The Anatomy of Intolerance

Connect the dots:

Many Americans (and politicians who the polls) don’t want a mosque at Manhattan’s Ground Zero.

An increasing percent believe the President is a Muslim.

Most Americans approve of Arizona’s new law allowing police to stop anyone who looks Hispanic and demand proof of citizenship.

Most would deny citizenship to children born in the United States to parents who are here illegally.

Where is all this coming from?

It’s called fear. When people are deeply anxious about holding on to their homes, their jobs, and their savings, they look for someone to blame. And all too often they find it in “the other” – in people who look or act differently, who come from foreign lands, who have what seem to be strange religions, who cross our borders illegally.

Americans who feel economically insecure may even become paranoid, believing, say, that the President of the United States is secretly one of “them.”

Economic fear is the handmaiden of intolerance. It’s used by demagogues who redirect the fear and anger toward people and groups who aren’t really to blame but are easy scapegoats.

It has happened before.

Economic crises animated the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements, the Chinese exclusion acts, the Ku Klux Klan in the economically-ravaged South, and the anti-immigrant movements of the early decades of the 20th century.

In different places around the world, mass economic stress has had far worse results. At its most extreme it has spawned genocide.

We are far from that. But it’s important to understand the roots of America’s growing intolerance. And to fight the hate-mongers and cynical opportunists who are using the fears unleashed by this awful economy to advance their own sordid agendas.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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