The Gathering Darkness

America In The 21st. Century

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power."
--Benito Mussolini, Fascist Dictator of Italy, (1883-1945)




Why This Essay

I've lived a hard and full life. I've lived in big cities, in frontier towns in Alaska and in the African bush. I've lived on the road, alone, with no permanent address. I've been a marine radio operator, a psychic investigator, a forest fire crewman, a television engineer in Africa. I grew up a gay man in a society and religion that persecutes me for what I was born to be. I've had lots of time to use the critical thinking skills my father taught me. I've thought about all of this, and thought about it a lot over the years.

All of these experiences have given me a few insights in to what America was, what it is and what it is becoming, insights not shared by many Americans. I've had the rare opportunity to stand away from America, look at it from the outside and see what it has become. I have come to some conclusions as to why American leadership is faltering. I am increasingly aware of trends I don't like, and I think I have gained a small understanding of why those trends exist. It is my desire to share a few of these insights with those patient enough to read on.

When Liberalism Becomes an Epithet

I am a liberal.

I make no apologies for it, because to me, being a liberal is something good, something I take pride in.

I believe in the values that the Enlightenment taught us, that reason is the only reliable path to the truth, that truth is always preferable to superstition, that education is preferable to ignorance, and that democratic values, in the form of a republican (note the very small "r") government, are preferable to the tyrrany of either king or priest, and can exist only in an atmosphere of rigorous education, critical thinking, holding in esteem the values of tolerance, egalitarianism and a healthy skepticism towards those offering easy, quick, pat solutions to complex and difficult problems.

Contrary to the inflammatory rhetoric of the right, that is what liberalism is. Now is that so bad?

There are those who would call me a secular humanist. I find no dishonor in that at all, either. I believe that in the absence of any real proof for the existence of anyone's particular idea of the nature of God, that it is wise to maintain a skeptical distancing of theories of God from matters of public discourse; otherwise Jefferson's fear of a theocratic tyranny, with which he had a great deal of personal experience, and which he spent much of his life fighting against, will inevitably be repeated in the country he most loved, with all the attendant repression and suffering with which he was so familiar.

So secular humanism, which to me means an acceptance by man of his responsibility to himself to solve his own problems, is not dishonorable at all. Indeed, to me, it is the mark of an intellectually honest and responsible man.

An intellectually honest liberal is someone who is willing to give up personal beliefs, no matter how painful that may be. When evidence points to a different theory, this does not mean he is being subject to some demonic influence, he is merely being honest with himself. So, in essence, it could be said that secular humanism is belief in something because that something is, not because you want it to be as is most frequently the case with religion. So I proudly call myself a secular humanist liberal.

The demonization of liberalism, for whatever reason, means that the values of compassion, egalitarianism, respect for education and experience that characterize liberalism are being lost. With that loss comes a desire to experiment with ideas that have been tried before, which have failed before, and which will inevitably cause America to stumble and lose the essential values that made it the successful nation that it is. And make no mistake -- when compassion is derided as "bleeding-heart liberalism" and egalitarianism is mistaken for an argument for economic, racial and ethnic quotas, and institutions of higher learning are dismissed as "bastions of liberalism," and respect for the differences of others is derided as "political correctness," America is in trouble. It is headed for the same conditions that exist in the nations where such selfishness and ignorance predominate and have for centuries -- the third world nations. Every day, as I look out on the America of my nativity, I can't but help be struck how it is increasingly coming to resemble the third world nations I have visited and in which I have lived.

Freedom or Orderliness, You Choose

Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest theoreticians of liberal democracy of all time, understood the dilemma well. He clearly saw what finally became obvious to me when I moved away from America and all its rhetoric about freedom and liberty, and experienced first hand a culture that at one and the same time, had both freedom and tyrany.

Jefferson clearly understood that you can have a nice, neat, tidy, orderly society, or you can have a free society. But it is very difficult to have a society that is both orderly and free. In a letter to James Madison, he wrote, "A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both and deserves neither."

Jefferson had clearly made his choice. It is the only choice a lover of freedom and liberty can make. But what choice is made by the theoreticians of the "new" conservatism?

"Law and order," cry the conservative theorists.

