A Great Fear?
The "event" which I shall take as my text today is a small one but, in its own way, significant: the very widespread circulation of an email on the current state of the nation, comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, which has been attributed in thousands--probably tens of thousands--of copies to myself. Based on the experience of the last couple of weeks (see below), I estimate that between one and two thousand new readers will be reading this post this week to find out who I am and if, indeed, I did write it. The answer, of course, is no--I didn't--even though it has probably made me more famous, certainly in a shorter period of time, than any of my six books at right. More importantly, I think this viral phenomenon is in its own way a significant historical event, precisely because it reflects the age that we are living in, and resembles similar occurrences that have convulsed other nations that were also in the midst of defining crises--such as France in 1789, when the French Revolution began.
I have in front of me a slim volume, The Great Fear of 1789, written by one of the greatest of French historians, Georges Lefebvre, who lived from 1874 to 1959. It recounts a series of extraordinary events in French towns, and especially in the countryside, during the summer of 1789. Late that spring, by royal proclamation, the three orders of French society, the nobles, clergy, and commoners, sent representatives to the first Estates-General called in 175 years, beginning the climactic phase of the first great crisis in modern French political life. The trigger for the crisis--like those experienced by Germany and the United States in the first years of the 1930s, and the one that we are entering now--was a financial panic (coupled with a bad harvest), but that was only half the story: all those nations had experienced other severe economic downturns without such transformative effects. What made them all so severe was the simultaneous death of the old order: the French Old Regime, whose decline was described by another Prophet, Tocqueville, in one of the greatest classics of western historical writing, The Old Regime and the French Revolution; the free-market capitalist system created by the Republicans after the Civil War, and restored to full vigor, after a Progressive interlude, in the 1920s; and the Weimar Republic, the successor to Imperial Germany, which had not been able to create vibrant new institutions in the midst of successive economic crises in the 1920s.
The death of an old order, like the death of a parent, is a traumatic and unnerving event. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and terror is abroad in the land. In 1789, as Lefebvre shows, the peasantry feared brigands, or bandits, who had customarily emerged to steal the harvest in times of famine. But as the Estates-General came into conflict with each other and with the King over the issue of whether they would become a National Assembly, voting together under rules that would give the common people a majority, they also feared a royal or aristocratic coup that would end their hopes--so ardently expressed in the instructions written for their deputies--for a new and more democratic order. Throughout the summer, rumors of national and local treachery spread like a fire around the countryside, and the common people, in town after town, acted pre-emptively. They formed their own militias like the American colonists in 1774-5; they seized the documents that entitled landlords to feudal dues, and burned them; they even burned down castles and drove their lords away. In this case the issues that concerned the peasantry--the conditions under which they worked their land and the future of the revolution--were real enough, but the nationwide conspiracy that drove them to action that summer was not. Anarchy did not immediately follow, and for two or three years it seemed possible that France might make a peaceful transition to a Constitutional monarchy. But in 1791 the King and Queen tried to flee the country, hoping to restore all their power with foreign help, in a year later they were overthrown, tried, sentenced, and eventually executed. Terror now became state policy, setting a precedent that repeated itself in various countries again and again for the next century and a half.
Thus, in Russia, the old order began its violent death in 1905, when failure in war provoked a first round of revolution and terrorism--one that was never really checked until the war. Moreover, as my friend and colleague William Fuller has shown in his recent book, The Foe Within, the upper reaches of Russian society were also transfixed by intrigue, accusations of fantastic conspiracy, and an almost total absence of civic virtue--phenomena that brought the Empire down in 1917 and brought the Bolsheviks to power with the help of the peasantry, which played a role similar to that that its French counterparts had in the 1790s. Russian readers of Fuller's book have commented on the troubling similarity between the conditions it describes and Russia today.
Fear, of course, was rampant in Germany and in the United States, the two countries most affected by the Depression from 1928 through 1932, as well--fear of hunger and starvation, and of anarchy, which was actually much more serious in Germany, where Socialist, Communist and Nazi militias were battling in the street, often with fatal consequences. Fear was the essence of Nazi propaganda, which painted Germany's wretched state as the more or less conscious work of Marxists and Jews. That, of course, was false. The biggest single cause of Germany's catastrophe was the previous world war, which the Germans had done so much to unleash, only to spend the entire decade of the 1920s denying their own responsibility. Fear and hatred had already led to the assassination of several moderate statesmen involved in the signature of the Versailles Treaty and agreements on reparations. Upon coming into power, Hitler seized upon the burning of the Reichstag to announce a nationwide Communist plot, suspend civil liberties and the Parliament, formally deputize the Nazi SA as law enforcement officials, and open lasrge concentration camps. The same pattern continued for the rest of the Third Reich.
