Obeying in Advance

When Corrupt Trump fired FBI director James Comey presumably to obstruct the investigation into the Russian meddling into the 2016 election and how that might tie to the Trump team, I decided that it was time for me to read Timothy Snyder‘s new book On Tyranny. The week after the election, Snyder’s Facebook post went viral. It summarized his academic work on the transition of democracies into authoritarian regimes into 20 lessons. His book builds on that post.

The first lesson is Do Not Obey in Advance. It confused me. I sensed that somehow it was important and yet I didn’t fully understand it. Snyder gives the example of the Austrian’s lack of reaction to the Nazi’s round-up of Jews shortly after they occupied Austria. Austrians acted as if that was the most normal thing in the world – and the Nazis learned that they could get away with murder, literally in too many cases. I did not see how this applies to our time now.

Over the weekend, I listened to an interview with Snyder. In it he emphasized the importance of Lesson 1. If we obey in advance, none of the other lessons matter. I shared some of that with a friend as we walked. She mentioned her concern over the lack of outrage about ICE raids. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized the two things are related.

While it is hard to tell whether the raids have already increased because of the new administration (ICE claims otherwise) or our attention to them has, Corrupt Trump’s rhetoric suggests an increased focus on preventing “illegal” immigration (where it is unclear exactly what is deemed illegal, especially since that can have more to do with filling out paperwork incorrectly than with what most would consider crimes). ICE raids are a part of that. There’s also a tipline offered through the newly established Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, which is basically a way to engage all of us to go beyond obeying in advance to becoming active collaborators. These newly created office is also putting together a dangerous and possibly illegal database that gives anyone access to personal information of those labeled “alien offenders.”

Clearly, ICE raids are not the Nazi round-ups of Jews. Although the differences might be less than we first think. During the early years of the Nazi regime, Jews were not sent to extermination camps. They were sent East to get them out of the ever-expanding Germany. One of the major differences, though, is that ICE raids have occurred in the past. They didn’t just start with the GOP’s occupation of the White House. “Illegal” immigrants, with a similarly slippery definition of illegality, were targets even under the Obama administration. We have already obeyed in advance – unless we were part of the few white allies who were fighting it.

So what can we do?

First, we can inform ourselves. I didn’t know about the database until I did some research for this post, for example. I didn’t know about what happened during the Obama administration until I immersed myself in information after November 8. I still have a lot to learn!

Second, we can contact our members of Congress and find out how they are fighting this, especially the VOICE office, and what they are doing to ensure ICE is held accountable.

Third, we can get involved with organizations who are actively fighting this, including with the sanctuary city movement. This can range from donating to the ACLU’s rapid response team to getting involved locally (lots of links to resources, including a toolkit, are here). Please share other resources in the comments!

Corrupt Trump is a Symptom

After Corrupt Trump was elected, I was under shock. How could people vote for this man? He stands for everything I dislike – and seems to clearly violate American values (not to mention norms and laws). I held on to the fact that the majority of voters did not vote for him (although far too many did). As I am learning more, though, I am realizing that Corrupt Trump is a symptom of a deeply unjust system – reflecting injustices too many of us avoid acknowledging because of the promises of the ideas this country was founded on and our pretense that these American values – liberty and justice for all – have already been achieved. We fail to acknowledge the deeper causes that enabled Corrupt Trump.

Some of the more immediate causes are the moral bankruptcy of the GOP. After Obama was elected in 2008, the leadership realized that they could not gain power with policies that were out of touch with a large swath of U.S. citizens. Energized and made more conservative by the Tea Party, they decided to take advantage of the upcoming 2010-census-based redistricting. Basically, they decided to gerrymander themselves into power. While gerrymandering is the usual thing a party in power does during redistricting, the GOP pulled out all the stops – call it gerrymandering on steroids. David Daley describes this in his book. The unusualness of the GOP approach becomes also clear by the number of redistricting laws that have been struck down in recent months. The other prong of the GOP power-grab was undermining the voting rights of those they could not reach with their conservative policies: People of color. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, it opened the way for the racist laws that would restrict voting access. And state-level Republicans took full advantage of that – to Corrupt Trump’s benefit.

