How Reality Stopped Mattering in America

POLITICS--When I look at America, when my friends from around the world look at America, we see the same thing. It makes us drop our jaws and shake our heads. How can a society be so deep in denial?

Let me explain what I mean.

There’s a President who’s recently “banned” entire countries from entering the country. Just yesterday, his administration purged a whistleblower, a career public servant, who testified against them. That was after being “acquitted” of conviction by a Senate that openly said…despite committing the crimes…they wouldn’t find him guilty anyways. And then said President proceeded to launch vitriolic tirades against…everyone. Opposition leaders, media, critics, adversaries.

This is the stuff of genuine authoritarianism. And fascism. Not kind-of-maybe-one-day-possibly. But the real thing, here and now. Yes, really. And yet there Americans are — deafeningly silent. Either they’re playing dumb, or…they really are. Maybe not you. But it’s easy to see that culturally, socially, intellectually, America isn’t ready to admit the plight it’s in. As a society, as a culture, America is in deep, profound denial about what it’s really going through, what it faces.

American denial about the authoritarian-fascist nature of its own collapse is the deepest I think I’ve ever seen, in decades of studying societies, politics, and economics. I don’t think I’ve seen a society confronted by abuses so strong they rise — obviously — to the level of authoritarianism and fascism…and yet being so shatteringly, deafeningly silent about it. So what explains America’s deafening silence?

I don’t think that Americans understand the logic of denial, or its consequences. I don’t think they get why reality (really) matters, or why truth (genuinely) counts. I don’t think that anybody’s ever taught them. That’s because, as we’ll see, truth itself is a liability in a capitalist society (but I’ll come to all that.)

You see, it’s no good calling authoritarians and fascists mere crooks and liars. They are much more than those things. To deny is to minimize and erase. And when authoritarianism and fascism are denied, therefore minimized and erased — they have never existed. But when they have never existed, who can be held to account for them? How can a society unite to oppose the true adversary? Who is going to try them and resist them and defy them? The answer is: no society can resist or reject or fight or overcome a thing that isn’t happening in the first place.

Americans often say, these days, that “reality doesn’t matter.” And they point to the President’s endless, obvious, flagrant lies. But the problem is not just the President. The problem is Americans, too. It’s not just the Prez and his minions who deny reality. So do Americans. They are denying reality every day by refusing to name their everyday horrors for what they are, and therefore confront reality. Paper-checking? Concentration camps? Purges? Come now. When authoritarianism and fascism are made unreal — when they have never happened, and therefore don’t exist — that is when authoritarians and fascists can create whichever reality they like. Reality has stopped mattering — but it is a larger social acquiescence that has made it so.

When I say “nobody says these words”, I mean that no major group, faction, coalition, or institution does. And that’s easy to observe. The New York Times doesn’t. The Democrats don’t. The Washington Post doesn’t. I could go on. These words are missing from American public discourse because they are simply unsaid.

But if you can’t say the highest-level words — authoritarianism, fascism — then, by definition, you also can’t say “concentration camps” or “genocide” or “crimes against humanity” or “propaganda” and so on. Americans can’t say those words either. That’s not a coincidence — it’s a relationship. But because nobody, really, can say these words, at the level of a social group, faction, or coalition — none of these things exist. America doesn’t have concentration camps. It doesn’t commit crimes against humanity in them. It doesn’t purge whistleblowers. It doesn’t have a regime using propaganda to twist and bend the populace to its will. None of these things exist — because at the highest level, nobody can say authoritarianism or fascism. It’s hardly a surprise then that nobody is accountable for what has never happened, or that these violations go on and on, or that the bad guys continue to accumulate and abuse. power

“Our economic woes are the fault of those subhumans! Those dirty, filthy, parasites. They’re the reason our society’s collapsed.” That bending and twisting of reality is made possible when — and only when — a society refuses, collectively, to name it as fascism and authoritarianism. Then reality can be whatever serves the purposes of the predators.

When nobody is willing to speak reality, then of course reality will become whatever the most violent and abusive and hateful dictate it to be. Those people will become subhumans. That law will be flouted. This minority will be scapegoated and hated. What else can result but the construction of a fabricated reality when a whole society is silent about what are, at this point, its most basic, obvious sociopolitical truths? Those aren’t concentration camps? But if they are, how come I’ve never heard the word on the nightly news?

