Should American democracy ever vanish, it will end — like the world in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” — “not with a bang but a whimper.”
That somber warning was sounded by one of America’s top journalists, Fareed Zakaria, while delivering the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA last week.
Zakaria, 54, born in India and a self-described “nonpracticing Muslim,” is the host of the eponymous Sunday morning CNN television program, frequent contributor to The Washington Post, and, in the judgment of Esquire magazine, “the most influential foreign policy advisor of his generation.”
The annual Pearl lecture, usually given by a top journalist or veteran public figure, commemorates the life and brutal murder of the young Wall Street Journal bureau chief by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.
The remembrance of Pearl’s death melded with the gist of Zakaria’s warning that this country’s and the world’s democratic values are endangered not by the “bang” of a fascist or communist takeover, but rather the “whimper” of a gradual erosion of long-held standards and ideals.
The erosion is a worldwide phenomenon, but if anyone currently embodies the threat, said Zakaria, it is Donald Trump by virtue of his position as president of the United States and his gradual chipping away of various traditions of behavior and civility.
The world’s democratic values are endangered not by a “bang” but by a “whimper” of a gradual erosion of long-held standards and ideals.
What we are seeing under Trump, he observed, is the collapse of the Republican Party as a gatekeeper of democracy, and the question is whether government agencies will be able to preserve their independence.
Markers in the erosion of standards are the nondisclosure of Trump’s tax returns and an almost daily demeaning of the media, Zakaria said. He warned that future presidents would now find it much easier to ignore past standards and taboos.
During some 90 minutes of stand-up analysis, one-on-one interview with professor Kal Raustiala, director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, and questions from the audience, Zakaria displayed a preternatural grasp of international affairs.
On China: Through a “Make China Great Again” policy, the country’s leaders are raising China’s global standing through economic, rather than military, power.
On Russia: It is now a “spoiler state,” which feels that it gave away too much after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the country also has an interest in economic stability, which, for instance, affects the price of its oil exports.
On North Korea: Its regime is playing a clever game of deterrence. It will take serious work, not flippant insults, to strike a balance with Kim Jong Un’s regime.
In a rare note of optimism, Zakaria said that despite some chaos at the top, American institutions were still robust, although he particularly deplored the decline of a vibrant local press on the state and municipal levels.
There are, however, also worrying signs elsewhere. Turkey “has become the world’s leading jailer of journalists,” he observed; Hungary and Poland are slowly destroying a free press through economic and financial pressures; and even in England and Israel, there are attempts to limit press freedom.
Zakaria was introduced by Rabbi Aaron Lerner, director of the co-sponsoring Yitzak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life and by UCLA professor Judea Pearl, who with his wife, Ruth, heads the Daniel Pearl Foundation, commemorating their slain son.
Judea Pearl is also a world authority in computer science and artificial intelligence, and even showed his biblical chops by quoting, in Hebrew and English — from the biblical Prophet Zechariah (no relation to the evening’s speaker).