This is your brain on mobile

A critique of destructive smartphone habits diagnosed by someone that makes a living off of them.

Power down

When is the last time you powered down. All the way down. Not asleep. Not in airplane mode but ON | OFF. Try it with me now. Take your phone out, if you’re not already futzing with it, and turn it off (note: this is not advised if you are reading this on your mobile. In this case you are probably too far gone). Fair warning, you will experience a short stint of anxiety and emptiness. These mobile withdrawals are unpleasant (and slightly pathetic) but the sobering and liberating experience is worth more than your 25th snapchat today. I promise.

I was a mobile junkie. The phosphorescent glow left me mesmerized and needing more. Each Snapchat or push notification fueled my need for news, updates, and winning the battle against boredom. At my worst, most conversations with friends and family would start with “do you have a charger?”

I remember the turning point. I had just returned from a camping trip where I ‘witnessed’ a beautiful sunset. As I was reminiscing over the dozens of photos I took, I barely had any recollection of ACTUALLY being there. I was so focused on eternalizing the moment through my phone, that I hadn’t taken the time to eternalize it in my brain. I accepted my addiction and decided to make a change.

Full disclosure: I’m a technologist that works almost exclusively on mobile. I’ve had the opportunity to build some really neat things (thing 1 and thing 2) alongside very talented people. So my telling you to put your phone down is a little bit like a girl scout telling you only to buy 2 boxes. We (as app makers) want them to be addicting. Like a potato chip manufacturer, we try to put just the right crunch and the perfect amount of salt so you can’t help but have just one more. We want you to get addicted. It puts the potato chips on our table.

There have been several great posts and humbling videos about mobile abuse so I hope I’m not beating a dead horse. I have no doubt that mobile is the future that is already here. Thousands of great apps have enriched and enhanced every aspect of our lives. As a human being, many of these triumphs are trumped by the overwhelming anxiety phones have instilled in us. We’ve trained ourselves to constantly seek refuge from boring, everyday life through our phones. We’ve grown so accustomed to this behavior that we can’t shut it out, even during truly exciting or beautiful times in our lives. We resort to the tapping & pecking muscle memory. The reality is 95% of each day is boring, everyday life. I had to hit rock bottom to realize I didn’t want to spend 95% of my life glued to a screen.

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Rock bottom

How I interacted with people in real life had fundamentally changed. I couldn’t have one conversation without checking my phone. I needed it.

**inner-dialogue intensifies** “I wonder what [friend who isn’t present] is doing? I hope the Badgers won (edit: they didn’t)? Did that dude from work ever email me back? How is the INTU stock doing today? Did I get any more Instagram Likes?”

Having access to this data around the clock while attempting to hold a meaningful conversation with a good friend I hadn’t seen in weeks was impossible. I’m embarrassed I let it get to the point where if I wasn’t tinkering on my phone, I was thinking about it. I bet if you start paying closer attention to your mobile habits, you’ll notice it too.

this is your brain on mobile

I want it here. I want it now. We live in an uber-convenient (hue hue hue) time where ride-sharing, same-day delivery, and instant gratification are the norm. This also means we are doing our nomadic ancestors a serious injustice by not walking anywhere anymore. I live in one of the most walkable cities on the planet, San Francisco. I Lyfted everywhere, got groceries delivered, etc. My phone just made it too convenient to be active. If I was walking, my phone was in my face, and I became a hazard to myself, other pedestrians, and drivers.

I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket.” — Veruca Salt

Decreased recall & critical thinking. Remember the glory days when you would spend an entire afternoon playfully arguing with a spouse, sibling, or friend about some trivial factual disagreement like which NFL team had the most Super Bowl wins? I do. My brother and I would spend entire afternoons having intense debates about the most Google-able, answerable topics. The truth is the answers never mattered as much as the conversation. It brought us closer. It taught us how to communicate. How to debate. Today that intense argument would have fizzled out in 2 minutes with Google having the final say.

On the clock. Around the clock. There is no 9-to-5 anymore. I’ve accepted that. What I haven’t accepted is after receiving an email at 10pm I’m expected to respond within 10 minutes. The line between work and home is static. What’s worse is I somehow used tweets and snapchats as a vehicle for validation and self worth. So even those activities felt like chores. Constant push notifications, emails, and messages meant I could never shut down and turn off.

The following is a transcription of a dramatic reenactment of a real text exchange. The names have been changed or omitted to protect the innocent.

