Fear, Populism, and Empathy

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Here’s an exercise in empathy. Please take a few minutes to browse the far-right American news website WorldNetDaily. Resist the urge to write the site off as self-parody, and ask, What’s going on here? I think the basic answer (identified by many cultural commentators) is fear: the site is steeped in less educated and less powerful Americans’ fear of social, economic, and political forces they don’t understand.

Is this fear irrational? The WorldNetDaily writers are clearly grasping at straws (the TSA, rigged home energy meters), but their readership’s wide-ranging mistrust seems harder to dismiss. At present, millions of Americans are without jobs, and some are without homes, because of the complexities of the domestic and global financial system. As these people struggle to carve out a secure and comprehensible life, perhaps some have misidentified the threats they face, but are the real threats not equally arbitrary and monolithic?

In general, how much of our amusement at American right-wing populism is actually amusement at the vulnerability of people whose exposure to the risks of spiraling complexity far oughtweighs their understanding of it? Will our condescension help this feeling of powerlessness, or inflame it? When we graduate and take up roles in the national and international system, how will we think of the people whose lives we affect? Will we prove populist fears wrong, or right?


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