Authoritarianism Functions in Everyday Practices That We Can Change

Announcements about the arrival of authoritarianism now abound in mainstream media. I’m sure you’ve read your share. This article offers something a little different: a focus on how authoritarianism functions in our relations with one another and how each one of us can embody relationally democratic practices. Now, more than ever, we need to drag our attention away from the spectacle of authoritarianism-as-regime and its drumbeat of inevitability by understanding how authoritarianism functions in practices between us that we can change. …

Authoritarianism in the U.S. is not new, however. State-level authoritarian practices have existed here since the beginning. Severe power imbalances founded the American legal story. Our white forefathers committed genocide, murdering and enslaving native inhabitants of the land, stealing as much power as they could from those brown bodies. Our economy was born on the backs of slaves: the state stole as much power as possible from Black and brown bodies, further empowering itself and those who claimed authority and control of the state’s resources.

The power relations that founded our institutions, our laws, our systems and processes, and “the people” could not have been more severely imbalanced.

American racism is a form of authoritarianism. So is classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and speciesism. Each has as its core feature an imbalanced power relation. Each imbalanced relation functions in (racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, and speciesist) practicesthat are entrenched in systems and processes and also present relationally between individual human beings. …

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voces

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Artist unknown. Piece located in Leona Canyon, Oakland, California

She’s always been a criminal. The rules never really applied to her. If she could think her way around something, she could justifiably ignore the rule. She wears this conditioned confidence like an invisible shield, something people feel but can’t really see or understand. It does not endear her to others.

She loves to trespass. That breathless feeling of dropping from the top of the ferris wheel every time she slides under a fence keeps her hooked. That jolt of discovery, of finding a hidden spot. Of finding a presence in what’s been left behind. The wonder of the new, of the never seen, of what seems meant just for her.

She hunts for art. For voces. For underground meaning.

She finds the warehouse by accident. On a cold, wet hike along the Point Richmond waterfront. Middle of a Monday. Grey skies. She walks quickly, no running. Head up, shoulders back, direct eye contact toward the goal. She walks like she owns the place. Her breathing picks up, but she stays calm. Her heart bangs like a triphammer. Clear NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere.

She takes a controlled, casual look around. No law enforcement. No one else here, either. Weird. About 200 more feet to go before she’s in the warehouse, free and clear. A sound from her left. She lets her eyes move to see, keeping her head still, walking steadily, with purpose. The sound was nothing.

She’s in. Her eyes adjust to the low light. And what she sees changes her life.

A Little of What Happened When I Invested Everything in Five Years of Time

Near the end of a two-year sabbatical, and two weeks before the earth shifted on its axis 11.8.2016, I drove away from my Richmond, California home the day it closed escrow and two days later, took possession of my new property in Cave Junction, Oregon. Cave Junction is in Southern Josephine County, which is in the Southwest part of Oregon about 20 minutes north of the California border. It is one of many red rural counties in Oregon, and the poverty is like nothing most urban dwellers in the United States have ever personally experienced, except to drive through. (It took months for my urban orientation to adjust enough to really see and understand–to feel–this kind of poverty.) …

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Total Immersion Protocols

The Private Principal Investigator‘s immersion protocols emerged from field experience in what can accurately be described as “extreme ethnographic conditions” or “hostile field environments.” I organized similar ethnographic experience characteristics from my immersion in each rural culture into the following categories of methodological protocols:


Setting up a new basic life

Starting at the bottom

Extended unplugged living

Relations in systems

Living simply and frugally

Cultural work

Zip code considerations

Coping with isolation

Emerging and transitioning

Processing and debriefing

Documenting and documentation

Grounding theory in projects

Creating

Sharing and marketing


clinic

Sarah takes the clipboard and paperwork the desk attendant abruptly hands her, walks to a seat in the waiting room, and breathes slowly, trying to calm her heartrate. She has dreaded this visit. She looks around, hoping to connect with someone friendly here, but no one makes eye contact with her. Sarah’s new in town, and her body’s been telling her that her blood pressure’s been far too high since she moved here.

She settles into a seat in the waiting room and looks down at the first sheet on the stack of papers she’s been asked to complete. First set of questions is about drug use. Huh. She flips the page. Second set of questions is about alcohol use. Really? Flip the page again, and the third set of questions is about her mental health history. All before you get to any questions about her name, her address, or the reason for her visit. She puts the pages with the screening questions unanswered under the rest of the paperwork. The seemingly constant fear of punishment here sits acidly in her gut. She begins filling out the other, more familiar forms.

