December 25, 2016

In defense of democracy in the Age of Intimidation and Conformity

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Courtesy Charlotte Eckler

Worcester artist and native of Syria Bayda Asbridge speaks out against the Syrian War in her artwork "The Dream of Alan Kurdi" and urges Americans not to follow in Syria’s footsteps.

As a native of Syria and an active participant in U.S. society, a linguist and artist living and working in Worcester, Bayda Asbridge is not satisfied to “wait and see” what the changed political climate since the election of Donald Trump will bring. The rhetoric of the election campaign, her fears about a Trump presidency and the observations that led to these fears give her the feeling of being “transported back to Syria,” a totalitarian country with few of the freedoms that Western women and men have come to enjoy.

When Asbridge came to the United States in 1994 as a Fulbright scholar, she was warned about the corrupt culture she was about to encounter. Because it’s not an Islamic country, there will be drugs, sex and immorality. Deep inside, though, “every Arab person is envious,” she says. “They would love to be in the U.S. They know all of the privileges they could have and at the same time, they are brainwashed by the media that this is an immoral place.”

When she arrived she immediately saw the freedoms, but lacking was the shadowy undercurrent of a morally bankrupt society she had been warned about. Instead, she found the United States to be a largely ethical society in which people did not have to sacrifice ethics for civil liberties. Especially “the unity, the civility” was fascinating because “in my culture, usually, you don’t have that. You don’t even have the right to show or express any opposition whatsoever especially to the government and the ruling family.”

The United States seemed to honor its social contract; the golden rule was the rule and not the exception: “When I looked at the political debates, people who put up signs for the Republicans or the Democrats, I was amazed that they weren’t actually attacking each other, damaging signs or ripping up the stickers that they put on the cars.”

Asbridge now warns that Nov. 8, 2016, marks a turning point with far-reaching consequences.

Not only were civility and respect voted out, but the agreements that a democratic system upholds were ignored. “It’s like I’m going back to living in Syria, going back to seeing people fighting over political views and having no respect, no tolerance. … I see the two parties fighting as if [they were] Shia and Sunni; as if I’m going back to the Middle East. The fabric of the society is falling apart in front of me; I can see it and I’m horrified at what I see, because I see civil war, and I can see a third world war.”

Trump’s aggressive language stirs traumatic thoughts.

As a linguist, Asbridge recognizes the violence in his speech: “Language can change your way of thinking and I think people can’t really see the whole picture; they can’t see what is happening.” The profound insults we heard in the election campaign have brought us to the point of no return, and she warns: “We’re stepping into a completely different era. … We can’t go back to the way we were.”

Nor do Democrats have an adequate defense in place; the passivity that set in and prevented a more satisfactory outcome will be difficult to change unless it is addressed directly. “I feel that they [the Democratic Party] were really weak in standing up for us as a group. When the Republican Party shut down the government more than once, they were passive. … When he was making these crude remarks – such as, pussy-grabbing – people didn’t go out on the streets and protest that this cannot be a candidate; he needs to be disqualified.”

The acceptance of Trump, someone who is, according to Asbridge, akin to a mafia boss with the type of people he surrounded himself with, has been so pervasive that any crime he commits will be tolerated or covered up and denied by other Republicans out of intimidation and fear of reprisals (preemptive conformism).

Those in opposition are not the only people with a sense of urgency to act before Trump takes office. But if we are to resist the new regime, we need to act. Where she sees a chance for change, Bayda Asbridge becomes actively involved: “I am doing something. We’re doing an artistic collaboration … making short videos about human rights. One of them is about women’s rights. Women’s rights have been violated for decades. The Constitution says you have to separate church from state, but the Republicans like to play the issue of abortion to their advantage.”

When it comes to the Second Amendment, however, there is more support than for other protections such as human and women’s rights. Asbridge questions this. “Which is more important? An antiquated rule about the Second Amendment or women’s right to birth control, to having IUDs; [women are] horrified because they may not have access to necessary medical care. And they’re rushing, everyone is rushing to get something in place before the new president-elect takes office!”

Many initiatives have begun since Election Day. Asbridge, who is an artist, has begun to meet with people, to come up with new ideas, “to recover from this shock and to think creatively and really bring the Americans back together against one enemy who divided them … people who are motivated by their passion and their anger … you really need to stand against [a Trump presidency] because it’s against everything that you believe in; it’s against democracy, against the Constitution and everything that makes this country great. Definitely this era that we’re stepping into is not ‘greatness.’ ”

When I ask whether Trump voters were wrong, Asbridge does not judge them. “I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong. Some anticipated that he was going to give them jobs. Some are nationalists and acted on negative motivation, but the majority are good Americans who were frustrated and angry and they think that he can bring jobs back. When the textile industry in Worcester died, we were left with these beautiful mills but no politician can bring back the past. We have to catch the train that’s moving forward to the future, which is green industry!”

