“On Being Silenced” by Jonathan Mendelsohn

n-analysis-z-20161110-870x516(Picture via.)

I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you this country doesn’t have time either. —Donald Trump

I write this piece because I’m scared. So is my wife. My sisters are scared. Terrified, one of them said. Jon, I’m terrified, she told me over the phone. The black people in my community that I’ve spoken to expressed similar feelings when I asked them. A gay colleague, an old friend who is Muslim, my high powered banker friend from high school who is Christian, and who also happens to be a woman. There is so much fear amongst so many of us, but are we really talking?

Have you expressed your fear?

Or have you remained silent?

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i. The Pie as Instigator

One theory why Trump won the election was put forth by Jonathan Pie, who turns out to be a fictitious reporter. (The English accent, as far as I can tell, however, is real.) In his video, that’s gone viral, Pie doesn’t suggest but rather screams that Trump’s win is the left’s fault. For the record, Pie says he is not a Trump supporter, and there’s much worth listening to in his diatribe against Liberalism. To be sure, quite a few centrist or moderate right-wing friends or acquaintances of mine seem taken with this video. The fault, Pie argues, lies with liberals and their politically correct (pc) culture that shuts the conversation down. “How do you think people are going to vote” Pie spit-yells at the camera, if you don’t allow them to voice their opinions. And I have to tell you, on first view I was nodding along. There’s a lot to be said for the problem of silencing voices. Trouble is, Mr. Pie, your solution – “All you have to do it engage in the debate” – is not only wildly off the mark, in my opinion, it’s also hugely problematic (but more on that later).

Where I agree with Pie is that we desperately need discussion. There is indeed a problem of silence.

But it’s not the silence Jonathan Pie speaks of, that I know for certain. Because the kind of straight talk he’s addressing can’t help but also allow for racist comments. And if you really want to say what you want to say about, for example, Muslims (what, that they’re terrorists and shouldn’t be in your country?), then you’ve just opened the door, as Trump has, for them to spew hatred about you, Jew, woman, gay, black, etc.

ii. The Rock as Metaphor

This past week a rabbi from one of Toronto’s largest synagogues was interviewed on CBC radio’s Metro Morning. He likened what Trump had done to lifting a big rock and letting all the “creepy crawlies”, as he called them, out. The “creepy crawlies” refer of course to those spreading Neo-Nazi hate crimes that we’ve all seen or heard so much about. There have now been more than 1,000 reported such crimes in the U.S. That doesn’t include all we’ve seen in Canada (the near daily online postings of swastika sightings spray painted on schools, churches, houses)

The problem now, this rabbi so aptly put it, is that no one knows how to put the rock back.

Before we can even consider that, I think we need to understand what the metaphor actually stands for. What is the rock that’s been taken off?

My friend J.P. astutely honed in on the first part of it: it’s not about the rule of law, it’s about social norms, he said. In other words, what is and is not okay according to a given society. Living in Japan for half a decade taught me that different places put up with different kinds of crime and violence. As the Japanese can’t seem to put a lid on the pervert men that grope women on trains (though America hasn’t done a great job of putting a lid on president-elects openly admitting – no, bragging – about such sexual harassment), nor can the English put a stop to hooliganism at soccer matches, never mind Americans, Brits and Canadians alike never figuring out how to remove the violence drunken men in bars ever perpetrate. We hate it, and it doesn’t happen that often, but what can you do, right? Well in Japan, that kind of macho bullshit just doesn’t fly. So guess what? It never does.

Social norms. What is and is not accepted by a given society.

Like so many I woke the morning after (11/9 as I someone on twitter put it) to hear my worst fears confirmed. Donald Trump had won, we were told. I finally understood when people speak of losing their appetites. That’s how nauseous I felt. This was two weeks ago when we had yet to publicly dispute a win that defied practically every poll invented to track such information. The very thought that the compulsive liar of a braggart, who made clear he would do anything to win (as, apparently, his pastor of all people taught him), that same mile-a-minute charlatan who had for months been crying foul and saying that if he lost, then(!) the election was rigged. It never occurred to many of us at the time that the man who’d been yelling fire may actually have lit the damn thing himself. (Have they proven yet whether Trump’s father was a member of the KKK?)