Appointments are moving targets. Let’s take another trip down memory lane, the year: 1992. You call your buddy from the landline and agree to meet at the local park in 30 minutes. Wanting to impress your friends, you get lost in the activity of adding those tinkling gadgets to your bike spokes for almost an hour. As soon as you snap out of your childish trance, you race to the park to try and catch your friend, but he’s nowhere to be found. The next day you have to sit and hear about how they ambushed the neighbor girls with water balloons. You missed it.

Phones have turned us into inconsiderate and tardy buttholes. I lost respect for my friend’s time and being punctual wasn’t a priority because updating them with an ETA became passive and far too easy.

I’m bored. Entertain me. Here’s the thing about saying, “I’m bored.” It’s a (boringly) grey area and a slippery slope. What used to be a thrilling experience (like riding the subway for the first time) is now mundane. Why not pass the time with a quick game of Three’s? This time spent crashing a fucking bird into a pipe quickly accumulates where a significant amount of seemingly insignificant yet beautiful moments pass you by whilst staring at a screen. Also…taking a picture of a beautiful moment still doesn’t count if the picture and filtered output is the end goal. Take that moment in. Truly experience it. Not from behind a Sepia filter.

So I made a change.

I made a promise to myself and my friends to live a more fulfilling life. I let a 2.3 x 4.5 inch piece of glass, metal, and plastic get in the way of that. I made a few small changes that compounded into a better prescription than any anxiety medication. I started rehabbing slowly by rethinking how, why, and when I used my phone. I became very meticulous about when I could and could not use my phone. I went as far as making it inconvenient to use apps I didn’t actually NEED.

A new phone layout to prevent phone abuse. Only necessary apps on the home screen. Everything else tucked away. Inconvenience is the point. Ween yourself off. Turn OFF all badges, sounds, vibrations, and alerts.

In addition to this change, I started noticing more and more opportunities to cut the mobile ties. I’ve summarized these tricks into a program I’m calling the mobile cleanse.

The mobile cleanse

  1. Keep it in your pants. This is an obvious one. It’s rare that you need to use your phone (or genitals for that matter) when in a social setting. There are obvious exceptions like your group needs directions or you want a reasonable amount of photos of a once-in-a-lifetime event (weddings, baby’s first steps). Brunches and sunsets happen every day. No need to miss the actual experience by snapping 5,000 pictures of it. Respecting these limits will enrich every interaction you have with every day objects, people, and life. If you feel the itch to pull out your phone in a break in the conversation…‘silence’ it. Undoubtedly your friends will whip theirs out, making the temptation almost unbearable. If you want to truly cleanse, this step is unbreakable. You can also influence your friends’ behaviors by playfully shaming them when they pull out their phones unnecessarily (‘Oh hey Hollywood!’). To get started with this one, I instructed my friends to punch my arm if I broke this rule in their presence. I adapted quickly. The itch soon decreased. Slowly at first, but after a few days of withdrawal it was completely gone. I no longer relied on my phone to solve any anxiety or unnecessary emptiness. I was human again.
  2. Brain first, phone second. Can’t think of the artist for a song you just heard? Siri can’t help you now. Exercise your brain, and try to figure it out for yourself. If you still can’t get it after a few minutes of focus, shift your attention to something else and it will come to you sooner than later. Be sure to carry a notepad (that’s right…actual pen and paper) to jot it down so worst case you can Google it later.
  3. Hide and delete. This is the mobile cleanse mantra. Say it with me now… “Hummmmmmm…hide (inhale)…and delete (exhale)…and hide (inhale)…and delete (exhale).” You don’t need 200 apps. Uninstall the ones you no longer use and tuck the non-essentials into folders a few swipes from your main screen so it’s inconvenient to access them. You’ll soon realize how little you actually need them. My essentials include: phone, text, Spotify (music is my guilty pleasure. I’m not perfect), and Wunderlist (I’m a big fan of sole-focus task management…more on that in a second).
  4. Never push. Always pull. Unless your wife is expecting a baby at any minute, there’s nothing more important than the people you are with in that moment. Turn ALL notifications & badges off. Set your phone to silent (not VIBRATE). Don’t even allow yourself the temptation to swipe and catch up on the latest insta-snap-vine-whatsapp-videos. Don’t take away from the beautiful, seemingly insignificant, uninstagrammable moment you are having with the people you love. These nasty notifications also distract you from work, hobbies, and passions. Keep your focus. Buzzfeed’s top 25 beach bodies can wait. When mobile browsing is acceptable, PULL the information you seek (manual refresh, etc). Don’t let it come to you. Cold turkey. No exceptions.
  5. Your delivery is free if it’s a mile or less. Never Uber / Lyft / Sidecar if your destination is < 1mile. If weather and conditions permit, you can walk. Walk to the corner store for groceries. Get out of your house and and enjoy the fresh air (10 bonus points if you get to your destination without taking a picture. 20 points if you can walk without music. Another 50 points if you don’t need Google Maps to get there).
  6. Buy a watch. I would often catch myself pulling out my phone to merely check the time (and then check the time again since I never actually remembered it the first time). This frequent ‘time check’ reenforced the habit of constantly pulling out my phone and undoubtedly led to unnecessary browsing if a waiting notification piqued my interest. Buy a watch. Wear it.
  7. No phones in the bedroom or bathroom. Let’s focus on the bathroom first and how much time you save without your phone (see below for a non-scientific study of time spent on the toilet with and without a phone each day). Also the risk of accidentally dropping your iPhone in the toilet shoots dangerously close to zero if toilet tapping isn’t allowed. Now for the bedroom. It’s proven that looking at bright screens just before bed increases the time it takes to fall asleep. Step 1 ABSOLUTELY applies in the bedroom. Imagine two star-crossed lovers staring deeply into eachothers’ phablets. Playfully destroying pigs or experiencing mind-numbing insta-gasms. Yeah you get the point. If there’s one experience I don’t want to miss for a new LinkedIn connection, it’s one where I can truly connect with the person I love.
Time spent pooping
This is exaggerated. If you are actually pooping for 10 hours per day, please see a doctor.

