In the spring of 2004, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond delivered a lecture entitled “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?” in which he discusses the plight of the Easter Islanders. It seems that1 the when the Polynesian people settled the island, it was covered in forest that they relied upon for their way of life. Over the course of their limited time on the island, they slowly forested their way to societal collapse despite the inherent obviousness of what they were doing; a classic application of the frog-in-boiling-water allegory.2
In the US, our Polynesian lumberjacks are facilitating a slow slide into fascism4; death by a thousand axe cuts.
Lest you think I’m mounting the top of a very slippery slope, let us examine the current state of things from the perspective of Dr. Lawrence Britt’s Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism.
- Powerful and Continuing Nationalism: You would have to have been under a rock for the past 15 years to be unaware of the gross jingoistic turn in the US. From the “if you’re not with us, you’re a terrorist” narrative that immediately followed September 11th to the “these colors don’t run” sentiment that gave allowance to over a decade of military action, nationalism is stronger today than even during the height of American exceptionalism, the cold-war 80s. I am regularly grateful that I am a white male amidst what passes for patriotism in this country today.
Rating: 👎🏼 Not Good
- Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights: While there is plenty of low-hanging fruit from which to choose recently, perhaps the most applicable example of a national disregard for basic human rights would be the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. In its 14 year history, it has been the scene for indefinite detention, violations of the Geneva Conventions, and countless instances of torture and abuse. It is fitting that Amnesty International has referred to Gitmo as a modern-day Gulag; fitting and troubling. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Gitmo is going away anytime soon. I needn’t go back 14 years though, if I wanted to pull from current events, the militaristic handling of the protesters in North Dakota would be high on my list.
Rating: 👢 Stylish Jackboots for Bad Behavior
- Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause: How did we manage to sell the American people on our own Gulag? Through generating a fear of a dreaded enemy; in our case Muslims and Radical Islamic Terrorists. Despite the fact that we are infinitely more likely to suffer at the hands of any random legal gun owner in this country than a bomb-bearing Muslim, it is common to hear that followers of Islam seek to destroy us and our way of life, and as a result, Islamophobia runs rampant in the US. President-elect Trump was, at least in part, elected on a platform of protecting us from the “Islamic jihadis” that might immigrate or seek refuge in our country; very typical scapegoating. Further areas of concern include divisiveness creating enmity between political ideologies and also amongst various ethnicities.
Rating: 👹 Some Very Demonized Others
- Supremacy of the Military: We overspend tremendously on our military. Only a handful of other countries on Earth spend more on their military as a percentage of GDP, and only a few outspend the US per capita—Saudi Arabia and Israel among them. More than 50% of our discretionary spending budget goes to our military; and within the entirety of our federal spending the military is the third highest entry in our budget and accounts for more than all of the budget items below it combined. Additionally, our local police forces are increasingly militarized and citizens are being required more and more frequently to submit to their supreme authority under the guise of “public safety.”
Rating: 🔫 Guns Don’t Compare to the Tanks of our Police
- Rampant Sexism: The US has a profoundly male-dominated government—women represent more than 50% of the population, but occupy less than 20% of federal political offices—that lags behind many other nations in the world. We also remain one of very few first-world nations to have never democratically elected a woman to lead. Beyond that, there has been a sharp uptick in the reinforcement of traditional gender roles in the past decade. Abortion has long been an issue, and appears to be under heavier fire than usual in the wake of the most recent election. Family organizations have been pulled increasingly to the forefront to assert traditional Judeo-Christian values such as male leadership of the household and suppression of homosexuality.
Rating: 👧 A Gender Role Fight that Needs to Go On
- Controlled Mass Media: Our current President-elect has expressed an increasing willingness to trim our 1st Amendment protections for the press—stating that the press is “allowed to say whatever they want” and that he would expand the ability to sue for libel and slander. Recently, Trump demanded via his Twitter that the cast of the stage show Hamilton apologize for expressing concern to Vice President-elect Pence about the duo’s policies and appointments. While it is true that the government has not taken control of our mass media, this is an area to watch very closely!
Rating: 💋 Freedom of Speech Must Be Safeguarded
- Obsession with National Security: The Department of Homeland Security, the TSA’s security theater at airports, the NSAs surveillance of communications, increasing scrutiny of immigrants—the US has spent more than $3.5 trillion on national security since 9/11 and the annual spend is climbing. Fear of national security threats have been the lever by which all manner of freedom-draining legislation has been passed for the past 15 years.