Indeed, we have a serious problem with law and order in the United States with the widespread use of narcotics, cocaine and its derivatives, methamphetamines and "designer" drugs, and Cannabis sativa and its extracts. The cost to American society is enormous. Just fighting the "drug war" costs us tens of billions of dollars each year. The crime that addicts commit costs conservatively more than a hundred billion. Each year, the toll gets worse, each year the enforcement measures become more and more stringent. The fastest growing industry in America is prison construction. Already, we incarcerate a larger percentage of our population than any other nation in the world, one person in thirty. Yet has that made us feel more secure?

Yet with each passing year, we surrender more of our freedom of movement, our right to be secure in our possessions, and more and more of our personal privacy. Has this led us to a more secure society? A lower crime rate? No.

The problem, as Jefferson so accurately predicted, doesn't get better, it gets worse.

The conservative solution of surrendering freedom to secure order has clearly not worked. It is because, as Jefferson understood so well, people don't obey the law because they fear it so much as because they respect it. And when they cease to respect it, law and order breaks down. And what causes that respect to break down?

Repression.

Passing laws because its easier than doing the heavy lifting of dealing with a problem, is repression. It doesn't work, and it has led, time and time again, to a disrespect for the legal system that was created to deal with problems that didn't get solved.

So increasingly repressive laws won't solve a law and order problem. It will only make it worse. It encourages a disrespect both for the law and for the agents of the law. It fosters radicalism in politics and unrest among the disadvantaged, the disenchanted and the disregarded.

How, then, do you solve a law and order problem?

You've gotta do the heavy lifting.

It is my opinion that there is only one solution that is compatible with Jeffersonian democratic ideals that has any hope of succeeding. That is a strong committment to a sound educational policy, based on truth and reason, not on political propaganda or religious dogma. There has to be a firm commitment to egalitarian values, to respect for and help for the disadvantaged, not just a meanspirited social Darwinism, leaving the disadvantaged to their own devices.

When an individual has a solid, sound education, understands himself and his place in the world, he has a much-improved self concept. If a person sees himself as being a law-abiding person, because it is good for himself as well as society, he conducts himself accordingly. When he is presented with opportunities to lift himself out of poverty, and can see a way out, he will take it.

Now, isn't that a better approach (not to mention cheaper), than simply locking up an ever-increasing proportion of the population?

The problem is that we don't have an educational system in this country worthy of the name. And developing opporunities for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed requires sacrifices on the part of the advantaged. It means they have to give of their means and their power. Conservatives are not much inclined to do that. They call it "social engineering." Of course other nations long ago came to understand the power and utility of "social engineering," but conservatives won't look beyond the American borders. They naively think that social engineering doesn't work (while actually proposing to engage in it themselves - while not calling it that). The only alternative is to "lock 'em up."

Education Isn't Just Dying In America, its Been Dead For A Century

Consider the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. There are many high-school students today who would be unable to even read the transcripts of those debates, much less understand their meaning.

Yet in Lincoln's day, the debates drew large crowds of farmers and tradespeople who sat in rapt attention for hours on end, listening to the most technical arguments in obscure political theorizing. How can it be that such people as constituted these crowds, understood political science to such a degree?

They were the 19th century equivalent of what today we would call "trailer trash." These were often among the poorest and least educated in society. They were the herders and the plowmen, the blacksmiths and the wheelwrights, people with only a few years of formal education. Very few had the equivalent of a modern high-school education; most had not even completed primary school.

Yet when you read the letters written to home by Civil War soldiers, you cannot help but be struck by the eloquence and understanding of these men. They knew how to write, and more importantly, they knew how to think. A century and a half later, their letters still move us with their deep understanding of the moral dilemmas they faced, and their subtly eloquent descriptions of their suffering and pain. They often made reference to the literary and philosophical figures of classical Greece and Rome. These men, in spite of their humble origins, were truly educated.

Would that after three times as much formal schooling as most of these men had, our modern high school students were even half so literate. This of course, begs the question: Why were these men literate, when modern high school kids are not? Why have we allowed our educational system to deteriorate to such an appalling degree?

It is my opinion that the reason education in America has floundered to such a degree is that a man who understands his rights, who can think critically and analytically, and who can challenge what he is taught is a politically dangerous individual.

Such a person understands oppression. He knows the meaning of tyranny. He can figure out for himself when he is being cheated, robbed, and systematically denied his rights and the material wealth he himself has created. In other words, I believe that those who have the gold don't like people questioning who makes the rules, nor do they like questioning of the rules that are made.

It is not surprising to me at all that the collapse of American education began with the rise of the industrial elite of the Robber Baron Era at the end of the Civil War.

