“Dishonesty in government is the business of every citizen. It is not enough to do your own job. There's no particular virtue in that. Democracy isn't a gift. It's a responsibility.”
- Dalton Trumbo
When Trumbo was defending democracy and himself from McCarthyism and the most aggressive version of the red scare, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking that six decades later half the country would be gripped with fear produced by the far right. Anyone who has looked more than passingly at McCarthy would be hard pressed to miss the parallels with today’s political climate, and the part that outright lies, disinformation and cheap conspiracy theories play in shaping our reality.
Our President uses distraction and disinformation as a tool to disorient, gaslight, and control the public. A recent report by the Washington Post had him clocking around 7.6 lies per day. The Post also verified that the President lied or tweeted a lie 4,229 times in less than two years in office. Most of these are easily disproved, but there are so many coming in in such rapid succession that people become overwhelmed and can’t remember the lie from the beginning of the month by the middle and they disengage. This we cannot do. You don’t have to spend your life fact-checking the President of the United States, but you do have a responsibility to pay attention and remain engaged. If everyone is looking the other way, if the people whose country lies in the balance turn their backs…Remember what the man said, “Democracy dies in the dark”.
Yes, a tin-pot dictator is trying to manipulate the entire country, discredit our most basic institutions, and subjugate or ally himself with any checks on his power. No, we’ve never seen anything quite like this historically in America. That’s the bad news. The good news is, liberal democracy around the world won’t go anywhere unless we let it. We have to let our democratic ideals die in every part of the globe for us to lose this fight.
Part of our success has to be understanding what we believe and why. I’ve always been partial to Churchill’s view that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other ones, and that it is not in fact, “perfect or all-wise” in agreement with the former Prime Minister. History shows us that the world does better when we reject autocratic strongmen and select to lead ourselves through elected representatives. That idea of right making might, and not the other way around is a powerful one. The ability to lead by the power of your example, and not just the example of your power. Across Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America as we shifted from the end of World War 2 to the dawn of the 21st Century, a belief was taking hold that the dignity of human beings was important to preserve and defend. That people are individuals with goals and hopes and dreams, and aren’t just subjects meant to adore an autocratic strongman or some distant monarch. People have the right to determine their own destiny and not be spoon fed by leadership or told that what they see and hear isn’t what’s happening.
We have to support each other in these beliefs if we want them to endure. We have to reclaim our institutions, name our goals and chase them with unprecedented vigor. There has to be action. It’s not enough to tweet your disapproval of the current system. You’ve got to get out and help change it from the bottom up. Change starts on the street, and we have a responsibility to get out there and claim our inheritance. That inheritance isn’t money. It isn’t fame. It’s the spirit of protest, the spirit of an active, honest, and informative press, the spirit of relentless pressure and activity to improve the status quo.
There are people fighting for their lives in Syria who only want to see the Assad regime out of power and are willing to die if it means free and fair elections in their homeland. There are people languishing in North Korean gulags who just need to hear that someone knows not just their plight, but the plight of their entire people and will back them up in their pursuit of freedom. There are political prisoners across the globe who just want to be able to make the choice for themselves. These people aren’t the terrorists or the power mad militia men, they are men and women who want the thing so many of us take for granted. Self Determination.
Every time we as a country or our leader on the world stage stands with autocrats, dictators and butchers we are alienating the people around the world who want to participate in our brand. These are people who hold the same philosophies on fairness, equality, human dignity, and the right for a person to carve out their own path in life. We can’t afford to stomp out the embers of democracy with our world being in the state it’s in. It may seem like a large task, or something too big and unwieldy for one person to manage, but I can promise you it’s not. The defense of democracy starts from the bottom up. We have to hold each other accountable. Don’t fall into the disinformation trap, don’t get discouraged by the barrage of lies coming from people on extreme ends of the political spectrum. They are trying to make you quit and go home so they have an easier time.
They’re not going to get off that easy.
Protest what you find repulsive. Give to causes you find worthy. Don’t just donate your money, but your time and your talent as well. Get in the area and engage in politics until you recognize yourself in your leadership. Be good to people and fight for the people who can’t fight for themselves.
Be bold, our resolve has to be stronger now than ever. We’ve got this.
Willis Gordon is a stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, musician, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and will continue the tradition in 2018. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards as well as the political column “Torn and Frayed” in the Drunken Absurdity ‘zine. He is also the host of “Impolite Conversation,” a YouTube discussion show about finding solutions to our community’s problems without getting stuck on our differences. A firm optimist, Gordon believes love is not just tender, but tough, and the only way the arc of history bends towards justice is through the hard work of ordinary people. He writes the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.