#NeverForget in the time of Twitter and Trump
Before November- hell, before last week- I logged onto Twitter maybe once a month, and it was usually to share a thought about musical theatre with my 52 followers. I’m still not entirely sure if I’m responding to a tweet or direct messaging someone, and I only put it together a few days ago that DM means ‘direct message’ (I think). But since I opened the app the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, it has been difficult to put it down.
A few weeks ago, I could have logged out of all of my social media accounts and gotten along just fine. Now, I have an obsession. I’m afraid that that the whole world might collapse while I’m away from my phone. I hide myself in corners at work to slyly check Twitter. And while I have no delusions that the rage-tweets of a 27-year-old social media luddite are doing anything other than disappearing into a techno-void (considering that, like CreedThoughts.com on The Office, there’s still a solid chance I’m actually just typing into a Word Document and not a Twitter page), I still can’t help myself from tweeting at the president, at my representatives, and more than likely an account which I think belongs to a leader in the white nationalist movement that is actually just some white lady named Deb from Ohio.
Last month, I could scroll by even the most incendiary Facebook debate without batting an eye- no use getting into something with my friend from college’s racist aunt. Now, I’m picking fights. I’ve sent more than one chilling Holocaust image to @realDonaldTrump, and may have suggested that Steve Bannon uses the pictures to jack off. I yelled at Rob Lowe. I stay up late to keep scrolling and scrolling through my feed. In part, the obsession is part of my new self-care routine: drink more matcha, hit 10,000 steps a day on my FitBit, and check Twitter to reaffirm just how many people are feeling the exact same way I do. At the same time- as really anyone could have told me- it’s an endeavour entirely antithetical to self-care. I should have learned this crucial lesson from PornHub- click enough times on what you like, and eventually you’ll stumble upon something that will haunt you forever.
Thanks to my carefully curated Facebook, I had remained mostly ignorant of “how the other half lives”. I like to think I was always acutely aware of their existence- especially after many sources blamed the election results on the lack of understanding or willful ignorance of this facet of the American experience. I remember staring numbly at the TV screen on November 8th, not sure if CNN was moving or the whole world had simply shifted, and hearing phrases like “these people are hurting” or “they feel left behind”. For a while, there was a rush of rhetoric about empathy for a group feeling forgotten by their country. There were cries for greater understanding- less unfriending, more dialogue.
Lacking an ability to curate and cleanse, Twitter has seemed like an opportunity to finally do just that. I have gotten lost in the back-and-forth of Trump supporters, trying desperately to understand things from a different point of view. I looked at their memes, what they perceived as jokes. I tried to put together a broader picture of their wants and fears from a collection of trite sayings under 140 characters: finally a president is doing something to keep us safe. It’s not about religion, it’s about safety. Typical leftist propaganda. Typical liberal tears. For a while, I felt myself stumbling into the void: was I overreacting? Was I being unreasonable?
But there were other messages, too. Discussions of safety always seemed to unravel into cries of “un-American”. Protesters called “the cockroaches of society”. Comedians told to keep their mouth shut, and stick to comedy- though also their comedy was shit to begin with, of course. Caps lock and cries of FAKE NEWS, words like libtard tossed creatively around. Where was the unifying dialogue we were all told was so sorely needed? It’s certainly true that, in order to even begin to construct a path towards unity, people simply want to be heard. Yet why did it seem only one side was being told to listen?
As a Jewish American, the Muslim-ban-which-is-apparently-not-a-ban threw me into an unexpected tizzy. Less than a year ago, as Hitler/Trump comparisons were merely half-formed internet fledgelings, I felt uncomfortable at the comparison. Let’s be careful not to simply throw that name around for any person who seems threatening, I thought. I didn’t want “Hitler” to become a metonym, a mere concept, and therefore become less of a man. Because he was not a simply a placeholder-for-evil or a cautionary tale for those who witnessed his rise to power. He was a man, and a leader, and he simply needed a time and a place and an idea to set a new and terrible history in motion. We must be careful to not let him become less- or more- than a man.
