POLITICAL FOLLIES-My friends Joe and Pete — we all grew up in neighboring little towns, on what could have been the same cul-de-sac, somewhere out there in the endless ocean of the American dream — both have the proverbial crazy, racist uncle.
Now, the interesting thing is that Joe’s uncle, over the last few months, has somehow reclaimed his soul — he’s going to vote, improbably, for the good guys. But Pete’s uncle has only hardened his stance — he’s gone from a thinly veiled racist, to a full-on neofascist.
Now, after enough awkward meals at enough Olive Gardens with all four of these people, I began to note, funnily enough, that the way Joe and Pete interacted with them probably — same neighborhoods, age, etcetera, remember? — probably played a big role. Pete would lash out at his uncle — and try to debate him with factoids and data, just like a little cartoon MSNBC host. “The caravan’s a thousand miles away! You crazy old goat! Where do you get your news? Man, you’re dumb. It’s a pain even talking to such a fool! A gullible rube! Don’t you see how wrong you are! God, I’m sick of your stupidity!” LOL — predictably, Pete’s uncle, fortifying his defenses under this relentless assault, only ever hardened his stance, until he found himself in hunkered down in what appeared to be 1937 Berlin.
But Joe did something very different: “Uncs”, he’d say, “You crazy old goat. I love you. But you’re a racist, who became, over the last couple of years, a fascist. Sometimes, I think I get why. But that’s beside the point. I just wanted you to know the truth. The one I see in you — and plenty of others in our family do, too.” He doesn’t say it viciously, loudly, angrily, venomously. In fact, he says it gently, with a kind of quiet disappointed laugh. And that’s it. He doesn’t say another word. He just waits.
Until — wham!! — something strange, funny, and a little improbable happens. “Wait!” the old fellow cries. “I’m not a fascist! Me? Come on, Joe. Wait. Am I?” Bang! You see — now they can talk. “Well, you believe in a hierarchy of personhood that…” “No, I don’t, goddamit…wait. Do I?!”
Hallelujah, it’s a minor miracle. They’re in a place of intention and meaning and authenticity. Not just retaliating, following orders, from the trenches of an ideological forever war. Suddenly, the one thing that never seems to happen anymore has happened — a mind that was shut tighter than the Iron Curtain — has cracked wide open like a blue sky. Instead of closed down even tighter. Yet it was opened not by flotillas of force, volleys of facts, or by arsenals of fury — but by another instrument altogether. A seemingly innocent and powerless one: a mirror, not a scalpel. By what? By truth.
Yet when you think about it, since the greatest weapon of the fascist is the biggest lie, is the power of the truest truth — by which I mean moral truth, not factoids — to shatter and destroy it, just like a spell that weaves just a hairline crack into a little rock which in the end brings down a whole mountain range, really so surprising?
But, maddeningly America’s relationship with itself is a lot more like Pete’s and his uncle’s than Joe’s and his Uncle’s, isn’t it? Consider, for a moment, a striking, weird, and baffling asymmetry. There’s a head of state, screaming outlandish lies from a pulpit, designed to stoke fear and rage, which have already led to violence, from his childlike supporters — lies which dehumanize, scapegoat, and demonize.
And there is an opposition — who still won’t use words, ideas, and “frames”, if you like, like “fascism” and “authoritarianism”, to describe all this. Instead, they’re debating authoritarians and fascists with “facts” and “data” — instead of, say, running a national nightly ad campaign saying: “do you want to be on the right side of history, or do you want your grandkids to remember you as a fascist?” Maybe I go too far. Still, see the asymmetry: one side lies with abandon, about what people are, but the other one won’t tell the truest truth— not about the facts, which are in the middle, but about the first side.
Don’t you find that weird? Baffling? A little cowardly? I do. To me it’s just like Pete and his uncle — he won’t tell his uncle what he really thinks, but he’ll attack him in every way. He believes that sterile facts are going to solve the deeper problem of moral atrophy and corrosion. But that is not the case, and it never has been. What he doesn’t understand is that when a conscience corrodes, it must be reawakened like a sleeper, reanimated like a wounded muscle. Then — and only then — can a person begin to think again. Let me explain what I mean by that.
