Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Because against a fascist, the most powerful weapon of all isn’t a bullet or a bomb — it’s just the simple, plain truth. When we tell the truth — as ugly and desperate and bitter and heartrending as it is — then we fight fascism. And only when we tell the truth. —Umair Haque
I watched a startling video yesterday. Jake Tapper, the CNN anchor, questions the VP about how kids are being treated in America’s camps. Pence’s reply? To openly laugh at him. As if to mock. Taunt. Flaunt. Rub it in Jake’s face just how powerless he is. Jake was left speechless for a moment. Maybe you would be too.
Think about that for a second. When asked if torture in concentration camps was fascism, one of the country’s leaders replied with laughter. Hold on — that’s exactly what didn’t happen. And that’s the point. Jake joins a chorus of powerful Americans who refuse to call what’s happening in America what it is — from Chris Hayes to Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. Camps where kids are concentrated aren’t “detainment facilities.” They’re concentration camps. “Family separations” are an actual, real form of genocide. Putting kids in cages with little food, water, or medicine is torture. Hello? Where are our leaders? Out to lunch? Isn’t silence complicity — and half-truth even more so?
(What kind of people build camps and put kids in them? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Fascists do. There are no other kind of people who do such things. Decent people don’t. Accountants don’t. Olympic athletes don’t. The only word for people who put children in camps where they are tortured and genocided is…fascists.)
But nobody says these things. Nobody in power or leadership. And not enough of us, just average people, either. Enough to what, exactly?
Enough for the fascists not to laugh at you. And that is what they are doing right now. They are laughing at you, just like they laugh at Jake Tapper. They feed on your tears and feast on your pain and your despair. Perhaps that sounds melodramatic, or trite — so what? I’m not writing a novel. It is just simply true. The more that you suffer, the more you cry out in despair — the more that they laugh, revel in it, treasure it, delight in it, the better they feel about themselves. Just like any abuser.
Did you notice how when AOC finally told the truth, and said “concentration camps”…the fascists stopped chortling for a second, not giving a damn…and went on the defensive for once? How they huddled up, having given up ground? How they staggered and reeled back for a second, as if someone hit them with an uppercut to the nose? Nobody was laughing at her, were they? What does that example teach us?
You’re probably upset and disturbed about it all — the camps, the torture, the genocide. I’d bet that, like many people I know, you’ve been brought to the brink of tears — or perhaps well past it. Here’s a secret. That’s good. It’s worthy. But it is not enough. Enough to what? To fight fascism.
The fascists feed on your tears, on your torment, on your pain. They need them to feel worthy and whole and powerful. It is the thing they desire above all. They kill kids so they can feel strong and tough — inside, all they feel otherwise is emptiness. They feast on all those tears. Because from those things fear is made. And when they can frighten you, then they control you. Concentration camps and genocides aren’t just for their victims — they are also for their bystanders: to show them, “we could do this to you, too. Fear us!”
So when you cry about those kids, those poor, battered, traumatized kids, it’s good of you. It proves you are still a person of conscience. But it is not nearly enough. For the fascists not to laugh at you. To delight and revel in just those tears. Knowing that is precisely how they dominate and control and subjugate and defeat you. (That’s what they did to Jake Tapper, isn’t it? Laughed at him? He’s one of the most powerful men in the country. Imagine how they feel about you. You are nothing at all to them — yet.)
Am I saying that crying over all this, wringing your hands, is bad? Of course not. It’s natural. But it’s not enough. It’s what the bad guys want — just like every bad guy, from a bully to a tyrant. And you, my friend, must change that. But how? Through arms? Through violence? Of course not. The point is not to let it get to that point.
Didn’t you read Orwell? Did you miss the lesson? Then why is it that you, like Jake, like Chris, like Ezra…like all of them…probably still refuse to call all this fascism…genocide…torture…and so forth. Why don’t you use the lexicon of reality to describe what is happening before your eyes? Did you really learn nothing from Orwell? Why did Orwell teach us that reality was so important, anyways?
(Wait — why don’t Americans get it, still? The reason is that they are taught to read 1984 as a condemnation of communism. But Orwell was a socialist. He might have despised communism — but he saw well how capitalism implodes into fascism, too. He wasn’t the rugged individualist of American mythology, and the meaning of his masterpiece has been both diluted and twisted by American thinking. The point of 1984 was twofold: that when love dies, all goes with it, and “all” means every facet of human decency. Americans, however, aren’t taught any of this — just that 1984 is about surveillance, maybe. So they haven’t learned much from Orwell — not enough, it seems, to guide them through these difficult times.)
Orwell’s message was this. That you must always, always, always call things what they are, and yet this simplest of tasks gets more difficult, to the point entire societies fail at it, the more horrific things get. It was echoed by Arendt, too. She described this tendency as the “banality of evil.” Both talked about a similar process at work. A kind of willful, deliberate ignorance. A pretense that it can’t happen here — even when it is. But crucially, not just by the bad guys. By the good people. The ones who can’t permit themselves to admit that their society is capable of such horrors. Wouldn’t they then be implicated too? Wouldn’t the panic and dread be too great to bear? Ah, but the irony is that the denial and erasure of the reality of atrocity implicates them anyways.
I know. It’s complex. It’s subtle. It’s not an easy point to grasp. That’s the point. None of these thinkers — Orwell and Arendt are as simple as they are made out to be. Their messages are much deeper and more potent than we suppose.