Trump, she says, has been complicit in a system of outsourcing labor. Moreover, his failure to disclose tax returns implies that he does not feel obligated to his voters, or the American public, most of whom are taxpayers who have a stake in the success of federal programs for retirement, medical care and education.

Out of the shock and confusion following Election Day, new ideas are born. One way to brainstorm is a method Asbridge promotes, called “wired lightbulbs.” Through the exchange of ideas, people are united “… and we learn from each other. It’s something that we’re doing at work that was inspired by a Japanese car company (Suzuki) and it’s an idea board where you generate ideas and discuss them. People start discussing and shaping an idea into a polished form and then it can be implemented at a very low cost, and it works. It’s a fascinating module and I’m hoping we can do something similar in a political way. It’s peaceful; it’s intellectual.”

One of the aftershocks of the election campaign has been the normalization of hate speech, and currently there is a discussion on how media was complicit by repeating offensive Trump language without criticism or reflection. Hindsight is 20/20; sometimes regretfully, as Asbridge shows. “We should not have allowed it. We should have completely pulled out of that dialogue because it’s not appropriate; it’s not the right thing. If you can’t let your children listen to the debates, then something is wrong.”

Indeed, this sense of something wrong persists. Trump has not, despite claiming to want to unite the people, rejected hate speech or offered to tone down aggressive rhetoric or begun to address the real concerns that contributed to the discontent of his voters. Instead, his selection of the extremist Stephen Bannon for his top advisor has emboldened radicals on the far right and hate crimes have increased dramatically now that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups feel legitimized.

Will we be able to protect the most vulnerable groups such as refugees from anti-immigrant acts of violence or further psychological trauma? In her role as an interpreter in the medical field, Asbridge works with immigrants and new Americans who must overcome past trauma, and as she explains, cultural barriers often prevent people from getting help. Here, she can provide the needed encouragement due to her cultural understanding.

“Some … refuse psychological help because in my culture they think, you’re crazy, they’re going to lock you up, you’re never going to get out … this is not the case; if you get psychological help, it’s just a short period of time; if you get medication or therapy, you might recover. So this is my way of contributing and helping through my job.”

Added to the challenges that already exist in adjusting to a new life in the United States, immigrants and minorities now face additional violence from right extremists who hail Trump as they spew hate speech. “People are being attacked, being harassed, receiving threatening letters, swastikas. Where does that come from? Is somebody training them, especially the younger generation, to carry these radical views, while we’re sitting around thinking democracy is not under threat? … You can see what is happening; you can actually predict the future.”

Furthermore, the fallout from the election, the ripple effects, will certainly create a new political map, one that could strengthen authoritarian regimes, cause new alliances, and lead to war. The comparison lies close at hand. Asbridge recalls: “Last time we said, ‘This is [just] another four years,’ we went to war with Iraq; we’re still suffering from that. They changed the map of the Middle East in the eight years of the Bush administration.”

With clear challenges ahead, we have to rely on something to carry us through. When I asked Asbridge about what motivates her, her answer was straightforward: the ability to speak out, to have a critical voice. “Coming from a country where I had no voice whatsoever, my heart was filled with fear. When I left Syria, I was threatened: ‘If you criticize the government or our politics when you are studying in the States, don’t think we can’t reach you. Keep your mouth shut.’ Now, after all these years, I’ve conquered that fear. I can express myself; I cherish my freedom of speech and expression!

“This is my message: Heed the warning, Americans. … I can see the threat but you cannot see it, because you are not used to the opposite.”

Leave nothing up to chance, Bayda Asbridge urges, and stresses the following:

It is our duty to be involved in politics to shape this country as citizens.

We need to raise new generations who have a voice and get them interested and engaged in the political dialogue.

We need ethical, responsible, and objective news media that should not be abused or restricted. New generations of journalists should be trained in that.

We should engage in international dialogue, and save our environment all around the globe.

Finally, she says, liberals and progressives have contributed enormously to making the United States great; they have advanced the fields of science, technology, stem-cell research, astronomy, green energy, among many others.

What would the country look like if it were inhabited by conservatives only, with their limited religious views on life? Imagine the unimaginable. Please imagine this country losing its commitment to the Constitution and democracy, and do all you can to keep the America we know.

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