Not the Future I Ordered

Inclusive Authoritarianism is Still Authoritarian

I recognize that my posts about politics get fewer likes than my poems. I am an odd duck, it seems, in my unwillingness to accept mainstream narratives of any stripe. Perhaps it would be easier for me if I just trusted the experts and went along with the story.

But I can’t do that. I have never been willing to play anyone else’s game, or to believe anyone else’s story because they said so, no matter how impressive their credentials. I am both a spiritual person and scientist. My spirituality informs me about the nature of consciousness, of the universe, of change and evolution through deep time. I don’t speak or write much about my spirituality because it is personal, I can’t prove it to anyone, and I have no need to convince others of its validity, and yet it is very important to my sense of myself. My scientist nature informs me about the here and now. I understand that science is almost never “settled,” and that what is true in some contexts is very often untrue in others, and vice versa.

I am befuddled – and, frankly, angered – by my observation that many of the very same scientists who have been loudly denouncing religion for preaching dogmatic truth are now preaching dogmatic truth themselves. “Based in science,” they say, and yet utterly unwilling to admit nuance or to change their minds when actual science casts serious doubt on their claims.

Most of my essays have been idealistic in nature – illustrating my perceptions of what is wrong with our society and what “we” could do to make it better, more harmonious, more egalitarian, more sustainable. This is not that, though it covers some of the same territory. This is a personal essay, full of personal emotion. This is me saying that I am not OK with the way the world is changing. I am not OK with the culture of fear that has overtaken our society. I am not OK with the rifts this is opening within communities, between family and friends. I am not OK with the way in which people with naturally high anxiety have been disproportionately impacted – wearing double masks on remote mountain trails and sanitizing hands until they are red and raw. I am not OK with my observation that our society is becoming increasingly prone to groupthink and unreason, and less able to pursue effective solutions to the serious problems that we face.

I do not wish to be an activist or a warrior. I wish to be a critical thinker, a problem-solver, a friend, a loving partner, a contributor to a resilient and interconnected human community. And yet I am increasingly feeling unwelcome. Mainstream media sources are now disparaging critical thinking itself, suggesting that we only engage with information that has traveled through approved, mainstream channels.

The famous quote by Martin Niemöller was often cited in leftward politics during the Trump years:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller, 1946 (translated and edited)

The feeling at that time was that Trump was leading the nation dangerously in that direction with his “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists” statement (in reference to undocumented immigrants) and his ban on all travelers from a number of Muslim-majority nations. First they came for the undocumented immigrants…and then for the Muslims…and then for the trans people…and the Black people…and then for me.

Those writers were absolutely correct to call out this intolerance and its dangerous historical parallels, but at the same time it is very easy to move from calling people out to condemning them for their beliefs and thereby participating in an analogous process of ratcheting intolerance. And it is quite clear, as illustrated by Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment and many others from left-leaning pundits, that it was usually people – rather than beliefs and ideas – that were being condemned.

If such condemnation were limited to people espousing racist or xenophobic views, I might not approve but I wouldn’t be writing this. But the basket of deplorables is getting bigger. It now includes mothers whose children were injured by vaccines, and who are fighting the doctors and lawyers who claim without proof that such injuries are impossible. It now includes naturopaths and chiropractors who aim to treat the whole body to maintain health rather than following the pill-pushing symptom-abatement approach of mainstream corporate medicine. I owe a great debt myself to one such practitioner, who was able to quickly solve a vexing digestive issue of mine that had flummoxed the MDs. It now includes journalists who dare to question US imperialism, to take a stand against online censorship, or to expose US war crimes. Under this paradigm all races, religions, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations are equally welcome, provided that they don’t rock the ideological boat.

First they came for the Proud Boys…and then for the anti-vaxxers…and then for the anti-maskers…and then for the herbalists and naturopaths…and then for the independent journalists…and then for the critical thinkers…and then for me.

The “me” at the end there now clearly includes not just some hypothetical version of myself, but the actual “me” with my own thoughts and ideas. I can be quite sure that if my blog had ten million readers instead of just ten, that I would be actively deplatformed, canceled, smeared, discredited, and – if that didn’t work – quite possibly disappeared. Our society’s tolerance for dissenting opinion is rapidly declining, and I am very much not OK with that. At the least, let it be said that I cast my lot with those who would fight for personal freedoms.

Our long-divided, gridlocked, dysfunctional democracy is rapidly transforming itself into something much less democratic. At the same time, it does not look to be following the path of the Weimar Republic. From my perspective, the process is captured in these flow charts:

For quite a few years I have written about the ways in which working people are devalued and disrespected under global capitalism, and the way this has been feeding into a growing populist movement. I had hoped that this movement might find a champion – a modern-day FDR – who would push back hard against corporate influence and enact policies that would redistribute wealth down the ladder and restore respect and dignity to a hard day’s work. Instead it found Donald Trump – a wealthy world-class con-man who used psychological trickery to form a bond of solidarity with that pent-up working-class anger. Then, instead of instituting much-needed change, he undertook a campaign of scapegoating: “punching down” to blame their suffering on undocumented immigrants, on welfare recipients, on “worthless liberals.”

