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  • Tim Mathis

Fight or Flight

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

A gut feeling that tells you something's deeply wrong in America.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out why a couple of experiences keep coming to mind, and why they seem relevant at the moment.

In 2016, Angel and I took two separate trips to Latin America, bridging the Trump election, and totaling about 5 months of travel. I took away a lot of important memories from both, but recently I keep thinking about two conversations, both of which were with Central Americans who had direct, remarkable experiences with the United States.

The first conversation happened at a child’s birthday party in Guatemala, which involved breaking a heavy pinata that was hung from an electrical line that caused a power outage to the whole house, but that’s not the story. We were there because we had paid for a Spanish immersion course in a charming, tropical little town on Lake Atitlan, and our host family was throwing the party for one of their daughters. Dozens of people were there, but because we were early in our Spanish learning experience, we were only able to effectively communicate with a few people, so I spent a lot of my time speaking with one of the two or three people at the party who spoke English fluently.

Early in the night he explained that he’d learned English in the United States because he’d worked there in the past, but as we got to chatting, he eventually clarified that he’d travelled on two separate occasions via Coyotes from Guatemala, through Mexico into California as an undocumented migrant, where he spent months in the US working in construction and sending money back home, and then returned once he had enough to build a house for his family. The story he told was harrowing - the trip took months, and involved walking through deserts, river crossings, and ultimately spending days hidden in the back of a tractor trailer whose official purpose was transporting gear for a well-known American rock band. When he talked about the experience, I recognized the emotion in his voice because he was describing an adventure. He described that the trip was long, hard, and terrifying, and that there were multiple times when he was worried for his life. It was also clear that at some level, it was also a lot of fun. Angel and I had finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail just a few months earlier, and the guy’s energy when describing the trip brought back emotions I’d had on that long walk. He hated it, and said he never planned to go through it again, but he clearly at some level also loved the excitement of it all.

The second conversation happened in the “Museo de la Revolucion” in Leon, Nicaragua, which is a small and dilapidated but incredibly interesting museum that told the story of the Sandinista resistance to the US backed Somoza dictatorship that lasted for decades from the ‘30s through the ‘70s. In effect the museum was just a few bits of memorabilia and some photos hung on the wall of an old building in a beautiful, gritty colonial city, much of which is riddled by bullet holes from the decades of conflict. The thing that made it fascinating was that the tour guides were old Sandinistas who fought in the struggle. Our tour guide showed us his bullet wounds.

There were plenty of remarkable things about the stories he told, but the thing I remember the most was that, despite the fact that our country had backed people who’d literally tried to kill him, and undermined democracy in Nicaragua for decades, his main concern was to communicate that the Sandinistas were just fighting for what they thought was right, and for self-determination for their government. I didn’t pick up a sense of personal animosity - rather, he treated us like people, and spent a lot of energy encouraging us to go back to the States and tell our friends their side of the story, and not to demonize them.

(In the spirit of honoring his wishes, if you aren’t familiar with the Nicaraguan conflict, the Somoza family took power in 1936 by murdering a political rival, Augusto Sandino, after luring him into peace talks. After years of a developing resistance by Sandino loyalists, the Sandinista’s successful revolution was triggered, in part, when an earthquake destroyed Managua in 1972 and Somoza officials embezzled much of the aid money sent in response. The Sandinistas eventually overthrew the (consistently US backed) Somoza dynasty in 1979 (whose family by that point had embezzled upwards of $550 million - an amount equal to 1/3 of the country's annual GDP - while crushing the country’s economy and environment) and established a government and the current democratic system, which has been reformed multiple times and remains tenuous. (The political system they established led to several peaceful democratic transitions in power and a shared government between former enemies. Things in general seemed to be moving in positive directions in Nicaragua, but in recent years there’s been more unrest and drift back towards authoritarianism). US trained Contras, who were a disparate group of right wing rebels opposing the socialist Sandinistas - fought a civil war against the Sandinistas until 1989, when a peace agreement was reached. The Contras were funded famously by weapons that Reagan officials sold illegally to Iran.