With great power comes great responsibility

I wish I could have made this lifestyle change a year ago. So many missed or wasted experiences. We have more computing power in our pocket than that necessary to put the first man on the moon. Yet we don’t know how to harness it because it’s advancing faster than our ability to absorb it into our lives in a healthy, constructive way. Remember kiddos…

An Apple a day keeps the doctor away. An Apple every 20 seconds…well…that’s too many fucking Apples.

Best of luck with the cleanse. Please share / recommend this article to help friends become human again and tweet me directly (@jgvandehey) to let me know how it goes or if you need a sponsor, support, or tips. It is now safe to use your electronic device (in moderation).

TL;DR — We are on our phones too much. They were built to enhance our lives, not consume them. Be a human.

Next Story — Don’t get fired. Get feedback.
Currently Reading - Don’t get fired. Get feedback.

Don’t get fired. Get feedback.

It happened on a Wednesday. I was in my cubicle preparing for a meeting I felt unqualified to lead, nervously scribbling down an agenda. I was pumping myself up with the freshest single at the time, Like a G6, when I heard my boss shouting over the sea of cubicles, penetrating my ears over Far East Movement’s fresh beats.

JEREMY, can you come into my office please?!

Her normally calm yet confident voice had risen to a sharp, irregularly stressed pitch. Nervously, I arose from my desk and peeked over the divide, searching a sea of coworkers for an empathetic eye. With everyone glued to their computer screen, seemingly aware of what’s to come, I found none. Taking this as a sign of my inevitable fate, I embarked on the long, lonesome corridor to her office.

Dead man walking

As I passed through doorway, the temperature seemed to rise 10°. Still clinging to hope that this was another friendly catchup, my confidence took a hit when she said, “Can you shut the door behind you?” On the surface I calmly obliged, and shut the door as gracefully as I could as if proving that I could do something…anything right. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I was soon concerned that the growing beads of sweat from my torso would seep through my $12 button down and expose my deepest fears. As daintily as a 6'2", 215lb, 22 year old man-boy could, I crossed my legs, committed to a calm and collected demeanor. There was a long, pregnant pause. She studied me for what felt like hours. Surely she knew how uncomfortable I was, and I remember thinking to myself:

Out with it! Put me out of my misery!

How did I get here?

Six months ago, I was shaking hands with my college dean, accepting a diploma on behalf of the school of business at the University of Wisconsin. In lieu of higher paying consulting gigs, I instead accepted a job in Intuit’s rotational development program, convincing myself that learning shouldn’t stop after college. This program focused on developing future leaders and offered the unique opportunity to switch jobs every 6 months (without having to get fired).

I was 3 months into my first rotation in Intuit’s Employee Management division (i.e. payroll software for small biz). My first foray into product management wasn’t even the largest of my insecurities. Having just moved to a new state, starting my first job in an industry I knew nothing about, with a side of an ongoing inferiority complex, I was desperately seeking the slightest indication of how much (not if) I was fucking up my job/product.