(As an aside, because the GOP also knew that their policies contradict the US constitution – at least from the perspective of legal minds without agenda – they needed to prevent Obama from appointing a Supreme Court judge. They were not confident that a judge without a conservative agenda would uphold their illiberal laws.)

With Corrupt Trump, they did not see a man who has no moral compass, who personifies Harry Frankfurt’s ideas on bullshit. Instead they saw an opportunity to take advantage of a man without policies to push their agenda through, to complete undermining at least the promise of the United States’ visionary foundation. To understand why they did this, we need to look at two other things: The authoritarian origin of conservatism and the mixed brew of racism and sexism.

Before we do, let’s briefly add to the more immediate causes the failure of too large a portion of the Left/Democrats/Progressives – basically everybody not in the authoritarian-wing of the GOP – to see how that wing was organizing. They systematically filled positions in local and state governments, which allowed them to push through their immoral agenda undermining the liberal aspects of our democracy. The biggest failure might have been, though, not to fully understand, let alone address, the origins of the authoritarian thinking.

The origin of authoritarianism, as I argued in my thesis, is the nuclear family headed by the male father. The father has the authority both over his wife and his children. He decides. He rules. While this type of family has been somewhat democratized, this shift did not happen at all in conservative families. In fact, conservatism is maintained through the strict father model, which, when brought to politics, produces an authoritarian leader. The influence of this conservative, hierarchical family might be reflected in the decreasing number of people, especially young people, who believe it is essential to live in a democracy. (This could also be a lack of experience with non-democratic ways of living… Or both…)

There is another central institution in the U.S. and North-Western countries: The capitalist corporation. The corporation is an authoritarian system: It is headed by one person – usually by a white, cis-gendered, married man – who makes decisions on the direction of the company that impact all stakeholders, many of them without any input. The erosion of unions, going back to at least Ronald Reagan, has increased the power of the CEO and his cronies, greatly contributing to both the increase of wealth and income inequality and the further undermining of democracy. As inequality increased, the incentive to corrupt the political process to ensure the maintenance of the current system took over both political parties, particularly the GOP. With the selection of Corrupt Trump as their presidential candidate, the GOP stopped pretending to be a democratic party. Their open embrace of an authoritarian made them an authoritarian party.

Gerrymandering and voter restrictions were not enough to ensure their power grab. They also needed to convince enough voters. The GOP did so by shoring up the ideas that have been latent even before the US was founded. Recently pushed into the underground, they were ready to explode back into the open: Racist and sexist ideas that could be used to justify a system that only works for the few.

After the election, predominately white, mostly male pundits and politicians were quick to blame economic anxiety for Corrupt Trump’s win. The data shows otherwise: It’s what The Atlantic euphemistic calls “cultural anxiety,” the anxiety white men (and women) feel about losing their status at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. It was the interplay of racism and sexism that drove this cultural anxiety.

As an example, the vast majority of white Evangelicals voted for Corrupt Trump – to the tune of 81%. While this might seem to contradict their values, after all he has been married multiple times, for example, it is consistent with Evangelical Christian history and with the authoritarian hierarchy in their families and churches. Racist ideas that justified their economic advantages allowed Puritans to support slavery and helped Southern Christians feel nothing when keeping supposedly freed slaves in horrid conditions as late as the 1930s.

So, what are the key ideas justifying this current mess? The key ideas center around systems justifications of the strict father model, which is also known as patriarchy! While there are too often debates about whether racism or sexism are at the root, I argue that they are so intertwined that it makes little sense to look at them separately. Racism and sexism uphold each other. The hierarchical system of patriarchy is maintained by dividing women through racism and by dividing people not at the top through sexism. Who is at the top? White men. They are followed by white women, then men of color, and finally women of color. There are further hierarchies within each group justified with other forms of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination, including homophobia and singlism. It is a hierarchical system that is based on arbitrary criteria, such as gender and skin color, instead of things like skill, knowledge, or wisdom.

In summary, I believe there are three keys to our current political regime:

  1. The strict father model creates the foundation by teaching us to accept hierarchies and making authoritarianism seem normal. It is taught within the nuclear family and/or through the structure of organizations most of us work for.
  2. Sexist ideas are used as systems justification for the strict father model within the family and the larger system.
  3. Racist ideas are used as systems justification for the strict father model within the larger system.

