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.