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Fred Kowal: To What Does This Lead?

Fear. Fear of the other. Fear of the outsider. Fear of change. Fear of everything. Anger and Rage. At the rich. At the system, whatever that means. At our innate powerlessness.

So much of what passes for political discourse today is about fear and anger. Yet, fear and anger have no place in a republican system of government, where an enlightened population learns about and considers all sides of issues before choosing a representative, and where those representatives take up thoughtful debate of those issues.

In the real world of politics today, in this nation and in so many other democracies, this idealized view of a republic has been abandoned. Instead, fear and anger are the chosen weapons of candidates, voters and – most of all –the President of the United States.

Throughout American history, there has been a tradition of expressions of anger in politics, but much of it could be considered “righteous anger.” This kind of anger is what fueled the Civil Rights Movement, and before it, the Women’s Rights Movement. Such anger summoned our nation to higher ideals, in the hopes that our republic could be protected. These movements called out evil, but rarely – if ever – did the movements stoke rage at particular individuals or institutions. The goal was to expand freedom through equality, not to destroy the “other side.”

Certainly, fear has gripped our society at certain times, but never has it been generated and fostered as it is by Donald Trump. In times of war, or economic calamity, our leaders have cautioned us to avoid fear, to embrace unity and to work with determination to overcome whatever challenges we faced. We all remember FDR’s classic words during the depths of the Great Depression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And I recall the shock and horror of the September 11th attacks that were followed by calls by our nation’s leaders to unite against this evil. President George W. Bush, whatever one may think of him as a president, spoke out aggressively against scapegoating those of the Islamic Faith. He was rightly commended for that.

I’m concerned that our politics are veering more and more to the extremes. That for candidates – especially those running for national office – to win election, they must stoke anger and fear. For the left, the enemies are corporations, the rich, and any institutions that reflect what they see as supporting the rich and powerful. For the right, the enemies are immigrants, communities of color, those pursuing expanding freedom for individuals, and institutions of government. And both extremes utilize the proliferation of media to fire up their supporters.

How, I ask, can our elected officials be able to govern in such a climate? A republic lives and breathes through compromise. If those on the other side are evil, there can be no compromise. Any compromise with them would be rejected by the extremists.

Yes, I fear for our republic. In these toxic times, moderates are dismissed as sell-outs. And those of us in higher education struggle as we challenge our students to think analytically about political, social and economic issues. Of necessity, in the social sciences – and, for that matter, the hard sciences – all positions are to be challenged. Developing critical thinking skills is central to higher education. It is becoming nearly impossible to get students to challenge their own positions, to examine them carefully, and to determine which most closely aligns with the facts. Most disturbing of all, I have heard students reject fact-based analysis as simply opinion. And everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Well, not exactly. As Winston Churchill once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not their own facts.

If we are to keep our democracy, our republic, and preserve our civil society for future generations, we must strive to be open-minded and free of fear and anger. We must understand that there are legitimate reasons why some Americans are fearful and angry. For those of us in education, we must instill in our students a healthy respect for all perspectives and a love of the search for truth.

To put it simply, we must assure each other that it’s really not that frightening out there in the world. Real progress to a better society will only occur if we turn our anger into constructive deeds that will build a better America.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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