Entitlement, Patriotism and Fascism

Submitted to Spokane Faith and Values on May 15, 2020.

We’ve all been hearing recently about protests that are taking place as a reaction to some of the more disturbing ramifications of social distancing. It is only natural that a rebellion should arise, while so many Americans are out of work and forced to stay at home. Naturally, people begin to feel oppressed under such circumstances, and it is to be expected that some would take to the streets.

However, there is something unusual about the nature of these protests. We see people showing up at City Hall with assault rifles, waving American flags, flaming with indignation over their privileges having been removed. Ostensibly, tyrannical governors are to blame. There is a feeling that these anti-American authority figures are exploiting the current crisis in order to rob their constituents of their Constitutional rights.

alt right protesters
Protesters outside City Hall in Topeka, Kansas on April 23, 2020 (Jay Biggerstaff, USA Today Network.)

One such protest occurred in Spokane earlier this month, in response to Gov. Inslee’s having extended the stay-at-home order through the end of May. Their rallying cry was: “Freedom is the cure!”

But let’s examine that statement. Is freedom, in and of itself, a “cure?” What does the word “freedom” suggest in such a context? And what does that freedom cure? Obviously, to put oneself and others at greater risk of contracting a deadly disease could not possibly be a cure for that disease. But what does it cure? Where is the healing power in an excessive show of freedom?

We need to start thinking like Americans again,” one of the protesters is quoted as having said. But how is an American supposed to be thinking in such a situation? Is it “American” to demand personal freedom at the expense of the health of countless others?

It would seem that such an attitude is actually antithetical to the spirit in which this country was founded. Here we have been taught since grade school that each of us has the right to do whatever we want to do, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. But the more wanton form of freedom that these protesters appear to be advocating does interfere with the rights of others. If people are going to be congregating in my vicinity without wearing face masks or paying attention to my need that they be safely distanced from me, that interferes with my right to take reasonable care of my health.

So it can’t possibly be really about freedom. What it’s about is entitlement.

In a USA Today article dated April 29th, former Chief of Homeland Security and Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge has this to say:

These self-absorbed and selfish Americans complain they are irritated, anxious, bored, upset — unhappy that their lives have been affected by this temporary restraint on their freedoms.”

Ridge, who was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for his service in Vietnam, is keen to clarify that true patriotism is not about entitlement – it’s about sacrifice.

In this war against the indiscriminate and lethal enemy, nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers and countless other health care workers are serving on the front lines. While wearing a different uniform, they are surely putting their lives at risk just as I did as a young Army staff sergeant 50 years ago.”

Ridge continues: “As a veteran, I look at these protests with a different perspective and believe many veterans would agree.”

One can only imagine how people displaying such a flagrant sense of entitlement might appear to heroic men and women who have made great personal sacrifices in the service of their country. It is also disturbing that these demands would be associated with “patriotism.” If prisoners of war who loved their country could serve years in foreign jails, why cannot our own citizens, professing that same love for America, last out more than a couple months of sheltering in their own homes?

It is understandable that with all the economic and emotional factors involved, the nature of social distancing would drive a lot of people mad. But that’s not the point I’m driving at. It’s the combination of entitlement with patriotism that is of concern here.

It’s one thing to have an entitled attitude. We run across it all the time. It’s another thing to mix entitlement with nationalism. And where have we seen this before? The spirit in Nazi Germany might not have been much different than this.

Hitler’s followers committed abhorrent atrocities in a spirit of total entitlement. In addition to feeling they had the right to participate in the murder of six million Jews, they felt justified in targeting the weakest elements of society – the disabled, the terminally ill, and the homeless – and sending such people to concentration camps and to their deaths.

While I don’t want to indulge a trendy comparison of modern America to Nazi Germany, I think it is interesting to see where such references emerge and who is saying them. Often, we find people accused of being “Fascist” by the very people whom I observe to be moving in the direction of Fascism.

At a Trader Joe’s in Palo Verdes, California, a woman was kicked out for refusing to wear a mask. Her reaction was captured on video, where she went on and on about this being the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” The inference is that they had no right to remove her from the store. The truth is that store owners have the right to decide on whatever policy they choose.

What is even more interesting is that the people who promulgated this video on youtube, who call themselves the “Lockdown Channel,” refer to the people wearing masks as “sheep” and to those who enforce such rules as “Gestapo.”

She advises the employees and customers that the fear of a pandemic is being used to take away our freedoms, there is no law or reason to wear a mask and that they are acting like Gestapo and Sheep!”

In reality, there is nothing about setting a store policy regarding the wearing of masks that even remotely resembles the actions of a force composed of nearly 600,000 Germans who by the end of World War II were killing thousands of people every day.

But there is something about the combination of entitlement and patriotism that resembles the spirit of Fascism that engulfed Germany in the 30’s. If we are to look at today’s events in light of history and reason, we need to be careful to discern where the nexus between Fascism and America truly lies.

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The Homeless Link

Below is a verbatim transcript of my column Rebuilding Trust by Strengthening the “Homeless Link” as it was recently published on the independent news site, Spokane Faith and Values, under the editorship of Tracy Simmons.   

When asked to write about our need to address the erosion of trust in our national consciousness, the first thing that crossed my mind is that I’ve never fully succeeded at rebuilding trust on a personal level. But I don’t think this failure is unique to me alone.

