Shades of an American Kristallnacht
by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
Watching the spectacle of the Republican primaries evokes deep sadness over the unavoidable truth that now, in the wake of Citizens United, it has become totally legal for rich people to run politicians the same way they might run horses or greyhounds. Just like that.
Maybe that’s what provides the eerie, zombie-like atmosphere in politics these days. You really have the sense that most politicians, especially the ones at the top echelons of power, are like old-fashioned Kabbalistic golems, animated out of clay by skilled magicians who can control them from afar.
Of course, that’s been going on for a long time. Remember George Bush, a wind-up man getting remote control instructions through his earphone in the 2004 Presidential debates?
But it’s getting worse and worse. That’s why I can’t stand to watch Gingrich and Santorum and all the other Republican wax model men mouth their lines on the stage these days. You know they’ll say whatever they’re told … whatever they think it will take to win.
Democrats, pay attention! You may be feeling dispirited and grumpy, not much in the mood to get all fired up about yet another election, but meanwhile, the Republicans are rabid to take back the White House. They’ve been busy as hell redistricting and installing those sketchy electronic voting machines all across the country.
It’s very possible that Mr. XY Zombie Republican could seize power in November, with the backing of endlessly deep pockets like the Koch brothers, Big Energy, and Big Finance, and the blessing of the Supreme Court.
If the Republicans controlled all three houses of government, they could ram through the legislation they’ve been concocting during the past decade or so: legislation powering up the assault on the environment, on health, on social services, destroying any kind of safety net for people, animals or the environment.
They could escalate the war on dissidents who dare to oppose their plans. In short order, the United States could turn into just another big banana republic, with a military-backed regime of elites governing through the indiscriminate use of fear tactics, with violence applied as necessary to keep the people in line.
It happened not so long ago in many countries in Latin America — think Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador — in the 1970s, when wealthy politicians wielding military power and complete control over the ballot boxes ruled their countries with iron fists, “disappearing” anyone who might remotely be a threat, including thousands of innocent students. Often the shift from democracy to fascist dictatorship happened literally overnight.
Lately I have been re-reading Margaret Atwood’s marvelous sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and finding it chillingly prophetic. In Atwood’s dystopia, environmental catastrophe has rendered the elites infertile, and pushed them to withdraw into gated communities where food shortages are common, and people are regularly hung in the public square to keep everyone fearful and docile.
The narrator remembers how just before her world fell apart, there were signs of repression: books being banned and burned, identity cards being issued and required, mobility restricted, media censored. All of a sudden, one fine morning, it was no longer possible for her and her family to get in their car and drive away to seek safety in Canada. All of a sudden, they were trapped in a nightmare that went quickly from bad to worse.
As in Germany before the Kristallnacht, none of us here in the U.S. wants to believe that anything could happen to destroy our cherished freedoms, our vaunted “American way of life.” We don’t want to admit, even to ourselves, the extent to which our freedoms are already being encroached upon, day by day.
Just last week, for example, there was an outrageous episode in Arizona, where the government declared a whole long list of books to be unsuitable for school use, and went so far as to direct the school librarians and teachers to pull them from the shelves, box them up and put them into deep storage.
Among the authors banned are some of my favorite writers — Gloria Anzaldua, Elizabeth Martinez, Paulo Freire.
Yes, that Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator and free thinker who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a brilliant analysis of the way that traditional education indoctrinates students into conformity and submission to authority.
Freire proposed that instead of a banking style of education, where knowledge is deposited into students, who are then required to spit it back upon demand, education worth its salt should empower students to think for themselves.
Such a simple idea, but so powerful, too. Education should teach people to think for themselves, and to work with each other to come to consensus on issues of importance to the larger society.
Isn’t that just what the Occupy movements have been trying to do? If Freire were alive, he would be out there in the thick of the Occupy action, inspiring the young to shake off the false animation of Zombiland, and insist on dancing to their own authentic beat.
This reminds me of another beloved science fiction book, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, where the sinister IT controls all the inhabitants of a city by forcing them to conform to ITS rhythm. Their hearts pulse to ITS rhythm, their eyes twirl to ITS rhythm, their thoughts are entirely subsumed by IT. The only way to break ITS control is to think for oneself, to be creative, resilient and determined.
The children Meg and Charles Wallace succeed in rescuing their father from the clutches of IT by dint of their own powers of creativity and love, with a little help from some eccentric and freethinking guides.
Will the science fiction we’re living through now have that kind of happy ending?
Oh right, this isn’t science fiction, is it.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez teaches comparative literature and gender studies with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA. She is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, and blogs at Transition Times.