Thursday, December 15, 2016

American exceptionalism is a myth

If you had asked me if I am a believer in American exceptionalism, the notion that we are a shining city on a hill, watched over by a benevolent God who directs our national movements and politics in ever-bettering, ever-improving incremental steps toward a great future in which the United States are a model of Good Government for the Best and the Brightest, I would have stared at you incredulously for a moment, then laughed in your face, and said, "No." Certainly, there is a greatness attached to what we call the American Experiment, that we are a determined exercise in democracy seeking to improve ourselves for the greatest number of people, a constantly shifting target that may have started with wealthy white landowners but has grown to include Somali Muslims, Hmong insurance agents, Sikh shopkeepers and biracial same-sex families. That, I'd argue, is a better term and a better place to situate ourselves.

But I've come to recognize that a lot of what I'm upset by in the Trump victory and its attendant Republican ascendancy--aside from the ever-more-obvious Russian influence in the news that, in the personas of James Comey and multiple voter-demoralizing agents like the "They're both crooks!" insistence, identification requirements and broken voting machines that overwhelmingly affect Democratic areas and depress turnout--is that a know-nothing (and don't want to know nothing), white-supremacy supported, misogynistic, reality show businessman with a string of failures and bankruptcies in his wake should be elected to the highest office in my nation in 2016. This should not have happened. Forget the poll results and popular vote. He should have been laughed off the national political stage the moment he chose to mock a reporter. At a rally. Not in a private moment, but in front of thousands of people and cameras. When a child does such a thing, mocking someone's frailty in public, we reprimand him and tell him to apologize. Like scolding parents, many people demanded that. Such an apology, of course, did not happen. Trump and his supporters will not even admit his mockery.

My country ought to be better than that. Exceptionalism is a myth. But working toward exceptional behavior, the refusal to go backward in race relations, equality, and basic manners and kindness, these are what make a city shine.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Your silence will not protect you

To say I remember Audre Lorde fondly may seem like an odd thing--her messages were intended to generate nearly every kind of feedback except fondness--but in her I had the sensation of a fellow-traveler, a black, lesbian me who could write better and had a better sense of what it was she fought. She wrote in 1977 in "The Transformation of Silence into Languge and Action":
To question or to speak...could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly now [she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and then with liver cancer], without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.
 I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.

Friday, December 9, 2016

What fascists share

If we would name the coming Trump presidency as a political entity twitching with fascistic life, then it's incumbent on us to take into account the experiences and explanations provided for us by people who actually lived through and grew up in fascistic regimes, like Umberto Eco. I love Eco's novels (or used to, I haven't taken the time to read one in at least a decade) but his primary field was semiotics, the explanation for how words and symbols mean. And it's in that vein that he tried to articulate what fascism is comprised of.

Not everyone can take the time or effort to read Eco, I know, and I am one of those lazy eggheads who can do so. I also flatter myself I can make him understandable. So here is my condensation of Eco from twenty years ago explaining Ur-Fascism, that is, what all fascisms have in common (my emphases):

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition...[P]eople of different religions...started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages...As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values...The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.4. ...For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. 7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country...Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies... However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. 9. For Ur-Fascism...pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.10. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians....[who] are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler. 11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism...In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. 14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak...All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk [or reality] show.

Monday, December 5, 2016

I'll survive Trump

I'm concerned that, for most of us, Trump's reworking of what it means to be a citizen who needs help in these United States will be, at worst, a minor bump, while for many, many silenced others it will be a destruction of the little they have. I'm not concerned about myself: I survived Reagan, and Bush's I and II. I'll survive Trump. But I'm not a single paycheck away from poverty, I'm not dependent on EBT or SNAP or Social Security, I don't need to keep myself healthy through Medicare or Medicaid, I don't rely on the social safety net we've spent decades erecting so that as few people fall through it as possible. Yet, that is. But there are many who do have to live with his witless, uninformed, and ever-changeable decisions, and for whom even a single day of uncertainty can mean the loss of food, healthcare, housing, income, employment. Jesus said it best: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."