In High School, in the early 1960s, despite having watched all too many movies about World War Two, Nazis, and “Good Germans,” I still didn’t get it. How could so many typical, normal, caring, DNA-inscribed human beings become active advocates of or at most sedentary critics of the rise of Facism and its deployment against so many other caring human beings?
Some people I knew dodged my queries while others ridiculed my befuddlement. The Reich was just an aberration. A screw got jangled loose. It was mass insanity or maybe mob hypnosis. Even while I was barely more than a child and had about as much experience of political/social/psychological dynamics as a squirrel, I could see that that explanation for gas chambers and world war didn’t tell us what to do to do better. It didn’t tell us how to not become our own worst nightmare.
A few years later, I experienced an interesting “what if“ moment. Suppose during World War II someone went to sleep and became comatose. The person woke up a decade or two later. Newly woke, she surveyed the world. Here, there, and everywhere she saw subservience, militarism, rape, hypocrisy, enrichment of the few, and impoverishment of the many. She had missed all the anti-Nazis movies. So, would she have deduced that freedom had won? Or would she have deduced that the U.S. had joined Germany’s team and fascism had gone global?
Is that too discomforting to consider? I didn’t think so—my befuddlement had come home. But okay, consider instead our own world right now. Look around. You can’t not see governments and media accelerating societies down a fossil-fueled ecological and economic slippery slope toward incalculable dislocation that will perhaps terminate all human life. You can’t not see the grandkids of the Nazi-perpetrated holocaust celebrating a sequence of Israeli/American actions that aim to either obliterate Palestinians or at least ethnically cleanse them out of “our” way. And you can’t not see Trumpers, bashed but unbowed, preparing to rule.
My High School query persists. How is this level of soul-destroying callousness possicle? How is this level of society-demolishing violence possible? How do good people—sometimes our mothers or fathers, sometimes our brothers or sisters, sometimes ourselves pursue profitable pollution even unto universal death? How do good people pursue ethnic cleansing and bloody massacre to banish or kill “them”? How do good people become Trump-ers?
Why do so many caring citizens become, well, suicidally satanic? Why do so many normal friends and neighbors violate their own ethical and material needs and values? Why do so many of us abide or even celebrate global warming up to self immolation? Why do so many of us abide or even celebrate annihilating others and dehumanizing ourselves? For that matter, why do even some seasoned progressives slip slide to the Right? Is all this just confusion running wild? Is it just false consciousness in command? Bad genes? Bad childhoods? How do we do better?
I know most of my fellow leftists are outraged at our story-spinning, profit-seeking corporate media, but even with all that, the truth is that a good, caring person cannot reasonably believe that to use fossil fuels is wise, to incinerate Palestinian infrastructure and terminate Palestinian lives is warranted, and to support Trump and Maga (or their variants in other countries) is sensible, unless something other than evidence pushes them to deny what’s otherwise obvious. Even mainstream media shows more than enough facts to rebut such nasty allegiances. Can we therefore deduce that people who celebrate oil worship, colonialist conquest, and fascism are not good people?
I don’t think so. More, I think that for left organizers to hold the line against apocalypse much less win liberation, we are going to have to understand why such “aberrations” happen so we can become able to organize among those who now reject us and prevent even our own allies from drifting away?
The most familiar explanation for why good people abide or abet “horrible stuff” is mass mystification. Fossil fuel, armament, Maga loving folks just don’t know the facts. My enemy is immigrants, they say. My enemy is welfare. My enemy is the other. The “horrible stuff”-ers believe lies. They think global warming is a scam. They think Palestinians are sub human violent animals. Containment isn’t enough. Banishment or extermination is the only solution. They think Trump’s willingness to publicly defy, denigrate, lie, bluster, and blame, all prove his desire to help America. He’s got the guts to shake it up for us to all benefit.
Okay, I grant that enforced media mystification partly explains supporting “horrible stuff” and I also grant that we must of course combat misinformation-induced confusion. To the extent people support or even just don’t line up against fossil fuel devastation, Palestinian obliteration, and orange-tinted fascist degradation, we certainly need to provide accurate facts. But many have done just that very well. So why doesn’t undeniable evidence work better?
Suppose someone tells you that two times ten is thirty. Suppose you say you believe it, and you ignore those who make a compelling case otherwise. Is that just your free-ranging cognition at work? Or do you believe such nonsense because to believe it, or to at least say you believe it, fulfills some other purpose? Could it be that for you, or anyone, to accept even self evidently true facts and conclusions that contradict false claims you have for some reason adopted is blocked because to do so would cause you to lose something you greatly value? Do we all at times either aggressively deny messages that contradict our commitments, or ward off even hearing them? If so, what are we avoiding losing? Is there a dynamic like this at work for advocates of ecological annihilation, war beyond all reason, and Trump?
My hypothesis is to not attack lies and vile behaviors, or to even celebrate them can become part of our identity. Attacks on such choices then feel like attacks on something we don’t want to give up. Isn’t this commonplace in life? In the small and in the large? Don’t we see this, and haven’t we done this to defend a friend or partner, to protect something comfortable we enjoy or need like a relationship that provides love, a job that we would otherwise despise but that let’s us eat, or even a sports team we root for though we don’t really know anything about anyone on it?
My point is, what if one powerful cause of supporting “horrible stuff” is not actually the character of the “stuff” itself? What if that is why evidence about fossil fuels, or Israeli/American tactics, or the actual aims of rising fascism has no bearing on allegiance to these things and is simply dismissed or denied? What if allegiance to “horrible stuff” often owes not to the properties of the stuff per se, but instead to wanting to stay on the team that pursues the stuff? What if those who deny global warming, who support barbaric war, or who cheer for orange-tinged idiocy do so not due to loving horrible stuff but due to wanting to hold on to what they get from their “team”? What if to accept the horrible stuff allows them to remain on that team? What if they cling to a level of efficacy and of comradeship, and to feeling like they are impacting society and are important that the team has given them? What then?
What if many people’s allegiance to suicidal energy policies is so that they can stay on team America, or if their allegiance to genocidal war policies is so they can stay on team Israel/USA, or if their allegiance to objectively disgusting behavior is so they can stay on team Trump? What if none of this is mainly about policies, analysis, and facts, but is instead about team loyalty and not wanting to lose what team membership conveys? In that case, don’t we need to address not just facts, but also why being on such a team is ultimately bad for one’s well being, bad for one’s kids well being, and literally bad to the bone even if it feels like family, and indeed, even if it does provide elements of family? And if any of this is true, doesn’t it imply that those who desire to end “horrible stuff” need to establish a team that conveys a real sense of efficacy, hope, meaning, and loyalty, that addresses those legitimate needs of its participants and its opponents?
Right-wing allegiance, in many domains, offers pathetic and even ridiculous policies for anyone other than elites or their truly deeply racist, misogynist, classist allies. But, if I am right, then the reasons for most loyalty to the right-wing team are what we need to address not only with evidence and facts, but also with vision, values, hope and a practice that can much better sustain the level of mutual aid, dignity, and respect necessary for sustained commitment and loyalty. Program is good and needed. Evidence is good and needed. But program and evidence without the glue that is community won’t win the day. With community, however, program and evidence can generate movement able to win.
Ironically, Trumpism not only has money and media, it also has community. We therefore need to produce words and deeds sufficient to undercut right-wingers’ feelings of team loyalty as well as their money and media. It’s a tall order. But it’s also an absolute necessity.
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