Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Ever Painful Lesson of History

Remember your Old Testament, specifically the Book of Exodus? Moses has just successfully delivered the Israelites out of the bondage of Egyptian slavery and has them encamped on the shore of the Red Sea, when the good old Pharaoh begins to have second thoughts and decides to track them down. Do you recall what happens next?

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Stunning. Only days earlier, Moses was celebrated as a deliverer; now he was being vilified by the very same people he had just rescued. But more to the point was the Israelites’ complete and total absence of any recollection of how deplorable their lives had been prior to their deliverance. It was as though their long-term memory was disabled and all they could remember was what was happening at that moment.

Not much has changed in several thousand years. People, it seems, still have a problem with long-term memory. Witness the last eighteen months. A financial crisis of epic proportions threatened to decimate our economic system after almost eight years of neglect and two costly wars. A budget surplus somehow became a huge budget deficit, and a nation, fed up with the nonsense, rose up and kicked out its corrupt leaders, as if to say, “We want to be delivered from this insanity!”

And so they were delivered. New leadership took control and measures were taken to avert a catastrophe. But the natives grew restless at the slow pace of recovery and became unruly. The old despots queried, “Miss us yet?” And the people shouted back at their deliverers, “What have you done to us? We want our country back!” The delivered looked fondly back at their old oppressors, as if to say, “How could we have doubted you? We will gladly return back into your clutches. Can you ever forgive us?”

Sounds stupid doesn’t it? Not if you’ve been reading the latest opinion polls, it doesn’t. As preposterous as it might seem, a nation that had lived through eight long years of the worst stewardship of any administration since Herbert Hoover, and voted overwhelmingly to rid itself of that stewardship, is now lining up to buy tickets for a return engagement. And you thought Shakespeare had a morbid sense of humor. Well Shakespeare had nothing on the American people.

What Tocqueville referred to as the “tyranny of the majority” in his book Democracy in America, and what Madison earlier called "the violence of majority faction” in The Federalist Papers, is alive and well and living up to its infamous reputation.

Like many of the founding fathers in 1787, Madison was concerned about the survival of the new republic. He was particularly preoccupied with the influence of factions and how to mitigate their negative impact. He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He identified the most serious source of faction to be the diversity of opinion in political life that leads to dispute over fundamental issues such as what government or religion should be preferred. Sound familiar?

Not surprisingly, Madison viewed direct democracy as a threat to individual rights and advocated instead a representative democracy or a republic in order to protect what he viewed as individual liberty from majority rule. He writes, “A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Madison explains that common people’s opinions are always influenced by their emotions and their self-interest. They don’t always think clearly or approach situations in the same way. Madison concludes that the damage caused by faction can be limited only by controlling its effects. And the only way to control such effects is through a republic, specifically a large republic, where elected representatives or delegates and not the people themselves would run the country.

Madison wasn’t mincing his words. In fact, given the current state of emotional volatility that exists in America today, they seem almost prophetic. In over two hundred years, the representative democracy Madison helped shape has endured, sometimes precariously. But now, even with all we know about the frailties of modern democracies, Madison’s words are coming home to roost. America’s factions are threatening its very existence in much the same way factions undermined the “democracy” of the Weimar Republic in Germany. True the Weimar Republic had serious structural flaws that made it vulnerable to the mob, much more so than the United States, but the similarities are eerily reminiscent of the conditions that eventually brought about the Third Reich in Germany.

Think I’m overreacting? How else can this 180-degree turn in “public opinion” be explained? Like politics, common sense and human emotion – particularly extreme human emotion – have long been strange bedfellows, dancing a rather precarious dance, and rarely appearing in the same room at the same time. More often than not human emotion – that most unpredictable of variables – has dominated history and been responsible for some of its bloodiest moments. Irrationality, insanity, it has many names. From a Christian perspective, we can refer to it as the enemy taking hold of our souls and reeking havoc. A wolf in sheep’s clothing perhaps. But whatever we may prefer to call it, there is one thing most can agree on. When it is unleashed and unchecked, it can destroy virtually anything or anyone in its path, even a nation as resolute and with as many checks and balances as the United States.

I have written several times on the growing fascist movement in this country and the vitriolic tendencies within the Tea Party groups. Back in August of last year, I wrote a piece titled, “Has Fascism Arrived in America?”

“Living in a free society with the right of expression does have its benefits. No body can tell us to shut up, and we are free to voice our opinions as we wish. But, unfortunately, the flip side of that coin is that along with the benefits comes the very somber reality that those who lack the basic tenants to form a coherent or cogent thought are also accorded the same rights.”

Madison knew this all too well. There are profound contradictions in any free society that, if not dealt with, will inevitably bring an end to the very freedoms it claims to cherish. The desire of the mob is not merely to give voice to its viewpoints; it is ultimately to dominate the debate and silence any and all critics of its ideology. The 51-49 rule applies. Representative democracy says all viewpoints are relevant and cherished; but factions care little if any about that. All that is important to them is their opinion, and their rage.

Last year’s August Town Halls were trumpeted by the Right as an exercise in free speech and the right to voice an opinion contrary to the political will of Washington bureaucrats. What it really was was a lynch mob lying in wait, sponsored by corporations with vested interests in defeating an agenda that was inimical to its bottom line. The puppets in the charade were the multitudes who were duped into believing in a cause that was fraudulent before it ever got off the ground in the first place.

But then hasn’t that been the lesson of history? Before there was a Nuremberg Rally there first had to be the seeds of opportunity, which were born in the underlying unrest and instability of the German economy. It was then pollinated by a lie, in the case of the Nazis a vicious lie that all the problems in the country were caused by the Jews. The rest, as they say, was the result of cashing in on the fear and ignorance of the people.

Look and listen carefully to the rhetoric coming out of the far Right in this country. Tell me if you don’t see and hear a resemblance to what happened in Germany. An underlying unrest has many Americans worried about their future, which allows the tenants of hate to fill their minds with thoughts of government takeover and out-of-control spending. Throw in some images of grandma being killed at the behest of a death panel and you’ve got the makings of a “grassroots” movement that, sans the silly arm bands, acts just like its predecessors did eight decades ago. Not all causes are righteous and just; some are just outright malignant and vile. Fear often motivates otherwise rational human beings to do irrational things.

We live in very precarious times. Civil thought is fast yielding to insanity. Thoughtful and probative thinkers are being ignored for the rule of the mob, and a chance for true debate is being drowned out by shouts of socialism.  The Israelites are wondering in the desert and their mood is growing decidedly ugly and unabashedly unrepentant. The fear mongers are drooling with anticipation at the chaos that they have caused and are now capitalizing on. Like in that ancient Garden so long ago, the serpent lies in wait for the chance to strike at the heels of the gullible. Egypt beckons and a nation lines up for one last look.

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