What has been called the "factory model" of education was adopted to turn out large numbers of barely literate people who would work in a servile condition in the appalling conditions of the new factories, and who were ignorant enough not to question the justice of working long hours in dangerous and unhealthy conditions for low pay, but educated just enough to do the simple, monotonous tasks that were needed to be done.

Of course, this was sold to the American people as a means of "spreading the benefits of public education." The real intention of the new public school system was of course a means of turning out servile workers for the benefit of the rich industrialists who controlled the state legislatures and by extension, the public school system. America has paid a very dear price indeed for the result -- among industrial nations of the world, we have gradually become the least educated, the most politically, economically and philosophically naive, and without a doubt the most provincial and most poorly informed.

And now the religious right have begun to co-opt public education in this country and turn it to their purpose. The result is a nation of school boards afraid to teach honest science as it is, afraid to teach the basics of republican (small 'r') democracy and the principles of civics that underlie it, afraid to teach the classics of literature and philosophy (both European and oriental) in a way that instills critical thinking skills for fear that they may question the values (and in all too many cases the bigotry) their parents embrace. They are scared to give school kids a basic understanding of their own reproductive tracts so they don't fall prey to the myths of their peers, and the result is a teenage pregnancy rate several times that of most European nations which don't fear sex education. Is it any wonder that a century of slow degradation of the public education system, finished off by a hysterical assault by the religious right, is producing a nation of philosophical illiterates and intellectual pygmies? And does anyone believe that democracy, which requires an educated, thinking electorate, can long survive in such an environment?

The antidote to all of this is the enforcement of academic rigor (demanding accurate and pertinent academic performance of students), and the instilling of critical thinking habits starting in the earliest grades. The insistence on the practice of critical thinking skills throughout the public education process would do wonders for America, economically, socially and culturally. Best of all, people who have learned to think critically as a matter of habit (which will happen if it is a skill practiced throughout the public education process) develop a love of learning and new ideas. The reason is that they can pick them apart and come up with novel interpretations. America would experience a cultural and economic flowering that would be the envy of the world.

Best of all, this reform can be accomplished with relatively little investment. It is a change in teaching style and method, rather than requiring new technology or facilities.

Yet it will never happen. Why? Because, as the late Dr. Carl Sagan observed in an interview on National Public Radio back in 1996, large numbers of people who can think critically will be seriously threatening to the power structure. The theofascists who are gradually taking control of important institutions in this country would feel undermined and at risk. So they'll oppose every effort to institute this basic and simple reform.

The Consequences of Ignorance

It is my contention that the price we are paying for this appalling tolerance of ignorance is far higher than many Americans realize. There are the obvious problems -- lack of competitiveness in international markets, increasingly widespread poverty even in the midst of a booming economy, and the inability of the impoverished to rise above it. Already, one child in three in the U.S. is growing up in poverty, and when they're all grown up, a third of our population will live in poverty - a rate similar to Brazil. Is this the kind of nation we want?

But what is most frightening of all is a nearly total unawareness that the ignorance itself even exists, and the appallingly high price that is being paid for it.

That unawareness has manifested itself in the fact that political conservatism and religious fundamentalism are both resurgent. I have argued in these essays that both are manifestations of ignorance. Interested readers can go to those links for my arguments; I will not argue them here. What I will argue here, however, is that both have dire consequences for the future of America.

More enlightened societies are appalled by the levels of repression and intolerance that exist in the United States as a result of our propensity for right wing governments and religions. This repression and intolerance is something most Americans are only dimly aware of if they are aware of it at all.

European societies have little use for the right-wing ideologies that are so popular in the United States. They have had plenty of experience with unrestrained right-wing governments and have become innoculated against the fundamental errors in reasoning that drive right-wing ideologies. Similarly, after centuries of religious oppression by Roman Catholicism and other institutionalized religions, Europeans have generally become deeply skeptical of religious ideology and conservative politics.

The result is that in almost every measure, most Western Europeans enjoy a higher standard of living, more personal freedom, less repression and a higher quality of life than do Americans. Their economies enjoy a higher growth in productivity, and that fruits of those gains in productivity are more equitably distributed. This is why 200,000 Americans every year choose to move to Europe, while traffic in the opposite direction is only a tiny fraction of that level. American English is now commonly heard on the streets of most large European cities. When was the last time you heard Swedish or Polish being spoken by recent immigrants here? It is a fact that now Europe, no longer America, is the first destination of choice for Africans and Asians fleeing poverty and repression and seeking to better their lives.

