A Fascist Assault upon the Individual “Right to Change”

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (detail), 1601, Santa Maria Del Popolo, Rome.

The Right to Change

The fundamental right to change is under assault by a generation of American fascists acting under cover of a mainstream political party: the Republican Party. The danger grows daily and threatens civil rights, women’s rights, and personal liberty.

The right to change is not explicitly enumerated in America’s founding documents but is everywhere implicit. The second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) states that the purpose of government is to protect “certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, protects “freedom of speech [and] the press; the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The 14th amendment prevents any state from abridging these rights and forbids unlawful “deprivations of life, liberty, or property.” These statements are hollow if they don’t enable individuals to freely change beliefs, attitudes, utterances, identities, behaviors, and allegiances.

The current Republican attacks upon trans people, reproductive freedom, public protest, free speech, and the rights of former prisoners, undermine the fundamental right to change; they may rightly be called fascist because they would impose a single, timeless standard of identity, belief, and behavior – Christian nationalist — upon a diverse and mutable nation.

A changed man

About 15 years ago, when I lived in Chicago, I became friendly with Billy Deadeye (not his real name, but close). He was a tall Black man in his late 50s who worked as a paralegal helping former prisoners find housing and decent work. He was always impeccably dressed in a grey or blue suit with a white handkerchief poking from his breast pocket. Billy’s character belied his name; he was kind, generous, and thoughtful. He regularly attended meetings of the prison abolition group, Tamms Year Ten, that I helped organize. That was how I came to know him and learn about his troubled past.

In 1979, Deadeye was sentenced to serve a prison term of 150-300 years for murder and armed robbery. I won’t go into details of the case but suffice to say they were grim. He only escaped a death sentence by a quirk in legal history – his crimes occurred after the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, and before it was reinstated nationally in 1976 and in Illinois in 1977. Deadeye avoided lethal injection, but the sentence he received was tough enough, effectively a life term; and given the nature of Illinois’ maximum-security prisons – Stateville, Menard, and Pontiac — arguably a fate worse than death.

In prison however, Billy calmed down and earned the trust of prisoners and guards alike. He ran the law library, mentored other prisoners, gained a degree in political science and finally certification as a paralegal. He even worked in the car-pool, driving outside the prison walls, and always coming back. After 30 years, he was released from prison to start a new life. He performed his paralegal work with both care and urgency, and his clients and their families were grateful to him. And despite his full-time job, he made time to help us in our effort to shut down Illinois’s only all-solitary confinement prison, Tamms supermax. Billy shared our celebration when the prison, a high-tech torture chamber, was closed by order of then Governor Pat Quinn in 2013.

Here’s the point of this story: By the time I knew him, Billy was a changed man. Why and how he changed is a mystery that even Billy doesn’t fully understand, but hard work was a big part of it. I knew other guys too who changed utterly from their criminal youths. Johnny Walton was a big, funny, avuncular man when I met him after his release from prison in 2007. Like Billy, he was kind to everybody, a gentle giant. But in his youth, he was a leader of the Vice Lords and committed at least a dozen armed robberies. Finally, out of prison after 25 years, he worked night shifts as a watchman at a warehouse. During the day, he either slept or helped families who still had men inside; he too was a regular at our meetings. Everybody was sad when he died from a heart attack just a few years after his release.

People in prison change, not always for the better of course, but sometimes. That’s why the death penalty and life-in-prison without the possibility of parole are so evil; they punish the person who committed the crime but then continue to punish (or even kill) the new person who didn’t. Proposed laws in Republican states that limit parole, increase sentences, or expand the death penalty – for example in Florida, Arkansas, and Iowa — are violations of the fundamental human right to change. So are lesser, but still significant impediments to rehabilitation and change: cash bail, long, pre-trial incarceration, brutal prison conditions, meagre or non-existent post-release social services, disenfranchisement, and public ostracism.

In Florida, voters overwhelming approved a ballot initiative restoring the voting rights of released prisoners. In response, Governor DeSantis and Republican legislators imposed new conditions that thwarted both the will of the people and the enfranchisement of released convicts, denying the latter the right to change from convicts to full citizens. The governor’s goal was both to block new Democratic voter registration, and to insist upon the incorrigibility of people who have served time in prison – particularly Black men. DeSantis presents himself as the still point of a dangerous world in flux; he is the Führer who would protect us from change.

“You’ve changed”

The transformation of criminals back into productive citizens is dramatic. But in fact, everybody changes all the time, in ways big and small. When children and young adults receive an education, they change. When adults learn a new skill, they change. When protesters confront injustice, they change. When we fall in or out of love, we also change, as the song made famous by Billie Holiday attests:

You’ve forgotten the words, “I love you”
Each memory that we’ve shared
You ignore every star above you
I can’t realize you’ve ever cared
You’ve changed
You’re not the angel I once knew
No need to tell me that we’re through
It’s all over now, you’ve changed

(music by Carl Fischer, lyrics by Bill Carey)

The song is structured as testimony from the spurned lover. She’s so shocked at the changes in her beloved’s speech and behavior that she doubts her own former conviction that he “ever cared.” He was once an angel, but now he’s changed. When politicians today deny or undermine the constitutionally protected right to change, they deviously draw upon a notion many of us share: that we each possess a single, unchangeable nature, and that any deviation from that is a fault, possibly even a crime: “It’s all over now, you’ve changed.”

