An Open Letter to Myself on New Year’s Day 2017
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 2 Jan 2017
I have a politically active liberal friend who in the aftermath of the Trump victory believes rather fervently that ‘clarity,’ not ‘hope,’ is the opposite of ‘despair.’ To be awake to unpleasant, even dire, realities and resist the temptations of denial demands increasing resolve in the face of the mounting evidence that the human species is facing a biopolitical moment threatening civilizational collapse and species decline and fall as never before. Wakefulness can give rise to mindfulness, encouraging radical choices of right action individually, and even possibly collectively. My friend’s clarity was more narrowly focused—limited to recovering and carrying on in America after the unexpected electoral victory of Trump. For those of us living here, the fear of what Trump will do ‘to make America great again’ is overwhelming and deeply depressing without taking the slightest account of the biopolitical crisis threatening the future of the human habitat as well as already producing the extinction of many species that are being swept away by forces beyond their, and more often, our control.
The wonderful Euromed Team that lends valuable civil society support to the Palestinian people and their prolonged struggle, counsels a different spirit in their holiday message: “Keep Calm, Stay Human.” I will do my best to heed this advice. Calmness rather than hysteria, human as profiled by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially in the often neglected, yet aptly visionary, language of its Preamble. Treat others, near and far, with the dignity they and you deserve, and do your utmost to protect those vulnerable within your reach whether family, community, country, world.
Another source of insight relevant to this moment comes from the brilliantly progressive Jean Bricmont, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain and author of Humanitarian Intervention: Using Human Rights to Sell War (2006) and other books, who insists that all positive political action rests on a foundation of ‘hope and indignation.’(p.7) I view ‘hope’ as a matter of informed will as contrasted with optimism, which is often an escapist refusal to acknowledge surrounding risks, harms, and dangers. Optimists too often greet the future with a vacuous benign smile as if there is nothing to worry about so long as you meditate twice a day. To be authentically hopeful under current conditions presents a difficult essentially spiritual challenge, which depends on some form of faith, given the depth of the multiple crises that imperil human and non-human futures. ‘Indignation’ is an appropriate response to the pervasive wrongs associated with corruption, exploitation, patriarchy, and unjustifiable discrimination, and serves as a necessary foundation for raising political consciousness, making mobilization feasible and transformation possible.
Right-wing Populism: A Vehicle for 21st Century Fascism?
Others are sounding various alarms in anxious response to the rise of right-wing populism in a series of countries around the world, warning us that a 21st century fascist virus is viciously attacking hearts, bodies, and minds, often with a democratic mandate, giving rise to a new generation of popular autocrats. This virus is dangerously contagious imperiling the body politic of an increasing number of societies. It appeals especially, even if unconsciously, to those escaping from the discontents of and alienation brought about by the predatory effects of neoliberal globalization. In Europe and North America, especially, these discontents are being dangerously aggravated by anti-immigration nativism, hysteria, demagoguery, libertarian gun policies, and monetized politics. Some perceive fascism in different guises emerging in a variety of societies, capturing and magnifying state power, scapegoating minorities, reversing feminist gains, encouraging a science-defying consumerism, and diverting attention from the menaces posed by the possession, development, and deployment of nuclear weaponry, as well as by a planetary temperature that is pushing against thresholds of irreversibility.
I found the following cautionary list composed by the eminent Yale historian, Timothy D. Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015), perceptive, instructive, and above all, a stimulus of further thought. Pondering Snyder’s list of 20 lessons is to be forewarned. The intended audience seems to those of us living in the West, either Europe or North America.
Snyder List of 20 Lessons (dated Dec. 1, 2016)
“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
- Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
- Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
- Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
- When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
- Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
- Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
- Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
- Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
- Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
- Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
- Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
- Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
- Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
- Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
- Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
- Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
- Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
- Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
- Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.” [Snyder suggests that if this list seems useful, print it out and pass it around!
I find this list of concerns to be suggestive and useful, despite not perceiving quite the same trajectory of political threat. In some respects, the vigilance proposed by Snyder is summarized by Pastor Martin Niemoller’s extraordinary poem written beneath the crushing weight of Nazi Germany:
First They Came
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then 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 out for me.
What seems beyond questioning in the present context within the United States is the political imperative to become maximally engaged. It is crucial that there be many highly visible citizens of conscience and that we all remain on high alert with respect to the dangers posed by a governing process dominated by a media oriented demagogue that has mobilized right-wing populism in the US as never before and is surrounding himself with dedicated reactionary ideologues.
