Dear progressive friends, family, those who have unfriended me in real life and online, deplatformed me, told me I belong to a cult, claimed I’m blind, and everyone who suggested I commit physically impossible acts upon myself:
I can’t tweet this as I’ve been life-banned, and while currently my Facebook is open, I’ve been blocked there before. Places I used to write for won’t look at articles defending the things I defended on their pages three years ago, like free speech, diplomacy with North Korea, and non-intervention in the Middle East. I can’t tell you how many times someone has heard The American Conservative come up alongside my name and sharply ended a conversation. So call this a message in a bottle.
I don’t support Trump. In Ye Olde Days, one could back some of a president’s policies (say free speech, diplomacy with North Korea, and non-intervention in the Middle East) without being lumped in with everything else. You could disagree with what someone said without having to destroy him as a human being, insisting he was mentally ill and should be institutionalized.
Once I could talk about ideas at Thanksgiving, on Fox News and CNN, even over a drink at a bar, without having to swipe the smudge off my face of being called a Nazi. I am not a Nazi. Nazis were those who put the numbers on my great Auntie’s arm. As kids at holiday parties, we’d hide in ignorance behind the couch and dare each other to run out and try to touch them. After Auntie died what for all purposes was a second death, we learned about Nazis. Our times are not her times. I wish you could hear it from her directly but I doubt you’d listen. And if she didn’t outright call Trump a fascist, you’d probably call her one.
That’s why I worry about you. You’ve quit listening. You’ve quit thinking that listening is important. You’ve convinced yourself listening is wrong, instead choosing to call things you don’t want to hear hate speech and dehumanizing those who say them. Nazis don’t deserve to speak so let’s punch them in the head, and everyone you don’t want to listen to is a Nazi. Ban them from social media, take them off TV, keep them out of schools, defund them on YouTube, and peel them off search results. Candidates who touch nerves too directly must be disenfranchised as Russian plantscoughing up Putin’s Talking Points. We don’t have to listen to them; in fact, we shouldn’t listen to them.
It would be too ironic in the context of Nazism to use the term ideological purification, but it would work. You blame too much free speech for electing Trump in 2016, so you support wounding democracy to “save” it, welcoming Twitter’s ban on political ads so there’s less chance that a competing idea might sneak through. You loathe Facebook’s contrary stance allowing political ads and demand they fact check them, barely disguised code for censorship given what “facts” have become. Fact checking used to mean verifying that an event took place in April 1860, not June 1944. Now facts are things we choose to agree with, or believe, or not, like whether vaccinations work, or what a politician’s intent was when he said certain words.
It’s no wonder “influencer” is an actual job today, and not “evidencer.” Evidence creates facts. There’s no evidence that Joe Biden did wrong in the Ukraine because no one investigated whether he did and it thus became a checkable fact that “Biden did no wrong.” Facts have become what anonymous sources you want to believe say they are. You filter those anonymous statements through legacy media so by the second iteration they are not anonymous sources who for all you know might be a know-nothing intern overheard in a bar; they are “The Washington Post says.” Testimony is done in secret so only the good parts can be leaked.
With what you hear limited to what you believe, the need to think is a vestigial limb in society’s evolution. Instead of thinking—critically weighing information, asking hard questions instead of ingesting easy answers—you have been conditioned simply to react. The goal is to keep you in a constant state of manipulable outrage.
It is a dangerous thing for us human beings. When I was in Iraq, we were told that life happens in green, yellow, and red. Green is home on the beach. Yellow is watchful. And red is on patrol, loaded and charged. The guy who could never back off red in Iraq had a hard time reaching green later in Ohio. For him, it’s evenings drunk cleaning his guns in the garage. That’s too much of America today except we’re in different garages and some are drinking Yuengling and others white wine.
An experiment. Here are some of the things you have yelled at me about:
- Kids in cages. This was the summer’s outrage, and claims that the U.S. was operating concentration camps dominated throughout August. There were visits to the border, people drinking from toilets. Congress voted money, and some policy changes took place. One major child center was shut down, but it got little coverage. So did we resolve the problem? Anybody know?
- Obstruction. As recently as July, Democrats were to impeach Trump for obstruction in connection with Russiagate. Then the story that fueled our outrage for over two full years simply disappeared. And, Stormy Daniels, doing okay? Which Home Depot does Michael Avenatti work at? What about the prosecutions that were said to be forthcoming from the SDNY?
- Anyone heard from the Kurds lately? Only a week ago, they were going to be consumed by genocide and you demanded American troops put their lives at risk to save them. There were claims to thousands dead in Puerto Rico from the storm; anyone find those bodies yet or are they still just a statistical construct? The Parkland Kids? Around the one-year anniversary of the killings, the media claimed the victims “drove the kind of change that has long eluded gun control activists.” Did that happen?
- See if you know who these people are: Semyon Kislin, P. Michael McKinley, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, Fiona Hill, George Kent, Gordon Sondland, Laura Cooper, Marie Yovanovitch, William Taylor, Catherine Croft, Alexander Vindman, Kurt Volkner, Christopher Anderson, Tim Morrison. How many did you correctly identify as witnesses in the Trump impeachment hearings? All of them? Great. Now can you say in a word or two about what each testified to? C’mon, each was a smoking gun, a game changer, or whatever expression Maddow is using to replace “the walls are closing in tick tock” she wore out during Russiagate. And by the way, has anyone heard from the second whistleblower?
If you can’t tell you are being manipulated, you’re being manipulated. We live exhausted, on knife’s edge, neck deep in cynicism, decline, illegitimacy, and distrust.
It seems inevitable that the House will impeach and the Senate will not convict (when you praise one and decry the other, remember, it’s politics, not a trial!), dead-ending the Ukraine outrage. And then we just move on to the 2020 campaign. Or do we cycle through a new impeachment theme as though the earlier ones never happened, the way Russiagate was ditched in favor of Ukraine?
If a Democrat wins in November, do we similarly agree to just forget this whole ugly era of hate speech and Nazis like a drunken hookup? Or do we switch and Republicans open investigations of the Joe Clinton administration? If Trump wins, is it another four years of being told democracy is dying, the Republic is in peril, civil war, every day day-to-day in Code Red until…until what?
Some 16 years ago as a young soldier in Iraq, before he was a hero and way before he was a villain, David Petraeus posed the most important question of the war. Consumed by the combat around him but knowing it would soon enough be over, he asked, “tell me how this ends.” Something was going to come next and Petraeus wasn’t sure anyone was thinking about how to fix things.
So please, tell me how this ends.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.