All it takes for darkness to win and chaos to prevail is for good men and women to remain silent.
We've all heard some version of the statement above. As Americans, our popular culture and national sense of identity stems from our nation being engaged in a sort of Manichean struggle between good and evil. Often this morality story's war for good is waged against outside enemies. But sometimes American exceptionalism has taken exception to what America should be and what America stands for. The struggle end slavery and the impending Civil War followed a century later by the civil rights movement are two powerful examples of America's struggle to fight the forces of darkness being a struggle from within for the soul of our country and what it means to be apart of American nationhood. For the past 25 years, America has been increasingly focused on enemies foreign rather than those lurking in the shadows of our domestic body-politic. In part this is because of the strong tradition we enjoy as a people who value free speech. But it is also because in a world that has increasingly smaller through technological change, we often find pleasant distractions to rid ourselves from the burden of self-sovereignty. Put more plainly: Americans today find participating in our democracy as a hassle. I write today to remind all of us that the alternative to rights of the sovereign being invested in the people is the power of the state being wielded for tyranny.
To set the stage, allow me to offer a silhouette from own life story briefly. My parents came from South Asia in the 1980s to seek out a free life in a free land. They themselves were and are avowedly apolitical. They were leaving a country where successive military dictatorships had either jailed or civilly punished successive generations of relatives for daring to question injustice, fight for democracy (voting), or refuse to participate in corruption. Witnessing firsthand that political participation could have disastrous consequences for their own loved ones, my parents chose to stay out of political discourse for the bulk of their lives.
Allow for another story not from my life, but from several democratic activists who participating in the largely peaceful events of the Arab Spring. During the Arab Spring revolutions earlier this decade, I was working at a news journalism start-up that specialized in helping to get sensitive news footage and media assets out of war zones and dangerous regions of the world, and into the safe hands of news publishers in free-speech societies across the world. During that time, I worked closely with some of the bravest young people in the world, as they labored away as citizen journalists & democratic activists, hoping to one day have the freedoms many Americans take for granted. The Arab Spring revolutions began in 2011 after poor economic planning by the dictatorship of Z. Ben Ali in Tunisia left millions of highly capable Tunisian college graduates without jobs and financial stability for years. Additionally, authoritarianism meant that young people could not voice their concerns and needs to government without fear of harm. Events culminated when a desperate young man named M. Bouazizi lit himself on fire after being humiliate by a government official. Bouazizi was supporting his whole family on less than 200 dollars a month, including the paying for the college tuition of his younger sister, so that she would have job opportunities that he could never have for himself.
Dozens of young people, many younger than me and in their early teens took to the street to help organize protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria for democratic rule. Many of them died, or were disappeared by the authorities. Many more were brutally injured, sometimes to the point of permanent disability. These young people sough out a life for themselves and their families not dissimilar to the ones we all seek out here in America for our own loved ones. But unlike most of us, they were willing to die to have the opportunity to vote. And many did die, something that stays in my thoughts to this day.
I mention these anecdotes to help readers to understand just how privileged we as Americans are to have direct control over the levers of our own government. While the people of Tunisia for 23 years lacked the ability to influence economic policy in a way that could provide a better life for their families, we have had that right enshrined for over two centuries, even if we had to fight a civil war and were horrifically slow to embrace the full humanity of our black brothers and sisters, as well as grudgingly unwilling for most our history to grant women the right to vote. Moreover, we have nothing to fear from our government should we criticize or lampoon elected officials, civil servants or even our military for any reason whatsoever. No American is left with the impression that they must set themselves alight to highlight government ineffectiveness or corruption.
We are, however, facing a greater challenge to our republic and representative democracy than has been seen in over a generation. To speak earnestly, our tri-pronged approach for safeguarding the rights and freedoms of Americans is under vicious assault not only from the harmful actions of a president elected on a mere technicality and without a popular mandate, but also by dangerous forces outside of government: racial supremacists, extreme-rightists ("the alt-Right") and worst of all: the inaction by everyday Americans to confront the evil forces within our body-politic.
It should never be acceptable to demonize immigrants, people of color or individuals belonging to minority faiths. It should never be acceptable for a government official to inject political commentary into our judicial process by calling for the execution of a soldier on trial, or threatening to jail political opponents. These are the hallmarks of authoritarianism, brigandry, and yes, Nazism. American values are as ever, evolving. But that evolution is taking us forward towards inclusion and greater appreciation for the nuances of American identity. That is, unless inaction by the electorate allows a class of extremely prejudicial and hateful actors to assume the mantle of representative government.
It cannot go unnoticed that Americans don't feel optimistic about their country or their lives. Beyond the polls, the sense of malaise and emotional fatigue stemming from last year's bitter presidential election pervades people's lives. The forces of darkness are counting on just that sense of wanting the circus show we see in politics today to just go away for their side to win. Remember, the Bolsheviks and Nazis were not the majority political force at the time of their rise. Germany and Russia were both tired of war, economic instability and the ongoing bickering of political elites when marginalized groups led by Hitler and Lenin seized power. Similarly, the forces I have enumerated earlier in this blog post are counting on everyday Americans to eschew voting in democratic elections in order for them to galvanize their base and seize power through the ballot box, with an agenda to upend everything we know to be American after they do so. We can't give up because our very way of life is on the line.
Nothing written in this blog post is especially unknown to most Americans. Even the harrowing tales of sacrifice I shared from my own family history and more generally of the lives of democratic activists in the Arab world are not exactly new. Millions of Americans have relatives or loved ones who can share their stories of hardship and struggle to escape the onslaught of communism and fascism in Europe, the Killing Fields and re-training camps of East and Southeast Asia, or the police-states of Latin America. Yet, from time to time it is helpful to have a reminder that the freedoms we enjoy every day aren't free. They came and still come with a price. To avoid the ballot box means to one day lose access to it altogether. As the forces of darkness continue to culminate across our land, I urge Americans to take the time out to learn how they can vote and voice their concerns to government in the upcoming elections next week and next year.