“ … the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address (1933)
"There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."
H. L. Menken, The Divine Afflatus (1917)
Let me begin here with an admission: When I look at our world today, at the end of 2015, I am afraid.
I am not afraid of terrorists, Islamic or otherwise. They want me to be afraid – that’s what terrorists do, attempt to incite terror. I know that there is an infinitesimal chance that I, or someone close to me, may become their victim; we may be in the busy centre of a large European city, or on an aeroplane – just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could also be driving along the motorway/highway/autobahn when some confused or crazy fool comes shooting onto it through the exit ramp. Or I could just be struck by lightning. But I repeat, I am not afraid of terrorists; I refuse to grant them this power over me. They are attacking the values of the open society in which I live. The vulnerability we have towards their attacks – despite all the reasonable security measures in place – is the inevitable price we pay for the values of openness and tolerance which are at the foundation of any society which truly claims to be civilized.
I am not afraid of migrants, be they refugees fleeing from war or persecution, or so-called “economic” migrants, those prepared to uproot themselves, abandon their homes, families and friends, give up everything they know in order to seek a better future for themselves and their children. I realise that their arrival will challenge the country, culture and society in which I live. But I believe that this challenge can be fruitful, creative and positive if we face up to it with courage, honesty, openness, and generosity. I accept that the arrival of larger groups of migrants will change the culture in which I live; that there will be an inevitable interaction and mingling between my (Western European) culture and the different life-experiences and traditions that these migrants bring with them. But cultures are and have always been dynamic and fluid realities, constantly shifting, and frothing, and mixing, and growing. My grandfather wouldn’t have known what to do with a pizza, or a vanilla latté, my grandmother would have been scandalised by Madonna and Lady Gaga, or the use of the word “fuck” on prime-time TV.
I am not afraid of Islam. I don’t much like it, but then a general attitude of scepticism and suspicion regarding all religions has been growing continuously in me in the past decades. There are aspects of Islam, particularly the ambivalence regarding violence towards non-believers in many places in the Quran, which I find disturbing. (On the other hand, there are passages of the Old Testament which aren’t particularly edifying in this sense either.) I find the cultural misogyny of most Islamic determined traditions deeply distasteful. But I am also aware that the Christian and other religious traditions have anything but a pristine history when it comes to their treatment of women – and that not all of these historic attitudes have been left behind. I believe that secularism and the freedom to believe and practice religion (in so far as this practice does not restrict the freedom of others) are some more of those basic values I mentioned earlier, those foundational values of civilized society. As long as its practitioners accept these basic values, any religion, no matter how idiotic it may seem, can be practiced in a free society. Ultimately, I believe, the basic values of the secular, open, and free society will prevail over backward-looking, exclusivist, chauvinist and fundamentalist versions of every religion, though it may take generations. And that includes Islam.
As long, of course, as we hold fast to those values, born in the Enlightenment and matured – with much struggle and suffering – primarily in Europe and North America – in the 19th and 20th Centuries; openness, tolerance, secularism, participation, democracy, civil rights, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, freedom of thought and expression, a critical press, the social securing of the basics necessary for life.
But as I look around the world at the end of 2015, these are the values which I see increasingly under threat. And not only that, they are being challenged and scraped away bit by bit in their original heartlands; Europe and North America.
It is this of which I am afraid. I take Roosevelt’s observation seriously. For what I perceive increasingly in the past year is a growth of uncertainty and fear in our society. I am becoming more afraid of fear itself; more specifically of the exploitation of that fear and the consequences of that exploitation.
Living in the centre of Europe I don’t have to look far to see it. There’s Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey. Closer to home, to the east there are Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński and his PiS party in Poland. Looking west, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France and UKIP in Great Britain. And all the other populist right-wing demagogues in many other European countries. In this context – despite the perennial tendency of US Americans to perceive their culture as exceptional – Donald Trump is also just another confirmation of a widespread trend in the developed democracies. Here in Germany, where Angela Merkel has taken a courageous stand on the question of migrants (and if you’d told me a year ago that I would find myself praising the German chancellor I’d have replied with an expletive!) and where the country has provided a safe haven for a million people this year, Pegida and the Alternative für Deutschland have been gaining in popularity.
Despite all their particularist agendas, all of these various obnoxious figures are pretty much carbon copies of each other. All feed off and exploit the same fear that is widely present in our societies. This fear has many sources, but basically it is rooted in the apprehension many (particularly those who are less educated) feel when faced with a world in which change is all prevailing, in which the shape of the future appears to be less certain and more threatening. The demagogues all put forward the same kind of analyses and strategies; retrenchment, stigmatization and persecution of those who are obviously other, building walls and fences, narrow nationalist pride, appeals to cultural (and often religious) chauvinism.
They are all offering (to paraphrase Menken) simple and easy solutions for complex problems. These solutions are not only wrong, they are dangerous. For, playing to and exploiting the inchoate fears widely present in our societies, they deny the enlightenment values which are the fundament of our societies, appealing instead to emotional irrationalities. To anyone with any sense of the sorry history of the 20th Century it should be obvious where this leads. Make no mistake, my friends, even if these people are democratically elected, even if they keep the forms of democracy in the countries they control, regularly having themselves re-elected, they are proponents of an evil the world has already seen too much of. Putin, Trump, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczyński, Farage, Erdogan and all the others are proponents of what might best be described as fascism lite. And they are quite prepared to use many of the techniques perfected by their predecessors. To give but one example, all of them are prepared to publicly trumpet untruths and continue to do so, even when these statements have been repeatedly rationally proved to be untrue. Both Hitler and Goebbels described this strategy as “the big lie.”
So, faced with this resurgence of irrational, dangerous, fascist demagoguery, what can we do? How should we, in our ordinary little lives, react to this exploitation of fear which will, if it continues to grow, destroy the fundamental values of the societies in which we live?
"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," is a quotation usually attributed to Edmund Burke, though in this form it goes back to Tolstoy. No matter, it gives us a strategy for responding to these attempts (far more dangerous than anything ISIS can do) to destroy the character of our societies. We must respond immediately to the facile, dangerous lies put about by these fear mongers wherever we encounter them; from friends, family members, work colleagues, acquaintances; at home, at work, in the bus, in the pub, on Facebook. Many of us are just too polite, or too apprehensive of conflict, or just too lazy (I know that all these reasons frequently apply to me) to engage here, to get involved. But, I am becoming increasingly convinced, the failure to contradict the nasty simplistic views, grown in fear and cultivated in ignorance by neo-fascist ideologues, only leads to their growth and spread. If they are not countered, they will lead us into a new Dark Age.
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