Three 20th century voices inform our understanding of modern American society

 

Three important, insightful voices from the last century may help us understand the social and political state of today’s America.

In his frighteningly prescient Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

In the spring I cited the rise of Donald Trump as the prime exemplar of the mainstreaming of Gross’s 1982 scenario. This dystopian reality is now before us, front and center, as Trump goes about the task of forming his new administration.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs — the brilliantly iconoclastic observer of urban and contemporary life — expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age” marked by a sharp decline in core societal institutions and values. Here were the key markers behind her thesis:

  • Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting family and community welfare;
  • Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing instead of a process for learning;
  • Science — Denigration of hard science, along with the elevation of economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
  • Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
  • Ethics — Breakdown of ethics in learned professions.

Dark Age Ahead did not receive rave reviews upon its publication. As I recall, it was greeted with a sort of polite acknowledgement of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her reputation and overall body of work. I felt the same way, too. But it turns out that Jacobs was merely a decade ahead of her time. Her analysis is now spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.

For reasons I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt also will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America. As I wrote in 2014:

…Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Arendt’s work was deeply informed by European events during first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.

During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of “men and women, in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt) to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. This is a time for us to stand for something and be counted.

4 responses

  1. “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight!” So where do we go from here?

    Shared with the above quote. Always troubling when you cite books as my kindle “runneth over” and my book shelves remained stuffed. But your blog hit closer to home when I really do want to know where to go from here. It appears our darker sides have taken hold and the world be be in even more chaos.

  2. Thank you so much, again, for being one of the great bibliotherapists for the healing of the world. Your last paragraph says it—copied, framed, first thing to see in the morning. The opposite of empathy is apathy, as the opposite of inclusive, humane, beneficent progress is regressive, reactionary, authoritarian Republicanism—essentially, the opposite of good is evil.

    To speak to your core issues and mine, and something we can all do everyday—don’t be a bystander when someone is a victim of abusive behavior, violent psychological harassment, mobbing, or bullying in the workplace.

    Every attorney in the United States at least ought to be able to ensure bullied workers that they won’t be an apathetic bystander. As officers of the Peoples’ fairness/justice system, isn’t on them to make “intentional infliction of stress” and “creation of a hostile work environment” practical, useful, and functional causes of action, rather than the economically and technically elitist barriers to common justice that they are now?

    It doesn’t take legislation or an act of congress for the establishment of specialized drug or homeless or disability related tribunals in our local communities and states. Why not part-time, as-needed, specialized courts to hear issues of workplace health-damaging aggressive and hostile rudeness, incivility and abusive behavior, and toxic workplace narcissistic and sociopsychopathic bullying and mobbing?

    How about openly and honestly trying to help people in the workplace rather than just more apathetic bystanderism.

    Bystanderism can be defined as the phenomenon that an individual is less likely to help in an emergency situation when passive bystanders are present.

    • Charles, I agree 100 percent that getting the legal profession to be more responsive to the kinds of abuse that currently escape accountability is an important objective. It’s why I’m working with a group of legal academics, attorneys, and judges to form a non-profit educational group devoted to Therapeutic Jurisprudence, the school of legal thought and practice committed to creating more psychologically healthy outcomes in legal matters.

  3. Every attorney in the United States at least ought to be able to ensure bullied workers that they won’t be an apathetic bystander. As officers of the Peoples’ fairness/justice system, isn’t it on them, isn’t it incumbent on them, as an honorable duty and responsibility, to make “intentional infliction of stress” and “creation of a hostile work environment” practical, useful, and functional causes of action, rather than the economically and technically elitist barriers to common justice that they are now?

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