The Death of a Right to Silence

I no longer have the right to remain silent.

In the last several months, I had lost confidence in my own voice as a writer and essayist. Our world is awash in the noise of countless opinions and “hot-takes.” I couldn’t help but ask, “What is the point of throwing my own voice into the cacophony?” After all, is it not akin to screaming into a hurricane? Not to mention, our civil discourse does not suffer for a lack of young, White men spouting out their opinions.

Writing this today though, there is a specter lurking behind my introspection – the violence in Charlottesville. As the conflict built and erupted over the weekend, I had been preoccupied with family matters and work.  Truth be told, I had recently chose to lessen my engagement with the news overall following my move back to the States this last month. Between the stress of relocation and my own personal struggles, I felt the need to allow myself a period of passivity to focus on recuperation and readjustment. The nonstop avalanche of treason, hate, and absurdity on display in the politics of the world right now had taken their toll on me and I worried I would slip once more into a depressive episode. While there is a time and a place for that, much in the way one is instructed to first afix their own breathing mask on an airplane before helping others to ensure you are able to actually help, there is a danger to such passivity. Simon Critchley warns us, in “Infinitely Demanding,” that passivity to the world represents a species of passive nihilism – a capitulation to the notion that these things do not matter and focusing purely on the pleasure of private projects rather than engaging in endeavors of meaning. For me, the death of Heather Heyer has undermined the edifice that permitted my own passivity.

Part of what has rattled me is the reality that Heyer could have easily been my friends or myself. Roughly the same age, she had been trying to live her life, but knew that one cannot stand by during times like these. She was not a political agitator or a person who was at every protest, but an ordinary person that said, “No more.” How many people do you know who, in the last year, have come to the same conclusion and decided to engage actively in the citizenship that makes a democratic society work? This was an attack upon ordinary citizens. This was an attack upon freedom of speech and equality. This was an attack upon all of us.

It is, of course, important to recognize that she was not the only one who suffered in Charlottesville. Many others were injured by the man who attacked the counterprotest with his vehicle. Many others were injured in the violence that erupted as white supremacists attacked peaceful demonstrators. Many others have been injured or given their lives in the activism and advocacy that has characterized the politics of the last two years. And we should search out and remember their names as well. Because they are the true heroes of our republic, the people who give their lives in the name of our values while exercising their citizenship.

While much breath has been wasted on trying to extract crocodile tears from the President, it seems to me that we should be raising our voices to honor Heyer’s sacrifice. We often mythologize the “great men” of history as heroes, but Heyer is the kind of real, everyday hero that our age demands. She gave her life in the name of citizenship, equality, and nonviolence. White supremacist militias showed up that day bearing guns  and weapons as a statement of their capacity for violence in the name of their ideology. Heyer walked in defiance of this in a display of nonviolent resistance, and they took her life for it. In her place, we must raise another ten, hundred, or a thousand everyday heroes that will take a similar stand against violence and hate if we wish democracy and liberty to survive the moment of history we have been thrust into.

This is why I can no longer remain silent – because none of us should remain silent any longer. Not because I think I will necessarily have something truly unique or special to say. Not because I think my voice deserves attention more than any other. But because we all must speak up now in the name of those voices that have been silenced forever by hate and violence. It is our voice and our action that they fear and that they aim to terrorize into submission. Instead, let us persist, resist, and act in the name of the world the people like Heather Heyer have laid down their lives for.

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Absurd Struggle

“Another thing we have learned is that we cannot accept any optimistic conception of existence, any happy ending whatsoever. But if we believe that optimism is silly, we also know that pessimism about the action of man among his fellows is cowardly.”

-Albert Camus, from a speech at Columbia University (1946)

 

Barely three weeks into the presidency of Donald John Trump, one can already hear the exasperation and despair on the lips of so many. It’s as if the weight of exhaustion distorts time, turning days into months, and stretching the future out into eternity. The specter of burnout and despair already haunt us. One cannot help but hear the whispering temptation of surrender, the path of least resistance.

When faced with such prospects, how does one continue to fight and resist? How do we overcome the despair that follows the frustration of failure? Will we be able to continue trudging uphill when the summit is obscured by clouds and the climb is so difficult?