While I never believed that Trump had Hitler potential, or that we would really go very far down the road of identity-based authoritarianism, that opinion was not shared by many in the left-leaning mainstream media, who insisted day after day that Trump and his supporters had to be stopped and silenced if we were to “preserve our democracy.” Never mind that it is logically impossible to “preserve democracy” by silencing dissenting opinion. Never mind that “fighting authoritarianism” in this manner is itself an act of authoritarianism. Never mind that the only real way to preserve democracy is to rebuild trust, to bridge divides, to find common ground even with those who hold different (and in some cases personally offensive) views, as I have written about before.

And so I find myself in the United States of America in the year 2021, under a new president with old ideas, in a world that is pretending to return to normal after a year of pandemic, social protest, and electoral upheaval. Emergency-authorized vaccines will soon be available to everyone, with intense media and social pressure to accept the jab. College basketball goes on. Life proceeds apace, but with strange abnormalities and discontinuities. Trump has been silenced, and every day Google hides more search results and Facebook flags more “misinformation.” The number of people affected is not small, and the pressure and anger must be building. Some supplies are still missing from shelves, and the price of lumber has quadrupled. Houses are selling like hotcakes at insane prices, and investors are piling millions into cryptocurrency and “non-fungible tokens.” The money seems fake somehow, having been generated by a booming stock market magically detached from the pandemic-shocked real economy. In short, it feels like a calm before a storm, and I can only hope that the storm – if and when it arrives – moves us back in the direction of true democracy and away from our headlong rush into authoritarianism.

At the moment, it seems clear to me that we are moving rapidly toward an authoritarian government less reminiscent of Nazi Germany and more reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. I must say it is rather disconcerting to see a Soviet-born US citizen posting things like this:

This phenomenon is by no means confined to the United States. It appears to be nearly global, although it is most dominant in the wealthy, strongly-capitalist nations of the Anglosphere and Western Europe. After decades of increasing corporate influence in government and a revolving door between corporate and civil leadership positions, national governments are beginning to function more like corporate headquarters than like representative democracies. That means that we the people are transitioning from the role of sovereign citizens to that of employees, subject to the whims and dictates of upper management.

Upper management, in this case, consists of the array of unelected governmental agencies, NGOs, international organizations, think tanks, and corporate lobbyists that collectively guide policy. I am not a conspiracy theorist in the sense that I think these people are evil and working together in some dastardly scheme. Rather, I suspect that most of the people involved see themselves as working toward a better world. The problem is that “better”, for them, involves increased corporate profits along with improvements in abstract statistical measures of human well-being. So they might want to see reduced deaths per million from a particular disease, or reduced highway fatalities, or a decrease in the percent of people below an arbitrary poverty line. What is clearly missing from this calculus are all of the non-measurable variables that make life worth living: happiness, life satisfaction, self-determination, friendships, community, resilience, etc., as well as any meaningful representation from the the “employees” in the decision-making process.

Furthermore – and here the balance starts to tip toward actual evil – giant corporations have a much louder mouthpiece than practitioners and the general public, which naturally means that when there is a conflict between corporate benefit and public well-being, policy decisions too often favor corporate benefit. So it is that we see over-prescription of opioids heedless of their addiction potential. So it is also, I would argue, that we see billions of dollars invested in vaccines and designer drugs for Covid-19 and almost zero interest in nutrition-based prophylactic strategies or treatment protocols utilizing widely-available generic medicines. So it is also that we see a big push toward electric vehicle purchases instead of a movement toward using less energy and buying less stuff.

When ideological authoritarian governments seize control of the narrative and dissent is effectively silenced, we enter a world controlled by ideological truth. In this context, ideological truth is a firm belief in the reality of a particular narrative, which persists in the face of firm contradictory evidence and seeks to preclude the discovery and publication of contradictory results. When ideological truth differs from actual scientific or common-sense reality, the inevitable result is bad decision-making that costs lives and livelihoods while (usually) benefiting some corporate interest.

Ideological truth gives us outcomes in the yellow and red boxes far too often. In response to real, crisis-level problems, we willfully ignore potential solutions which would fail to maximize profits, or we invest our limited resources in non-solutions like corn-based ethanol and fancy electric cars. In either case, resources are wasted, dollars are spent and collected, and the problem remains unsolved.

The crisis of the year, of course, remains Covid-19, and not surprisingly our response to it is full of ideological truths, of wishful thinking and willful ignorance that too often lead us in unhelpful and even harmful directions. But that’s a topic for another essay.

For now I will close by saying that this is not the future I ordered – and I don’t even mean that in the sense of an entitled consumer coming to terms with peak oil and resource scarcity and climate change, which is the future I was expecting. I mean it in terms of a movement toward authoritarianism, toward censorship, toward discouraging critical thinking and creative solutions, and toward corporate-corrupted ideological truth that distorts reality and leads to poor crisis response. I can only hope that when the inevitable “correction” arrives, along the lines of 1929, that we might see a real movement back toward democracy and community resilience.

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