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

 

broken record of our own sad age

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“We see again, in our own sad age, the stark extremes of political inflexibility and anarchic revolt, insuperable backwardness and a gaudy cult of progress.” -from Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra

“Karaoke supports less the democratic idea that everyone can have a shot if they want one and more the democratic practice that everyone wants a shot if there’s one on offer.” -from Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugrešić

-Yes… why not for the president of the United States as well? Or the “untied” states while we are at it?

Is there something more apt to describe where we’ve landed than Dubravka Ugrešić’s term “karaoke culture”? We have a reality TV star and national joke as an American president. He epitomizes the dumbing-down of culture, is the zenith of anti-intellectual, anti-Obama backlash and embodies the ‘problem of ideological manipulation’ that Ugrešić chronicles in her book – and others have explored at great length and in a more historical and philosophical context.

Ugrešić’s eerily prescient book, though, looks at the all-consuming, short-attention-span digital culture that saturates our lives and gives us the recipe for the toxic concoction in which we’re now dissolving:

 

  • The internet and other digital platforms/channels

 

    “The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies. The Internet is the cornerstone of both the new democratic revolution and the computer user’s evolution into a free man, a man forever transformed (Never again a slave!), eyes fixed ahead on the screen (a “window to the world”), whose hands self-confidently control an emancipatory mouse: a proletarian-man, an amateur-man, a man finally worthy of the name.” – from Karaoke Culture

 

  • The rise of the “amateur expert” whose opinion is suddenly as valid as an actual expert

 

“Amateurs, Keen claims, devastate systems that are based on expertise and destroy the institutions of author and authorship, information (newspapers are slowly disappearing, blogs are taking over), education (Wikipedia, the work of anonymous amateurs, has replaced encyclopedias, the work of experts), and art and culture (amateurs create their own culture based on borrowing, expropriation, appropriation, intervention, recycling, and remaking; they are simultaneously the creators and consumers of this culture).”

“Maybe the problem is one of ideological manipulation? Today AA (the Anonymous or Amateur Author) is as untouchable as the teenager comfortably lounging on the tram seat. At sixty-years of age you stand next to him with bags full of groceries, struggling to keep your balance. Your legs hurt, and your single obsessive thought is how to give the uppity little schmuck a well-deserved slap in the face. You know it’s never going to happen, but the fantasy is good for your soul. If a little open hand communication isn’t an option, maybe a gentle word might help. But that’s not an option either, because, armed with his iPod and iPhone, the kid is both physically and mentally untouchable. And in any case, the kid is innocent, because he doesn’t see you. You don’t exist in his world. But he exists in yours.”

-from Karaoke Culture

 

  • The info overload plus short attention span that make this possible

 

“Scientists tell us that our brain’s ability to adapt to new experiences is called neuroplasticity. They claim that from an evolutionary perspective this elasticity can be useful, but that it also means that left unused, brain function simply atrophies.”

“At this very moment my neuroplastic consciousness believes that God is an octopus and that his name is Paul. Because that’s what happens when you’ve more-or-less become an Internet junkie.” -from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Alt facts: Using the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a case study for what we now see. We smugly thought former Yugoslavia to be so uncivilized and backwards, and patted ourselves on the back for our oh-so-democratic and stable ideals. But what do we face now but the makings of the same kind of thing only on a grander, more fractious scale?

 

“The metaphor of the “broken telephone” can be used in regard to all countries of the former Yugoslavia. Having entered every sphere of life, the language of the “broken telephone” is omnipresent: in the media, institutional life, politics, the way people think, their interpersonal relations, their everyday lives. As a result, many crimes remain un-investigated, many victims have been rendered silent, many criminals declared heroes, many thieves business people, many idiots intellectuals (and the odd intellectual an idiot), many perpetrators victims, many victims perpetrators, many crazies normal, and many normal people crazy. As we speak, Radovan Karadžić is playing “broken telephone” at the Hague Tribunal. He brushes off words as if they were pesky little thistles. Every word of the indictment that sounds like ravish, he coolly transforms into lavish.” -from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Suspension of disbelief: “I can’t really believe this is happening” and… yet it escalates

 

