Second they came… – Professor Steven J. Miller, Math/Stats

The Wikipedia entry “First they came …” begins as follows:

“First they came […] is a famous statement and provocative poem attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. There is some disagreement over the exact wording of the quotation and when it was created; the content of the quotation may have been presented differently by Niemöller on different occasions.”

The version they list is the following:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”


These powerful words are a reminder of the need for vigilance, especially when one considers the horrific events that followed. It is easy to demonize those who disagree with you; it is harder, but often essential, to hear them with an open heart. If you believe they are wrong, refute them; have faith in the truth.

Sadly, these words are as relevant now as when first written. There are many examples one could give; as numerous others are writing about campus speakers being dis-invited, I will concentrate on groups being singled out for their political beliefs by the IRS. Briefly, before the 2012 election the IRS deliberately targeted certain organizations to prevent them from receiving tax-exempt status, which greatly hindered their involvement in elections. These coordinated actions were, for the most part, directed at groups with words such as ‘Tea Party’ and ‘Patriot’ in their names, and resulted in some organizations waiting months to years more than others to have their status approved or denied, as well as having to devote significant time and resources to additional scrutiny and information requests.

While such behavior threatens our democratic society, it is not clear which is more harmful: the fact that a branch of the government would target people who disagree with them (which influenced election results), or that so many of us are silent on this issue. We are all lessened by our quiet, for a government that actively silences one group today can easily turn to another tomorrow (from a selfish point of view, protected members of the majority today can find themselves persecuted members of the minority tomorrow). Such days can arrive faster than you might think; for example, a columnist at the Harvard Crimson (in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Yale man and have certain strong beliefs about that institution) wrote:  “Instead [of academic freedom], I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.’’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.” The danger, of course, is that of who does the classifying (or in words I’ve heard attributed to Stalin: It’s not the vote that counts, but who counts the vote). As this site supports the use of humor to make points, this is an excellent opportunity to talk about how the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) just lost a court case where they sued a company for racial bias, where that company uses the same procedures the EEOC does!

College is a wonderful haven, but perhaps we are sheltered too much. It’s not enough to disagree with those you disagree with; at times it is essential to disagree with those you agree with! While such views start in the minority, without vigilance and opposition they grow, and good people are scared and threatened to silence.  Imagine the lesson our government agencies would have learned if good people on both sides of the political aisle stood up and said, loudly and unambiguously, that such targeting as has been done by the IRS is wrong. Sadly, we have to leave such exercises to the realm of thought experiments, as our society is a long way from there.



Sandra Y. L. Korn, ”The Doctrine of Academic Freedom: Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.” February 18, 2014.

Eric Owens, “Scathing appeals court calls out raging hypocrisy of race-baiting Obama administration bureaucrats”, April 23, 2014.

Wikipedia, “First they came …”,

2 thoughts on “Second they came… – Professor Steven J. Miller, Math/Stats

  1. Really have to jump in here and point out that the IRS targeted both sides of the aisle during the period in question. The antics of Chairman Issa notwithstanding, it’s clear that groups with words like “progressive” and “blue” were targeted at similar (or higher!) rates as groups with words like Tea Party.

    See: and also

    Just trying to make sure we have our facts straight.

  2. I had read that other groups were targeted but that groups with ‘Tea Party’ and ‘Patriot’ had their status held up longer and that individuals from those groups were more likely to face additional information requests, which is why I mentioned those explicitly. Regardless, by all means let us shine as much light as possible on this issue and add these and other groups to the list, and let us all defend their right to be heard, I strongly believe that this is an issue where everyone on all sides should have common cause, and thank you for making sure we are inclusive.

    This opens up the interesting case of profiling. In some situations we’re for it. For example, I do work on Benford’s law of digit bias, and this can be used for legitimate purposes by the IRS to quickly sift through massive amounts of data and indicate which organizations are likely to have fabricated data, allowing the IRS to deploy finite resources more effectively in catching and prosecuting fraud. So preliminary evidence is used to make assessments, and depending on the outcome resources are then deployed. Where does one draw the line? If we see submissions from groups “Overthrow the Government” or “Kill all X”, should that trigger closer scrutiny? Is the IRS logic simply the argument of profiling but now applied in the political arena?

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