Preparing for Fascism

Do me a favor: convince me that I’m being an alarmist?

During an interview about his book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale Professor, Jason Stanley, was asked if the American government was fascist.  “I would never say it in an interview,” he responded.  “It would be too dangerous.  In other words, by the time the people in power have instituted fascism, it’s too late to call it that.”

But the time may be near.  Ironically, it is during periods of uncertainty—not knowing, for instance, if a hurricane will really strike, whether an authoritarian leader will execute a coup—that it is hardest to know what to do.  It is tempting to deny the potential calamity.  Those who insist it is coming look like alarmists.  Sometimes, though, the “threat” is transformed into a reality before we know it, before we stop calling it a threat.  We who have watched environmental degradation called a threat long after it is wreaking actual damage know this danger all too well.

On October of 2016, John McNeil of the Washington Post asked “How Fascist is Donald Trump?”  Then he identified 11 characteristics of Fascism to help us judge whether the danger is imminent or distant.  They are: hyper-nationalism; militarism; glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics; fetishization of youth; fetishization of masculinity; a “leader cult”; a “lost Golden Age” syndrome; self-definition by opposition;mass mobilization and mass party; a hierarchical party structure, which purges the disloyal; and theatricality. Most of these qualities are resonant in President Trump’s rhetoric and actions.

Let me add a few observations.  Trump has persistently, fervently, tried to weaken the checks and balances that are supposed to limit (democratic) presidential power. For instance, he attacks the press.  He now has an embarrassing degree of control over the Republican  Congress.  And, if Brett Kavanaugh, who believes in the immunity of the President from criminal prosecution, becomes a Supreme Court judge, then Trump will further insulate himself from the balance of power the founding fathers specifically erected against tyranny.

The international context further strengthens the possibility of authoritarian rule in the United States by making strong-man rule increasingly normative.  We need only think of Poland, Hungary, and Russia.  Or turn our thoughts to increasingly powerful right wing movements in France, Germany, England, and even Sweden.  Where are the bulwarks against the fall of democracy?

In a New Yorker review of Madeleine Albright’s new book, warning about the potential for fascism, Robin Wright noted this: On a Sunday morning in 2016, Donald Trump retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Asked if he worried about his association with Mussolini’s thinking, Trump was casually unbothered.

We have been warned about the possibility of Fascism by credible sources.  And we may be standing on a precipice, easily tumbled by national crises—like the Reichstag fire that provided Hitler with an excuse to consolidate power, like a little war in Iran, that might “require” even more centralized power in the United States, or like a natural weather disaster that “demands” a larger than usual contingent of the national guard.  These are the kind of events that could plunge us over the line and into a fascist abyss.

Even if the risk is 10%, don’t we have to take it literally, not as some metaphor used to criticize an dangerous presidency?  In other words, if we take seriously the warnings, if we allow ourselves to think the unthinkable, if we believe that Fascism is a real, perhaps imminent possibility, what should we do?

At the least, we must exhaust all democratic options and, in particular, work to turn the House of Representatives now, then state legislatures over the next few election cycles, thus ending the gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to win political dominance, even as minority party.

But, with the possible exception of turning the House this November, these are long-term solutions.  What if we at least hypothesize that the crisis is imminent.  How can we avoid the “pale cast of thought,” the paralysis that empowered the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain, during the last century, and the authoritarian regimes—Russia, Poland, and Hungary, among them—in this century?

If we had already become an authoritarian state, I don’t think that we would have qualms about forming a resistance movement.  Oddly enough, the moral choices grow easier as the enemy grows clearer.

I do appreciate that it is daunting to move from the idea of threat to its realization.   None of us want to consider this until it is absolutely necessary.  It would take a kind of courage that most of us have not been called upon to demonstrate.  We might admire the French Resistance.  We might romanticize the Republican struggle against Franco. We might wish that the Germans and Italians had begun to fight earlier.  But what about us?