In politics, as in any form of debate, not seizing upon your opponent’s weaknesses is the best way to lose. The greatest weakness — which is always a moral weakness, not a rational one — of fascists and authoritarians is that, well, they are fascists and authoritarians. Now Americans are taught to think in a vocabulary of strange, and to me, foolish ideas — in this case, you probably need to distinguish between a “frame” and a mere “word” to make sense of this.
Nobody wants to be called a fascist or an authoritarian. Nobody. Even fascists and authoritarians. They call themselves Fuehrers and members of a glorious Reich and Storm Troopers and so on, do’t they? In other words, they are seeking a positive form of self-belief, not a negative one. So, they imagine themselves as perpetually wronged victims, fighting vicious monsters, with supernatural powers, who have been persecuting from the beginning of time. And if it takes an apocalypse to defeat such monsters — well, my friends, such is the stuff heroes are made of.
Everyone wants to think of themselves as a hero, not a monster, or a villain. In a positive, beneficial, meaningful way — I’ll come back to exactly why, because it’s the key to now. That is precisely why even history’s greatest monsters and villains have proclaimed their devotion to democratic ideals. “Why, we are putting people in the gulags for the sake of freedom, of truth, of justice!” Nobody says: “it’s because we gain relief from our fears when they suffer!” Do you see my point?
Now, you are welcome to disagree with me, but — and this is thanks to Joe — I have found that when I speak to people who are on the wrong side of history today, and I say, gently, “but you are an authoritarian, and you are probably a fascist, too” — and then I explain that I am not trying to condemn or blame or attack them, but only understand them, and maybe show them the truth of themselves — then something strange happens. Their minds don’t suddenly change — they do something more important. They open. They begin to do something that is novel and dangerous in this age: they begin to think.
“Jesus! Is this really who I am? Is this who I want to be? Is that what my grandkids will remember? Will they spit into the dirt, when they hear my name?” Some part of them begins to ask such questions — even if that part is unconscious, deliberately repressed, silenced. Precisely the point. Such questions cannot be stopped once they have begun to be asked. They grow in intensity and power — beliefs which must be disproven. Why? First, see what happens: slowly, over time, such questions become something transformative, hopeful, optimistic even: the rebirth of a soul in a person where there was just decline, intellectual, social, emotional, and the key, moral — corrosion, weakness, and decay. A slumbering conscience is suddenly reawakening. It suddenly has something to be better than, not just to be worse than. Isn’t that strange?
To really understand all this, you must understand human beings a little better than today’s failed politicians and leaders and thinkers do. Nobody is born naturally hating anyone else. Not a single soul in human existence, much less an ant or a flea or a tree. Psychology teaches that human beings are born with three gifts. Empathy — we naturally mirror the happiness, but also the rage and despair, we might be surrounded with. Curiosity — a child has never been born who won’t walk straight into a highway or touch a hot stove. And the most strange and difficult one of all to really know — humanity: even a child displays a very, very crucial set of inner beliefs about life. When another suffers, even a little puppy or cat, they intrinsically know it is wrong — just observe how a child’s face twists with suffering when they see it anywhere near them. This isn’t empathy — but the moral structure which underlies it: to cause suffering is bad.
So, for these three reasons, we must be taught to hate — no easy task, since human nature itself must be undone. A fascist, an authoritarian — a racist, bigot, misogynist, abuser — people are born none of these things. They are made these things — and it takes great investment, time, effort, and creativity, too. How are they made these things?
Well, now you must understand my second great truth about human life, and human beings. People are made into monsters by lies about their very own selves. We must lie to people to get them to hate, if we are all born with three gifts of empathy, curiosity, and humanity, mustn’t we? We must tell people that, contrary to their natural impulses, their feelings — abusing others is good. We must tell them that despite what every fiber of their being says, from the hairs on their neck standing up with shock, to the heart that beats with repulsion and disgust, that violence is good, beneficial, useful, just. If you doubt me, just consider why concentration camps needed gas chambers: even Nazi soldiers couldn’t openly kill on such a scale without completely breaking down mentally.
So, to really get someone to hate, we must lie to them about themselves — that everything they naturally feel and sense is wrong and bad, and everything they are told and commanded to suppose is right and good.
