Precipice

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Photo by Juan Davila on Unsplash




“Meanwhile the fog of deception was spreading… (The country) completely abandoned to lies that the Nationalists disseminated through millions of loudspeakers and printed pages… Lies and violence went hand in hand… (Political violence) was glorified as a sublime deed. Misery and lies also went hand in hand. They spoke of “Freedom and Bread” but they meant only freedom for their followers; they meant to destroy their adversaries… Lies, profiteering, and selfish indulgence prevailed… There were very many who took no interest in public affairs. They put their faith in the apparent peace of everyday life. The country groaned, but peace and order were preserved. The pillars of that order were six hundred thousand stormtroopers.”
— Lion Feuchtwanger, THE OPPERMANNS (1934), Chapter Fifty Nine

Writing these words will make no material difference in the world.

Reading them, even less so.

I knew this before I sat down to write them. But I sat down to write anyway, I’m compelled, because people who are living through the grave danger of physical violence, —violence fomented by lies, by cynical disinformation attacks against already marginalized communities of Jewish people, Trans people, immigrants— our families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors are asking us all to stand up and speak out. To stand against violence springing up from bigotry and hatred that is supported by judicial action, legislation, and unilateral acts of political power seeking to unravel our shared progress. 

Our words and refusals provide support, but they are not enough. Voting is required, but alone, it is inadequate in the face of gerrymandering, voter suppression, election denialism, systemic and structural bias. In the face of this ongoing parade of nightmares, those elected and given power have refused to wield it, unwilling to act with proportionate speed, relying on institutions to hold the line, not doing too much of anything to fight back.

Just beneath the framework of political power sits an overwhelming, unrestrained architecture of propaganda, shamelessly creating an indistinguishable relationship between so-called journalism and carefully coordinated political messaging, using deception and disinformation to not only destabilize the country, but to do so in service of an international authoritarian movement. Because news organizations continue to fail to acknowledge this disinformation campaign for what it is, and instead present its framing as a legitimate political “side” in a “two-sided” discourse, propaganda continues to find safe harbor in the mainstream of American life, dominating the media landscape nationally by refusing the constraints of journalism and truth while continuing to use the visual and linguistic tropes of news gathering to deceive the public. It has been an enormous success. It is literally everywhere.

Of course, this success feeds on and is in turn fed by the public distraction of rich, entitled know-it-alls whose ignorance is only matched by their self-regard, working overtime to spread anti-semitism, election denialism, and other bigoted conspiracies once unimaginable in serious public discourse, which have now found legitimacy within these newly drawn boundaries. People using their economic power and personal notoriety to make things objectively worse for the victims of bigotry while refusing to consider their own intellectual failures. The fact that, reading this, you can think of multiple people about whom I could be talking only highlights the asymmetry of access to the public square, where money grants amplification that the rest of us will never experience, regardless of the quality of our ideas or how we articulate them. Instead, by engaging with the sideshow they provide, hatred gets amplified, perhaps negatively reinforced, but reinforced nonetheless. In this way, the architecture of lies is strengthened and propaganda is further legitimized, which enables the powerful to continue to push the boundaries of what they are willing to do or say in order to be a part of the rising tide they have, without shame, created.

If I told you just a handful of years ago that today, the attempted assassination of the Speaker of The House and the serious injury to her husband would be treated with mocking laughter and, simultaneously, promoted as a conspiracy by sitting members of Congress, what would you have made of me? But we are here. And so, the chorus of bigotry is amplified, violence is justified or laughed away, random acts of terror become more frequent. The expectation that we will somehow emerge from this cycle through accommodation, common sense, conversation, acceptance, understanding, voting, and decency is the same expectation that foreshadowed the horrors of the past— mass murder, pogroms, wars. Surely, we think, this can’t be happening now?

Look at the lies to see the truth.

The truth is this: there is an organized, activist, right-wing political movement in this country that has a hand at every lever of power— government, law enforcement, business, and churches— driven by the sole goal of preserving white, Christian dominance of the public sphere. The foundation of the nation’s propaganda problem, its violence problem, its disinformation problem, its collaboration with foreign rightwing governments, its antisemitism, its racism, and its hard turn into authoritarian minority rule, begins here. This group is incredibly disciplined in its political action because it is otherwise apolitical— there is no issue, no goal, no need, no analysis, essentially, no politics at all. It is simply this: we want control by any means, we will do whatever it takes, and we will destroy those who don’t agree with us.

