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There Are No Good Reasons Not To Fight

We would do well to remember the costs of keeping quiet.

Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

Even with their collaborators, elites have reason to worry that their power will not hold. Most of their potential followers, they suspect, are soft headed and faint hearted, and some might even sympathize with the victims. Were a determined army of victims to muster support among these sympathizers, they could overthrow the elites. To rule effectively, then, elites must reach beyond their collaborators to the rest of the population, persuading victims to act like bystanders and bystanders to act like victims.

Though elites by definition comprise a minority of the population, they come to this task with three advantages. First, because they possess power and standing, they can easily mobilize themselves and their collaborators. Where the victims must rouse themselves from quiescence to confrontation, transforming themselves from what they are into what they are not, elites must simply do more of what they already do. Second, because they lack power, victims must generate nearly unanimous support among themselves and significant support among the bystanders. Elites need only make sure that the victims’ efforts fail.

Finally, as Hobbes argued, power is “like to fame, increasing as it proceeds.” Witnessing the advancing pace of elites, victims and bystanders fear them to be more powerful than they are. If that fear persuades victims and bystanders not to challenge elites, elites can move faster, making their power seem greater. Capitulation, in other words, reinforces power, which explains why some victims are as angered by their quiescent comrades as they are by their tormentors. In the words of Solzhenitsyn:

How we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests … people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half of a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else at hand?

You aren’t gagged. You really can and you really ought to cry out—to cry out that you are being arrested! … If many such outcries had been heard all over the city in the course of a day, would not our fellow citizens perhaps have begun to bristle? And would arrests perhaps no longer have been so easy?

Because of this failure to resist, Solzhenitsyn concludes, “We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

Victims thus confront a catch-22. If they challenge elites and are crushed, their defeat benefits elites, and they may find themselves in a worse situation. If they do not mount a challenge, their quiescence also benefits elites, and they may also find themselves in a worse situation. The villagers of El Mozote, for instance, would have been better off had they defied the orders of the army and Díaz, and fled into the mountains or joined the guerrillas, who at least offered them protection. The few who fled managed to survive; those who stayed did not.

The same logic applies to bystanders, though to a lesser degree. If they act in solidarity with the victims and challenge elites, they may become victims. If they do not, they may become victims anyway, or bystanders who survive but at a great cost to themselves.

Consider the fate of Hollywood’s liberals, who tried during the McCarthy years to turn themselves from victims into bystanders, and wound up as both. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities first began investigating Hollywood in 1947, liberals mounted a formidable opposition, accurately sensing that Congress was after not just the Communist Party, but also the satellite of liberal opinion orbiting around it. The liberals ran national broadcasts denouncing the HUAC hearings and led a contingent of celebrities to Washington to speak out in defense of the First Amendment. So initially successful were they that HUAC was forced to cancel its public investigations of Hollywood until 1951.

But then HUAC got smart. Rather than take on all of Hollywood at once, the committee and other government officials targeted individuals. HUAC investigators personally visited industry executives, informing them that if they did not take care of their Communist problem, the government would. HUAC and its collaborators also took aim at individual actors. On the floor of the House of Representatives, John Rankin revealed that the real names of Danny Kaye, Melvyn Douglas, and June Havoc—left-liberal actors whose careers were built upon an express denial of their being Jewish—were David Daniel Kamirsky, Melvyn Hesselberg, and June Hovick. Ed Sullivan pulled Humphrey Bogart aside to warn him that “the public is beginning to think you’re a Red.” Targeted as individuals, these actors began to worry that their politics would hurt their careers, and they soon gave up the cause.

Though the Hollywood liberals survived McCarthyism, Hollywood liberalism fared less well. Not only did the studios fire and refuse to hire Communists, their allies, and anyone refusing to cooperate with HUAC, but they also required suspect employees to renounce all ties to the party and its front groups, testify before HUAC, join an anticommunist organization, condemn Soviet imperialism, and commit never to associate with the party again.

It was not enough not to be a Communist, in other words: One had to be an active and aggressive anticommunist. Hollywood liberals also tried to create their own alternative HUAC within the industry. More legally scrupulous and procedurally sound than its government counterpart, their proposed tribunal would operate on the principle that no proven Communist, and no one accused of party membership who refused to deny the accusation or who invoked the Fifth Amendment, should be employed by the industry.

And what of the films themselves? Though movies in the ‘1930s and ‘40s hardly offered uniformly brilliant social commentary, Hollywood did manage during these years to produce films like The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gentlemen’s Agreement, and The Naked City, which tackled racism, anti-Semitism, and inequality, injecting a dose of social realism into a genre where it rarely appeared. But by 1948, according to Variety, the studios were dropping “plans for ‘message pictures’ like hot coals.” Twentieth-Century Fox abandoned a script depicting a love relationship between a black nurse and a white doctor. Warner Brothers forced director John Huston to excise one line from Treasure of Sierra Madre: “Gold, Mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that goes into the finding and getting of it.” Why the deletion? “It was all on account of the word ‘labor,’” Huston recalled. “That word looked dangerous in print, I guess.” In 1940, Nunnally Johnson wrote the screenplay for The Grapes of Wrath; after the blacklist, he authored How to Marry a Millionaire and How to Be Very, Very Popular.

During these years, Ayn Rand’s Screen Guide for Americans became required reading for studio heads. Its chapter titles included “Don’t Smear the Free Enterprise System,” “Don’t Smear Success,” “Don’t Glorify the Collective,” and “Don’t Smear Industrialists.” Above all, Rand warned, “Don’t ever use any lines about ‘the common man’ or ‘the little people.’ It is not the American idea to be either ‘common’ or ‘little.’”

Against the logic of elites and collaborators, then, resisters offer their own counterlogic, combining both rational and moral arguments. Capitulation, they tell victims and bystanders, is not only dishonorable: It is unwise. Silence will not buy you protection: It will only make you vulnerable. The threats we face are not as inevitable as they seem: We have more power, more room for maneuver, than we realize. If you do not resist, you may live, your career may even thrive, but your life and career will not be the ones that inspired you to capitulate in the first place.

Jaundiced commentators often overlook these arguments, confusing the resister’s counsel with a suicidal death wish, born of ideological fanaticism. What these commentators forget is that resisters understand all too well Hobbes’s dictum about power “increasing as it proceeds.” Even if unsuccessful, the resisters’ challenge suggests that opposition is possible, that power is not as powerful as it seems. In the same way that a soldier charging enemy lines knows that his mad rush to death may expose his enemy’s vulnerabilities, contributing to his own survival and the victory of his unit, resisters know that the refusal of fear is a necessary condition of their own success.

It is this insight that ties the counterrevolutionary Hobbes, who sought to cultivate a fear of death, to the revolutionary Trotsky, who sought to overcome it: “No matter how important weapons may be,” Trotsky told a St. Petersburg jury after the abortive 1905 revolution, “it is not in them, gentlemen the judges, that great power resides. No! Not the ability of masses to kill others, but their great readiness themselves to die, this secures in the last instance the victory of the popular uprising.”

This is the last in a series of five posts this week on fear in the age of Trump, drawn from Fear: The History of a Political Idea.