Yet when a nation doesn't know it has a problem, it is hard to build consensus for a change.

That fact is probably the most grave problem America faces. Americans believe all the propaganda they've heard since World War II that America is by far the best place in the world in which to live. Most Americans still believe it. In their provincial ignorance, they haven't a clue at how far and how completely they've been left behind. As a place to live, the United Nations doesn't even rank the U.S. in the top ten anymore.

A Christian Nation? A Conservative Revolution?

It is a cherished myth of religious conservatives that this country is a Christian nation, and was founded on Christian principles. This myth has become propaganda in recent years, mostly because of religious fundamentalists who use it for justifying their attempts to abolish the "wall of separation" of church and state which was Thomas Jefferson's crowning achievement, in their drive to overturn representative democracy and establish a theocracy in America.

The effort to establish an intolerant theocracy is gaining ground. Those promoting this effort see little room in this country for anyone unlike themselves. So if you're not a fundamentalist, Bible believing Christian, where does this leave you? Believe me, these people don't intend to make life comfortable for you. In spite of the fascistic beliefs of these people, they have a good deal of influence and credibility, and are gaining ground all the time. Their method is to quietly gain control of the institutions of power in this country, starting with school boards and library boards, and going on from there to legislatures and governorships, even Congress. Yet few people seem to be alarmed by this trend.

Why? Because these proposals are made by supposedly religious men, and religious men are supposed to be doing good. No one stops to consider whether or not such proposals would actually do good or harm, partly because of the assumption that good, religious men mean no harm. Partly because few people ever stop to analyze what it is that these people actually are proposing.

I am gravely concerned that as an awareness of American and world history dims, and liberal human values become increasingly controversial, if not forgotten, that the forces of ignorance, conservative reaction and religious superstition continue to gain increasing influence in American politics. The consequences are grave indeed.

The results have become obvious: A Fremont, California teacher finds her credentials on the line for teaching her students the value of honesty and integrity. Why? The example she used happens to have been a lesbian. The increasingly intolerant religious conservatives felt that it was inappropriate to do so, because they simply want to teach not only their children but yours as well, that lesbians by definition must not be held up as examples of honesty and integrity! Maybe it is my cowboy logic that's flawed here, but it seems to me that it would be more prudent to question the qualifications of such religious conservatives to be proper parents if they wish to hide the truth from their children, rather than the qualifications of a teacher to teach basic fundamental human values.

Other examples include the fact that religious conservatives stubbornly refuse to allow gays and lesbians the same civil rights they consider their constitutional right. They claim, for example, that it isn't right to set up gays and lesbians as a minority worthy of protection, because they are a minority based solely on behavior. Yet the irony is that religionists themselves are protected minorities, and always have been since the founding of the republic, and yet they are also indistinguishable from anyone else except by their behavior alone. The obvious failure of the logic here is lost on the religious conservative, because no critical thinking is being done. Only mindless following. Yet another symptom of the educational collapse, it's failure to teach critical thinking skills, and the consequences that inevitably follow.

The Conservative Economic Myth

If, as conservatives believe, rising productivity leads to rising personal incomes, why is personal income in America only barely keeping up, and occasionally even dropping, while productivity is rising at the fastest rate in American history?

If deregulation is the answer, why is white-collar crime the fastest spreading (and least prosecuted) form of crime in America, and costing America an increasing large portion of its gross national product?

If "trickle-down" works, why did the gap between rich and poor increase faster during the "trickle-down" era of Ronald Reagan than at any other time in American history (with the sole exception of the Great Depression)? Why did the problem of homelessness become visible (indeed, unavoidable) for the first time since the Great Depression? Why, in the midst of the greatest and longest economic expansion in American history, is the common man not seeing a significant increase in his standard of living?

The reasons why has been delineated elsewhere, but the results of their implementation are clear. Yet the fact that few seem to understand these dreadful results, or even consider them a problem, speaks volumes about how uncaring and uncompassionate conservative ideology has made American society. As we shall see, this will ultimately have grave consequences for this society. The obviousness of the self-interestedness of conservative economic policies is so obvious that George W. Bush had to distance himself from it by using the catch-phrase, "compassionate conservatism," which is oxymoronic to anyone who really looks at it.

