Defining authoritarianism in the wake of a coup

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on January 8, 2021

Happy Friday, and welcome to the eighth day of 2021, where a nation collectively decided to try again harder for a better year and the vast minority of us ruined it in under a week.  After half a decade of lies and declarations that only an armed rebellion would “take back” the country that never left, a couple hundred disillusioned — or otherwise willfully ignorant — Americans invaded the U.S. Capitol Building leaving five dead and over 50 in jail.

The fact that these people were allowed inside the building to do whatever they wanted and then allowed to leave of their own free will speaks to the type of privilege these citizens possessed and doesn’t need to be expounded upon here.  While, personally, I don’t care much for the symbolism of the capitol and flag within it conveys, these people, who claimed they were the “real Americans” — despite none of them containing any Native ancestry — are the ones who should care most if it’s desecrated.

As embarrassing and infuriating as the storm on the Capitol was, it didn’t exist in a vacuum and it wasn’t spontaneous.  A group of domestic terrorists planned these coup weeks in advance and had the foresight to print merchandise for it.  “News” outlets like Fox and Breitbart stroked the flames of Wednesday’s terror attack under the guise of stopping an oppressive government.  The problem with this messaging isn’t that it downplays the risks of authoritarianism, but that it doesn’t know what authoritarianism really looks like.  To mitigate that, here are three sources of media to better acquaint yourself with the concept.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Before going any further, this is the Snowpiercer by Academy-Award winner Bong Joon Ho and starring Captain America, not the new TNT series now streaming on HBO Max.  The story itself comes from the graphic novel Le Transperceneige and tells the story of a populous uprising on a train circling the icy tundra that has become the Earth.

The train, named Snowpiercer, was financed and populated by the ultra-wealthy, many of whom caused the disaster that ravaged the planet, and is now possibly the only source of life left on the planet.  Chris Evans is the leader of a group of people who forced their way onto the train and occupy the last carriage, or “the tail” as they call it, where they’re supplied jellied meat bars black as tar and half as appetizing to survive.  From that premise, Evans and his crew fight their way through the cars of the privileged in front of them where they hope to bargain for a shred of human decency.

Snowpiercer is my favorite Bong Joon Ho movie, and he has three movies in my top-25 — not only because it’s a fast-paced thriller with visually stunning scenery and a talented cast, but also because this is what a real populous uprising would look like.  The oppressed organized then strategized and eventually executed their plan at the expense of their oppressors and with all the understanding that this coup might be their last.

The group that attacked the Capitol on Wednesday were not the oppressed, nor did they strategize, but worst of all, they knew they would have another shot because the police force would never exercise any real force on a group of people that looked like them.  Authoritarians like Donald Trump don’t call for a coup when they have the power to make a change, they call for them when that power is threatened.  It’s not just Trump either, this happens all around the world and no one is better at doing it than the United States CIA (just research what Reagan did in Latin America).

Snowpiercer is an actual story of rising up against the ruling class, what we saw earlier this week was as if the janitors who serviced the first-class passengers rose up to fight the people from the tail because their employers wanted to pay them more.

Network (1976)

Network starred Faye Dunaway back when feathered hair was still the rage and focused on a News outlet as they exploited a news anchor named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and his rapidly declining mental health.  Beale had an outburst during his penultimate broadcast and promised to commit suicide the following day live on air, which shot his ratings through the roof.  When he promised to apologize and was let back on the broadcast, he went on another rant against the media, resulting in half the country shouting the famous refrain: “I’m mad as hell, and I just can’t take it anymore!”

Conspiracy theorists, misguided audience members, and general hacks around the world have hailed Network for the last 50 years as the symbol of an oppressive system bent on censoring anyone who doesn’t toe the party line but is missing the entire point of the film.  Network isn’t about censorship, otherwise, Beale would’ve been booted off the airwaves after his first anti-media tirade.  Instead, the TV station gives him a new show that decrees him the “mad prophet” and lets him run away with the bully pulpit they’ve catered for him.

