Frightening times: Tyranny

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“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“When anticipation of, and salivation over, the trickle of power sinks to the level of cruelty to helpless children, one is tempted to accept that all that is left to say is—nothing. The rest is silence. It is an admission that humanity has finally touched the peak of apprehension and the nadir of impotence.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

This is not the most coherent “essay” but I am overflowing with thoughts I don’t have the time or wherewithal to organize. I am thinking: What is terrorism? It is a form of tyranny – the uncertainty and fear created by unstable and unpredictable forces, among which, to my mind, the United States government/president can be counted at present. Anything that creates terror in or threatens a whole population or group.

Watching the new iteration of The Handmaid’s Tale, after having re-read the book a few weeks ago, I’m struck (as most people are) by the depiction of how easy it would be to end up with a society as extreme and dramatically transformed as that in the show/book. It would be not entirely different from what is happening in the US today. Make a few changes in society that anger people but don’t ultimately send a big enough alarm through the population – stage an attack, blame some false perpetrator, declare martial law and claim it’s only temporary. We’ve seen some version of this play out in countries we’ve widely regarded with dismay as “uncivilized” or “in need of American intervention”. Would Americans even be prepared, or would they, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, be meek, “Well, it’s only temporary…” and “Let’s wait and see…”? Incrementally it’s not so bad, it seems. After all, it’s only temporary, right? Surely someone else will do something about it. And by the time they felt the true violations of their individual sovereignty encroaching, it would already be too late. They’d try to protest but be met with violence against which they have no defense. Some would try to escape; many would wait too long and wonder why they had not gone sooner. Probably because these things never seem like they can happen. (Our real-life comparative equivalent being late 1930s/early 1940s Germany.)

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, a new order would soon exist, and people would wonder how they got there. Living in a bubble of ‘false safety’, as if nothing can go wrong, believing that democracy and its accompanying institutions are strong enough to withstand any onslaught, without guarding it closely, is how a society ends up here. As Yale professor Timothy Snyder writes in his recent book, On Tyranny:

“We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks.”

“The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He added that “the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.””

Angling language

“Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

It is easy to make people believe what you want them to believe – especially if you are confirming their biases or existing suspicions, stoking their biggest fears. Someone like Donald Trump (and his proponents/adherents) can somehow play both sides of the same counterfeit coin: on one side, America is the greatest country in the world (it’s not); on the other, America is a hellscape of unemployment and ‘nothing good’ awaiting the historical inheritors of its greatness (hetero white men and, to some extent, women – who maybe in the minds of these people gain their ‘greatness’ by proxy through these men and the children to which they give birth). But you can’t honestly, fully believe both things at once: the country is the best but is also the worst? It’s not as simple as that, but it underlines the agenda of manipulating language to manipulate people. Especially people who aren’t generally all that analytical or looking at a broad range of sources for information. Seduced by hearing everything they’ve always wanted to hear, it doesn’t matter if it’s factual or honest. It makes them feel good/right/understood.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld. The second mode is shamanistic incantation.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

Language of anger: Where we are now

Everyone is angry about something, and half of America, arguably, is angry about the way the most recent presidential election turned out. (Most of those, however, aren’t likely to react in a violent way, which is an interesting point.) Of course that is not all that is at stake. Essentially, the pervasive anger that marked the campaign, to which Trump and Bernie Sanders gave voice on either side of the aisle, is symptomatic of a populace that knows it lives under a completely broken system. The idea that either party or individual candidate could truly fix the ills of a fundamentally flawed system is also an illusion. I’d argue that this is what fuels the anger to the levels it has reached. Anger and fear, like that of an animal caught in a trap. The recent past has created a (false) sense of entitlement, envy and irrational hatred (ressentiment, as Pankaj Mishra writes about at length in his recent book, The Age of Anger).

“This bizarre indifference to a multifaceted past, the Cold War fixation with totalitarianism, and more West-versus-the-Rest thinking since 9/11 explains why our age of anger has provoked some absurdly extreme fear and bewilderment, summed up by the anonymous contributor to The New York Review of Books, who is convinced that the West cannot ‘ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS’. The malfunctioning of democratic institutions, economic crises, and the goading of aggrieved and fearful citizens into racist politics in Western Europe and America have now revealed how precarious and rare their post-1945 equilibrium was.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The false sense of security – the cost of “freedom” – is never really calculated. Even if there were consensus as to what “freedom” actually means. It certainly means different things to different people.

