By Milena Claudius
History teaches us that democracies can be destroyed and these days I cannot help but sense reverberations of my culture’s traumatic and violent past. At the risk of oversimplifying a resemblance, I cannot help but notice parallels to the fragile democracy of the Weimar Republic. In those days, many people in Germany felt dissatisfied and angry with the establishment, while facing the aftermath of the Great Depression. When I hear about new immigration orders, I catch myself thinking: Is history repeating itself? Is this how my grandmother felt when she witnessed German Jews being loaded on to trucks in her city’s square and when she was told that people would be “relocated?” Is this how my grandfather felt when he opposed the growing Nationalist regime and shortly thereafter had to flee Germany?
When I hear about a call to fortify borders, I’m reminded of the suffering caused by the German Wall. When I hear about federal judges being challenged because they are upholding the constitution; as a child of East Germany, I am being reminded of what it is like to live under censorship and a one-party state. As I am watching history unfolding with concern, I wonder: Which side of history will I stand on and am I already tolerating what should never be tolerated?
It is not as if systems of oppression haven’t plagued U.S. and other societies for eternities. In fact, some would argue that a majority of Americans endure systems of oppression that threaten their psychic and physical self all the time. Yet, the overt shaming of “less-privileged others” has become the new norm. No longer are we talking about how to foster social justice; instead many of us are being pushed further into the abyss of marginalization and exclusion. When ableism, anti-semitism, classism, heterosexism, misogyny, racism, and sexism are actively and passively endorsed by the so-called leaders of this country, the fragile line between what constitutes social marginalization and persecution of groups of people becomes blurred.
Looking towards Election Day, I anticipated a sense of relief. For so many months, daily coverage of the contentious election campaign characterized by fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric left me feeling appalled and drained.
At work, at first, we laughed at the thought that a populist, egotistical entertainer without a clear vision for this country would even consider running for the presidency. Here he was, an actor, whose words only exploited people’s fears. A TV personality who seemed to love bathing himself in the spotlight while rambling through half-truths. It was difficult to take him seriously because he seemed so out of touch with reality and our world. When a colleague shared that one of his immigrant clients reported nightmares and feeling more afraid for herself and her family, our mood grew grimmer. If this was a comedy, it was a dark, horrendous one and I could no longer giggle at the absurdity of it all. I felt scared.
Each time that we witnessed or experienced assaults on women, people of color, religious, ethnic and sexual minorities, immigrants, veterans, and people who are differently able, our hope that this discriminatory rhetoric was only for show faded. Every time, I came to learn about another verbal and physical assault, I expected that people in positions of power would condemn these acts and sentiments. Yet, their response seemed muted and I waited in vain.
To feel safe we need norms and yet, the pillars of our collective sense of safety have been shattered and continue to be shattered. When one is told that “alternative facts” are our new truth, when one’s experience is constantly being invalidated, our sense of reality becomes assaulted. We now have to constantly question what is real and what is pretense. When one’s reality is being denied, dismissed and questioned, when we begin to doubt what we have seen with our own eyes, our ability to reality-test is at risk. Who can be trusted? How can we feel safe when our individual and collective psyches are seemingly abused and terrorized? While emotions like fear are important because they signal that we are facing a threat, overwhelming fear can drive us further into isolation and further away from reality. Thus, to heal from this psychic trauma, we must find spaces of belonging that will allow us to feel grounded, empowered, and connected.