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Exile or Revolution

Throughout the 1980’s, there was a punk movement in the DDR (East Germany). The British band, The Sex Pistols, had infiltrated the Iron Curtain via stations like Radio Free Luxembourg. The pounding chords, matched with angry lyrics struck at the core of many young people who felt that the world they knew, was wrong. Torn jeans, Mohawks and safety pins became the punk’s outward expression of nonconformity. A visible, ‘fuck you’, aimed directly at the state. The state took note.

One young punk who went by the name A-Micha, was again facing a Stasi interrogation in an East Berlin jail. His crime was playing music that gave voice to the rage many felt. He was given a choice: prison, or get out of the DDR. His response, ‘fuck you, I’m staying’. Punk is a DIY movement, and despite being influenced by Western bands, the DDR punk scene was firmly grounded in the East. DDR Punk wasn’t about escaping to the West for Big Mac’s and MTV, it was about changing the society in which the punks lived.

During another time, in another place, another government was attempting of offload a portion of it’s troublesome populace. Throughout the 20th Century, The Stormont Government of Northern Ireland, backed by Westminster, held long-standing policies of getting Republicans, especially Catholic Republicans, to leave. By restricting access to housing, jobs and constantly gerrymandering elections, these policies were largely successful. My own parents immigrated to Canada in 1970, having been denied the chance to make a home in their native Belfast.

In 2009, I had the chance to sit down with the former Czech ambassador to Canada. I was supposed to be meeting my European Studies prof for a beer, but he had double booked. Also, he knew I was writing a paper on Europe’s Roma (Gypsy)
population, and I think he was being a bit of a shitdisturber. The week prior, a plane had landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Between 2007 and 2009, thousands of Roma had landed in Canada seeking political asylum. In the Czech Republic, they were subject to ghettoization and outright violent racist attacks. Again, seeing the Roma as ‘undesirables’ the state backed the violence, and even reinforced it – introducing segregated education for ‘backward’ Roma children. Needless to say, the conversation with the ambassador was a bit tense – I’m pretty sure I called him a racist. Much to my prof’s amusement.

Encouraging, or outright enforcing exile is an old trick in the authoritarian toolbox. In the 15th century, a Florentine political advisor found himself facing charges of treason against the ruling Medici regime. His two alleged coconspiritors, having confessed (under torture) had been swiftly executed. He didn’t break. Lacking the needed confession, the state opted to instead exile Niccolo Machiavelli. His tounge-in-cheek attempt to regain entry to his beloved Florence, The Prince, is still required reading for every political science student to this day.

In July 2019, the American President issued a statement to four Democratic Congresswomen: go back to where you came from. Aside from the fact that all four are American citizens, one of whom was born in The Bronx and even represents
Trump’s home borough, the tweets can’t help but harken back to the DDR, Northern Ireland and even 15th century Florence. A regime actively targeting
dissent – one of the key pillars of any democracy in the hope of getting ‘undesirables’ to leave, or at least shut-up.

Racism as politics may seem absurd to any rightthinking person, but if Presidential tweets are anything to go by, it’s powerful and real. It is also sad. Especially in the United States, a country that has a long and bloody relationship with the issues of race, freedom and democratic discourse. From rebellion against a greedy (and mad) monarch, to slavery and a civil war, to a movement that saw a mass of humanity descend on the Washington Mall to listen to a Baptist preacher tell them of a dream, the cause of freedom and dissent has always been central to the American experience. In light of such history, Trump’s tweets, and his attempt to rally his base via racism is, if anything, un-American.

Much ink has already been spilt addressing the racism and sexism wrapped up in Trump’s tweets. These are important aspects of this conversation. However, it is the underlying authoritarian thrust of such actions that worries me most. In Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist is asked the answer to 2+2. He rightly states 4, but is corrected: 2+2=5. Tell a lie often enough, and with enough conviction, and it becomes truth.

The Trump presidency is founded, maintained and designed on this principal. Delegitimize, deny and delude. Such tactics were employed by the government of Erich Honecker in the DDR against the punks. Support a false narrative and back it with state action, just as the Czech Republic did against the Roma. Trump’s America more closely resembles Putin’s Russia, or Xi Jinping’s China, than it does the America of Kennedy, FDR, or even Eisenhower.

Trump would no doubt love it if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez filled her immigration papers. The Congresswoman has already responded, and much like A-Micha in a Stasi jail, her answer is, ‘fuck you, I’m staying’. In response to Trump’s ‘love it or leave it’ statement, Ocasio-Cortez shot back, ‘he’d rather see most Americans leave than handle our nation’s enshrined tradition of dissent. But we don’t leave the things we love’. Well said, Congresswoman.

Former Hungarian dictator Janos Kadar once said that as long as the people have a refrigerator and a car, they’ll let you away with murder. It wasn’t until punk protests in the DDR that everyday working people began to take note. Since being elected, Trump has targeted those who were least likely, or able, to fight back: undocumented immigrants, those attempting to cross the boarder, and those well below the poverty line. Americans are used to having a refrigerator and a car. To-date, many have allowed Trump’s ‘pussy grabbing’, Russia colluding and child arresting ways to pass. That said, American’s owe themselves a serious conversation about the nature, and health of their own democracy. It will be the dissenters that push that conversation forward. DIY. Fuck you, I’m staying.

Written by Patrick Crummey

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