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The rise of intolerance in America

I have to report a problem and I don’t know how to deal with it.

One of my professors, Karl W. Deutsch, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, wrote a book in which he showed the connection between violence, the speed of integration and the relative size of the integrating group.[1] Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders were certainly correct that it’s hard to go slower than the centuries it has been taking to incorporate the African-American people into the body politic. But we liberals are changing America and to the wrong wing it seems we are doing it very fast. We’re changing American morals, what you can see in a movie theatre or on your screen (though many of them watch), our sexual codes, who can marry and what they can do together, religious pluralism replacing a strictly Christian perspective and our acceptance of people of darker hues. And the people of color seeking integration into American culture is proportionately large. Frankly I am infinitely more comfortable in gatherings in the Black community than I am with the wrong-wingers who challenge the very idea of mutual acceptance and respect. The polls are making it clear that the pushback, the violent pushback, is coming from the racists who can’t imagine living in a multi-color world, are terrified and outraged by it. What Karl Deutsch uncovered many decades ago scares me.

Some of us have been reporting for years on the connection between so-called patriot militias, gun sales, and a gun culture that has gone way beyond hunting and become political and racist, indeed revolutionary as their literature and signs proclaim. I certainly don’t mean everyone who owns a gun but it doesn’t take all of them to create a huge problem. The political use of weapons became obvious in the shooting of members of Congress like Gabby Giffords, the armed insurrection in Michigan, at the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere. Domestic terrorism, much of it wrong-wing, has become the number one form of terrorism in the U.S. Threats of violence are being built into statutes and “normalized” as part of American politics. The social science literature tells us that the prevalence of guns predicts the end of democracy.[2] But we have not been able to do anything about it until very recently, not just gun control, but combat it via law enforcement and terrorism investigations and prosecutions. In other words the wrong wing has dug in politically and are blocking any attempts to hold them in check. So they get ever more dangerous.

Thomas C. Schelling, wrote a very famous article[3] in which he showed that in any population with a distribution of feelings about living near neighbors who differ in such ways as race or religion, even where most people are fine with it, the community will resegregate because those most nervous will move out and the community will become proportionally more dominated by the other group. Good riddance perhaps except that the next most nervous group will move out until the community resegregates.

My own Albany neighborhoods have been integrated and I like it that way – some of the people of color have been students of mine and I’m delighted to have them as neighbors. It’s also clear that the neighborhood is slowly darkening because there has been no violence and lots of acceptance. I like a polyglot world and feel quite safe in it, but I’ve no idea who will leave, and what part color will play in their decisions. If integration improves understanding, resegregation does not.

In other words I don’t see good and peaceful solutions. Edward R. Morrow used to end his broadcasts by saying “Good night and good luck.” Yes, for all of you, in spades.

[1] Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1953).

[2] I described and cited the literature in Unfit for Democracy (NYU Press 2016), particularly Chapter 8, at 175-77.

[3] On the Ecology of Micromotives, 25 Public Interest 59 (Fall 1971).

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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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