The shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue is not a unique display of the tribalism infecting our society, but it is a very stark example of the dangerous path we’re treading. Of all the horrific acts carried out by the Nazis, the anti-Semitism and killing of Jews is the most vivid reminder of the evils of fascism.
There’s been much talk of fascism in relation to the rise to power and influence of the extremists, from Trump to, just this week, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. In may sound like hyperbole, but there’s every reason to heed the warnings. We’ve entered a period where the very notion of a civil society is in peril, and there are signs we could slide into a situation we’ll certainly regret.
The rise of extremist elements is a symptom, not the cause of our current woes. The tribalism and grasping at straws with support for demagogues is an offshoot of a declining sense the future will be better. Things are getting worse precisely because those making the decisions and those pulling the strings are concerned about themselves, not the vast majority of the population, the planet, the future or anything beyond immediate lust for money and power.
People are angry and afraid, which is a perfect recipe for tribal divisions, with power and money going to those stirring the pot. Or combining matches and gasoline, as it were. That people are angry and afraid in large part due to the insecurity of deregulated, financialized, neoliberal capitalism – to use language reminiscent of the time of European fascism and communism – goes largely unnoticed. It’s a system that is gutting the middle class and the already long beleaguered lower classes.
People have good reason to be angry, as millions have seen their comfortable middle class lives stolen from them over the last few decades as jobs have gone overseas, wages have stagnated and good jobs are disappearing .
Like making scapegoats of “the other,” divisive right-left battles on the fringes prove both a great distraction and a way to channel more public money from those who have little to those who have a lot.
To counter the violence of fringe right-wing extremist with violence from the left just enhances the position of those who want control. And those in power have a much greater fear of movements that would make society fairer, more equitable and democratic than they do of racist thugs who have bought into the status quo.
Right now, anger makes it easy to find scapegoats, a reaction that feeds on our inherent prejudices and racism. These are times that bring out the worst in us. Demagogues and those who would feast on the divisions are more than happy for the distracted masses. It’s from that mire that fascism emerges – with Remembrance Day on the horizon, we have to look no further than the horrors of the early and mid-20th century for some terrible examples.
It’s a scary time for many who see echoes of 1930s Europe and the rise of fascism led by charismatic leaders who promise better days ahead to angry and fearful populaces.
The parallels aren’t exact, but with growing numbers of disenfranchised and disenchanted voters, along with long-simmering grievances, there is a possibility anger will trump good sense. If the lid blows on the racial, gender and class resentments, things will get messy.
For those with the levers of control, the plan is going off without a hitch. The caustic environment evident today is almost inevitable given the course we’re on, beset by fascist tendencies.
“The symptoms of fascist thinking are colored by environment and adapted to immediate circumstances. But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice. It may be shocking to some people in this country to realize that, without meaning to do so, they hold views in common with Hitler when they preach discrimination against other religious, racial or economic groups. Likewise, many people whose patriotism is their proudest boast play Hitler’s game by retailing distrust of our Allies and by giving currency to snide suspicions without foundation in fact.”
Those aren’t the words of a leftist ideologue, nor even those of an observer of today’s morass, though they could have been uttered for the first time this week and been on message.
Instead, they were penned by U.S. vice president Henry Wallace in the New York Times on Apr. 9, 1944.
People at that time were very much aware of the dangerous combination of social unrest, demagoguery, fascism and the scapegoating of “others.” In his comments, Wallace could easily have been prescient about what we’re seeing today.
“A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party,” he wrote.
“Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.”
With the rise of authoritarian/fascist movements – often a reaction to economic failures and demographic changes – the very nature of democracy is at risk, in large part due to our own ignorance and lack of vigilance. That’s something worth remembering.