By Dr David Laing Dawson
In the 1988 presidential debates Mike Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty should his wife, Kitty, be raped and murdered. A long time opponent of the death penalty, Dukakis responded to the startling question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.”
It struck me at the time that Dukakis missed a moment in which he could be human, present himself as fully human, and at the same time as worthy of being a president.
He could have answered, “Of course. If a man raped and murdered my wife I would want to disembowel him; I would want to kill him in a manner that caused him maximum pain and suffering. Which is exactly why we have laws, and courts, and due process. Which is exactly why it cannot be my choice as victim or survivor to decide in the heat of the moment what should happen to the accused or convicted. Which is exactly why, to remain a civilized people, we must decide on appropriate penalties that will keep us civilized, that will not harden or poison our souls, that will not undermine our social contract. If the state does not value life, why should its people?”
And herein lies a human dilemma. We are biologically not far removed from chimpanzees and great apes. Our instincts, our immediate emotional responses, have been honed for years as jungle tribes. We guard our own watering hole. We are reluctant to share. We distrust the other. We are greedy. We are vengeful. We are easily brought to rage.
But, at least since the second world war, with many attempts before then, we have managed to overlay our primate instincts with a social contract that includes the rule of law. We have elected many leaders who could see beyond their primate selves and form alliances, be inclusive, share watering holes. We have created international forums, unions, agreements. At least in much of Europe and North America.
But those primitive instincts remain, the ones that led to the Holocaust, the massacres in Bosnia, the plight of the Rohingya, the destruction of Syria, the building of walls. They lie not far beneath the surface of each human. It is our collective that can overcome them, and that collective must have leaders and lawmakers who can see beyond their immediate fears and desires. Leaders and lawmakers who appeal to our better selves.
We always have had would-be leaders who could reach in and stoke our fears, fire up our distrust and hatred, get us ready to pick up torches and weapons, defend our watering holes from thirsty strangers, set upon those unlike ourselves in our villages. But, for the most part we have rejected them and chosen instead the Merkels and the Obamas. Trade has flourished. Europe has seen a long period of peace, cooperation, and open borders. Overall the people of this planet live longer and healthier lives than ever before.
I am writing this because a cousin asked me to write about the current struggles in Austria, where a far right fascist party has gained enough support to become part of a coalition government. This is happening seventy-two years after the death of Adolf Hitler, 90 years after the early Nazi’s received only 779 votes in a general election in Austria (1927), and 79 years since Nazi Germany annexed Austria.
I know little of the intricacies of Austrian life and politics. But this resurgence of the far right neo-fascist movement is occurring nearly everywhere in the west. Its leaders are appealing to our primate instincts, our rat brains. And this time, just as in the years between 1927 and 1938, they are finding more and more people responding to their simple message.
They stoke our fears and our grievances. Some of these are real. Most are manufactured or displaced. They point the finger at the other, the cause of our trouble. We respond and chant “Lock her up.” “Build a wall.” “Divorce Europe.” “Stop Immigration.”
We should have learned, especially Austrians, where this can lead. But apparently we didn’t.
Neo-fascism, jingoism, isolation, the breaking of alliances, the undermining of cooperation and the weakening of our international institutions will not fix our problems. And from recent history we know exactly where this trend can lead.
Our instant access of unfiltered world wide information, some truth, some fake, has us grossly exaggerating our risk. We find ourselves afraid of events that have a miniscule chance of occurring. We fear a terrorist attack more than we fear riding a motorcycle, when clearly death by motorcycle is far more likely than death by terrorist. Donald Trump can make us fear illegal immigrants when that, statistically, should be the least of our worries.
We do have real problems, problems big enough to spell the end of a habitable earth.
Paradoxically, these real problems can only be addressed by the unified, cooperative, inclusive, citizenry of one planet. These real problems cannot be addressed by walled off, exclusive, defensive separate states, each populated by a homogenous group of humans who feel they are the chosen.
We are really all at risk because of an interrelated set of developments:
- Over population
- Extremely uneven wealth distribution
- Man-made global warming.
- And a large subset of problems that flows from these three.
We can change this, turn it around, make progress, but only if we can function as the citizenry of one world, only if we have strong international institutions, only if we recognize that we will survive together or perish alone.