"In a perfect autocracy, the population of nobodies never speaks, all their thoughts and feeling formulated and uttered by the leader and/or his representatives."

Earlier this week, the Philippine government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. The law has been widely criticised for its vague definition of terrorism, as well as for provisions that allow for warrantless arrests and wrongful detentions.

Today, members of the House of Representatives denied ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal application, effectively shutting down the Philippines’ largest broadcast network.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and government efforts remain haphazard and desultory at best.

Aleksander Hemon, creative writing professor from Princeton, recently wrote about “Trumpese” online. His notes on Trump and the Republican Party echo a lot of what Sarah Kendzior has written about language as wielded by autocracies, and seem especially salient today:

“Their incessant lying is a way to practice power, while the very absence of any substantial consequences to that lying, however egregious, is a measure of that power.”

The whole article is excellent and well worth reading, if only for the comfort of finding more coherent descriptions of the dumpster fire we’re all living in right now.

There’s a section early on where he traces the common thread of prolix speech from one authoritarian to another: Hitler, Putin, Milošević, Gadhafi, and on, and on, and on — all the way to Trump, clearly, and perhaps, say, Bolsonaro for Brazilian readers; Modi for my Indian friends; Duterte for us. He bookends the section this way:

“Prolixity is symptom of both narcissism and authoritarianism, marking a need for silencing all voices but one and locating agency in a single infallible body/mind.

… In a perfect autocracy, the population of nobodies never speaks, all their thoughts and feeling formulated and uttered by the leader and/or his representatives.”

What follows is an illuminating section that spells out the crucial difference between lies and “nonsensical prolixity,” of which this is a good summary:

“Lies need someone to believe them, giving a certain amount of weak agency to the subjects/citizens, whereas nonsensical prolixity annihilates the audience by flooding the discursive field with vacuous language, becoming a choreography to which everyone must dance.”

If I quoted all the best parts here, I’d just be copy-pasting the whole piece. (Really, go read it.) But as someone currently at a loss about how to move forward, I need to emphasise the end, where Hemon doesn’t allow us whiffling, headless chickens any cover:

“Now it may be needless to say that our strategy of countering accelerating collapse by way of exposing the rampant idiocy and nonsense of surging nationalism didn’t quite work.

… I understood there was no way to talk or change the minds of people who believed any of that, because our shared observable reality had already been undone by the inflation of nonsense. Those of us who foolishly believed in self-evident truths were totally fucked, because those who believed the nonsense were willing to destroy, physically and conceptually, whatever was left of our reality, including us, the people who had no other reality to live in.”

It would take him until after the war, he says, to recognise that “the frequency of nonsense is the frequency of violence.” Small comfort, perhaps, that most of us already know this.

But then what? What can we do next?