Like Orwell, Arendt, Levi, Frankl, and an endless list of great minds taught, when truths don’t exist, nobody can be held accountable for what never happened in the first place, much less oppose or resist it. When a people themselves deny the existence of it happening here…that is the final condition necessary for it to happen here.

Now, Americans struggle profoundly with this logic. They just can’t seem to grasp it. They fight it, tooth and nail — imagining themselves above it. They seem unable to grasp this chains of causes and effects at all. When you try to teach them about it, they will insult you and taunt you and get angry at you. Their defenses rise, in other words. You are asking them to confront reality they can’t handle — and that, they aren’t capable of.

Now, the rest of this essay is going to be pointless theory and explanation. So let me give you a shortcut to the point. It’s not enough to blame a demagogue for being a pathological liar, or even being a demagogue. If Americans want to reclaim reality — the first genuine step in recovering a shattered democracy — then they must begin by telling truths themselves, not merely castigate the bad man for his lies. They must admit and acknowledge what they are up against. Authoritarianism and fascism.Not just crooks and lies and criminals and so forth. A common pickpocket or theif doesn’t put kids in cages in a camp, or ban whole countries, my friends. Why can’t Americans tell that simple truth?

Americans have to tell the truth about authoritarian and fascist collapse to each other and themselves, instead of merely condemning the lies. Otherwise, the deficit of truth in society is never allayed, with more of it — and democracy goes right on withering, as reality dies.Otherwise, what has never happened can hardly be fought or resisted. That is why silence and denial equal complicity — which is the handmaiden of every social collapse.

Now for the pointless theory and explanation.

How did Americans come to this point? After all, they read Orwell and Arendt and so on in high school. So why don’t they seem to get the message?

Let me put that another way.

What the deafening silence of Americans regarding the obvious meltdown of their society into authoritarianism and fascism says is this. Silence and denial have become social norms. You can’t say the words, utter the truths. It’s not happening here.

Hence, Americans end up playing a bizarre game of self-created impotence. They get angry at the Prez and his minions, and rage and scream at them on Twitter and Facebook. But without speaking these simple truths, they’re impotent. And so their rage goes nowhere.

Americans don’t seem to understand that this is what moral weakness is. This is what corrosion as a human being is. Being unable to speak these basic truths — at the precise moment they need to be spoken. What really troubles most Americans is if a) you rage at some politician but b) also say fascism or authoritarianism. Then they get really, really mad. The situation isn’t just bizarre — it’s telling. You’ve broken the rules. You’ve violated the norms of denial and silence. You are a bad person in their eyes. It’s in that sense that I mean: Americans don’t really grasp that failing to speak the truth is a kind of profound moral weakness.

You see, Americans live in an upside down moral universe. The strong survive, and the weak perish. So to show any kind of mercy or compassion in America is to be weak, and nobody wants to be weak, because if you’re weak, well, you die. So sure, they might give a few bucks in charity on Sunday — but come Monday, they’re hard at work, trying to outcompete, outdo, out consume the next person. In this moral universe, truth has no value, worth, purpose, or meaning.

Let me put that another way. America is a capitalist society. And to capitalism, the truth is a liability. The CEO cooks his books. The “hedge fund manager” wants to trade on insider information. You don’t say what you’re actually doing at work — checking Facebook, maybe. You wear your makeup and puff up your muscles and get that boob job. The truth is a liability in a capitalist society. It’s not profitable to capitalist institutions. It’s deeply undesirable to status competition. Telling your truth, for example — I’m suffering, I’m hurting, I’m in so much pain — is vastly unpreferable to going to the gym and puffing up those biceps or putting on some more makeup, and getting people to fear, desire, envy you.

A capitalist society, in other words, develops a certain kind of norm regarding the truth. It doesn’t tell it very much. It doesn’t respect it, value it, cherish it, ennoble it. The truth is something to be hidden away. Whether our truths, as individuals, the truth, as a society.

