I know a lot of urban, liberal-leaning people who thought that The Handmaid’s Tale was hyperbolic and could never happen in America. I know a lot of people, conservative and liberal, who similarly think that fascism could never happen in America. I suspect that many white conservatives believe that systemic racism is not real because they don’t believe themselves to be racist, and from their perspective, racism can only take a dastardly form, full of n-words and burning crosses. What these beliefs have in common is that many people think, naively, that most human beings are reasonable people.
It first occurred to me in my twenties, like a lightning bolt to the head, that most people were not reasonable, and my frustration with what I perceived to be unreasonableness at work, etc., was not something that could be fixed by the people around me. So I learned to accept that most people, including myself, were at least at times completely unreasonable, and I figured out how to live with it. “Reason” is often regarded as a masculine trait, and we carry the deceit that somehow men are the reasonable ones, and women are the emotional, unreasonable ones. This isn’t true, of course, as anyone with a mercurial male boss can attest. But many men, in particular, in mainstream America — and women by proxy — believe that Reason prevails, and “It couldn’t happen here.” But it could.
The belief that Reason will save human beings from evil has a long tradition. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a “radical evil,” and this is true both for Christian theology, which conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at least must have suspected the existence of this evil even though he immediately rationalized it in the concept of a “perverted ill will” that could be explained by comprehensible motives. Therefore, we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know. There is only one thing that seems to be discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. The manipulators of this system believe in their own superfluousness as much as in that of all others, and the totalitarian murderers are all the more dangerous because they do not care if they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born. The danger of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms.
We do view the world in utilitarian terms. If we are not “productive,” we are useless. If we cannot provide a benefit to some oligarch, no one cares about them. The earth exists only for mankind to use and abuse. This quote is just as relevant today as when it was written in the post-World War II era.
I have always believed that The Handmaid’s Tale could too easily happen here; I’ve known too many Evangelicals who enthusiastically invite something similar. And when Reason has fled, we are left with our easily manipulated emotions, with anger being the most useful to the demagogue. People are not reasonable; people can be led, by degrees, to the point of turning in their neighbors for the camps, particularly if it saves themselves. Human beings are master rationalizers, and white America, with its history of slavery and oppression, has had a lot of practice.
So no, Reason will not save us. Reason says, “What they did is not against the law.” But this doesn’t mean that the law is just, or right. The slave laws of the 1800s and 1900s were not right. The Nazi laws that outlawed relationships between Aryans and Jews, or that deprived Jews of their citizenship, were not right. “They were just following the law” is no better than “they were just following orders.”
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
— Maya Angelou
Red-faced white people at Trump rallies who scream for the blood of protesters or journalists are showing us who they are. People who call journalists, Democrats, liberals, or any group “enemies of the state” are showing us who they are. White people, armed with military-grade weapons who threaten legislators and protesters are showing us who they are. They are all fascists, ready to be activated. They are waiting for their moment to act. All that’s needed is the demagogue to unleash them, and he is here. “Reason” has nothing to do with any of this. “Law and order” can be changed — or ignored — at will.
…the propaganda of totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes is invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian rulers usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones.
The attraction of evil and crime for the mob mentality is nothing new. It
has always been true that the mob will greet “deeds of violence with the
admiring remark: it may be mean but it is very clever.”
— Hannah Arendt
Make no mistake, America: it can happen here. The question you must ask yourself is: will you allow it?