We’re coming up the stairs

So there’s all sorts of thinkpieces out there trying to understand why folks seem to be acting so screwy these days: the racism, the white nationalism, the fascism… but I keep repeating myself. In the lead up to this latest US election, we saw a bone-crushing volume of content devoted to the “migrant caravan,” and now since the election the coverage has plummeted in what can only be described as a blatant admission that the maniacs on the American far-right knew full well, and flat out did not even care to hide, that the entire narrative was nothing but a publicity stunt to gin up fear within the electorate. Fear of people not like you, fear of the world you know changing, fear of anything being different from the time when it was good, which always seems to be just far enough away in memory to be slightly fuzzy, slightly foggy, and more than a little tinted by nostalgia. Sure, Eisenhower may have taxed the rich at double or more the current rate, but I’d rather just remember it differently so we can return to “then” when things were “better” or, dare I even say it… “great.”

But why all this fear? Why this conservative terror to either return to a time when milkmen tipped their hats or when video games didn’t have to worry about making girls happy, depending on your generation? At the end of the day, the question sounds off like a tornado siren: why are you so scared? Fear is not known to be rational, or mature, or well thought-out, because if it was it wouldn’t be fear. Fear is by its very nature irrational, even if it serves a purpose of survival from aeons ago. Yes, learning to fear the bright colors of a poisonous snake can save your life, but without adding additional thought to the conversation you’ll find yourself running screaming into the night if someone puts mustard on your sandwich. Fear needs to be tempered with rational thought, which is something we as humans learn as we grow, and indeed it is one of the best parts of the human mind that allows us to succeed despite adversities. Without that tempering, without taking the time to calm down and think it over, we wind up acting like a human who has had not yet developed… like a small child.

I have two small children. One’s almost 4 years old, the other about a year and a half. As of lately, they have been little buggers when bedtime rolls around: yelling, screaming, sobbing, crying, begging for just one more book or one more hug or kiss even as the bedtime ritual stretches into its second hour. They literally lack the programming and brain development to be able to say “let’s sit down and be rational and calm about this: sleep is good for us and a well rested me is a better me for the challenges of tomorrow.” All they know is that Mom & Dad are going to disappear and they will eventually go unconscious, possibly hallucinate vividly for several hours, and then awake alone and probably with cold feet because they both hate socks and kick their blankets off at night. They are afraid of the coming uncertainty and, what’s more, they are upset at the adults in the room for not taking their irrational fears seriously and spending the entire night reading Bedtime for Baby Bear to them on repeat. They want to “conserve” what they have and don’t want it to change… I hope you can see where I’m going with this.

And when the adults don’t listen, or tell them that there’s nothing to worry about, or try to assuage their fear that they have convinced themselves is very real and imminent (my daughter often wails about invisible spiders she swears are in her room), or finally resign themselves to leaving the situation because at some point the kid’s just gotta get to sleep… the fear turns to anger. Why are my thoughts not being validated? Why are people not doing things my way? Why won’t things just stay the way they are and they way I like them? Why won’t Dad come upstairs for the seventeenth time to confirm that there truly are no spiders on the ceiling? I am not being served in the manner I wish to be, and so I am going to lash out at a system that I have convinced myself is unjust. I am going to test the boundaries. I am not going to go to sleep. I am going to throw my toys. I am going to scream and yell until you come up here and do what I want because, deep down, I am very, very afraid.

Fear isn’t rational. Anger is possibly even less rational because it often mutates from fear. How many times have you seen people act out in anger, only to say some permutation of the phrase “I didn’t mean it?” I know this all seems very Ivory Tower to compare conservative folks to my tiny children, but at the end of the day we’ve all still got that little kid inside. I’m 33 years old and I still get a rush every time I have to go up a flight of stairs alone in a dark house. I see a gaggle of teenagers walking down the sidewalk and my hackles go up. I hear my kids caterwauling about having to go to bed and my blood starts to boil… but then you remember the reality of the situation and you realize you can’t be mad at someone for doing what they know to do and what they may not be able to stop. It works much better to work with the person, manage the situation, and then look not at that they were angry, but why they were angry. It’s not about having the emotions, because we all do… it’s about how we respond.

