A friend of mine whose father survived the Nazis has been observing some trends recently that he finds deeply disturbing. We are in a world economic downturn that is reminding people of the Great Depression; one of the results of the Great Depression was the rise of a bunch of different kinds of scary regimes – for example, the Nazis and the Fascists. This led to war in Europe. There were similar groups in the U.S., although they never gained the kind of foothold here that they did in Europe. My command of Depression history is probably better than average, but some of this stuff is controversial, so I’m not asking you to accept my view of how it was; simply pointing out that quite a few governments spun out of control during that period, and that this was probably related to the hard times brought on by the Depression.
My response to my friend was basically something along the lines of “chill, dude.” But suppose he’s right. Suppose we are in a downward spiral. Is my friend’s answer—getting ready to run for high ground—really our only, or at least our best, option? That is, are we helpless? Or can we do something to slow, stop, or deflect the downward spiral? If this downturn could lead to war, can we do something about it?
I’ve been pushing this notion that peace is something that happens by consensus. We avoid war because we don’t want war. We avoid living in repressive regimes because, en masse, we reject them. So what can we do to avoid a consensus that leads us to war and totalitarianism and repression?
I hate to be pollyannaish, but I think there is something we can do. I would say there are a number of things we should try to do:
- Don’t feed the angst and paranoia. If people are panicking around you, don’t join in. Have a little faith. I don’t care in what—God, human goodness, your own personal strength of character, whatever.
- Be a rock. Try to inspire the people around you who are feeling uncertain or panicky to have a little faith too. If you don’t feel any inspiration, go looking for some.
- Look for positive aspects to the current crisis. Ways that things can improve as a result of the destruction that is going on around us.
- Offer people your smile.
- Thank people when they do things for you, even if you paid them to do those things. Try to reach down deep and find some genuine gratitude—don’t just do it by rote.
- Leave good tips, if you can afford to.
- Be brave, and offer people help when they need it. You can’t bail them out – don’t put that on yourself. Offer them the kind of help you do have to offer instead.
- Pay close attention to proposed laws that restrict freedom of speech, and oppose them. The easiest way for totalitarianism, oppression and war to fester is by suppressing communication—by preventing people from seeing clearly what is going on, and getting them to panic because they lack the knowledge that would let them find a sane way forward.
It sort of feels like I’m giving opposing advice, because I’m saying on the one hand not to panic, and on the other to be watchful of government. But that’s precisely what we need to do. This is not a struggle between good and evil—it’s a struggle for balance. Our part in that balance is to let our elected representatives know that we are paying attention, and that we are thinking critically, and that we care more about content than appearance. This is the only thing that can ever give them the courage to resist unjust laws that sound good on paper, because they know that in the absence of an informed electorate (that’s us!), they will be judged on the basis of what the justification for the law is, not on the basis of what the law would actually do.
Oh, I guess there’s one more bullet point:
- Be a citizen, not a consumer.
What I mean here is that we hardly ever hear the word “citizen” anymore – when people talk about us on the news, they call us “consumers.” This is a deep bit of psychological misdirection. If we are consumers, then we are the customers of the government. If we are citizens, our role is to operate the government. This second role is the only one that can prevent the downward spiral my friend is worried about—we have to take responsibility, and not leave it up to someone else.