Readers Write: Populism a response to economic stress

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John O’Kelly makes some valid and highly important points in his rebuttal (issue of Dec. 30) to the letters from other readers critical of his initial contribution.

It is incontrovertibly clear that his views are given Constitutional protection by the First Amendment, and that the Port Washington Times enjoys a similar right to publish those views — provided, of course, that the language is not obscene, scatological, or otherwise degrading.

As O’Kelly suggested, demands for censorship of unpopular or even blatantly incorrect opinions, as well as a proposal to boycott a newspaper because it published such opinions, violate the Constitutional principles of free speech and freedom of the press and are inherently un-American.

He is also on solid ground by stating that ad hominem remarks are both uncalled for and, more importantly, ineffective in the development of points in a debate.

However, O’Kelly displays and even reinforces the biases that evoked the protests by other readers.

He asserts his opinion as though it were fact that those who differ with him about the role of the U.S. are actually “fronts” for some insidious but unnamed forces bent on undermining their — and our — country.

He then adds that “the role of the media and of George Soros in assisting Clinton and opposing Trump is well documented,” as though they — and all other individuals — as well as the news media should not have every bit as much right to support the candidates of their choice as vigorously as he and his fellow conservatives do.

That right of all citizens, regardless of race, color, creed, or country of origin, is the very essence of democracy; to suggest otherwise is a profound violation of American principles.

O’Kelly is, in my opinion, also correct that war is bad for the country.

Indeed, I consider it bad for the victors in wars as well as for the losers; even though the U.S. was fortunate to be sheltered by two great oceans from the devastation suffered by countries that were ravaged during the two world wars, too many American families lost fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, who died or were grievously wounded in the hostilities.

Furthermore, O’Kelly seems to overlook in his assessment of the harm inflicted by war that Soros, who survived World War II and the Holocaust as a child in Hungary, has probably had more direct, personal experience with war and its consequences than O’Kelly and, thus, has an understandable motivation to do his best to avoid or at least mitigate the conflicts that all too often lead to war.

In his defense of “populism,” O’Kelly may have forgotten, overlooked, or chosen to ignore some lessons of history.

In Germany in the 1930s, Adolph Hitler cultivated and intensified the populism that arose from the defeat in World War I and the subsequent economic misery compounded by the victors’ insistence on reparations; the very title of the national anthem, “Deutschland Ueber Alles” (Germany above all others) expresses that sentiment admirably.

We all know how that turned out.

In Italy, the Fascist government of Mussolini, as well as the more recent, albeit less painful, leadership under Silvio Berlusconi proved to  be disheartening experiences with “populism.”

In the U.S., it is virtually unanimously agreed upon by economists of just about every theoretical stripe that the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 — a classic example of economic populism — was a significant contributing factor to the intensification of the Great Depression that battered our country, as well as nearly all of the rest of the world.

And, finally, because O’Kelly’s name indicates his Irish heritage, it’s pertinent to point out that, in much of the 19th century in the U.S., a potent expression of populism was the anti-Irish hysteria on the part of the more populous residents of English and Scottish ancestry who decried the allegiance of Catholics to the Pope and considered them a threat to the new nation’s social and cultural stability.

In sum, populism is not, contrary to O’Kelly’s conviction, a “natural” state.

It is, instead, a sporadic occurrence in history that reflects what is hoped by many Americans to be a temporary response to periods of economic (and perhaps social) stress that is relieved when leadership — of whatever party and, in the context of democracy, of whatever political philosophy– is able to restore in the nation a sense of common purpose.

And an essential role in that process must be played by the news media, the role of which is to report fully and accurately — with due respect to the opinions of those reporters and their employers — on the conduct of government and the foibles of its elected leaders so that, in a true democracy, a well-informed informed public is able to reach reasonable conclusions about the political philosophies of the contending parties and the merits of the various candidates for office who run under their banners.

Robert Adler

Port Washington

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