Refusing to relinquish the only power I had left, I waited for her to speak. Unintentionally holding my breath, I clutched my fists in preparation when she finally broke the silence.

Manager: “Jeremy, I want you to know, we’ve really valued your work here. Everyone really likes your ambition and personality.”
Me [in my head]: “shit. past tense. ‘valued’. Here it comes. I wonder if I’ll cry.”
Manager: “I’ve heard from several people that you are far exceeding expectations, and many of your teammates can’t believe this is your first job out of school.”
Me: [shock and disbelief followed by complete silence]
Manager: “One thing I think you could work on is being more prepared for meetings and more confident while you’re in them.”
Me: “That’s great feedback. I’ll try and work on that. Thanks!”

That was it. I wasn’t fired. I was actually doing a great job, but I somehow convinced myself that I was the weakest link and was so terrible that I needed to pack my things. I peeled my dampened shirt from the leather chair back, and skipped back to my cube.

Could this have been avoided?

In short…yes. There is one major contributing factor that lead most of us (especially those just starting their career) down this inferiority entrenched path toward being on a totally different (and more dramatic) page than our managers. I didn’t know how to measure my performance AND…

There was no regular, ongoing channels for positive and constructive feedback.

This is especially true in fields where your output/performance isn’t easily measurable (ex: product management). After years of class projects, grades, midterms, and finals, I had no idea how to grade my own performance. The lack of positive praise from coworkers led me to believe I wasn’t earning a gold star.

Old habits die hard

My overwhelming joy of still having a job was short-lived and soon backslid to focusing on what I was doing wrong.

“She was probably just being nice. I’m so unprepared for meetings and often lose control of the room. I’m still teetering on the edge of unemployment.”

Even after praise, my mindset hadn’t changed. Only now, I didn’t have to speculate that SOMETHING was wrong. Instead of living in fear, I decided to never get blindsided again by taking a more active role in my development.

I started asking for feedback on everything

Seriously. I even asked coworkers if my breath smelled bad before a meeting with the CEO (note: it did. Luckily, I had a mint handy). I immediately felt better about my situation because I removed all doubt in regards to what I was and wasn’t doing well.

Ongoing feedback makes a ton of sense for a few key reasons:

  1. Inconsistent feedback tends to skew negative: The mentality of ‘only say something when something is wrong’ creates a vicious cycle of feedback fear where even if it’s coupled with praise, we tend to only hear how we’re fucking up. This gives the recipient the impression that they aren’t doing anything right which has a HUGE impact on confidence (and ultimately job performance). Instead, get in the habit of sending positive and constructive feedback to at least one teammate per week AND ask them to reciprocate. This creates a more open culture where feedback recipients can get used to both positive and constructive feedback.
  2. More prepared for the annual review: All big companies are largely the same in that they need to know how you performed relative to your peers to make pay/promotion/bonus decisions. This typically consists of providing your manager a list of peers who give you feedback and completing a self-review. It only takes 3 or 4 of these longform feedback requests to fuck up your day. It’s easy to put them off and/or not put the appropriate amount of time into each. Not to mention they are regularly back-weighted with examples spanning over the last 4 weeks instead of the intended 12 months because your teammates can’t remember accomplishments from 9 months ago. Instead, build out your annual review over the course of the year by collecting and providing small pieces of feedback each week. At the end of the year, all you’ll need to do is compile the data and send it off to your manager (who will be smitten that they don’t have to chase down and remind all of your coworkers to give you feedback).
  3. Get on the same page as your manager: Don’t leave your manager in a black box when it comes to your personal and professional development. Instead, include them in your feedback loops. Give him or her visibility into what people are saying about you AND (this part is important…) how you plan to address the constructive feedback. Be diligent about what items you choose to focus on. Not only does this show them that you care about your career, it also prevents situations (like mine) where I was sure I was getting fired and my manager thought I was exceeding expectations.
  4. Treat your job like you treat your car: If you care at all about your car, chances are you take it into the shop every 3–6 months for a tune up (change the oil every 3k miles, rotate tires, check brakes, etc). We don’t wait until our engine seizes up from lack of oil to see a mechanic, right? So why would we wait until the annual review to make small adjustments in our day to day? Imagine, you finally get your annual review. Turns out you did a good job and are getting a decent raise, but several coworkers said you need to better manage your time and not overcommit on deliverables. Well guess what? It’s too late to make any material adjustments that affect your review/salary/bonus. Better luck next year, champ. Instead, gather weekly feedback to stay on top of development areas as soon as they come up and address them on the spot.