I don’t feel very brave and I don’t know what to do.  But I am frightened.  So I am writing this essay to pose the question more strongly than I see it presented in the national mainstream media.  Even progressive venues such as The Daily Beast, Salon, and Politico have been reluctant to name the fascist threat as more than a threat.  To me, that is like saying that environmental degradation threatens our future when we know that it already produced undeniable consequences.

At the very least, we must begin to talk with one another and, possibly, to do so in an organized way.  We can ask what we should do “if.”  We can begin to plan for contingencies.  As Jason Stanley warns, there may come a time when we cannot have these conversations out in the open.  Now we can.

 

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We Don’t Seem to Matter Anymore

The other day, a friend broke into a good day by talking about the anxiety his retirement had brought on. I had enjoyed a long, slow walk in the Minuteman Park, listening on my earphones as Spotify played an endless array of Paul Simon songs, then, a little later, a long, slow vodka martini to begin the evening.  This was a week day in September and, for the third year in a row, there would be no return-to-work preparations to worry about.  It felt almost illicit, like I was cheating someone, breaking some ancient and unquestioned rule.

I suppose I’m violating another rule, leaving my friend to talk about myself.  So let me return.  He had had a long and very successful career in the law, in practice early and teaching at a university in the latter stages.  He is the father of three children, all seemingly well set in their lives, and now spends a good deal of time with his grandchildren, each lovelier than the other, with four already in college.  Neither the children, nor the grandchildren, nor his former employees, of course, needed his support.  He’s free; and he’s having trouble with his freedom.

What bothered him most—let’s call him Isaac—was that he didn’t seem to matter any more.  Not to his children, not to his grandchildren—not deeply, anyway—and not to anyone at work.  He wasn’t responsible to anyone.  They weren’t responsible to him.  His successes and failures—whatever they were at this point in his life—are his, alone.  He might be free but he is alone.

Yes, he spends time with friends and that represents another kind of freedom.  Friends are chosen.  Family is not.  Nor, while you are in the midst of work, are employees and colleagues.  They are just part of your life, as unavoidable as the furniture in your home.  They make demands on you; you demand from them.  There’s nothing special about the demands but it’s as though they hold you up, like braces, like the crowd in a subway car where you couldn’t fall if you wanted to.

According to Isaac, it isn’t the loss of company that bothers him.  He loves being alone.  He loves being able to rise in the morning, unfettered, free to read the newspaper or not, free to sit out on his deck and welcome the sun, free to call a friend or read a book.  No, Isaac doesn’t want to be crowded.

But he does want to matter.  More than he had known, mattering to all those people—and all the roles he played with them—had defined who he was as a person.  All those obligations had made him feel important.  It might have been bothersome—Why can’t people manage for themselves,” he had often complained—but it was better to be bothered and important than free and irrelevant.

In his worst moments, Isaac found himself angry at the people who now seemed to abandon him.  Why didn’t they call to ask for his advice or, at least, his company.  He had been important to them.  He knew he was.  Yet, they seemed to have closed in around themselves and their own concerns in a way that didn’t just ignore but excluded him.  Walls had been erected that now seemed to hard to scale.

Outside those walls, Isaac felt confused.  He lacked the information about himself that had come in such abundance during interactions with all those people.  He had to depend on old stories, memory, internal musings, and the feedback of a few people who were still close.  Sometimes he wondered if he was the person he had thought himself to be all those years.

Isaac had a strange feeling of fading away.  Almost literally.  He’d take a walk in the park and, even as he’d pass people, he’d feel invisible.  Unless he called one of his children or set an appointment with a friend, he was beginning to disappear.  It was like living in a Kafka novel.  During the last year or so, he had even lost about fifteen pounds.  That was on purpose, a matter of health.  But it also rendered his corporal being as less.  There was just less of him.  Isaac had become less than the person he had known for all those years.

“It’s a hard transition,” I said.

“Maybe too hard,” Isaac responded.

That comment worried me a bit.  So I tried to offer some perspective.  “When you’re busy, when people need you, partly because we train them to need us, you feel solid.  You know who you are.  Even the hidden parts of you.  You know that that social person isn’t all of you but you also have explanations about how that secretly shy person fits with the sociable you, how the angry or frightened or even the violent side of you relates to the well behaved person you have constructed.  You have an idea of the whole person who has evolved over the years.