Across the Atlantic, nothing so clearly illustrated the brilliance of Franklin Roosevelt's leadership than the most famous words of his inaugural address: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." His weapon against it, then and for the next twelve incredible years, was to remind the American people of their basic values, bluntly to describe the enormous problems they faced, and then to explain simply and clearly how they would emerge. The President's sense of humor, his optimism, and most of all, perhaps, his evident joy at having been called to power at such a moment, carried most--though never all--of the country with him. Lincoln, in even darker times, had done much the same. (As always when I have to consult one of Roosevelt's texts, I am astonished by the range of issues he covered and their relevance to the present day. Who remembers these words from the inaugural:
Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
All this, however, brings me to the notorious email that has been circulating, which can be read here. It is, alas, a typical product of a crisis age, which explains its extraordinary resonance around the country. That we are in a crisis is true--one that involves our financial and economic system, our educational system, and (although it has little specific to say here), our foreign policy. Yet its dreadful mistake--so characteristic of crisis literature--is to attribute all these ills to some deep, unnamed conspiracy apparently dedicated to the destruction of the United States. There is no such conspiracy: as I have argued here many times before, our own behavior, on a mass scale, has brought us to where we are today, just as it did in the late 1850s and the late 1920s. The deregulation of the economy and the speculative orgy that followed were begun by the Republican Party in the 1980s but with the exception of balancing the budget in the 1990s (an achievement immediately thrown away by George W. Bush), the Democrats have done little or nothing to halt it until now. We are facing a crisis abroad because our successes, from 1945 through 1989, have only persuaded us that we should be able to work our will anywhere on earth, even as our actual power shrinks. The need for different values is every bit as great now as it was when FDR spoke of it in March 1933--indeed, the failure of either President Obama or any other major politician to make such a declaration suggests that it is greater. The email's comments on our ills are 100% partisan and thus calculated to divide the American people still further. What is frightening is how much resonance such rants seem to have.
For the past few weeks that email, with my name on it, has been spreading, literally, like a flu virus. What is most astonishing is its nearly constant rate of infection, measured by the hits on this blog. For several years now hits have totaled between 150 and 200 on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays--that is, in the wake of a new entry--declining steadily during the week to about 100 before a new entry appears. The figures for the last ten days are 456, 450, 367, 350, 404, 590, 559, 554, 499, and 502--more than 4500 hits, compared to a normal 1000, or 3500 new hits. But that 3500 can only be a fraction of the number of people who received the email, most of whom would not have taken the time to reach my blog. And to judge from the emails I (and my namesake at another university) have received, as well as the people who have reached me by phone, the vast majority of people who have received it agree with it.
Why? At bottom, I think, its popularity represents the fear which the death of our old order is naturally creating. Fear dominates the Drudge report and cable news as well--the coverage that a relatively minor flu outbreak has received is merely the last piece of evidence for that. Closer to home, of course, the email is popular because it is only marginally more inflammatory than the commentary Americans can hear or watch 24 hours a day on talk radio or Fox News. They too make no effort actually to understand our problems and how they might be solved, but simply spend all their time trying to exploit them for partisan advantage. Newspapers are dying for many reasons, but one is that the modern American newspaper stood for an ideal of objectivity in which very few Americans, sadly, still believe. The post-print media, actually, will resemble in many ways the media of the nineteenth century--far more outlets, but nearly all of them representative of one particular shade of opinoin, and with less attention, sadly, to the facts. But that may in turn give a great opportunity to political leadership that is willing to fill the vacuum with real data, if we can find such.
To those who have been brought here by an email that I did not write, may I say that we remain fellow citizens. Our country was founded by men who believed that human reason can make a better world. Let us not throw away that legacy by surrendering to terror, hatred, and other raw emotions. Let us work for an America where, once again, Democrats and Republicans can not only co-exist but work together. Such cooperation gave us every great national achievement from the 1930s through the 1960s, from the public works programs of the New Deal through our victory in the war, the GI Bill, Social Security, and the great civil rights acts. It can do great work again. Every year, as a Democrat teaching at the Naval College, I have one or two students who start out wondering how they will ever be able to work with someone like me. Within a few weeks, almost without exception, they have found that it doesn't hurt at all. That's because the class deals with the proper application of military force--a problem whose solution depends on using the facts, not on ideology. That is the spirit that we all need to try to spread.