Eventually, I gained enough confidence where I wasn’t asking for feedback just for validation (which is common for early career employees) but for true growth and development issues. Even years later, ongoing feedback is still a huge part of my professional growth plan and increases transparency into how I can perform better in my job*.

Up next in this series of the power of feedback: How to give constructive feedback. Follow me to be notified when it’s live, and please like this post if you had a chuckle or a relatable experience.

*I’m currently starting my own company that makes getting feedback fast and easy. If you’d like to be notified of our launch, you can sign up here! Thanks for reading.

Next Story — An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence
Currently Reading - An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence

An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence

Photo credit: Love and Struggle Photos

To the white people I share home with,

I’ve gotten degrees. I’ve been published. I’ve spoken at academic gatherings. I’ve taught classes and workshops. I’ve built up a resume. I’ve gained employment in the acceptable fields of social justice. For years, you told me these were the things I needed to do in order to be listened to.

I’ve participated in direct action. I’ve been arrested. I’ve survived nearly three decades in a country that hates me. I’ve predicted the formation of movements, the swell of riots, months and even years before their occurrences. I don’t know what else I need to do to be legitimized, be validated, to be worthy of being heard and taken seriously.

I am exhausted from trying to get you on board with a movement–one that mirrors those from previous eras you claim to revere, and that has reignited calls for social transformation once heralded by the writers, speakers, musicians and artists you claim to hold dearest. I wonder if you understand what any of the struggles which have occurred during your lifetime were ever actually about.

I am not naive nor arrogant enough to believe my imploring can achieve in this moment what centuries of Black imploring has not been able to. I am not foolish enough to believe this letter will be the letter that changes your minds. I write because I need to speak, because I am in pain. I write because I cannot bear any more condescension, more indifference. I write to tell you I am not going to.

The cry of this moment is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume this is a statement you take issue with.

When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean Black people are the experts in their own lives, their own history, their own struggles. We mean your opinions are not necessary, and that debating you is a waste of our valuable energy, mental health and time. We mean you do not get to speak on issues with which you have no experience, which you have not studied nor researched, but on which you feel entitled enough to award yourself authority. We mean you must be quiet and listen to Black people.

You can no longer hide behind your idealism. The very existence of this moment proves your ideals to be misled and hollow.

If legislation alone could save us, the 13th Amendment, Special Field Order №15, and Brown vs. Board would have saved us. If electoral politics alone could save us, then the innumerable Black justices and representatives elected in the last half century would have saved us. If white saviors could save us, we would have been saved a million times over. But we are here and we are dying, and you are watching from the sidelines.

You call me an anarchist. You say you fear chaos. If you knew what it means to be Black, what is happening in your towns and cities daily, you’d know that chaos and bloodshed are already here. They are visited on women, on people of color, on poor people, workers, on immigrants, on trans people, on queer people, and they are done so constantly. Chaos is our bed, our sheets, our water, our front steps, our sidewalks. The systems you insist we trust to address it, the leaders you elected, are its source. Your fear of movement, and your denial of this reality, is what allows it to continue.

This is the last time I will say this to you:

Black people are dying. Every day, Black trans women are dying. Black children are dying. Black mothers and sisters are dying. Maybe I have to die for you to understand what this means.

If the demands of our movement are unclear to you, that is your fault. We have stated them concretely and concisely, over and over again–not just at this moment, but at every time in history Black people have fought for their lives. Don’t pretend that because the sources you read don’t report it, the information is unavailable. Don’t act as though your selective hearing is the result of our lack of organizing. Don’t tell the leaders who have penned the most passionate pleas for justice in US history they need to be more articulate.

And when the police come for me, don’t cry. When I am murdered by a supremacist in the street, don’t mourn me. If I am put in a cage for speaking out, don’t call it a travesty. Because it is happening, has been happening unceasingly for the last five centuries, and you have done nothing to stop it.

Do not feign shock at the inevitable. It disrespects me, and the memory of every Black person your system has purposefully killed.

When I tell you my needs, talk of my pain, my anger, all my stories, it is a privilege and blessing you haven’t earned. It is a profound form of vulnerability I engage not because you deserve it, but because I as a Black person choose to share it with you. I do so for the sole reason that I do not wish to lose you from my life, do not want the most core parts of my existence to be hidden from you. But when you refuse to look, they remain invisible. When you resist seeing, you deprive yourself of authentic entrance into who I truly am, and what I truly need from you.

