Moment of Truth
Text of Michael Deibert's address at Millersville University Literary Festival
2 November 2018
Good evening to all of you and thank you for coming. Thank you also to Millersville University and the Writing Center for inviting me to speak. As Bill mentioned I grew up in Lancaster and have spent much of my career as a journalist and author traveling the world and working in different countries, and that’s one of the ways I know it is particularly auspicious that I have been invited to give a talk on November 2nd which, in Haiti, is Gede, which celebrates the lwa or spirits of death and fertility, and in Mexico and in many places in Central American Dia de los Muertos, which marks los que se fueron, or those who have departed.
It’s interesting for a guy who grew up as a lower middle-class kid here in Lancaster to see what changes have taken place since I was young. The city seems to have really blossomed into a very vibrant, multicultural politically active place over the years and, of course, thanks to the advancements in communications, people really have the world at their fingertips if they choose to avail themselves of it these days.
Having been to something like 60 countries or thereabouts now, one of the messages I try to communicate to people here in the United States is that, despite the current political discourse of the day, you don’t have to be afraid of people who don’t look like you, speak like you, follow your religion or dress like you. There are predators in every country & every culture, but in general in my travels I’ve found people to be more or less ok.
There is something you should be frightened of, and I would like to talk to you about it tonight.
Americans are cocooned and cushioned by the reality many (though not Native Americans or African–Americans, to name but two groups) have shared since the country’s founding, decades of stable institutions and, in the national main, political fair play. They cannot imagine how quickly, and how violently, things can change.
In my 20 years as a journalist reporting on international affairs, I have come across the template we see being used in the United States before, employed by those whose political behavior is marked by, as Robert Paxton said in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism
(An) obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
In Côte d’Ivoire I saw how Laurent Gbagbo’s promoting his ethno supremacist cult of Ivorité took one of Africa’s richest countries and toppled it over into civil war. In Haiti, I saw how Jean Bertrand Aristide took the rancour of the masses and stoked it into an attempt to create a kind of garish fiefdom modeled on those of Uganda’s Idi Amin and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa. In Guatemala, I watched former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who oversaw the country’s worst period of genocidal bloodletting, form a political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), whose entire motor ran on anti–elite rage and was eventually revealed to be more criminal enterprise than political vessel.
As I come from the exact strata of American society – the white, blue collar, Rust Belt working class – among whom the current president’s message has the most resonance - and have seen its like up close before, I feel a special duty to speak out.
People with a strong work ethic feel all their hard work has been spat upon and shunted aside by years of free trade deals championed by both parties and a tax system that lavishes breaks on the wealthy and penalizes those of more modest means (championed, ironically, by the very same party to which they now claim allegiance). There is real pain and real despair there. But there is also a whining self pity that often can’t see anyone’s struggle as worthy as their own and a nearly millenarian sense of grievance that sees politics not as the art of the possible but as an apocalyptic struggle between a largely white industrial world that has gone and will never return against a confusing kaleidoscope of liberal urban elites, the country’s burgeoning non–white population, immigrants, alternative sexual orientations and other shocks to their system. If Trump voters often sound as if they think the world is about to end, it’s because the world as they have known it is ending. But these forces of demography cannot be reversed, and it is not a world my fellow working–class whites need to fear, but fear is the currency on which our president trades.
The American democratic project has been characterized by inconsistencies since it commenced in 1776. Some of these tensions involved America’s actions abroad, and some in the way it treated its most vulnerable citizens at home. But, with the exception of a wrenching civil war that saw over 600,000 Americans die, few have ever questioned the value of the project itself.
When, at the end of the Revolutionary War, a group of dissident officers in the Continental Army all but suggested a coup against the newly inaugurated Congress in what came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, the army's commander in chief (and future first U.S. President) George Washington gave an impassioned speech in which he inveighed on behalf “of our common country,” charging
As you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.
America has had a complicated, schizophrenic history and it has been a messy project.
In the mid-1700s, a group of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen who had settled along the Susquehanna River became known as the Paxton Boys and conducted a spate of racially-motivated violence here in the south-central and eastern portions of Pennsylvania.
On December 14 1763, the gang murdered six members of the Susquehannock tribe (known as Conestoga among English-speakers) and burned their cabins for good measure. When 16 of the remaining Susquehannock were placed in protective custody in the old city jail in Lancaster (just next to the site of the present-day Fulton Opera House), on 27 December, the Paxton Boys broke into the jail and killed, scalped and dismembered the six adults and eight children who sheltered there.
Just last year, Scott Wagner, who is running for governor, was recorded disparaging the businessman and philanthropist George Soros as a “Hungarian Jew” who harbored “a hatred for America.” Soros, along with a number of prominent other individuals and journalists was sent a bomb last month,
Also last year, a white supremacist organization called Identity Evropa held a rally in Penn Square, and at around the same time stickers and posters promoting it were found plastered at Elizabethtown College and here at Millersville.
That’s part of our history and present. But equally a part of it is Lancaster’s prominent role as the political base of the fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who represented the region in the U.S. Congress for most of the era between 1849 to 1868. Equally part of it is Lancaster’s history of religious tolerance and welcoming attitude towards those fleeing persecution. The fact that the county welcomes 20x as many refugees per capita as the rest of the country is something you can all be proud of. The future is unwritten.
But need to think very carefully about the path we are heading down.
In the July 1932 elections in Germany, also a democracy at the time, the Nazis received 37% of the vote, the most they every got. In the next election four months later, their share shrank to 32%. But by then it was too late. The serpent was already in the garden. Tellingly, in their quest for absolute power, the Nazis were aided unwittingly by leaders such as the German Communist Party’s Ernst Thälmann, who thought the centre left was a greater danger than the extreme right. Before he realized his miscalculation, he was arrested, held in solitary confinement for eleven years and then shot in Buchenwald.
In the 1990s, the people of the Balkans put their faith in leaders like Serbia's Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić who led the region into ethnic cleansing, genocide, NATO bombing and bloody war for a decade. In 1999, the people of Venezuela, desperate and vengeful after being ignored by their politicians for years, turned the reigns of their country over to former coup leader Hugo Chávez, his successor Nicolás Maduro and their “Bolivarian revolution.” They haven’t gotten it back since.
In Cuba, where I have spent a lot of time and which has its own experience with strongmen promising to expunge a collective grievance through a cleansing release of violence, after the 1959 overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the new government, led by Fidel Castro, executed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people tied to the ancien régime after only the most summary trials (and many with no trial at all). Whether all or even most of them were guilty will never be known. The cry of paredón (to the wall) resounded, and the will of the maximum leader had to be obeyed. Today, one can still visit El Morro, where so many of them died, and El Capitolio, where Cuba’s congress met and debated, but which was shuttered after 1959, and remains so to this day.
Now, at another time, in another place, that cry raises its sanguinary voice again, with calls for political opponents to be jailed, for journalists to be arrested and killed, for desperate people who could just as easily be any one of us to be described in terms of vermin and plague and for those who speak out against this rhetoric of terrorism to be attacked and battered into submission.
When things like this start, at first it might be the opposition party that is sent to the wall. It might be Jewish journalists, or Muslims, or Latinos or immigrants. But one of these days, not too long from now, the mob will scream for blood and it will be someone you love who is brought to the wall, for some transgression real or imagined. It might even be you. In my 20 years as a journalist I’ve seen it in countless countries before. People think it can’t happen here, but it can.
In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Tucydides discussed a reinvention of vocabulary for the civil war in Corcyra that went thusly:
What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfit for action.
So what is the solution to all of this, when we’re confronted with such cruelty and brutal machinery - when things like building tent camps in the desert for children who have been forcibly separated from their parents and calling journalists “enemies of the people” - a direct reference to genocidal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin - have become normalized?
One of the writers who had the biggest influence on me over the years was the British author George Orwell. A lot of people know his anti-totalitarian fables 1984 and Animal Farm, perhaps fewer his gripping account of fighting against the forces of fascism during the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, and perhaps still fewer his 1937 study of the living conditions among the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of England, The Road to Wigan Pier. But there are some words from that book that I think are worth reading here tonight
The people who have got to act together are all those who cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the rent. This means that the small-holder has got to ally himself with the factory-hand, the typist with the coal-miner, the schoolmaster with the garage mechanic. There is some hope of getting them to do so if they can be made to understand where their interest lies….Poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain-pen.
I encourage all of you here to night to embrace the world as much as you can, not to shrink from it. Along with my time spent in distant lands, my view of the world and its struggles have been equally shaped by the books I have read, as literature as an art form, both fiction and non-fiction, can be a kind of pinnacle of dissent. Writers like Reinaldo Arenas, Marguerite Duras, Milan Kundera and Mario Vargas Llosa helped influence me and hone my analytical mind in a way that, say, engaging on Twitter does not. And as the struggle to build a more decent and just world continues, I try to remember the words of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who, in her penultimate book, A hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star) wrote of her main character, Macabéa’s, struggle to survive in Rio de Janeiro, that “she saw among the stones lining the gutter the wisps of grass green as the most tender human hope.”
Don’t give up.