Combating (unacknowledged) Totalitarianism

Yesterday I had the option on Minnesota Public Radio of listening to a story marking a year since the murder of George Floyd or a celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday.

Then today, reading through some notes for a seemingly unrelated writing project, I saw a connection between the two when I came across this quote from a book titled Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of Living, by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. You’re not familiar with it? Shocking. It is an application of systems theory to cognition.

In it, they were writing about how change (or resistance to it) in social systems follows the same patterns as change (or resistance to it) in individual humans and exploring the analogous concept of cognition in both systems–one micro and one macro. These passages jumped out at me. The first is related to how if humans cannot impact the social system, then they are just used by the social system and that if “…the human being cannot escape from this situation because his life is at stake, he is under social abuse.”

But, there are experiences that can override the individual being trapped in such a social system (in its extreme, totalitarianism or authoritarianism), and that “Love is one of these experiences, and as long as man has a language he can become an observer [of the system integrated into] through the experience of love.”

Finally, building on this concept, they provide this hypothetical. “When human being ‘A’ encounters another human being ‘B’ and loves him or her, he sees ‘B’ in a social context and becomes an observer of the society that ‘B’ integrates. ‘A’ may like or may not like what he sees in reference to ‘B’ and act accordingly, becoming antisocial* if he does not like what he sees. An absolute totalitarian society must negate love as an individual experience because love, sooner or later, leads to an ethical evaluation of the society that the loved on integrates.”

*I don’t believe they mean withdrawn, but instead counter or resist social norms.

The video of George Floyd’s murder captured by Darnella Frazier forced many of us to (finally) begin to truly see and attempt to have some empathy for the life experience of the oppressed, abused, and marginalized. A beginning anyway. This act of courage on her part to stand strong and record and share this injustice provided an opportunity to address such injustice. And it was possible because we couldn’t ignore the humanity of the victim and the inhumanity of the oppressor. In that moment we began to love “the other.”

Oh but how the “totalitarian” system of white supremacy immediately began to fight back. Almost immediately protests were hijacked and misrepresented as something other than a resistance to oppression. And then legislation and culture wars over voting rights, red-herrings of mask wearing as civil liberties, and limitations on what we can teach/converse with students about–even attempting to ban teaching about racism and the true horrors of slavery. This is institutional racism exerting totalitarianism. Many in our society live in a totalitarian society not acknowledged embedded within our democracy.

So, you’re asking, what does this have to do with Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday? The arts. The arts are one way we see one another, understand one another’s experiences, establish an emotional connection, and then build empathy. In totalitarian cultures the dominant culture resists, outlaws, and eliminates art as a means of controlling the narrative. Art gives us shelter from the storm

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Of course, it takes more than song to change the world. That’s the challenge we face right now. We’ve sung the songs, read the books, written the blogs, but that is just the beginning.

And speaking of such. Here’s a song. Seems fitting to share. I wrote it a year ago. I began with images of the Minneapolis riots and in particular this now iconic Julio Cortez AP image of the Minnehaha Lake Liquor store fire. I then explored the current events that lead us to that moment in history by incorporating iconic Dylan lyrics/images, I suppose in part to call out that we’ve been signing about this for 60 years and we’ve still got miles to go before we sleep (using the poetry of another Bob).

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