Nature abhors a vacuum, or so Aristotle taught us. That may not be true as a physics theorem, but it is certainly true of the history of human affairs. It was a vacuum of leadership that allowed the great monsters of our time, Hitler and Stalin and others, to gain power and work their epic evils.
One of the great mysteries about these historical nightmares is why the people under the rule of these monsters did not rebel and throw them over. Even Hitler, with his carefully crafted programs of propaganda and repression, had relatively few enforcers under his command compared to the population as a whole, and that population was one of the most highly educated and intelligent peoples in the world.
The answer to that question has, no doubt, many layers, and people far more informed than I have no doubt explored the answer at a level far beyond my abilities. Whatever that answer may be, the phenomenon itself is a perfect illustration of the venerable adage, attributed to C.P. Snow and others, that the veneer of civilization is exceedingly thin. Over and over, in literature and in photographs and now daily on social media, we see descriptions and pictures of people who, while presumably also peace-loving parents and children, spew out mindless hatred and bigotry. I have in mind, as I write these words, those gruesome photos and films of ordinary citizens cursing Jewish men, women and children as they are ripped from their homes and led to unspeakable torture and death. I have also in mind the smiling faces of white men and women standing under the bodies of black men strung from trees. Those people no doubt went home and ate dinner, and they got up on Sunday and went to church, and they went home and hugged their children and tucked them neatly in bed.
Whatever else it was that drove these people to accommodate these hideous deeds into their otherwise civilized lives, one conclusion must be drawn: that whatever they had identified in their lives as of value was, at base, vacuous, empty, meaningless. Nothing identified as a true, meaningful value could ever have allowed these nightmarish occurrences, and yet there can be no denying that they did indeed occur. Whatever God they worshiped, whatever cultural practices they followed, whatever family values they espoused — all of that was sufficiently specious to allow them to engage in activities so monstrous that, if called savage, would be an insult to the word “savage” itself.
Recently a dear and wise friend suggested that the recent political discussions made him conclude that it was within the realm of possibilities for American citizens to engage in some event comparable to Kristallnacht. That night, in November, 1938, a horde of German and Austrian citizens smashed Jewish businesses and places of worship and beat and killed scores of Jewish people who were themselves German citizens. That brutality set the scene for hundreds of thousand of Jews to be sent to concentration camps, and ultimately to the massacre of millions of innocents.
I initially scoffed at my friend’s observation, but then I put it before myself as I listened to the most recent debate in the race for a Republican candidate for President. I watched Donald Trump insisting over and over that we must uproot millions of undocumented aliens from their homes. I heard Jeb Bush denounce Trump’s suggestion on the grounds that it was “not possible.” Oh, I thought, but what if it were? Would you do it then? Because, with just a small change in policy, it would be possible.
I know you are thinking that all of that is ridiculous. This is, after all, America. But here is the problem: do we know what it really means to be an American? In theory it means that we endorse the principles that all human beings are created equal and that every human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights. In practice, however, I am hearing more and more that to be an American is far different from that, and, to my mind, far less than that.
I put it to my dear reader that there is, in America, a growing dearth of ideals, and that dearth is edging toward a vacuum. Our policies are far more often guided by more parochial, more economic, more self-centered goals than Jefferson’s earth-shaking definition of the American ideal. When political positions are assumed not on those ideals but on the size of your wallet or the color of your skin, the veneer of your civilization threatens to become diaphanously thin. If it does, it takes only some relatively trivial event to tip your world into a nightmare akin to Kristallnacht.
I hope and pray that my dear wise friend is wrong. I fear that he is not.