The answers to these questions are wide ranging. Some turn to art, others to faith, and still others to posterity and fame. All of these have their strengths and are sufficient to sustain many. For others, gnawing hopelessness cannot be easily evaded. After all, when I can think of so many ways for us to fail, and so few ways we might succeed, how can I entertain hope for success?

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian writer made famous by his novel The Stranger in the years following World War II, posed this question differently. In his work, Myth of Sisyphus, he begins with a startling assertion: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

For Camus, the question of suicide was a matter of reason; how can we justify bothering with life if we are unable to find reasons that ultimately justify life? Any success we may attain will eventually be undone by time, all projects are subject to failure, and we will all inevitably die, ensuring that even personal meaning will evaporate from this world. How can we persist when things seem so pointless? And if we cannot find a way to justify life as worth living, then there can be no opportunity to even consider other questions, given the stakes.

This led Camus to identify absurdity as a fundamental feature of the human condition. Absurdity, in this context, means for something to lack reason or justification. Any endeavor characterized by this sense of being ultimately pointless is, in turn, considered an “absurd struggle.” While he initially introduces the absurd struggle in its most literal and radical form, he explains that the question of suicide also serves as a broader figurative question of whether we should continue to strive and persist in our endeavors or if we should admit defeat and give up.

These were not abstract ruminations for Camus, but deeply personal questions. The Myth of Sisyphus was published in 1942, as war raged around him in France. He was cut off from his family in Algeria and risking his life as the editor of “Combat,” an underground newspaper that acted as an intelligence organ for the French Resistance (Isaac, 1992). The struggles of the French Resistance must have often seemed absurd – a ragtag network of private citizens organizing to fight the largest war machine and most powerful totalitarian state that had ever been created. How could they hope to succeed when defeat seemed so certain? Why bother fighting if the only possible outcome seemed to be death?

To answer this question, Camus offers us an image from another time: the Ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who played a trick on the gods, and so was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down upon reaching the summit. He would then have to repeat this struggle, over and over again, without purpose. How can Sisyphus ever come to terms with his struggle, knowing that he will never truly succeed?

When I consider the image of Sisyphus, I feel compelled to fight on. We stand before the boulder and are presented an ultimatum: to struggle and endeavor onward or to surrender and abandon our aims. If we should choose to give up, we are giving into absurdity, we are saying through our actions that those we wish to fight for do not ultimately matter to us. But when we choose to struggle, we declare in that moment, as we put our shoulder to the task, that what we do is worthwhile. In committing ourselves, we answer the question: Yes, our lives, and the lives of those we fight for, matter.

In the closing paragraphs of Sisyphus, Camus argues that it is possible to struggle onwards, without appeal to hope and in full confrontation with absurdity. He ends the essay, saying, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This is not to say that our struggle today is pointless. After all, we have witnessed in these few weeks that our resistance has caused enough friction to slow down the machinations of the Trump White House. In some cases, we have even seen officials backpedaling on legislation and executive orders. Instead, it is my intention to help those fighting for a better world understand that we need not resort only to hope, but can commit ourselves to action when hope feels distant. By choosing to act, we create the meaning and value that makes the struggle worthwhile.

Today we face yet another boulder. Shall we rise to the occasion?

The Return of the Paranoid Style

“…the modern right wing feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined […]; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”

-Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1964

I would not be surprised, when reading the above quotation, if you expected to see it attributed to a writer responding to the rise of Trumpism. If he were alive today, I suspect Richard Hofstadter wouldn’t be surprised either, as its undying virulence is a hallmark of the political pathology he described as “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.”

Half a century ago, in the wake of McCarthyism, Hofstadter was trying to make sense of a type of politics he had seen emerge and re-emerge during his lifetime. Among his contemporaries, he saw this form of political rhetoric and vision represented by Barry Goldwater, and the populist movement he led. Goldwater would remind many today of Donald J. Trump, campaigning for president while talking up conspiracies and easily disprovable claims, also showing little impulse control. Famously, he wisecracked that he wanted to “Lob a grenade into the men’s room at the Kremlin” in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and Russia during the Cold War.

