What is one to make of a world where two men find the gumption and motivation to drive 2,500 miles from Arizona to Washington to testify before a willing Congress that a law they were mooting was “an attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government”?
Apparently that it is, in fact, a rather old world.
While this nonsense might seem to be culled from the red-dripping column inches of today’s top stories, it in fact occurred in 1963.
As the presidency of Barack Obama dawned many people, myself included, looked forward to a bit of a holiday from the rancorous screaming and pseudo-populist uprising that characterised the presidential campaign. A sweltering summer of angry denunciations, race-baiting, and macho chest thumping gave way to… a summer of angry denunciations, race-baiting and macho chest thumping, however. Many snarky, proto-liberals feverishly typing on sites like Reddit and the Huffington Post ask “don’t they realise they *lost* the election?”
The question is, of course, asked of the Sarah Palin-set; the disaffected, largely white, proudly ignorant exurban Americans who feel left behind by an era that is increasingly too fast and too cosmopolitan for their liking. Much of their resentment is nigh on systemic, a functional consequence of the changing of the ages. A world where America is less dominant, where national champions like GM are on the dole, a world where women and minorities are coming to power and becoming wealthier than them- that is what they perceive, and it is among a welter of things that scare them. This has led to the now all too sickeningly familiar histrionics about ‘death panels’, ‘Marxism’, and the racism streaming out from that movement at the half Black president they see as responsible for their woes and ready to turn them into his slaves.
Yet this is nothing new, as the example that began this column illustrates- and it hardly stands alone. America, lest we forget, is a country that fought a bloody Civil War- which represented a bubbling over of long simmering regional tensions that had roiled under the surface since some four score years prior. Lest we forget, that war was in response to the election of a liberal president (incidentally a tall chap from Illinois himself). But I do not say this to whip up fear about those who fancy themselves latter-day revolutionaries.
Rather the opposite: to remind you that these people, however loud, are nowhere near as powerful, numerous, or even organised as the forces that came to form the Confederacy were. Nor will they ever be.
Liberal fear has taken to the airwaves with a broad wingspan, many indirectly or even openly musing about fears that the incessant teabagging of a loud minority could lead to an assassination of President Obama. Many are calling much of what we’re seeing here now “unprecedented” or some version thereof.
I’ll admit, even I believed it for a little while.
It is an alluring thing for those of us on the Left to assert that our opposition is not only delusional and paranoid but simultaneously dangerous. I forgot my history, however, and a bit of my wisdom. Let me explain.
America is the land of a rapaciously anti-immigrant party called The Know-Nothing Party. They thrived in the 19th Century, again in response to that fiendish force known as “change”, and took their name from the fact that its members would disavow any knowledge of the group if questioned, hence the name “Know Nothing.” Never mind that taking your act mainstream defeats that purpose, but hey, who’s counting?
Aside from being the nation that fought that bloody, destructive Civil War, we are also the nation of Father Charles Coughlin, a fiery radio pundit whose fierce condemnations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration were seen by some as over the top and scary. He routinely attacked FDR’s supposed socialism and anti-Americanism. In those days, when corporations thought the war against the New Deal might be won, they too went to the movie theatres and newspapers peddling their propaganda in the hopes that they could sway the masses against Roosevelt’s policies. They were aided and abetted by radical loudmouths such as Coughlin and those who listened to his show.
Did I mention his audience was estimated to be in the tens of millions?
He began his radio career supportive of Roosevelt’s policies (using no less propagandistic rhetoric, such as “Roosevelt or Ruin”) but became outspoken against them later on. Like a few modern padres I could name, he had the odd quality of railing against both Wall Street and socialism as two sides of the same cancer rotting away what supposedly made America great. This is nothing new either.
We are also the land of Joseph McCarthy, erstwhile Senator of Wisconsin, whose paranoia was so well documented and understood that it became an –ism.
We are the America of The Turner Diaries and Timothy McVeigh, a domestic terrorist who belong to a small fringe movement that feared the Federal Government. We are the America of Hillary Clinton’s much ballyhooed “vast right wing conspiracy,” a long running campaign by the Republican Party and its media allies to bring down Bill Clinton by any means necessary, creating false rumours about the Clintons murdering an advisor who actually committed suicide, or of running an Arkansan cocaine smuggling ring.
Let’s widen the lens a bit more. We are also the America of Roswell and Area 51. We are the America of “fluoride in the drinking water”, and belief that the Freemasons control everything. We are a land where conspiracies involving banks, the CIA, the UN, corporations and hippies have all become best selling novels, movies, or mainstream political concerns, fears, or platforms.
In sum, what is new and unprecedented about the Tea Party protestors? Their anti-intellectualism and disdain for learning? (This is easily enough evidenced by countless historical errors on their signs, to say nothing of the misspellings.) In 1964, eminent historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a history text entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which chronicled both a long history of the same and its then-present manifestations. Perhaps the racism is new? That’s a little trickier.
