Note: This is a guest post by Dr. Vincent Gaddis, Professor of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Benedictine University.
As the United States prepares to elect its 45th president amongst unprecedented gridlock, vitriol, and a divided country along economic, racial and social lines, it is surprising we still think terrorism is the greatest threat to our freedom and the democracy that is the United States. A longer, more critical view of America in the last 30-35 years reveals a deeper, uglier reality that is bubbling up and making itself visible in unexpected ways across this country’s vast political and economic spectrums. The greatest threat to democracy, the greatest threat to America, the greatest threat to our future, is not terrorism, it is nihilism.
Nihilism, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.” More generally, it is the rejection of authority in the face of hopelessness. This is the threat we face. It has been a harbinger of death in the black community for over a generation of inner city youth who saw no future for themselves other than prison or the grave. The policies of this country helped produce that nihilism. With over 2.3 million Americans in prison, and over 7 million in the system if you include probation and parole, with over half of those in the system African American and 86% of all prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses, the nihilistic threat is growing. When we look in inner cities like Chicago and see young black men engaged in the horrible violence that attends the underground economy, we stand in shock, yet we have created the very mechanism for this extreme violence.
Let’s go back in time to the late 70s as jobs left in manufacturing, leaving blacks who had long been treated as a source of surplus labor as colonial subjects inside a socially constructed, hyper segregated reality, an underground economy grew around drugs as they and guns came in and capital, education spending, job training and other bridges to the 21st century economy were burned. This was the beginning of the nihilistic threat. What was the point of continuing to believe in a government, in an authority structure that since the passage of the Civil Rights bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had made only grudging concessions to a nascent black middle class, but for the vast majority of blacks, white supremacy in all its forms appeared to be more “covert” in the sense of no signs pointing out colored bathrooms, yet more pernicious and vicious as ever more blacks were denied the vast economic opportunities still reserved, so it seemed, for all those outside of the ghetto. The police state appeared even stronger and the incidents of police brutality and structural racism, for those willing to see, became even more obvious and destructive to black lives. Ultimately, a sense of what Cornell West called a profound since of ‘aloneness’ and hopelessness began to grip those at the bottom. Caught in a reinforced underclass, stripped of dignity and then blamed for America’s ills, the country witnessed the first explosion of nihilism in the L.A. riots of 1992. As Florence and Normandy burned, Korean store owners armed themselves and blacks rampaged an area the outside said was their community, but those inside of the area realized was not their space, but rather, they were trapped there by policies of red lining, white flight, physical barricades and food desserts, no one appeared interested in the question, why? Why was America so unwilling to address the realities of racism, white privilege and poverty? Why were the police allowed to beat and torture African Americans at will? Why do we not see that when people are isolated, angry, and resentful and oppressed that they lash out- regardless of our raised eyebrows?
The last twenty years have not eased the nihilistic threat. Now, 1 in 3 African Americans are involved in the criminal justice system, the underground economy has entrenched itself in communities that more resemble Homms or Aleppo than American cities that once were the centers of global economic domination and the growth of a diverse growing middle class with, although small, open avenues none the less for some blacks to get to the middle class through higher education or skilled labor. In typical neo colonial form, in the collapse of the manufacturing economy, the surplus labor of the ghetto was shifted to the new growth industry, prisons. The war on Drugs of the 1980s, the crime bill of 1994 and the continued advocating of a state of siege of black communities in lieu of any sustained, rational development strategy meant crack, cocaine, heroin, mandatory sentencing, three strikes and you’re out. The last 25 years have witnessed an all-out assault on black lives. Police brutality continues practically unchecked. Men like John Burge convicted of almost twenty years of torture of black suspects, unarmed men gunned down like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, stop and frisk, broken windows policy all accompanied by a continued drain of resources and a failure of black leadership on a national, legislative level did nothing but grow the nihilistic threat. Add to that the reality that a felony conviction means for all practical purposes social death- the almost complete ostracization of the felon from society and the body politic (in 9 states, even after completing probation and parole, the ex-felon still cannot vote) and the threat grows. Add to this a cultural shift that legitimizes the nihilism by equating manhood with doing time, and a flood of weapons and drugs and you have record numbers of African Americans caught in a web of murder, police brutality, state sanctioned violence; lack of investment in the community, the destabilization of the family, and you have a generation that in large measure (but not all of course) has succumbed to the nihilistic threat.
