Dr. David Shevin photograph

BACK IN THE DAY

June 1, 2005

A few weeks ago, when Ohio State Senator Mark Mallory spoke with the state meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), I drew him aside afterwards to comment on all of the right wing chicanery we were seeing in the state house. “It seems that Ohio, which is so evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans but has gerrymandered in such a huge Republican majority of legislators, has become the testing ground of how much the right wing can get away with.” Mallory didn’t miss a beat. “That’s so obvious,” he said at once.

In the larger group, we had been discussing the measure to silence professors under the rubric of an “Academic Bill of Rights”; the discussion also led to Senate Bill 9, which had cleared the Senate. S.B. 9 takes a look at the Patriot Act measures, which the U.S. Congress was queasy enough about to sunset out. These provisions are to disappear at the end of 2005. Ohio’s senator’s decided to … uh, hold onto every last measure of surveillance, limitation, and loyalty test. Even the one that prohibits communities from adopting statutes of dissent on security matters.

Now, let’s assume that most of us citizens in this democracy actually put faith in democracy rather than oligarchy. Isn’t it time to be asking what went wrong along the way? Recently, I read a smart essay looking at how one country reacted to a costly bombing of one of its landmark buildings by a foreign terrorist.

Now, here’s a quick review for those of you who are a little behind on your 1933 history. On February 27 of that year, the Reichstag (Germany’s Parliament) was destroyed by fire. Historians argue to this date whether National Socialist Party members were responsible for the blaze, or the convicted arsonist, a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe. In the wake of the building’s destruction, National Socialist Party Chairman Hitler convinced Hindenburg to sign a decree “For the Protection of the People and the State”. This decree imposed a widespread suspension of basic rights, and allowed for arrests based on suspicion and detention without trial or right of counsel. The decree was never lifted through all of the years of Nazi rule.

This is the point where Thom Hartmann picks up the argument of “When Democracy Failed” in his recent book WHAT WOULD JEFFERSON DO? Without orchestrating or overdramatizing a parallel view of ‘30s Germany and the current situation in our country, Hartmann follows a clear-eyed and sober observation of the machinations of the party chairman in corralling the nation to his party’s agenda and subverting the nation’s constitution.

Following the decree allowing the police previously unheard-of liberties, the targeting of “troublemakers” and ethnic minorities began in earnest. Hitler, propelled to popularity by his toughness on the terrorists, appointed a key political ally to head the new Central Security Office for the Homeland. This office denounced any media critical of the regime, and brought industrial leadership wholesale into the government, forging a corporate alliance with the tools of politics. He readily invoked religion in the name of patriotism and national preservation, and manipulated the media into a “with us or against us” mentality. By the time of Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, internal dissent was effectively repressed and Germany’s fragile democracy had come to an end.

The good news, Hartmann reminds us, is that the nations of the world had choices in the 1930s. The path Germany took was hardly an inevitable one. In fact, beneath the policies that came to power in Germany was a nation trying to come to grips with economic crisis. The Depression in America was not a local glitch; it was part of a worldwide Depression. The United States elected a very different course of action in those troubled times. In our country, rather than taking a direction that served the few and stifled the many, we followed a course to reinforce the common welfare.

Fascism’s rise in Germany coincided with New Deal America. This was the period when our country passed and enforced anti-trust laws. It was the time of establishing minimum-wage laws to expand the middle class, of increased corporate taxation to even the costs of government, of the creation of Social Security. It was the season of public employment through the Works Progress Administration, as part of a national effort to rebuild the infrastructure, promote the arts and further conservation. As an economic policy, that worked, and worked far more successfully than Germany’s special-effects blitz of high productivity through stealth and ever-expanding war. The permanent war economy self-destructed in Europe.

Inasmuch as we still have a functioning democracy at work today, it’s well worth noting how a democracy “failed” across the Atlantic some seventy years ago. Similar intimidation and coercion surround us today, as the threats to curtail our process are always present. I like the language Harry Truman used when campaigning: “Are the special privilege boys going to run the country, or are the people going to run it?” Clearly, the time is at hand for more sense and for less privilege. Along the journey, this book makes a mighty fine read.

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