So I’m about to sit down and watch “The Downfall” which is about Hitler during World War 2. I think this is appropriate only to get the argument out of the way at the outset – I’m not going to compare Trump to Hitler. It does present itself as a very appropriate background given how Hitler’s rise to power was incredibly jingoist as Trump’s seemingly was. But this is to neatly place the entire issue of left and right politics into a historical context that gives the incredibly misleading conclusion that we “know how this ends.” That’s dishonest. Addressing that argument outright is something I wanted to do immediately so we can move past it. We are going to discuss the divide between left and right and, with luck, we’re going to discuss how that divide is affecting us in the outdoors.
One thing I also want to point out – thinking of ourselves as part of some group (the outdoors) is in and of itself unhealthy. I do think it’s important to highlight how various goings-on affect a certain subset of people – not to is incredibly dangerous and short-sighted – but to try and advance an agenda by that subset is precisely the problem we need to address. Or at least that’s the argument I’m going to make.
So here’s how I plan to lay out this essay. We’re going to start with a trip down politics lane. If you’re disinterested already I beg you to stick this one out, it won’t be that long a trip and I promise to keep it relevant to who we are as outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists. But that trip is important because I want to talk about something that was the highlight of our first ever podcast – and that is identity politics. I will hopefully be able to introduce it (or re-introduce it) in such a way as to make it not only understandable but agreeable. You’ll have to let me know how I do. We’re then going to point out how we as a group identify ourselves with our messages and why that approach can cost us dearly.
That may or may not seem a tall task to you but given how long my podcasts shape up to be – around 30 minutes – I can assure you this won’t be easy. I happen to think this is an excellent conversation topic and perhaps as we grow in members we can begin to have these sorts of philosophical conversations. They are difficult, they challenge assumptions, and they often leave everyone with the bittersweet taste of progress without a resolution.
First thing though, if you haven’t watched “The Downfall,” I cannot recommend it enough. I actually had to as part of a history class and am quite thankful I did. It’s as disturbing a movie as you could possibly imagine given that much of it takes place in the final two weeks of World War 2 when the Nazis were desperate to destroy every record and take as many lives (including their own) as possible. That said, it manages to take subject matter that is usually quite stereotypical about evil and tries to paint Hitler and his inner cabinet as just deeply connect to a glorious vision and driven mad by its ruin. For God’s sake, that vision is awful and the means to achieving it is the worst kind of irrational nonsense you can possibly imagine. Even so, the film’s title is a theme throughout and not in the most obvious sense. You’re watching people who so fiercely believed in the Nazi propaganda (including the propagandists themselves) have complete emotional breakdowns and what you see happen on these peoples’ faces can be very adequately described as “a downfall.” It is this emotional letdown that a lot of people in the United States should take careful note of. A lot of the people depicted in this film, perpetrators of Nazi schemes, died in the 21st century. Let that sink in. Anyway, if I’ve sold you on the cultural importance of it, you can rent it on DVD from Netflix but cannot stream it. I think I’d just go ahead and recommend you buy it though a word of warning – the entire thing is in German. That said, I cannot imagine watching a movie that should be in a foreign language be shown in English with accents anymore.
So while I choose not to compare Trump to Hitler, I am actively choosing to use Nazi Germany as an example of identity politics. Not to compare it to modern America and the direction we’re heading. I don’t think it is that direction or even close to it. But the imagery and understanding of the themes of Nazi Germany are so vivid to most Americans, it’s one of the few things most of us remember from grade school. Hitler was an evil bastard, he murdered a lot of people that were mostly Jews, he wanted to dominate the world and believed in Aryan supremacy. There is far more nuance to that but those themes are so familiar that using them to describe the divisive nature of identity politics is akin to using a well-worn metaphor. That is – a familiar story.
Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the Nazi propaganda tactics. The German people, still reeling from the massive economic baggage bestowed upon them by the powers that be after the First World War, rallied behind a man that claimed quite categorically that Germans were a “master race” and all other races should be subservient. This created an emotional wall that allowed German citizens to rally against and betray their neighbors. I don’t think that idea is given enough credit in social studies classrooms here in the States. I want you to genuinely consider the emotional attachment here and let’s have an uncomfortable conversation. They’re frankly the best kind.
So here is our hypothetical situation. An official, representing the United States government tells you that if any neighbors are behaving in an unamerican way, you must report them or be held accountable for failing to report. Reporting a neighbor means they will be imprisoned in a war camp and their fate will be a total loss of all possessions if they’re lucky, total loss of life if they are not. What will it take for you to turn them in? What if the price for being reported as unamerican meant they were to be immediately deported? Immediately shot? And again, the reverse penalty is the same for you if you see it and don’t report it. Are you quicker to report your neighbor when their price (and yours) is immediate death or slower? How egregious must the offense be? And on a sliding scale – if the punishment for them is death but the punishment for you is merely a fine would you turn them in? If the fine is now a short prison sentence? Now a year prison sentence. Where on the sliding scale would you be willing to turn your neighbor in for the smallest of unamerican infractions?
Now for the gross part. Have you considered what your neighbors would do in the same circumstances? How about people from neighborhoods you’re not comfortable living in? What if entire neighborhoods had to turn in other neighborhoods? How quickly would you be trying to call out that iffy spot across town? How quickly would that iffy spot sell you down the river?
I hope you at least began to get a taste for just how easy it was to get you to feel some sort of adversarial politics. When the stakes get higher and higher, the ability to be somewhere neutral in the middle becomes untenable because the price for not living to the absolute letter of pure Americanism or revolting entirely against the apparatus is too dangerous a place to be. The total conservatives will turn you in and the total revolutionaries will be afraid of being turned in and you become expendable to both. But did you see how easy it was to join a side? Were you already thinking of a neighborhood you couldn’t trust?