Long story short - the guys at the museum were right - there’s every reason to believe that they were in the right, as part of a democratic movement pushing back against a dictator that spent decades exploiting the country with the backing of the US - a foreign power focused on their own interests rather than the interests or wishes of the local population.)

Fight or Flight and Democracy

A thing I’ve tied together is that these experiences are both stories about the fight or flight instinct, triggered in individuals by interactions with America.

Flight: In the Guatemalan case, the United States played a significant role in creating the political situation in Guatemala where it was difficult to impossible for a local to make enough money to support a family, so he left along with thousands of others, ironically to the greener pastures of the United States, where huge percentages of his country’s resources were flowing because of an international system designed to keep prices low for the US and wages low for Central Americans.

Fight: In the Nicaraguan case, the cause was more direct. Men with guns supplied and trained by the US tried to kill this old man, to prevent a democratically supported socialist movement from taking power over a corrupt and repressive dictatorship that was friendly with the American government.

The fight or flight instinct is triggered when a person finds themselves under threat. Both experiences were personally shocking in a way because I knew enough history to realize that I’d benefited personally from the situations that had put these guys under threat and made their lives impossible. It was a direct, personal experience of how the policies that benefit citizens of powerful countries impact individuals in countries with less power. Colonialism, in its modern American form, but on a personal level at a child's birthday party and before coffee on a lovely Nicaraguan day.

It has me thinking about the value of Democracy, and the danger when it breaks down. In both conversations, it was clear that armed struggle and migration weren’t the first choices these guys wanted to make. The migrant didn’t want to leave Guatemala - evidenced by the fact that he came back twice at significant risk once he’d made enough money for a house. The Nicaraguan didn’t want to fight - he described his country being taken over and fighting against injustice and immediate threat. Guys with guns assassinating popularly supported rivals. Injustice backed people into a corner, so they fought back.

A magic of democracy is that, when it works, it offers an outlet for these kinds of instincts. If people believe that they can improve their situation through democratic means, they typically do so - start movements, work to persuade their neighbors, and do their best to make their country a better place from election to election. History progresses, and peaceful societies are formed. When this option is taken away, or is replaced with a dysfunctional semblance of democracy, you get revolutionaries and migrants. People fight, or they flee.

While it's really difficult to make sense of thoughts or feelings these days, this is the reason why these memories keep coming back up for me, I think. The turmoil in the United States exists (and has always existed) because large sections of the population haven’t been given the realistic option of meaningful change through democracy - African Americans, migrants, indigenous communities, the poor, women. None have ever really been fairly represented in power, and democracy has been extended really only to the extent that power has had its hand forced. The society puts crushing pressure on people’s lives with no realistic means of improvement. It’s a system that’s destined to produce the fight or flight instinct - violence and migration - and has always predictably done so. (Police violence is just a modern trigger because it’s what that historical reality looks like where the rubber hits the road in 2020.)

And as anti-democratic forces and processes advance, as an American it’s easy to recognize the feelings that both of those guys described - a sense of being backed into a corner, being left without democratic options to improve your situation. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, voter intimidation, it’s producing a predictable result and Americans are increasingly living in fight or flight mode. Civil unrest, fear, anger and division. FIghting and fleeing.

Ultimately, I think, the idealists have always been right - the way to slow down violence and make the US a place that people can survive is to extend democracy. Give power out as equally as possible. Make government responsive to the public will. Un-rig the economic system so money stops flowing from the bottom to the top. Provide for government representation for a diverse group of populations and reparations for past wrongs. To me that’s the American project.

Through history it’s been undermined repeatedly by the same colonial project that’s destroying the United States at the moment - a minority group of mostly white, European men (but not exclusively) working to control populations and suppress democracy for their own benefit. And ironically, the American democracy project has been carried out more effectively in countries other than America for quite some time. But regardless, it’s still the best answer, and the only thing that will let Americans stop living in fight or flight mode.

If you got something out of this post you may well enjoy my book on leaving religion, I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation.

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