That truth is a liability is easy to see in America, too. How many other countries have started…wars…based on…lies? How many other nations have flooded their own cities with crack? How many other nations have assassinated most of their own most promising leaders? How many had a constitution literally making people subhumans? There are a few, to be sure, but not many. And they’re certainly not rich ones. You can America’s disdain for truth wherever you look — if you care to, that is. From the days of slavery to now, America’s never had much appetite for truth. It’s gone along with the lie — those people are subhumans and they should be our slaves, or those people have WMDs and they should be killed, or those commies will rule the world unless we do, and so on. It’s all the same thing, really: the truth is dangerous, and we’ll settle for the lie instead. Why is that?

In a capitalist society, there must never be anything that’s shared. But truth is the most fundamental thing we all share. Yet in a capitalist society, there is no truth, precisely because nothing is allowed that’s shared to begin with. The truth is communist — or at the very least, socialist. You don’t get to own it, possess it, buy it, sell it, trade it. We all share it, or it doesn’t exist at all. But we all know that communists are meant to be killed.

That is why Americans are so uncomfortable with the truth: it’s communism, socialism, everything they’ve been taught to despise. Why there’s something in them that resists it deeply, why they go along with bizarre things like wars based on lies and crackpot ideas like armed teachers or wasting their lives going to the gym forever instead of just admitting how unhappy and lonely they are. That something is the internalized figure of capitalism, which has taught them that lies are much more thrilling, pleasurable, exciting. Only the lie can make you desirable, envied, strong, powerful, feared — the truth is simply humble, human, fragile, small.

To tell the truth in a capitalist society — or a supremacist one — is weakness, and weakness is death. Truth is something inconvenient that just gets in the way of being perfect, strong, and powerful, which is what Americans have been taught they have to be, or else. Or else what? They die, more or less. Nobody has ever really taught them: not telling the truth is badly corrosive, to selfhood, freedom, morality, societies, to life, to democracy. Soon enough, all those things stop existing without truth.

Hence, Americans don’t say “this is fascism, this is authoritarianism”, because they don’t grasp just how corrosive, how damaging, how self-destructive it is to fail to speak basic moral truths. Why not lie, when everything around has always been based on a lie, whether slavery, capitalism, war, or inequality? Do you even know what truth is when everything around you has been a lie? What does the truth matter, anyways, if the only way people respect or admire you is for your pecs, boobs, bank account, title, possessions? What is a person, anyways? Perhaps you see my point a little bit.

That’s why Americans are satisfied with getting angry and shouting at the Prez for being a criminal or a scoundrel — my, how exciting and pleasing that is. What a catharsis it gives. The truth? What does it matter? Who cares? Moral corrosion is somethign they’ve normalized, without knowing it at all.

Yet the lie is always more pleasing than the truth. It takes maturity and courage and wisdom to tell the truth — whereas the lie is tempting precisely because it’s seductive and thrilling and exhilarating. Capitalism has taught Americans to lie about everything, beginning with themselves, to everyone, beginning with themselves, for that reason: it’s pleasing — even though it’s corrosive. By now, Americans can’t even admit their own feelings — that’s terrifying, being so vulnerable — so how are they going to own up to a society that ended up going fascist-authoritarian?

Hence, the bizarre position America finds itself in now. Every single day, abuses of power that go way, way beyond the most basic criteria necessary to say “this is fascism, this is authoritarianism” occur. They occur more and more frequently, and more and more violently. Banning whole countries? Purging whistleblowers? Camps and walls? Formalized dehumanization, by the head of state?

Come now. Every sixth grader is capable of knowing: America now passes all the basic criteria for budding fascism and authoritarianism.So why don’t Americans? Because the truth is a liability — and the lie is so much more pleasing. Because moral corrosion isn’t something they have ever been taught about — just self-interest, pleasure, and the priority of appearances on the surface.

Yet because they can’t even grasp that much — how are they then to make the logical step? “If I can’t tell this truth, this thing has never happened, so nobody can be held accountable for it, it never existed at all, and therefore I have no power over it. Me pretending this away is a kind of moral weakness, like any lie. But this lie has the power to destroy my society.” You see, denying that fascism and authoritarianism now are in charge of their society, Americans can scarcely then understand the consequences of denial.

But the consequences of denial are all too easy to see. It keeps on happening here. Just as it has been.

(Umair Haque writes for Eudaimonia and Co … where this perspective was first posted.)