Antiauthoritarian League: Baby Boomers

Those of us who were born just after WWII and who went to college in the Baby Boom generation were trained by the fiction and even the nonfiction of those times to constantly be on guard against all of the trends that gave rise to Hitler in Germany. We were trained to be a sort of informal Authoritarian League. People were traumatized by the evidence of Hitler which suggested that our minds are not as strong as we believe them to be. We examined in depth why the Germans let this mad man take over their bodies and their minds so completely that they led 6 millions other human beings to their death, or to torture so extreme and alien that the emaciated remnants of the concentration camps could barely walk out at the end of the war. How did something as abstract as nationalism and pride of nation lead to horror? How did ordinary German citizens, not necessarily Nazis, let this happen?

We heard the speeches Hitler made, the rousing appeals to Germanic hegemony and the injustice of the current treatment of the German people. We saw the sway he held over his audiences, the thrill people felt at being part of those patriotic crowds. Yes, Germany would take its proper place among the pantheon of nations. It was the Jews and others who were usurping the wealth that properly belonged to the German people. Antisemitism was forged into a weapon to unleash the beast which I guess lies drowsing in all of us.

We swore that we would learn how Hitler hypnotized his followers and we would teach people how to never be susceptible to these techniques again. And so in our colleges and lecture halls our professors assigned books, not texts, but paperbacks that exposed the tools of authoritarians. These professors did not necessarily have a conscious plan; they were also reacting to what we learned about the depths of possible human behavior in that war. They taught us not to be sheep. They taught us to recognize propaganda. They taught us the hubris of extreme nationalism. They tried to teach us to have strong minds and to resist regimentation. They taught us so well that they led us right into the cultural revolution of the sixties. But wasn’t that whole exercise in humanism, that celebration of freedom and equality, just a backlash reaction to all of the things that allowed the rise of Hitler in Germany.

I cannot think of a book which was more seminal in teaching us what to look out for than 1984 by George Orwell, except, perhaps Animal Farm on a more rudimentary level, also by George Orwell. In 1984 we are led into the authoritarian government of Oceania (Great Britain). Oceania is ruled by the “Party” which is led by “Big Brother.” People are controlled through their televisions screens which operate like one-way mirrors. The government can see what you are doing. There is no privacy. The television must be kept on. Citizens are subject to “doublespeak” constantly as all media is state media. Citizens can be convicted of a “thoughtcrime”, as in the government knows what you are thinking. Even language is controlled and people speak in “Newspeak”. This began a long trend in literature of dystopian science fiction, and even downright silly fiction to anaesthetize us to “others”, to find humor in space, so to speak (Vonnegut, Star Wars). Many people mention The Manchurian Candidate as an important influence in their thinking about Communism and, therefore, authoritarianism. Even the superhero comics, experiencing such an enormous renaissance in the 21stcentury were analogies about criminals, fascists, and dictators of all stripes.

It is clear that not all of us were influenced by antitotalitarian literature or nonfiction. Boomers who did not go to college were not necessarily taught to think so critically about these matters. The Conservatives had their own favorite books, although not all of the right wingers so affected were baby boomers. Paul Ryan is certainly not a boomer. He decided to throw his lot in with Ayn Rand and his passion for the author and her books has led others in the GOP to read and adopt ideas from this elitist; ideas that are driving Republican policy and putting the right at loggerheads with those on the left who were trained to seek out exactly these tendencies, and trained intensively through their most impressionable years. It offers insight into why Conservatives are on a tear against higher education and critical thinking and even political correctness.

We humans may not know exactly what we want but we have been educated for this moment. We know what we don’t want. When our president says, “When Kim Jong Unspeaks and his people sit up in attention; I want my people to do the same,” we are preprogrammed to think OMG. We are preprogrammed to remember that every act by the “dear leader” is intended to make his people afraid to step out of line, and that the lines they must stay within are very narrow indeed. Stepping over the line does not just lead to a slap on the wrist; it leads to prison camp and hard labor for you, and possible starvation or imprisonment for your family. People have been taught to color within these lines (only crayon gray) for three generations. Trump seems to give no weight at all to the human toll that absolute obedience has taken on the North Korean people. While it is true that it is easier to govern when you don’t have to consult anyone but yourself, and when all tendencies to individual action have been oppressed in your people, this is not a place that any of we the people should want to go.

What we did not learn in our schools or our reading is what tactics would work to fight off the next strong man who decided to try for totalitarian rule. We did not meet on the quad for swordfights. We did not learn to handle weaponry. We did not form any secret militias that would automatically be empowered should someone try to destroy our autonomy, our democracy, and our freedoms. We did not learn how to act tough. We did not think it could really happen.

Our antiwar activities taught us to resist and this knowledge is now being passed down to a new generation; the children of the boomers. But we did not steel ourselves to do anything beyond resistance. We did not study or learn to recognize when the threat level was getting too high for resistance to be successful. We did not learn how to live as long-term resisters. We keep wanting to go home to our jobs and our homes and our families. We want it to have the ambience of a hippie picnic/concert. This is not the sixties. The foes we face are citizens like us and they look like they would not avoid brutality should we defy them.

We do still have some faith in the power of the vote. We can vote. We must vote. We have been trained, and rightly so, to stop authoritarian tendencies when we are confronted with them, before they take hold of us so strongly that all of the will to resist is gone. 2018 will be a test. It will tell us if the vote still has any power to turn things around without having to turn ourselves into Dumbledore’s army.

