The expression "speaking truth to power" should be on the lips of every righteous citizen world over. The history of the phrase is quite compelling.
Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel used the expression to chastise President Ronald Reagan when, during a visit to Germany, the U.S. president laid a wreath at the German war cemetery in Bitburg. Two thousand soldiers are buried in Bitburg.
Included among the two thousand are 49 Nazi Waffen-SS soldiers.
The date was May 6, 1985.
The ceremony was intended to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II.
But the move was deeply offensive.
Wiesel implored Reagan not to go to Bitburg. Two weeks before the trip, on April 19, when Wiesel was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Reagan, the White House pressured Wiesel not to say anything about Bitburg.
They should have known better.
Wiesel spoke truth to power. He spoke to the president of the United States, face-to-face, on a live, nationally televised broadcast of the ceremony, in a powerful, non-threatening but essential way. And he said, "That place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS."
Of course, Wiesel was correct.
The place of the United States was not with the Waffen-SS which was the Nazi division of the German Army. President Reagan knew that, as did his staff.
They were trying not to insult the Germans, especially Chancellor Helmut Kohl. And so, the President Reagan laid the wreath. No visit to any Nazi concentration camp was on the planned itinerary.
Politics and diplomacy sometimes shade justice and righteousness.
After Wiesel spoke, the president’s itinerary was altered.
The concentration camp Bergen Belsen was added to the official presidential trip.
Truth to power should not scare us. It was also a dictum of the ancient biblical prophets.
1985 was not that long ago. But in these interceding years, our world has moved into partisanship and the pursuit of justice has been lost.
This is especially true of traditional media.
The media has a larger-than-life role, a sacrosanct responsibility, when it comes to speaking truth to power. And yet, traditional media today remains almost totally silent while story after story, incident after incident, of abuse of power and gross wrongdoing by those in power, unfolds.
Elie Wiesel was not the only humanitarian to remind the world about speaking truth to power. Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama – they all used this phrase or its variations.
And people, regular people, not global leaders or those with influence, people fighting for human rights used the expression to teach leaders and remind the masses of the tremendous importance of making certain that leaders were straight forward and righteous citizens of the world.
The Greek expression "paahesia" while it literally means "free speech" means speaking truth to power.
Mahatma Gandhi used a much better term.
He used "satyagraha" which literally means "truth force."
The calling and the speech of ancient biblical prophets was prefaced with the "dvar hashem" the word of God. How powerful. Suddenly, truth is not the opposite of an untruth or a lie. Now truth takes on the Aristotelean notion of truth and greater truth.
"These truths" cannot be ignored. Why? Because our founders thought them "self-evident."
What is happening in Canada is one of our most glaring present-day examples.
The curtailment of so many basic rights is simply contrary to the foundations of our civilization and our understanding of freedom. Many in the media argue wrongfully that the entire episode is an issue of left versus right. But it should not matter whose rights are being violated.
What matters is that rights are being violated. Good people, level-headed people, leftists and rightist and centrists alike, should be standing up and shouting "truth to power."
We all know the oft quoted statement, the one that is misattributed to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke that "all that is necessary for evil to win is for good men to do nothing."
How true that statement rang for Elie Wiesel and how true it rings for us today.
There is no doubt in my mind that speaking truth to power clinched the Nobel Prize for Wiesel. And in the speech he delivered in 1986 upon becoming a Nobel Prize Laureate, Elie Wiesel said it better.
"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.
"When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe."
There is nothing more to say. There is much for us to do.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern," a weekly TV program, and "My Chopp," a daily radio spot. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. Read Micah Halpern's Reports — More Here.
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