In today’s society, when friendships or business relationships go sour, it is much more likely that one will simply “move on” than that a person will expend the energy needed to repair a broken relationship. After all, such an energy expense is often painful, and people don’t like to endure pain unless it’s absolutely necessary. And with so many options for replacing unfavorable associations with more promising ones, why should one concern oneself with mending fences?

Through increased mobility and the phenomenal interactive potential of social media, it’s more accurate to depict people as jumping several fences in succession – more-or-less like hurdles in a track meet – than going back to mend any of them. The unusual ease with which people sever their personal contacts these days is assisted by the fact that through electronic communications and social media, one is able to block, delete, or ignore someone completely unilaterally. People take advantage of this convenience, often without prior word of warning or common courtesy.

Though social media has the potential to build bridges, it also helps us to burn them. Our worlds have become increasingly fragmented, and it is common on instant messengers for people to drop out of conversations abruptly and leap over to a new conversation without answering the last question or even saying goodbye. How can trust possibly be built when so many interactions are left incomplete?

Moreover, busy people may receive 500 emails a day and not have time to answer five of them. We have come to accept non-response as a response, but what does that response say? We have no idea, really. We only know that they won’t talk to us, we don’t know why, and the mass phenomenon of all this electronic dismissal, one of another, has eaten away at the morale of an entire nation.

If we’re going to think about rebuilding trust, we need first to consider that there will never be trust at the expense of communication. This applies not only to personal relationships, but to human associations at all levels of society. We don’t trust our educational system, we don’t trust our clergy, we don’t trust the politicians whom we have elected to represent us, and we certainly don’t trust corporate officers. While I would be the last to advocate a reactionary return to a less inclusive era, I will be the first to propose that a revival of misplaced values such as common courtesy and mutual respect would be a good place to start if we are to go about rebuilding trust on a grander scale.

Our devaluing of respectful communication is, to my view, a function of our inordinate love of personal pleasures. It is natural that in a culture so fraught with danger, we would seek escape in diversions that distract us from our troubles. But for many, it has become more important to feel good than to do good. When given a choice between feeling good and doing good, we often choose the former.

A man storms out of the house after an argument with his wife. Instead of returning to bless her with a surprise bouquet, he takes that money to a poker game and escapes into a night of male bonding with the boys. We take our ten dollar bills to the movie theater in order to entertain ourselves, and we ignore the beggar outside the theater whose life might end in the cold that night if he doesn’t get two dollars for an all-night bus pass. We justify our self-serving nature by rationalizing that the person on the other end of our avarice has made bad choices in their lives, and that they need to learn from their mistakes by being deprived of basic needs. But we are neither gods nor goddesses, and no human being is in the moral position to judge another for their station in life, especially when we have no idea what the conditions were that got them there.

As cities become more congested, and the rapid pace of life accelerates, we stigmatize. We hesitate to take the time to listen to the unique stories of those who cross our paths. Instead, we view people according to what “box” we can place them in. The box of leftie. The box of drug addict. The boxes of codependent, feminist, fundamentalist. The list goes on and on. We judge people according to their “boxes,” rather than recognize them as the unique individuals whom they are.

Nowhere is this stereotyping more flagrant than in typical attitudes toward the homeless. Every homeless person has their story, and I have found that these stories are generally told truthfully. But because of our fast-paced agendas and stigmatic notions as to what the homeless are about, we don’t stop to engage these fellow citizens, especially if we feel interrupted. People do not like to witness visible poverty in all its ugliness, so we turn our heads away from the very people who may need our attention the most.

In hearing any stranger’s story, of course we will have doubts as to its veracity. In the case of a homeless stranger’s story, one often suspects it is only a covert plea for financial assistance. But how do we know that if we don’t stop to hear them out? The fact is, unless the homeless person is visibly drunk or loaded, we have no idea how they are going to spend that money. A recent study by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction estimates that 27 percent of homeless people are drug-addicted. Yet I have lived in big cities where homelessness and drug addiction are thought to be synonymous in the eyes of passersby.

Well, we think, if we give the homeless person food, then we’re still doing good, and we’re on the safe side. So we drop some food off every now and then and wash our hands of the matter. What matter? The matter that we haven’t engaged them, we haven’t heard their voices. We haven’t made no effort to discern whether a hand-up might be more applicable than a hand-out.

I’m not suggesting we cease to feed the hungry. I’m suggesting we get to know the hungry. Talk to a homeless person about something other than their homelessness. Take the time to learn what kind of person they are. Do they want to remain homeless all their lives? Some do. Most don’t. The only way we come to find out is by involving them, by treating the homeless with dignity — as equals, with respect — and not as lesser sub-human mutants or inanimate objects to step over around and over whilst they sleep.

That is the core of the true homeless problem, and it also would be a great place to start in rebuilding trust within the society as a whole. If we want to restore unity in a divided culture, why don’t we first bring inclusion to those who have been the most abandoned? In doing so, we could conceivably inaugurate a chain reaction, and trust may be ignited all the way up the scale. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. What link could possibly be weaker than that of the homeless?

I say we strengthen the Homeless Link. Provide for a homeless person neither pity nor judgment, but encouragement, hope, and respect. Maybe — just maybe — this is what it will take to renew the lost strength of an entire nation.

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