If you’re not experiencing déjà vu, you’re not paying attention.
“History never repeats itself,” Mark Twain purportedly said, “but often it rhymes.” Indeed, it does. The repetition of rhyme and cadence and haunting alliteration across generations has become harder and harder to ignore.
“This is their plan… to stir nationality against nationality, race against race, class against class, creed against creed, that their mutual destruction of each other may work out for the glory of Hitler and the grandeur of Japan. They count on our freedom—our individual freedom, our individual interests, our individual pursuit of pleasure and happiness—as the means of our destruction of ourselves.
“And good men, honest men, unwitting men work together with the frustrated, the fanatic, the sick, the bitter, the cowardly, the corrupt, the greedy, the selfish for the end that this civilization may perish from this earth. And democracy and freedom face the bitterest of all tests. It is not the test of arms. It is truly the test of whether they are worthy to survive.”
Journalist Dorothy Thompson spoke these words in May of 1941, half a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. 80 years later to the week, her warning is more relevant than ever.
Except now a foreign power is not our greatest enemy. It is us.
Walking the road to hell
In their well-intentioned rush to create a more equitable society, politicians, corporate leaders, community organizers, and media pundits have formed an unholy alliance that has effectively stirred race against race, class against class, creed against creed. The lofty goal of unity has divided us more deeply and violently than ever. Even worse, militant ideology has spread like a virus through the body of our society.
Some of us even saw it coming. Three decades ago, award-winning essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote:
“[W]e are learning that democracy can kill democracy. For one thing, excessive freedoms have made it almost impossible for an ethical conscience to assert itself. People have been free to ignore social obligations, to abuse one another, to kill themselves.”
Truly, we’re observing what may turn out to be the death throes of democracy. But are we learning anything? We misinterpret Winston Churchill’s critique of democracy as the worst form of government, by overemphasizing his qualifier: except for all the others. Indeed, how many elections are won by candidates whose only credentials are that they aren’t as bad as their opponents? And the bar keeps getting lower with each cycle.
Are we not witnessing the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s prophecy that the more capitalism — i.e., economic democracy — creates wealth, the more it sows the seeds of its own destruction? We need not begrudge the wealthy their fortunes. But the vast, growing chasm between the superrich and the lower classes has created alarming instability. And although there’s no indication that the proletariat will rise up and establish a new world order, the bourgeoisie themselves may have doomed the system by infecting it with the virus of crony-capitalism.
Were it not so chilling, it might be amusing to witness the influencers of our society watching the steady erosion of our cultural foundations like spectators at Wimbledon. In the same way, Madame de Pompadour reveled in luxury as mistress to Louis XV, they seem convinced and content that things will last their time even if, after them, le deluge.
As postmodern society eagerly tears down conventions, traditions, and boundaries, the collateral damage extends to one of the most elemental emotions of the human condition: shame. Ironically, as public shaming over microaggressions and other trivial offenses has exploded, we’ve lost all sense of embarrassment even when caught in the most blatant lies and misrepresentations. And as respect for truth vanishes, so does trust, followed by self-respect, followed by respect for others.
Last month, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald observed the entrenchment of Orwellian doublethink in the starkest imaginable terms:
“Truth matters. Noble lies are never justified no matter the cause, especially in journalism. But these employees of corporate media outlets have been taught the exact opposite model: that their primary obligation is to please and flatter the partisan agenda and political sensibilities of their audience even if it means lying or recklessly spreading unproven theories to do it… The audiences [of corporate media] want to be lied to — they are grateful for it — and would prefer that they not admit they did it so that their partisan interests will not be undermined.”
Survival of the fittest?
If we aren’t convinced that facts and logic and truth will serve us to advance our cause, aren’t we morally bound to reconsider whether our cause is one worth advancing? And if we can’t face that question honestly, are we worthy to survive?
Asking such questions might as well be a hate crime. Feelings are all that matter.
So what shall we do—give up on democracy? Shall we hope that things will indeed last our time and leave our children to their fate? Or shall we speak up and speak out, if only because we simply cannot remain silent?
If you’ve read this far, I urge you to commit yourself to these first steps:
- Investigate news headlines for veracity, especially those that tell you what you want to hear.
- Make certain that your opinions are based on facts, then practice articulating them so those who don’t already agree with you can understand your point of view.
- Engage people you disagree with in conversation and respectful debate. Listen to their positions and paraphrase those positions back to them before you argue.
- Challenge your own suppositions and predispositions relentlessly.
- Study ethics, and make your choices based on the principles of ethical reasoning.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens: these are the best of times; these are the worst of times. Whether they will give way to enlightened prosperity or bloody revolution is entirely up to us.