A Plea to my American Cousins
Listen Up (36:53):
There are so many things happening in the news every day, that I can’t keep up. I’m not even going to try. But what I can do is explore how the big picture is shaping up, because it will unfold regardless of the rapidity of the day to day events that are confounding, confusing and unrelenting. I hope that my podcast today will be an historical record of a failed prediction.
In the opinion of some journalists, historians and philosophers, America is headed towards authoritarianism and dictatorship. As Timothy Snyder points out in his book On Tyranny, “…no doubt the Russians that voted in 1990, did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history which thus far it has been.” The situation unfolding is not about this president. He is merely a symbol of what has been percolating for decades in the United States. Snyder’s book On Tyranny provides twenty lessons designed to help us cope with this time. These lessons draw on the historical record of the twentieth century. With the book, he is attempting to prevent dictatorship and all that goes with it, the suppression of the media and free speech, control of the judicial systems, control of policing, control of education, suppression of the arts, a crackdown on dissent, oppression and violence directed against targeted minorities and other scapegoats.
Dictatorship happens in small steps, so that each step along the way becomes normalized. As freedoms, rights and privileges are removed, we become acclimatized and complacent, until we are taking part, colluding, and consenting. It’s happened before many times. There is no reason to assume that it will not happen again. Snyder is not alone in his thinking. Critics such as the educational theorist Henry Giroux, journalist Chauncey DeVega, and retired American naval Chief Petty Officer Malcolm Nance have similar views. And their views are informed by many others who have written about the loss of freedoms and the dangers of authoritarianism. These others include the political theorist Hannah Arendt, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, sociologist philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, and activist poet Abdulmajeed K. Nunez just to name a scant few.
We must stop focusing on only the president as the enemy of freedom. We must also stop discounting him as a buffoon. Now is the time and it is more important than ever to keep these things in mind. The president is the noise. His tweets and missteps are the shiny pennies we keep turning our attention to while forces around him, including Russia, attempt to dismantle American democracy. He may be signing bills and executive orders, but he is not drafting them. And, everything we know about him tells me he is not even reading them. He is, however, as Malcolm Nance said, “[P]art of a wrecking crew that appears to be designed to destroy the government for a foreign power and for his own personal gain.” It is that wrecking crew against whom we must resist. Our vigilance must not wane regardless of the fate of the president himself. Maybe he will be impeached. More probably he will not, but should he be brought to account for his behavior, actions and irresponsibility, it still won’t be time to breathe a sigh of relief. At that point, the fight may only be starting in earnest. There are those in his circle, flying at and under our radar, who are harboring ways to turn America into a one-party, totalitarian state that suits the purposes of homophobia, misogyny, racism, antisemitism, anti-intellectualism, anti-truth, climate change denial, and oligarchy. They would continue to be a threat we don’t recognize until it is too late.
Snyder reminds us that the founding fathers of America installed the checks and balances not as a one-time, fait accompli prevention measure, but to ensure that Americans are ever vigilant against the destruction of democracy, freedom of the press, equality, and free speech. The current regime wants to dismantle those checks and balances one by one until what is left bears little resemblance to the protections Americans are used to having. We each must defend the freedoms we enjoy. Each can be taken away in the blink of an eye.
Snyder hopes that he is wrong, that his book will have been cautionary advice. I hope so too.
There are three podcasts I urge you to listen to: First, listen to episode 127 of The Chauncey DeVega Show. In it, DeVega talks with retired naval officer Malcolm Nance. Nance is a cryptography expert. He has written extensively on terrorism and ISIS. Next listen to episode 133 where the educational theorist and cultural critic Henry Giroux looks at the current situation in America and frames it culturally and educationally. For him, how we teach our children, the language we use, and the culture we create can all contribute to effective acts of resistance. Also listen to episode 79 of the Waking Up podcast hosted by Sam Harris in an interview with historian Timothy Snyder. Chauncey DeVega also speaks with Timothy Snyder is episode 134 of his own show.