“But when you leave the many roles and obligations that support that whole person, it’s as though you pass through a secret barrier and you don’t know what’s on the other side.”

I was a little embarrassed by my attempt to offer this little bit of wisdom or pseudo wisdom.  But I identified with him, at least a bit.  And he didn’t take offense.  In fact, he did feel that some of his parts—the productive, the nurturing part, the confident guy, along with the secret, insecure selves—had split apart.  They were each on their own, had not joined a new configuration, a whole person, that he could call his self.

As a result, Isaac felt like an observer to his life.  Watching as all the parts sought out ways to join or wither or give up.  He noted that some of the fierceness and even his old obsessive attention to projects had no real place in his current life, but those qualities hadn’t yet disappeared.  The same was true for his paternal instincts which, while long waning, were still there.  What would he do with them.  Just tuck them away in some corner of his soul, marked “history.”  That was me then; and this is me now?  But his history was who he was—or that’s what Isaac had always thought.

As we talked, Isaac surprisingly began to chuckle.  “This is getting to sound strange.  Like I’m living in a twilight zone or having some kind of mystical experience.  But that’s not true.  Mostly my experience feels ordinary.  Most of the time, I feel very ordinary.  But not like myself.  And I don’t yet know who I’m becoming.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just repeated myself:  “It’s a hard transition,” Isaac.  I wish I could tell you what’s on the other side of that barrier but I can’t.  I’m not altogether there yet, myself.”

“It feels lonely,” said Isaac.

“There are lots of us walking in this strange land.  We can at least keep each other company.”

“That’s a hopeful thought,” said Isaac.  “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

 

 

A Skeptic Attends a Meditation Retreat

Almost everyone is seated on meditation mats, maybe propped up by pillows, but I’m sitting on a chair, which the Insight Meditation Center (IMC) has graciously provided for older folks who can’t sit in the lotus position, legs twisted like pretzels, for more than 15 seconds at a time.  My eyes are closed and have been for… well, I don’t know how long.  This period of sitting meditation is scheduled for 45 minutes and I can’t tell if we’re closer to the middle or the end.

I have promised myself not to cheat, to look at my watch, though my eyes are itching to.  I know this is not the best of preoccupations.  I need to discipline my mind.  With effort, I return to breathing softly, slowly.  For a moment, that’s all there is.  I feel calm.  There’s no place I want to go.  I am where I am.  That lasts for—again, it’s hard to tell—maybe a few minutes but maybe only 15 seconds.

Now I want the session to end so that I can comprehend and celebrate this moment.  I have loved the peacefulness.  This is what I want to achieve—oops, that’s the wrong word, the opposite of just being.  Still I want to celebrate.  How much longer will the sitting be?  Now the gong rings.  At last.  But I don’t feel like moving or opening my eyes.  I am back to loving the quiet. These are fleeting moments that I want to last.

For much of the meditation periods, I am lost in time; and being lost is good.  My hope for the weekend retreat is that it will cast me out of my regular thought stream, which has grown a little stale, a little self-protective, and free my creative juices.  At 76, I still feel too tied to the need for productivity and, as a result, to matter in every social setting.  Maybe the sustained meditation emphasis on just being present will nudge me towards a greater acceptance of myself, just as I am—or the discovery of a new way to experience myself.

But the aura of acceptance is not where the retreat begins.  Rather, we receive instructions about all the things we shouldn’t do.  Like talk or make contact with others, even by nodding or smiling (which is said to invade their space), or read or use any electronic devices.  Those we must hand in to the office.  At the introductory lecture, we are presented with the “five hindrances,” that will interfere with our progress as meditators and people.  They are: sensual desire or greed; ill will or aversion; sloth and torpor; restlessness  anxiety or worry; and doubt.

