Why Americans Can’t, Don’t, and Won’t Connect the Dots of Collapse
Here’s a tiny question.
Which one matters more — people literally beginning to be shot in the streets at the whims of authoritarian-fascists…or magic markers? Which one do you think is the higher priority: a demented President marking up a map with a sharpie to cover up a foolish lie — or a random person being shot in the street in broad daylight…by a government agent…merely for being suspected to be an undesirable, a subhuman, one of the impure?
What the? I’d like to think that any reasonable, thinking, sane person would instantly say, without a moment’s hesitation, something to the effect of: the shooting, not the magic marker.
And yet today, perusing the headlines, I was struck, as I so often am, by the bizarre priorities of Americans, the total upside-downness of the American public sphere. There were tons of tweets, headlines, and articles about the Sharpie and the map. There were barely any about people beginning to be shot in the streets by government agents.
Don’t you think that’s utterly bonkers? Beyond weird? Absolutely bizarre? I do. And you should too, my friends. You should too.
It reminded me of two things, in particular. Arendt’s banality of evil. And Orwell’s dictum that “in times of unversal deceit, seeing what’s right before one’s eyes is the hardest thing of all.” Isn’t putting the magic marker over the the impure being shot in the streets literally how evil is made banal? And isn’t it a perfect example of not seeing what’s right before your eyes…only applied to the entire America public sphere, who more or less ignored it?
How is the evil made banal anyways? Have you ever really thought about it? My friends, take a moment with me and gently consider it. Because I would like to point out to you: that is what we are doing in America right now. We are making the evil banal.
(Let me anticipate a few objections from pundity types. Sure, you can make an argument, vaguely grounded in Continental philosophy, that a President marking up a map with a Sharpie points to control over symbols, and that gives authoritarians power over society, and so it matters more than a shooting. But it’s a feeble one at best. Newsflash: Sartre, Camus, Derrida — the very thinkers who pioneered this line of thought were all ferocious anti fascists. They would have laughed in horrified shock at the idea that people being shot in the streets mattered less, and magic markers mattered more. They knew the line between pragmatism and idle academic speculation.
And you can be a good leftist, schooled in the tedious formula of “breaking dichtomies”, and cry — but we can care about both! Sure, be my guest. My point is that Americans don’t seem to care about the shooting nearly as much, if at all, as the magic marker. Yes, it’s true there are consequences to authoritarian…weather reports, too. I don’t deny that either.)
So why does people being shot in the streets matter more than magic markers — at least to those of us left with working minds? How is it a perfect example of making the evil banal?
Because people being shot in the streets is a giant leap forward for fascist-authoritarianism, whereas the magic marker episode is just absurdity.
In case you don’t know — and my bet is you don’t, because American media doesn’t seem interested in covering it — being an “illegal immigrant” isn’t a criminal offense. It’s a civil one. A minor civil one, at that. So if we’re sensible people, there’s no reason that immigration agents should be carrying guns at all. They’re not dealing with criminals — by definition. So why do we have a paramilitary army masquerading as an immigration “force”?
And that is the perception, isn’t it? Even amongst liberals, the perception is that immigrants are somehow lesser and impure. So even a Chris Hayes or an Ezra Klein — the putative good guys — don’t ever question: wait, why do we have an army, a group of people armed with guns and rifles, garbed in body armour…where there should be, at most, bureaucrats? They never ask the question — and so you don’t either. The net result is that you stay dumb. And the net result of that, my friends, is that the fascists win.
While Americans are busy guffawing at magic markers, the fascists are shooting people in the streets. You might even say that the fascists can get away with shooting people in the streets because Americans are so distracted by magic markers.
And that’s a theme. There is no understanding — none, zero, zilch, nada — whatsoever in the American public sphere or in the American public imagination that there is a very real fascist collapse happening. “It” is happening here. The dots are never connected. Which dots Concentration camps, the kids being tortured in them, “raids” at homes and workplaces, the corrosion of the rule of the law, multiple tiers of citizenship…and now people beginning to be shot in the streets…by agencies that look very much like baby Gestapos.
This is the sequence of a fascist collapse. Because these are the institutions of a fascist society. They are assuming power in America. And being institutions, not people, but systems and structures, they will long outlast this President — even if he is ejected from power, and that is a big if, given that he will probably try to steal away the next election, with a little help from the Supreme Court.
What happens when you replace mere bureaucrats doing a peaceful job with armed paramilitaries? Well, the first thing that tends to happen is that you recruit more violent bigots than otherwise. Violent people are attracted to the power to do violence. Hence, endless scandals already occurring with how racist, bigoted, and abusive these agencies are. The second thing that tends to happen is that the men with guns…use them. They begin to shoot people in the streets — whether or not it’s “warranted”, the pundits will later say, never once understanding that the paramilitaries shouldn’t exist to begin with. Official violence thus gets institutionalized.
That is why any reasonable person is deeply troubled by a random person being shot by an immigrant agent. It is a very real, very dangerous, and very disturbing step forward for fascism. Sure, by itself, if it happened once, it might not mean much. But in the context of camps, raids, dehumanization, “family separation”, and endless abuses of power — it means a very great deal indeed.
