How lucky it is for rulers,” Adolf Hitler once said, “that men cannot think.” The horrors that followed in Nazi Germany might have been easier to explain if Hitler had been right. But the problem is not so much that peoplecannot think but that they do not think. Or if they do think, as in the case of the German people, that thinking becomes muddled and easily led.
Hitler’s meteoric rise to power, with the support of the German people, is a case in point. On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in full accordance with the country’s legal and constitutional principles. When President Paul von Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler assumed the office of president, as well as that of chancellor, but he preferred to use the title Der Füehrer (the leader) to describe himself. This new move was approved in a general election in which Hitler garnered 88 percent of the votes cast.
It cannot be said that the German people were ignorant of Hitler’s agenda or his Nazi ideology. Nazi literature, including statements of the Nazi plans for the future, had papered the country for a decade before Hitler came to power. In fact, Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, which was his blueprint for totalitarianism, sold more than 200,000 copies between 1925 and 1932.
Clearly, the problem was not that the German people did not think but that their thinking was poisoned by the enveloping climate of ideas that they came to accept as important. At a certain point, the trivial became important, and obedience to the government in pursuit of security over freedom became predominant.
We see this same scenario being played out in America today where analytical thinking has given way to a steady diet of mindless entertainment and endless distractions. Rejecting community in favor of self-gratification and isolation, we have in essence become an atomistic society, a characteristic of an emerging totalitarian society.
Connected to all our technological gadgets, we are increasingly disconnected from each other. Even when physically crowded together at entertainment spectacles such as concerts and sports events, we fail to truly communicate with one another. As author Alex Marshall observed, Americans live “in one of the loneliest societies on the earth.” All the while, with little outcry from the citizenry, the government has erected a surveillance state, slowly transforming itself into a centralized, authoritarian bureaucracy that is gobbling up our civil liberties on a daily basis.
Woefully ignorant of the freedoms given us by our forefathers and their subsequent erosion by our government of wolves, Americans rarely come together to strategize on how to maintain our freedoms. Indeed, most Americans do not even engage in meaningful discourse about pressing issues of national and international significance. And as studies show, Americans know much more about trivia (such as the names of the Simpsons and the Three Stooges) than they do the Bill of Rights. For example, less than one percent of adults can name the five rights found in the First Amendment. And, as one study recently found, only three percent of high school students can pass the U.S. Immigration Services and Citizenship exam. Incredibly, of those from foreign countries aspiring to be American citizens, some 93% who took the same test passed. However, as those who wrote the Constitution warned, a citizenry ignorant of their rights would lose them.
Plain and simple, American educational institutions no longer teach children about their freedoms and how to exercise them. But it gets worse. America currently spends well in excess of $40 billion annually on public education. Yet the numbers are undeniable: in comparing the literacy level of adults in seventeen industrialized countries, America was number ten on the list. And 16- to 25-year-olds underperform their foreign counterparts as well. Moreover, they do so to a greater degree than do Americans over 40. And with the loss of literacy goes a critical ingredient in maintaining freedom–citizens who think analytically.
Thus, ignorant of the very basis of citizenship and overwhelmed by the informational glut of modernity, it is little wonder that many, ostrich-like, are allowing an out-of-control government to move forward unimpeded. Yet while most may feel snug and secure in their technological wombs, they are only temporarily keeping the wolf at bay. Hiding from reality is not the solution. In fact, non-participation by the citizenry only makes matters worse. “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote,” the drama critic George Jean Nathan once remarked. I would add that bad officials will run roughshod over citizens who are clueless.
Thus, for whom does the bell toll? It tolls for us. Everything America was founded upon is in some way being challenged. At stake is the very foundation of the American democratic system. And while it may be easy to fault a particular politician, event or the media– television, in particular–for the state of our nation, the blame, as the renowned CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow once noted, rests with us. Amid the Red Scare of the 1950s and the Joseph McCarthy era, people were often afraid to speak out against the paranoia being propagated through the media and the government. Fear and paranoia had come to grip much of the American population, and there was a horrible chill in the air. But with great courage, Murrow spoke up. On March 9, 1954, on his CBS television show See It Now, Murrow said the following–a statement very apropos for today:
We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies, and whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create the situation of fear; he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”