In a world that the identity politics has wrought, lived experience is a trump (apologies for the use of a triggering word) card: your viewpoint or opinion on an issue is automatically deemed invalid or at least less valid and valuable if you’re not a member of a group whose plight is being discussed.
Men can’t really know what it’s like to be women, white people can’t really know what it’s like to be people of colour, the straight ones can’t really know what it’s like to have other sexual orientations. Your identity is your argument; “You wouldn’t know what it’s like; you can’t tell me what I should think or feel”. You’re only allowed to walk in somebody else’s shoes to the extent you can feel the same callouses, otherwise give me my shoes back.
This sort of epistemological approach rears its head nowadays in everything from most political debates to the calls that fiction authors should not write through characters of different gender, race or sexuality. Just like cultural appropriation, identity appropriation is a grave sin against minorities (or, in the case of women, majorities).
As a straight, white, Christian, right-wing, middle-class male of European extraction, I get told to shut up a lot. As you can imagine, this does not at all stop me from speaking out. The white privilege clearly makes me both uncontrollable and insufferable.
But if lived experience is indeed the be-all-end-all that the identarian left considers it to be, there is one area where my lived experience without a doubt shit all over the lived experience of the woke folk. Unlike all those among them who have been born and/or raised in the West and have zero or almost zero experience of living under anything other than a liberal democratic government (which is 99 per cent of them at least), I lived the first 15 years of my life under the Soviet block-style communism, or “real socialism” as the Party used to call it.
I’m not going to pretend that the 1970s and the 80s in Poland were as bloody and traumatic as Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia (as P J O’Rourke who visited Warsaw at that time noted, the local Communism for the most part didn’t kill you any more, it just bored you to death) but I do know a difference or twenty-two between a totalitarian or authoritarian society and a Western democracy.
So to all the women dressing up in costumes from “Handmaid’s Tale” who think they’re on the brink of living in a misogynist theocracy,
To all those calling themselves “The Resistance”, as if they were the French Maquis or the Polish Home Army shooting collaborators and derailing trains after their country has been brutally occupied by a totalitarian foreign power,
To those who think that America is currently in a grip of fascism and are calling on the military to stage a coup to remove the President (that’s you Rosie O’Donnell, Sarah Silverman, Congressman Steve Cohen and others),
To all those who have compared Trump to Hitler,
(And a special mention of those who really should know better – professional historians of the German and the Russian totalitarianism, like Timothy “Bloodlands” Snyder and Charles “Ordinary Men” Browning, who have been only too happy to – without quite comparing Trump to Hitler – talk about illiberal democracy, authoritarian leadership, and draw parallels between the 1930s Europe and the 2010s America), you really have no idea, and I mean it with the greatest possible respect.
Actually, I don’t. Most of you are supposedly mature, rational adults but you seem to have at best the most superficial knowledge of history and a complete lack of self-awareness, any sense of perspective, and an ability to contextualise.
Having spent your lives relatively free of hardship, deprivation and persecution on any remotely comparable scale to people in other, less fortunate corners of the world, you probably get some frisson from believing yourself to be big actors at a critical time in history, the last line of separating civilisation from the descent into new dark ages.
You’re free to engage in whatever ideological cosplay you want, but don’t expect others to take you seriously.
You can pick up any of the thousands of books written about life under a dictatorship and read all about it, or you can watch a doco or listen to a podcast, but clearly you couldn’t be bothered to do so thus far in your life, so I’m going to give you potted version of how a real tyranny (it does not particularly matter whether communist or fascist as they are quite similar in practice, which is, of course, another thing you don’t want to hear, but that’s tough – they certainly have far more in common with each other than with a free society) works and what the world in which I was growing up looked like:
There is no democracy. There is only political party (actually there were two minor and irrelevant fig leaves, which were wholly controlled by the Party and would never act in any way contrary to the Party). All other parties and political activities are banned. Elections such as they are consists of a chance to vote for the Party candidate. It doesn’t matter if you vote against them as results will be falsified to show universal support and approval. The Party controls the government, so the two terms are interchangeable; in fact, the Party pretty much controls everything. There is no way for an ordinary citizen to have a political impact, except by joining the Party, and even then the range of options is completely circumscribed by the guiding ideology.