In my view this is because of the conservative propensity to scapegoat its failures on whatever unpopular group is handy. Throughout the 20th century, it was the communists, now that the cold war is over, the scapegoats are homosexuals, liberals, feminists and secular humanists. Yet none of these scapegoats are the real culprits; the culprits are ourselves for failing to deal directly and with determination, with the problems that face us. We have refused to accept our failures, modify our policies to address the problems, and move on. But as we continue to decline spiritually, we are beseeched with ever more frequent cries to return to "that old-time religion" with the assumption that somehow it will solve the problems we now face when it never did in the past. So we tolerate the spread of childhood poverty, now worse than in any other industrialized nation, and deal with homelessness by simply making it illegal, and ignore the decreasing effectiveness of our public schools.

Chile is an interesting case study in what will happen in America if conservative economic principles are ever fully implemented.

After the CIA-sponsored military coup there in 1973, the new strongman, Augusto Pinochet rewarded his CIA benefactors by bringing in "Chicago School" economist Milton Friedman. Friedman and his cronies were given the mandate to repair the economy and were given carte-blanche to alter the economy any way they saw fit, and alter it they did. They proceeded with privitization with a vengance, dismantling what few successful social programs the government had in place, including privatizing social security.

After a quarter-century of experience with the economic nostrums of Milton Friedman and company (whom the Chilean people derisively refer to as "The Chicago Boys"), virtually every aspect of the economy, including even social security pensions have been privatized. The free market runs rampant, with little effective regulation.

The results aren't very pretty; social unrest is rapidly increasing amidst an economy that expands by 7 percent a year, while the average Chilean is 18 percent poorer than he was during the Allende years, a quarter century ago; crime and drug abuse are becoming serious problems in neighborhoods where crime was once never a problem, pollution and poverty are the steadily increasing lot of most Chileans. Chile is now tied with Kenya and Zimbabwe for the seventh most unequally distributed wealth in the world. While there are now McDonalds franchises, Air Nikes being sold in malls, and cellular phones are found in many luxury cars, the aire of prosperity all this creates is illusory. Chileans work harder than they ever have, and have less to show for it. Yet they are forced to make a pretend show of prosperity to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation that their increasing impoverishment imposes on them.

If this is the economic "revolution" the Republicans promise, I want no part of it.

The CIA: A Moral Cancer Now Spreading In America

I have been watching the behavior of the Central Intelligence Agency in the world outside America since Victor Marchetti and John Marks published their groundbreaking book, "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence" nearly a quarter-century ago.

I had great hopes that this monster, unleashed on the world by conservative anti-Communists a half-century ago, would be reined in after the revelations about its abuses by the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal. But it was not to be.

A decade later, my hopes were raised again, when the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan administration brought CIA abuses to the public attention once again. And once again, I was disappointed.

Each time the abuses of foreign intervention, which this country would never allow on its own territory, not only continued unabated and unaccounted for, but were even expanded.

Then, in the beginning of the 1990's with the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, I had hopes again that something would be done. After all, the moral basis for establishing that monster had disappeared. But I was disappointed yet again.

Why has this monster continued to exist, unsupervised and unregulated, taking American foreign policy into its own hands deceiving and subverting the will of its supposed overseers, even the president?

Why has congress turned a blind eye to its misbehavior and continued to hand it a blank check, year after year? And the president has accepted the fact that the information he is getting from the CIA reflects the biases and motives of an agency he can't always control?

Because the CIA is convenient.

The CIA enables the president to get things done behind closed doors and out of sight of a morally demanding public.

It is easier for the president to order the "removal" of a foreign leader or the subversion of a foreign business or government than to handle the problem above-board and on the record.

What is not recognized, however, is the price that is paid. And it is a high price indeed.

When the CIA intervenes in a foreign country, that intervention seldom goes unnoticed for long. The people in that country generally become aware, eventually, that they've been stabbed in the back by the CIA. And that is why Americans traveling in the rest of the world, particularly in the third world, discover to their shock that the United States isn't as respected as they had been led to believe. Feared America is, but respected it is often not. And with good reason.

I could go on and on. There have been many books, detailing thousands of similar incidents from all around the world, from South America to Asia, from Europe to Australia. But they all have one thing in common. They are known by many of the people who were victimized by them to have been a CIA plot. And America is blamed for the results, and quite rightly so. So it is not surprising that America is largely seen abroad as a nation of hypocrites.

Domestically, the CIA routinely spies on American citizens, robbing us of our privacy, our dignity and our sense of security. This, in spite of the fact that its enabling legislation strictly prohibits it from operating within the United States. But Congress turns a blind eye, and on the rare occasions when it is called to task, it simply lies its way out of trouble.

