On Recognizing Everyday Authoritarianism

[content note: Holocaust]

I've been thinking lately about bystanders to atrocity.

Would most Americans who are not explicitly targeted for oppression and violence know, for instance, if we were living through a time comparable to the Holocaust? Undoubtedly, the particulars would differ and so, wouldn't many people make distinctions that would gaslight the present-day horrors inflicted on others? (Don't many people already do this, with respect to state-sanctioned violence today?)

These questions are partly why I'm finding the endless calls for liberals to empathize with Trump voters, but so rarely the reverse, so vile right now. Where is the pressure on Trump voters - particularly angry, violent white men - to understand literally anyone else in society?

It's like a new spin on the sardonic feminist joke: Women, LGBT people, immigrants, and people of color are scared that white men will rape and/or kill us and face no punishment from the state. White men are scared that someone will make them go to a sensitivity training.

Consider also: People quote Godwin's Law whenever someone on the Internet makes a Hitler analogy. It's Internet lore that once someone makes such a comparison the conversation is effectively pointless beyond repair, with the person making the comparison having "lost." But, what if the use of Godwin's Law itself gives cover to a regime that, little by little, becomes like Hitler's and then, later, the history books tragically explain, "See, there was this maxim people liked to cite a lot...."?

Tom Pepinsky considers the (in)ability (or is it unwillingness?) to recognize authoritarian rule:
"The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (and the Second World War and the Cold War), and from a kind of 'imaginary othering' in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.


The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. It is more likely that democracy ends, with a whimper, when the case for supporting it—the case, that is, for everyday democracy—is no longer compelling."
In a spirit of hopefulness, I actually do see many people sending regular warnings messages on Twitter, blogs, and in some media sources about the incoming Trump administration. We must continue documenting, resisting, and speaking out.

(h/t for the Pepinsky link: Lawyers, Guns, and Money).

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus