I remember watching Disney movies with my two kid brothers, back when I was just a little boy. I loved those films, and think about them fondly to this day. The thing that I remember most about them, though, was that my favorite part of each was not the soundtrack, or the humor, or even a specific cast of characters (though I loved these aspects, too). My favorite part was that the good guys always won.
Theirs weren’t just trivial victories, either; in fact, as anyone who’s studied the psychology of Disney films will know, many of the plot points in these tales closely track our deepest understandings of right vs. wrong – good vs. evil. Who ultimately won the day in those films mattered to us precisely because the characters involved occupied different places on the moral spectrum. For the nihilistic evildoers to come out on top would just feel… wrong to us.
As a child, I took the good guys’ victories for granted. Even outside of children’s books and movies, my world confirmed these Disney story arcs. For instance, I could vaguely grasp the concept that the world had been at war before my birth, and that America – the good guys – had won that fight for good. Just like in the movies, the moral universe to me was black and white, with black forever doomed to crushing losses.
It was only as a young man that I began to realize different arcs existed. I wish I could remember what event caused me to see it first — but what that was makes little difference now. The point is that the bad guys win sometimes. Most of us can recognize that fact. It is a fact that all of us would do well to recognize right now. If you’ve read my earlier posts, then you know what keeps me up at night. If you haven’t, then each blue word contains a clue.
Of course, the moral universe isn’t simply black and white – there are shades of grey, as we all know. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as good and evil. There absolutely is, and insisting that this is the case is crucial, which brings me to the purpose of this post: Lessons on defense against the dark arts.
The following is a list of lessons and conclusions I have arrived at in thinking of how best to counteract authoritarianism, and that I feel contains important reminders, given our country’s current political climate.
Lesson 1: Hold the center
When a demagogue takes power, one thing you might notice is that the lines of division in your society become more clear. In America’s case, these societal fissures separate immigrants from citizens, Democrats from Republicans, coastal folks from heartland dwellers, and Christians/Catholics from just about everybody else. We are told by the division-peddlers that the American dream is a zero-sum game, and that the time has come to circle the wagons around our own kind, because the people in the next camp can’t be trusted.
Do not take their advice. Resist the urge to categorize and label other people, and go out of your way to become more cosmopolitan. If you’re an atheist (like me), pay a visit to your local Presbyterian church, or maybe a mosque. If you’re a coastal-dwelling city slicker, trade that European vacay you’ve been planning for a trip to a flyover state. If you’re a citizen, donate to an immigration advocacy group. If you’re a member of a political party, rather than insulting the other side on Facebook, invite that one politically backwards co-worker to join your bowling team. In short, do not simply refuse to be divided, but behave in a manner that discredits the notion that the demagogues’ preferred dividing lines even exist.
Lesson 2: Stay close to the light
In troubling times, it can be easy to get swallowed up by hopelessness and doubt. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to the news, and to be mindful of the dangers that we face. But it is perhaps equally important that we devote some time to our private lives, and tend to our own wellbeing and health. Here are some things I do to keep my own mind close to the light: Go to the gym; read good books; write and listen music; call my parents; email my grandmother; have drinks with friends; do one nice thing per day.
Additionally, I’ve found that following a couple of podcasts and public intellectuals has been beneficial to shoring up my mental health. I would recommend listening to Pod Save America, The Waking Up Podcast, Jacko Willink, and Jordan Peterson. They each have a light of their own kind to offer, and the more you can surround yourself with lights like theirs, the better. Don’t let the darkness of the world inside your head, because the truth is, you can keep it out. Go find how best to do so for yourself.
Lesson 3: Know that truth exists, and do your best to speak it
One of the most insidious things about our country’s would-be authoritarians has been the smear campaign they’ve launched against the notion of an objective, provable truth. Take your pick of examples: from the concept of “alternative facts”, to the flippant dismissal of legitimate reporting as “fake news”, to the enthusiastic peddling of conspiracies build on laundry lists of baseless allegations, the takeaway is clear – some people care about the truth, and others don’t. Unfortunately, it’s the second group which holds the bigger megaphone right now, and that’s why it is incredibly important that the first group speaks the truth in the months to come.
This is not as easy as it sounds, which is why most folks don’t do it. So you should probably start off small, with a promise that you won’t tell lies, even for just one day. Once you’re capable of going a week without telling a significant fib, you’ll be better off than 90% of people.
Perhaps the most important reason to refuse to lie, and to speak the truth as best you can is that it forces you to live in accordance with your principles. If you behave in ways that you wouldn’t be ashamed of others knowing about, what is there to lie about, exactly? For a book that delves more deeply into the principles behind this lesson, click here.
Lesson 4: Be the change you wish to see
Finally, we all have the power to affect our little corners of the globe. If there’s a homeless person problem where you live, walk on into city hall and ask them if they’re planning to address it. If they claim that they can’t fix it, write a letter to your Congressman, and donate to a food drive in the mean time.
If a friend or loved one is experiencing hard times – be it an addiction, marriage problems, illness, or financial worries – don’t abandon them, even when everyone else in their world decides to (especially then).
When you get into an argument with your father over politics, or your girlfriend over things in your relationships, don’t let your temper or your pride direct your words. In an age of self-promotion, reputation management, and an endless supply of transactional relationships to exploit, putting aside your ego and conversing in good faith is a genuinely radical act.
Have patience when dealing with young children, and never take a bad mood out on those you love. And when you fail at these (we all do sometimes), be sure to make things right. There’s nothing worse than letting the guilt fester in your head while your mean words fester in theirs, so learn how to apologize for real.
All in all, we mostly know the ways that we can each be better people. Thinking about the places where you’ve come up short before is a decent start, and correcting them is even better still. In this moment when dishonestly, indecency, and nihilism are pouring from our nation’s power halls, the spirit of the resistance will found in all their opposites.