Speaking of, two weeks ago, Stephen Bannon, the man behind breitbart.com, what according to Salon he himself told the press last year was a platform for the Alt-Right [Neo-Nazi was too on the nose], was yet to be selected as Trump’s third in command or Minister of Propaganda. The Alt-Right [Neo-Nazi] rally held blocks from the White House about a week after Bannon’s appointment, and in a federal building (called The Reagan Building) no less, hadn’t yet inspired its members to ‘Hail Trump’ on cameras that people around the world were soon to share. The leader of the rally ended by “railing against Jews and, smiling, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German”, according to the New York Times. And Trump had yet to admit to being a criminal when just the other day he paid out $21 mil for fleecing thousands of elderly and young students alike with his sham university.

To name a few of the things that have transpired since.

iii. Off the Mark

Pie’s analysis is off the mark for two reasons. And for context, I took not one but two degrees at the very leftist York University, and as a white man taking an undergrad course called “Race and Racism” with a feminist Muslim professor, I’ve certainly had my experience of being told my opinion had no value. Nobody likes to be silenced, and Pie is undoubtedly onto a problem that pc culture can be blamed for. But without even delving into the nuances of how much a white man really deserves to talk and shouldn’t just listen in a class about racism, a far more pressing question is: has the right really been silenced in the first place?

I mean sure, Jonathan Pie (or the actor playing him), may well socialize in affluent and educated liberal London circles where he is expected to hold back his opinions on taxation and stereotypes about Muslims and blacks, etc. But that urbanite Londoner or the New Yorker who voted in favour of Brexit and Trump, respectively, were surely not the vast majority of voters that made those votes possible. Even if they were, were they even silenced in the slightest? Seems to me the lion’s share of those voting for Trump had fairly booming megaphones from which to broadcast their opinions. Heaven’s sake they’ve been yelling on talk radio for decades. (How do you think Rob Ford became Toronto’s most notorious mayor?) And the far right have their voices coming out in spades via the breitbart.coms or Drudge Reports, or–hello?!–Fox News?

But suppose I’m missing the point. Suppose it’s those more moderate Republicans who feel the “liberal media” is not letting them have their voice. Suppose that’s true. Even if it is, is it actually the crux of the issue? Are people in America’s “heartland” so completely enraged because they can’t say what they think? Or is it not possible the real reason has to do with lost jobs, globalization, mechanization, technologization, and the fact that the polarity between rich and poor seems only to spread ever wider, and that as the price of food skyrockets around the world. The 1%, I’m thinking, say, of the Koch brothers (only Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have more money than these two combined), who funnel millions into right-wing propaganda machines (i.e. the think tanks that feed into the media that isn’t so liberal). Instead of blaming the richest greediest bastards in their country (say, um, Donald Trump?!), the working poor in America have been led to believe that liberals are their great enemy. As if open-mindedness (that’s what liberal means; I looked it up) is what’s shut down factories and sent them to China. As if liberalism is the reason CEOs in the US earn 40 times their employees (just kidding, that was in the 70s – according to Forbes.com, they now earn on average 331 times what their workers get!).

But don’t take my word for it.

As Obama put it in that remarkable piece by Remnick in the New Yorker,

[We have yet to…] figure out how .. we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.

Brexit and Trump are about the greed that’s stretching the gap between rich and poor so wide that job stability and bare bones health benefits are becoming a thing of the past for not millions but hundreds of millions around the world. I should know: the universities have long since been gutted. I have colleagues who’ve worked decades without a paid sick day, never mind paid holidays or benefits to cover their dental plans. And these are people in urban Canada with multiple degrees. I’m not talking about factory workers in the deep south. You want to know why so many work at Starbucks? Because they’re working freelance; they don’t have an office!

iv. Hugely Problematic – Defining the Rock

Not only do I believe Pie’s argument is downright wrong-headed, it’s also hugely problematic.