 “Unlike my neighbors, I didn’t take the alarms too seriously. Today I wonder where this “lapse” came from, this arrogance that doesn’t take danger “too seriously”? At the time I firmly believed that the majority of people wouldn’t follow their caricature-like leaders, wouldn’t destroy everything they’d spent years building together, and wouldn’t cast their childrens’ futures to the wind. Maybe this belief was to blame for my “lapse.” I refused to believe what my impaired vision had witnessed over the preceding few years. And so it was that in September 1991 I refused to believe the evidence that was right in front of me. Maybe it was actually down there in the cellar, with a small human sample for company, that I should have allowed the dirty little thought to sink in: that many people were actually turned on by the war. New, sudden thrills filled the vacuity of their lives; overnight, personal frustrations found an outlet, personal losses could be made good, personal intolerances hung out to air. There, in the cellar, an older neighbor with rat-like features scurried into my “deformed” field of vision. People said he had illegally moved into the five-bedroom apartment of an old woman who died soon afterwards. The square meters of the apartment thus became his. That very first day in the cellar, he appeared wearing a red armband, a pistol buried in his back pocket. Nobody asked him about the armband or what it meant, or where he got the pistol; we listened intently to his garbled instructions. The very next day the neighbor had a deputy, complete with matching red armband and pocket pistol. The young deputy was unemployed and married to a diligent and hard-working neighbor. At some point her biological clock had started ticking, so she found the young man and bore him three children, after which he’d served and exhausted his purpose. The armband and the revolver gave the jerk his dignity back. Until then, he didn’t even know what dignity was.” – from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Media war and complicit silence. The media smear campaign, vilifying people who are not the real villains. Everyone who should know better remains silent.

 

“When the media lynching had reached its most vicious height, a neighbor stopped me and asked: “Well then, neighbor, when are you getting out?” The “out,” I assumed, referred to when I was getting out of Croatia. “Why should I be getting out?” I asked. “Well, you keep writing those lies about us.” “And you’ve read what I write?” “Why would I? Are you saying that everyone else is lying!?”” – from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Sexism. Sexism. Sexism.

 

“My sensitive literary nature can’t resist exhibiting a selection of the insults (which refer both to me and the witch’s cell) proffered by Croatian journalists, writers, and critics, the literati among the literate. I recognize that any psychoanalyst could here accuse me of taking exhibitionist pleasure in the repeated—and this time voluntary—exposition of public insults. But you know what? “Victims” also have a right to narrative pleasure—particularly so if narration is their profession. All in all, in my fellow writers’ scribblings I am described as: A woman with “deformed vision”; A woman who has no understanding for a “people celebrating its own state and freedom of speech”; A woman who has “neither taste nor sense of proportion”; A woman who has opened her mouth “in the wrong manner, the wrong place, and at the wrong time”; A woman with a “limited perspective”; A woman writer with a “specific talent,” whose writing is “scrappy knitting”; A “murderess of the Croatian nation who kills with her pen”; A “broad persecuting Croatia”; A broad who “big mouths, gossips, and denounces”; A woman worthy of “contempt”; A woman in need of a Croatian bonfire “to warm her heart”; A member of “one of the organizational nuclei of international resistance to and defamation of the Croatian Homeland War”; A member of a crew of “slightly unhappy, and at any rate frustrated women”; A “dirty liar”; A “Yugonostalgic”; A “national Daltonist”; A “salon internationalist”; A “spleenful and spiteful surveyor of freedom”; A “squealer offering recipes for freedom from the long-tainted kitchens of the European pseudo-left and pseudo-right”; A woman with “mental problems”; A woman who is “mixed-up”; A woman who “drops her dress in a storm”; A woman ready to “sell her homeland for a hundred German marks”; A woman who for “a little cash, but with obviously great joy, denounces and spits on her homeland”; A “plume of the failed communist regime”; An “informer for the European Community”; A “carefully chosen interlocutor of Brussels and the European Community”; A woman of “dubious repute”; A person “not in the least subjected to harassment”; A “homeless intellectual”; A “grande dame of Croatian post-communism”; A self-immolator (who if she returns to Zagreb “needs to be immediately surrounded by a dozen fire engines, have 300 hoses aimed at her, and whose every word needs to be doused in water”); A “furious woman”; A “Yugo-nostalgic sicko”; A woman who was ready for “a better psychiatric clinic”; A member of a group of “exalted daughters of the revolution”; A “traitor to the homeland”; A “lobbyist who has lost her voice”; A woman “conspiring against Croatia”; A “feminist”; A “feminist raping Croatia”; An “anti-Croatian feminist”; A member of a group of “self-centered middle-aged women who have serious problems with their own ethnic, ethical, human, intellectual and political identities”; A “public enemy”; A woman with a “miserable destiny”; A woman who has “committed moral…” -from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Anger: The anger, and helplessness, of the masses leads many to embrace the “strength” of dictators and totalitarianism.

 

“The urban public space has become a field on which to exercise repressed sadomasochism. The stronger have their way, the weaker suck it up.” – from Karaoke Culture

A fit vehicle for the weak, in their helplessness, to reach for not only self-exploitation but the exploitation and torture of others, rampant and venomous nationalism, and worse, as the book Age of Anger points out again and again:

“It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference.”

Nietzsche:  ‘Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overwhelming of the alien and the weaker, oppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own form, incorporation, and at least, at its mildest, exploitation.’” -from Age of Anger