Can you also see the absolute chaos of having several dozen neighborhoods per city each with its own ideas of what “unamerican” behavior is? Further, can you see how if one were to advance its agenda of Americanism and it disagrees with yours – how much of a disadvantage to you suddenly find yourself in proving how American you are?
You’ll have to forgive the flag-waving patriotism, I think I’m almost done with that theme being hammered home. But now at least we have a framework for what identity politics is. If Neighborhood A says everyone must own a flag that’s at least six feet by nine feet and raise it every day before dawn and lower it every night before dusk while Neighborhood B says every person should own and be trained to use a firearm and Neighborhood C says every person must be in church for at least two hours every week while Neighborhood D says we have to be #1 in education and any child failing to make at least B grades has unpatriotic parents – it becomes easy to assign a color (say red or blue?) to each neighborhood and decide how you will report on them accordingly.
Identity politics thrives on this language of creating a niche that each individual neighborhood must have fulfilled. As the government official in charge, how do you placate this mess? All of them are right? What if there are two neighborhoods that patently disagree on the theme of church from above? Or the height the flag is raised or has a fear of guns? By fighting for each individual group, you completely alienate anyone that has an opposing viewpoint. I argued that this was basically what happened in the election a few weeks ago. In the end, there was a single uniting common thread and it was eerily similar to the jingoist message the Nazis used – though it must be understood that the National Socialist (that’s where the term “Nazi” is derived from) message was rather explicit but the core idea is similar.
Okay, I think I’m done with the metaphor. Is it something you can grasp? I hope you can at least pull on to its most basic points. The rest of this is really going to build on that understanding.
When a group highlights its needs or beliefs – it indirectly highlights another group’s needs or beliefs as inferior. This is not intentional but is quite obviously going to happen. It should come as zero surprise to anyone that if you say “guns shouldn’t be legal” that you will have plenty of people that patently disagree with that statement – never mind what the constitution says. The institution of guns will disagree with you. When a movement like Black Lives Matter starts – it unequivocally states that we must stop policemen killing young, black adults to which you will be met with all policemen responding that not every killing is unjustified. The emotional rhetoric from both of these debates becomes so massively intensified that any attempt to bring the argument to center is met with opposition from both sides. You’re with us or against us. You’re in our neighborhood or you’re not. Choose quick, we must report you or arm you.
Martin Luther King’s most famous speech was not delivered as a multi-bulleted set of rules that should protect black people from whites. It was a message that was not spoken in the language of individuals with concerns but with an entire people behaving as an entire people should. “…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” The message here is often given an emotional overtone (“love conquers all”) while ignoring the lack of distancing language in the speech. Perhaps the most important words in his I Have a Dream speech are “we” and “our.” He only uses “they” to describe people he agrees with but are different than him but instead chooses to include his people’s “oppressors” as joining in the movement. I would argue that King’s death further cements the legacy that change in the United States is slow and was frankly designed to stay that way – but his message was one that united people and we still know of him because that message rang true. There were a lot of civil rights speakers during his era but only Dr. King has continued to live in the hearts and minds of people that are years removed from his final days on this earth.
With extremely rare exception, any argument that has two sides that disagree on a fundamental base for an issue (think of what constitutes “life” for two people debating abortion) will result in an emotional trade-off that fails to actually address anything and instead confirms a bias to either side about the other. I’m using that to set up my final eventual swing back around to environmentalism.
So let’s take everything we learned. We as environmentalists have a list of things we know must happen for our outdoor playgrounds to continue to be what they’ve always been for generations. Note, I’m using know sarcastically. We are unwilling to compromise on this position. Welcome to Neighborhood D.
We will fight for continued legislation on the following things:
- Automobiles to be more efficient or phased out as petroleum-based machines completely
- Elimination or curbing of excessive water use for vanity (i.e. a lawn)
- The elimination of coal-fired power plants
- The investment in cheaper, more efficient, more substantial mass transit
- The protection of natural habitats for any species that will become endangered by the use of that land for industry
- The list goes on.
I apologize (but only sarcastically) if I didn’t include your pet issue in this list. We only have so much time. The point is, I believe in all of that but I can already tell you that every single one will have negative impacts on peoples’ lives and those people aren’t necessarily rich and famous. By having a skeptical belief in one simple idea – climate change – I can dismiss every single one of those things as vanity and many people have. By identifying exclusively with these issues, we are setting ourselves against another Neighborhood that patently disagrees with us.
If your responses to their dilemma are “so what?” or “fine, be mad, we’re going to do these things anyway,” or “they don’t get it,” then I have some very bad news for you. In the United States right now – that’s what people who voted for Trump are saying. Do you see how the shoe fits both feet? Left and right?
As environmentalists, we certainly have an obligation to study and protect the outdoors. We also have an obligation to do so by the most effective means. If that includes finding effective ways to engage in conversation, then that is what we do. Right now, we simply are not doing that. Fighting with talking points and memes and giant lists of facts are merely taking the place of shouting across the table at each other. Given we’ve been doing this for years now and have actually seen the trend of climate denying increase, it stands to reason that we should adopt a more effective tactic. One of them is – I know, shock/horror – engage in conversation with those you disagree with.
So how did I do?
If Neighborhood D wants to survive, I think it serves our best interest to bake everyone cakes and throw barbecues in their neighborhoods and engage our fellow people in conversation. What does that conversation look like? It looks an awful lot like the common good and a simple set of rules that govern all people. Will it change overnight? No. When you wanted to lose 30 pounds, did that happen overnight? Will something as complex as entire social and economic institutions changing take place over a week? A month? Do both of those timeframes sound utterly ridiculous? How long should it take and what should the society look like that fosters that long-term change?
I don’t have that answer nor should I. It’s an answer we should all come to. Together.