Freedom Over Fascism: A 12-month Journey of Inspiration and Hope

“Freedom Over Fascism” was an easy title for this commentary.  I was inspired by Dr. Stephanie Gerber Wilson, a Massachusetts political strategy expert, with an impressive podcast of that title.  She broadcasts from Indiana, a Red State, to gain a better awareness versus her home state.  She wants to make a difference to beat back fascism in America.
Listening to Dr. Wilson’s podcast, reinforces to me that Florida Is fast becoming the state where Democracy Is In PERIL!  I call Florida “The Canary in the Democracy Coal Mine!”

  • Where voting and the right to speak freely are suppressed
  • Where schoolbooks are banned on whim and not reason
  • Where academic freedom and critical thinking among students and faculty in public education and universities is thwarted
  • Where cultural freedom is blocked
  • Where women’s reproductive rights are controlled by the state
  • Where LGBTQ and transgender people are under attack (not only in education, but also in health care and fundamental rights)
  • Where businesses and elected officials that disagree with the governor’s agenda are punished
  • Where the rights of local governments to make local decisions based on their needs are blocked
  • Where minorities and freedom of thought and freedom of living without fear are suppressed
  • Where the checks and balance of science, education, media, judiciary, and much more are demeaned and controlled by a minority who are certain they know more through their lens of a White Christian America

One year ago this month, on a beautiful Saturday morning my wife Karen, our family’s creative new venture person, said, “We have a new project … ‘The 1939 Project’!”  I knew immediately to what she was referring, as we had been discussing our growing concerns that the nation and Florida were becoming increasingly authoritarian; with an apparent rebirth of the 1930s America First fascist autocracy, we could not be silent! Before the day was over, we had our first partners in a journey, a recently retired media executive editor and his wife who was completing her master’s dissertation on the Holocaust and Fascism.

We quickly met with individuals who shared very personal and emotional stories of fears and organizational pushback to perform their trained and passionate lives and livelihood.  Examples include:

  • A very talented White professor who teaches history including a major focus on Black history, who was unsure what he would be allowed to teach; he feared for his young family if he lost his job.
  • A community service organization CEO with concerns of being able to fulfill a major grant requiring DEI training who was already experiencing partner organizations pulling back on DEI due to political implications and political pressures to drop a DEI focus.
  • A public school official whose career future was unknown due to the nature of the role, job title and duties.
  • A public university executive who was directly impacted by the state’s growing incursion on instruction and policies directly opposite of cultural and operational investments of recent years, many of which had been previously state mandated.

We decided to host a virtual session of 20-30 individuals from Sarasota to Naples to assess appetite of taking some action.  Eighty-five people showed up and, with that energy, we decided to incorporate statewide to create a network of pro-democracy organizations and individuals focused on a shared mission to protect and preserve democracy.  This is challenging with so many pro-democracy organizations focused on their individual advocacy crusades but, if we lose democracy, all bets are off as far as our various advocacy passions are concerned.

By May 1, we incorporated Floridians for Democracy Institute (501c3), and Floridians for Democracy (501c4).  Both are non-partisan since we strongly believe we must attract NPAs and non-MAGA Republicans to be successful.  This began a journey of meeting some truly inspiring individuals.  Their stories and current unrelenting energies have energized me every day and night with what has become more than a fulltime volunteer mission.

Rather than dwelling on the challenges of turning around this authoritarian, fascist-like movement, I’d like to introduce you to a few amazingly inspiring individuals this journey has blessed me to meet.  Their stories and their unrelenting energies have energized me in what has become more than a fulltime volunteer mission.

