It's a bad combination, trauma and tyranny, like sirens in the night coming for your neighbors, crowding the streets and your waking sleep with phantom flashbacks. Add a pandemic, and the fateful Ides of March eight months ago descended like an uninvited guest into a favorite parlor chair, refusing to leave.
To be traumatized is to be a political prisoner, sent to the funny farm instead of the labor camp, the sanatorium instead of Siberia—discarded as secondary and subhuman. The system depends on your inferiority, on an idea that you deserve to be beaten. The system is wrong. Long live the system.
To be educated is to understand that the system is wrong about you, to swing that cell door wide open, to see a horizon and realize that freedom is nigh. But like an injured animal crouching in the corner, getting up and moving through that door involves belief and trust. Two items in short supply. (Spouses and partners require both, in my case not available beyond the betrayal of a finite bliss.)
So there's a time delay, could be a lifetime, could be a furlough from the front. Depends on when your personal Peace Corps shows up with better soil samples and seeds. When the gods and goddesses of your inner panoply reconfigure your place in the universe. When the volume knob is finally turned up on those muffled screams.
For Mandela it was 26 years. The system was wrong and he walked out and became President of the new South Africa.
For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was hatred in the streets, a jail in Birmingham, a mountainside view of a Promised Land. And an assassin.
For Anne Frank it was light and poetry and life followed by darkness and cruelty and death.
For Dietrich Boenhoffer it was faith in the sacred heart of humanity, the halting life of an anti-Nazi dissident, and execution within months of the Allied arrival.
For Ghandi it was starvation and civil disobedience, prisons and marches, followed by independent rule and then another angry assassin.
For Eva Kor it was seeing her mother and sister torn from her side, Mengele’s barracks for human twin experiments, and a lifetime of lectures and forgiveness.
For Solzhenitsyn it was gulag terror before the expulsion, then a purgatory home hidden in Vermont.
There’s no guarantee the Alternate Reality won’t get you. The authoritarian version of Reality allows reaching into the actual world to find and torture you, if you're audacious enough to voice the systemic lies. The boy who cries The emperor has no clothes! is quickly plucked out of the crowd, to keep the others in line.
The prisons, however, are back in Alternate territory, padded labyrinths where your futile cries go unheard. Go ahead, no one will hear you. As you’re thrown up against the wall of a dirty communal shower, or shoved inside the black hood of the desaparecidos, or yanked out of a cupboard by the attic stairs, or held down by the Gothic weight of a thousand incubi sitting on your chest, or try to breathe through the hot press of hands over smothered screams…no one will hear you.
Armchair philosophers love to muse on the famous Esse est percipi of the idealist George Berkeley, that “What exists is what is perceived,” but in the hands of malignant dictators this harmless exercise turns toxic and immoral, the sunny island of Solipsis transformed into a rigid dystopia. Instead of a gedanken-experiment like Bertrand Russell’s “I was created three seconds ago with a memory!” or Hilary Putnam’s notorious brain-in-a-vat, a narcissistic tyrant will take a false vision and sow disinformation across the population like manna from a synthetic heaven, infiltrating democracies with a corrosive rust designed to eat away at the steel of human reason. Claims long based on everyday evidence mutate for true believers into the worshipful acclaim of a cult leader, One who now dispenses “reality” as daily bread.
Yelling WTF at the television throughout the pandemic, I watched the marches for individual freedom and bodily integrity in Minsk and Warsaw, in Lagos and Lima, I watched the Jim Crow voter suppression in Detroit and Atlanta and Milwaukee, I watched as "disloyal" US Republicans came forward one by one with tales of travesty and treason.
How, and why ... and still? Have we learned nothing in our 150,000 years as Homo Sapien Sapiens?
Yelling through the time warp of my own past decades at least had an audience, albeit a silent one.
To this day I cannot live comfortably on ground floors, where an intruder's face could appear suddenly in a window. Upstairs, though safety involves lights in closets and continual locking of doors and windows, there is still the thought that the villain is already inside. Even so, during these past months, I slowly began to understand that this all-too familiar sense of danger occurs within the prison cell, inside the false reality my torturers devised for me. They are the ones who saw me as Other, as Less, as deserving of their hatred. They are the ones who constructed the system with me as disposable, an underdog to be kicked aside on the way to power. They are the ones who utilize “fake news” and “alternative facts,” who sneer at the people they hurt, who mutilate the Gospel of Forgiveness and Love for One's Neighbor.
Because I am that neighbor.
I also see that I was locked in this prison of self-recrimination when very young. With the logic of a dependent child, the conclusion that I was bad followed directly from the premise that kept my Guardians good. I could not yet see the caste hierarchy that raised one group of humans over another, or how debilitating this mad inference would be in later years. But I will leave the prison cell now as an adult, with all the wisdom of my years intact. I will leave having filled in the missing premises, exposing the cruel argument as merely partial, one now leading to a far different conclusion: My soul has always radiated a unique and essential integrity, one among many, whether my neighbors responded with cruelty or with compassion.
I will leave this cell …
Yes, just as soon as I can get up and walk through that open door.
25 NOVEMBER 2020