All these men and the scholars and experts they refer to warn against what they think will be inevitable if we don’t keep resisting, reacting, writing and talking. To do my part, I am going to tell you what I found most compelling about what I heard and how it resonated with me. Henry Giroux in episode 133 says a lot of things. Halfway into the interview, he invokes Zygmunt Bauman and says, “There is no society that is just enough.” He is not suggesting that there is a perfect solution – just that there are solutions and we are obligated to work towards them. “This administration,” he says, “is about terror and terrorism.” Chauncey DeVega wants to know what we should be doing to force issues. They discuss the merits of active disruption such as general strikes and nationwide protests. What, Chauncey DeVega muses, does the future hold? Giroux is clear that he believes that “every facet of society…will be criminalized”. The state will become a punishing state. He quotes the poetry of Abdulmajeed K. Nunez from Occupy Belmopon II, when he tells that we have already “tipped over into neo fascism…” It’s just more subtle. Neo- Fascism. Neo-fascism comes in different forms. What about “mass ethic violence?” DeVega asks. Giroux tells us that “…neo Nazi and white supremacists are already in the highest reaches of government. What is the end point of that?” Will there be mass “…learned helplessness of the public?” He drops what I wonder is his favorite phrase, “public pedagogy”, “…a term he coined to describe the nature of the spectacle, the new media and the political and educational forces of global culture,” according to Wikipedia. Pedagogy, if you don’t know what it means, is the method and practice of education. DeVega says that he is “…trying to write for history.” Simply put, he wants it on record that he has tried to fight this unjust regime. He wants his descendants and future citizens to know that he did not sit by watching or implicitly collude. I’m not sure that it is true, but Giroux says that there is “no precedent for what has happened in America” now. I am confident instead that history will show that there were similarities with movements in Europe and elsewhere in the world. One thing is certain, there are danger signs and we all must face them. One of the main danger signs is that the president has never stopped saying and doing things that give the public license to express their distrust of facts and hatred of other groups, promote ignorance of economics, the current health care act, and environmental issues. Giroux says that we must face the dangers. And make peace with the consequences. Giroux reminds DeVega that “…as a public intellectual…” DeVega is “…a model for others…” He tells him “…[l]ive with dignity. Don’t turn your back on the requirement for justice, on the question of justice.” He is telling all of us this.
They talk about the media. Because media is driven by profits, Giroux suggests that we go to web sites that “…demonstrate dignity and courage.” Some websites he mentions are Salon, Truthdig, Counterpunch and Alternet. Giroux wonders what has happened to historical memory. What a great question. Snyder in his book shares an editorial that appeared in a German Jewish newspaper in 1933:
We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob.”
Indeed, this is exactly what happened. The quote continues:
They cannot do this because of a number of crucial factors hold powers in check…and they clearly do not want to go down that road.
They did. The quote ends with:
When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.
Ethical Reflection?! Naïve and chilling.
Giroux says we must “apply matters of the past to the present in ways that offer a new language”, a new political language that mobilizes people. For example, he believes we should not be using terms like fake news or alternative facts. Call it out for what it is: “lies”. It is very Orwellian to make up names to sanitize, negate or distract from the true meaning of what someone is saying or claiming. To call something out as a lie means that sooner or later the liar will have to defend that something. That requires work and research. According to Giroux, Paul Ryan and the rest of the cabal “…are not looking for literature that informs them. They are looking for literature that confirms them and their existing ideology.” He continues, “The new model is American Psycho. Ayn Rand’s model was Wall Street and that’s over; about celebrating heroes that moved up the ladder and didn’t care about other people. Ayn Rand was [entirely] about self-interest. Today it’s about sadism and cruelty and psychopathology. Things that only Wilhelm Reich understood.” When DeVega mentions the Purge series of movies, Giroux links it back to how we might be soon living, in a “…cage-like existence in which fear becomes the only commodity that matters and then gets translated into a kind of violence that is so spectral that it actually captures something about the soul of a society that can no longer exist, in a way, except through sadism, a kind of precarity, and an unwillingness to even remotely examine itself, in terms of its own potential for social and political responsibility.” According to Wikipedia, The Purge franchise is a series of American dystopian action horror films written and directed by James DeMonaco. There are three films in the franchise: The Purge (2013), The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016).
