Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The orchestration of incivility" Or Grass-Roots Spontaneity?

When surveying the current ruckus over the pending health care reform legislation, one has to wonder how best to understand it. An attempt to understand is necessary if a proper response is to be constructed. While it might be fun to imagine, as D. Aristophanes does, a kind of "USA!USA!"-style fist pumping by liberals, I don't see that happening. My own perspective tracks more toward wondering how to deconstruct the web of connections among various anti-reform groups, industry-backed lobbyists getting the word out to generate unruly mobs, and the very real fear and rage that is always at the heart of part of the American right whenever social change is proposed.

While it is pretty clear that there is enough evidence that, at least initially, the gathered mobs shouting down Cogresspeople, carrying signs, and whatnot were created not so spontaneously by anti-health-care-reform groups based in Washington, the entire movement seems to be spinning a bit out of control. With the specter of an individual bringing a loaded firearm to a town hall hosted by the President, we are entering a new and dangerous phase. Yet, there is still the question of how best to go about addressing the whole chicken-egg question, as well as describing the political and cultural gulf that exists between the vast majority of Americans who harbor no ideological preconceptions other than a desire to get the facts and figure the issue out on the merits, and the fringe groups, left and right, that seem to be the focus of so much media and internet attention.

Bob Somerby, for one, insists that liberals should not be engaged in insulting our fellow citizens by talking of "paranoia". We should be focusing, rather, on what Rick Perlstein calls those who orchestrate incivility. While I wish I could endorse Somerby's fair-mindedness, Perlstein's catalog of the long history of the right's venomous rage and fear directed at everything from expanded mental health support to Richard Nixon's paranoia shows that there is, indeed, a "tree of crazy" (Persltein's phrase) that is a part of the American flora. Somerby's attempt to make liberals aware that it might be more fruitful to address the issue of who is leading the current assault, rather than focus on this or that individual who becomes a mini-celebrity by getting interviewed on cable news smacks a wee bit of a kind of liberal patronizing - "Oh, look at the poor misguided person who doesn't get that he/she is being lied to; lets look over here at who has lied to them, rather than at the really crazy they represent, shall we?" - that is as infuriating a part of our national character as the right-wing crazy currently on display.

Make no mistake; the phenomenon Perlstein outlines is real and long-standing. Ignoring it out of some kind of phony high-mindedness will gain no political advantage and only deepen the social and cultural bitterness that is expressed by the howls of rage at various venues around the country this month. Persltein is also correct that the cable news outlets share some of the blame (he also mentions Michael Savage, but I think many of talk radio and cable news chatterers also deserve to mention as enablers of this very dangerous moment). Were our national journalists a bit less pusillanimous, the kind of garbage being spread via Sarah Palin's Facebook page and viral emails might be dismissed as so much crap worthy of flushing down our collective memory hole.

This is not the first time, as Perlstein also notes, that the Republican Party has danced with the devil in the American soul in an attempt at political advantage. Robert Taft thought Joe McCarthy a disgrace, yet he indulged the drunken boob's megalomania because he saw a way to tear down the Democrats and gain electoral advantage for the Republicans. Richard Nixon, also, indulged McCarthy, and engaged in similar, though less crass, behavior, although there is ample evidence he believed none of it. Rather than face the false choice presented by one right-wing spokesman quoted by Perlstein - "Either this is a genuine grass-roots response, or there's some secret evil conspirator living in a mountain somewhere orchestrating all this that I've never met." - it is necessary to make clear that no such false dichotomy exists. The underground sea of rage has always been there in the United States, it is sad to say; it has been tapped on occasion by elites seeking this or that advantage, only to come close to being a bloody nightmare (or an actual bloody nightmare, as the body count during the Civil Rights era demonstrates).

For example, it might be nice, from a liberal point of view, to point out to the father who insists his handicapped child would be denied care under the reform package currently under consideration that, in fact, the opposite is true, such reassurances would fall on deaf ears. It is sad to say that such persons are immune not so much to rational discourse as to what they perceive as elitist disdain gussied up as rational discourse. The woman who believes that health care reform will, at some point, through some bizarre mechanism, lead to rationing of toilet paper, is not helped by any kind of rational exploration of her views on MSNBC. She becomes a spectacle, a part of the freak show.

So, we need to acknowledge that there is, indeed, this festering boil of hate and fear in our national psyche; there is also the elite opportunists who attempt to harness it for no other purpose than foiling an attempt at social change. The specific connections among various industry-backed and -created groups, members of Congress opposed to health care reform, and folks around the country who live this fear in their daily lives needs to be pointed out clearly, not so much to untangle it, or to dispute it, or to "debunk" it. Rather, once we recognize the complexity of this contemporary manifestation of our national psychosis, it might go a long way toward putting it to one side. In that way, we might actually achieve real health care reform, and decades from now we can look back and wonder at our own foolishness.

Virtual Tin Cup

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