So how did we get here? How did we in America, the land of opportunity, get so screwed up about who’s right and who’s wrong after following a Pied Piper to the edge of a metaphorical river where some have already drowned? Others wait on the shore, testing the water, and vacillating.
“Should we stay or should we go?”
The Piper’s followers have already condemned American Democracy as an illusion exploited by conspiracists with storylines even crazier than unseen forces orchestrating a presidential election and an overblown pandemic with imaginary death tolls. Those who pause at the edge of the water wait, rationalizing why they have come this far, while the Piper steers clear of danger and leaves other mesmerized followers to drown. It is an old story about how people, good and true, can be enticed by evil.
I am saddened to see so many disrespecting our democratic system and making excuses for the marauding vandals who entered the seat of our democracy equipped with weapons and zip ties with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as a final insult to true patriots. Evil grows here, as it does everywhere if we are not vigilant, and among its first symptoms in a democracy is sedition. Much of what there is to learn about good and evil can be seen in two critical periods of the past — slavery leading to and beyond the American Civil War and fascism presaging World War II.
These slices of history are fascinating because they beg you to try to understand, in the former, why the subjugation of other human beings, slavery, became a romanticized way of life in parts of our country while tolerated by the rest. There is a stark difference between racial tolerance and racism tolerance.
We had to fight a war, mostly driven by the slavery issue with states’ rights as a subplot in the narrative, and about 618,000 soldiers died from battle injuries or disease. Imagine the impact on the nation as a whole when hundreds of thousands of families lost loved ones or welcomed home physically and psychologically impaired veterans.
And all of this carnage was bolstered by each cause’s belief that God was on its side. The Bible was a tool used by each to propagandize their cause’s justness and morality. Romans 13 was cited by Loyalists to justify siding with the British in the American Revolution. Ditto for defenders of slavery in the prelude to the Civil War. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” sayeth the English Standard Version (ESV). “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” This passage calls upon all of us to be “subject to the governing authorities” and that “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed…”
If you read the King James Version (KJV), which would have been the chosen Bible of the antebellum years and still widely relied upon today, the obedience to governing authorities is not so clear: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” “Higher powers” is taken to mean people of higher or superior station, kings and governors. Whites who deemed themselves superior to blacks may have seen this as biblical confirmation of white supremacy.
Bible Used to Sustain Opposing Arguments
So if you were the churchgoing type, whether in Alabama or Pennsylvania, your support of either North or South would be justified on Sunday mornings, because Biblical scripture also took its shots at slavery as seen in Exodus 21:16 (KJV): “And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”
The Bible is not always safe ground to trod when arguing your cause, but it always provides ammunition.
So, I wonder, had I lived in the 1840’s and 1850’s in Alabama, would I have been convinced that slavery was morally justified and not just an economic benefit or proof of racial superiority? I don’t know the answer to that, and I keep struggling to understand why people like me, my own ancestors, would have confidently held those beliefs.
That an entire culture of good and caring people would support an evil cause cannot be blamed on the Bible, though interpretations of the Bible played a part in comforting them into acceptance of something otherwise distasteful.
How about the evolvement of Nazi doctrine in Germany leading to dehumanizing the Jews and wholesale extermination of them and other proclaimed undesirables?
Why did the people of Germany allow all of that to happen? Had I been there, would I have stood by while such evil was perpetrated? Would I, as a patriotic German, been a part of it, perhaps serving in the military or working for the government?
I’ve gained a little more insight into how ordinary people— moral and Christian people— would have followed Hitler into the abyss. The truth is that the people supported him and even became Nazi Party members because they “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.” Those were the words of German writer Milton Mayer in his 1955 book: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.
It happened gradually, following a horrible time in Germany in the aftermath of World War I. People were barely surviving, perpetuated by sanctions against them and, when they were struggling to get back on their feet, the spreading of the Great Depression throughout Europe made life for the ordinary German even more miserable.
Things got better under Hitler, who restored their national esteem as Germans and convinced them that they had been victimized by inferior nations, races and religions. They started living the good life, even enjoying family vacations for as many as 25 million citizens compliments of “Strength Through Joy,” a government program, as the 1930’s came to a close.
Germans interviewed years after the war ended— all of them former Nazi Party members, the easier path to take at the time—pleaded ignorance.
Most claimed to not know about the extermination camps, and many believed that Jews who were imprisoned had committed traitorous acts and that most of the others who weren’t around anymore had chosen to emigrate elsewhere. Their ignorance seemed implausible with overt persecution of the Jews countrywide and the wholesale burning of synagogues on one horrible night of rampaging.
There must have been pervasive self-delusion among the loyal citizenry, suspicions they preferred not to contemplate, but they were proud to be Germans for the first time in years and, yes, life was good. Many Germans, as noted by author Konrad H. Jarausch, were not so much avid supporters of Hitler as they were hostile toward other countries and world leaders attacking their Fuhrer. These were the same countries, including the United States, who had teamed to humiliate and impoverish Germany after the First World War. There were real and imagined enemies constantly being offered up by the Third Reich— us against them, a telling tenet of fascism. The press is always something to be against, and fascism leads to their extinction as a source of “fake news,” with the government eventually taking over that role, reporting only news favorable to the cause, a.k.a. propaganda.
“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained…” noted one countryman in Mayer’s book, published a decade after Germany’s defeat. He went on to compare it to something “developing from day to day (like) a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
There is always an anti-intellectualism element to fascism: rewriting history, attacking science, universities and educational systems that might use knowledge to challenge the government.
A more recent contemplation of how countries like Germany, Italy and Spain fell under the spell of the politics of division is addressed in: How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley: “Eventually, with these techniques, fascist politics creates a state of unreality, in which conspiracy theories and fake news replace reasoned debate.”
History’s lesson is we should always be on guard, because even good and ordinary people are susceptible to the perpetuation of evil.
(Note: Parts of this commentary were addressed in my newspaper column about fascism almost three years ago. For more opinions, both silly and serious, check out the blog pages at www.skillunlimited.com)