The CIA is being used to subvert voices that support progressivism, transparency and liberal values. The latest victim is the Pacifica Network, a nation-wide chain of radio stations which represented community-oriented progressive voice. But the CIA has managed to wrangle some positions on the board of directors, with the result that programs such as "Democracy Now" which have exposed American abuses of human rights, have been taken off the air, and program policies are now dictated by the Board of Directors rather than local station managers as in the past. The result is the "dumbing down" of the Pacifica schedule, to the extent that it sounds little different than National Public Radio.

The result of all this is that the CIA is a moral loose cannon, working at home and around the world to demolish thoroughly and completely any moral respectability America ever had. It is a government unto itself, accountable to no one, and one with an extreme right-wing agenda. And when Americans travel abroad, and find themselves castigated, they shouldn't wonder why. Their tolerance of a CIA out of control and serving the very interests that run counter to the values America talks so loudly about, is destroying what little respect and credibility America ever had in loudly proclaiming its support for human rights.

But even worse is the fact that the CIA is fast becoming an excuse. It is an example to other intrusive agencies, which use its techniques, hide behind its precedents, use its technology and follow in its footsteps in lying to Congress and evading responsibility. How long can a representative democracy survive in such a moral climate? If an agency of the U.S. government is allowed to behave abroad as documented above, why can't domestic agencies behave in similar ways at home?

Far from reining in the CIA, the FBI and the other agencies of internal and external repression, the U.S. Department of Justice, under Janet Reno, has asked for even more harsh restrictions on personal liberty and freedom in the name of fighting what? Certainly not Communism. The drug war? What? Well, nothing that represents a direct and immediate threat to civil liberty. But the CIA is a convenient precedent.

The military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell speech, is alive and well, and largely controls Federal spending. Nearly 90 percent of the Federal budget is connected in some way with defense spending, corporate welfare for defense contractors, hidden subsidies for companies that support defense spending, etc. When conservatives campaign for an increase in defense spending, even in the absence of an identifiable military opponent.

Of course, to sustain support for such outrageous levels of defense spending, policy makers have had to find some sort of enemy and the drug war has become the war that America fights when it doesn't have any other war to fight. Columbia is paying the price, both the people and the land, and it is all entirely unneccessary.

In the process, America has become a police state. Fully 6.6 million Americans, nearly 3% of the entire population, is in the custody of the criminal justice system, either in prison or on parole, very few of which have been convicted of violent crimes. That is far and away the highest percentage in the world, ahead of the most repressive African dictatorship, and well ahead of South Africa, the most crime-ridden nation on the planet. Why the high rate of incarceration? Because of the flood of drug abuse that is the direct result of the failure of the war on drugs and the inept means being used to fight it.

Conclusions -- And A Few Predictions

Unless trends change and quickly, America is headed for a theofascist dark age. As education, our primary defense against it declines, the religious right, with its agenda of intolerance, hatred, jackbooted meanspiritedness and its belief in the absolute correctness of its thinking, continues to rise. The theofascists, who are largely unchallenged on the right end of the political spectrum, today stand on the brink of unbridled power.

The United States has never experienced a radical right-wing government able to operate with the gloves off. Always in the past, right wing presidents have always faced a liberal congress, a liberal supreme court or both. Because of that, Americans, unlike Europeans, have no idea at all of how dark life can be under a right wing government that operates without constraints. If present trends continue for very long, America will finally come to experience what happens when the religious right wing can do what it wants. My belief is that America is likely to experience the following: [note that this was written in 1997]

It doesn't have to come to this. The good people of this country who understand what is happening to America, could stop it if they would get organized and fight against it. But far too few Americans understand the peril they are in. They could become tightly organized, as is the religious right, and fund efforts to stop the nonsense. But they won't, and since they they won't stop it, eventually it will happen. And Jeffersonian democracy in America will be ended. The great American experiment and the American dream will both become fading memories.

~

Friendly Fascism

After I wrote this essay, I came across a book called, "Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America," by Bertram Gross. It was published in 1980, and has long been out of print, but it has become a classic, in that it made some bold predictions about the direction of American politics and compared what is happening in American politics to the fascism of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

At first glance, the comparison may not be obvious. But when one stops to look past the concentration camps and jackboots of that earlier era, but closely examines how fascism in Europe came to power and how the machinery of its government actually worked, the parallels with present day America become startling.