So why don’t Americans care? Why can’t they connect the dots? The reason, in my estimation, is that they’re a little bit weary, a little bit scared — but a lot like children. Their leaders tell them not to care about the dots above — and so they don’t. Their whole thinking class tells them that a magic marker matters more than fascists shooting people in the streets. The dots are never connected in the pages of the NYT, on the airwaves of a CNN or MSNBC. Chris Hayes has yet to say the word “fascist” — he’s too busy asking rhetorical questions, because he can’t say the word that needs to be said.
The evil is made banal in all these ways, my friends.
But who are Americans to object to any of the above? To question all that? They defer to authority. They imagine themselves independent and free — but they are the most submissive and obedient culture in the rich world to any kind of authority.
And therein lies the problem This juncture in history requires Americans to be much more disobedient. Much more intransigent. Much more rebellious and defiant and scornful. Of and against their failed institutions. This moment in history asks every American to stand up and say: “I won’t let the evil be made banal.”
I think there is a fight going in many Americans, between their heads and their hearts. Their hearts tell them, over and over again: “something is badly wrong here. Aren’t these the very things that fascist and authoritarian societies do? Isn’t “it” happening here? Please — listen to me. Please!” And then the mind cuts in — “Listen, don’t get hysterical. Grow up! Chris Hayes and Ezra Klein and Jake Tapper don’t say it’s fascism. None of the powerful white men in suits that are smarter than you think there’s much to really worry about. It’s nothing! Get over it! See that Sharpie? LOL — laugh!!”
The head overrules the heart. It rationalizes away fascist-authoritarianism. It finds a million justifications for it, a thousand excuse for this not to “really” be it. All of which are conveniently provided by pundits and talking heads whose job it is, essentially, to keep Americans pliable dummies, too foolish to ever really know what’s in their own best interest. The American head denies the heart, which begs screaming at the soul to listen to it, to ignore the mind’s flimsy and feeble arguments. But the head wins — because nobody wants to look like an alarmist, afraid, easily panicked…vulnerable. Such things are the kiss of death in America’s macho, patriarchal culture. They make you weak, and weakness is death.
Ah, my friends. How badly wrong all that is.
Americans should listen to their instincts. Their guts. Their hearts. Our feelings and emotions know the truth of social collapse better than our heads. That is because they contain our moral cores. They know when things are right and wrong, instinctively, without anyone having to tell us. Even the Nazis knew that: they had to invent gas chambers because machine-gunning Jews was making guards physically ill. The heart knows the truth of fascist-authoritarianism in ways the head never will — because it is the part of us which empathizes, reaches out, holds, feels. Naturally, reflexively, without us having to lift a finger. We can’t stop our hearts from empathizing anymore than we can stop them from beating. All that we can do is overrule them with our heads. Our hearts know when evil is evil — no matter how our heads try to explain it away. Our moral sense can’t be expunged, ever. That is why even hardened criminals have honor codes.
And the only way that we stop the evil from becoming banal is by listening to our moral sense — not by ignoring it, because otherwise, evil isn’t evil at all.
So there are times in life when putting the head over the heart is it’s own special kind of folly. There are times — many times — when our emotions must lead us. Those times, oddly, paradoxically, come when our emotions are often negative. When we feel disgust, shame, guilt, anger, rage, despair. Those emotions are trying to send us vital messages. About the direction we have taken, where it is taking us, and why it feels so wrong. Because we are hurting ourselves, because we are hurting others, every step we take down a certain path. We are making the evil banal.
This is one of those times. The shame and guilt and rage we feel is necessary. It is what tells us we are doing something wrong. Badly wrong. And destroying not just our democracy, but any sense of honor and dignity we might have had as a society, too. Because all that goes with the death of our moral sense. Once that dies, any kind of evil becomes banal.
Our pundits and thinkers and leaders are paid, effectively, to be emotionless. Capitalism demands it. Patriarchy demands it. Supremacy, too, demands it. Emotion is vulnerability, vulnerability is weakness, and weakness is death. So the guilt and shame and anger we feel is buried. The dots of fascist collapse are never connected. We hope to stay blissfully ignorant — even though deep down, our hearts never stop screaming at us to listen to them. We’re left in a kind of wearying twilight zone, forever exhausted by trying to deny the very thing we must admit, if we are to survive as moral beings, in a democracy, free people with dignity.
We are the ones making evil banal, you and me, too. It’s hard work. It leaves us number and more drained every single day, doesn’t it?
It’s easy to succumb to titillation. “LOL — a Sharpie!” “Hey, did you hear they’re beginning to shoot people in the streets?” “Shut up! Jesus — I’m trying to have a laugh!” It’s easy to laugh because it makes us feel good, powerful, strong — not vulnerable, weak, and defenseless. But we shouldn’t feel good about fascism, my friends. We shouldn’t be seduced by the titillation of the cheap joke over the atrocity, the laughable scandal over the horrific crime against humanity.
Because this isn’t a joke. We are the joke. Every time that we laugh, instead of feeling the guilt, shame, and rage we should, we are making a fatal mistake. We are taking away our own power to rebel, to scorn, to defy — which is all that we have to fight the bad guys with — as Camus and Sartre knew, as Arendt and Orwell said. We are refusing to see what’s right before our eyes.
We are making the evil banal.
Is there anything worse than that?
Written by umair haque
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
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