Having borne witness to the politics of the mid-twentieth century, and having studied the history of American political life, Hofstadter found that apocalyptic rhetoric, tinged with conspiracy theory and zealotry, was not an anomaly, but a regular feature of our democracy. In the essay quoted above, he traced this “political pathology” at fifty-year intervals throughout American history. The targets varied, ranging from Freemasons to Communists, but the symptoms of the disease persisted: a distorted style of political speech filled with exaggeration and “conspiratorial fantasy,” a political vision of enemies guilty of inhuman vice and capable of superhuman power, and the immediacy of an apocalyptic disaster, lurking just over the horizon.  Seeing this as an unhealthy political dynamic, he sought to catalog the symptoms and warn future generations of this dangerous cognitive contagion.

The case studies that Hofstadter provides us with are illustrative, but may be surprising to those unfamiliar with some of the murkier corners of American political history. Starting in the 18th century, Hofstadter finds sermons and speeches describing the dastardly designs of Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati to overthrow monarchies, establish democracies, and build a wall of separation between church and state. Then there are the Anglo Protestants fearing the vast resources deployed by the Catholic Church in the Americas, seeing the preaching and religious observances of Catholic communities as a conspiracy to overthrow democracy and freedom of religion in the United States. Fears then turn to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, among protestant Christians, and international bankers, among populists, as the 19th century wears on. He found examples among the left-wing socialists and the right wing fascists of the 20th century, locating the practice of the paranoid style both in the New World and the Old. For this reason, he expressed a sense of resignation, saying that this style of political thought seemed to be “all but ineradicable.”

Even though it was clear the paranoid style had long been with us, Hofstadter identified certain important aspects of the style had changed during the 20th century. Chief among them, the emergence of mass media had shifted the attention of the conspiratorial mind from malevolent silhouettes lurking behind closed doors to “vivid” villains seen on the nightly news – politicians, celebrities, and other public figures. Rather than worrying about the outsider trying to infiltrate and corrupt their society, the modern practitioner of the paranoid style sees unwanted outcomes of public policy as arising not from incompetence or misfortune, but as the result of treasonous betrayal. All of this plays out on the stage of “a vast theater for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic clues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his views” (Hofstadter, 1964). That is to say, the spokesperson of this style will hunt out whatever they can find to confirm their beliefs, and any evidence against it becomes itself proof for the conspiracy, more often than not being attributed to the participation of the media in this vast scheme.

Listing off these aspects of the modern paranoid style, memories of the 2016 election and the emerging habits of the Trump administration come immediately to mind. So many times we heard conspiracy-mongering rants and shouts about Hilary Clinton’s e-mails, Obama’s national origin and religious identity, or that incoherent expression of rage, “Benghazi!” Whenever individuals that voiced these ideas, such as our new president, were confronted with evidence that contradicted or disproved their claims, they would reinterpret the facts to fit their narrative, cite falsified news stories, or declare that contrary evidence was just proof that the “liberal media” was biased.

And, of course, Hofstadter recognized among the paranoid style of the contemporary American far right the phenomenon described at the beginning of this essay. In earlier eras, the spokesperson of the paranoid style often still felt themselves to be in possession of their country and community. They were fending of outside threats to a “well-established way of life in which they played an important part,” being the hero that would man the ramparts of civilization against the forces of evil and barbarism. But this did not hold for the modern American far right.

Hofstadter explains that the modern far right feels dispossessed, perceiving that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion” (Hofstadter, 1964). The old virtues and capitalism were under threat from “cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” with our national security and independence undermined by “treasonous plots” coming from “major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power” (Hofstadter, 1964). And with this, they demanded we return America to a better time, to once more restore the way things were. It’s almost as if Donald Trump plagiarized earlier practitioners of the paranoid style with his campaign slogan, declaring “Make America Great Again!”

So here we are. It seems that the paranoid style of politics has finally seized the reins of power, moving from the fringes into the center of American democracy. Unfortunately, while Hofstadter cataloged the political pathology, he did not discover the antidote to this poison. Rather, it falls to us to find a way back to healthy and fruitful politics.

