To everything there is a season. We know the old Pete Seeger tune, composed in the late ’50s and made famous by The Byrds in the mid ’60s, a time just after McCarthy’s communist witch-hunting campaign. It was a time of authoritarianism and public discussion about that kind of leadership. That time has returned. And now, it’s time again to discuss it.
The discussion is everywhere. Take, for example, “The Elements of Trumpism,” an article by Ross Douthat published March 6 in The New York Times. In the article, Douthat presents the rather dubious idea that “MAYBE Trump is doing us a favor” by showing us how authoritarianism develops, as though we need some kind media-sponsored reality show to bring us to our collective senses. Let me point out that this essay is not about Trump. This essay is written to explore the horrid idea that a dose of fascism is needed to “show us how authoritarianism works, how it seduces, and ultimately how it wins.”
Think about it: Why would The New York Times support an editorial that all but openly thanks fascists forteaching us what authoritarianism looks like? Let’s be real: Anyone saying a little fascism might be good for “us” because we need to see what it really looks like has produced a foul-smelling bile that ought to be cleaned before it stains too deeply the foundational flooring of democratic possibility. There are several issues with that kind of distractive reasoning. One of those is that we have somehow in the past been “spared a truly authoritarian element in American politics.” Another is that we have somehow not been told all this before.
Apparently, the author has forgotten the fact that our police currently have the de facto right to murder unarmed people of color and get away with such crimes through legally approved precedent. Specifically, Douthat appears to have forgotten the truly authoritarian enforcement associated with the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton (shot 14 times) and Ezell Ford, to name just a few unarmed Black men who were killed by police.
When it comes to killing, especially killing minorities, the law is on the side of the police. Civil rights attorney Chase Madar’s article in The Nation “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop,” points out that “Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these police killings, many of them of unarmed victims, is that our courts find them perfectly legal.” That is a fact of authority made legitimate by Supreme Court jurisprudence though the idea of objective reasonableness, a concept, as Madar tells us, allowing “American courts [to] universally defer to thelaw enforcement officer’s own personal assessment of the threat at the time.”
We don’t need to thank ethno-nationalists for showing us what authoritarianism looks like. That is, it appears Douthat and the editors at The New York Times have forgotten those public intellectuals, like Madar, who have bravely stood upon their soapboxes and provided information we needed to know about American authoritarianism, its location and its consequences.
Spared a truly authoritarian element? Apparently, this New York Times-sponsored editorialist has forgotten thecountless children killed as “collateral damage” in wars justified through processes of obfuscation and fabrication — wars allowing profiteers to milk a cash cow worth billions of dollars while infants scream theanguish of their missing limbs and hunger pains.
Apparently, the author of this so-called “liberal media” editorial and those who approved it forgot the fact of US-sanctioned torture and the role of the American Psychological Association in facilitating that sadistic practice of authority, as exposed by James Risen, another (more responsible) New York Times reporter.
Risen’s thoroughness and bravery in reporting on government-sanctioned torture, warrantless wiretapping and on the CIA’s efforts to interfere with Iranian nuclear development through a mission called Operation Merlin far exceeded the spine of his New York Times editors, who initially declined to print and institutionally back Risen’s research (until learning the information would be independently published in Risen’s 2006 State of War) in response to conversations with then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Risen’s bravery, especially evident in his refusal to testify against Jeffery Sterling, points to another aspect of American authoritarianism we’ve not been spared — judicially approved limitations of journalistic liberty. Specifically, in United States vs. Sterling, Chief Judge Trexler of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit wrote that a reporter’s privilege has never existed under federal law and that Risen and other reporters could, therefore, be forced to testify against their sources, the basic idea being that a reporter does not have the right to conceal “criminal activity.” Such rulings, of course, increase governmental authority to jail journalists and quell freedom of the press. We don’t need to thank a fascist for teaching us that lesson.
Authoritarianism is nothing new in the United States. Nobody has been spared anything since McCarthy’s witch-hunting campaign, except the über elite whose ever-growing opulence is used to redirect the people’s attention from the fact that US authoritarianism has been an ever present and multi-tentacled beast — camouflaged and heeled, perhaps — but we’ve not been spared its sociological or psychological presence. Rather, American authoritarianism has continued to exist nearly unchecked within a kind of moral night, a collective ethical darkness within which the beast has been unleashed to hunt in foreign lands where foreign people suffer the outrages of US authority in theform of an unrelenting militaristic domination. Though heeled somewhat in our own lands, US authoritarianism creates carnage elsewhere.
Certainly, we must acknowledge also that we have witnessed this horrific beast’s throbbing tentacles here in thehomeland as well, though the candy crumbs of privilege and a never-ending succession of movies and sporting events has successfully redirected us from what would have otherwise been the nobler endeavor of acompassionate struggle for the sake of basic human rights. We have been too busy smacking on the sweet crumbs of opulence to collectively confront the realities of an ever-present authoritarianism.
This beast is nothing new. We’ve seen it. Think about it: What happens, for example, when you expose theNational Security Administration for tapping the servers of nine internet giants — including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo — as part of a PRISM surveillance process? The beast chases you all over the world with its waving, slimy tentacles. And you become, in the homeland from which you fled, an entertainment spectacle and a symbolic warning to others presented through media-produced propaganda that increases market value while protecting the interests of those who run the show. If you expose it, you will run from it. We’ve seen that.
And don’t forget the ever-extending corporate legal privileges and corresponding limitations of employees’ civil liberties. As far as human resource directors are concerned, workers don’t have civil liberties, especially inright-to-work states. We’ve all heard of Facebook firings. The reality is human resources goons creep our blogs, our emails, our editorials; they are the new McCarthy investigators, the watchers within the modern panopticon of employer surveillance.
Think about the authoritarian nature of the school-to-prison pipeline and the never-ending grief of those countless families who have mourned their children’s cop-sponsored murders, while suffering collectively an ongoing economic alienation enforced within the crushing squeeze of culturally sanctioned castigations. Privatized prisons prosper on police-sponsored arrest patterns. That is homeland authority in action.
But it’s nothing new. Those tentacles of US authoritarianism have been revealed time and time again by prominent public intellectuals. We didn’t need an ethno-nationalist to do us a favor and reveal American authoritarianism; it’s already been revealed. Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Wendell Berry, Noam Chomsky, Cornell West and a few brave others have repeatedly told us when and where that the beast was stirring, and they have shown us repeatedly how US authority was ever-engaged in an unrelenting process of strangling our basic liberties. But we failed to see. We failed to listen. We failed to act. We let ourselves be distracted. And now, the beast is at our door.