As we lurch toward the end of the twentieth century, it is easy to think that our public discourse has gone through a core meltdown. The cold war is over, and we are free from the fear that our leaders will blow up the world. But we are menaced by a whole new world of pretexts for people to kill each other. Ethnicity, religion, nationalism, all old and venerable forces in politics, are erupting today with new brutal fervor against all those defined as “other.” Wilsonian “self-determination of peoples,” a vision so dear to liberals of the early twentieth century, now looks like little more than a preface to Milosevician “ethnic cleansing,” a pretext for destroying the peoples next door.
Demagogic chauvinism is thriving all over— in Eastern Europe, in Central Africa, in India, in the Middle East, in our own ghettos and universities, inside Washington’s Beltway—who knows where the next flash point will be? What today’s demagogues have in common is the power to persuade masses of people that they have nothing in common with each other, and to arouse them to treat their chosen others as nothing. The burning question for our fin de siècle turns out to be the...
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