To be sure, racism has often been a factor in attacking the government. Martin Luther King was tarred as a Communist agent provocateur numerous times by his foes. Many held aloft signs saying “Integration is Communism.” But here again, a simple reality. This isn’t new. Many who occupy this radical fringe in American politics often cite demographic change as a major fear: fear of immigration, fear of integration, and all the attendant, hyperbolic worries that would accompany that (losing jobs, losing culture, etc.) This also says nothing of the incredibly long, embarrassing stain that broader racism has left on our culture.
The only difference now is, fundamentally, a positive one. At long last, an African-American is president. Thus the strains that have for so long been in America’s radical fringe, anti-government activism and racism, combine. It’s an ideological two for one special. But it is not unprecedented, merely adapting to yet another glaring loss for the movement.
Indeed, that is another matter that needs to be observed. These people have lost, consistently. Can we honestly say we are the same nation we were in 1865? 1935? 1955? 1965? Hardly. As the Tea Baggers demonstrate, we still are yet to shake some of our worst cultural habits, but they aren’t exactly stopping us from shaking many others. The Tea Baggers have always been with us, like the nagging devil on America’s shoulder, arguing with an army of angels on its opposite. They hem, haw, and bay at the moon, but they may as well try to stop the tides with a toothpick.
Which brings me back to my earlier point: why are liberals rushing to give them so much credit, authority and power? To say that if these people don’t quiet down, we risk a presidential assassination is hyperbolic, and frankly quite stupid. To say that they may drag us into an abyss from whence there is no escape is equally bereft of reason. It is, in short, itself a form of paranoia in American politics to give this fringe such credit and power. It is the same mistake America made after 9/11, building up a ragtag, impoverished, moribund foe (al-Qaeda) into an apocalyptic threat. In so doing they breathed new (albeit temporary) life into the movement and vastly overreacted, doing more long term harm to our interests and the world.
It would be more than a little annoying to see the Left do something equally stupid and easy.
To say that the mad rantings of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck will produce a Timothy McVeigh or a presidential assassin is akin to saying violent video games cause school shootings. They don’t. Any half decent social scientist or psychologist will tell you there is no causal relationship. Rather, the opposite occurs. People who are *predisposed* to this behaviour are drawn to violent media. Ergo, any right wing terrorists we may have are already predisposed to this behaviour, and are merely drawn to the extant media that reinforces those beliefs. But to imply that if only Fox News didn’t exist, these potential killers would automatically wise up, read the New York Times and say “ohhhh, so I was being an idiot. Huh. Whoops. I’mma buy a Prius now.” Is incredibly, monumentally intellectually dishonest and naïve.
Some on the Left pine for an age of civility in the media and politics that they say is long gone. To them I ask, can you take me back with you to your home dimension? It sounds rather kickass.
Behind the sepia glow of the 50s and 60s is, of course, layered a political society that was every bit as vitriolic, churlish, populist, and scary as anything we have today. If anything, it was worse. Whatever Michelle Bachmann’s insane fantasies are, she will be no Joe McCarthy. Few would grant to her or any other paranoid Republican lawmaker the same tolerance and credibility McCarthy had. The media, meanwhile, was no less insipid and irresponsible. We just remember the shining good bits of journalism and forget the countless thousands of wasted, supine and spineless hours that surrounded it in the dull everyday nightly news of the day.
We forget that the Washington Post of Woodward and Bernstein’s day was much shorter and very unoriginal, reprinting things mostly off of the AP wire, as well as advertising. Breaking the Watergate scandal was, in part, so remarkable because it was a singularly rare moment; not just for the newspaper but for the press as a whole. By that measure, the media was in no more of a golden age than the press we have today.
But this all strays from the fundamental point: fearing the Tea Parties is as foolish as participating in them.
After all, revisit my examples. Who remembers those two paranoid Arizonans? Whose name is heroically associated with the Civil War and who are remembered as the villains? Joe McCarthy has more space in history textbooks- but only for historians to pillory him; his sole legacy being the aforementioned –ism. You may learn about the Know Nothings if you take a college history course. Maybe. Father Coughlin is a mere historical footnote who might make a good 500,000 dollar question on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Meanwhile, enemies of the paranoids are today lauded as heroes. Lincoln, FDR, even immigrants, have glowing roles in American history.
Does anyone honestly believe Glenn Beck will fare any better?
Whatever Obama’s triumphs and failures, it is they that shall be writ large in history’s pages, while the Tea Parties and the media following they command, may perhaps be a footnote in an advanced studies text in my great-granddaughter’s day.
We do not live in an America where the president would watch a play unguarded, or drive around in an open top limousine, and a nation where our Secret Service has learned from the mistakes of the past. An assassination of President Obama is highly unlikely. Furthermore, if anyone even *tries* it’ll be a tossup as to why. Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin was motivated by little more than a desire to impress a movie star he was stalking.
Lest we also forget, there was no Fox News when McVeigh and his comrades plotted their evil.
This is, however sinister and annoying it may be in its turns, a part of America’s distinctive life and culture. Do not make it into the very apocalyptic nightmare that these paranoid maniacs themselves fear.