Most times, you can respond to people rationally, especially if you look at overarching factors rather than just chastising the behavior at face value. When I sit and talk to my daughter, she talks about how much she doesn’t like being alone when she sleeps, which speaks to a larger social aspect of humanity that, frankly, I find uncanny in a 4 year old. However, she still has her moments when her better judgment leaves her, and that’s the main anecdote I want to relate here.

A few nights ago, she was in fine form: sassy, cranky, overtired, the whole nine yards. She was pushing boundaries, and she knew it. How do I know she knew it? Because when my wife eventually headed up the stairs to have a frank conversation about her behavior, the first words out of her mouth were pleading for no one to actually hold her accountable. The turnaround was remarkable: it took only nanoseconds to go from a strident “NO!” to everything to suddenly apologizing profusely to spare herself.

I want to make a special note here that Mom was NOT going up there to give her a whoopin’ nor was there going to be any physical confrontation at all. What my daughter feared more than that was the knowledge that Mom was angry and disappointed in her. Just beneath the paper-thin surface rage and the contrary attitude was fear. She knew she was testing the limits, she knew she could possibly get in trouble, but the rush of sounding off at the parents was too sweet, she just had to. Only too late did she regret it.

Fascism is not rational. Fascism is not particularly mature. However, it is cunning. It knows not to say things outright; it knows to dog-whistle its awfulness in traditionalism, identity, nostalgia and, most recently, irony. But just beneath the surface, fascism’s main driver is fear: fear of difference, fear of change, fear of what dreams may come and fear of that loneliness, whether it be loneliness from community, family, intimacy, or even alienation from what work and duties you perform in the day to day. That fear manifests itself in testing the boundaries of things like good taste, civility, or accepted social norms like, say, racism or white nationalism. But, as we saw in this famous clip from the Charlottesville rally, when cornered, alone, and faced with the possibility of Mom coming up the stairs, their first reaction is to take it all back. No one had to touch him, there were police nearby to protect him, but when someone comes up the stairs and there’s no support structure around him, it all falls apart.

We don’t need to make the fascists scared; they already are. All we need to do is scrape off that tiny veneer of bravado and expose the fear underneath. It’s the equivalent of the schoolyard bully losing his clout when one of the other kid starts at him and, in his fear, he falls ass-over-teacup backwards over his own backpack. As budding fascism begins to bloom in America, we need to start coming up the stairs to each and every one of these chuckleheads. In the face of irrational fear turning into anger, the best strategy is to challenge that anger until it melts away to fear, because fear is much easier to reason with. Maybe the fear is because life is too uncertain in a world where jobs are crappy, healthcare is too expensive, the food’s unhealthy and the water’s not clean. It’s a lot harder to hate people when you’ve got a full stomach, money in the bank, and a clean bill of health, but first we need to get to a place where those things are possible, and doing fluff pieces on Nazis is not the way to get there, unless you want to be up all night reading bedtime stories to stop another meltdown.

There is a point where you need to take some action, and fascism is much harder to take action on when it may be easier to define, but large enough that it takes something like a World War to put it back in the box. The point is now to start calling fascists and white nationalists and racists and identitarians or whatever they’re calling themselves for the lulz these days onto the carpet and make them answer for it, one at a time. Fascism’s strength comes from being united: a fasces is an old Latin term for a bundle of sticks bound together, making the entire bundle harder to break. As a child, I remember an incident involving one of my elementary teachers and a student. By the time the story got to me, it had morphed into some kind of nightmare scenario where the teacher had slammed a child up against a wall, for seemingly no reason. There was a small mob of us in the playground, and someone started the ridiculous chant of “off with her head.” It was easy to go with the flow, it was easy to chant along. I can’t remember if I did, but I know it was hard not to. But I also knew, if my Mom had found out when I got home, and when I was no longer surrounded by classmates, when I was alone… she’d be coming up the stairs.

It’s time to start coming up the stairs and making folks apologize. If not, they’ll continue to stretch the boundaries and test their limits… and where budding fascism is concerned, that’s something you just don’t want to see happen again.

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