First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
The above is the first stanza of one of the most well-known pieces of literature to come out of the Holocaust. Adapted from a 1946 speech made by German pastor Martin Niemöller, the poem explains how people can rationalize not making a stand against the cruel treatment of others so long as it’s not affecting you personally. The poem goes through a number of groups who were persecuted by the Nazis, including unionists and Jews, eventually ending with the ultimate realization of the speaker: “Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.”
While this poem was originally used to show how the Nazis rose to power without obstruction, it has been coopted to highlight a time when a certain segment of a population has been singled out by a ruling class. For instance, it was adapted for black Americans during the civil rights movement. However, more recently it was adapted to highlight all of President Trump’s perceived persecutions during his presidency. One poem highlighted Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” as well as blacks and Hispanics, immigrants, Jews, and women.
While no good comparison to the Holocaust remotely exists in modern life, the lesson from this poem has a very apt comparison. You see, by his own admission, Pastor Niemöller was originally a Nazi supporter. He made his decision to be vocally against the Reich only after it was too late to stop anything. He spent the entirety of World War II in a prison camp, and he thought of himself as having come around to the right side after there was nobody left to speak on his behalf, as all of his former allies turned on him.
The obvious comparison is what is happening today with so-called “cancel culture.” Now before I go any further, I want to reiterate that this is not a comparison to the Holocaust. It is merely a comparison to the lesson we can take out from the poem written about the Holocaust, so please make sure to keep that in mind when writing your angry letters. If there is any phenomenon that turns easily on those who push it, deny its existence, or rationalize its immorality, it’s cancel culture.
Over the past several years, we have seen cancel culture grow in popularity. To be clear in what I am talking about, cancel culture is a form of social ostracism. If there is an individual, company, or group that doesn’t comply with a certain set of values, or merely says one thing one time that is viewed as such, a move is made to eject said person from society. And while this phenomenon started online, it has consequences that exist in real life.
Let’s start with an incident from just last week. New York Times contributor Lauren Wolfe was fired after her tweet expressing that she had “chills” watching Joe Biden’s plane land on his way to the inauguration. The Times severed ties with Wolfe since this incident showed a bias from their reporters, while trying to create an air of impartiality (snort). While this one tweet did not get her axed according to the Times, it does seem to be the last straw in a line of issues stemming from Wolfe’s social media presence. Whether the Times felt it necessary to end the relationship due to public pressure or to avoid it in the future is unclear. What is clear is that the “public pressure” in question here is the reason she was let go. Let’s be honest: The New York Times agrees with Lauren Wolfe. They worship the Democratic Party and vilified Trump for the last five years. The problem was the negative publicity Wolfe was generating, and the ensuing or impending blowback.
One should feel sorry for Wolfe. She was merely tweeting her opinion which wasn’t all that harmful and didn’t really teach us anything we didn’t already know. Following her job loss, Wolf tweeted “Hard to fathom the talk of ‘cancel culture’ on my timeline while I’m left without an income during a pandemic. I’m not an ideology. I’m a hard-working person who can no longer pay her bills.” And she’s right. We should not be pointing out this obvious case of cancel culture at her expense. Except…she kind of needs to hear it. You see, back in August, Wolfe tweeted, “It’s hilarious this refrain of ‘cancel culture.’ As if it is actually anything.” Wolfe downplayed the scourge of cancel culture until it came for her - and there was nobody left to speak on her behalf. August was still a time amid a pandemic. She didn’t care about those canceled in August without any way of paying their bills. It only started to matter when it hit her.
And don’t think this ends with Lauren Wolfe. Many in the media look back at what happened in this country over the last four years, and more specifically what happened on January 6, and have decided that there are certain voices that must be shut down as they disseminate lies, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories - the result of which is catastrophic. Some want the government to ban certain outlets. Others push for tech companies to deplatform these voices. (By the way, “deplatform” is tech-speak for “cancel.”) We’ve even seen this with the Twitter-alternative “Parler” social media platform, which was ended when Amazon, Google, and Apple decided to end Parler’s ability to use their services.
But here’s the thing those calling for cancelation or deplatformation don’t seem to understand: Any government or tech giant that has the ability to utterly destroy an individual or company can come eat you as well. Amazon itself has the ability to snap its fingers like Thanos and remove a company from existence. And if you don’t think it could happen to you, I have a poem you should read.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.