It is during periods of economic decline that people are most likely to turn to the quick, totalitarian solution. It is during these times that the fascist, or the red, who has waited in the wings or shouted from the audience, tries to take center stage. The rise of fascism in the 1930s in Europe, and the dabbling in Marxism in Western countries during the same time should give us pause. It was common in the thirties, even in the United States, for certain members of the "intellectual" class to advocate that we look beyond old-fashioned American democracy for quicker, more efficient solutions to our problems.
Ronald Reagan gave us a blunt warning: "Freedom," he said, "is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States, where men were free."
Are we in danger now? Are we in danger of slipping into the totalitarian mentality? The answer appears to be yes, and for proof we need look no further than the attitudes toward human freedom that have developed in recent decades, certainly internationally, but, sadly, here at home as well.
“Domestic hate groups are on the rise as the economy falters," Carrie Johnson cautions us in The Washington Post. "Veteran investigators," she reports, "say they have advocated for increased attention to the problem since late September, when the nation's economic troubles widened, giving white supremacists a potent new source of discontent to exploit among potential recruits."
Obviously, that's a worrisome thing. But it's part of a larger pattern, something else that is troubling, especially at a time of economic stress - a certain indifference, even contempt for, the whole idea of human freedom.
We are reminded of these words, from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address:
"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Those words are revered only because they were spoken by a martyred president. If they were spoken by George W. Bush today, they'd be laughed at, ridiculed, or regarded as bellicose expressions of "American imperialism." How do we know? Because Mr. Bush has said essentially the same things repeatedly through his presidency, and look at the reaction. Freedom for Iraq? Why, what right do we have to impose freedom on anyone? And these people aren't ready for freedom. It's foreign to them. An agenda to spread democracy throughout the Mideast? Why, it's not right to think that others would want what we want.
We hear these objections constantly. They generally come from our universities and our media, the very institutions that, one would think, would be the first to champion liberty.
In 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says, among other things, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." When is the last time you saw that quoted? When is the last time you heard any reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The key word in that title, of course, is "universal." The Declaration held that freedom was an international right, that all the people of the world deserved it. The leaders of free nations in 1948 had no trouble at all with that notion. They had just fought a world war to insure it.
But today freedom is too often seen as a "cultural construct," just one idea among others. And who are we to say that it's better than some other "cultural norm"? If these words are familiar, you shouldn't be surprised. They've been standard fare in American universities since the sixties.
One of the great myths is that freedom is popular. Yes, it's generally popular among ordinary people. But in recent decades it's become increasingly unpopular among some "intellectual leaders." Many colleges have imposed "speech codes" that limit what students can and cannot say. Of course, they impose these codes to create "a more respectful society." Many news organizations make no distinction, in reporting foreign news, between dictators and democrats. It was common, during the latter period of the Cold War, for right-wing dictators to be referred to as dictators, but for left-wing dictators, especially those who ran the Soviet Union, to be called leaders. It was the intellectual fashion, and that fashion has become even more chic.
Ruth Wisse of Harvard has asked, rhetorically, why intellectuals often support the worst causes. We can debate the answers, but the fact is that, today, human freedom has fallen out of favor among some intellectual classes as a cause worth defending. Thus, feminist organizations, outraged if a well-paid lawyer is called "honey" in a courtroom, are silent about the honor killings that go on routinely in Muslim cultures. To denounce them would be to acknowledge Mr. Bush's call for an expansion of freedom and human rights, and that doesn't fit the party line.
So we may be ripe for totalitarian ideas to help us through the economic crisis. With the sharp economic decline, with the constant drumbeat of Bush hatred from the media, with decades in which our college students have been taught that the very heart of American freedom is just a "cultural construct," with journalists educated in those same colleges, we may be primed for the very thing that Ronald Reagan warned against. Of course, Reagan was laughed at by the same institutions that may happily restrict the freedoms that they themselves enjoy. They're very good at laughing. They're not very good at keeping us free.