There are no freedoms and civil liberties as they are commonly understood. There is no freedom of speech. Saying anything against the Party, even a joke, can lead to an arrest if you’re overheard and/or reported to the authorities. Unless you’re particularly lucky you can end up in jail. If you’re working, you can lose your job and be forced to take a menial one if you can actually get one. If you’re studying, you can be blacklisted from further education. Or your parents can lose their job over your joke, or your children might be denied a chance to go to university.
There are no legal sources of information but the ones run by the Party. Creation, possession and distribution of alternative sources of news and opinion is a criminal offence. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts is illegal. Every news or cultural or scientific product is subject to government censorship. Nothing that the Party does not like for whatever reason can get published or broadcasted. Those who have shown themselves as ideologically unreliable are blacklisted and their careers put on ice. There are approved versions of everything, from history to entertainment. Everything beyond them is illegal.
There is no freedom of assembly. Unless the Party initiates and organises it it’s illegal. It does not matter whether you are peaceful or not, you will likely get beaten up by the police, arrested and charged, with similar consequences as mentioned above. There is no such thing as independent civil society; the Party decides what organisations, clubs and associations can exist. Those that are given permission to operate need to adhere to the Party rules and support the Party each in its own way, whether you’re in the Scouts or a philatelist group.
The Party and its symbols are of course ubiquitous, from public monuments to the portraits of the current leader and political slogans. Your social and professional advancement is largely determined by your cooperation with the Party. There is a ceiling on how far you can go in life without at the very least becoming a member.
There is no rule of law and no justice as we understand these concepts. The laws are those of the Party and citizens have no role in shaping them or changing them. If you are accused of any of the large number of wrongdoings and offences against the state/government/Party, the system is stacked against you at every stage of the process. The fact that you have come into contact with the “justice system” is a de facto indication that you have done something wrong, because the system makes no mistakes. Neither the law enforcement nor the judiciary are in any way independent of the Party; they are its instruments; their actions and decisions are political. It’s just you against the system.
Needless to say, there is no general prosperity and huge inequalities of wealth exist. This is because economic opportunities are largely absent for an average person. The state is virtually the only employer, certainly on the large scale. The only routes of material advancement are through the Party and the official (but unheralded) privileges it provides as well as the opportunities for graft and corruption, or through the black market and other criminal activity.
The system is meant to provide everyone with at least the barest of minimum living standards but very often it cannot do even that. People manage to keep their heads above water through their wits and more often than not by breaking at least some laws. Because the options are so limited, people tend not to change jobs or move around too much. Certainly, overseas travel is rare and completely at the government’s discretion, hence most of it tends to be either official or to other non-democracies. The government regulates every aspect of life. What’s not expressly provided for is assumed to be forbidden.
All this is a relatively mild, late form of communism, not the earlier version where you could end up in a gulag because the local secret police had a quota to fill or because you once corresponded with a pen pal in another country or wore glasses indicating your intellectual status or didn’t cry sincerely enough after another Dear Leader passed on. Also, this was Poland, which was one of the most liberal of the communist countries, with a relatively independent (but much circumscribed) Catholic Church and a strong tradition of independence and rebellion. The situation was much worse in other countries and much worse in the past.
I feel almost silly for writing all this because to me I’m stating the blindingly obvious, but clearly it’s not obvious at all for far too many people today. Think of any activity you undertake during your average day and then realise that every little thing is different, more difficult, more involved about it under a dictatorship.
Now tell me how your life today in the United States or Australia or Great Britain is at all similar to life under the state oppression. Please. Anything that even remotely compares to what I have described.
If anything, all the recent attempts to police speech and dictate the correct ways of thinking, whether on the initiative of the state or by private businesses and non-government groups, are inspired by the left, i.e. pretty much the same section of the politically-aware society which is complaining about the descending fascism. This is why I get so agitated about issues like freedom of speech; it’s not just theoretical to me – it reminds me too much of my childhood. When my family escaped to the West it was precisely to leave these things behind not to discover them under a different guise amidst the supposed liberal democracy.
So, dear Resistance, excuse me while my lived experience under the actual dictatorship leaves me cold when listening to and looking at your hysterics and public exhibitions of ignorance and ideological blindness.
Your generally white, coddled, middle-class progressive privilege is showing – and it’s not a pretty sight.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where this piece also appears.
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