When Events Dispel Our Illusions

This ran as an op/ed in July, 2021.


Sometimes history brings people painful disillusionment. Two examples:

  1. How Nazi Germany exposed illusions about “civilization.” And
  2. How recent history exposed illusions about the near indestructibility of American democracy.

1) In the Western world, the idea of “civilization” long functioned as a powerful ideal. “Civilized” contrasted with words like “savage,” “barbarous,” and “primitive.” More “civilized” meant better.

“Civilization” functioned not only as an ideal – defining the path toward human betterment – it also served as a weapon: the Western powers wielded the notion of their being more “civilized” to justify their conquering less “civilized” societies to build their empires.

Then came the worst nightmare of the 20th century: the rise of Nazi Germany, inflicting hideous ugliness upon the world. (Including using sophisticated “civilized” technology and industrial efficiency to exterminate six million people in a vicious expression of inter-group hatred.)

Not only was this nightmarish nation inarguably part of the “civilized world,” it had been considered in many ways the epitome of civilization.

Hence the crushing of an illusion: If so ‘civilized’ a nation as Germany could become as grotesque a portrait of Evil as humankind had ever produced, How can “civilization” define the human ideal?

Because civilization itself apparently contains elements of serious brokenness, human betterment must be defined in other terms than our becoming more “civilized.” And civilization will need to be made into something better.

2) Our recent history has dispelled another illusion which I myself believed.

A generation ago, I’d have confidently declared: So long as American society is reasonably free of major traumas and social-economic dislocations, no fascistic force could seriously threaten to overturn American democracy.

Unlike the new German democracy that preceded the rise of Hitler, I thought, American democracy is too well-established to break down like Germany’s “Weimar Republic,” which lacked the deeply ingrained democratic culture and institutions that the United States had developed over two centuries.

In addition, even Germany’s fragile democracy could be toppled by Fascism only after the German people had been profoundly traumatized by a series of very heavy blows: from a catastrophic war, followed by disastrous peace terms, and then economic chaos so profound whole classes of German society lost their economic foundations.

Such trauma drove the Germans into the grip of the darkest currents of their cultural system.

So much pain and fear and anger had they experienced, over the course of two decades, that one at least begins to understand how irresistible many Germans found a leader – like Hitler – who expressed so nakedly the hatred and rage and cruel lust for power all that fear and pain had evoked within them.

But we Americans, over the past several generations, have had relatively smooth sailing.

(9/11 was big, but not even in the same order of magnitude of those traumas that fell upon the Germans in the era leading up to Hitler.

(When Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here – to warn America that the rise of fascism could happen here – it was 1935, the depths of the Great Depression, i.e. a time of huge dislocation and insecurity.)

But contrary to the illusion I and so many others entertained, we’ve seen a large portion of the American citizenry show themselves willing to support an increasingly flagrant (and still potentially successful) assault on American democracy, launched by a political force bearing some of the same hallmarks of fascism that toppled the Weimar Republic.

So, under these circumstances – relatively smooth sailing, and long-standing democratic culture — how did it “happen here”?

How was it possible, in the absence of profound trauma, to kindle in so many regular decent Americans – people who had previously appreciated the geniality of Reagan and the decency of the first Bush – such destructive passions that they would give their passionate allegiance to another leader whose words and deeds consistently and openly made the world a more broken place?

Here’s my best answer:

That segment of Americans has been marinated – year after year – in stories about our politics that cultivated anger and fear.  

Psychologists have shown how even stories can shape how we think and feel about the world. Even fictional stories give us real “experiences” which shape people  without their undergoing the kind of real-life experience that transformed the Germans.

Even lies can work, which enables master propagandists – like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News – to put their followers through “experiences” that instill a demonized picture of “the other” (whether another political party or another race).

Over the course of a generation, the emotional/cognitive paths on which these propagandists led their followers primed them to see politics as the arena for making war against people they’d been taught to hate.

One can intuitively grasp how — with their darkest passions cultivated – the Republican base might give passionate allegiance to leadership that consistently enacts those destructive passions. And how — led along these well-worn paths to see their fellow-citizens as “the enemy” — their belief in democracy might be undermined.

Nonetheless, I’ve been astonished that propagandistic lies could be so powerful in an open, democratic society where different views compete.

And I don’t believe it could have happened but for one additional ingredient: that the liberal side of America just stood by for decades, failing to fight for the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens as they were being led into fascistic darkness.

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