Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Tea Leaves and History

We don't know what our era will be called in the future tellings of history. We don't know if this is the beginning of the Second Dark Ages, with a return to religious oppression, anti-scientific thinking and strict feudal hierarchies for all humans, or if we are simply the eye-witnesses of the last, albeit powerful, death throes of an old, conservative worldview. Perhaps we are indeed sliding towards Rapture, and the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse will come galloping towards us just around tomorrow's corner. Mother Earth may shrug us off like so many annoying fleas. Or we might just go on, haltingly, just as we have been doing for some decades now.

What would you give for a quick glance at some future equivalent of a school history book? Alas, such glances are not allowed. All we have is our partial and imperfect knowledge of the past and the present and whatever ability we have to use these to predict the future. This is not that much more scientific than using tea leaves in the bottom of a cup to tell someone's fortune.

Which makes it very tough to tell whether Paul Krugman is correct in his latest column which warns us how perilous the current politics of this country are:

Democratic societies have a hard time dealing with extremists in their midst. The desire to show respect for other people's beliefs all too easily turns into denial: nobody wants to talk about the threat posed by those whose beliefs include contempt for democracy itself.

We can see this failing clearly in other countries. In the Netherlands, for example, a culture of tolerance led the nation to ignore the growing influence of Islamic extremists until they turned murderous.

But it's also true of the United States, where dangerous extremists belong to the majority religion and the majority ethnic group, and wield great political influence.

Before he saw the polls, Tom DeLay declared that "one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America." Now he and his party, shocked by the public's negative reaction to their meddling, want to move on. But we shouldn't let them. The Schiavo case is, indeed, a chance to highlight what's going on in America.

The title of this column, It Can't Happen Here, is also the title of a book by Sinclair Lewis, published in the early 1930s and describing a mythical fascist America. It is an interesting read, though not necessarily for its literary assets. It tells us how well-meaning but slowly-reacting people become enmeshed in the web of power held together by a small group of extremists with values that initially appear very American but soon turn into something very nasty indeed. When the people finally react it is too late.

Is it too late, today? That is the question I had after reading Krugman's column, though it was quickly followed by other questions: Does it matter what any individual does if the Zeitgeist is changing? Does Krugman assess the danger to democracy correctly? Am I reacting so strongly because he taps into my own nightmares so very precisely? What to do, what to do?

It is customary to assume that to mention fascism in debates about the current U.S. administration is inappropriate, extremist and insulting, that fascism was somehow a unique event which could not happen again, which could not, ever, happen in America, and which had such devastating consequences to its victims that talking about fascism as some theoretical future possibility is just plain heartless.

Perhaps, then, we should talk about Rwanda or what happened to the Armenians in Turkey or what happened, not that long ago, in Kosovo? We could call the trend in this country something else than fascism. Pseudo-fascism is a term Orcinus has proposed. Maybe what Krugman's column discusses is not fascism at all, or even the rise of fundamentalism but something totally new and yet unnamed? Would any of this mean that we should be silent, right now, because to speak would make us look extremist and out of touch with the slow-moving, oblivious rhythms of the American Main Street?

The answer depends on those tea leaves and what they would tell us if we only could read them correctly. The answer depends on history. But I am asking you one question: If the choices were to be ridiculously wrong in shouting out that the sky is falling or submissively silent when the world collapses all around you, which role would be yours?