Throughout history, there has been an ongoing struggle between love and hate, assimilation and genocide, rationality and paranoia. Every century has experienced the clash between civilized society and barbarism with no guarantee that the former would prevail.
During last year’s political campaign, we heard the slogan, “love trumps hate,” but, more often than not, it hasn’t. History is rampant with examples of how hate and all its related emotions (racism, extreme nationalism, sectarianism and paranoia) have triumphed. The Crusades are but one example of a movement that promised its followers better times. In that case, the promise was absolution from sin and eternal glory to those who slaughtered Muslims.
In the West, we have always thought of ourselves as superior since we are the descendants of the enlightenment philosophers who had advocated progress through science, reason and trade. Yet, we, too, have been guilty of the brutal trifecta of hate, racism and imperialism. We have witnessed the establishment of totalitarian governments built on nationalistic fervor and fueled with the concomitant sentiment of us vs. them.
When you examine the rise of men like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Benito Mussolini or Muammar Gaddafi, there are common strains clearly evident: 1) Replacement of the truth with an all pervasive narrative that requires the elimination of a free press; 2) scapegoating and/or annihilation of one or more groups; and 3) a patriotic and nationalistic appeal that circumvents any constitutional limitations or appeal to rationality.
In the last few years, the world has seemed to contract rather than expand. Angry populist movements have emerged in several countries, rooted in a strong resentment of intellectuals and foreigners accompanied by angst over perceived economic woes. Inevitably, the result has been a retreat from a global perspective to a more nationalistic and phobic posture.
Britain’s exit from the European Union and the rise of Donald Trump are just the most recent manifestations of what, just a few years ago, would have been considered unimaginable flirtations with fringe movements. How do we explain these developments and, more importantly, where do we go from here?
In Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant new book, “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” he attempts to answer the first part of my question, as he presents a sweeping view of these troubling winds of change and a fascinating genealogy of the social conditions that are at its core.
Mishra sees nothing unusual in the groups like ISIL, but rather sees their shadow in the radicals who emerged in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries who “glorified war, misogyny and pyromania.” He categorizes those movements and today’s unrest as “a response to modernity.” The tumultuous clash of the old and the new provided a breeding ground, according to Mishra, for the emergence of frightening and malevolent figures preaching a gospel of distrust and hate.
In today’s world, we don’t have to search very far to find equally frightening messages. Former Republican New York gubernatorial candidate, Trump campaign official and ally Carl Palladino, when asked what he hoped for in 2017, said he hoped President Obama catches mad cow disease. As to Michelle Obama, he said, “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”
Even worse is influential talk show host Alex Jones. He has made a fortune propagating hate-filled paranoia. He has claimed that there is a New World Order, which is controlled by devil worshipers and pedophiles. He alleges that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax (involving actors and green screens) as was every other tragedy that we have watched on nightly news.
It has been reported that Mr. Jones and President Trump have talked often. The president’s false claim that he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” has been attributed to his reliance on Alex Jones’ Infowars.com.
Truthfulness as well as the ability to ascertain the truth are character traits that we demand of all our presidents. We know that our very survival as a nation could very well depend on it. That is why I found it particularly alarming when President Trump asserted that he had achieved the greatest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan. It was only at a press conference when a reporter asked a question, which asserted that every president since Reagan had garnered more Electoral College votes than President Trump, that he backed off his unbelievable claim. His response, “Well that’s what someone told me.”
During the campaign, President Trump had alleged that Hillary Clinton was the devil, not far from Mr. Jones’ ridiculous claim that she was a devil worshipper. Jones has promoted so many dangerous and false stories that it’s inconceivable to me that anyone would give him any credence, yet millions do. He has suggested that the American government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing, for example. Last month, Jones claimed that former First Lady Michelle Obama is secretly a transgender woman, and somehow she orchestrated Joan Rivers’ death because Rivers had joked about her.
These are perilous times. We can debate how we got here, but of greater concern to me is what happens next. And that, my friends, is up to us.