Tristram Shandy

That idea of unchanging individuality arose only recently in history, probably in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as an aspect of industrialization and the wider Romantic movement. Before that, elite opinion held that we possessed multiple selves that emerged according to context and need. With one interlocutor, we spoke and acted a certain way, with a different one, another; and each of those people was equally authentic. In his novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), Laurence Sterne rejected the idea that his hero was a unique individual whose life followed a single, prescribed trajectory, as novelists such as Daniel DeFoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding were beginning to propose. Sterne’s narrative is full of interruptions, diversions, misunderstandings, and accidents. Far from being unique and unchanging, Tristram is a bundle of inconsistencies, and his life is based upon contingency; its direction is comically mapped by Sterne at the start of book six, chapter 40:

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1760. Collection and photo, the author.

Curves, loops, zig zags, dips, diagonals, hills, valleys and even a spiral chart the narrative as much as the life of its protagonist. Sterne here appears to be borrowing from Plato borrowing from Heraclitus: “Everything changes and nothing stands still.”

The alternative, modern idea, that people have an unchanging, core identity was a defense against the depredations of capitalism: the destruction of the commons, the de-skilling of labor, and the alienation of workers from their employer, their work-product, their-co-workers and their own minds and bodies. The capitalist owns the workers – or at least the essential part of them called their labor power – and turns them into interchangeable commodities. In response, members of the bourgeois class, and that portion of workers who took their ideological cues from them, asserted their individualism and autonomy. You may control my labor, this segment of the lower and middle class argued, but you can’t control me; I’m a free and unchangeable self.

The bulk of organized workers in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, never doubted they were mere replaceable cogs in the capitalist machine. But the destruction of the union movement in the U.S. in the late 20th and 21st centuries, left workers victim to the psychologically affirming but politically disabling ideology of the unchanging, bourgeois individual. Change has now been reconfigured by American fascists as the very obverse of freedom — as a threat to individual bodily and psychic integrity. The braying crowds at MAGA gatherings all believe they are unique, autonomous individuals armored against change.

Trans rights matter

The Republican assault upon people who identify as trans epitomizes the broader, fascist war on change. The very word “trans”, short for transgender, mean movement from one position to another, and though it’s notable that symptoms of gender dysphoria frequently appear in young children, actual transitions occur at all stages of life. This suggests that trans may not be so much a medical or psychiatric condition, as a form of passage that people either choose or feel compelled to embrace. Though the actual percentage of Americans who identify as transgender is only 1.6% according to a recent poll, it’s plausibly been argued that all of us are trans in the sense that we are always performing gender, and that our location on the spectrum male to female is always in flux. Proof appears when someone – usually a man – loudly protests that he is “all man” or “100% male”; its then that his femininity is most apparent!

The relatively small percentage of people who claim trans identity renders them easy targets for discrimination, ostracism, and abuse. In Republican-majority states, legislators have passed or soon will pass hundreds of laws limiting the rights of trans individuals to receive the medical care they need, perform in public, or interact freely with children. Concern about trans bathroom use and trans athletes has reached a fever pitch in some places, despite the miniscule numbers of people impacted by the issue. Republican voters largely approve these measures while Democratic ones reject them. 63% of the former support laws banning gender-transition medical care to teens, and 61% would forbid or highly regulate drag performances. In my home state of Florida, a proposed new law would forbid gender-affirming care for teens and strip parental rights from parents who seek it out of state. Doctors as are also targeted by this bills. They could lose their license and be charged with a felony for providing gender-affirming care.

As bad as are these anti-trans laws, they are a subset of other laws and initiatives that undercut the right to change. New laws in Republican states (or proposed by Republican legislators) ban the teaching of subjects that might cause students to believe that the U.S. is morally culpable for slavery, or that racism was fundamental to the nation’s founding. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced a bill that would make schools ineligible for federal funding if they teach that the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or Pledge of Allegiance are the product of white supremacy. A new law in Texas requires the teaching of “informed American patriotism” and acknowledgement of “the deepest and noblest purposes of the United States and Texas.” A Florida law forbids any school requirement that university students “attend or participate in any training or orientation that teaches, advocates, acts upon, or promotes divisive concepts.”

The goal of these laws is to prevent people from changing their gender and changing their politics. Florida’s latest anti-abortion law, which if upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, will deny women access to abortion beyond six weeks of their pregnancy, aims to prevent women the right to freely decide about their own bodies and futures. Their agency – their opportunity to make choices and change directions in their lives — will be circumscribed by their biology and the presidential aspirations of the Florida governor. So too, will the freedom of all of us – our right to change – be severely limited if the fascists in Washington. D.C., Mar a Lago, Tallahassee and elsewhere are not stopped.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at s-eisenman@northwestern.edu