That was a year ago. Today, the similarities I see between that time and now often make me feel lightheaded. I am dizzied by visions of yellow stars pinned to coats, propaganda videos in which cheery voices expound the benefits of concentration camp life over static images of soccer matches and bustling dining halls. There were so many lies- lies that this would help the country, lies about what was really going on. Lies meant to silence and erase the sinister, because only then could one feel secure.
And then the ban was called not a ban. And while #neveragain and stock photos of candles were being sent out across Twitter, the Jews were erased from their own story. It is a remarkably easy thing to do, in this country, to rewrite history. We have done it over and over again, erasing black and brown voices, those of women, members of the LGBTQ community. We say: we never talked about race before this. Everyone is so sensitive now. Silence, erase, rewrite.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the similarities between then and now, which also means contemplating the differences. What will fascism look like in the digital age? In theory, social media should be a great asset for the resistance, as a form of communication and chance for (hopefully) unfettered news access. But when I think again about the cries of “un-American” and “cockroaches”, I also wonder if the move online is obscuring even more similarities between then and now than we realize.
Hitler didn’t rise to power alone. Among many others at his side, he had the Sturmabteilung- the SA, or “Brownshirts”- to bully, boycott, and intimidate. They believed that their support now would mean an economic personal payoff later. They defended Hitler, with their words and with their bodies, until he no longer needed them and led many of them to a deadly end. Still, they played a crucial role in his rise to power, through violence and intimidation and silencing.
The differences are numerous, to be sure, but it was hard to ignore the familiarity when reading profiles such as this, which tells the story of a group that aims to publicize the personal information of protest organizers and activists, posting threatening videos and harassing their employers.
We will likely never win an argument we engage in online, as satisfying as it can often feel to take part. We can’t win because it was never about winning or losing. And while the suggestions of conversation and understanding and unifying the country are appealing to our notions of what patriotism is or should be, it is often the same folks I see crying “unity!” who appear altogether unwilling to engage in any productive way. It may be that both sides are guilty of this. It may also be that the internet is simply not the place where this sort of mediating conversation can occur. Online is a world of ‘fake news’ and nebulous sources, and as a result we have stumbled into a world where “alternative facts” and made-up terrorist attacks are used to justify actions. Online is a place that has a very short memory, where things move so fast it can be claimed that any charity or action is mutually exclusive, where we somehow cannot help homeless veterans if we help refugees. Online is a place of so many voices that one can easily be discounted as “insane”. More often than not, they aren’t trying to win. They are trying to shut you up. This President also lives online, and he’s trying to do the exact same thing.
Sometimes I’m afraid that it’s working. Am I being too alarmist? Am I seeing patterns where there are none to be found?
I’m trying not to unintentionally allow myself to be silenced, but it can be hard when the forces that currently hold the most power in this country are working against you. Especially in a world where American is a word that comes with stringent conditions, black lives mattering means other lives don’t, and genuine fear is labeled as oversensitivity.
The internet is a new player in a story we’ve heard hundreds of times: the people against those that would silence the people. It may be a tremendous asset going forward, but we also shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it will change the story all together. Intimidation and silencing online most certainly didn’t start with this election, but the ways in which it will be used at this crucial point in history and the similarities it bears to silencing tactics of the past should not be ignored.
My whole life has been about “never forget”. I tried my damnedest not to pay attention in Hebrew School, but I still walked away with “never forget” seared into my brain. Yet as forgetting seems to happen more and more, I keep desperately asking myself: what is different now? What do we have this time that they didn’t have then? How can we keep to our promise of ‘never’?
Twitter and other forms of social media have been, and will continue to be, important. If you ask Ben Carson, of course, the answer is guns. But there is- more than anything else- one crucial thing which sets now apart from then: we know what happened then. We know what happened before then, and what happened after. Knowing then, understanding then, is the greatest weapon we have against now. I refuse to be called alarmist or crazy for talking about then or for drawing comparisons. We have a responsibility to talk about and learn about then. Call it un-American or ridiculous or insane- these are tactics meant to silence, and when we are silent, we tend to forget. I will tweet and call and take to the streets. I will support any form the fight takes: never silent. Never forget.