The outstanding feature of fascism is not the racism, hatred, and violent repression that people normally associate with it. Instead, the most remarkable feature of fascism is an aspect of itself which it tried very hard to hide: the very close alliance and almost indistinguishable difference between government and big business.

Indeed, this is what distinguishes a dictatorship of the left from a dictatorship of the right: the extreme left proposes government ownership of business, while the extreme right basically proposes business control of, if not ownership of government.

As the fascist governments of Europe in the 1930's prepared for war, it was big business that was calling the economic shots. Sure, government was allowed prerogatives in foreign affairs and defense, and control of the apparatus of propaganda, but in nearly all other areas, it was the influence of the ultra-rich that set policy.1 Fascists in America are much more enlightened, and have learned from the experience of the jackbooted fascists of Europe. Rather than engage in such violent, hard nosed repression, the fascists of America are much 'friendlier.' Indeed, they would be deeply incensed at even being called fascist at all, yet they are just as determined to control, and eventually repress, as their European predecessors ever were. And the basic mechanism is just the same: control of government by big business, in the interests of big business. The interests of the common man are not even worthy of consideration, except as he relates to business by being the customer for its products.

Yet the results are largely the same: workers have no rights in the workplace, consumers have no recourse against the actions their employers or of big business and government, wages and other forms of renumeration are kept as low as possible, and workers rights to organize are repressed. The net result is that wealth and the influence it brings flows from the middle class and working class where it is produced to the upper classes where it is reserved for the exclusive use of the privileged. All of this is made possible by the continued suppression of education, to prevent the working and middle classes from realizing how they are being cheated, and by a sophisticated propaganda machine, operated through corporate-owned media, that works to convince the working and middle classes that all this is good for them.

In his book, Gross made some comparisons2 of classic fascism and how he believed the new, friendly fascism would be implemented in America. The predictions were remarkably prescient. Here they are, with my take on the results:

Fascism: the old, the 'friendly,' and the American forms

Classic Fascism: Gross' Predictions for the U.S.: How it has actually worked out:
Drives by the laggard capitalist nations of Europe to build new empires at the expense of leading capitalist powers. Drive to maintain unity of the free world capitalist empire, and contain the spread of communism, or else retreat to "Fortress America" Unity of the free world capitalist empire expanded, at the expense of the communist world, often without the consent of the people involved. The collapse was portrayed in the corporate media as being unanimously desired by the subject peoples, when the reality was often the opposite.
A tight government-big business oligarchy with charismatic dictator or figurehead, and expansionist, scapegoating, and nationalistic ideologies. An integrated big-business-government power structure with new technocratic ideologies and more advanced arts of ruling and fooling the public. Through the use of large scale campaign funding and outright bribes, members of the ruling oligarchy move back and forth at will between business and government; this is portrayed in the corporate owned media as 'enlightened regulation' of business. Political Action Committees ensure that both political parties function essentially the same way -- for the interests of big business, and ensure that the path between big business and government is a smooth one.
Liquidation or minimization of multi-party conflict and open subversion, with little use of democratic machinery and human rights. Subtle subversion, through manipulative use and control of democratic machinery, political parties, and human rights. By subsuming control of both political parties through the campaign financing process, the oligarchy has ensured that little useful difference exists between the two parties, and state laws are manipulated to ensure that third parties have little chance at a fair shot at power. Human rights are abolished, usually through the initiative process, by slick propaganda campaigns, or by legislative repeal or modification of existing rights laws to make them ineffective and unenforcable. To wit: Proposition 209 and 218 in California in 1996, "reform" of Workman's Compensation currently pending in many state legislatures, etc.
Negative sanctions through ruthless, widespread and high-cost terror; direct action against selected scapegoats. Direct terror applied through low level violence and professionalized, low-cost escalation, with indirect terror, through ethnic conflicts, multiple scapegoats, and organized disorder. Property and privacy rights have effectively been gutted to "fight the drug war" and the increasing use of police SWAT teams to make routine arrests sends a clear signal: don't mess with us. Inner cities, working class neighborhoods, and people without the means to fight police abuse in the courts are increasingly the targets. Police brutality is glamorized in the popular media; no one is outraged by it unless the abuses are extreme enough they can't be ignored. The FBI and Justice Department are seeking to end the right to use digitally scrambled telephone calls and email, again to "fight the drug war."
Ceaseless propaganda, backed up by spies and informers, to consolidate the elite support and mobilize masses. Informational offensives backed by high-technology monitoring, to manage minds of elites and mobilize masses. Oligarchic control of the media has been achieved by simply buying it up; you'll never see ABC Television do an expose of Disney's use of child labor, nor will you see NBC Television do an expose of pollution illnesses caused by a General Electric factory. Control has its privileges. The result is that some very important stories never get covered by the media, and the voting public are totally uninformed about them.
Widespread benefits through more jobs, stabilized prices, domestic spoils, foreign booty, and upward mobility for the faithful. Rationed rewards of power and money for the elites, extended professionalism, accelerated consumerism for some, and social services conditional on the recipients' good behavior. Those who are loyal to "the system" find themselves more likely to be advanced within companies; good behavior is rewarded through promotions and salary increases. CEO's who are loyal to the system are rewarded through fabulous salaries, stock options and "golden parachutes." Meanwhile, wages of workers are stagnant at best and declining at worst, and social "safety nets" are being quickly dismantled, so welfare for the poor can be replaced by welfare for the corporations. Workers are assuaged with pie-in-the-sky "trickle-down" promises, cheap consumer goods and subsidized prices and assurances that if one loses his job another one is easily available (even if it is only minimum wage).
Anxiety relief through participatory spectacles, mass action and genuine bloodletting. More varied relief through sex, drugs, madness and cults, as well as alcoholism, gambling, sports, and ultraviolent television drama. Increased availablility of violent entertainment on television, increased availability of gambling through the Indian Gaming Act, widespread popularity of extremist "fundamentalist Christian" cults.
Internal viability based on sustained, frantic, and eventually self destructive expansion. Internal viability based on careful expansion, system strengthening reforms, multi-level co-optation, and mass apathy. Internal viability based on careful expansion, reforms only when needed to shore up a weakened power structure, multi-level co-optation of political reformers and dissidents, forcibly when neccessary.