Although this last commentary narrows concerns to American forebodings, the intended and unintended consequences are certain to be much broader. The United States acts as a global state. When Washington makes mistakes they tend to reverberate around the world. This is most obvious with regard to the economic, environmental, and security policy agendas, and also there are likely to be various negative impacts on geopolitical behavior raising risks of international warfare, although this is not entirely clear at this stage. If Trump’s opening to Russia is not thwarted by the American national security establishment, which is how I mainly interpret the Obama move to sanction Russia in retaliation for the recent hacking episode. The American reaction of outraged innocence seems wildly overblown considering our own cyber attacks on Iran and the many flagrant interferences over the years under CIA auspices with foreign elections and even elected governments. Thankfully Putin is so far repudiating the tit-for-tat game, and would deserve credit, along possibly with Trump, for halting this disastrous push by the deep state in the United States to revive the cold war, this time with high hot war risks.
The Calmer Liberal Option
For still others, for whom political activism in a largely liberal mode is the key to avoiding a deeper descent into a planetary inferno the call is: ‘don’t despair, organize and resist.’ The brilliantly attuned filmmaker and cultural critic, Michael Moore, offers Americans a five-point plan for resistance worth reflecting upon: 1) visit local congress representatives to express concerns; 2) insist on the drastic reorganization of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) taking the form of progressive leadership; 3) form local rapid response teams of 5-10, consisting of friends, neighbors, family that can protest adverse developments as they occur; 4) Participate in the protest events in Washington relating to the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next American president, as well as protests elsewhere; 5) Devise a Plan B because as bad as you think things will be, they will actually will be worse. Moore’s proposal is very much responsive to the peculiarities of the current American political landscape, essentially relying on liberal values and associated procedures for energizing constructive forms of participation in this type of constitutional democracy. Whether it goes nearly far enough to counteract the Trump surge is a question not likely to be answered by the end of 2017 at the earliest, but I have my strong doubts. Without addressing the roots of the malaise, which are shaped by neoliberal capitalism, militarism, nuclearism, and patriarchy, we are, at best, in my view, playing for time. At worst, fiddling while the planet burns.
The Progressive Case for Trump: Abstractions Lost in the Ruins
I have several admirable overseas progressive friends that continue to rejoice in the defeat of Hillary Clinton, equating the rejection of her candidacy with a major defeat for the US national security establishment. It is important not to dismiss these views. It is well to remember that during the electoral campaign most Republican defense stalwarts and high profile neocons denounced Trump and threw their support to Clinton. Added to this were several substantive issues. Trump’s campaign calls for an end to regime-changing interventions and state-building ventures throughout the Middle East. If implemented, this seems to presage a kind of welcome geopolitical retreat from the region. And, of course, Trump’s much publicized support for a cooperative relationship with Russia, despite the crimes of Vladimir Putin, angered and worried the establishment consensus. It should be appreciated that Trump seems to be stepping back from Obama’s irresponsible diplomacy with respect to Russia, a dynamic that Clinton would certainly have accelerated against a background of Beltway applause.
The most telling opposition of security insiders to Trump’s candidacy arose in my view because he seemed to be proposing an abandonment of what I have in the past called the ‘Global Domination Project,’ which was the grand strategy associated with American ambitions to play a hegemonic security role associated that was to be expected of the first global state in human history. Anti-Trump militarists should not be too discouraged as Trump promises ‘to rebuild the American military’ and has appointed a series of notorious militarists to the most critical security positions, making his ‘America First’ rhetoric unlikely to be translated into policies associated with lowering the American security profile around the world. There are likely to be ambiguous and questionable responses to Trump’s encouragement of foreign governments to invest more in their own defense and his seeming complacency about the further proliferation of nuclear weaponry.
Despite these weighty considerations I feel strongly to that Trump’s ascendancy to power is posing apocalyptic risks that all sane persons should act to avoid. Also Trump’s victory overlooks the likely impact of his domestic policies on the vulnerable (immigrants, minorities, women, especially African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics) and poor, a prospect given frightening potency by an irresponsibly right-wing Congress and a supportive Supreme Court. It also fails to take account of Trump’s counter-terrorist extremism (‘crush ISIS,’ revive waterboarding, and authorizing even worse forms of torture) and seeming casual embrace of nuclearism, both by seeming to tell allies to consider developing their own nuclear weapons arsenal and promising to retain a position on top of nuclear weapons pyramid even if means unleashing an expensive and dangerous arms race.
There is bound to be uncertainty and confusion associated with the early stages of the Trump’s presidency. Despite trembling at the prospect, no one knows exactly what to expect. For one thing, Trump contradicts himself frequently, or restates his most provocative proposals with decidedly more moderate ideas about implementation. For another, there is a tension between his primary persona as an exemplary entertainer of the digital age and his hard line cabinet and staff appointees who seem primed to actualize a reactionary agenda. Whether the president as commander-in-chief will turn out this time to be the entertainer-in-chief is at this point anyone’s best guess. And just maybe, given the alternatives, the world will be better off with an entertainer, especially if the political class steps back to let the show go on! What might be most toxic would be a kind of collaborative governing process that provides media performances as spectacular distractions (bread and circuses of our time) while an unfolding assortment of regressive programs, policies, and practices were being enacted.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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