In case you are unfamiliar with the term, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was instituted in the post-apartheid South Africa as a way of non-violently and non-punitively coming to terms with the painful racist past. It was a forum where the victims of human right abuses were able to testify about their experiences, and where some of the perpetrators could respond on record – ideally with some contrition – and request amnesty for their misdeeds. It was an exercise in “not forgotten, but possibly forgiven”, a way forward in transition to democracy that would not have to involve mass incarceration of those connected with the old regime. While criticised by many, this model of community healing is thought to have been quite successful in as much as it has been replicated in numerous other countries around the world as a way of dealing with the past and moving on. As the Good Book says, “the truth shall set you free”.
So – a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in America? You don’t have to have actually lived in a totalitarian society (even if, like with yours truly, it helps) to be taken aback at the insensitivity and the sheer tone deafness exhibited by a privileged member of the American elite (Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Berkley professor, 1 million Twitter followers) comparing the last four years in the United States to the four decades of South African apartheid or a quarter of a century of a military dictatorship in some coup-prone South American republic. Are these people really so lacking in self-awareness?
The answer is yes, and in turn it points to a more interesting socio-political phenomenon. For the past few decades, intellectuals (the great majority at various distances to the left of centre) have been looking at activists and dissidents outside of the developed, democratic “First World” – people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Ang Sang Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar, academics and trade unionists throughout Latin America fighting against right-wing dictatorships, and to a lesser extent those in opposition to communist dictatorships like the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa in Poland, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Sakharov, Sharansky, Solzhenitsyn and others in the Soviet Union – and I think their main, if secret, reaction was envy and guilt.
Guilt because their own lives in the West were by and large safe, secure, privileged and prosperous, while their counterparts (intellectuals, artists, community leaders) in the Second and the Third World (now developing world) were putting their lives, freedom and livelihoods on the line for the principles and ideals they believed in. And envy because, as the stakes were so much higher “over there”, the lives of all these dissidents, oppositionists and human rights activists seemed so much more meaningful – and, yes, exciting. While you were pondering on the next “New York Times” op-ed you are going to write, while turning up to your monthly faculty meeting in your new Prius, somewhere in Africa or Asia or Latin America a prisoner of conscience was on a hunger strike, actually living the ideas you believed in and not just writing about them. Sure, it’s terrible, yet how much more interesting and consequential than your placid and predictable existence of mortgage repayments and the Monday morning undergraduate class in political theory?
There is not only glory in the martyrdom, but, if you’re lucky – and everyone of course expects they will be lucky – more tangible recognition and rewards sometime down the line, when your principles are not only vindicated but so are you personally. The Mandelas, the Walesas, the Havels, the Suu Kyis all lived to see their much mightier opponents crumble before them and went on to lead their countries into the new eras of peace, freedom and democracy (or at least something more peaceful, freer and more democratic than what had proceeded it). Peace Nobel prizes, medals and galas, solidarity committees and group op-eds of support are all nice to have, but power is the opium of the intellectuals, who normally feel themselves short-changed by life in a capitalist society: undervalued, underappreciated, underpaid and all too often ignored by business and political leaders and movers and shakers, i.e. all those so clearly morally and intellectually inferior. This is coincidentally why the intelligencia has been the main constituency of revolutionary or at least reformist movements that seek to shake – or destroy – the status quo in favour of a new system where smart people like themselves are in charge or at least more listened to and rewarded for their contribution.
And so, for decades we’ve had the intellectual and the cultural elites in our Western countries hoping and wishing for more exciting and meaningful lives in service of their ideas, just like those courageous and committed men and women battling oppression and tyranny in more distant parts of the world. Because back at home it was all so sanitised and bourgeois; whatever your beliefs were and whatever you were advocating, no one was killed, no one was imprisoned for their activism, no one lost their job or was exiled or disappeared. Quite the contrary – your livelihood was pretty secure, there were ample opportunities to propagate your views, and there was a significant peer recognition and support for your endeavours. So safe – and so boring and unheroic.
