Source: History News Network / https://historynewsnetwork.org / By Jeffrey H. Jackson /
Jeffrey H. Jackson is a professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. An expert on European history and culture, he is the author of Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910, and Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris.
Sometimes, all it takes is one voice.
Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s official charged with managing the state’s voting system, has become the one person truly willing to burst Donald Trump’s bubble. Not only has he proclaimed the election in his state free and fair, he has called on Trump and his enablers to stop trying to undo the election in the strongest and most direct language yet.
“This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.”
With such forceful words, Sterling joins a long line of lone — and at first lonely — voices who took a risk to step out and speak up against the powerful. If enough people listen and are emboldened to follow, then he, like many resisters over the decades, may help to create a turning point in history.
Czech dissident Vaclav Havel was another such voice. In his famous 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” it was precisely the willingness to speak the plain facts — part of what Havel called “living in truth” — that could challenge the Soviet-made authoritarian world built on fantasies and lies that emerged in Eastern Europe after World War II.
Havel talked about a greengrocer who refused to participate in meaningless rituals created by leaders who manipulated information to maintain their hold on power. That refusal to go along could have tremendous consequences. For Havel, this ordinary man exposed the communist system as a game that demanded citizens act in ways that defied reality. “He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system,” Havel wrote of the rebellious greengrocer, “He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. … He has said that the emperor is naked.” One man revealing the truth, Havel concludes, can open everyone else’s eyes. “He has,” Havel writes using a Wizard of Oz-like metaphor, “enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain.” Behind that curtain was not a magician, but a corrupt system.
Pointing out the reality that everyone already knows deep down but no one is willing to admit, for Havel, was the first step to moving from lies to the truth. And it helped Havel lead a revolution. In 1989, millions of Czechs, under Havel’s guidance and with his stirring words ringing in their ears, freed themselves from the communist grip in a peaceful “velvet revolution” as self-deluded leaders were the only ones left believing their own lies. Havel went on to be chosen president in the first free election in his country in decades.
History is full of famous examples of dissidents such as Havel, but there are many others we are only beginning to discover. Another pair of lonely voices willing to cry into the wilderness were Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe. They were two French artists (better known today by their artistic names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore) who fought the German occupation of their adopted home of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands that were the only bits of British soil conquered during World War II.
As I describe in my book Paper Bullets, for four years Schwob and Malherbe scattered German-language notes around Jersey challenging how the soldiers understood the world. The messages told a different story about the war than the Nazi army’s official line, bursting the warped information environment that Hitler used to convince his soldiers about their supposed invincibility.
By pretending to be a German and writing under the pseudonym “The Soldier With No Name,” Schwob and Malherbe got inside the heads of the occupation forces through songs, poems, bawdy jokes, and fictional dialogues that made the occupiers think twice about why they were on Jersey. Putting their artistic skills to work, with each note they rewrote the inner script inside the Germans’ minds. When they circulated translations of BBC news summaries, the women fed facts instead of propaganda to soldiers who otherwise would never have known of their own army’s losses as the war went on. And the German soldiers listened. When Schwob and Malherbe went to prison, they met some of the men who had read the notes and laid down their weapons. The Secret Field Police, frightened by the damage they believed these messages could do, hunted the women for four years.
One or two people speaking out can inspire and embolden others to break their silence. In recent months, we have seen growing calls for “living in truth” voiced by people all across the world following the lead after the silence was broken. Black Lives Matter protesters are denouncing the structures of systemic racism, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have taken to the streets repeatedly, and students are calling attention to climate change in the Fridays For the Future strikes led by Greta Thunberg. So many ordinary people — often in direct opposition to political leaders — have become what the human rights activist and former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called “upstanders.” “Living in truth” by speaking the facts out loud is a crucial form of dissent, especially in a distorted information environment.
History shows us that people — sometimes one at a time — can defend the truth by pointing out what everyone knows but which the powerful sometimes refuse to believe. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two voices to galvanize an idea that others will follow and, in the process, change the world. That truly is “the power of the powerless.”