Page Two: Red-State Specials
In this political climate, reasoned debate turns easily to ideological hate
This "I pledge allegiance to fanaticism and the one knowable (by me) truth" approach transcends ideology, party loyalty, any kind of appreciation of those with whom we disagree as presenters of principled, well-meaning opinions. It is a position embraced by the hard left, the hard right, and most of those in between as well.
This is not to suggest that this is a new attitude or merely a current fad. Historically, our political and social interactions haven't changed that much, and when they have, the shifts have rarely been dramatic; rather, changes were usually so painstakingly slow, they seemed nearly immobile. It wasn't as though people in earlier times loved to engage in constructive debate and were anxious to listen to others' thoughts.
But it does seem to me, in the era of the Bush administration, that this tendency to glibly dismiss others' opinions is more pronounced, and the lines of separation more officially sanctioned, than ever. But that's just how it seems to me, and, even in thinking back over my lifetime, I understand that the present carries the greatest weight and that ideological despair can shade and revise one's previous perceptions.
Listening to the toll-road crowd cheer on any politician who came out against toll roads as "brave" is just one local example. Politicians agreeing with the masses, especially when they change their minds to endorse the currently popular position, are rarely being brave. They may well be honest and principled; the decision may well have been reached for higher reasons than simply political popularity; but they are not brave in fact, they are anything but brave.
One of the specific designs of the Constitution was to insulate some of those in power from the will of the masses. Supreme Court judges were appointed for life, senators elected for six years and presidents for four, precisely to achieve this insulation. The explicit idea was to give them the breathing space between elections to govern by a principled consideration of what is best for the country rather than being tossed about here and there by the popular prejudices or passing fancies of the greater electorate. House members with two-year terms were more subject to the will of the people in order to preserve a balance of power, offering a rich array of ways to detour or block governmental passions or whims.
The problem is not international bankers, those damn Democrats, the Trilateral Commission, the Marxist-Jewish conspiracy, manipulative secret leaders of the New World Order cabal, multinational corporations, Republican partisans, right-wing talk-radio hosts, the (nonexistent) liberal bias of the media, satanic anti-Christian fanatics, Masons, or the too-much-maligned American Civil Liberties Union. The problem, in fact, is not some easily definable enemy, but instead, as Pogo pointed out so long ago, "Yup son, We have met the enemy, and he is us."
(Note: In the above disclaimer, I leave out the current Bush administration and the Republican Party's elected and official leaders. Reluctantly and regrettably, but especially given the lunacy of the Iraq invasion, I have to note that while they are not to blame for all problems, they are still slightly which, in the scheme of things is a nearly unprecedented amount more culpable than any other administration or party regime in my lifetime. Which is to damn them as much as any group can be damned in the floodwaters of current events.)
The problem is not malevolent leaders, evil businessmen, visionary but satanic bankers. It is not pure evil trying to swamp our pure good. It is the billions of people on this planet with conflicting opinions and wide varieties of moral, ethical, ideological, and religious beliefs. The problem is not simple; the solution is not common sense. As humans, we face an endless array of complex and difficult-to-resolve issues. Demonizing those we don't know, like, and/or agree with is convenient but then, so was having the villains wear black hats in B-Westerns. Neither actually create meaning, are based in reality, or actually consider genuine, real-world problems but they sure make things easy.
One of the few things I will acknowledge as truth, however, is that in issues involving human beings, almost nothing is even close to being in any way easy.
The people of this country have responded to the modern world, the growing and ever-closer international community and thus the terrors of the unknown by uniting in good old-fashioned conservatism. There has been an amazing return to traditional American values, especially those we had long attempted to abandon and, if not achieving that, at least had made relatively impolitic to openly endorse. These also range from the right to the left although, out of hand, I reject the right-wing fantasy of a liberal-controlled United States: We are and have always been a conservative society that has rarely drifted to the left enough to come close to crossing over the border of the moderate middle.
The range of the ideas and attitudes that are now accepted ideological currency is astonishing. Racism, although never really having left, is now officially back, cloaked in the language of the anti-affirmative-action, "true civil rights" movement and the irrational hysteria over illegal immigrants on the right and in the spiritually distinctive privileging of the oppressed by the left. American chauvinism once again dominates our international dialogue, with the firmly held belief in the United States' moral, economic, political, and religious superiority serving as the tent pole of basic policy. Gone is any sense of or pride in this country as an international melting pot boasting not just an ethnically religiously, racially, ideologically, and spiritually diverse population but actually that much stronger for it.
Christian superiority and privilege is clearly articulated in the overt religious prejudice of the claim that, in a country that is more than 80% Christian, Christians are somehow being oppressed and suffering discrimination. The same brand of deity-blessed, theocratically based government demanded by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists is being championed in this country as a reasonable response to that position. In their case, it's Islam; in this country's, it's Christianity. But it is all theocracy, as American religious activists are trying to trump the Constitution's clear separation of church and state. Class distinctions are in, with not just this country, but its richest class, clearly best loved by God. The poor are just being lazy.