Yes, it is quite apparent that fascism has come to America. For a long time, I didn't want to call it that. I figured that the word was a bit extreme to use for what has happened to my native land. But I am increasingly convinced that, when compared to the vision for the country held by the founding fathers, fascism is the only word that can be used to describe the state of affairs in which America finds itself.

I believe that it is not too late to rescue the situation. I believe that if enough Americans demanded change, were willing to vote for third parties, to insist on the right to organize the workplace, to insist that employers be held responsible for working conditions, to insist that business and government both be held fully accountable for their actions, that this situation could be changed.

But the hypnotic drumbeat of friendly fascist propaganda goes on. Americans are lulled by its rythm. And except for the occasional yawn, America sleeps.

The Demon-Haunted World

As an American, I am increasingly troubled that this nation is becoming increasingly preoccupied by partisan politics and demagogic scapegoating, evading moral responsibility, all the while dodging the hard work and responsibility it takes to genuinely solve problems.

Instead, we are increasingly seeking comfort in religious superstition and the easy, pat answers of the political right, and seeking to displace blame from ourselves and place it on convenient scapegoats.

And then we are surprised as our problems mount and our future becomes increasingly bleak.

Carl Sagan, the noted astrophysicist, wrote in his last book, words that seem to sum up for me very well the fate of an America that puts religious superstition ahead of science and reason and easy conservative fascist ideology ahead of the hard work of introspection, and prefers orderliness to freedom itself. He wrote passionately, in what proved to be his last book, of the human tendency to look to emotion rather than justice and superstition rather than reason.

"The candle flame gutters," he wrote. "Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir."


For those wishing to know more and interested in helping deal with this crisis, here are some resources:

Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from Amazon.com by pursuing the links here):
The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark is Carl Sagan's last book, and the best analysis I have seen of this problem.

To The Ends Of The Earth is Robert Kaplan's excellent analysis of how the declining esteem in which civility and reason are held, is threatening civilization all over the world.

Friendly Fascism: The New Face Of Power In America by Bertram Gross is a classic in political philosophy. Even though it is a bit dated and ought to be revised, it is still very much worthwhile. His predictions were incredibly prescient. If you can't get it from Amazon, try Powell's.


Here are some organizations which are dedicated to building cultural value systems that are workable but which are not reliant on superstition or mysticism:

The American Ethical Union

The Humanist Society of Friends

American Humanist Association

International Humanist and Ethical Union

The Secular Web

World Union of Deists


Footnotes

1Gross, Bertram, "Friendly Fascism" (ISBN 0-89608-149-4), pp. 11-32.

2Gross, Ibid., p. 170




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