Tough Crowd: The democratic tree’s once wholesome fruit has been poisoned by the malodorous blight of populism. A toxic virus composed of three-parts racism, two-parts misogyny, one-part homophobia and four-parts malignant nationalism. Small wonder that so many young people, struggling to free themselves from the fear of fascist-populist intolerance and violence are increasingly giving up on freedom of speech – which only serves to spread the deadly disease.
GIVING UP ON DEMOCRACY, thankfully, remains unthinkable to most – if not all – New Zealanders. Ever since the triumph of democratic values in 1945, our political system’s moral superiority over all other governmental regimes has simply been assumed by those fortunate enough to live in liberal democratic societies.
The veterans of the global war against fascism needed no persuading. Their children, convinced by the Cold War rhetoric of freedom and justice, demanded its extension into every last corner of the world. Those born in the post-Cold War era, however, seem less enthused; less willing to take Democracy at its face value. Some are even demanding to know if Democracy is worth preserving.
They may have a point. Though the American President who led the United States into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had promulgated the “Four Freedoms” (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear) as the core war aims of the Allies, he did so in a land where those freedoms were neither universally acknowledged nor enforced.
It was Roosevelt himself who had given the order to inter all American citizens of Japanese descent in what were essentially concentration camps. The armies that fought Japanese militarism in the Pacific, and German and Italian fascism in Europe, remained racially segregated throughout. African Americans migrating from the Jim Crow South to the North and West in search of wartime employment were welcomed with white-inspired race riots. A great many of the otherwise progressive American trade unions maintained a rigid colour-bar right up until the 1970s.
Nor was it considered tasteful to acknowledge too forthrightly the indisputable fact that Hitler was not defeated by the democratic armies of the West, but by the armies of the totalitarian Soviet Union. No democratic leader, and certainly not Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt, would have dared to squander human life as carelessly as the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. The almost incomprehensible Soviet military and civilian losses – 24 million dead – only hint at the unprecedented ferocity of the fighting on the Eastern Front. In essence, the Second World War turned out to be a titanic struggle between two equally abhorrent dictators. The total number of American and British soldiers who died for Democracy is considerably less than a million.
To make matters worse, the gun barrels had hardly had time to cool before the Western nations decided to interpret the Soviets’ extreme defensiveness vis-à-vis Eastern Europe as proof of their intention to roll Stalinism all the way to the English Channel. As if the Soviets, bled almost white by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Himmler’s SS; its cities in ruins and its villages charred piles of rubble; were in any state to threaten the sole possessor of the atomic bomb!
The western capitalists states’ deep fear of communist world dominion, however ill-founded, was nevertheless real enough for them to spend the best part of three decades curtailing the democratic rights of their own citizens at home, while denying them entirely to human-beings living abroad.
It was only when the Soviet Union blipped ignominiously off History’s screen in 1991 that the peoples of the West began to understand just how many of their economic and social rights had depended upon its existence. Absent the restraining influence of its principal geopolitical and ideological competitor, free-market capitalism could finally and unceremoniously jettison the “social” democracy which had made the post-war lives of western workers so secure and prosperous. Their unconscionable drag on corporate profits was no longer justifiable.
And so we come to the political environment in which the young people of today are required to contemplate their future. A world in which it is seemingly impossible for the edicts of the market to be gainsaid – at least, not through the ballot-box. No matter which Jeremy or Bernie they vote for, neoliberalism always wins.
The democratic tree’s once wholesome fruit has been poisoned by the malodorous blight of populism. A toxic virus composed of three-parts racism, two-parts misogyny, one-part homophobia and four-parts malignant nationalism. Small wonder that so many young people, struggling to free themselves from the fear of fascist-populist intolerance and violence are increasingly giving up on freedom of speech – which only serves to spread the deadly disease.
Seventy years ago, E. M. Forster could muster only “Two Cheers for Democracy”. Today, it barely rates one.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 June 2020.