Those of us who were born just after WWII and who went to college in the Baby Boom generation were trained by the fiction and even the nonfiction of those times to constantly be on guard against all of the trends that gave rise to Hitler in Germany. We were trained to be a sort of informal Authoritarian League. People were traumatized by the evidence of Hitler which suggested that our minds are not as strong as we believe them to be. We examined in depth why the Germans let this mad man take over their bodies and their minds so completely that they led 6 millions other human beings to their death, or to torture so extreme and alien that the emaciated remnants of the concentration camps could barely walk out at the end of the war. How did something as abstract as nationalism and pride of nation lead to horror? How did ordinary German citizens, not necessarily Nazis, let this happen?
We heard the speeches Hitler made, the rousing appeals to Germanic hegemony and the injustice of the current treatment of the German people. We saw the sway he held over his audiences, the thrill people felt at being part of those patriotic crowds. Yes, Germany would take its proper place among the pantheon of nations. It was the Jews and others who were usurping the wealth that properly belonged to the German people. Antisemitism was forged into a weapon to unleash the beast which I guess lies drowsing in all of us.
We swore that we would learn how Hitler hypnotized his followers and we would teach people how to never be susceptible to these techniques again. And so in our colleges and lecture halls our professors assigned books, not texts, but paperbacks that exposed the tools of authoritarians. These professors did not necessarily have a conscious plan; they were also reacting to what we learned about the depths of possible human behavior in that war. They taught us not to be sheep. They taught us to recognize propaganda. They taught us the hubris of extreme nationalism. They tried to teach us to have strong minds and to resist regimentation. They taught us so well that they led us right into the cultural revolution of the sixties. But wasn’t that whole exercise in humanism, that celebration of freedom and equality, just a backlash reaction to all of the things that allowed the rise of Hitler in Germany.
I cannot think of a book which was more seminal in teaching us what to look out for than 1984 by George Orwell, except, perhaps Animal Farm on a more rudimentary level, also by George Orwell. In 1984 we are led into the authoritarian government of Oceania (Great Britain). Oceania is ruled by the “Party” which is led by “Big Brother.” People are controlled through their televisions screens which operate like one-way mirrors. The government can see what you are doing. There is no privacy. The television must be kept on. Citizens are subject to “doublespeak” constantly as all media is state media. Citizens can be convicted of a “thoughtcrime”, as in the government knows what you are thinking. Even language is controlled and people speak in “Newspeak”. This began a long trend in literature of dystopian science fiction, and even downright silly fiction to anaesthetize us to “others”, to find humor in space, so to speak (Vonnegut, Star Wars). Many people mention The Manchurian Candidate as an important influence in their thinking about Communism and, therefore, authoritarianism. Even the superhero comics, experiencing such an enormous renaissance in the 21stcentury were analogies about criminals, fascists, and dictators of all stripes.
It is clear that not all of us were influenced by antitotalitarian literature or nonfiction. Boomers who did not go to college were not necessarily taught to think so critically about these matters. The Conservatives had their own favorite books, although not all of the right wingers so affected were baby boomers. Paul Ryan is certainly not a boomer. He decided to throw his lot in with Ayn Rand and his passion for the author and her books has led others in the GOP to read and adopt ideas from this elitist; ideas that are driving Republican policy and putting the right at loggerheads with those on the left who were trained to seek out exactly these tendencies, and trained intensively through their most impressionable years. It offers insight into why Conservatives are on a tear against higher education and critical thinking and even political correctness.
We humans may not know exactly what we want but we have been educated for this moment. We know what we don’t want. When our president says, “When Kim Jong Un speaks and his people sit up in attention; I want my people to do the same,” we are preprogrammed to think OMG. We are preprogrammed to remember that every act by the “dear leader” is intended to make his people afraid to step out of line, and that the lines they must stay within are very narrow indeed. Stepping over the line does not just lead to a slap on the wrist; it leads to prison camp and hard labor for you, and possible starvation or imprisonment for your family. People have been taught to color within these lines (only crayon gray) for three generations. Trump seems to give no weight at all to the human toll that absolute obedience has taken on the North Korean people. While it is true that it is easier to govern when you don’t have to consult anyone but yourself, and when all tendencies to individual action have been oppressed in your people, this is not a place that any of we the people should want to go.
What we did not learn in our schools or our reading is what tactics would work to fight off the next strong man who decided to try for totalitarian rule. We did not meet on the quad for swordfights. We did not learn to handle weaponry. We did not form any secret militias that would automatically be empowered should someone try to destroy our autonomy, our democracy, and our freedoms. We did not learn how to act tough. We did not think it could really happen.
Our antiwar activities taught us to resist and this knowledge is now being passed down to a new generation; the children of the boomers. But we did not steel ourselves to do anything beyond resistance. We did not study or learn to recognize when the threat level was getting too high for resistance to be successful. We did not learn how to live as long-term resisters. We keep wanting to go home to our jobs and our homes and our families. We want it to have the ambience of a hippie picnic/concert. This is not the sixties. The foes we face are citizens like us and they look like they would not avoid brutality should we defy them.
We do still have some faith in the power of the vote. We can vote. We must vote. We have been trained, and rightly so, to stop authoritarian tendencies when we are confronted with them, before they take hold of us so strongly that all of the will to resist is gone. 2018 will be a test. It will tell us if the vote still has any power to turn things around without having to turn ourselves into Dumbledore’s army.
Here are three more voices of Americans who are worried about where we are headed:
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