Sometimes when I am contemplating a commentary events conspire to help me reflect more deeply on the subject at hand. Such was the case when, after Donald Trump’s outrageous suggestion that Muslims in America should be registered and no more Muslims should be allowed to enter the country, I began to write about the politics of fear.
I first recalled what Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans during World War II: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the president said. He was cautioning a frightened population against fear-induced paralysis. It was an especially important message given that considered, decisive action and not passivity was urgently needed to defeat evildoers like Hitler. Perhaps he was also warning us not to cower in the face of demagogues and not to yield to unacceptable language that serves to fuel heinous deeds. Quite possibly he was also cautioning against becoming inured to a kind of evil that can invade our collective psyche so that seemingly innocuous words like “normal,” “necessary “and “needed” begin to justify a nation’s dangerous, destructive, shameful behavior.
While I was thinking about this I happened to be reading an extraordinary novel by the Russian-born writer Paul Goldberg. The Yid is about Stalinism, anti-Semitism, racism and more in 1950s Russia and it struck me as incredibly relevant. Goldberg’s protagonist, for example, compares political purges to epidemics that “start out with a small, concentrated population, then expand their reach nationally, even globally.” Epidemics of infectious diseases, he says, “can reach a peak” before inevitably receding. He concludes that Fascism is an infectious disease and Stalinism is a plague. Neither can survive, but in their long brutality many people suffer and die.
I can’t be the only one to read this book and think of Donald Trump’s vicious talk and insidious proposals when it comes to Muslims or immigrants and refugees.
Goldberg’s character was right to say that epidemics – even political ones - can become global. The growth of France’s right wing party or for that matter the far right voters in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere demonstrate that. Never has there been a more urgent time to ask ourselves, as Goldberg does, “What are we dealing with? Is this outburst of ignorance and hatred akin to systemic disease? What if you could find a way to intervene and neutralize it?”
Then something else happened as I was tossing all of this around in my mind. I attended an amazing non-denominational religious service in which a gifted minister spoke about fear and what it can do to us. Without ever mentioning refugees, immigrants, Republicans, or Muslims, and using only Good Samaritan stories to make his point, this good, compassionate, intelligent man hit the nail on the head.
Fear, he said, leads to hate and hate leads to demonizing people who may be different than we are. We need to see past those differences. We must be global citizens and good neighbors. We must recall and reclaim our national shame in remembering what America did to Native Americans, to Japanese Americans during the war, to the Jews we turned away when they were desperate to escape Nazi atrocities, to the multitudes of Black Americans who died hanging from trees or attacked by dogs when they fought for civil rights, to HIV/AIDS or Ebola victims – all because we saw these human beings as “they,” The Other, the Outsider, the threat that fueled our fear. We need also to reclaim our own Good Samaritan stories if we are to survive, the minister reminded us. We must reject the fearmongering of Biblical literalists who often forget that to be human is to behave humanely.
So, no more polemicists like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson who preach fear and hatred from their pulpits. No more demonizing of others by right-wing zealots in Congress or elsewhere. No more Trump travesties or political poison born of bigotry. No more foul-mouthed, unfounded accusations. No more letting fear dominate our decisions and behavior. No more fear defining our national character so that other nations no longer want to engage with us.
The time for proclaiming with our voices and our vote that we are not going to do it anymore is now. The time is here to say clearly that we reject fear as our future. Instead, let us see past challenging times in order to survive as a unified, dignified nation. Let us be a country whole and healthy. Let the fearmongers slink away and find their own place in the world, but let it not be ours.