And your denial cannot protect you, just as my silence cannot protect me.

This movement is happening without you, despite you. But real transformation is not possible unless you listen deeply, sincerely, even when it is painful, and take brave action at your own risk to fight for the things the Black community is demanding of you.

When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.

A son, brother, nephew and grandson of Black, queer liberation

Next Story — The Fascist Bogeyman
Currently Reading - The Fascist Bogeyman

The Fascist Bogeyman

There’s a noise under the bed and it won’t stop

The current debate about fascism in America has, thus far, centered on the definition. Many publications have been musing in the same direction: “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” (Slate, The New York Times), “Is Donald Trump an Actual Fascist?” (Vanity Fair), “Donald Trump and Fascism: Is He or Isn’t He?” (National Review), etc. People want to know what to call things and that’s understandable, but I’m not sure how useful this exercise is. Fascist is as fascist does, and by the time we can agree on the exact definition it may already be too late.

When I planned to write about ¡No Pasarán!, a new collection about the Spanish Civil War edited by Pete Ayrton, I thought there might be some good lessons in there about fascism. With the Trump campaign improbably continuing and the alt-right Nazi brand on the rise, many of us agree that a solid operational understanding of fascism is increasingly necessary. Whether or not the label applies to our present situation, I’m pretty sure it’s valid when talking about Generalissimo Francisco Franco of the Spanish Falange.

I figured I would outline the historical timeline, cite a couple historical curiosities, draw some ominous connections to the election, get a check, and move on. Instead, I got stuck on a couple anecdotes in one of the pieces, an excerpt of the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga’s book De Gernika a Guernica. The first is from the village of Fuenteguinaldo, and it happened in 1936 but wasn’t revealed publicly for 70 years:

“Apparently, the Falangists asked the priest to draw up a list of all the reds and atheists in the village … They went from house to house looking for them. At nine o’clock at night, they were taken to the prison in Ciudad Rodrigo, and at four o’clock in the morning, were told they were being released, but, at the door of the prison, a truck was waiting and, instead of taking them home, it brought them here to be killed.”

The second comes from the failed coup attempt in 1981:

“I was living in a village in Castille with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. I became friendly with a young socialist who was a local councillor. When I met him one day, he was looking positively distraught. He had just found out that in February of that year, on the night Colonel Tejero burst into Parliament and the tanks came out onto the streets, the local priest had gone straight to the nearest military barracks intending to hand in a list of local men who should be arrested; my friend’s name was at the top of the list.”

Someone puts your name on a list and you disappear. And maybe all the people who care enough to look for you disappear too. And no one hears what happened until everyone you ever knew is dead. That is, if you’ll excuse my language, the fucking bogeyman. It scares the hell out of me.

There’s a danger to thinking about fascism as something other than human, not just because it is people, but because it presents a temptation to dehistoricize. Fascism becomes something existential, a tyrannical tendency somewhere deep in the character of all people or all societies that needs to be restrained but occasionally breaks free to wreak havoc. Once we start down that path it’s not too long before we get to “We’re all a little bit fascist,” and “Was Alexander the Great a fascist?” That is lazy, useless thinking, the kind of “human nature” nonsense that is the first resort of the uninformed and uninterested.

Monsters and ghouls have always been a part of human community as far as I know, but they each emerge under particular circumstances. Think FernGully: The evil spirit Hexxus is freed from a tree (where it’s been imprisoned) when a timber crew chops it down. Ancient Hexxus seeps out with the character — even the name — of modern pollution. The creature is the externalities of industrial production embodied. It moves like oil and smoke. That pollution makes monsters is not a special insight; everyone knows about Godzilla. But moral pollution, of course, yields demons as well. Monsters show up when some scale is stubbornly uneven, when karma is repressed. Toxic waste dumped in the swamp, but graves disturbed too. That we’ve always had evil isn’t a way to avoid understanding the specifics of its incarnations. Thinking about fascism as a bogeyman in this way could be more useful. What kind of monster is it?

Allow me some speculation. Fascism is a nation-shaped monster. It arises alongside the modern state, and though they share sympathies (and weapons) across borders, fascists are nationalists. One of the conflicts that feeds fascism is between 19th-century ideas about the racial character of states and 20th-century pluralist ones. Our global system is supposedly based on something like collective self-determination, but it’s grafted onto a map drawn by colonial violence and pseudo-scientific ideas about Gauls and Teutons. Fascism is a particular combination of Romantic/Victorian ambitions and modern tools that sparks to life as the two eras grind against each other. Frankenstein with the arms of capitalist industry and the heart of a monarchist. Patriotic young Hitler inhaling mustard gas in the trenches, like a panel from the first issue of a comic book.