Here are three more voices of Americans who are worried about where we are headed:

Photo credit: Google Image Search,

History Stutters

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Post World War II

Europe has been dominated by the post-World War II division of the spoils of war for the past 70 years. Nations in Eastern Europe disappeared behind “The Iron Curtain” and the Berlin Wall. Nations that were not controlled by Communism and the USSR, and which were not firmly organized as Democracies, were wooed, rather persistently by the US and the NATO allies to resist Communism (the dark side) and turn to the (light), Democracy and Capitalism. (With Communism you got two for the price of one; government and business were different aspects of the same entity.)

America put Air Force and Army bases all over Europe, but especially in countries that seemed to teeter between the two ideologies. Nations, in the great project to rebuild Europe, got gifts of technology, private enterprise, and even new leaders that they did not always even want. The stories that came from behind the Iron Curtain, of purges, and Five-Year Plans, and hunger, and gulags where dissidents were gagged, should have been quite enough to discourage the spread of Communism, but the idealistic expression of that ideology still had popular appeal in a number of nations, and the unsubtle interventions of America were not always helpful in advancing Democracy.

Europe maintained this basic postwar pattern even with the dissolution of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But almost as soon as Capitalism seemed to gain a foothold in Russia and the nations newly released from Russian hegemony, forces were at work to try to put the USSR together again. This movement which we see now in the actions of Putin seems akin to the national pride movements that brought Hitler to power in Germany. This appeal to national pride perhaps helps keep a rather frightening Putin in power in Russia. History stutters. The Cold War is slowly creeping back. Authoritarian rule is apparently all the fashion.

Post 9/11

Of course, what happened in Eastern Europe has not stayed in Eastern Europe. For a while Democracy and Communism continued to perform the old political push-pull. Western Europe became the European Union for economic solidarity and strength. America became the dramatic focus of a show of awful force by a new player – radical terrorism modeled on Islam. The twin symbols of Capitalism were toppled on 9/11. America reeled. Wars of retribution did not put an end to the influx of frightened Muslims into a basically Judeo-Christian Europe. As religion got added to the mix of the already contested spheres of government, economics, and race, history is stuttering again.

Europe and America, in the midst of an economic downturn fueled by the rise of Asian economies, was now being flooded by people from antique states along the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean  and in Northern Africa who were relieved of, or escaping from, authoritarian leaders. Conflagrations in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria seemed to catch the entire area on fire. Europe and America became targets of anger as old established “regimes” fell and people, caught-up in chaos and fear, attacked nations that seemed to them to have been driven to depravity by money and power. However guilty the “West” feels about having abused its power, sitting still for bombs in public places, mass shootings and death by modes of transportation (turning our own technology against us) is not something people want to do.

Before World War II we find a propensity towards “strong men”. We find it, not in whole nations to begin with, but as a minority groundswell. Even in nations like England and America there were those who perked up at the call to “nationalism” – to national pride and strength. There were those who grew suspicious of “the other”, who spoke a different language, or against Jewish people who seem inordinately good at conducting business and making money. Charles Lindbergh was quite famous for this in his day and he was a popular guy.

Hitler was, arguably, the worst strong man ever, a twisted madman who would perform any scientific atrocity to create his “master race” and rid the world of people he hated (Jews, gypsies). Mussolini, the Italian Fascist, may have looked like a pale copy, but he did quite enough damage; damage that lingers in Italy to this day. We (Americans and our allies) swore that we would never let a Hitler happen to the world again. We swore that we would never allow a government that exercised control over its people through fear and media mind control, like Soviet Union, to operate in the “free West”.

Well history does stutter and here we are again with strong men peppered around the world. (Turkey, Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, China, North Korea, Honduras, Iraq, various thugs in African nations, and more). Here we are, where thuggery and jack bootery are making authoritarianism, even in smaller nations, as in South America and Africa, a constant horror to honest citizens. Here we have heartless, vicious men who send their own people, or their own neighbors scattering away from them, to what the refugees hope will be a new safe space in more stable and humanitarian nations, only to be turned back as the Jewish people were, or isolated by those who feel their nation is being taken over by these “others”. Here we have men so “strong”, so selfish, so greedy that they will rule over an empty nation in order to get their way. (Bashir Assad, drug cartels)

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America, 2018

Here we have, once, again fear of the other, attempts to use threats and media mind control to consolidate the power of an authoritarian personality. This time one of these “strong” men is here, in the heart of America, trampling all over our traditions and unwritten rules. Here we have a man, in full knowledge of what happened the last time someone built a wall to keep nations separate, insisting that what America needs is a wall to keep out our neighbors. He perhaps does not remember, or never knew, what Russia had to do to keep West and East Berlin apart even with a wall. There is something about a wall that makes people determined to get over it or around it. There had to be legal papers, and intelligence officers, snarling dogs, and checkpoints and guards willing to shoot those desperate enough to try to get to the other side. Already we are using the threat of separating parents from their children, of putting their children in foster care, or in “shelters”, to deter people from trying to cross a wall that does not yet even exist in some places. This threat does not seem to discourage all who want refugee status. Will we have to allow the guards at the checkpoints to shoot to kill? Will we place the heads of those who are killed on pikes and display them along the wall? How far will we let our “strong” man go to keep people out of America?

And once again, as before, there are people who are attracted to the idea of the “strong” man, and who do not seem to mind that he will destroy what he seems to be defending – that strong man means authoritarian rule by a dictator. It is not just semantics. History stutters. Are we doomed to repeat this pattern again and again?