Beyond the Storm

Beyond the storm of political, health and climate disasters — a conversation with Michael Nagler

Many of us are deeply engaged in preventing a coup and otherwise securing a free and fair election. Metta Center President and author Michael Nagler, in addition to engaging in these efforts, has also been taking a long view. In a recent conversation, he spoke about how we can get past our present calamities and become proactive about building a livable future.

You’ve said you are very concerned about the parallels between what’s happening here and Nazi Germany. What do you mean? 

I once had the opportunity to study some popular magazines published in Germany during “the nightmare years,” late ‘30s through early ‘40s. I expected that the tone would be very violent. But it was more dangerous than that: It was whining. “They did this to us, they did that to us.” When we hear white nationalist groups today chanting “You will not replace us,” we’re right back to that dangerous mindset. It can happen here. It’s starting.

Are there other commonalities? 

There is at least one other characteristic contemporary neo-fascist groups have in common with that template, which is in fact more extreme today and something we need to address going forward. It’s the susceptibility of more than marginal groups (one participant will soon be a member of Congress) to swallow the most fantastical, bizarre and dangerous tales of conspiracy. QAnon, even if it were not supported by the highest political office in the nation and similar shadow phenomena, would be alarming enough. 

How did it come to this?

I believe this phenomenon should be regarded as a colossal failure of education.

How is that?

Well, I don’t mean it was primarily a failure of our schools and colleges — though they certainly failed to realize what was happening and resist it — but any influence educators used to enjoy has long been overshadowed by the mass media, which of course has been growing more potent with each new generation of the technology. Social media can now give seriously deluded people a way to spread their messages to the increasing number of people who have apparently lost any ability to discriminate between fact and fantasy. According to the New York Times, a video posted to Facebook on Sept. 14 by Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, warned that Democrats were planning a coup against President Trump on Election Day. It was viewed 2.9 million times! How such patent nonsense can be accepted by millions of Americans, assumedly educated, in the 21st century, we really must understand and address.

Yes, but social media are a relatively new phenomenon. A change like this doesn’t happen overnight.

Long before social media, the soil for losing a grip on truth — and eventually being susceptible to delusion — was prepared by commercial advertising. Its relentless depiction of the human being as a needy fragment concerned only with his or her own material welfare, without agency in a hostile world created a compelling, but dangerously pessimistic narrative about the world and human nature that has come to set the tone of American popular culture. When you’re advertising toothpaste or life insurance or whatever, you may not have a political purpose, but your willingness to bend truth and propagate this underlying story of reality and human nature is never without a political impact. Both propaganda and advertising grew up together, largely due to the efforts of one person, Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who seized on the discoveries made by his uncle about the subconscious to mentor both business and government in how to manipulate people without them being aware of it. This is described in the six-part BBC documentary, “Century of the Self.” Ironically, one of the main groups to seize on Bernays’s idea was the Nazis. Untruth and violence always go together, it seems.

Now the storm has galvanized an inspiring and unprecedented unanimity of concern among groups and people from across the political and social spectrum to protect our democracy. This is a real silver lining that may help us go to a better place than we were at even before the “perfect storm” of political, health and climate disasters struck — if we can build on it. I entirely agree with Howard Richards, writing for Transcend Media recently, when he points out that, “If we get past today’s calamities, I assume the same causes that generated them will generate more calamities unless human institutions are radically altered.”  

Is that sufficient?

No, I would actually go a step further. We should be thinking about not just those institutions, but the implicit value system and implicit narrative on which they’re based. To do this would by no means detract from the job at hand, namely guaranteeing a free and fair election. On the contrary, it can strengthen it.

Studies have shown that when movements have an inspiring goal beyond their immediate grievances it enhances their longevity and their power. As I see it, then, we want to be thinking about three big steps: 1. blocking the effect of the various forms of electoral fraud the system has accumulated over the years, 2. correcting the institutional expressions of that fraud, and 3. addressing their educational and cultural infrastructure.

Now we are largely in a reactive posture, as we must be given the atrocity facing us. Once the immediate crisis is behind us, while some kinds of confrontation and struggle will likely still be involved, we will be largely proactive. It’s a bit like the alternations Gandhi always provided between satyagraha, or what I call “obstructive program” and constructive program, where you go ahead and build the structures and institutions you need — hopefully before the unjust ones have crumbled.

Say more about the next steps, then.

Step two would include, but not be limited to, vacating Citizens United, reforming or (more to the point) abolishing the antiquated and totally unnecessary Electoral College, and passing a robust voting rights act.

This will require some careful analysis and long-term strategy. But to return to the point I began with, there is one concrete thing that needs to be attended to going forward: education. In any sustainable, democratic future no child educated in this country should leave school without two capacities they are not getting today: a moral compass (think of William Kilpatrick’s 1972 book, “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong”) and secondly the ability to tell fact from fantasy. Otherwise put, an ability to tell right from wrong and common sense!

What do you mean by a moral compass in 2021 and beyond. What would that look like?

A moral compass, as I see it, would include an ability to judge human character. They should be intuitively aware that a person who boasts, “I could murder someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and get away with it” is a sick person who should never be put in a position of power for his own good, not to mention ours. It should not be necessary for psychologists to diagnose such a person as a malignant narcissist (see, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”). We might not need the vocabulary, but we should all have the spiritual antennae to realize he is not fit to lead.

And common sense?

As for having a ground in common sense, we would give students first of all a solid framework in which to understand the world and our place in it: that we are beings of body, mind and spirit — with a critical, if limited, agency to direct our own destiny in a meaningful universe. They would then know instinctively that they can never be fulfilled by accumulating more possessions than anyone else, they can never buy security through toothpaste or a new cell phone, or anything else for that matter. As evolving beings of body, mind and spirit they would understand that their real needs are for love, community and service. Also, they would be able to understand what science does — and what it does not do. They could, of course, have some exposure to the basics of one or more sciences in particular, but they would definitely have an awareness of how science (as we understand it) gets to its truth, and where we have to look sometimes beyond it to our own experiences of life and other modes of exploring reality. 

Finally, and I’m still within the commonsense achievement, given the tremendous damage being wrought by certain kinds of “religion” today, we would certainly want them to have some sense of culture and how it has evolved. That way, for example, they would not pick up an ancient document that was obviously meant to be allegorical or mythical and take it for the literal truth, in the face of science and reason.

This is asking a lot.

A: Yes, it’s a tall order. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t do it. And every reason we must.

Published on Waging Nonviolence