One of those modern tools is the list. We’ve always indexed information, but our ability to do so grows in qualitative jumps. To round up all your enemies at a national level is an analytics problem, and it’s one we solved under particular circumstances. The quantitative management of populations doesn’t just happen to emerge around slavery, it emerges out of slavery. And the Civil War didn’t break the line: At the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, so-called scientists of the early 20th century kept lists of the genetically (and racially) undesirable. They embarked on sterilization campaigns and lent their expertise to help halt the flow of immigrants. The Nazis infamously used IBM to manage the Holocaust; the Americans (less infamously) also used IBM to manage the Japanese internment camps. When NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute recreated an ERO office in 2014, they called the exhibit “Haunted Files.” Perhaps our filing systems are haunted too.

Modern liberal states have never truly reconciled their racial character with their democratic pretensions. I’m not clear on how such a thing could be possible; where would a truly pluralist state draw its borders and why? Flipping through a history book it’s hard to argue that the nation-state system doesn’t exist for the arbitrarily divided glory of western Europeans. The official line is that we’re supposed to ignore that part, or be sad. But some people don’t want to ignore it and they aren’t sad. Instead they wonder why we have the nice borders that their conquering “ancestors” drew but all these people on the wrong sides. If taking Mexico’s land for white people was illegitimate, then why haven’t we given it back? And if it was legitimate, then what’s wrong with a wall to protect our side from a reversal? The liberal patriots, they say, are lying to themselves; there is no nationalism that is not ethno-nationalism.

The persistence of the fascist bogeyman suggests that they have a point. The beast can skulk in the basement for decades, feeding off the contradictions at the foundation of the pluralist state and its own waste. This is 2016 and we can’t claim that fascism is a birth pang of the global democratic order, an enemy defeated. (Ghosts, zombies, the terminator: monsters so rarely go away when they’re supposed to.) Fascism seems inextricably tied to what we have, like Dorian Gray’s portrait locked in a closet, consolidating ugliness.

Whether or not they could finish off fascism once and for all, liberals usually aren’t tempted to try. I don’t know if that’s because they sense something irradicable there, but liberals have historically found deals to make with their shadow. Spain is one of the more striking examples. When Franco’s insurgents escalated, the rest of the world agreed to stay neutral so as to stall the already foreseen World War II. But the war had already begun: Hitler and Mussolini flouted the agreement, intervening most dramatically with bombing raids. The Soviet Union breached as well, sending weapons to badly armed Madrid. The western democracies, however, stayed neutral. In return, Franco maintained Spain as a non-belligerent when world-wide hostilities broke out. It’s an agreement that lasted into the 80s.

Part of what makes the Spanish Civil War so important for leftists is the sense that it could have gone the other way. There’s an urban legend that infighting among leftists — communists, anarchists, and Trotskyists — caused the Republic’s defeat. ¡No Pasarán! has accounts of this friendly-ish fire, but no one thinks it decisive compared to German and Italian air power or the western arms embargo. Spanish republicans and their study abroad comrades fought bravely, but the bogeyman has an advantage at the insurgency stage. Violence is its thing.

The bogeyman makes a real offer: Delegate to me your capacity for limitless violence and together we will dominate. That they’re able to do it justifies the undertaking, and they are, under some circumstances, able to do it. A willingness to strike first, to drag your enemies from their beds in the middle of the night, to steal their babies, that’s a force multiplier, especially when combined with the right information technology. There is strength in white nationalist unity. Horrifying, despicable, anti-human strength, but strength still. The fascist image is a bundle of sticks or arrows — the fasces, harder to break. And they are.

I think of the 2015 movie Green Room, about a band of punks who get trapped inside a Nazi club and have to try and fight their way out. Joe Cole plays the drummer Reece, and he’s the only one who shows any sort of confidence, preparation, or leadership when it comes to fighting fascists. With his MMA skills he incapacitates a giant skinhead bouncer and directs the gang to make a break for it. He’s not out a club window one moment before two faceless, nameless Nazi henchmen have stabbed him to death. For me this moment illuminates a basic truth about fascist strategy: It does not matter how smart or brave or capable or strong you are. There are two of us, we have knives, and we’re waiting outside the window.