Every day you hop on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll find people degrading “the media” as a monolithic body with a consistent message despite the station.  That isn’t only false, it doesn’t make sense, just look at how different media outlets covered the terrorist attack on Wednesday.  Each television station acts independently to snag as many viewers as they can.  Like any business, resources are scarce, and the only resource TV stations crave is our attention.

Authoritarianism can’t exist under a truly free press.  A free press can hold dictators accountable and call on lawmakers to remove them from power when they incite a domestic attack on their own people.  The problem is, a free press can only do its job when all members are playing with the same set of facts.  Unfortunately, Fox News and Facebook journalists (bots) are working with a set of “alternative facts” that claim Joe Biden is some sort of radical in waiting who stole the election from a game show host.  The lame-stream media isn’t lying to us.  It’s most definitely exploiting the drama of real events and making us dumber as a nation, but it’s not lying about an election that’s been certified by so many independent sources it could qualify as organic.

Network is a warning against the business and politics behind a free press and why its viewers should remain skeptical, not that it shouldn’t listen.  As the movie continues, the Mad Prophet never lies to his congregation and is only removed from the air once he criticizes the specific conglomerate he works for.  Network explains the connection between capitalism and what you can say on TV, it isn’t about when social media websites ban certain accounts for promoting hate speech and violence.

Animal Farm (1946)

I would like to think your high school would have required you to read “Animal Farm.” But I’m sure you probably didn’t.  There is a reason, however, why this book used to be taught all over the world and that’s because it’s one of the best satires on Earth about Authoritarianism.

In short, Animal Farm starts with an uprising by a barnyard of animals on a farm in England by expelling the farmer and creating a communist utopia where both work and profits are shared equally among the animals.  After a while, they establish a short list of rules that will ensure this utopia can’t be ruined by any of the vices they saw in their former oppressors and the pigs, who can read, become the intelligentsia and defacto leaders of the farm.  The trouble begins when one pig, named Napoleon, starts to undermine the process of building a successful farm and expels the idealistic leader of the revolution to institute his own brand of authority.  Soon, the farm becomes as oppressive as it once was, instead, there are pigs at the top of the ruling class where humans once occupied.  The dream of utopia was usurped from its creators by a member of their own revolution.

If you read Animal Farm previously and thought it was a good critique of communism, you didn’t understand the message of the book.  George Orwell was a staunch socialist and wrote Animal Farm to lampoon Joseph Stalin’s brutal takeover of the U.S.S.R.  Authoritarian leaders will always find it easier to oppress their subjects with a warm hand and a promise that they’re compatriots or comrades than by brute force alone.  Napoleon and Trump alike changed historical events when they needed to and insisted their comrades were simply misremembering when they pointed out the inaccuracy of their statements.  It’s impossible to allow authoritarianism when the populous understands the history and when a free press is telling them the truth.

The privileged idiots that brought confederate and Nazi flags into the Capitol building didn’t understand these movies or books.  I doubt most have even seen or read them.  The problem isn’t that they aren’t watching as many movies as us good CultureCow readers, but rather they don’t understand what real authoritarianism looks like or they’d understand they’re on the wrong side. Those terrorists honestly believed they were righting a wrong against their country because they fail to know the difference between the class keeping them down and the people they should sympathize with.

These 3 pieces of culture won’t unveil some grand truth to those to watch it, but they will provide the information that every citizen should know:

  • A real populous uprising is multicultural and focused on the oppressing class, not finding solidarity with their oppressive leader
  • All media isn’t lying to you, but all media is sure taking advantage of your ignorance
  • If you want to stop authoritarianism from taking root, you need to understand what it is and what the warning signs are first

The assault on the Capitol wasn’t heroic, it was a spineless power-grab from a flailing tyrant on his way out the door.  He knows if loses his grip on power, even slightly, he’ll be donning an orange jumpsuit to match his spray-tan and he’s terrified.  Don’t fall into the trap laid by your oppressors and don’t sympathize with the lawmakers, TV personalities, and internet trolls that caused this.  If you want to be an American, educate yourself and stop watching Fox News.

I, unfortunately, can’t look at every meme that dominates the internet every week, so if you see a meme and think it should be the meme of the week please send it to: SumnerCultureCow@gmail.com

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