A specter is haunting the United States, the specter of totalitarianism, the same one that haunted Nazi Germany, 1930s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, Franco’s Spain, Rumania’s Iron Guard, Mao’s China, and 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 understand how nations fall victim to totalitarian rule. We blame individuals like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. We point to collective trauma such as Germany’s after World War I or the leadership vacuum in Europe after a generation of future leaders was obliterated in that war’s grinding battles. Certainly the Great Depression’s erosion of faith in capitalism and its uneasy partner, democracy, played its part.
Such historical explanations provide causal, logical “reasons for” the madness. But war, gulags, death camps, endless bombing campaigns, and massacres, no matter 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 a proper sequence of commands, a 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 core, germinal impulse of life, 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. Racial lynchings were for decades used to oppress not only the murdered victims but entire populations.
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 to turn the folk against an outside enemy and distract them from the enemy within.
Most people do not actively support this system, though some do of course. But most of us focus on work that keeps the wheels turning and many provide vital services to their communities and the underserved. Many live with a belief in humane values. But so often those same people’s politics are disassociated from the ideals of they bring to work and family.
A secure middle class tends to adopt 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 to: 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 came 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 lofty 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, a spectacle as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting where time melts and grotesque creatures lurch through barren, corrosive landscapes. With some effort 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 the short sweet rise of Michael Flynn. 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 the pipe-dream that all we need is a return to good old-fashioned organizing on behalf of worker’s rights, though that too is important. But this system is too big, eroded, 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 upon the billions of people 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 battle is waged within each of us.
Dumping Trump and being left with Pence, Ryan, and the Koch brothers is not a solution. Nor awaiting some white-horse/dark-horse Democrat to ride out of the political hills. No, it’s time to shift the responsibility for change where it belongs in a democracy: to ourselves.
Only half the task is resistance. The other half is building viable alternatives and defending them. No gesture is too small. Consider the shift of Facebook conversations towards the vibrantly political. Faceook is now one of the faces of resistance! How’d that happen? It happens by countless people writing a line here, a paragraph there. Even the tweets have turned to squawks. Every conversation and observation contributes to an alternative political environment, stronger and healthier than the toxic one in which we’re immersed.
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 armored police and soldiers awaiting the command to provoke violent confrontation. 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 killing 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 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?