“The doctor said I need to take two of these in the morning without food.” Sarah looks up and sees the slightly slumped back of a male patient standing at the front desk. He’s talking to the woman seated behind the desk.

“I don’t think you understood your doctor. He wants you to eat before you take the medication.” The woman’s voice is hard with authority, forcing attention. Everyone in the waiting room can hear this exchange.

The patient quietly responds, “I think the nurse told me the doctor said I need to take them on an empty stomach.”

The desk attendant’s hard tone gets loud and final: “You don’t understand. Do as I say: comply, and you’ll be fine.”

The patient tries one last time: “I think that might be wrong.”

The front desk woman has begun looking at papers in front of her and ignores this response. The patient waits a beat, ready for acknowledgement of his concern about the drug protocol. The woman at the desk looks up, avoids eye contact with the patient, looks past him, and spits “Next,” to the ceiling and to no one waiting in line.

The patient, slumped over from the beginning of the interaction, shrinks even smaller and walks away toward the exit door. Sarah notices many in the waiting room share that slump. When the door closes behind the departing patient, the room is silent except for the copy machine on the corner of the front desk sliding out replicas.

Sarah finishes her paperwork, puts on a smile, and walks to the front desk.

“Hi! Thank you for fitting me in! Not too busy today?” she offers, making small talk to connect.

The front desk woman takes Sarah’s clipboard. She doesn’t make eye contact with Sarah. She ignores the small talk, and Sarah watches as it splats, lifeless, on the desk between them. (It is only one of thousands of little deaths of human connection she’ll experience in this culture.)

The gatekeeper begins looking at the forms Sarah’s filled out on top. She flips through to the blank drug use, alcohol use, and mental health forms at the bottom. Sarah feels the grip of anxiety, making her stomach clench again. (It is a familiar feeling that has not left her body since she moved to this rural place.) She is painfully aware that this is her only health care option.

The woman seated behind the desk looks up at Sarah, openly apprises her physically, and decides to ignore the noncompleted forms.

“We don’t have a doctor on staff who can help you, but you can see the day nurse. Take a seat and we’ll call you when he’s ready,” she states with finality.

Sarah sits, breathes again, trying to calm her body. Her heart is starting to race with the feeling that her health is in hands that keep all the power for themselves. She feels like she’s not safe here; that her well-being is not the objective like it was for her back home. She’s used to office staff, nurses, and doctors who talk to her, who put her concerns at the center of their practices; who respect her and value her privacy. She is used to professionals who share their power with her by making her good health the objective of the interaction. She’s used to professional communication structures that focus the interaction on that goal. That’s normal for her. She is blindsided, finding these unhealthy power relations in a health clinic. Being blindsided in this culture is becoming routine for Sarah.

She’s called back to meet with Dan, the day nurse, in a private room. This is Dan’s second to last day. He seems unfocused and very hyper.

“Hey, okay, we need to take your blood pressure!”

“Yes! Thank you so much! I think it’s been really high. I’ve been waking up with a racing heart at 3:30-4 o’clock in the morning every day. I need a blood pressure read and to discuss my meds with the doctor. I’m new here, so I definitely need to get set up with the doc.” She hears her voice pretending to be in a safe place, trying to create that safety out of thin air and desire.

“We’ve got a pediatrician in back who can’t see you, but he gives me advice. Here, let’s do this. Follow me.”

Sarah has no idea what any of that actually means, but she is without her own blood pressure monitor, and she needs a reading from the one here. She has no choice. She follows Dan back.

She was right: her blood pressure reading is 228/118. Dan starts shouting. His face and bulk are about 2 inches above and in front of Sarah’s face as she sits in a chair below him.

“Oh, hell! Your blood pressure is so high! We have to get you out of here! You need to go into the city, to the hospital! You could get a brain hemorrhage! And if you’re here, we’re liable! We need to get you out of here, now!”

Her brain is frozen. Her whole body feels frozen. In a flat voice she has never heard before, she tells Dan to try to calm down, to remember who the patient is, that she’s here because her blood pressure is 228/118 because of stress. Sarah tells him that his freaking out isn’t helping lower her stress. He’s backed up a little from her and has stopped yelling.

Sarah hears the voice of the man who must be the pediatrician shout from a back room; he calls for Dan, and Dan seems annoyed. He stalks out of the room. During the 3 minutes or so he’s gone, Sarah weights her options. If she has to go to the hospital, what will she do about the kittens? Will she be able to drive herself home? What if they find something worse, what then? She is socially isolated here and has no one to call who could help. She is very aware she is breathing harder and beginning to panic a little.

When Dan returns, he’s calmed slightly, and he has a Clonidine tab in hand. He stands too close to her again.