Liberal democracies are constitutionally vulnerable to the bogeyman. We civilians have already delegated our capacity for violence to the military abroad and the police at home. If there’s a threat to law and order, then the forces of law and order will take care of it. We don’t have to worry about protecting our democracy, there are professionals for that. All we have to do is vote for the right people to manage them. But that plan has risks.

America’s founders thought they could write the standing army out by fiat, and they have been proven very wrong. Liberal democracies maintain giant war machines. Within each of these war machines — as in the religious and business communities — there are cults that worship the bogeyman. Members wear tattoos, patches, insignias to identify each other. They recruit. Some of them go to meetings, most probably don’t. I imagine that many of them get fulfillment from their work. Why wouldn’t fascists feel at home in the police, the border patrol, the army? Asking these organizations to maintain anti-fascist vigilance on behalf of the whole population is a fox and henhouse situation.

If Donald Trump is a fascist — as even the liberal media is beginning to agree — and has a non-negligible chance to winning the presidency, what is the contingency plan? If a Trump administration were to flout what’s left of our democratic norms, how would our system protect itself? I don’t know how Trump polls among active-duty military, but the Fraternal Order of Police has already endorsed him. Part of me thinks “Troops loyal to Hillary Clinton,” is a phrase we could get used to fast, but I’m not sure how many of those there are. Are the Vox dot com technocrats expecting a Seal Team 6 bullet to solve the Trump problem if things get too hairy? It seems remarkable that the two 20th-century American politicians we talk about getting closest to fascist takeovers — Huey Long and George Wallace — were both stymied not by the democratic process but by lone gunmen. That’s a bad defense strategy. Thankfully, it’s not the only one available.

Via Richmond Struggle, anti-fascists in Richmond, VA

Wherever there have been fascists there have also been anti-fascists: Traditionally communists, anarchists, socialists, and some folks who just hate fascists. When left-wing parties have on occasion decided to stand by while fascists targeted liberal governments, anti-fascist elements have still distinguished themselves. Anti-fascism is based on the idea that fascists will use content-neutral liberal norms like freedom of speech and association as a Trojan Horse. By the time the threat seems serious, the knives are already out. Antifa seek to nip the threat in the bud, attacking fascists wherever they’re weak enough to attack. If that means busting up their meetings with baseball bats, then that’s what it means.

In America, we remember the Spanish Civil War mostly through anti-fascist anglophone writers — George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway being the most famous — who decamped for Spain. Unlike fascists and liberals, anti-fascists are internationalists, and no citizenship takes precedence over the struggle. When the call went out for sympathizers to come and defend the Spanish Republic, one young British volunteer, Laurie Lee, called it “the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which may never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass-slaughter closed in.” Comrades of all sorts of nationalities and particular left-wing political views signed up for the motley “International Brigades.” There was and is a purity to this gesture; to go and risk your life alongside your attacked comrades is among the highest imaginable acts of solidarity. “¡No pasarán!” (They will not pass) is an anti-fascist slogan of such power that it’s still in use today, many decades after it turned out to be a lie.

Because pass they did. The righteous rag-tag army was no match for the German and Italian bombers. Spain stands for anti-fascism across borders, but also the catastrophe of its failure. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the War it’s that fascists don’t always lose. The arc of history is not a missile defense system and sometimes righteous solidarity makes for full prison camps.

For years American anti-fascists have been very effective. Up until the Trump campaign, they had largely prevented white nationalists from meeting in public in cities. It usually works something like this: Antifa finds out where the Nazis are planning to meet and they call the hotel or conference center they’re going to use and explain who exactly “American Renaissance” is, and what will happen if the meeting happens (chaos). Most reputable establishments exercise their right to decline Nazi business. This kind of tactic offends the liberal sensibility, but it’s the only choice. The least violent way to oppose fascism is to disrupt them before they feel strong enough to act in an organized way. I fear that window is closing.

I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be elected president, but the fascists who have found a vessel in his campaign have been licking their lips for months straight. Things are going better than they could have hoped and they won this round a long time ago. I have no doubt they’re thinking about how to organize their engorged base in November’s wake. Fascists aren’t democrats and they don’t need a majority.

The bogeyman is in the closet and he’s making so much noise it’s hard to pretend we can’t hear it. We have a choice to make, if not as a country, then as members of this society. We can get out of bed, open the door, and confront the social infection that is fascism. Or we can pull the sheets up over our heads, pretend history ended 25 years ago, and try to get back to sleep. Maybe the noise will stop on its own — it is possible, even likely. But maybe we’ll wake up with our throats slit. There won’t be a different kind of warning.

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