It may also be worth defining precarity. Precarity is a condition of one’s life that lacks predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. According to Judith Butler, all human life is one of precarity regardless of government, economic, or historical context. All life to her is precarious, because we depend on each other from cradle to grave, on a global scale. I discuss this more extensively in my review of her Frames of War, that you can find on my site or on Goodreads, so I won’t repeat it here. Giroux continues. He mentions the movie Elle, for which Isabelle Huppert was nominated for an academy award in 2017. It is about a woman who eventually enters into a relationship with her rapist. It is, in his words, “…the ultimate expression of the assumption that the only path to intimacy is through violence… [it’s a] …celebration of sadism.” DeVega refers to another movie, Blue Demon, apparently a self-reflective B-movie about narcissism and fashion. Giroux asserts that “[w]e live in a culture of precarity.” DeVega changes the subject by musing, “Teaching is a political act.” Giroux responds that “Academy is an enemy of the Trump state.” Well that’s perhaps an understatement to be sure.
At the beginning and end of every Chauncey DeVega podcast, DeVega vents, rants and otherwise muses on whatever subject he pleases. At the beginning of podcast 133, he asks, “Trump!? Is it madness? Is it incompetence? Is it incompetent genius? He has surrounded himself with white supremacists…plutocrats…He will never be impeached. Jeff Sessions, a product of Jim Crow, enemy of the…rights of black and brown people. He’s dangerously effective. Mainstream, so called liberal, corporate news media focuses on trivialities, foolishness.“ At this point, let me give you a taste of some of the things that Malcolm Nance, retired naval officer, who I mentioned earlier, had to say in episode 127 of the Chauncey DeVega show. Nance tells us: “Moscow has a three-point strategy:
- The dissolution of NATO
- The breakup of the EU and the common market
- The belief that Russia should be able to whatever it wants in Eastern Europe”
“Russia,” he goes on “[practices a] neo-soviet capitalism.
- [they practice the] management of dissent
- It is a dictatorship
- [they practice] perception management” and,
- “[they practice] the weaponisation of information”
He goes further. “[It’s an] uprising of the stupid…we are living the first step of [an] idiocracy… [Russia is] a mafia with atomic bombs.” We want to make note of Aleksandr Dugin, “a political philosopher, the Rasputin of Putin, [wants] to bring down democracy…Trump controls 4,000 atomic weapons. Trump is part of a wrecking crews that appears to be designed to destroy the government for a foreign power and for his own personal gain.”
I am going to cycle back now to minute 26 of Podcast 133 where Giroux continues to talk about what is wrong with America. He says, “…the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace the comprehensive politics that get beyond the fracturing of single-issue movements and [he] began”, Giroux says, “to understand both what the underlying causes of this authoritarian movement and what it might mean to address it. This thing with Hillary Clinton that went on in the face of Trump. This Hilary bashing, [not that he supports or supported HRC]…there was something much darker on the immediate horizon that should have been addressed and that while the policies that the democrats produced, this complete blindness to that issue and to the notion of education.” What he means by education is that America has to have a pedagogy that supports critical thinking and a relationship to the truth – provable truth. Then he invokes that political theorist Hannah Arendt. She “was a German born Jewish-American political theorist…often described as a philosopher. She rejected that label on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with ‘man in the singular’ and instead described herself as a political theorist on the grounds that ‘men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world’.” That was from Wikipedia. Giroux says that Arendt said that there is, “…the notion that thoughtlessness is the precondition of fascism.” He asks us to think about the following things: “What are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture? Around celebrity culture? Around the culture of fear? Around the stoking of extremism and anger about issues? About a media that creates a culture of illusion? About the long-standing legacy of racism and terror in the United States? Around the self-interest, the unchecked individualism? How did that all come together, in a way, to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, made them feel lonely? As Hanna Arendt would say, ‘loneliness is the essence of fascism’. People need a movement. They need to belong to something. The debate around fake news and fake facts – that’s nonsense. The real issue here is that the populist movements like this, they don’t care about whether something is right or wrong. All they want is a coherent fictional narrative that they can belong to. So, whether it is right or wrong is irrelevant. What’s really important is all of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers in a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they are isolated.”
DeVega intervenes, “Regardless, Trump voters voted to hurt people.”