Donald Trump is perfect for this anti-ideology, despite not believing any of it. He is the ideal vessel for this apolitical movement because he will act on their nihilism in the name of power, which is all he craves; power to funnel money from the state into the pockets of himself, his family, and loyalists, power to use the vast resources of the state to act criminally and then manipulate the judicial system through loyalists to shut down investigations into his crimes, the power of control in the public sphere to scapegoat immigrants, Trans and queer people, threaten Jewish people, all while flaunting his own immunity. Actual scandals are equivocated with manufactured ones (a coup vs a laptop, campaign coordination with a hostile foreign power vs an email server), all intended to make governance and justice meaningless. You must debase power in order to create an environment where it is willingly ceded to you; when it means nothing, why bother fighting for it?

And yet, power still brings the thrill of standing in front of thousands of admirers, all over the country, recounting his criminality, scapegoating anyone who would bring him, and them, to account. He is so blind to his own narcissism that the white supremacist movement can easily align itself with him by piggybacking his work, feeding his ego, showing up for his rallies, and through alliance and his own apolitical, non-ideological, nihilistic, sociopathic vision of governance— which is simply a sole executive, him, winging it— get what it wants. Just give him the love he craves, tell him what you want, and he’s all yours. Look at his face as right-wing religious leaders from around the country come to “lay hands” on him; he can’t believe this con is all it takes to have everything. But you will put up with all of that, justify it all, to get the one thing you want— social and cultural control over the lives of others.

Compare this nihilistic void with the vision of government on the left, a collection of people seeking progress and support from a government and society with a troubled history of racist, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant action. People who not only want roads and safe communities and clean energy, but an accounting of the past and then, justice. And not just justice for the past, but for a worsening social and political climate built on that troubled history. Then, after years of battles, a doubling down; judicial decrees, activist state legislatures, voter suppression and sowing distrust in elections, unaccountable police violence, all designed to take away what little power you have. Who is left to fight? A group cobbled together by a wide range of interests that are sometimes in sympathy and sometimes in conflict, each person an individual required to analyze what they want (jobs, housing, choice, criminal justice reform, Trans rights, freedom of religious expression, climate justice, fair taxation policies, etc) and to then bring that list of wants and needs and ideas to a voting booth, where often, they are faced with a binary where the only reasonable choice is a centrist corporate politician who espouses a few ideals, has no interest in acknowledging the necessary fight, and responds primarily to those who finance their campaign.

It will not be enough.

Historically, it has never been enough, and we know it and have to admit it.

These are two completely different universes— one driven solely by the desire for the power to use the state for social and cultural control, and one a loose majority of interests that cannot see itself fully reflected in the system it must uphold. One willing to use state power to dominate through violence, legal control, propaganda, corruption, and lies, and one that seeks the status quo with maybe a few touch ups here and there and isn’t that nice? 

But soon, institutions are bent, purged, and converted from organizations serving our once shared values into powerful weapons of the state, which becomes not representative of the people, but a personal tool of corrupt individuals who utilize it ensure their own immunity, criminalize their opponents, scapegoat social groups, and persecute their victims, all while telling lie after lie after lie. The lies, simple inversions of the truth, are not intended to cover up these acts, but to broadcast them through projection, to flaunt immunity, to disempower rational analysis and create a new framework that erases democracy in the name of an authoritarian state.

And so, when I see calls from my friends and neighbors and family and allies saying “we need you to speak up” against antisemitism, against the criminalization of Trans people, against the criminalization of women’s reproductive choice, against state violence wielded against communities of color, please know that I understand what is happening and I stand with you against all of this bigotry. But also, we need, each and every one of us, to see this fight for what it really is.

There is nothing. They simply want power. Power to establish, consolidate, and mandate their dominance, using social control as a cover for getting away with whatever they want.

And you and I are left here, together, staring into the literal void.

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