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Willful Ignorance and the Threat to Democracy

Mass incarceration. Ninety gun deaths a day. Narcoterrorism bleeding across our borders. Mushrooming opiate addiction. Distrust of government and law enforcement. Xenophobia. Thinly veiled racism. Fear mongering. Colossal wealth inequality. Hundreds of species going extinct every day. Terrorism.

Is there a common thread here? 

No doubt cataclysmic, tectonic political and global changes are shaking up our complacent world views. Partisan broadcast media have polarized our population, and, many believe, have resulted in low-information voters and increasing alienation from comity and compromise. 

Or perhaps the media simply reflect the fear, dissatisfaction and helplessness that people suffer from as forces beyond their control threaten their economic and existential security, reinforcing their search for certainty and a hero on a white horse.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama made the very telling point that when the Soviets orbited Sputnik, we didn’t ignore that fact. We could see it in the night sky, hear its little beeps as it sped across the horizon. 

We stepped up to the plate and put men on the moon before the decade was out. However, now half of our political spectrum doesn’t believe climate change is a looming national security threat and a planetary, cancer-like menace of our own devising.

Have we been crying wolf for too long? Do people, bombarded by years of conflicting scientific news—coffee is good for you, coffee causes cancer—just want to retreat under the covers and hope someone else will take care of it all?

That fear and yearning for rescue from somewhere, by anyone, can lead us to an American variant of fascism. When cartoon superheroes save the world on our movie screens and video games, when political leaders cut through the convoluted complexities of life and offer simple, fourth-grade level answers unfettered by facts, we risk becoming little cogs in a great machine, finding peace in “strength,” salvation in surrender.

Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1935, as Hitler rose to power, promising a corrective to Germany’s humiliating defeat in WWI and amid an economy that bludgeoned ordinary people with inflation, food shortages and onerous war reparations payments. Hitler blamed the Jews for Germans’ problems, and the country lapped it up. 

Lewis created a charismatic, politically ambitious senator who promised to make America great again. When he is elected president, “Buzz” Windrip puts the country under martial law and creates a paramilitary force called the “Minute Men” who terrorize citizens and put dissenters in concentration camps. Windrip reduces women’s and minority rights, eliminates the individual states and instills an economy run by and for corporations.

After Windrip is deposed in a right-wing coup, the US declares war on Mexico to encourage patriotism and give the oppressed people a convenient scapegoat. 

When NBC wanted to turn Lewis’ book into a TV series, executives thought the subject was too esoteric and complicated for the audience and turned the American fascists into extraterrestrials. That series was the popular cult miniseries, “V.”

Can it happen here? The reactionary members of the US Supreme Court are chipping away at hard-won democratic victories, gutting the Voting Rights Act, putting an incompetent oil and coal industry team in the White House in 2000 and now preparing to destroy the viability of unions in their decisions this June.

Who will be our new leader? A boastful bully on a white horse, a competent woman beholden to Wall Street or a democratic socialist who may never get a bill through the Republican Congress?

What interesting times we live in....but don’t forget to vote while we still can.

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