But, as Tocqueville warned, ‘to live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger’. Otherwise, one moves quickly from unlimited freedom to a craving for unlimited despotism. As he explained: When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

Nothing new

“… ‘the tyranny of the quantifiable,’ of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Rousseau understood ressentiment profoundly, even though he never used the word – Rousseau, the first outraged diagnostician of commercial society and of the wounds inflicted on human souls by the task of adjusting to its mimetic rivalries and tensions. Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other. He warned that unreflexive envy was ‘the negatively unifying principle’ of the new democratic ‘public’. Tocqueville had already noticed a surge in competition, envy and rivalry resulting from the democratic revolution of the United States. He worried that the New World’s ‘equality of conditions’, which concealed subtle forms of subjugation and unfreedom, would make for immoderate ambition, corrosive envy and chronic dissatisfaction. Too many people, he warned, were living a ‘sort of fancied equality’ despite the ‘actual inequality of their lives’. Having succumbed to an ‘erroneous notion’ that ‘an easy and unbounded career is open’ to their ambition, they were hedged in on all sides by pushy rivals. For the democratic revolutionaries, who had abolished ‘the privileges of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way’, had then plunged into ‘universal competition’.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The future past

“We in ancient countries have our past—we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” –Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

But this is not so now – there is a tug-of-war between those who are looking to the promise of the future (or at least trying to safeguard it beyond the foreseeable future) and those who want to greedily live in the now with an eye full of envy and nostalgia, on a past that probably never existed but which they nevertheless elevate. And it’s everywhere. As a woman I don’t go through the world imagining that every man sees me as an equal, but I usually don’t imagine that people like my own father, who constantly praised my brain and smarts when I was a child, telling me I could do whatever I wanted, or his friends are longing for some 1950s-era period where women would be forced to stay at home, pop out children and have dinner on the table. Or that they would sit around spewing hateful condemnations of all women, especially those who have achieved any kind of power or influence.

And yet, this is literally what I hear from them, and sometimes I hear this from (American) men my own age and younger. Like the hypocrite of hypocrites Donald Trump is, he applies one standard to his daughter and denigrates the rest of womankind. My father, too, thinks this is fine – expected even – that I would have an independent, professional life full of my own choices. But every other woman is a “stupid bitch” (from Hillary Clinton to Pramila Jayapal, from Theresa May to Ivanka Trump) who does not belong in public life.

As long as we have this kind of man and this kind of thinking, particularly in decision-making roles, there will still be people obsessing over a mostly illusory past and trying to force people, women and men both, into certain (outdated) roles. Will we have the fortitude or agency to stop this force?

Abandoning humanity

I highlight and personalize points about women in particular, largely because The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women’s subjugation and objectification. But the real story is an anti-human story. What becomes of humanity when it is divided by systematic inequality, by ideological warfare, the inability to perceive propaganda or discern fact from fiction, manipulated by language and how it is used?

“Is the spiral of antihumanism now unstoppable? If so, where will it lead? Constantly immersed in the cumulative denigration of human sensibilities, only to have one’s most pessimistic predilections topped again and again by new acts—or revelations—of the limitless depth to which the human mind can sink in its negative designs, one is tempted to declare simply that the world has now entered an irreversible state of global anomie.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

 

2016-2020… the ills of the 80s on steroids

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As Britain careens toward its own economic, political and existential doom, I’m almost tempted to laugh except that pointing at the chaos is an entirely misplaced form of schadenfreude. Their chaos is probably only foreshadowing what worse ugliness is to come in the US. If much of England and Wales can vote the entire UK out of the European Union, much of America can vote the “reasonable parts of the rest of America” into the oblivion of a Donald Trump presidency. Who will be laughing then?

It will be a lot like the 1980s of Thatcher and Reagan – only much worse. More xenophobic, more reactionary, more chaotic, more violent. And even though I know many people care deeply, the fact that things are unfolding this way makes it feel as though no one really does. The current escalation of terror attacks (all blamed on Islam or racial unrest but underpinned more and driven by all kinds of other issues – socioeconomic and historical vestiges of colonialism and slavery) feels like a parallel to the various terrorism that took place in the 1970s, which then led to the 1980s of trickle-down economics, a continuation of the Cold War and constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the AIDS crisis, the escalation of the war on drugs/Just Say No and all the socioeconomic and racial implications of that (i.e. turning drug problems into a criminal justice problem rather than a public health issue), a lot of economic unrest (striking, etc. in the UK), Bhopal, Chernobyl, the famine in Ethiopia, Iran-Contra, Tiananmen… and a whole lot of other not so pleasant stuff.

The rest of this decade may be tumultuous indeed: like the ills of the 1980s on steroids. I hope I am wrong.

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

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History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.