Of course, for most of America, as long as the nihilism in the black community doesn’t appear to be leeching out into the mainstream, out of sight out of mind. But that has been the miscalculation, the incomplete analysis. Why is Trump leading the Republican polls? He has tapped into an anger, primarily of white, working class men, who feel threatened by a host of what they see as aliens- immigrants, Muslims, “Radical Jihadist Muslim Terrorist Extremist Freedom Killers,” blacks, women and many manifestations of ‘the other.’ Closer to reality, they are angry and threatened by globalization and the changing demographics of the country, they see a potential end to their white privilege and they want someone, anyone to listen to them. They feel isolated, threatened, alone and hopeless- they suffer from the nihilistic threat. And so it is on the left. The Sanders critique of capitalism has struck a nerve in those living paycheck to paycheck, resentful of the lazy, manipulative 1%. They see themselves working hard every day yet falling further and further behind. In many ways they are two sides of the coin of nihilism. The politics of the last eight years, the politics of obstruction, fear mongering and hate has turned both parties into harbingers not of hope, but nihilism. The rise of the Tea Party was another manifestation not of hope, but fear, not confidence, but nihilism. Particularly for those who became members of the Tea Party, the nihilistic threat was very real. Globalization and immigration had threatened their economic position, and with the election of Barak Obama, Tea Party members saw in him the manifestation of all their fears of losing “their” country, and so the rally cry “we want our country back.”
The disregard for people’s lives in Flint, Michigan who are suffering catastrophic levels of lead in their drinking water, a man made crisis created by an unelected city manager appointed by the republican governor is another example. As more information comes out of the willful negligence of the governor and those who were supposed to protect the people, anger and hostility is rising. Look at the conditions of inner city schools, let alone life, and yet we sit in our suburbs with our feet up on the couch thinking it can’t happen ‘here’ and yet, somewhere in the back of our minds, we are afraid that’s not true. Growing numbers of those who were in the middle class, are now in poverty, and a larger proportion of those still in the middle class hang on, one paycheck from homelessness, upside down on their mortgages or already foreclosed on, are seething with anger at government, and capitalism, at themselves- the nihilistic threat is alive in the suburbs. Need some more evidence? Explain the epidemic of heroin in upper middle class white communities.
What shall we do? How do we kindle the flames of hope? How do we struggle against the virus of aloneness when we have become so atomized? My solution is radical, it is old and it can work. We need a revolution in values. We have to come to realize that the answer to nihilism is community. That requires a revolution in values. Pope John Paul II recognized this when he defined community as vital participation between people working for the common good, built on a foundation of recognizing every human being as unique, unrepeatable, and deserving of dignity and respect. That requires a revolution within each of us to overthrow our prejudices, whatever they may be. It will require us to overthrow our self-centeredness, our fear and recognize that as Martin King Jr. said, “we are bound together in a web of mutuality.” We have to see each other as human beings and recognize that the values of a self-centered, highly individualistic, highly competitive, fear based, society rooted in extreme materialism and war mongering and race hatred will not only destroy our freedoms through nihilism; it will destroy our planet as well. Only when we evolve to a higher state of cooperative economics that reigns in capitalism can we begin to hope. Only when we, as Dr. King said, reorient ourselves to be a society focused on the well-being of others rather than creating identity through the things (including people) we possess, can we begin to hope. Only when we enter a world where we see “man as man,” can we have hope. We must have a revolution in values and recognize that only through such a revolution do we stand any real chance of defeating the nihilistic threat.