Robert Leo Heilman
The first time that I heard the Tea Party anti-taxation slogan, “Taxation is tyranny,” back in 2010, my mind immediately turned to the Holodomor. Ninety years ago and half a world away, during the winter of 1931-1932, the Soviet government brought a famine to Ukraine in which it is estimated that twenty-five percent of the country’s rural population starved to death. Millions of tons of grain were confiscated and sold off to western European countries for the foreign cash that the government needed while millions of people painfully perished from governmental indifference. Tens of thousands of those who spoke out against the government’s cruelty were sent to the Siberian gulag prison camps and were never heard from again, having been worked to death as slave labor.
One of those prisoners who eventually survived left a poem about life in the labor camps which begins with:
Forced to forsake our homes
Stalked by relentless death
We trudged the ice-cold roads
And ate our grief-soaked bread
It seems that I have a somewhat different appreciation of what constitutes genuine tyranny than some of my neighbors who have recently formed a small group called Citizens Against Tyranny in opposition to having Covid19 restrictions decreasing their business profit margins. They are not alone in their resentment. Covid19 restriction protestors in Germany have taken to wearing Nazi-era-style yellow Star of David armbands with the word ungeimpft, “unvaccinated,” replacing the word Juden to express their sense of grievance. The Citizens Against, it seems, are also not alone in exaggerating their sense of oppression.
Words can be deceptive whether we are using them to fool ourselves or they are being used by demagogues to fool us. The adolescent who resents the “tyranny” of doing homework and household chores feels oppressed as does the libertarian extremist who resents the “tyranny” of having to pay taxes but, though the resentment itself is genuine in both cases, the feelings of victimhood, for both of them, are pitifully exaggerated ones.
It is truly sad to see my neighbors suffer, whether from the rampant disease itself or from the government’s attempts to stem the pandemic. In both ways the harm that comes to them is real, immediate and serious. It may be, perhaps, that some of the restrictions really have been too strict or even unnecessary, though it is certainly too soon to know that. What is certain is that harsh words, alarmism and lies will not help any one of us to heal our own lives or our community.
The simple facts are that Covid19 restrictions are not the Holocaust, the pandemic is not the Holodomor and, despite what you may hear from some politicians, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is neither a Hitler nor a Stalin. We all must face the reality that having to wear a mask or not being able to sit on a barstool with a beer in hand is not the same harm, morally or physically, as sending trainloads of people to the gas chambers or bringing slow death by starvation to millions of helpless people.
Words are dangerous. Overblown words can easily lead to overblown reactions, as we saw in the January 6th MAGA riot in Washington DC, and the harm that they cause can last long after those who first spoke them are long forgotten. Throughout history those who were called tyrants by some were thought of as heroes by others. Perhaps we should bear in mind that John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, shouted “Sic semper tyrannis,” after ending the life of a truly great man. We must not now fool ourselves into excessive anger with our words and we cannot let the bluster of others fool us into expressing hatred for each other.
Perhaps we should fear our words rather than fearing our neighbors.