Fear-based thinking leads to tyranny. Decision-making that holds fear of the other to be the most reliable logic for ordering human affairs implicitly rules out humanity’s most powerful resource: our ability to learn more than we previously knew we could about the universe, to counter threats, solve problems, and improve quality of life, together.
It is this ruling out of learning and discovery that makes fear-based thinking so violently dangerous to overall human wellbeing.
Once we emerged from the proverbial cave of Plato’s reckoning, we discovered not only that the world is more vast and complex than presumption could have told us, and that we are stronger when we work together, establish rules for nonviolent cooperation, and ensure decision-makers do not misrepresent the needs, will, and free moral minds of the people that have asked them to lead.
That we can explore and discover is fundamental to understanding what is right and good among human beings. That problems have both causes and solutions, including those which may still escape our understanding, is a basic reality we all learn in our earliest years, with varying degrees of clarity.
So, there comes a point in the evolution of human societies when the authority of those who wish to have it can be legitimate only if they work to serve, in a genuine way, all those who are expected to recognize that authority. This is the root of all 18th and 19th century democratic revolutions. It is why the Constitution of the United States could not be fully agreed without a Bill of Rights, and why it was designed to be amended by a multiphase process of general consultation and consensus-building.
The Know-Nothing terrorist movement of the 1830s was a small-minded war against the governing principles of democracy. It put violence before engagement and cooperative civics, because it was driven by a tyrannical obsession with fear of the other.
It emerged from the moral rot of the slave trade and the slave-owning plantation system. That inhuman system was itself an ongoing war against humanity that would eventually lead to a bloody five-year insurrection whose explicit aim was to secure a place in the world for that fear-based culture, laced throughout with cruelty, terror, and dehumanization.
President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, described the war to end that insurrection as a struggle to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” He also sought to honor those who lost their lives in that struggle by reminding us that “It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
The beating heart of any democratic society is the universal mission assigned to all of its inhabitants to play a role in honoring, empowering, liberating, and protecting, the humanity of every other. A republican democracy can survive only if all of its citizens are sovereign. It is all of our duty to act in the world in a way that respects this fact about all others. That is what makes us free.
Tyranny lives inside your fear. It forcefully demands that you reject the pursuit of knowledge and instead honor the whim of the dictator, or fundamentalist ideology, because your empowerment through knowledge and free cooperative moral self-organizing would erode the leverage of the tyrant. And the tyrant, we must remember, is always a petty deviant — small in thinking, lacking in courage, scarcely able to conceive of the qualities that make for an honorable leader.
The problems that face human societies now are complex, interacting, and threatening on a scale that was, at other times in our history, inconceivable. Fear-based thinking drives some to seek what they perceive as safety behind the wanton disdain of tyrants for the safety of the other. The degradation of the other does not equate to any new security for oneself. Those who seek comfort in autocrats are empowering petty deviants to steal their own future. And yet among the threats we now face is a rising tendency toward autocracy across the world.
We are living now at the moment when the universal moral imperative to welcome and honor the humanity of the other — through transparent, participatory, accountable democratic institutions — is more existentially necessary than ever before. We cannot afford to let darkness creep over our freedom to explore and discover.
We must liberate and secure our humanity, by committing to the dignity and ingenuity of all others. This is the age of planet-wide collaborative problem-solving. Only universal human empowerment, and the ruling out of tyranny at all levels, will guarantee the freedom or security of anyone.
[ The Note for February 2018 ]
Mounting attack on Reagan’s ‘infrastructure of democracy’
Josh Rogin, writing in the Washington Post, warns that what Ronald Reagan called “the infrastructure of democracy” is under attack, even as the global trend toward authoritarian abuses is on the rise:
Buried in the State Department’s fiscal 2019 budget request is a proposal not only to slash the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy but also to disassemble its relationships with its core institutes, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. For the NED and those institutes, the proposal is an assault not only on their organizations but also on the pro- democracy mission they are dedicated to.
“If implemented, the proposal would gut the program, force crippling layoffs and the symbolic meaning would also be shattering, sending a signal far and wide that the United States is turning its back on supporting brave people who share our values,” said NED President Carl Gershman.
The Populist Threat & How to Protect Democracy
Writing for the Guardian, Yascha Mounk — a Harvard lecturer on government and democracy — offers some urgently needed perspective:
“A people who mean to be their own Governors,” James Madison echoed a few years later, “must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” His fears about what would happen to America if it neglected this crucial task sound oddly apposite today: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
For the first centuries of the republic’s existence, this emphasis on civic education shaped the country. Parents sought to raise tomorrow’s citizens, competing with each other to see whose four-year-old could name more presidents. Schools across the US devoted ample time to teaching students “How a Bill Becomes a Law”.
Civic education in all its forms stood at the core of the American project – as it also did in, say, Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. Then, amid an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity, the idea that support for self-government had to be won anew with every passing generation started to fade. Today, it is all but extinct.
The Politics of Exigency
Just before the 2016 US elections, the monthly note in this series — “The Politics of Exigency” — examined how reflexive political factionalism can leave us “with less agency, less sovereignty, and less capability” for coming through real, shared threats with our humanity and our democracy intact:
The deviant political actor who uses exigency as an excuse to grab power or to justify harm against innocents should never be assumed to be a regular or central element in any legitimate political coalition. The political space can be viewed, and harnessed, as a shared opportunity to counter exigent challenges and overcome difficulty together. This is how we get to the structure of an open and adversarial democracy. We challenge each other to be better than our factions demand, to rise to the level required of us by the call to be just.
We are now living through a politics of exigency, when many who are threatened by economic disruptions are demanding that the pressures they face be relieved through extraordinary actions. Some of the rhetoric that furthers this new politics of exigency goes as far as to call for the dismantling of institutions and support for authoritarian actions. We must come together to support a more genuine defense of our basic shared right to live free from harm and protected by an institutional commitment to liberty, equality and justice for all people.