By Daniel Johnson
I originally published 25 years ago in the Winter 1984 edition of the now defunct Canadian magazine Goodwin’s. I reprint it now only because it is still relevant today.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - American society in the mid-1980s is increasingly conservative, jingoistic and paranoid about its national defence capability. Many of its institutions have been infiltrated by the New Right and its economy is in decline. Some argue it is on the inevitable road to totalitarianism.
If we compare the United States of today with the Germany of the 1930s, the sounding of such an alarm might be justified, although arguments based on analogies are always inexact. Still, as philosopher Lewis Mumford has suggested, today’s American culture is characterized by the same desensitized and dehumanized population that was cultivated by the Nazis.
“Our time has produced many…heroes willing to do at a safe distance with napalm or atom bombs, by a mere press of the release button, what the exterminators at Belsen and Auschwitz did by old-fashioned handcraft methods,” wrote Mumford in his 1970 book The Pentagon of Power. “There are countless Eichmann’s in administrative offices, in business corporations, in laboratories, in the armed forces: orderly, obedient people, ready to carry out any officially sanctioned fantasy, however dehumanized or debased.”
In the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments to find out how obedient average Americans would be when asked to hurt others by giving them electric shocks against their will. The shocks, which were never actually administered, went up to “lethal” level on a scale that the subjects could see. A majority of subjects continued to shock the “victims,” as ordered to, even when they cried out that the pain was too great.
“If in this study,” concluded Milgram, “an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a 50-year-old man and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of its subjects.” [2009 note: While what was learned from the experiment was culturally invaluable, such experiments could not be undertaken today. Psychologists have since decided that they would be unethical.]
Adolph Hitler united Germany against the outside world by using the inequity of the Versailles Treaty as a partial rationalization. Ronald Reagan is using the notion of an outside threat from the Soviet Union—the “evil empire”. In Hitler’s case, an acquiescent and fundamentally anti-democratic population developed. In Reagan’s, internal freedoms are being allowed to erode under the guise of national unity and security. And some Americans argue that these changes are part of the right of a nation to protect itself.
Margaret Thatcher’s Britain furnishes another modern comparison. In 1982, the economically and psychologically depressed British were given a tremendous boost when Thatcher declared war on Argentina. In hindsight, the declaration was ludicrous and tragic, but it unified the citizens against an outside scapegoat and made nearly everyone forget or ignore the problems at home. What will be the psychological needs of Americans in 1990, as the centre of world economic power shifts to nations like Japan or even China? How will they react to a plummeting standard of living?
Michael Harrington, co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, said in a recent New York Times Magazine interview that he was convinced “that the recovery is temporary, an interlude between two crises.” He added, “if I am right, and there is a renewal of economic crisis—let us say more inflation and unemployment—in the 1985-86 period, a lot of our ideas could catch fire.”
[2009 note: I don’t think it would have been possible for his ideas to catch fire then, as they certainly could not today. In the mid-1950s Chief Justice Earl Warren suggested that the U.S. Bill of Rights, if presented then, could not have passed. On this Ferdinand Lundberg remarked in 1968 that “it is doubtful that more than a small minority of Americans favor it. For Americans, of all Western peoples, are most committed in the grass-roots mass to the general denial of civil liberties to dissenters, outsiders and deviators. No doubt owing to the general insecurity of their social position, most Americans are rigidly and narrowly conformist, quick to smell out heresies… Whereas in other countries the secret police are invariably unpopular, in the United States the FBI and CIA have generally had the standing of folk heroes—mute testimony to the superior effectiveness of American propaganda methods and to the trend of popular feelings.”]
Harrington assumes that the American people are essentially democratic, and that American cultural problems can be solved in-country, so to speak. But as sociologist Alphonso Pinkney of New York’s Hunter College wrote in his 1972 book The American Way of Violence, “There are so many contradictions and inconsistencies in American life that frustration is a constant state of affairs for large segments of the population. Such cultural ideals as monetary success, freedom and democracy are mere myths which lose meaning in the face of widespread poverty and oppression. Violence frequently results from the frustration which individuals feel when they fail to satisfy legitimate aspirations. The society is generally an inhumane one.”
The average American’s response to frustrated aspirations is either violence or the condoning of violence. Historian Thomas Goldstein of New York’s City College said in a recent letter to the New York Times, “modern terrorism (not unfamiliar to this country) is the modern individual’s rejection, under desperate provocation, of psychically intolerable infringements of his rights.”
That ethic is rampant in the U. S. today. What’s worse “a strong fear of Communism is added to their other anxieties, justifying their demands for a strong central government, even a fascist dictatorship,” says Pinkney.
Of course none of this is new or unexpected. Historian Erich Kahler, in his 1964 book The Meaning of History said, “there is no cataclysmic breakthrough in history which has not for a long time grown underground in very well known, discernible stages.” He adds, “even Nazism, unprecedented as its mechanized atrocities are, can be traced back to centuries of an unfortunate German history.”
Similarly, America and the Soviet Union today do not exist in isolation from each other or from their pasts. What happens in each country and between countries is, if we do not act to change the course of history, already predetermined.
Author James Michener put it pessimistically in a 1982 Playboy interview: “It happened in Germany. It happened in Spain. It happened in China. It happened in Japan. Why should we think that we are somehow marvellously exempt from what’s happened in 15 South American countries? Why are we, north of the Rio Grande, exempt from the great movements of history. We’re not at all. We could be next.”