What do we do now? How do we dismantle this system? It will involve several strategies – including a shorter-term defense of democracies. Longer-term it needs to include restructuring families – probably through a system similar to the intentional family I sketched in my thesis. I am also looking to the work of Grace Lee Boggs for some guidance and will share my ideas here once they are ready.

Update: Not surprisingly, I am not the only one thinking along these lines. I just discovered an article in The Establishment that makes similar points. It is crucial, though, to add sexism to the mix because it furnishes more ideas that justify the system that brought us Corrupt Trump. And it is likely what drove a higher percentage of black men to vote for Corrupt Trump compared to black women.

Syria, Sexism, and Anger

On my way home, I was listening to the discussion with NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat on Slate Academy’s series on fascism. This discussion is part of the series’ last episode where we’re applying what we’ve learned about fascism in the past to our current situation in the United States. One aspect that was discussed was the relationship between Trump and the military. Ben-Ghiat pointed out several parallels, including that Trump has more generals in his cabinet than any cabinet in recent history.

And then the strikes on Syria happened.

Yes, the chemical attacks in Syria are war crimes. But the situation in Syria is nothing new. An immediate response was not required, so Trump had time to consult with Congress, to consult with anybody in addition to his generals. He did none of that. The discussion about the cozy relationship between fascist authoritarians and the military is echoing in my head.

Then, in the hopes of getting my mind off all this, I watched the first post-November 8 interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton. What was I thinking?! Listening to the interview just reignited my anger! Here is the woman who should be our President drawing from her knowledge to outline how we could have responded to the atrocities in Syria. She knows it’s complicated. I get a sense that she would not have just bombed the heck out of them.

This anger has been burning in me ever since November 8. I have a sense that we, as women, were once again deprived of what is ours – deprived by a bunch of self-aggrandizing, unqualified, incompetent white men. The anger has led to a few ended friendships with men. I just have so much less tolerance for things like mansplaining, sexism in general, and the kind so often displayed by seemingly progressive men in particular. I am tired of putting up with their sexist excuses, especially when I am told that I shouldn’t be angry, that I shouldn’t be afraid.

One of the most prepared person to run for U.S. President did not become president because of an outmoded electoral system that benefits white men. Instead one of the least qualified people became president despite his racism and misogyny, heck, probably because of his racism and misogyny – and because he played a strong man and because he is white. And you tell me not to be angry?!? Now that he is in power with a bunch of white male enablers in Congress who think they have the god-given right to legislate what women can do with our bodies, now that he is in power, he is systematically dismantling U.S. democracy and undermining world peace (what was left of both). And you tell me not to be afraid?!?

No. I am angry. I am scared. Deal with it.

Burning Out

I was sick all weekend with a nasty cold, including low-grade fever. As I often do when I get sick, I tried to figure out what happened. I quickly realized that I had burned out. All this anger and fear was creating a lot of stress in me – and stress is probably the biggest factor in most diseases, major and minor. I decided to step back and evaluate because there’s too much at stake right now. I don’t want to keep getting sick. I want to figure out a sustainable way for me to remain active.

Then on Sunday, someone posted a plea to Facebook. They were scared that people on the very margins of our society will get left behind because there’s too much going on. Except that’s not how they put it. Instead, they pleaded to not take a break until we verified that all fires were covered. I noticed how reading this plea was inducing shame in me: I wasn’t working hard enough. I was taking a break, how dare I! Part of my burnout came from those inner voices, of course, however there also seems to be something inherently ablist in activism: There is an assumption that when we take a break it’s because of our privilege. Worse, it seems that taking a break is a sign of failure, of not being committed enough to the struggle. Even the language implies this: Activist, struggle, fight.

Activist burnout is a real thing. While guides (like this wonderful one) are helpful for individual activists to find balance, it might also be important to question the underlying assumptions of activism that seem to leave little room for those of us operating without a full set of spoons. Instead of, for example, making coverage the responsibility of individuals, let’s make this part of our organizations. So, the responsibility of individuals rests on ensuring that our groups do that, that we’re holding them accountable.

