March 5, 2024

“If you’ve ever wondered what you would be doing”—Thoughts on Alabama’s Supreme Court Ruling.

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About two weeks ago, a decision came in from Alabama’s Supreme Court that has invoked a flurry of reactions.

Some have cheered the decision, looking forward to more states following suit. Others have shared anger and rage, memes about The Handmaid’s Tale and the like.

I have my opinion on the ruling and the reactions, however, I want to use this recent decision by Alabama’s Supreme Court to consider what I believe to be the real core of the issue.

You can say it is about control or religion or fanaticism, or what-have-you. But for me, it comes down to people’s desire to not have to make decisions.

Now, whenever I mention this idea to friends or family, I am typically met with a gut reaction of, “That’s not true!” Or something along those lines. And perhaps you just had a guttural reaction as well.

That’s okay—it’s an uncomfortable thought. Maybe because we all know we must make an infinitesimal number of decisions over the course of our lifetimes. Maybe because this notion means that, in general, people are willing to let someone else make their decisions. And this bleeds into a much more terrifying train of thought.

Think about it, though, as uncomfortable as it may be, and consider it while I take you down this rabbit hole of sorts.

Floating around social media from time to time is a meme that varies slightly in the wording, and the credit is all over the place, but the sentiment remains: if you have ever wondered what you would be doing during the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, or any similar historical event, you’re doing it right now.

Let me make a connection…

I taught high school English for 20 years. One aspect of teaching literature is to immerse your students in the historical, cultural, and political context of a work, to help them better grasp the thinking of the time. Another is to bring the themes and messages into the present day: finding that “thing” that makes a work worth reading today, what makes a work universal.

It may not surprise you that a recurring theme encircles the ideas of power, corrupted power, and how it comes to pass.

A great work for this study is, in my opinion, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, although many forego that work and choose 1984 as the example to read in dark times.

But Animal Farm provides an allegorical look into how we got here, how things came to be, while 1984 is an ode to what it looks like after.

Recently, when speaking with my cousin after she had heatedly messaged her anger about the Alabama Supreme Court decision, this came back to my mind. As we discussed her concerns, I tried to explain that while it is frustrating this has happened, to me, it is much more important to pay attention to the little rumblings you hear around you and act on them, because once the decision is made, it’s often too late and a lot harder to invoke change.

In Animal Farm, the pigs suggest that since they are the most learned, they should be the ones to make the decisions. All of the other animals agree, with gusto. And although the animals, initially, all try to learn how to read, they eventually give up. It’s too hard.

When I taught the novella, I always emphasized to my students that the how came down to this: who has power, but more importantly, how do they get it?

Basically: who gives it to them?

As the animals become demotivated by the difficulty of learning to read, they continuously agree that the pigs, who can read, should make the decisions.

Let’s redirect to another book: the young adult novel, The Wave by Todd Strasser.

This non-fiction book is based on a real experience in a school in California, where a history teacher who, stumped to give a reasonable answer to the question of how the Germans let the Nazis take over and do what they did, seeks a clear answer. He comes up with a plan to treat his classes like fascist leaders might: no more options, no more discussion, do what you are told, and clear consequences for not following new rules. It starts out seemingly harmless: stand when called on in class, give the exact answer, no waffling, then sit down. Rapid-fire question and answer.

He immediately notices how the class responds to the restrictions. It is noticeable how quickly students fall in line and seem to enjoy class even more. Over time, the experiment becomes quite large and scary. More rules are added, a hierarchy is established, a system of spying is created, and so on.

At one point, Ben, the history teacher, thinks:

“Was it really true that the natural inclination of people was to look for a leader? Someone to make decisions for them? Indeed, the faces looking up at him said it was. That was the awesome responsibility any leader had, knowing that a group like this would follow. Ben began to realize how much more serious this ‘little experiment’ was than he’d ever imagined. It was frightening how easily they would put their faith in your hands, how easily they would let you decide for them.” (Strasser)

Like the readers of Orwell’s allegory, Ben begins to see just how quickly people are willing to give up their freedoms, to hand over power. Especially when the leader promises to make your life easier: “Don’t think. Don’t worry. I’ll handle the decisions.”