Rating: ✈️ One Racist and Secret Do Not Fly List
- Religion and Government are Intertwined: It’s hard to go a full week without hearing about how America is losing track of its Christian values, and those values have been insinuating their way past our separation of church and state in an increasingly apparent way. From George W. Bush’s God-derived message telling him to invade Iraq to Pence’s dedication to biblical values being expressed by our legislature, religion has asserted itself in a non-minor way into our government. As Trump and Pence select cabinet positions and Supreme Court justices, look for secularism to become even more the enemy. Another area to watch.
Rating: ⛪️ A Church Not Very Separated from the State
- Corporate Power is Protected: While the US has a rich history of allowing corporations to be treated as people, nothing has done more to protect the power of corporations than their improved ability to affect elections. The weakening of the McCain-Feingold and McConnell decisions by the Wisconsin Right to Life and Citizens United decisions have removed nearly any limits on corporate involvement in the political process. Predictably, corporations have used that financial involvement to protect their interests and elect those that will extend those protections. Yet another area that is getting worse, rather than better.
Rating: 🏦 One Corporation Influencing Elections as a Person
- Labor Power is Suppressed: Thankfully, this is an area of distinction from a typical fascist regime. While our labor unions have suffered significant reduction since their heyday, they are still a relatively strong presence that might be one of the few things that stand between us and a complete slide away from democratically-derived power. That isn’t to say that unions aren’t constantly under assault, but they are currently withstanding the onslaught.
Rating: 👴🏿👮🏿 A Tenured Professor and a Police Officer Enjoying Their Union Jobs
- Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts: An air of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism has been growing, and along with it, a genuine disdain for knowledge and those that accumulate it. Exacerbated by the appearance of trivial access to information5, things like the anti-vaccination movement, denial of climate change science, and homeopathy have expanded in scope—along with it distrust of authorities and knowledge workers. More chilling, however, are stories like the Rutgers professor who was recently forced into a state mental hospital for incendiary Twitter comments or the above-mentioned chiding by Trump of the cast of a politically themed musical.
Rating: 🏨 One Hospital Full of People Whose Medical Opinions Shouldn’t Outweigh Mine!
- Obsession with Crime and Punishment: Trump has stated, in no uncertain terms, that he is the crime and punishment candidate. His promise to put his political opponents in prison, his assertion that homicides are up across the US, that we need more police force in place to stem the increase in crime, that harsher punishments are needed, that the death penalty should be reinstated, that the media should be punished for saying unkind things…the list goes on and on.
Rating: 👮🏻 One Police Officer Watching You Very Closely
- Rampant Cronyism and Corruption: I must confess, this is one of the very few areas in which I was looking forward to Trump really having an impact. His determination to “drain the swamp” was music to my ears; then he started naming members of his cabinet and transition team. Guiliani, Bannon, Bondi, Sessions, Palin, and Flynn are all controversial choices that contain more than a whiff of cronyism and corruption (putting a Goldman Sachs alumn in charge of the treasury seems comical even for this administration), but for a real glimpse into hardcore cronyism, you can’t go wrong looking at Trump’s children being on his transition team and having members of his immediate family on the short list for cabinet positions. Kudos for going all in!
Rating: 👨👩👧👧 One Happy Family All Running the Country Together
- Fraudulent Elections: During the ending portion of Trump’s campaign when it seemed that he might be on the ropes, he made considerable noise about the potential illegitimacy of the election. It would appear, in the wake of his win, that he might have been right. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the electronically tabulated votes are deviating considerably from those tabulated manually. While I still consider the likelihood that actual, widespread voter fraud actually happened to be fairly low, the next few weeks should be revealing.
Rating: 🖥 A Computer That Almost Assuredly Wasn’t Hacked
In all, there is an awful lot of red and yellow and precious little green in the above. It is going to be our responsibility in the coming months and years to not lose focus and to not lose steam; we must continue to push back upward toward freedom from oppression, and we must safeguard those freedoms that we keep allowing to be stripped from us.
I, for one, will be looking for Things I Can Do™ to help ensure long-term freedom.
2 You know the one, a frog placed in boiling water will fight to escape, but a frog placed in tepid water that is slowly brought to a boil will be content in the subtle change in his environment and allow himself to be boiled to death.3
3 There is little question that the scientific accuracy of this leaves much to be desired, but as an illustration of a point, it is still quite popular; never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
4 I get that this word is inflammatory, but understand that I’m using it in the most literal sense; there is no hyperbole in my application of the word throughout this piece. When I use the term here, I mean it in the sense that it confers authoritarianism, that it is conveyed by nationalism, and that it is predicated upon the notion of national and personal autarchy. I mean it as a school of thought diametrically opposed to democratically obtained freedom. You know, the definition of the word.
5 It is true, information is trivially available. Unfortunately, this includes both true and untrue information, and anti-intellectualism seems to come hand-in-hand with an inability to differentiate between the two.