These four years of the Trump administration have helped me expand my vocabulary. For example, I had never used the term “sycophant” until I encountered those in Congress who insist on supporting the President, no matter what he says or does. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines sycophant as “a servile self-seeking flatterer.” Whew. That’s pretty strong.
Synonyms listed include apple-polisher, bootlicker, brownnoser, fawner, flunky, lickspittle, suck-up and toady. You’ve seen them: after the Access Hollywood tapes, after mocking the disabled person at one of his campaign rallies, after he threw the entire intelligence community under the bus in favor of Putin’s “word” that Russia had not interfered with the 2016 election. I could go on. Even after last week’s debate, there were those who chose to overlook his barrage of mocking and rude shouting at his opponent.
There’s another word the current administration has had me using lately: “complicity.” Before now, I had associated the term with, e.g., moderate whites who chose not to speak up in the face of blatant racism and terrorism toward Blacks in the Jim Crow South and ordinary Germans in the 1930s who chose not to speak up about Hitler’s authoritarian takeover of the country’s institutions and later his “final solution,” the deportation and extermination of German citizens who were Jewish. More recently, writers who are attempting to call attention to white support of systemic racism often use the term complicity to refer to white Americans who do not see it or choose to look the other way if they do see it. Those white Americans are, they say, complicit.
That same dictionary defines complicity as “helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.” Synonyms listed include collusion, connivance and conspiracy.
But surely there are degrees of complicity. If some wrong has been committed, some simply do not know about it and therefore do not speak up; some know about it, but do not speak up because they do not believe it happened; and some know that it happened, but do not speak up out of fear.
Let’s take these one at a time and focus on the first, those who do not know. It is entirely possible that a white American living on the frontier in say, Ohio or Missouri, in 1831, knew nothing about the Indian Removal Act, now widely known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of native tribal members in the southeastern states were forcibly marched to Oklahoma for resettlement. For many, it was a trek of over a thousand miles, often during fall and winter months. For many, death was the result. News was scarce and traveled slowly. It would have been easy not to know.
Second are those who know but just do not believe it happened. Maybe someone living in St. Louis, Missouri, or Marietta, Ohio, in 1831 had access to a newspaper, but upon reading of the removal of the Indians by the U.S. Army just did not believe the government would do such a cruel thing to so many over such a distance. It may have seemed beyond the realm of possibility to our hypothetical white American. Granted, it might have been easy to dismiss it.
Third are those who know it happened but fear to speak out against such cruelty – fear of being ostracized by their friends and neighbors, fear of losing their job for being “soft on Indians,” fear of seeming to be disloyal to America by criticizing the Army. You can perhaps think of other reasons an ordinary American citizen might have remained silent in the face of the facts because they feared the reactions of those around them: friends, family, employers, “public opinion,” etc.
We are all complicit in some way; we cannot know all that is going on in the world, like that hypothetical person in St. Louis in 1831. And some of us are surely complicit because there are some things that we refuse to believe are possible in our democracy. To those I would say: Wait. Look around. Inform yourself. Many democratic practices we took for granted have been broken by the current administration – things we thought would never happen in our country.
Finally, some of us are complicit out of fear. Speaking out against the deterioration of democratic practices could cause blow back from friends, family, employers and perceived “public opinion.” To those I would say: Silence favors the status quo; silence cements the present in place. If you do not approve of things as they are, speak out. Make “good trouble.” Don’t be complicit.
Dick Conville is a longtime resident of Hattiesburg and a retired college professor.