An acquaintance, having read the Isaiah Berlin essay that’s going around the internet, commented that it’s all true, and the big threat to America is from the Islamic State and atheists. I thought that she either hadn’t really read the essay, or wasn’t able to understand it, or did understand it and chose to interpret it through very peculiar lenses. A bit later there was a guy in the Y locker room holding forth on our unconscionably high property taxes (by most standards they are quite reasonable, even a bit low) that are only going to pay for free education and health care of illegal alien kids, and he knows that our own kids can’t even get the help they deserve because of it. How he strung all of that together is quite amazing in itself. Combine that with a recent letter to the editor that chastised gun control advocates for being hysterical, this coming from the crowd that is certain there are secret plans to confiscate weapons, and that the government (illegitimate) is their enemy. Other acquaintances are certain that if Obama had his way we would be living under Venezuelan like socialism. It adds up to my discouraged mood.
Each of them seems to be inspired by fear mongering, yellow journalism, and an unwillingness to think critically. Nevertheless, they are true believers. Several of them have remonstrated with me that they see clearly what I have chosen to ignore. Perhaps. I am not without my own political apprehensions. Among them is something the Berlin essay said something that I have also said many times in my own words. People who are driven by fear in defense of their own prosperity and freedom tend to gravitate toward a form of fascism, willingly submitting themselves to the very despotism that they detest. In the process they blame whatever evils they think beset them on scape goats that are handily available. Out of fear of losing security and freedom, they give up both. In the meantime, they do serious moral and physical damage to some population designated to take the blame.
I may be wrong, but as I think back over the recent history of our world, nations with a strong middle class seem less susceptible to that kind of decline, and maybe that’s because life looks better, more promising, when a middle class is dynamic, open on both ends, with a reasonably predictable degree of equity of opportunity. Nations are more susceptible to a decline into something like fascism when the middle class is threatened by something like oligarchy. In our case, the middle class has been stagnate for a long time. Real income for the majority has been flat or declining. What we once defined as middle class (white, male dominated, married, three children) has been rent asunder by integration, immigration, the rise of independent women, gay marriage, and more. In the meantime, the amazing growth in new wealth has been funneled mostly into the bank accounts of a very small portion of the population. It’s a rich environment in which to grow discontented bigotry.
It is not the Islamic State, or atheists, or gun control advocates that we need to fear. We need to fear right wing tendencies dragging us toward our own brand of fascism. Not Italian. Not German. Not Argentine. It would be an American form all our own. There have been moves in that direction before: the late nineteenth century, the 1930s, and now. We have come to our senses before. I hope we do again.