Triumph of the Will

Holding out hope for our better angels.

Triumph of the Will

During recent travels, I visited Norway’s Resistance Museum in Oslo, dedicated to depicting the steep price that country paid during World War II: occupied by the Nazis from 1940-1945; its northern cities and towns flattened by bombings; King Haakon VII and the government exiled.

The museum is arranged chronologically in a meticulous accounting of Germany’s invasion and occupation. The story presented is one of a nation that refused to live under fascism, rejecting the Nazi ideology imposed upon it through edicts, propaganda, and coercion. The occupier’s laws were not obeyed, partisans took up arms, underground newspapers were passed hand to hand, and daring sabotage missions were undertaken.

By the end of my visit, I was weepy-eyed from the stories of unity and bravery by everyday citizens and their outright rejection of a malignant ideology, no matter the heavy toll. I also felt a thrum of despair, thinking of the dark direction much of the world is turning toward, with the far right re-emerging after having been shamed and shunned post-World War II.

Here in the United States, we’re at an intersection: The narrative of America as a shining beacon of democracy, equality, opportunity, and prosperity for all, respected around the world as a protector of freedom, is shifting beneath our feet.

The reality is that America was never the nation it pretended to be. Based on lofty ideals that the founders did not live by, the U.S. was built upon a fatally cracked foundation. While learned men enshrined into their documents self-evident truths, more perfect unions, and visions of liberty and happiness, many of them owned fellow human beings over whom they had complete dominion. They and their heirs worked hard to keep people like themselves on top, erecting a scaffolding of white supremacy around the U.S. Constitution that has never been dismantled.

Only by indefatigable and concerted resistance from the many people who were not made in the image of the Founders was the nation able to move toward the ideals set forth in our founding documents. Marginalized citizens banded together to form social-justice groups with names like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Indian Movement, National Farm Workers Association, and Asian American Political Alliance. Through hard work, enormous sacrifice, and tenacity, concessions were wrested from the iron grip of white power.

The success of these resistance movements is measured in the backlash of a white population aghast that the end of their era of uncontested control is nigh. It didn’t take a stable genius to exploit those feelings — just an unstable megalomaniac making himself over in the image of other unstable megalomaniacs who successfully bent their nations to their craven wills.

As the U.S. staggers toward the November elections, I remind myself that while human beings are hard-wired to dominate other human beings, they are also hard-wired to resist domination. From Mayan hieroglyphs to the Torah to the Bhagavad Gita, the foundational texts of world cultures illustrate the eternal struggle between evil and good. For the many, many stories of human oppression, there are just as many stories of people who have stood up to oppression and injustice.

Currently, I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, which describes systematized domination through artificial and arbitrary human rankings. Interspersed in the author’s cogent study of methodical oppression are stories of individuals who resisted in ways both humble and grandiose yet all heroic. Memoirs by North Koreans who risked everything to escape a tyrannical state, such as Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Eunsun Kim’s A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea, are also testament to the inextinguishable human instinct to shape one’s own destiny.

Like the double helix of our DNA, good and evil are inextricably intertwined in our nature. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived most of my life believing that good was on the ascendance and humanity was steadily inching toward those democratic ideals espoused in America’s foundational documents. Now, I realize I have to prepare myself for the Greek-tragedy ending.

On the plane back from Norway, I watched “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a movie that takes place in the Anthropocene, when people are ruled by rapacious warlords who make the North Koreans look benevolent. The absurd, ultra-violent Hollywood tale suddenly didn’t seem as speculative as it once did, and still tender from Norway’s Resistance Museum, I was sensitive to its story of heroic resistance against cruelty and exploitation. The human instinct to dominate is irrepressible, but so is the instinct to live free.

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, as well as a book reviewer, essayist, short story writer, and a columnist for the Independent.

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