Giroux seems to agree, “It was about racism, white supremacy, white nationalism. It was about inflicting pain on people. It’s about taking away social provision that even they would benefit from in the name of false appeal to freedom and liberty. One. What’s the form of the culture that turned these people into barbarians, in some ways? Two. They are responsible.” By this he means the voters. “Three. What would it mean to figure out what it is that drove them, so these questions can be addressed in ways in which these people are not simply dismissed as victims, but actually become capable of being mobilized in a very different way?” It seems that there is no mechanism or appetite to tackle this. Republicans and other representatives would have to agree with Giroux’s line of thought. There would have to be an answer to how to mobilize them in a very different way. What would convince them? How would the politicians get them there? I am assuming that it would have to be the politicians. But voters are not listening to educators and certainly not academics or the science community. He continues, “If they don’t become part of the script, the transformation, then we’re done. It’s not going to work.” Absolutely. “The polarization will be too great and the possibility for violence will be outstanding…how do we make the political more pedagogical while at the same time not painting the people, who in fact voted for Trump and put us into this place, simply as dupes? I want to know how agency got constructed in the name of fascism – neo-fascism. That’s really the central question. That doesn’t absolve them of responsibility, but it does place an enormous burden on all of us who are concerned about these issues, about how we address it.”
DeVega responds, “…at least at this moment in the U.S. context, the left has an inability to craft a powerful narrative in terms of the use of language. The republicans didn’t vote against [the Obamacare repeal] because it was morally objectionable and cruel. [They voted against it because] …it wasn’t cruel enough. The media failed us in not recognizing this. The media is playing checkers and the regime is playing chess. Media and liberals and progressives and democrats are no better. The media cannot win if they think they are dealing with reasonable, rational people who believe in empirical reality.” We see glimpses of it, for example, when the media recently kept saying “you mean Russian hookers”, when people interviewed insisted on calling it by the more watered-down term “salacious material.” I wonder what it would cause or look like if the media did what DeVega is suggesting. Would it be powerful and raise awareness or would they be suppressed, controlled, and threatened by the regime? Are they afraid that this would give the regime an excuse to shut them out of press briefings? The way the media has been behaving, it certainly looks that way to me. How far can they push Spicer before he just stops answering or ignores the press more than he does now?
Giroux continues to address the problem of public transformation, “We need an overriding vision. We need to talk about radical democracy. We need to name cruelty when we see it. These people are killing people. Language translates in policies that affect people in very specific ways.” America has a “crisis of civic literacy, crisis of cultural literacy, agency, civic, culture…commercial interactions are the only ones with meaning…Anti-intellectualism has taken over the country. Critical reflection becomes not just simply an object of disdain, but an object of contempt.”
“And treason!” DeVega adds.
Giroux continues, “What happened to the formative culture that offered resistance to that? In what way are the schools contributing to this? What does it mean when language succumbs to the esthetics of idiocy and vulgarity? What does it mean when celebrity culture confers more authority than higher and public education? What does it mean when happiness becomes a private right – or when people can no longer translate individual problems into larger public issues? This is a crisis of civic liberty…you’re talking about mass produced ignorance…when a formative culture disappears that makes self-reflection possible, then you get people saying and doing things that are incomprehensible with respect to the question of reason.”
DeVega finally says what almost certainly is a shared reality, “I think Donald Trump has unleashed something that has been bubbling beneath the surface.”
Giroux addresses this in terms of violence. “Violence becomes the cohesive element that brings people together. Violence becomes a sport. Violence becomes policy. It’s a spectacle. Violence is the language of disposability. We just get rid of people. Violence becomes the driving force which is one of the few forces left by which people can feel anything. Violence and idiocy – a lethal combination. Agency will be weaponized.”
DeVega feels that, “Donald Trump is the crystallization of everything that is wrong with this country.”
Giroux expands on this sentiment. “He is the distillation of an attack on democracy that has become more cruel, more virulent, more poisonous, more militarized and more violent since the 1970s. To simply view him as eccentric…as some kind of clown, who now has tapped into a certain element of culture is really to miss the point. Flawed democracy has been transformed into a new form of neo-fascism…You combine the authority that a celebrity culture confers with the utter isolation that people are feeling and the precarity that people now finds themselves – a neo-liberal culture – couple that with a culture of spectacle – of immediacy and entertainment and man there is really not a lot of wiggle room for democratic formative culture to emerge in a way that have resisted them. “The regime has people like, “…Bannon and Gorka driving policy. Trump doesn’t have the attention span to think through policies like this. [The m]ainstream press won’t call them out…in the next two years, they will attempt to destroy, with a vigorousness and aggressiveness, every major element of the social contract and every provision, policy, social relationship, public good that basically the corporate elite sees as a burden on their own resources. If the left fails to take up and develop a commanding vision, a new language about civic culture, about the possibilities of democracy and gets away from the…fractured politics that they’re involved in and be able to build a social movement, an educational movement, we may get somewhere.”
