Monday, August 17, 2009

In Defense Of "The Crazy Tree"

The scene would be familiar to anyone watching video feeds of recent Town Hall events. A group of people, some carrying signs denouncing the President as a socialist, others calling to an end to tyranny, some screaming, others demanding a return to the constitutional principles of the founders, some just incoherent. This isn't a scene from our recent town halls, though. Rather, it is the prescription for obstruction sent out by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, in the mid-1960's, to fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These instructions, as reported in George Thayer's revised The Farther Shores of Politics: The American Political Fringe Today, published in 1967, has several chapters on the American right at the height of the Goldwater insurgency. Yet, this right-wing insurgency included not just mainstream conservatives such as Goldwater. There were racists, states-rights supporters, the militia movement, and just plain weirdos, such as those who desired a revival of Nordic religion, including such inscriptions as "Odin Speed to Valhalla . . ." on orders sent out to various members (that's even the title of a chapter in Thayer's book).

The names and issues have changed. It is no longer Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson who are President, but Obama. It is no longer Civil Rights or Medicare, Vietnam (which some on the right saw as a way to distract attention from the graver threat in Cuba) or the nascent anti-nuclear movement that are the targets, but health care reform. One could read "Islam" in many of the quoted pieces in Thayer's book where the word "communism" appears. It's uncanny, really.

Bob Somerby is not a fan of Rick Perlstein's piece in the "Outlook" section in Sunday's Washington Post.
The analysts were filled with disgust at Perlstein’s sneering analysis. He name-called a lot of those “working-class people,” engaging in the very conduct he had described to Coolican. But he certainly didn’t spend much time naming the “elites” who drive this cynical culture. And Perlstein knows about those elites.

Unfortunately, Somerby does a little name-calling himself, pointing out Perlstein's upbringing in a tony suburb of Milwaukee, education at the University of Chicago, and what-not, as if any of that were relevant. Somerby also points out that one of the person's highlighted in Perlstein's piece is described in a derogatory manner; Somerby wishes that Perlstein had pointed out some other set of descriptors. Alas, this is a false choice. The man in question may, indeed, be a working-class rube, being played by high-flying elites to do their dirty work for them. At the same time, he is part and parcel of a long history of crazy, a portion of which is highlighted in the aforementioned book the George Thayer. Somerby may find it patronizing to call crazy people crazy. I find it patronizing to treat them as simple misguided souls who, if only given the proper information by a properly functioning press corps would work in their own best interests.

Perlstein is, unfortunately for Somerby, correct. The tree of crazy has been with us from the beginning. Before the internet, mimeograph machines and cheap postal rates made printing up newsletters to be mailed out to fellow-believers incredibly easy. These helped feed and water the crazy tree. Before the newsletter was the broadside and pamphlet; the internet is only the latest iteration in the long history of connecting with like-minded folk for political action.

We do ourselves no favors to be patronizing, treating the crazy folk at town halls as anything other than what they are - just plain nuts. Sure they're misinformed, too. But, it isn't a contradiction to note they are both wrong and loony.

Virtual Tin Cup

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