"This Is What it Feels Like When a Democracy Dies"
by Umair Haque
"As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air - however slight - lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
- Justice William O. Kennedy
"What does it feel like to live in a time really succumbing to tyranny? Would you know it if you were in such a time? Is it like the "Hunger Games", or a "Mad Max" movie? Spectacular, violent, repellent, and unmistakeable? Or is it something subtler? Something that, for example, you might not even know was happening at the very moment it was happening to you? After all, invisible poisons are the most corrosive and dangerous things of all.
Imagine that you're lying down in a park, on the grass, on a perfect summer day, your eyes closed. And from nowhere, from everywhere, a fog begins rolling in. Gentle and white, oddly out place. It washes across the tips of your feet. You feel pinpricks. Your eyes snap open. Your toes go numb. How strange, you think to yourself, as you think about getting up and running away. What is this fog doing here? Why is giving you pins and needles?
But by the time you are thinking all that, processing what is happening to you, the fog is already up to your knees. 'I really should get up!' you think to yourself. You are a little alarmed now. But as you've paused to even think that far, to register it you realize that while your knees are prickling, your feet, calves, ankles, have gone numb. And it's not entirely unpleasant. It's soothing, even, in the way that letting go is. Confused, puzzled, bewildered, you stop to think again.
Yet by now the fog, still rolling, as quiet as winter, has reached the tips of your fingers, blanketed your torso. Ahhh, you murmur. The pinpricks, you realize, only sting you where the fog's cold, icy edge is. The rest of you? It's numb. Cool. Gone. And there is a strange, disquieting peace in that. Nothing makes sense. The world seems to be vanishing and so do you. But it's not entirely a bad thing.
The fog keeps rolling. As it covers all of you, something in you cries out 'Get up!' But there is another part that is overwhelmed, which wishes to surrender to this pleasing, beautiful, gentle numbness. That longs for it. A few pins and needles, that's not much of a price for letting go, is it? After all, isn't that exactly why you were resting in the park on that perfect summer day, eyes closed? To let the whole world, including yourself, fall away?
Authoritarianism isn't what you think it is. A sudden, violent, visible rupture. That's what Americans, especially, have been led to believe by too many TV shows and movies, which are a kind of especially paranoid American annihilation fantasy (the Rapture, the commies, the immigrants.)
But tyranny isn't like that at all. It doesn't feel like that. These days, if we are a little bit educated about it, we call it creeping. but even that fails to convey the feeling, the sense, the experience. My little parable is a way to begin expressing the strange feeling of collapse, not just anxiety and panic, but also, conflicting with it, a kind of yearning for surrender and submission. We'd be foolish, by now, not to understand the dark roots of our own apathy and resignation, wouldn't we? So let me continue.
The thing we misunderstand most about tyranny is that we suppose life becomes one long exercise in rigid, total certainty. You receive your orders, salute, and snap to business. That is what violent rupture implies: one day democracy, the next, a tyrant is there, precisely ordering everyone's last thought and action. But the truth is precisely the opposite.
Tyranny kills with the grey haze, the white fog, of all-pervading uncertainty. An uncertainty so total, that after a time, people will give up all that they love, and everyone they love, to escape it. The fog kills everything it touches and yet, it can't be touched, held, known, captured. You can't fight fog with fists or words or speeches, can you? If you join hands with someone you love, the fog will laugh, and weave itself right between your fingers. So what can fight it? Who can resist it? First, let me explain it a little.
Who will be dehumanized today? Will there be an election? Is this a President or something more sinister? Is the law still working? Did they raid that town? Why are those camps rising? Whose door will they knock at today? Am I in danger? Are they going to use my words against me? Should I not speak them? Where are the children? Do you see what I mean by all-pervading uncertainty? The grey haze. The white fog. That, my friends, is what tyranny really is. And you are already knee-deep in it. Only perhaps you don't quite know it yet.
After a time, the uncertainty erases everything. Cleanses everything. Kills everything. All. It covers everything it touches, and leaves nothing revealed. It is total and all-encompassing. Is that a person? Am I? Who is a citizen? What about my friends, family, cousins? Are these words mine? Did I speak them? Are those my friends? Can I trust them? Did they get rid of those people? The fog. The haze. That is how it kills everything it touches, by making all things exactly the same thing. An unanswerable question.
Do you have the sense, lately, that things are unreal? Ah, you see. You are already being blanked by the grey haze, the white fog, of uncertainty. Uncertainty is what you are feeling, only you don't know it. It is that uncertainty that has turned everything unreal. Will they really put people in camps? Then why did they build them? Will women really have to go underground to get abortions? What about my kids? Will they really live without healthcare or education or retirement? You go numb, as any sane person would, having to think these terrible thoughts. Your vision goes blurry. Reality has come apart, because nothing is or isn't anymore. Everything is just the fog.
When all is fog, uncertainty, impossibility, unknowability, reality cannot be processed anymore. That is the point. To create a world where everything, being uncertain, becomes unreal. Nothing exists, or doesn't exist, only just maybe exists, but only if it is allowed to. So nothing can be held, contained, known, and therefore, held onto. Nothing. Not the people you love most. Not yourself. Not tomorrow. Not even today.
Have you ever read stories about how in tyrannies, brothers will betray brothers, husbands wives, and mothers sons? You have always thought that could never happen to me! But why do they do it? It isn't because the tyrant commands them to. He doesn't have to. They will do it for just a tiny morsel of certainty. Here, I am a good person. Let me prove it to you. Let me tell you who is a bad person. Will you reward me now, put me in the good books, give me some certainty, instead of keeping me at the edge? No human being can survive more than a few days in a totally uncertain world. So the fog takes everything, not just from us, but also in us. It takes away, at last, our capacity to feel. When that is gone, we are hollow, empty, numb. And when we are numb, what or whom won't we sell, betray, or abuse?
The tyrant has never lifted a finger. He has only produced the fog, with a conjuring trick. By shifting the sands beneath us, and letting the mist pour out of the cracks. The fog rolls over us, little by little, inch by inch, languorous tendrils whispering. We fall and fall slowly, gently into a long, dreamless coma.
In the end, nothing is left. People are erased. Time stands still. History vanishes. The future looks exactly like the present. Nobody is here at all. There is only the fog, the haze, the white. Nothing can be discerned in it. Nothing can be seen through it. But that is alright. There is nobody left to see nothing, anyways. There is just the white fog. And beneath it, the sleepers. Each one the same, none of them there, or not there.
If just one woke up, looked around, shocked, and roused another, and that one another, and so on maybe they might, together, strain, struggle, and lift one another up above the fog. But none of them ever quite understood that. The fog took them too fast, too invisibly, without a bullet, without a word, without a sound, just like that. It took all the fight in them, and turned it to surrender.
That is what tyranny feels like, my friends. And you might not know it, or you might, but the fog is rolling silently across you now, gentle, languorous, with love, with absolution, with death."