That brings me to a truth about fascism which is often unseen. The demagogue, when he scapegoats the other, isn’t just dehumanizing them — he is dehumanizing his followers, too. He is creating a set of incentives which override, if you like, human nature. Social, cultural, and psychological incentives. Through a ritual orgy of violence. Now, if you believe what he says — not that inner feeling of repulsion and disgust — you will be rewarded, and rewarded richly, with belonging, with meaning, with purpose, with community, with status, with self-coherence and self-integration, with power and presence. All of a sudden, you matter again.
All that you have do, if you want the things you have been seeking, is sell your soul to the demagogue. It’s a Faustian bargain — but it’s not very hard to see why people left without all the above, belonging, status, meaning, power, thanks to neoliberalism and capitalism, which ate right through them, would desperately end up selling even what is left of their souls, just to have them. Human beings are born with the three gifts of empathy, curiosity, and humanity — but they are there to give us belonging, purpose, meaning, self-coherence. And if the first set of things does not lead to the second — then why not turn your back on them? This is the primary fascist lie, the ur-lie, the lie inside all the lies.
That is why we find no way out of the abyss merely by attacking and blaming such people in lightweight terms — or worse, ignoring them altogether — like the Democrats do. (In fact, if we demonize such people, we are no better than the fascist, either.) So, what is the way out?
We must simply tell them the truth. A truth equal, in every respect, to the lies they are being told. The truths not just that facts contradict them, or they are being used, or even that they are being made fools of. The truth of what they have become. We must say — “you are an authoritarian now, a fascist, my friend.” We must tell them the ur-truth, which fights the ur-lie: you do not have the things of your basic needs, belonging, meaning, purpose, and so on, not because empathy, curiosity and humanity are useless lies — but because you yourself must demonstrate more of them.
So. The ur-truth. “But you are a fascist now, my friend.” And not even ask the obvious question — “is that who you want to be?”, remembering that no one wants to be that, no ever has, once in history. Instead, let the question ask itself. That is the crucial part, because now the soul, the conscience, is being reborn. “Is this who I really am? My God! Is that what I want to be?”
That is slow work. Hard work, difficult labour. Something more like therapy than politics. But in truth that is what people failed so badly by their systems need most — self-understanding, that they are not the cause of their disappointments, and yet, for that very reason, neither are the others that they demonize and scapegoat. The systems which have failed them are. Once that understanding is allowed to happen, once a person shifts a locus of responsibility from people to ideas, systems, institutions, agencies, then they have learned a higher level of abstraction — they have really matured now, intellectually.
All that is what we must ask of our fascist friends. Did I just say friends? Sure, I did. They are our enemies, to be sure. They will kill us with knives, they will kill us with bullets, they will kill us with fists, given half a chance. And yet the strange paradox is that if we react to that violence with ignorance and stupidity of our own — I don’t mean in self-defense, mind, at the moment you must protect yourself — we have failed, too. We will never change anyone’s mind at the moment they are about to pick up a rifle or throw a bomb, will we? So, we must intervene long before that, if we are wise, courageous, and clever, too.
Yet the intervention we must make, as difficult as it is, as bitter a pill as it to swallow, must be two things that Americans, especially their politicians, do not really understand. Nonjudgmental. But also absolutely uncompromising truth. Think of it like a real-world intervention: “you’re a junkie, son, and I love you, but you’re going to die. Something, someone, must have failed you.” Do you see what I mean? If you said “tough love”, you’d be partly right, but I’d just call it caring about each other enough to be authentic with one another — even if’s uncomfortable and difficult.
The sad, strange, and funny thing is that American politics, culture, society, is built on exactly the opposite two sets of properties. We judge each other, all the time, for the smallest deviations from the path of the good and the just. But we will not tell one another difficult truths, uncompromisingly. We will not say, for example, “capitalism has failed us”, or “you are a fascist now”, or “that is an authoritarian.” We will not even question the beliefs inside those things — greed is good, cruelty is kindness, dominating people is liberating them, and so on — the great mistakes of American culture. Do you see what I mean? We don’t tell the truth, we politely avoid it. And then we judge each other, pretty viciously.
But what do expect from this combination of social qualities but a vicious circle of folly, really? If I am not telling you a truth about yourself, but avoiding it, and you are hardly likely to see it in yourself — then who can lead anyone anywhere? Worse, if instead of telling you a truth, I am merely judging you — then won’t you resist any change whatsoever? And so, nothing in America really does seem to change, thanks to this toxic cocktail of self-created ignorance.