The last four years, the Trump presidency, has been an absolute godsent to all these people, from the Robert Reichs at the top of the pile all the way down in the ranking of prestige and influence. They could finally pretend and play-act like they are finally living in “exciting times”, if not already under an authoritarian regime than constantly on the brink of one, under the perpetual shadow of totalitarianism, their every waking moment spent in defence of democracy, freedom and human rights – the whole liberal tradition and all its institutions. Hence the very exciting psychodrama of the “Resistance”, as if they were partisans hiding in the forest from SS. It’s all a complete cringe, of course, but the mass psychosis has finally allowed our ideas-making elites to feel like they matter and what they do matters too – because the stakes are now supposedly so high, like in the Weimar Germany. Finally, fascism, dictatorship, authoritarianism – all these distant and abstract concepts – have come home, and they, the brave freedom-fighters are the last line of defence against the forces of not just domestic evil, but the foreign evil that is allied with and supports it. It’s not just the survival of the Republic; it’s a global struggle, like the Second World War, the Cold War, apartheid South Africa and Francoist Spain all rolled into one. The sheer exhilaration of it all! Never mind that all this opposition to Trumpocracy is actually completely cost- and risk-free in personal and professional terms; never mind that the embattled dissidents of America in 2020 have no one to support them in their David versus Goliath struggle against the Trump dictatorship except for one of the two major political parties, virtually the entire news and opinion-making industry, the worlds of entertainment, culture and education, trade unions and the community sector, giants of the business world (including virtually the entire “new economy”) as well as pretty much the whole public sector.
And now victory is just around the corner – the reward for their courage and determination, their clear-sightedness and prescience in the face of danger and their unbending and uncompromising stance against the enemy of all that’s decent and good. They have saved their country, nay, the whole world, from the doom and despotism. They are finally in the same shoes and in the same league as all the freedom-fighters they have admired and envied. By God, they are in fact better than the Mandelas and the Bonhoeffers, because they have actually managed to avert the catastrophe rather than merely having to work through its consequences. Just imagine, if the anti-fascist forces in Germany in the 1920s and 30s had as much guts and smarts as the anti-Trump democracy defenders have had, Hitler would never have happened. If we have had “The Resistance” in South Africa in the 1940s or in Chile in 1970s, they would have strangled apartheid and General Pinochet in their cradles. Man, it’s so easy!
There will be endless commemorations and rewards for the brave veterans of the Great War of 2016-20, the saviours of civilisation, but there will also be a reckoning for the dastardly vanquished enemy. At best there will be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to give voices to the previously silenced victims of Trump and to name and shame all those who aided and abetted him. Better still, in the words of Keith Olbermann, Trump “and his enablers, and his supporters, and his collaborators, and the Mike Lees and the William Barrs… and the Mike Pences, and the Rudy Giulianis and the Kyle Rittenhouses and the Amy Coney Barretts must be prosecuted and convicted and removed from our society while we try to rebuild it and to rebuild the world Trump has destroyed by turning it over to a virus.” Less Cape Town 1996 and more Nuremburg 1946. It can’t be any other way; after all, if you pretend you have spent four years fighting fascism tooth and nail, when you win you can’t just say “meh” and go on as if nothing had happened – it might put in question the sincerity of your past overheated rhetoric and show your pseudo-historical hysteria and histrionics for what they really were.
Is it all play acting or are all these people seriously self-deluding themselves, believing in their own bullshit? I would like to think there is a fair degree of cynicism among the make-believe dissidents and resisters – that way I would not have to instead question their morality, intellect and judgment. But it does – increasingly – appear that most are sincere in their political pantomime (what Noam Blum has dubbed a “causeplay”), that somehow they have managed to self-servingly convince themselves that fascism is coming and they are the thin blue line standing between freedom and despotism. This includes a number of seemingly serious historians of totalitarianism l once used to respect, like Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum, never mind people like Robert Reich or Keith Olbermann and countless others. The rest of us have been relegated to being extras in the great drama where the pampered and over-indulged children of the Western civilisation get their once-in-a-lifetime chance to play at being heroes and martyrs, swapping decades of envy, guilt and frustration for a few brief shining moments of cheap glory on faux-barricades. It’s the storming of the Bastille and of the Winter Palace, it’s Gandhi and it’s Tutu, it’s 1945 and it’s 1968, it’s overgrown adolescents dressing up as their heroes in a Halloween-cum-Book Week extravaganza while demanding respect and adulation from the unwitting masses of spectators. It’s ridiculous, it’s offensive, it’s pathetic. But it’s 2020 and after decades of the left’s long march through the institutions it’s what we get for our money.