Let us consider then, central to the pathology of the paranoid style is that it is a political dynamic, a process, not an outcome or a person. Even more so, this is not just about one man, Trump, but about his way of doing politics. In order to address it, we must engage in a form of political therapy, healing the body politic through consistent activity and careful practice. How can we resist the paranoid style and mitigate the harm it may do? How do we reverse it and prevent it from returning to power?

Like a hurricane, the paranoid style of Trumpism has swooped into the center of our political discourse, bringing destruction and disaster with it. And like a hurricane, it will be up to us to endure and rebuild. The storm is upon us. Batten down the hatches and protect the levees. Keep the radio on and keep track of the tempest. But remember that we have endured this before and we will endure again.

What should we do now to protect those vulnerable to this disaster? What can we do to decrease the damage it will do? And what will we do tomorrow, when we are forced to start over once more?

 

Citations:

Hofstadter, R. (1964, November). The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Harper’s Magazine.

 

If you would like to read Hofstadter’s essay yourself, you can find it here as part of Harper’s Magazine Archive:

http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/

Democracy Lives

Today is not the day democracy dies.

For many, this statement might seem overly optimistic, or maybe even an act of delusion. As Donald John Trump prepares to take the oath of office, with the full support of a Republican-majority congress, having not secured a majority of the popular vote, and having campaigned on proclamations of anger, narcissism, and exclusion, it is not hard to see Friday’s festivities as a grotesque funeral for Lady Liberty. That said, I am here to tell you: today is not the end.

Before I begin my argument, I must first make it clear why so many, especially so many in my generation, feel that the inauguration of Donald John Trump, on January 20, 2017, represents the death throes of the American republic. Eight years ago, as we celebrated the victory of Barack Obama, his inauguration stood out as a symbol of our burgeoning adulthood. For many of us, it was the first time our voices were not only heard, but listened to. For others, they came to age in the following days or months of the first person of color being elected to the presidency. Given that our country was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” the victory of President Obama seemed to realize, finally, America’s promise. In experiencing this adolescence, both our own and the presidency’s, all things seemed possible in early days of his administration.

As Obama’s presidency aged with us, we experienced disappointment and many of our hopes, whether personal or political, were dashed. As we continued to struggle to realize our dreams and take our place among our seniors in adulthood, many of those we looked up to seemed to become hostile to us and the future we aspired to. And as we began to tire after years of endeavor, we witnessed the ascent of a man and a political platform that not only opposed us and our values, but seemingly sought to demolish the foundations we had been building for the world we wanted to live in.

For these reasons, today is richly symbolic, even without the fears of what Donald John Trump and his supporters will do to the life, liberty, and happiness of our nation. Knowing this, how can I assert that this event does not symbolize the death of democracy? To explain myself, I must first ask a question.

What is democracy?

Is democracy the laws of the land? If we had many of the same laws, but we did not have elections or a participatory process, could we say we were a democracy? Is democracy the titles of those in positions of authority? What of the countless “presidents” of nations where there is no liberty or equality? Is democracy merely formal action of voting or the pageantry and ceremony of our institutions? With so many tyrants in other nations holding “elections” and celebrating their “victories,” can we really say that?

If democracy is not merely a pile of formalities, rules, and events, then what is it that makes a society a democracy? Although it may sound overly sentimental, I would argue simply: democracy is us.

Democracy is performed day in and day out, as we hold school board meetings and when we come together to discuss the issues of the day. Democracy is found in the people volunteering at a neighborhood cleanup or a homeless shelter. Democracy is born anew each time we engage in the simple daily acts of respect for each other’s equality and agency.

For this reason, I think that if democracy is to die, it will die the day we surrender our power and no longer raise our voices in protest. If democracy is to die, it will die when we stop caring or respecting each other as individuals. If democracy is to die, it is in our hearts that we will dig its grave, long before decay sets into the institutions of our society.

With this in mind, what are we to conclude? Has democracy already passed, and all that is left is for the façade of our republic to crumble? Or is democracy alive, though maybe not in the best of health or good spirits. I cannot say which is true. But I can tell you what I believe:

Today is not the day democracy dies. Democracy will live as long as we keep trying to make it happen. Today is the day democracy lives.