Heed the warnings of the past
I find myself spending a considerable amount of time these days pondering the state of our country. Maybe you do too. After watching the news each evening, I fear that today’s turmoil will spread into tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and so on.
I definitely do not believe the mainstream news outlets are filling us with ‘fake’ news. I am a firm believer in the absolute need for an independent and free source of information in a society with a democratic governmental system.
Reliable journalists and the media not only let us know what is going on in our community in order that we might participate, but they also serve as independent watchdogs of all our institutions: government, nonprofits, religions, social groups and practices. Who else will keep the place and people around us honest, making good decisions and taking beneficial actions? Transparency of action and thought is not just an idle slogan. It is paramount in a free society.
In small towns and rural areas, access to current local information is as vital as is international or national news. How else will you find out about activities, conditions and institutions that directly involve you? It is alarming to learn that nearly 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers have been lost in our country in the past 15 years.
A journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, who has studied the issue, coined new terminology for this predicament: ‘News deserts: places that no longer have daily journalistic coverage’ and ‘ghost newspapers: publications that have become a shadow of their former selves in terms of circulation and ambition.’
I just finished reading an eye-opening book that recorded the return of Russia to totalitarianism after the early reforms that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1989. It makes the call for informed citizens in a real way. The book is titled ‘The Future Is History’ with the subtitle ‘How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.’ The author, Masha Gessen, recounts the facts, social practices and mentality of both the government and the governed for hundreds of years in that autocratic country. The author concludes that ‘every totalitarian regime forms a type of human being on whom it relies for its stability.’ The ideal person is not so ‘much a vessel for the regime’s ideology as it is a person best equipped to survive in a given society.’
The successful member of Soviet society believed in self-isolation, state paternalism and ‘hierarchical egalitarianism’ (everyone in a specific category is treated alike) and suffered from an ‘imperial syndrome’ (longing for old royalty). ‘Robbed of individuality and, therefore, the ability to interact meaningfully with others,’ citizens became dependent upon the state to provided everything. The state told them what to think, what to do and who not to associate with. Terror is the ultimate enforcer of such standards.
This whole notion that we must stay alert to international and national news in order to avoid pitfalls is quite daunting. But, it all starts at the local level. And here, everyone can participate if they will assume the effort it takes. With the absence of civics classes in schools, it is up to us to educate ourselves as to what’s needed in a participatory democracy.
How many of us discuss current events with our kids? Remember how in years past we held up the stories of prominent families that had daily discussions at the dinner table? Today, we eat while driving our children to sports events or as we watch television. We often take shifts at the dining experience. Are we setting ourselves up to avoid the habit of being an informed and active citizen?
Do we participate in Facebook on our smartphones, thus believing we are keeping up with what is going on? If we think only the lives of our family and friends are important, I guess that could be said. But, what happened to our concept of being a member of the ‘family of mankind’ globally? How are we broadening our understanding of and appreciation for people and societies that are different but dwell only a mere computer click away?
Do we send our offspring to college primarily so they can get a good job and become economically strong or do we send them to learn to think? Are we so materialistic that we equate wealth with success? What happened to valuing ourselves and our leaders by the quality of character? I tend to believe we are inspired to do our best as individuals when we mesh our ability to reason and think with those old virtues of honesty, generosity, kindness, gratitude and humility.
Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, wrote: ‘The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the 20th century. We are no wiser than Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.’
The warning is out: It is an easy, slippery slope from a democracy to becoming a totalitarian state but a difficult climb from a totalitarian state to a democracy.
Hang on to our form of governance while we have it.