“Okay, you need to calm down,” he starts.

She almost laughs, but stifles it knowing it’s going to sound a little unhinged. She also knows that she has no choice but to put her life in these hands. She has no choice. And laughing at Dan will only make this worse.

“Take this, lay back, and breathe. I’m going to turn off the lights. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”

She holds out the palm of her hand and he drops the little peach pill onto it. Dan says nothing, turns, walks to the door, flips the light switch, and closes the door. Sarah feels around on the floor for her water bottle, knocks it over, finds it again, and swallows the pill with a long draught. She didn’t realize how dehydrated she had become. She also takes 10 very deep slow breaths, each settling her into this new rural health care reality.

Maybe the stories were true, she thinks as she lays on the crinkly white paper in the dark room, in a world an eternity away from home. Maybe the whispered stories–about how the health clinic in this town is killing people–were accurate.


you know

You know that imagination is as important as rationality, and you know that your imagination died decades ago.

You know that emotions are at least half as important as breathing, and you know you do not have access to or facility with half of who you are.

You understand that your lack of imagination and inability with your own emotions puts you at a significant disadvantage in navigating a rapidly changing and evolving world. You know that there are millions of humans whose whole lives are in front of them, millions who are fully present–in imagination, in emotion, in possibilities—and they terrify you.

You grasp for the pills and the treatments and the infrastructure sold to you by AMAC–to keep your unhealthy, dying body going. You believe their narratives telling you you’re entitled to every single bit of what you “earned” in a lifetime of “self-made” success. You believe the stories about deserving a second chapter, to be a “new” you who is entitled to construct fresh layers of resource-consuming life choices. The tales are nourished by those who are dependent on your resources. And you thrive on their need.

You know that the starved and shriveled half of yourself—where imagination and emotion live–is the half connected to new experience, to the actual, to the body, to the earth—to joy and self-knowledge and pain and hope. It is the half that makes the other half meaningful. You know that your quarterly earnings statement only gives you a sense of fragile security, but no love or light or humanity.

You know that everything you lack is everything that makes it possible for humans to evolve, to become more than their little self-interests. You know that the universe detests stoicism and the empty place where imagination should reside.

You know you drive the slow-moving vehicle of your life sitting backwards, gripping the steering wheel with white hands while fearfully staring out the rear window, throwing molotov cocktails of misinformation and old, poisonous ideas out your passenger side window at those shouting at you to pay attention to the road, and running down anyone and anything in the way of your slow-motion destruction.

(Except you’re not really going slow, are you? You’ve hooked yourself on to a fast-moving vehicle of destruction driven by a madman bent on stealing everyone’s power, including every living thing on the planet. And now, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t get yourself off of there. And there’s nowhere for you to go anyway, right, even if you could be convinced to stop enabling and empowering the madman. You know you’re toast if you have to justify what you’ve allowed to happen, so you just enjoy the ride, ignoring the screams of those writhing in pain under the indifferent treads of your hot tires.)

a “perspective” on power

[In the spirit of KQED’s Perspectives]

Everything I learned about power-sharing, I learned in San Francisco Bay Area college classrooms.

Growing up, I’d never seen or experienced power done in any other way than how I lived it in my family’s culture: with a father who was the sole authority, and who held and wielded all the power. Who chained the agency of his young children. My father, alone, decided that no one had the power to speak in our family but him. I tried challenging him, twice, and both left a mark.

But in college classrooms in the Bay, professors–humans who seemed like a whole different species to me–invited me to speak, to share the floor. To share their power. Teachers and other learners turned toward me, listened; they saw me. They responded with respect. In those Bay Area college classrooms, I existed for the first time in a world where I was allowed my full range of expression, without fear. It was like magic and it changed everything.

I learned how to do power differently. I learned: how access to accurate information shares power. I learned: how human acknowledgement shares power. I learned: how open processes share power, how listening shares power; how optimism, support, and encouragement share power.

I lived the health and well-being afforded those with the privilege to sit in those democratic classrooms.

Of course, academia isn’t some magic power-sharing place and magical power-sharing classrooms exist beyond the Bay. But, for this Bay Area learner who grew up in an authoritarian family culture, the power-sharing magic in those classrooms happened regularly for me.

I left the East Bay at the end of October 2016 for other worlds. I’m headed home there in November* this year. It’s an old cliché, but there really is no place like…the San Francisco Bay Area.

*Home June 9th, 2020.

Everyday authoritarianism

Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.

Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.  

Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, and you can see it in the everyday interactions and the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is everyday democracy.

For instance …

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