From the afterdeck of a cruise ship now entering Nassau harbor, it's hard to summon up the anger so appropriate to these times, and so essential to this blog. A temporary condition, I’m sure. So rather than writing something new, I’m relying instead on a reprise of this post from last September, which foreshadowed several of the key issues we'll all face in the next decade. For ‘Stalin,’ just substitute ‘Putin,' and for ‘Texas,’ substitute ‘every red state,’ and you’ll get the idea.
Rage over the new Texas abortion laws comes naturally to anyone with either a heart or a brain, let alone both.
But beyond the unspeakably cruel restrictions on reproductive rights, beyond the wanton misogyny and toxic masculinity, beyond the predictable media firestorm that turns outrage into clickbait, there is a larger issue on the table. And it’s one we can only hope is not a trend:
Texas Republicans are now openly embracing a culture of citizen-on-citizen informing. Anyone in Texas can now inform on anyone having, or even contemplating, an abortion.
Informers have been a cornerstone of totalitarian rule throughout recorded history. Dire warnings about the political use of rumor, innuendo, and slander go back at least to Aristotle.
But we need look back no further than the Soviet Union under Stalin to see it raised to an art form, an apotheosis of mass cruelty.
By the mid-1930s, Stalin had consolidated all the power of the new Communist state, and vested that power in himself. He was savage, vengeful, paranoid, and at that point completely omnipotent. He was the dictator all other dictators aspire to.
He ruled by terror, and he created a vast institutional framework for that terror — a ruthless police state that put the entire apparatus of government under the absolute rule of the Communist Party, which was itself under the absolute rule of Stalin.
A ruthless police state needs enemies to ruthlessly police, and Stalin saw enemies everywhere. He and his toadies created a vicious pipeline of informers, police, prosecutors, and judges, who would systematically re-package ordinary citizens as “political” prisoners, strip them of all dignity, and deliver them into the ravenous maw of the Soviet prison system — the gulags — where millions of them died as slave laborers in the frozen North.
The front end of the pipeline was the vast network of informers at every level of society, eleven million of them, one for every ten citizens. The informer's job was to watch for and report political heresy — any random conversation, any misspoken sentence, any mild criticism that could be construed as “anti-Soviet” — and the informer always got the benefit of the doubt. One slip of the tongue was all it took, and the secret police would come for you.
And it wasn’t just the paid informers who were feeding this pipeline. Thanks to nonstop political indoctrination from cradle to grave, the party created a social ethos that raised informing to a civic virtue. Children were trained from an early age to inform on their parents, to tell the police of any word or act that might be seen as dissatisfaction with their “worker’s paradise.”
And then there was the free-lance informing. Your neighbor, maybe, likes your apartment better than his own, so he tells the police he saw you reading an English newspaper, which isn't true but that doesn’t matter. The police are trained to accept the lie, and they haul you off to jail for interrogation, probably by torture. You confess to being an American spy and other absurdities. The prosecutors decide what you’re charged with — no evidence or witnesses required. The attorney “representing” you agrees completely with those charges, and suggests a few more of his own. The judge finds you guilty, sentences you to ten or twenty years of hard labor, and off you go to a copper mine north of the Arctic Circle, where you’re starved, beaten, robbed, and worked, very likely to death, in sub-zero temperatures.
Meanwhile, your wife gets arrested as an American spy, and the informer moves into your apartment.
The gulag pipeline served Stalin perfectly. It kept everyone in the country — from the most senior Kremlin officials to the poorest Siberian peasants — living in constant fear, eliminating from public life all possible opposition, and all opinions that were not officially approved.
At the same time, it provided an inexhaustible supply of free labor, which Stalin used, first to conduct huge mining and lumbering operations in places where hell literally froze over, and then to build a massive industrial infrastructure from scratch, mostly at gunpoint.
Now, this is not to say that a culture of informing leads directly to a totalitarian state, or to a gulag system, or to the mass enslavement of ordinary citizens. But it never leads anywhere good.
Yet this is the road Texas Republicans have decided to go down. And the echoes of Stalinism are unmistakable.
Just as the Soviet Union institutionalized forced labor, Texas Republicans look to institutionalize forced breeding, and they’ve seized the power to disrupt women’s lives in arbitrary and possibly irreparable ways.
Just as the Soviet Union gave the Communist party the power to bend government to ideological purposes, so too do Texas Republicans seek one-party rule for their own ends. Their odious abortion laws are meant to work hand-in-hand with their equally odious election subversion laws, to ensure that their Christian paradise can never be voted away.
And just as the Soviet Union created a mass culture of informing, so too are Texas Republicans creating all the right incentives to make informing an honorable — and lucrative — profession.
As we continue to slide down this increasingly slippery slope, we need to recognize that many of the tools of authoritarianism are already in place in this country, most obviously in Texas. A complicit legislature, a reactionary court system, grotesquely gerrymandered districts, institutional corruption, officially sanctioned lying, and a segment of the population seemingly eager to inform on fellow citizens.
No, we’re not quite there yet. Even in Texas, there are still a significant number of steps between here and real Stalinism. But who among us still believes that Republicans aren’t gleefully heading in that direction?