A specter is haunting the United States, a specter that can marshal an army of ghosts. Its previous incarnations were in Nazi Germany, 1930s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, Franco’s Spain, Rumania’s Iron Guard, today’s Greek Golden Dawn. The 20th Century Totalitarian Express ripped through countless slaughters and more than one holocaust. And on its return trip, ask not for whom it stops, it stops for us.
It is important to assess what causes the descent into totalitarian rule. We blame individuals like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. We point to collective trauma such as experienced by Germany after World War I or the leadership vacuum in Europe after a generation of future leaders was obliterated in that war’s grinding battles or the Great Depression’s erosion of faith in capitalism and its uneasy partner, democracy.
Such historical explanations provide causal, logical “reasons for” the madness. But war, gulags, death camps, endless bombing campaigns, and massacres, no mattrer how compelling the causes, still require a raw emotional and moral shift inside of millions of people for such nightmares to become reality.
The totalitarian specter seems to await only the proper sequence of commands, the deadly algorithm, to bring it to life. Call it our “inner fascist”, that infantile, whining, naked lump of animated protein willing to sacrifice everything—dignity, justice, love, tolerance, restraint—for the soothing assurance that it can be saved and kept warm, secure, fed. It is the secret enforcer that turns neighbors into informants, ready to denounce life-long friends. It is why the 100-plus nations that employ torture never lack for army officers, prison guards, doctors, judges, politicians, or clerks to perform their hideous procedures. It is why the middle class of so many nations side with repressive death-squad-driven regimes in order to protect their shaky place in the sun, however bloody the sky at sunset.
The United States is no different, nor are we, its citizens. Our history is rife with massacres domestic (Native Americans, slaves, labor strikers) and foreign (Mexico 1846-1848, Philippines 1899-1902, Korea, Vietnam, 20th century across Latin America). Our “black ops” have perpetrated countless murders overseas. In the 21st century, we’ve joined the company of nations that openly embrace torture and 1984’s vision of endless war. Lynchings were for decades a part of everyday life here, and not even such grotesque extremes as the 237 black sharecroppers killed in Arkansas in 1919 or dozens of Chinese railroad laborers lynched could halt it.
Recalling an oft-suppressed history is not “bashing” the United States. Without history we have no orientation. Without history we have no basis by which to evaluate our decisions, to question the sort of glib lies that got us into Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. “He who knows only his own generation remains always a child” (George Norlin). The purpose of suppressing history is always to impose the will of the powerful on those they rule. Yet the world’s “pirates”, as Buckminster Fuller dubbed them, can never do it alone. They require the collaboration of the many.
It is not difficult. Keep the people happy with a modest share of the wealth and the illusions of comfort and security. Keep ‘em stupid with a steady diet of puerile entertainment. If they get restive, distract them by hysterically denouncing a convenient bogeyman who requires the exorcism of military intervention. And always war as a last resort to keep the folk in line…endless war.
Most people do not actively support this system, though some do of course. But most of us focus on work that keep the wheels turning and, in many cases, provide vital services to the community and the underserved. Many live with a belief in humane values. But so often those same people’s political lives are disassociated from the ideals of their work and family lives.
When the middle class is secure it adopts a more tolerant, liberal tilt. However, when threatened by economic downturn and social volatility, “the center cannot hold”. As middle class expectations decline and sink towards the lower depths, it must choose: 1) join those below, in more dire circumstances, in challenging the system or 2) make any compromise to preserve their relative levels of privilege and comfort.
At such times how nice it would be if we gathered together to examine the root causes of our problems, soliciting input from all stakeholders rather than just shareholders. The poor would air their grievances and insist on recasting their role in society. The wealthy would acknowledge that their success rests on society-wide cooperation, labor, laws, and ideas and embrace their duty to reinvest in the commonwealth. And the middle class would support the effort from both ends as a mediating and unifying force.
Alas, the tendency is to be swayed by the naked wants of our single-celled forebears, of fish in the sea and reptiles sunning in the slime. It is our tragic destiny as humans to imagine and devise intricate technologies, glorious art, profound emotion, and loftiy ideals while never abandoning the ruthless, paranoid, violent demands of animate ectoplasm that pulses at our living core.
And so we come to our current government, the most appalling, grotesque, ignorant, self-aggrandizing, clueless group of bozos ever to grace our political stage. We can identify the factors that led us to President Tweetie Trump and Psycho-in-Chief Bannon, Conway and Coulter, Sean Spicer and Steven Miller. And indeed, it is important to do so.
But that alone won’t reverse this unnatural order of things. Nor will bemoaning how our national government has turned into a sequel to Beavis and Butthead. Nor, frankly, will we revive the pipe-dream that the American system can be renewed by a return to good old-fashioned organizing and championing of worker’s rights, though that too is important. But this system is too big, shaky, corrupt, entangled, and irrational to fail without a devastating collapse. We’re running out of time and options and I see no satisfaction in bringing it all down on the heads of those vast numbers who will suffer first, foremost, and “with extreme prejudice”.
It is no longer Democrat versus Republican or even left versus right. We have been hijacked, people, by the totalitarian instinct and the choice of which way we’re headed lies within each of us. That is where the battle is waged.
Forget about just dumping Trump and being left with Pence, Ryan, and the Koch brothers. Forget about looking for some white-horse/dark-horse Democrat to ride out of the political hills to restore sanity. No, it’s time to shift the responsibility for change where it belongs in a democracy: to ourselves.
Every small gesture helps. Keep talking. Challenge them at every turn. Use powerful allies opportunistically. Whoever opposes the immigraton ban or hammers away at Trump’s ties with Russia, whatever their agendas, roll with them but never trust them or grant them the initiative. Keep asserting our best values and clamoring that they be upheld. Create ideas for resistance and empowerment and cast them wide upon the social media and do so again till the seeds take root.
The Internet, so valuable in linking people and protests, is vulnerable to Chinese-style government restrictions. What if such cyber-censorship happens here? Anonymous and other activist hackers should already be developing ways to counter-act government censorship. Those millions of us at the women’s marches on January 21st might soon find ourselves protesting in the shadow of massed armored police and soldiers awaiting the command to launch tear gas cannisters, swing clubs, shoot rubber bullets, set off provocations, and even, with this regime, to shoot to kill. The next Dakota Pipeline standoff could well be in a state whose laws equate protesters with terrorists (who have no legal rights) or that views the murder of protesters as lawful and justified. Such bills are even now being submitted in state legislatures across the land of the free.
When ideas circulate and are shared and grow in an open source environment, they gather strength. And from such ideas emerge tactics and strategies to protect our rights as guaranteed under the Constitution. Constitution? They don’t need no “stinking” Constitution, to paraphrase a famous movie line. But we do. How far will we go to defend it, and ourselves?