Because that rock, the rabbi mentioned, the one that’s been lifted, in literal terms what that rock represents is the human decency and liberal values that have kept so much of the hatred and sickness we all know is out there (and I’m not even thinking of the U.S, my fellow Canadians) at bay. That human decency and kindness also known as the ‘love thy neighbour’ prophet-like notion that every great religion has taught for the ages. That’s what political correctness was for. It’s a product of the 60s, a product of where John Lennon’s “Imagine” comes from and led to (and how awfully naïve does that wondrous bit of poetry read now?).

Because if true happiness, like actual lasting love, is a discipline, something not easy, something that needs to be worked at, then yes(!), sometimes, if not most of the time, Mr fictional Jonathan Pie, biting your tongue is what allows us to get along. Sure, it can be hard and downright frustrating sometimes, but some things should be silenced. And I’m sincerely only writing this piece because of the fear I have of how soon those racist slurs we’re seeing in the news of spray painted swastikas and other hate speech acts will soon be seen in person by too many of us. And how long before the violence comes with them?

Just as we all know that alt-right is a euphemism for White Nationalist or Supremacist, so is political correctness another name for something. And that something is the very opposite of what has bubbled up so quick under a greedy narcissist of a man who cares to much about his fragile ego he’d rather take the whole world down that see himself in such a light.

v. How We Mustn’t Be Silent

Pie is right in that there is a problem of silence now. And yes the middle class needs FAR more of a voice. And yes there are issues other than race; of course there are. But right now, this is extremely dangerous territory Trump has so rapidly brought us to. And the silence I’m saying needs to be lifted is in fact a self-imposed one. I’m seeing this in my community, online and in person. As a friend of mine put it, she feels people in her immediate community are either scared and not wanting to admit it, or brushing this stuff under the rug.

In fairness, the hatred that Trump has helped unleash feels utterly unbearable. In many ways it is. How many of us have needed to turn off the screaming noise of our 24 hour news channels and facebook and twitter feeds? But turning away for too long will not diminish the suffering. It can only make things worse.

And if you think the fears are overblown, ask yourself why, as NBC reported, that since Trump’s win, there has been a “surge” in gun purchases amongst African-Americans and other minorities. Trump has thus far assigned not one but three white nationalists (supremacists!) to prominent positions in his cabinet. What would you do if you were a black person in the wrong part of the States? Of course guns aren’t the answer. But for god’s sake, can you blame them their fear?

My wife and I have been talking about how the only positive out of this new political climate of fear is that the noise of pop culture has been turned down. Oh I still watch my shows and listen to the music I need more than ever. But certain celebrity stories just seem a whole lot sillier all of a sudden. Something inside is telling me I shouldn’t be distracted now. That anxious feeling that won’t go away. That dark cloud that now feels permanent. Because if you hide that fear away, you’re likely to cloister ever deeper into whatever community you live in. And if there’s one thing this election might hopefully teach us, it is about the extreme danger of living too firmly within the bubble of our own echo-chamber.

And if we can’t even talk about these things, if we’re still stuck so deep in denial, how on earth will we ever find the will and courage to take action and effect change?

But again, perhaps you find my entire line of reasoning paranoid or exaggerated (and consider how I refrained from making the obvious analogies to Hitler and the rise of fascism in the United States). God willing none of what I fear will transpire. Regardless, I alone can never convince you of what worries you inside. But perhaps, you’ll hear Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University, who wrote a book called “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning”. He posted first to facebook before quartz.com published the link that follows to a broader audience. It’s called “A 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency”and it’s extremely prescient. I urge you to read it all, but here, to give a sense, are three of the twenty points he makes:

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

[This was originally posted on Jonathan’s website.]

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