Are we noticing a pattern? I’m sure you are.

Literature is full of these ideas, because literature is a reflection of a time and place but is also a study of the human condition. If humans did not respond so positively to having someone in charge telling them what’s what, it wouldn’t be a recurring theme in our history, and therefore our literature.

Onwards we go…stay with me.

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis publishes It Can’t Happen Here. From my perspective, this novel about the overtaking of America by an authoritative leader has been largely overshadowed by Orwell’s works in general. However, rather than a possible future, Lewis chose to write about the exact time and place he was in, and to consider, could it happen here?

The book begins with an upcoming election and includes allusions to several historical events and people. The minor characters talk about what is happening in Europe at the time (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco) and why. They adamantly, including our protagonist, Doremus Jessep, believe that nothing like that would happen in the United States. That Americans would not stand for it.

Early in the novel, while discussing a particular candidate whose behaviors and statements have echoes of other  authoritative leaders, our protagonist is confronted with this:

“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!” (Lewis)

Although continuously alarmed at the rumblings he hears around him before and after the election, Jessep spends much of the novel essentially thinking it’s not a big deal and things will settle down, because it can’t happen here.

If you have ever wondered what you would be doing—you’re doing it right now.

I was living in Türkiyë as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was taking over. He had already been Prime Minister, and after giving the president more power, he then ran for president and has been in office ever since.

After I moved to Portugal, I quickly learned that in the 1930s rise of fascism in Europe, Portugal, too, ended up with a dictator (although there are arguments about this to this day, whether he was, in fact, a dictator or not). Apparently, this particular dictatorship is known as a “soft” dictatorship. I still don’t know what to think of this.

What I do know, however, is that there were spies everywhere, just like in Türkiyë. People, neighbors, friends, family would turn you in for speaking against the government.

What scares me in today’s political climate in the United States is the idolization, worshipping of any one person, to the point of excusing absolutely inexcusable behavior. Some even want the president to have more power, which is a direct contradiction to the government we’ve been agreeing to live with for 200-plus years.

And this comes down to two things: a lot of people are happy with a leader who makes all the decisions and tells them what to do, especially when, initially, those decisions positively, or seem to positively, impact them.

I saw this in Türkiyë; many people liked what Erdoğan promised and continues to do, which is pushing an Islamist agenda and enforcing stricter laws to limit people’s freedoms.

In Portugal, I have heard that a lot of the eldest generation talk about missing Salazar because when he was in charge, everyone “knew their place.” So, long as you kept your head down and knew your place, you were fine and things in Portugal were good.

People like having someone tell them what to do. People like the idea of knowing their place and knowing the hierarchy. Nothing to think about, just put your head down. Napoleon is always right, anyway.

But why?

Because religion may be the opioid of the masses, but it is because someone else is telling you what is right and wrong, and your place in the order of things. That if you follow these rules, you will someday be rewarded.

Even in our day-to-day existence, we all know many people—and maybe you, reader, are one of them—who express not wanting to make decisions. They want someone else to do it, to make the plans, book the tickets, set an itinerary, and they will just go along. They don’t want to have to figure it out.

My students hated the openness of interpretation. They always wanted me to just tell them what something meant. They didn’t want to have to figure it out.

People regularly give away their power. They cheer, ironically, when the pigs suggest that they should be the leaders and make the decisions, because learning to read is too hard. And then, even more ironically, they wonder how the animals ended up right where they began.

This is how we get a decision like the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling on IVF embryos.

What rumblings do you hear in your day-to-day that maybe you toss aside as “not that serious”? Or you think, “it won’t happen here”…”the government will make the right decision”…”someone else will deal with it.”

But, if you pull the string, what will unravel? And does that matter to you?

If you have ever wondered what you would be doing—you’re doing it right now.

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