January 06, 2005

Homeland

I don't know whether I'll follow Amber's lead (via Will Baude) and do the 50-book challenge this year. I will, however, try to blog about the books I read a bit more often.

Homeland, by Dale Maharidge, looks at how the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the "war on terror" that's followed has affected working-class America. The book describes the fervor with which some economically dislocated blue collar workers adopted a hyper-patriotic nationalism in response to 9-11, and the damage this has done to people who've dared to question the Bush administration's authoritarian response. Meharidge tells the stories of Katie Sierra's suspension from her West Virginia high school for wearing an anti-war T-shirt, the anti-arab response by underemployed workers on Chicago's southwest side, and the effort by white-supremacist groups to use the country's new nationalist mood to recruit members.

The stories Maharidge tells are fascinating, but they're not particularly shocking or numerous. This is why it's hard to immediately agree with him when he compares the nationalism of post 9-11 America to Weimar Germany. Maharidge is careful to point out the limitations of his comparison, though:

As history shows, everything about the Weimar era was steroid-packed with extremes--violence by thugs that no modern democratic society would tolerate, bizarre currency fluctuations, a Great Depression. In the recent war, the nations of Europe had lost millions of citizens. There was stunning bitterness across the continent.

It may seem inconceivable to us that a new Hitler could emerge in modern times, trying to force armed revolt, suspending elections, dragging a country into a world war. The latter could only happen under a weak parliamentary form of government. The American two-party system may be flawed, but it's much harder for a fringe group to gain power.

As for race, the norms of contemporary society would not allow open racial hatred (p. 163).

The interesting thing about this book is that it forces you to ask the question: how precisely is American hyper-nationalism different from that of Weimar Germany, or from pre-Mussolini Italy, or from the Balkan states in the 1990s? Certainly we have something in common with all of them. We've got a growing number of unemployed and underemployed workers who are frightened both by their bleak futures and by the threat of more terrorist attacks. We've got ideologues like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh who aren't shy about using this anger and fear for their own partisan ends. We've got a President who capitalizes on fear to justify the extension of the state's police powers. George W. Bush gives the rich huge tax cuts while simultaneously engaging in preemptive war, driving up deficits and increasing the financial burdens on government services.

Where will all this end? We're a long way from fascism, but how much should we be worrying about trends that seem to be taking us closer?

My own first thoughts are that we should be worried. If I believed that the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq were necessary to counter a real terrorist threat, that would be one thing, but I don't believe that either was necessary. Both were probably counterproductive.

Meharidge describes America as divided into ideological thirds: the extremes of right and left, and the middle. His book is a description of how working-class citizens in the middle can fall under the spell of the far right. Maharidge has seen things that convince him that American ultra-nationalism is a real threat. Although I haven't seen the same things myself, I think I'll keep his warnings in the back of my head somewhere. Hopefully, I won't ever need them.

Posted by Carey at January 6, 2005 07:03 PM
Comments