than me personally, because I’m sure you know my political stance by now) elected conservative John Howard four times, which brings his total serving time in office to ELEVEN YEARS. Granted, the system here is somewhat different to the US in that our Prime Minister is the head of his party and is elected just as any other elected representative rather than being elected directly by the people. However, his policies were the face of the party he led. And despite overwhelming frustration at his conservative government which appeared to pander to the US, which paid little attention to environmental issues and brought in sweeping and disturbing changes to our industrial relations, despite all that? Four terms.
And recent EU elections have seen an alarming number of representatives who campaigned on a right wing platform elected. From France to the UK, and Belgium, Austria and Greece, the ultra-conservatives are gaining in popularity.
I’m not saying that any of our current or recent politicians are anything like Hitler and his cohort—thank goodness—but I think it’s evident that we are still the same easily frightened, easily swayed human beings as those who were persuaded to elect the NSDAP just over eighty years ago.
When we get frightened, we withdraw. When we’re threatened, we look to those we trust, those who are like us, and we reject those who are different. That’s basically an instinct, and if those in power are telling us that we’re in danger, and the media consistently reinforces how dangerous that danger is, then we begin to believe it. It takes effort and time and critical thinking to really take apart the arguments we’re hear everyday, to decide if there’s any logic to them, and that’s how our current government is able to get away with their attitude towards recipients of disability.
Our politicians try to convince us that we’re going to be in a terrible situation if we let anyone else in—any of The Outsiders—to our fragile country which can barely support those who live here already They’re arguing that there are many who are able to to work and claim disability, and that they’re the ones who are bringing everyone else down. By telling us how badly we’re doing, they’re encouraging us to decide who is ‘us’ and who are ‘them’.
And it’s working. The tabloids have been running headlines like this, implying that there the number of people claiming disability but who are, in fact, just in it for the money. For those in the community who live with a disability, the difficulty has been exacerbated. Living with a disability brings enough challenges in itself, particularly in the workplace, however, despite all the rhetoric flying around about how people with disabilities are a burden on our society, there is very little being done to help them actually get into the workforce.
It’s easy to criticise those who are different. It’s even instinct, just like withdrawing into our little circles when times get scary and tough. But we’re better than instinct. We can recognise it, we can look at what we’re doing and change our behaviour, even (or especially) when it’s uncomfortable.
Those who make claims about how we shouldn’t need to support people with disabilities miss the point on so many levels. Not only is this a compassion that we need to have as a society—to take care of those who need it—but it ignores the fact that all of us may need assistance at some point. Accidents happen. People lose limbs. People become mentally ill. We need a safety net to look after them when that happens.
The vitriol which is emerging lately, the way in which people with disabilities are being targeted makes me both frustrated and sad. It’s as if they’re being asked:
‘What are you expecting? Surely you’re not expecting that we support you, that we help pay for your day to day expenses, that we allow you to have a basic standard of living, despite the fact that our society does not make any concessions for your different abilities?’
And that IS just what I expect. I expect that we pay for things we might not use, so that others may have a more comfortable life. I expect that we support those less fortunate, I expect that they should have a decent standard of living which reflects that of the wider society in which we live.
That’s what I expect. If we’ve learnt anything from making the same mistakes over and over, surely it’s that compassion is one of pillars on which our modern society is based? Surely, it’s that we are only as advanced as the least fortunate among us?
I remember one of my lecturers included a joke in our course notes when we were studying the build-up to World War II and the rise of the Hitler and the NSDAP. While it’s obviously dark humour, I think it only highlights just how easily we slip into old habits, and how imperative it is, that we realise just what we’re giving away, when we allow fear to dictate our choices:
Das Telefon läutet bei Müllers. Falsche Verbindung. Eine Stimme sagt: “Entschuldigen Sie, ich habe falsch gewählt.”
Müller antwortet: “Das haben wir alle!” (1939)
[The telephone rings at the Müller residence. Wrong number. A voice says: “I beg your pardon, I dialled incorrectly.” [in German, wählen has several meanings: ‘to choose’, ‘to dial’, and also ‘to vote’—and there the double entendre] Müller answers, “We all did that!”]