Did you hear the one about Hitler? (Twitter in the Times of #StandBy)

[“Memory Stones,” September 2020]

Last night I finally joined Twitter. For better and mostly for worse, it took place right during the first 2020 presidential “debate” (around which I use scare quotes for obvious reasons). Because I was brand new to Twitter, I was at least able to distract myself from the carnage by giving the “debate” only half of my attention and using the other half to start following some of the people I know on Twitter.

In addition to lending an appropriate frame of “partial distraction,” attending to each task with only half my brain also threw me into a trippy “spirit of collage”: Clicking my way around the Twitterverse, I was filled with memories of people from my past and present as I took in sustainable design updates from Good Magazine alongside COVID warnings from CDC, all while considering which of my pop culture fetishes to publicly own up to:

There’s my colleague’s kid; cute. Hey look: The woman in the Good story has pink hair. I miss BoJack — I wonder if his Twitter account is still active. If I follow CDC I should also probably follow the World Health Org, no? Hey- there’s a guy I dated a while back. Woah; some of the people I know have a lot of Twitter followers. Wait — what’s this button for…

And in the midst of the stream of consciousness comes the mic drop: The President of the United States on national television calling on the Proud Boys to #StandBy.

Yeah. That one kind of stood out for me from the rest of the montage. Probably I can just say because I am a human, but I will in any case add because I am the grand-daughter of Holocaust Survivors. I don’t know whether the verdict is in on whether inter-generational trauma is a thing. But if my own sleep, gastro, and social foibles are any indicator: It’s a thing.

#StandBy. I felt my stomach drop. And certainly at least in part because of the parade of faces from my past streaming across my brand new Twitter feed, I felt my life flash before me. Although the #dogwhistle was intended primarily for the Proud Boys among us, I certainly felt it do its work down through my toes.

And it pushed me right out of the Twitter context into a Twitter meta-context: As tens of Twitter messages and thousands of likes around messages exposing the #StandBy rolled across my screen, I found myself uncomfortably setting up the following punchline:

(“Did you hear the one about Hitler?…”)

I like Douglas Rushkoff’s take on last night’s display. It was Trump trying to cast a spell on us, trying to make us think that he can’t lose. And the good news, according to Rushkoff, is that this is the only power Trump has — which is to say: He has no power at all unless we allow ourselves to be hypnotized into his version of reality. Yes, I see this. And yes, I agree: We counter him by voting and not allowing him to convince us that voting won’t work. To vote is to intervene — it is to write the history we want to write, not to fall prey to the error of thinking (as he would like us to think) that our future history has already been written for us. (My current political project “Hate & Protect” is very much about this kind of active intervention).

But also, I am scared. In part because the #StandBy is designed to make me scared (and unfortunately it’s working). And in part because if history is repeating itself, I fear we are not intervening nearly robustly or creatively enough. Yes, we are (as I am) writing and talking about it. And yes, we will be voting in way of doing something about it. But I worry that that is not enough. And I also worry that I don’t quite understand what that means or what to do about it.

@sarahpessin | sarahpessin.com | professor of philosophy | interfaith chair | University of Denver