  • Dr. Robert Hilliard, 97 year old Sanibel resident, professor, author, trailblazer in public broadcasting, and twice injured WWII hero, is credited with getting President Eisenhower to get emergency medical and basic living supplies to Germans and Jews in the aftermath of the war … under threat of court martial from his immediate superiors.  Bob is the strongest voice for protecting and preserving democracy that I have encountered.  He fears that we are not moving fast enough.  His clarion call is articulate, loud, and clear.
  • Bobby Block, executive director of Florida First Amendment Foundation, was only a few months into his new role when we met last spring.  Bobby shared, “Nothing could be more meaningful than empowering citizens, journalists and lawyers to protect our most treasured rights to worship freely, to gather and protest, to speak out against corruption and misrule, and to oversee the inner workings of government.”
  • Nikki Fried, past Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Gubernatorial candidate, is only a year into her effort to revive and strengthen the Florida Democratic Party … a challenge by itself.  Only weeks into her new role, Nikki and ten others, including FFD’s youngest board member, were arrested for trespassing after police instructed them to disperse by sunset, which they did not do.  They were protesting the six-week anti-abortion bill which ultimately passed.
  • David Pepper is former chair of Ohio Democratic Party, son of former Proctor & Gamble CEO, teacher of voting rights, and author of Laboratories of Autocracy and Saving Democracy.  David is a grassroots, never-stop, focus-on-the-long-game advisor.  He is an expert on gerrymandering, voter suppression, and how the MAGA GOP has used these strategies to capture statehouses and pass extreme policies in many Red States.  David has demonstrated impressive success in recent years in Ohio.  David advocates that everyday people, like each of us, can take action to save democracy with an organized effort to Get Out The Vote.
  • Karen Svoboda is president and cofounder of Defense of Democracy, created to oppose MAGA school board candidates.  Karen initially thought Moms for Liberty was a Florida phenomenon until she learned that one of the candidates in her Hudson Valley, NY, community was running under the slogan “Christ Is King” and endorsed by Moms for Liberty.  Concerned for her school age children, in May 2022, Karen and her cofounder began putting up signs “Teachers Shouldn’t Be Preachers.”  They named themselves “Defense of Democracy” and energized their community.  Voter turnout doubled, and the three Defense of Democracy-endorsed candidates were successful.  This success has been parlayed into Defense of Democracy now national in all 50 U.S. states.
  • Dr. Pat Okker, immediate past President of New College, was only in her role less than two years when she was terminated after DeSantis replaced the New College board with a group of very conservative members.  New College was rated among the best liberal arts colleges in the nation by US News and World Report.  Christopher Rufo, new board member and champion of converting New College into the Hillsdale College of the South, stated “It’s the bottom performing university according to the Board of Governor’s standards.”  Pat’s presentation to FFD was “Education Under Siege!  How should we respond?” occurred only weeks after her termination.  This education scholar and leader was very professional.  We can only suspect that New College was the perfect size and location for an attack by the Far Right for a takeover in a community that is in the eye of the conservative culture storm.  Also, Pat’s educational expertise is on gender studies and New College was very welcoming of students who did not fit the perfect formula for White Christian Nationalists.
  • Andrew Warren gained fame in summer of 2022, when he was removed from his twice elected role as Hillsborough County State Attorney by Governor DeSantis.  DeSantis cited a pledge Andrew signed – along with more than 80 other prosecutors nationwide – not to prosecute certain abortion and gender-affirming cases involving minors.  Since dismissal, Andrew has won twice in federal courts, but still has not been reinstated.  Two days ago, I spoke with Andrew when he shared, “I spent my career walking into court as a prosecutor fighting for victims.  Now for nearly 18 months, I’ve become a plaintiff fighting for democracy, to make sure that elections still have meaning, to make sure that no one can steal the people’s votes, or silence their voice, and to make sure that we don’t need permission slips to exercise our constitutional rights.”  Stay tuned!  You will hear more of Andrew Warren!
  • Simon Rosenberg, a long-time democratic consultant, was one of few prognosticators in 2020 to predict there would not be a huge Red Wave.  He gave up a successful political advisory business to bring “Hope and Optimism” through his Hopium Chronicles Substack, to create a grassroots army to fight MAGA.  He is heavily involved in many potential swing campaigns throughout the nation.
  • David Jolly, former Florida Republican US Congressman, hosted our Pro-Democracy Summit.  He is now seen regularly as a commentator on MSNBC sharing that his former party is now owned by MAGA.  David regularly explains the concerns for the emerging autocratic movement that reveres Orbán, Erdoğan, Putin, and Xi above democracy.
  • Brynn Tannehill, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Air Force Institute of Technology with degrees in Computer Science and Operations Research, is a Naval Aviator who did four military deployments.  After leaving active duty she has worked in defense research, while an advocate, writer, and researcher on LGBT civil rights issues and policy.  Brynn co-authored the 2020 Biden campaign’s LGBT policy for service members and veterans and is author of American Fascism and other books.  Brynn co-authored the 2020 Biden campaign’s LGBT policy for service members and veterans.  With her articulate knowledge comparing the 1930s buildup of fascism in comparison with today, we invited her to speak in person; we will only get to meet Brynn virtually, March 12, because, as she states, “Florida is not welcoming for trans!”  Just this morning, I heard from Brynn regarding the first draft of her presentation.  She shared that, while her presentation may come across as being too scary, she does not see the American public being scared enough and that they are only a fraction as scared as transgender people.
  • Dr. Kate Arnold, and her wife, Dr. Caroline Flint, are featured in The New Republic article, “Red States Brain Drain.”  As a married female couple, with school age children, both practicing OB/GYNs, living in Red Oklahoma with proliferation of guns and attacks on practicing OBs and strict abortion rules, Kate shares a compelling story of the shared fears for their family, their clinical practices.  While not wanting to leave their friends and their successful practices, Kate and Caroline pulled up roots and moved to the Washington DC area and started over.  Kate will be an FFD presenter in April.

Time does not allow me to name everyone who has given me hope and optimism; briefly, here are a few more Freedom Fighters in this journey:

I’ll conclude with one of the most inspiring.  Richard Jacobs of Pinellas County, attorney, successful businessman, world traveler, photographer, and environmentalist.  At age 89, Dick authored Democracy of Dollars, realizing that his strong environmental passions could not be achieved if we lose democracy, being bought away by American oligopolists.  I met Dick last Spring at age 92, dealing with Stage 4 cancer, amazingly lucid, with nonstop energy.  I asked where he found his strength.  Dick’s response, “As long as I have breath, my energy is not for me but for those I will leave behind.”  Dick Jacobs passed away in late August, working for democracy and the environment to the very end.

That should be motivation for us all.  Democracy is at risk!  Each of us can find ways to save democracy for future generations.  Thank you for the opportunity to share one person’s journey pursuing Freedom over Fascism.  Let’s all sing an Ode to Freedom!  Peace and best wishes.  Jim Nathan.

Abbreviated from ABBA’s “Ode to Freedom” 
If I ever write my Ode to Freedom, it will be in prose that chimes with me
It would be a simple Ode to Freedom, not pretentious, but with dignity
I would like to think that freedom is more than just a word
In grand and lofty language Odes to Freedom often go unheard
It’s elusive and it’s hard to hold; it’s a fleeting thing
I wish someone would write an Ode to Freedom that we all could sing

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