“Do You Know What a Fascist Is?”

One of my favorite folk musicians, Dar Williams, wrote a song called “The Buzzer,” which is about the infamous Milgram Experiments on obedience to authority figures. The experiments (whose methodologies are somewhat contested today) shocked the world by revealing the extent to which people will inflict pain on others by pressing a “buzzer” if directed to do so. Coming as they did after the Holocaust and at the dawn of the 60s, the experiments provided a cultural touchstone, a warning about our conformist instincts masking evil. “The man said do you know what a fascist is?” Williams writes. “I said yeah it’s when you do things you’re not proud of/ But you’re scraping by taking orders from above.”

Williams’ song has been in my head frequently of late, not because of the compelling dissonance between a catchy tune and a refrain about torturing other human beings, but because, as the song comes to an end, Williams asks a question of the listener:  “Tell me who made your clothes, was it children or men?” The reference to sweatshops reminds us we’re all participants in the larger Milgram experiment of society, morally compromised by the nature of the systems we participate in. 

This larger point was true when she wrote the song several years back, and it’s truer by the minute. Each day, the Trump administration gets away with inhuman acts— and we wring our hands. We worry about our bills, our kids, our careers, we take a moment or to register our anger on social media and tag the #resistance, before we go back to our routines. We fret that we’re in danger becoming “good Germans,” as my mom’s sign at a recent rally read, but maybe we’re already there.

Yet the song repeats itself in my head for another reason, too: because my own words fail. When I try to speak or write about what’s happening at the border––the official policy of tearing away young children, some of them babies, from their asylum-seeking parents––my thoughts turn into an incoherent roar of grief, anger and impotence. I am reduced to a mass of unformed feelings.

Williams’ lyrics shore me up, reminding me that this moment is a test: how much inhumanity and barbarism will we, the American citizenry, tolerate if it’s being done out of our sight, on “other” people, far away? We will remain angry? Yes. But are we willing to risk our own cozy corner of life to reunite these families? Can we build enough momentum to stop the tide, when child-snatching and family separation are as much a part of our history as any domestic ideal ever was? The question in that Dar Williams song, “Do you know what a fascist is?” has an answer. If we don’t stop this from happening, it’s us.

The only comfort I can take these days is that I’m not alone–and that, in particular, I’m part of a community of people who seem to share my anguish. For bystanders, it’s hard to feel this pain all the time, but not feeling it would be worse, a sign that we’ve hardened. If you’re looking to begin, start talking with friends and coworkers about the idea of abolishing ICE and returning to a pre-Patriot Act system of handling asylum seekers and immigrants.

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