Post 9/11, we have openly embraced the old ways. Our enemies are evil; the U.S. is good. Those who hold different opinions or beliefs are wrong; the racial, ethnic, and religious superiority of white, Christian America is right. As if those who loved silent movies could banish sound from the screen, the political currency of undiluted, anachronistic ideologies is back in vogue. Jingoism, imperialistic arrogance, manifest destiny, ethnic stereotyping, nativism, and xenophobia all once regarded as at least seriously diseased, if not completely irrelevant are again daily specials offered on the menu of political thought.
Nonchalant anarchy, anti-globalism, class prejudice, simplistic anti-capitalism, willfully naive Marxism, constitutional ignorance, and self-righteously blind moralizing are just as much the rage on the left, but they've never had the power of the right nor ever had even close to the influence attributed to them. Many leftist groups engage in a certain kind of insulated, anti-American whining in which they indulge in the same kind of good guy/bad guy imaginings as the right, but their impact is far more rhetorical and far less legislative than that of those who have come to idealize the status quo.
In the new year, however, I'm planning on initiating a new nonprofit organization for those, on the right and the left, in despair over our government. It will raise money to pay for the travel and lodging of any commentator of any ideology in any medium who asserts that this country is already a police state controlled by a fascist regime to go live in a country run by a fascistic dictatorship. This is not a "love it or leave it" position, by any means. These trips will be four-, six-, eight-months long, and then awarded recipients will return home. The only requirement is that they continue to offer their opinion in their new locale in exactly the ways they are now offering it here: on the radio, in pamphlets, through letters to the editor, in publications, on access TV, and the like.
We are all opposed to having others' morality imposed on us. Yet almost all of us insist that certain of our beliefs represent such immutable, rock-solid, unquestionable morality that, if not cooperatively honored, they must be legislated. The conservative right's assaults on personal freedoms, pro-choice PETA members' throwing red paint on furs being worn on the street at some point, on some issues, we are all fascists. "We have met the enemy and he/she is us!"
Jean Renoir famously said that the truly terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons which is not to say that others have bad reasons but instead that most people, even many of those now fighting United States troops, believe that what they are doing is right and in service of the common good.
Chester Himes noted that, under the right circumstances, any one is capable of anything. Think about what that means, not about others but about yourself. Instead of being absolutely right and in service of justice, under certain circumstances, you are capable of any action.
In Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film Third Generation, guests visiting a house play a game titled "Who Would You Have Been in Nazi Germany?" Forget declaring yourself a member of the resistance not only was the active resistance microscopically small, but such a claim for oneself would be cheating. The question is: What are you, yourself, capable of, given certain circumstances, societal pressures, and accepted societal norms? It isn't very pleasant to think about.
Robert Frost once said that "poet" is a gift word. You can't call yourself one; the name has to be applied to you by others. Whenever I hear folks saying they are patriots or their ideological take is not an opinion but the truth or that they are closer to God than all other people or they are pure and moral in an immoral world or anything along those lines, I reach for my gun. These are all not just gift terms, but, when self-applied, they are symptoms of a rancid fascism that, if it were manifested politically, would promise only intolerance and oppression.
This holiday season, in the last column of 2006, I offer complexity without simplicity, complicated problems lacking easy solutions, the difficulty of human interaction rather than the strategies of evil, the accidental course of history and economies rather than the conspiracy-theory simplifications of evil manipulators. I offer nothing concrete, only the vague, nothing absolute, only the journey.
Now, if that all isn't your cup of tea, I recommend listening to the new low-power "liberty radio," available at different frequencies depending on where you live in Austin. This is a network offering a variety of shows that not only cover a nearly encyclopedic range of classic and modern conspiracy theories but insist that you are listening because you are one of those rare patriotic Americans who can "handle the truth." Cleverly, they are no longer "9/11 conspiracy theorists" but instead belong to the "9/11 truth" movement. I especially hope you'll listen to a number of shows that offer the kind of vicious, vehement, and overtly hostile anti-Semitism that I have read about but never actually encountered before. I do not confuse anti-Israeli politics with anti-Semitism, but I also don't believe that ideologues can disguise or mute their hysterical hatred of Jews by simply beginning each vicious attack by saying, "I'm not an anti-Semite."
Some helpful hints: When they say "Talmudists" (as in, one who worships the Talmud instead of the Torah) for "Jew" they mean, "stinking kike." When they talk about how Ashkenazi Jews (Eastern European) are not really biblical Jews, with the only "race pure" Jews being Sephardic (Iberian), they mean, "kill the stinking Jews." When they point out that the satanist Marxist Zionists Jews were the ones really responsible for the Russian Revolution, they mean, "Hitler was right." And one of the few times they mean exactly what they are saying is when they point out that, after all, the Jews killed Jesus. I mean it: I've read about this kind of hatred, and I've seen reproductions of Nazi and Islamic fundamentalist, anti-Semitic fliers and literature, but I've never heard it offered up so openly and hatefully in this country as part of the mundane, daily political dialogue.