But chief among those messages is that you must always, always, always call terrible things what they are, in the most precise and accurate way that you possibly can. This gets harder the more terrible things get — because atrocities push against the boundaries of sanity. They shatter the norms of polite conversation. They challenge us to wonder how they happened, and if we ourselves somehow aided them. They make us see our friends and neighbours anew — hey, is that person really as decent and good as I thought they were?
Yet that is the point. All those provocations, all those challenges, all those questions. And that is how we begin to fight fascism.
What really gives us the power to fight fascism? All that we have, my friends, is our sense of morality, humanity, decency. We fight fascism with moral power, social power, the power of our humanity. Or else the fascists defeat us, with our very own denial and willful ignorance. Truth, therefore, is the idea fascism fears most. Yes, really. Think about it with me.
Why else do you think the Nazis hid their atrocities from the world? Why do you think the American fascists try to hide theirs, stopping Senators and journalists and anyone from visiting the camps? Why else does the President lie pathologically? Because against a fascist, the most powerful weapon of all isn’t a bullet or a bomb — it’s just the simple, plain truth. When we tell the truth — as ugly and desperate and bitter and heartrending as it is — then we fight fascism. And only when we tell the truth.
Not a single human soul can bear the truth of what fascists do. Not even fascist ones. Why do you think the Nazis built gas chambers? Because even hardened SS soldiers couldn’t bear killing Jews en masse. Why do you think “Arbeit Macht Frei” hung above the entrance to…concentration camps? Why do you think American fascists object so vociferously to being called fascists? Why don’t Trumpists call them “camps”, but “facilities”? Nobody wants to be a fascist — not even, especially not, fascists. They see themselves as persecuted heros, as triumphant and noble saviours, as the long oppressed pure and the true. The last thing they want to be thought of as is…fascists. Evil, stupid, corrupt, brutal, ignorant, selfish, malign.
So do you see how vital it is now to call all this out? When we say to a fascist, “you are a fascist”, then the laughter stops. They get angry. They shout. They are hurt, at last. Now they are the ones on the defensive. They are on the back foot. They can’t believe what you just said. They aren’t bullying you anymore — they’re too busy spluttering and objecting. And they also aren’t killing kids for that moment. Now imagine days and months made of such moments. Are you getting my point?
So imagine that instead of gingerly, politely, tiptoeing around the issue, Jake Tapper simply said:
“My god man, you seem to me to be a fascist. Your administration is committing genocide!”
The VP might have replied: “Jake, don’t be ridiculous. Get a grip!” — with just that chortle, that laugh.
Jake might then have read him the legal definition of genocide from the Rome Statute, saying, “but family separations are a literal form of genocide. We defined them that way because that is one thing the Nazis did, too. Do you understand what genocide is? This is very real. How do you answer that?”
The VP probably would have gotten flustered, angry, started shouting.
And then Jake might have said: “Excuse me. None of that answers the question. Are we now the kind of country that needs to try its leaders at the Hague?”
And that, my friends, would have sent a chill down the spine of all the bad guys. Justice. The real thing. Paying for all these terrible acts. With hard time, with trials, with public infamy, with disgrace. They are scared of all those things. Why else is it that they constantly boast about how noble and strong and pure and just they are? Because what they are truly terrified of is being seen as weak, corrupt, evil, and unjust.
What the bad guys are really afraid of — as anyone would be — is paying for the things they are doing, whether with jail, disgrace, poverty, powerlessness, or all of them. But so far they apparently aren’t doing anything at all that crosses the line — because not enough of us say “fascism”, “concentration camps”, “genocide”, “torture” — so what is there to pay for, exactly? Nothing at all.
Do you see my point. Orwell and Arendt’s ideas didn’t exist in a vacuum, my friends. They formed the basis of what led to the International Criminal Court, and the idea of crimes against humanity. But we are ignoring that thread of history. When we refuse to call these terrible things what they are — of course the bad guys can get away with what they are not doing at all to begin with.
I don’t want to lecture you. But the truth is this. You have a moral responsibility right now. A social responsibility, too. Yet from those very responsibilities come the very powers — the only powers — that can fight the fascists, too. Your responsibility is this: to call all this what it is, using the truest, sharpest, hardest words and concepts and ideas that you can. The ones that induce guilt, fear, dread, anxiety, panic, worry, and shame in the bad guys — instead of them terrorizing little kids, and horrifying you and me. You must threaten the bad guys right back with justice, with history, with morality, with decency, with humanity.
The answer to injustice is justice. The answer to inhumanity is humanity. The answer to immorality is morality. But that part is up to you. That part is up to you. You must speak the words. You must speak the words. Fascism, concentration camps, genocide, torture. Nobody — nobody, not even the bad guys — wants to be the people that do do these things. So why are you letting them get away with being the people who are not doing these things?
You can choose to be powerless, even if you are one of the most powerful men in the country, just like Jake Tapper. Impotent. Laughed at and mocked for all the world to see. Because you will not tell the truth, say the words, threaten the fascists right back with the horrific truth of themselves…even when they are sitting right before you. Or you can choose to reclaim your power, your moral and social power, your dignity, your courage, your purpose. Democracy and prosperity lie one way — tyranny and disgrace, the other.
Which choice will you make? So far, my friends, not enough of us are making the brave, wise, and worthy one. That is why the fascists are laughing at you, like you were nothing, no one, dirt on their shoe — while they kill kids in camps.