The Brutal Politics of US vs. Them

Yale Historian Timothy Snyder, author of the 2016 On Tyranny,  has been all over media lately, analyzing our ravaged nation’s rapid slide toward open autocracy.   His quote on the lesson of history resonates strongly with my own view on the matter — since the future is entirely an exercise, to those who still insist on our agency as citizens of a democracy, in imagining possibilities, informed by knowledge of the past:

[H]istory does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.[19]

I recently saw his 2018 talk at Harvard on youTube.  Snyder lays out the recent history of the politics of US vs. THEM, the dividing line of current Western politics (not only in the U.S. but Hungary, Turkey, UK, Brazil, India, etc.)  He discusses how a politics based on defining friend and enemy, (with the appropriate treatment for each category), is antithetical to  the democratic goal of a rules-bound politics of consensus, a system of institutions and laws designed to protect the weak and restrain the impulse of the powerful to favor friends and punish enemies. 

Snyder cites our increasing reliance on the internet as the biggest single factor fostering this Us and Them oversimplification of the world and the rightward distortion of our politics.  He argues that the unreal online world of the internet has been the biggest single factor in flattening a complicated three dimensional world into a largely self-affirming two-dimensional one.   

Rather than increasing our critical abilities, with our unprecedented access to the total accumulated information of the world, our online lives have flattened our range of exploration by instantly and robotically providing us opinions and glosses that affirm our preconceptions.   The internet now serves us personalized content tailored to what the algorithms know we already prefer.  The hours most of us spend on online every day deaden our ability to reason our way to conclusions based on actual facts, real things that actually happened in the real, three-dimensional interactive world.  Time spent online, in a virtual cocoon of like-minded opinion, also saps our will to meet other humans in the real world to strategize with and take concerted action with.  

In cyber space it is easy to magnify certain things while disappearing others.  In an immersive cyber world it is fairly easy to erase the very real problems confronted by the actual humans who make up the abstract, hated “Them” — rendering “them” nonexistent.  Millions of desperate refugees fleeing real atrocities and climate disasters in far away countries?  Their existence and their terrible dilemmas can easily be erased on the internet, reducing them solely to their emotional use in tropes, memes and bots shaping “our” opinion toward “them.”

If you stay in your internet silo the chances for real-world participation start to seem less real than the stimulating and addictive interactions (with humans or bots, one never knows) you can constantly have on-screen.   I had a dramatic example of this recently, in trying to leave the online space for human interaction in the real world.  I was disappointed by the website of the large militant Brooklyn and D.C-based nonprofit clearinghouse that I’d visited with great anticipation that it would provide local options for live participation in the struggle to retain democracy. The end user (me) was offered no possibility of live interaction with other human activists, only online petitions and donation buttons. There were also great press releases about the many successes by this well-funded group in fighting back against oppressive policies.   Leaving me with only online options for “action”.

To complicate matters, and make the determination of what is fact and what is fabricated bullshit supremely hard, on-line there’s no way to know which comment is from a like-minded human being (or one you don’t agree with) and which is simply a comment fabricated for influence, generated per algorithm, expressed and personally delivered by a bot. The influence of this false “Us” is huge.

The human troll plays an outsized role in political outcomes on the internet as well.  The troll can sit anywhere in the world.   Snyder gives the example of Michael Flynn and Russia, how Flynn found himself citing numerous Russian troll- bots for definitive answers to questions of American political opinion.

Our addiction to the cyber world is, at this moment in time, moving us toward a fascistic view of the world as the battlefield for eternal war between irreconcilable enemies, away from increased liberalism or the interconnectedness humans require to solve perilous ecological and economic challenges.

In order to understand the potential of the internet to move toward greater human understanding and freedom we need to see it through the lens of history. Snyder says.  The printing press (driver of protracted religious warfare) and the radio (instrumental in the rise of fascism) were at first very destructive social forces as well.   The current polarizing power of the internet can be fixed over time, perhaps, but it is best to understand and be wary of its outsized power to evoke and affirm strong feelings to drive political outcomes.  At present human emotions are being manipulated by robots, mechanized entities brought into “existence” by coders.  This is a one way transaction in evoking strong feelings from targeted humans, since the robots stoking these feelings are incapable of any feelings at all.

Snyder calls for the  “revalorization of factuality” — the notion that it’s actually heroic to analyze and understand the world based on facts, discoverable in the three-dimensional world, easily compressed into unreality in a two-dimensional world.   The project of all tyranny begins in the destruction of “fact” in favor of a strong, emotional call to fight an inhuman enemy.   Good local news coverage by independent reporters, increasingly hard to come by, is one antidote to this trend that Synder singles out as something essential to support.  He urges us all to subscribe to and support our valued news sources.

The US and Them distinction powerfully cuts across all discussion, debate, every chance of human understanding.   It’s hard to even have a discussion about justice without immediately falling into one of two artificially drawn political camps. 

A recent email I wrote discussing institutional injustice, opposition to it and the debate between moderate incrementalists vs. urgent “justice delayed is justice denied” types (especially in the context of acting to save the planet before it is actually uninhabitable), and my strong sympathy for the latter, convinced an old friend that I had to be “all in for Bernie”.  This immediately caused him to fear an ugly confrontation with me, as he’s had with other Sanders-supporting friends lately, since he feels the only pragmatic and realistic thing is to hold one’s nose and vote for whoever the DNC selects as a candidate, rather than dogmatically fighting for what can never be.   Trump, he says (and I don’t disagree), must be defeated if we are to avoid truly terrible outcomes and it’s as simple as that.

So instead of he and I being able to have a reason-based back and forth discussion of principles, we are instantly reduced to arguing about our feelings towards the mass-marketed individual celebrity horses in a zero-sum celebrity horse race, covered mainly by dishonest brokers serving a profit-driven corporate agenda. 

Here, of course, with no intention to do it, I’ve indicated my preference for a Sanders or Warren, who openly point out and have plans to attack institutional injustice, and my extreme distaste for a “moderate” like Bloomberg [1] or Biden.  As we are simplemindedly taught to do here, on the politically “reasonable” side of the aisle, nobody’s totally right, nobody’s totally wrong, the main thing is to defeat a dangerous would-be autocrat and his powerful backers, let’s split the difference and have someone “electable” who won’t upset anybody as much as a “radical” harping on vast, long-time inequalities of opportunity.   It’s US vs. THEM after all, and the main thing is not to let those Nazi fuckers cheat, and win, again.

A rant full of sound and fury mostly,  a fearful cry of pain and frustration at the powerlessness we all feel as isolated citizens with extremely limited say (we’re not corporations, after all) staring at our screens for hope, or at least affirmation.   The best thing to do to deny Nazis their ultimate triumph, is to fight them where they stand — based on superior and infinitely more moral ideas about the future of humanity.  The enemies of progress, those who want to turn the clock back to 1953, stand strongly online, to be sure, but they also stand everywhere else.   We need to gather together and stand against them in the real world (he said firmly, online).

 

[1]  Mike Bloomberg is a supremely foul piece of shit that we in New York City got to see close up for three terms (though non-billionaire mayors are limited to two terms).   I will lay out some of this motherfucker’s more alarming “peccadillos” in another post.

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