By George Cassidy Payne
Like millions of my fellow countrymen and women, I have a deep concern about the long term sustainability of our union and the basic constitutional structures that have preserved it in other times of social upheaval. Even during the campaign, Trump showed a remarkable disdain for core American principles such as due process, the separation of church and state, checks and balances, freedom of press, freedom of religion, and many others. Over a year later, it is evident that the rhetoric he spewed on the campaign trail was a prophetic declaration of his intentions to upend the status quo of our democracy. Everything is up for grabs now: the rights of citizens, the integrity and relevance of political institutions, and the inherent right for non-Americans to experience genuine freedom. In fact, for several months now, I have begun to consider the possibility that circumstances are a lot worse than anyone in the media or on the street is daring to say out loud.
As far as I am concerned, it only sounds radical to compare what is happening in America to what happened to the German people during the rise of Hitler. The American citizenry has not fully taken stock of the inexorable and subtle dismantling of their cherished democratic values. It takes a writer and thinker of such battle tested genius as the psychologist and concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim to fully appreciate how a once free society can take the beginning steps towards suppression, dehumanization, and ultimate destruction. In his book, “The Informed Heart: On retaining the self in a dehumanizing society”, Dr. Bettelheim provided a gripping analysis of the human condition that points to the central dilemma facing every single American:
When life is at stake and one is still in full possession of one’s powers, making decisions and taking action is relatively easy. The same is nearly true for one’s physical liberty. But in the case of one’s personal independence, things seem less clear cut. Risking one’s life to prevent small inroads into one’s autonomy is not what most people would do. And when the state makes small inroad after small inroad, at which point is one to say: No more, even if it cost me my life? And pretty soon the many small inroads have sapped so much courage that no one no longer has the nerve to take action. The same is true for anxiety generated by fear for one’s life or one’s freedom, or both…To take action in the moment of the first onset of anxiety is relatively easy, because anxiety is a powerful motivating force to action. But if the action is delayed, the longer anxiety lasts and the more energy is spent on binding it, that is, on not acting to relieve it, the more a person is drained of vital energy and the less he feels capable of acting on his own. At the inception of the German tyranny, the longer action was delayed, the weaker grew the ability to resist.
Is that not what is happening in America right now? Look at the record. This is a president who has continuously violated the Separation of church and state by suggesting that America is a Christian nation. The recent embassy move to Jerusalem was an act of Christian nationalism.
Banning refugees and other travelers from primarily Muslim nations in the name of national security is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Interfering with Justice Department investigations, demanding loyalty oaths from high ranking officials inside the FBI, and using twitter to demean and discredit other intelligence and law enforcement agencies all violate a core democratic principle that our forefathers and foremothers fought and died to preserve; namely separation of powers.
Building a border wall to keep out migrants, asylum seekers, immigrants, and anyone who does not have citizenship status already is a violation of longstanding treaties and goodwill between neighboring countries.
Calling for the investigation, prosecution, and imprisonment of political opponents is a clear violation of every democratic norm known to civilized governments. Only dictators and mob bosses do that sort of thing.
Promoting the use of interrogation methods far worse than waterboarding is not only a clear violation of international laws against torture, it usurps the right of every suspect to have a fair trial, protection under the law, and freedom from unlawful search and seizure.
Deploying missiles on nations in undeclared wars ignores the role of Congress and makes a mockery out of the various systems of checks and balances first engineered into the machine like framework of our government. Without these systems in place, there is very little that can halt the decent into tyranny.
With this record at the forefront of our collective consciousness, never before have Bettelheim’s words been more urgent for Americans to heed than they are right now. As he wrote, “Heart and reason can no longer be kept in their separate places. The daring heart must invade reason with its own living warmth, even if the symmetry of reason must give way to admit love and the pulsation of life.”
Whether most Americans want to realize it or not, this is a society under severe dehumanizing pressure. It is a society that is suppressing the very pulsation of life that makes it worth living. Reason has been invaded in all of the wrong ways. America is a society that is becoming unable to admit that love is more powerful than national security, personal status, and moral superiority.
Will we be like the Germans who succumbed to the symmetry of reason that always ends in murderous anarchy and genocidal fascism? Will we forget how to love others as we would want to be loved by them? Will we resist the separation of humanity brought on by policies? Will we stand up for human unity even if doing so has been made illegal? If so, how? If not, how far has this country already gone in the direction of no return to matter?
George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, domestic violence counselor, and adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.