Who can argue with the last four, and it’s easy to see that sensual desire has no place at the retreat.  But I feel that the long list of prohibitions has created a somewhat dour atmosphere.  When someone has done me a kindness, as many people do, by letting me into line or opening doors, I’d like to give a nod, a little smile of recognition, but no.  That might demand a response from them, breaking the “cone of silence” that is said to be critical to our ability to focus intently inward.

So in spite of my reservations, I see the point, and I promise myself to follow the rules.  This isn’t easy for me.  I dislike rules.  I like to be mischievous, even Rebellious.  But my goal is to throw myself into the unknown and if that means accepting authority for a period of time, then I’ll do it.

As a matter of fact, the idea of surrender has long been near the top my list of important enterprises.  I like to be in control of myself and I probably spend way too much energy making sure of it.  Instead of navigating through the many potential threats to my freedom, I could accept what others want from me, how others see me, what rules require of me.  Letting go might be liberating, might release a great deal of normally wasted energy.  Surrendering to others might let the small child in me peak into the warmth and comfort of other people’s acceptance and love.

Each retreat participant is assigned a “yogi” task.  Mine is to clean the toilets.  This seems brilliant to me, almost mystical in its perspicacity.  Along with surrender, the theme I’ve chosen to work on this weekend is humility, a quality that comes as naturally to me as surrender.  Here, in one stroke, the retreat staff has provided fertile grounds for my spiritual aspirations.

The retreat is structured very simply.  We rise early and then do sitting meditation, then breakfast, yogi work, sitting, walking meditation, sitting, walking, lunch, sitting… you get the idea.  On Friday, we’re at it from 7:30pm – 9:30pm.  On Saturday, from 6am – 9:15pm.  On Sunday morning, the gong rings at 5:15 and we meditate in various forms from 6:00am to 11:30am, with a lecture fitted in.

The key to Vipassana meditation—that’s the name for the IMC practice—is to follow your breath or any other focus that keeps your mind from wandering.  They call these foci “anchors,” and you are free to choose your own.  For years, I following my breath has served as my anchor

The goal is to empty your mind, which is virtually impossible.  As you sit and follow your breath, thoughts leap to mind, serious ones mixing freely with laundry lists of things you should be doing or should have done.  Desires, dreams, and hopes arise.  Anxieties and fears arise, too.  The discipline consists of noticing the mental processes and letting them go by returning to your breath.  You don’t fight the thoughts.  You let them float by like a river.  Relative inattention robs them of their hold on you.   Your mind empties itself of its reactive and neurotic tendencies and distortions.  With time, with consistent meditation over years, you grow freer and freer from their ability to dominate your life.

An empty mind is a free mind, or so we are told, and it enables you to experience the world as it is.  An empty mind is also said to be a more peaceful place to dwell, which is my goal.

Each time I meditate during the retreat seems unique.  Sometimes I become quiet quickly, and I feel a kind of contentment.  Sometimes, I shuffle and wriggle, unable to get comfortable and much of the meditation seems like a struggle to quiet myself.  Some sitting periods are filled with internal chatter; some are almost free of it.  At times, I can’t wait for the period to end and at others I am disappointed that the sitting is ending because I am so pleased with the peaceful moment.  It is rare that, even for a moment, I feel a free and empty mind.  But I am grateful for those moments.

During the last hours of Sunday morning, I can’t wait for the lecture to stop and then can hardly abide the final sitting meditation.  I want to go home.  I want to speak with my friend, David, on the drive home.  As we drive, our conversation is good but it doesn’t touch deeply on our experience at the retreat, as though we are withholding that for another time or, in some odd way, partly retaining our cone of silence.  I’m glad to see Franny and to describe the retreat but, again, I feel like I’ve withheld its essence—not out of meanness or fear but because the experience is still only within me.

The next day, I binge on political news and TV sports, just as the retreat instructors have warned us against.  The surrender is over.  I worry that the retreat has had no impact on me whatsoever.

But I do feel quieter inside. I seemed to have tasted its sweetness and long for the peacefulness of meditation in my chair.  And I have been continuing the practice, which feels like a refuge.  The practice is hardly at the center of my life but it is a little closer, which surprises the skeptic in me.