Many societies are going to have to learn to undo the Faustian bargain of fascism. The underlying false belief that there is no price to be paid for violence, subjugation, and hate — that all these things are free, and so they are freedom, too. Of course, there is a price. The price is one’s own nature, which, in the end, costs one everything one is. It will not be easy. Let me come back to that.
I’ve taken you through a subtle and complicated way of thinking — about how human nature flourishes into peace and prosperity, or is perverted and corrupted into violence, spite, and rage, through very different kinds of politics. Let me sum it up this way.
If the Democrats lose, it will be for a reason much like this. The fascists are much more effective at perverting and corroding the natural moral impulses of human beings than the left is at resurrecting and reawakening and reanimating them. The fascists corrode people from the inside better, faster, and harder — than the left rescues them. Why? Because fascist lies, which come a dozen a day, louder and scarier every time, are not met, wide enough, fast enough, quick enough, with the only thing in the world which has ever undone a lie: it’s corresponding truth. Not dry, arid, stale factual truths about intellectual debates — “the caravan’s a thousand miles away from the border!!” — but moral truths about the state of a person’s conscience, character, and development: “uncle, I love you, but you’re a fascist. You know we fought against the fascists, right?”
To give someone the gift of the rebirth of a conscience, we must begin with truth — and let them ask the difficult questions which follow. Not judge them — which is to say, ask those questions for them, in their stead, their place, which is putting ourselves above and over them. It is in doing that work of asking questions for one’s self that the muscles of a soul, atrophied into degeneration, begin to flex and stride and pump with the blood of decency and goodness again.
Remember Joe and Pete? All the above is why, if you ask me, Joe’s uncle rescued his soul. Joe didn’t shame and blame him obliquely, using facts and whatnot to stand above him — he simply said, “uncs, you’re going from a racist to a fascist. I love you, and I guess I always will. I wanted you to know the truth, though — about yourself, through my eyes, and a lot of people in our family’s eyes.” And then they could debate: what is a fascist? Am I really one? Jesus! I think I am. Bang! That way lies the hope of renewal.
Pete did the opposite. “Uncle! Don’t you know that caravan’s a thousand miles away? Man, where do you get your news, Fox? You’re dumb! What a fool, what a rube you are. LOL — you’re the reason we’re in this mess!” Pete’s uncle is, and he isn’t — Pete’s also the reason we’re in this mess, because he’ll call his uncle all kinds of name, fool, idiot, dummy, and so on, but he’ll never once tell him the simple truth, like Joe will.
And so, his uncle just reacts against those insults, quite predictably, which carry no real moral weight. Pete’s only helped hardened his uncle’s stance, over time — not give him the tools with which to rescue an atrophied, corroded soul, conscience. Those tools, my friends, are not just factoids, datasets, and arguments — they are simple, difficult, uncompromising moral truths.
When we don’t speak great moral truths to one another, the fascists will go on winning. Because, of course, they are telling great moral lies — not just factual ones. Hence, their followers can go on believing the Faustian bargain they have agreed to is not one. That it carries no price. That it has no cost. That there is nothing corroded, for the sense of absolute power, dominance, and control they receive. That their souls are healthy and fine. But they are not — and they know it the moment that anyone says: “but you, my friend, are a fascist. I understand you, and how you have been failed. That does not change who you have become.” They know it, suddenly, deep in their bones, where the conscience resides — and that knowing does not go away. Truth, in this way, as it always does, suddenly animates the atrophied, wasted, muscle of the moral soul.
That is why we fail our societies, and each other, too, in this moment, when we shrink from the difficult, yet necessary, and noble work of speaking the truest and greatest truths, moral truths — just like the Democrats have. Not to “power”, really. But to consciences whom have been lied to so long, so hard, souls paralyzed with fear, riven by shock, shattered by trauma, they atrophied into feeble, crooked, misshapen lumps, long ago.
Should we do that work, then, my friends, we are finally, brave, foolish, and wise enough to have begun doing the only thing in this world which has ever really been the opposite of violence, which is love. There — did you see that? Just now — how you just rolled your eyes a little, without wanting to perhaps, in cynicism, in disgust? Ah — you see what I mean by moral atrophy, and how deep it reaches, even into you?
(Umair Haque’s essays appear on Medium.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.