by John Helmiere
If you are obsessively scanning the headlines, refreshing the polls, checking your phone, or doom-scrolling through social media, then this essay is for you. With the 2020 election upon us, cyclones of anxiety are raging across our interior landscapes as we are besieged by ghastly visions of a dystopic tomorrow.
We are beset by fearsome specters: extreme voter intimidation, blatant fraud at the ballot box, roving right-wing guerrillas, and a frothy-mouthed president shrieking like the banshee King John at the signing of the Magna Carta, punching red buttons and clicking “send” in a desperate attempt to unleash maximum chaos. For us individual citizens, whose influence often seems limited to a single ballot and the sharing of memes into our online echo chambers, the asymmetrical power dynamic can be eviscerating. For a solitary human with fists balled tight at your sides, head thrown back and staring up at an oncoming avalanche of state-sanctioned brutality, the choice to stand your ground is not purely rational. So, for many of us the question of this moment is this:
How can we stoke our courage to confront the neo-fascists at our threshold?
First, we can examine the anatomy of our anxiety in order to treat it. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt performs a philosophical autopsy of the Third Reich. Totalitarian regimes succeed by mutilating the complex human spirit until an individual becomes no more than a packet of “conditioned reflexes … marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity.” As unflattering as it is to admit, the image of being diluted into a quivering heap of reflexes may land close to home for many of us (ahem). Arendt asserts that totalitarians weaken the resolve of the populace by creating a constant threat of state violence. Ultimately the stress is so great that people are willing to forfeit their individual political voices. We become exhausted; our pounding hearts get stuck in our throats, and we authorize an emergency cardiectomy simply to clear the airway and breath again. The governing powers offer a Faustian bargain: a guarantee of safety for the price of your personality. We know the promised security is superficial, but if we are not grounded in courage, we prefer the comforting simulacra of safety to peering into the void of uncertainty.
We may find some grounding in courage by refusing to participate in the devil’s bargain and instead offering a counterproposal. As the stormfront advances, the forces of totalitarianism craft a golden bridge for us to retreat across. Totalitarians say fall back or there will be blood. But rather than wringing our hands over the binary choice, we can choose to counteroffer with entirely different terms. The current President is a saltimbanco who sells only fear. To his MAGA-hat supporters, he sells scapegoating ointments — venerate me or be cannibalized by the barbarians of Antifa and BLM. To his opponents, he sells blackmail ointments — accomodate me or like Sampson I will topple the columns of your precious institutions and bring down the roof upon us all. Trump has so far been successful in setting the terms of the debate. So much so that we wonder aloud: “Will he allow us to vote him out?” Instead of uttering this insane capitulatory remark, we can refuse the wares of the mountebank in the White House and buy better ointments elsewhere. We can offer our own terms. Rather than various formations of “Will he let us have a democracy?” we can instead ask, “What should we prepare to do to make him go?”
Another step towards courage is achieved by separating genuine threats from chimerical ones. White supremacist terrorist groups are real and present dangers, but let us remember that they are vastly, utterly outnumbered by the rest of us. I was on the ground at the multi-day, sustained protest the first night after the Seattle Police Department had bizarrely abandoned the East Precinct. The area was not yet known as the CHAZ and the robust mutual aid infrastructure had not yet coalesced. Hundreds of people wandered around somewhat aimlessly. Without an arbitrary line drawn by the police that we were told not to cross, tension was fairly low, until the SPD reported over their scanners that a group of about 30 gun-toting Proud Boys were on their way to our location. Hundreds of protestors on the scene scurried about, some fleeing and others erecting defensive barriers. For several hours, the SPD continued to report on their scanners the movements of the supposed gang of Proud Boys. Numerous protestors left the yet-to-be-dubbed CHAZ to gather intel on this supposed gang but found that the group was never actually where the scanner said they were. People drove all over town looking for them, but no one saw a single Proud Boy; the group that night appears to have been a strategic fiction. We must be aware that certain threats can and will be tactically inflated to dilute our resolve and thin our numbers. Trump is an Oz. Neo-fascists like him traffic in illusions that magnify our fears. When we pull back the curtain, we will often find that the bellowing behemoth of our nightmares is just a caterwauling molly lit by expert gaffers.
Finally, if Arendt is correct, the measure of our courage will be determined by how committed we are to relentlessly confronting ourselves. The Stoics called this self-examination. For those of us with mystical inclinations, we simply call this spirituality. Spirituality is the work of cultivating interior freedom and dauntless honesty. It is the task of learning to sing the canticle of your soul, rather than chant the anthem of your nation or creed. Dr. Howard Thurman, the great mystic and spiritual mentor of Dr. King, said, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” Totalitarians must first shatter people’s spirits before turning them into marionettes. By building up our spiritual musculature, whether through dedicated practices of creativity, activism, nature connection, religious participation, solidarity, service, or any other of the manifold methods, we can strengthen our authentic voices and find a ballast when the tempests of totalitarianism rage.
During an interview with NPR last week, my colleague Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and I were asked, “What do you say to a left activist who is considering bringing a gun to a protest?” Rev. Sekou replied, “I would simply ask them, ‘what kind of person do you want to be?’” A steadfast inner life is perhaps the ultimate form of resistance.
As one final word to my fellow borderline quivering heaps of reflexes on the eve of the election: You are not alone. Our spirits are most vulnerable in involuntary isolation. It is a strange paradox, but it seems that we require community to maintain our individuality. Amidst the metamorphic pressures of this moment, may you situate yourself near people who think so much of you that they desperately want to hear your authentic voice even when they disagree with what you will say.
John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain, storykeeper of the Collaboratory Network, and instigator of the Table Turning movement.
Featured image by Alex Garland