Giroux’s offers a recipe: “Liberals have to bang home that Trump is elite. There is no politics without identification. Policy goals to win over voters: National Health Care Plan. Social Wage – Guaranteed minimum income plans. Jobs programs. The commons matter.” Ok. There are two things I’d like to provide a definition of. First here is how the Oxford dictionary defines Identity Politics: “A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc. to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional party politics.” What that means is I’m gay so my political positions are informed and influenced by my interests and perspectives with respect to my identity as a gay person. I agree with Giroux that my identity is completely reflected in my politics. How can it be otherwise? What I think has importance is how we respect each other’s identities so that we can come to shared and fair public policies and visions. Second a refresher on what the commons are. According to Wikipedia it is, “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water and a habitable earth.” It’s not a leap to suggest that we as a species have struggled to protect and share our commons and may be losing that battle.
Giroux continues in a passionate way, “Bernie”, he starts, “argued for progressiveness within a party that is actually reactionary. He didn’t get the power of the Democratic party to embrace the third way…third way equals neo-liberal…Democrats [are] not liberal. [They are] very conservative…party of the neo-liberal capitalism…erasure of historical memory. Historical memory does not matter…in our culture of short term gains, being the only thing that matters, culture of immediacy. Speed has overtaken the possibility for thought itself… [It’s a] very dangerous scenario…anti-intellectualism and cruelty…lapse of being able to draw any relationship between action and social cost. Our age [is characterized by t]he politics of disappearance…” He then lists all the things that have or will disappear in his opinion:
- “Disappearance of memory
- Disappearance of racial justice
- Disappearance of immigrants
- Disappearance of young people who are poor
- Disappearance of people who don’t buy into the logic of capitalism
- Disappearance of intellectuals
- Disappearance of media who have the possibility of holding power accountable.”
And in what I think is a natural extension of these ideas is as DeVega responds, “Phil Zombardo says we can ‘other’ people. ‘Othering’ is necessary for evil.” You can find more on this by reading Judith Butler’s Frames of War and Precarious Life.
Giroux agrees, “In a criminogenic society, that society is organized for the production of death; that civil society is organized for the production of violence. We have so individualized these problems.” We act as though the president is the cause and not the system or society. “Trump as eccentric, just stupid – it’s a diversionary tactic. The press picks up on the diversion. Who’s going to die? Repealing of Healthcare, rolling back environmental protection. State violence is being produced. “
And DeVega feels that, “Our media lies to us. We have a culture of spectacle and disposability…lack of civil literacy.”
Giroux picks up on this by talking about the importance of education, his specialty. He tells DeVega, “This is where the question of education and literacy becomes crucial. We have produced a culture that is contemptuous of truth, leading to a situation where democracy cannot function. We can’t hold power accountable because there’s no such thing as the value of argument. There is no such thing as ability to know when people are being fooled, when they are being used as fodder in the interest of concentrated power, that basically will say anything to create a cohesive narrative that allows people to believe somehow that narrative benefits them when actually it’s just the opposite.” I don’t think Giroux feels that the media is necessarily complicit and without courage. Media has just been corrupted by wealth. They are driven by profits and what gets me to their media outlets be they TV, the internet, newspapers or magazine stands. Giroux continues, “Youth can’t just criticize culture. You have to be a culture producer.” Finally, Giroux tells a marvelous story of how his father taught him about appreciating diversity. “You ought to realize,” his father had said, “that different people be in the world in different ways. They have different languages and different skills. When you realize that your language is not the only language, then you’ll be able to listen to people and you’ll be able to understand where they come from.”
Are we looking at the end of democracy, at a new western dictatorship? At some dark dystopian future? I don’t know. In today’s world, I think we have a duty to be courageous and fight to protect the freedoms we have come to know.