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Robert Reich

Economic fears breed intolerance

In times of economic turmoil, many find it easy to blame 'the other.'

By Guest blogger / August 24, 2010

People participate in a rally against a proposed community center near ground zero in New York, Aug. 22. Economic uncertainty fosters fear, and fear can lead to anger and intolerance of 'the other.'

Seth Wenig/AP

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Many Americans (and politicians who the polls) don’t want a mosque at Manhattan’s Ground Zero.

An increasing percent believe the President is a Muslim.

Most Americans approve of Arizona’s new law allowing police to stop anyone who looks Hispanic and demand proof of citizenship.

Most would deny citizenship to children born in the United States to parents who are here illegally.

Where is all this coming from?

It’s called fear. When people are deeply anxious about holding on to their homes, their jobs, and their savings, they look for someone to blame. And all too often they find it in “the other” – in people who look or act differently, who come from foreign lands, who have what seem to be strange religions, who cross our borders illegally.

Americans who feel economically insecure may even become paranoid, believing, say, that the President of the United States is secretly one of “them.”

Economic fear is the handmaiden of intolerance. It’s used by demagogues who redirect the fear and anger toward people and groups who aren’t really to blame but are easy scapegoats.

It has happened before.

Economic crises animated the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements, the Chinese exclusion acts, the Ku Klux Klan in the economically-ravaged South, and the anti-immigrant movements of the early decades of the 20th century.

In different places around the world, mass economic stress has had far worse results. At its most extreme it has spawned genocide.

We are far from that. But it’s important to understand the roots of America’s growing intolerance. And to fight the hate-mongers and cynical opportunists who are using the fears unleashed by this awful economy to advance their own sordid agendas.

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The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.