Ultimately, I want my activism to reflect the world I want to live in. I don’t want it to be all fight and struggle. There has to be a way that we can include joy, food, and dance as well. Honestly, I haven’t figured out how to do this – yet, hopefully. Now I know that I am looking, though, which makes it more likely that I’ll find it.

International Women’s Day

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Many women are striking. Many women are helping to show what the world would look like without women (though note the privilege that reflects). They are celebrating. I am mourning (maybe they are, too). I am mourning what happened 4 months ago today on that Tuesday in November. Instead of the United States finally joining the many nations that are capable of being led by a woman, the U.S. showed that it still is too steeped in sexism and misogyny to let that happen. Not only that. Not only was a female, highly qualified, though imperfect, presidential candidate defeated, she was defeated by a man whose behavior reminds me so much of my abusive ex-husband that I am in a constant state of trigger. She was defeated by a man who could be a caricature for patriarchy: Unqualified yet so confident he makes people think he knows everything; believing that the world, especially women, owes him complete devotion; and an almost pathological hunger for overpowering women no matter what that means (lying and violence, the preferred means). He won not despite of these things but because of them. There are people, mostly men though also a disconcerting number of women, who believe that his way of behaving and his attitudes just show how strong he is. They believe that we have to be ruled by an authoritarian father. Why, I am not sure. Because I don’t understand this line of thinking. It’s so far removed from my way of living, how I want to be in the world, I have trouble fully grasping it. Plus, I’ve experienced living at the receiving end of authoritarianism, albeit in the family context. I did not like it then – and the fact that I now live it in a social context with the country ruled by an authoritarian – just makes me angry. The anger mixes with my mourning.

Life as a Positive-Sum Game

A friend of mine posted to Facebook yesterday: “Life is not a zero-sum equation. Ensuring the liberation and justice for those most marginalized doesn’t actually take away any liberation or justice from you.” It reminded me of some things I’ve mulled over off and on.

It seems that much of the fear that was whipped up during the 2016 election is based on the assumption that life is a zero-sum game. If I gain a right, you lose it. When African-Americans get to vote, Whites votes count less. When women start working, men’s jobs are threatened. When same-sex couples can get married, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage is threatened.

These zero-sums are artificially created.

According to James Surowiecki, one key element that differentiates a crowd that moves toward wisdom from mob rule is diversity of opinion. By giving voting rights to people other than white male property-owners, we are diversifying the electorate and should end up with wiser choices. Yes, I know, this doesn’t seem to happen. The flawed U.S. system restricts diversity of opinion through other means, including the winner-takes all system. More sinister, though, is the voter suppression that happened, especially during the 2016 election. The election result was more a reflection of mob rule than wisdom of crowds.

With jobs, the artificial creation of a zero-sum game is even more obvious. Let’s assume we have 10 hours of work to do. If we gave those 10 hours to a white man, he’d have to work the whole 10 hours. A white woman, two women of color, and a man of color also want to work. Now we have five people. Each one only has to work 2 hours! But what do they get paid?! In our current economy, they’d all get paid only one-fifth, which makes all of them less well off – unless they all could find 8 more hours of work. It could be worse since there is another person, often a white male, who pegs all five against each other and gives the job to the lowest bidder (who probably would end up working all 10 hours for less than 1/5th of the pay!). This is the zero-sum game of capitalism. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. What if those 5 people got together and created their own co-op. They could share the work and its benefits. Maybe they would end up working, say, 5 hours each but would earn the equivalent of 10 hours work. What we are taught is that this is not possible. We are taught to stay stuck in the zero-sum and don’t even try to create a positive-sum, which would lift everybody up because a positive-sum would not benefit those that benefit from the artificial zero-sum: Those who siphon off wealth for their own enrichment creating the extreme inequality we see now in the United States and the world.

The marriage example is only grounded in rhetoric. There is absolutely nothing that my neighbor does in the privacy of her home that impacts anything that I do in the privacy of my home (well, assuming she isn’t hacking into my computer or something like that 😉 ). Claiming that someone else’s marriage somehow impacts mine is plainly absurd.