icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Authoritarism in our time

It's a shame that the root of "authoritarianism" is "author."  Very few authors are authoritarians in the political sense of the word; instead, we generally are open-minded, and we seldom respond well to those who issue commands.  I suppose the word originally conveyed "authority" in the sense of credence and expertise, a person who knew what she/he was talking about and was to be respected because of that.  In political usage, however, "authoritarian" has come to be personified by guys who are proud to follow orders and are empowered by uniforms, armor, and weapons.  We recently have seen a lot of such authorities beating and shooting unarmed civilians, both in America and abroad.


I'm going to tackle the latter point first.  Because brutality by authoritarians overseas has been part of our lives all of our lives, I suspect that you are like me in tending to ignore fires that we can't figure out.  Unless we have a personal dog in the hunt, it's just too difficult to dig into the weeds of violence in Venezuela or muddled Middle Eastern warfare – and we suspect that if we did, there would be no clear Right or Wrong.


But that is not the case in Belarus right now.  Its longtime dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, clearly lost his "re-election" a couple of weeks ago, but he refuses to leave office.  Instead, the woman who won, Svetlana Tikhonvskya, had to flee for her life to neighboring Lithuania. And here's the good news:  Lithuanians are protecting her and other refugees.  That would not have happened a decade or so ago, as Lithuania (and the other Baltic nations, Estonia and Latvia) also have long histories of tyrannical suppression of political dissenters.


Democracy seems to be spreading in the former USSR, despite Russia's Vladimir Putin, who gladly would bring back Stalinism if he could.  A couple of years ago, he and fellow bullies sent another woman, the elected president of Ukraine, into exile.  Belarus now brings us another test case for democracy (and for feminism).  Tens of thousands of people are challenging the government daily, and the rest of Europe seems to care.  I'm glad, and I hope that Angela Merkel and others will put Putin's puppet in his place.




Hubby and I developed a deep fondness for the Baltics during our last big adventure before his heart demanded that he stop driving in dangerous places.  This was only a few years ago, but Baltic roads still were not well developed, and the GPS that we made a point of obtaining in Poland did not work outside of its borders.  We accidentally wandered into Belarus and were quickly stopped by armed guards.  The border chief seemed to be a woman; at least, the men stood aside while she screamed at us.  She apparently knew only two English words:  "stop" and "go."  We went.


Happily, this remnant of authoritarian government had been preceded by empty border guard stations.  We passed several in Eastern Europe, ghostly images of a deadly past.  They still were surrounded by barbed wire and high towers with search lights that once meant tremendous danger for anyone trying to move across national lines.  With these checkpoints abandoned, there was an open road, and I trust that people in Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and other former USSR provinces soon will enjoy the same freedom of movement.


Authoritarianism was on my mind because I recently read Isabel Allende's new novel, "A Long Pearl of the Sea."  By that she means the long and narrow nation of Chile, where her pro-democracy father, Salvador Allende, was assassinated in 1973 – with his enemies aided by Richard Nixon's White House.  The novel begins, though, with family history during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when fascist Francisco Franco took over Spain's army and used it to kill civilians who opposed him. 


He was supported by Germany's Hitler and Italy's Mussolini, and it was a test run for World War II.  Franco's fascists won the war in Spain early in 1939 – and that August, Hitler attacked Poland and began the big one.  Belarus is a similar test case now.  The only way to stop a recurrence of militaristic, anti-democratic autocrats is for real democrats to pay attention and speak out.  Putin and his puppets, though, probably will remain in power as long as Donald Trump remains his best bud.  (And yes, in speaking of barriers that fence out refugees, I do intend an analogy to Trump's border wall against Mexico.)


Nonetheless, despite their similar authoritarian propensities, there's a serious imbalance between these two most powerful men:  Putin is smart, and Trump isn't.  Russia's guy is a former KGB spy, and that agency never hired dummies.  In contrast, here's the latest from our leader.  Speaking about the cause of California's wildfires, he said – an absolute quote – "they've got to get rid of the leaves."  Spoken like a true city boy, an ignoramus who never saw a forest for the leaves.




Perhaps the most intelligent decision Donald Trump ever made was in choosing non-entity Mike Pence as vice president.  Trump had to be careful to select someone who wouldn't overshadow him, and there is no danger of that with Pence.  I watched a bit of his meeting at a local fundamentalist church recently.  The media setting had a wall of logos representing "Susan B. Anthony's List," the PAC that claims this patron saint of feminism was anti-choice.


I know a bit about Susan B. Anthony.  I've read the three fat volumes of her biography, written by her personal assistant, Ida Husted Harper, in the attic of Anthony's home in Rochester, New York.  I've also read and re-read the six volumes of "History of Woman Suffrage," four of which were co-written by Anthony and published prior to her 1905 death.  Unlike what Pence's PAC would have you believe, she never said a word against abortion. 

The only case in which the topic even came up was when she defended an unwed mother who was charged with infanticide.  The young woman alleged that she had given birth alone in a garret without heat, and the baby froze to death.  Anthony went to court and testified on her behalf – and, like Jesus with the harlot, she used the opportunity to condemn law enforcement for condemning a friendless girl.


Nor was it as if the subject of abortion never came up in that era.  Indeed, Postmaster General Anthony Comstock abused that position for decades to persecute anyone who sought any kind of reproductive freedom – or even knowledge.  Under the "Comstock Law," adopted by Congress in 1873, using the mail to provide information about contraception was strictly illegal.  Margaret Sanger and others went to jail for answering women's questions about controlling the number of their pregnancies.  Comstock, indeed, was so self-righteous that he bragged he had driven fifteen people to suicide.




While birth control was controversial in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, abortion was accepted as fairly commonplace.  It was only after the growth of organized medicine that states began to ban it – and then for reasons of science, not morality.  These laws paralleled the displacement of midwives, who until then had been the chief caregivers to pregnant women.  The result was unsafe, back-alley abortions performed by unqualified and often unsanitary men.  Roe v. Wade rescued women from that misery, at least in the privacy of early pregnancy.


It is true that Susan B. Anthony was a Republican – as were all liberals in that era.  She, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and other (non-voting) women formed the base of that party when it began in 1856, with its chief goal being the abolition of slavery.  When the Civil War broke out, they organized the Loyal League:  Loyal to the Union, they held President Lincoln's feet to the fire regarding the Emancipation Proclamation.  Meanwhile, Stanton reared her seven children, and Stone endured two risky pregnancies after she was past child-bearing age.  Anthony remained single, turning down marriage proposals because she wanted to dedicate herself to liberal causes.


When slavery was constitutionally abolished in December 1865, (after Lincoln's death in early April), these women and others continued to work for the civil rights of African Americans, as well as their own.  For the rest of the century and well into the next, they introduced state and federal legislation on voting and other civil rights – but banning abortion (or birth control) never was a priority for them.


Nor is it truly a priority for today's Republican Party.  It has been almost a half-century since the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that states could not place a total ban on the medical procedure.  In all those decades, anti-choice leaders never even have drafted a constitutional amendment to overrule the decision.  They simply take the votes of well-meaning but naïve people, and they laugh all the way to their PACs.  Susan B., a liberal in every sense of the word, would be greatly disheartened by such cynicism.



Make a comment to the author