A blog by Barry Edelson

The Summer of Hate

"The primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralyzing uncertainty."
— Lewis Wolpert
"Anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."
— Christopher Hitchens

In this summer of our discontent, it is difficult not to despair of humankind and of the odious manner in which that discontent has been broadly conveyed over the issue of health care (of all things). History overflows with examples of members of our species behaving badly, many far worse than those we have witnessed over the last two months from a small but shrill segment of our population. Americans, we are told, are exceptional. Sadly, many Americans this summer have proven themselves only too ordinary in their willful ignorance, susceptibility to the ranting of demagogues, and callous disregard for the welfare of their fellow citizens.

There is much that can be said about the health care "debate", but little that would provide much in the way of illumination. Anyone who would bother to read this, or anything else written by an advocate for comprehensive reform, does not need persuading that a pregnant woman of little means is no less "deserving" of prenatal care than any other woman, or that a child with unemployed parents who is stricken with asthma is no less "entitled" than anyone else to excellent medical care at a hospital. Nor does it bear explaining why arranging our society in such a way that the poor are no more likely to die a premature death from heart disease or diabetes than the rich does not constitute a socialist redistribution of wealth. But enough ink has been spilled and air polluted about health care already. Besides, the summer of hate is obviously not really about health care reform at all.

I have watched extended excerpts of a number of the televised "town hall" meetings conducted by members of Congress, and what strikes me in every instance in which tempers have boiled over is how much they resemble many of the hundreds of school board meetings I have attended over the last 20 years. Whenever a divisive issue rises in the public consciousness, there is never a shortage of louts and loudmouths to step to the microphone and attempt to exploit the situation for their own various reasons, be it ideology, a general anger, or mere vanity. Whatever the motivation, the scenario is so astonishingly similar that one could write the script in advance: The irate citizen presumes to lecture and hector his elected host about any manner of items with which he ardently disagrees but about which, upon further questioning, he reveals himself more often than not to be mistaken. (It is clear that Americans have watched too many courtroom dramas; they all think they are litigators and can get the better of anyone in an argument if they keep talking loud and long enough.) The citizen, undaunted by revelations of his own misunderstanding, draws strength from the assumption that right is on his side because his intemperate comments elicit equally intemperate applause from the equally uninformed people around him, and further insists that his view is representative not only of the people in the room but of the general public as well. A woman had the audacity to demand that Barney Frank should vote against health care reform because his constituents, as evidenced by a few dozen overbearing opponents at a particular meeting, were plainly against it. Congressman Frank deftly pointed out that, in the first place, he had voted through the course of his long legislative career against any number of measures that were popular among his constituents — he proudly gave the Patriot Act and the Iraq war as examples — and, more important, that there were 650,000 people in his district and that it was the height of impertinence to suggest that a segment of the audience who happened to attend this meeting represented the views of all of them. (It was the same Rep. Frank who once said that politicians cause a lot of problems, but "the voters are no bargain either.")

"Name a successful government program," a speaker demanded of Jim Moran, the representative from northern Virginia, a courtly, white-haired gentleman who looked as though he would rather bleed to death than be impolite. "Name one," the man repeatedly shouted, as though the Congressman's momentary hesitation was proof positive that government is uniformly incompetent and corrupt. Rep. Moran, when he had an opportunity to get a word in, came up with a rather good and obvious example: the armed forces. He could have named many more that no one in that or any other audience could honestly say they would prefer to do without: the interstate highway system, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Weather Service — we could go on. In fairness, we could also go on about programs that are relatively useless, or useful only to a chosen few in a particular representative's home district for whom funding has been so faithfully secured. But a thousand of those "pork" programs don't add up even to a single veterans hospital or NASA, the successes of which have been huge and undeniable. Their necessity and cost may surely be subjects of legitimate debate, but not their effectiveness at carrying out their stated missions. The government can work, and very well, even if it doesn't always. Not unlike the rest of human activity.

It should suffice to say that these staunch defenders of liberty would have rather more credibility if they hadn't acquiesced so sheepishly for eight years in warrantless wiretapping, torture and arrests without charge. And we might sympathize with their new-found terror of the national debt had they managed a modicum of outrage towards the Bush profligacy and hadn't warmed to a vice president who publicly declared that "deficits don't matter." But these arguments are largely beside the point.

It was only too obvious that the majority of those spewing their vitriol at members of Congress (in talking points remarkably similar to those employed by the most popular conservative radio and TV commentators) were overwhelmingly male and entirely white. It is too simplistic to write this anger off as displaced racial hatred against the President — even though this view is reinforced by the fact that some of the ugliest of these town hall mobs have tended to rear their heads in the least Obama-friendly parts of the nation. For example, Senator Arlen Specter's confrontation with an exceptionally rude man in Pennsylvania was one of the summer's first widely broadcast shout-downs and one that no doubt inspired much subsequent oafish behavior. This opening salvo in the town-hall wars took place in precisely the kind of precinct upon which the news media descended during the 2008 election in search of small-town white folk who might vote for a black man. They didn't find many out there.

There is evidently a smoldering fear and resentment among many that the solid white middle of the nation is being eroded at the expense of those with different views — and, yes, of different hues — who have gained the majority. That they have latched onto the likes of such unserious spokespersons as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck only demonstrates how desperate they are not to lose their imagined control of the country. Never mind that pure, self-reliant capitalism is a figment of their imaginations, as Howard Dean made plain when he silenced the crowd at Congressman Moran's meeting by asking how many would surrender those hated socialist programs, Medicare and Social Security. But as Frank Rich wrote earlier in this angry season, "The politics of resentment are impervious to facts." Who would have thought that in 2009, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberals would have to fend off accusations of having socialist or communist sympathies (as if they were even the same thing)? Who would have thought that schools in various parts of the nation would pull the plug on the President's "ideological" message to students about staying in school and striving to succeed? But it is obvious that the fearful right, whom David Brooks has dubbed "death panel conservatives", are lashing out in their confusion at every bogeyman of the last 60 years, as evidenced by the scattershot nature of the attacks against Obama and his followers: we are supposed to believe they are simultaneously socialists and fascists, communists and bleeding-hearts, spendthrift liberals and heartless bureaucrats, immigrant lovers and concentration camp builders.

So much for our peaceful, post-racial society. Lest anyone still harbor the dangerous illusion that the election of Barack Obama ushered in the long-anticipated Age of Aquarius, he should be reminded that ignorance and darkness are among the most enduring features of the human story — the America ideal notwithstanding. From Father Coughlin to Jerry Falwell, from Joseph McCarthy to David Duke, America has always been vulnerable to nativist, apocalyptic, anti-intellectual populism. We should not forget that the largely Christian abolitionist reform movement of the 19th century coincided with waves of evangelical revivalism, or that the emergence of the labor movement that helped bring prosperity to untold millions coincided with some of the most active years of the Ku Klux Klan. The difference now is the speed with which ideas, both good and bad, metastasize in cyberspace. The summer of hate was a natural extension of last year's summer of Sarah, in which groundless assertions gained instantaneous prominence and even the most absurd claims were infinitely repeated in what used to be the mainstream media.

There are positive outcomes as well from the lightning speed in which thoughts and images are now disseminated, such as the unraveling of Senator George Allen's re-election campaign in 2006. But such moments, while momentarily satisfying, are no substitute for thoughtful analysis of issues and events. Nor are they at all reassuring. For every hypocrite who is rightfully unmasked by YouTube, there are a hundred other well-meaning people who are buried under an avalanche of lies. It should be clear by now that the ubiquity of information on the Internet has not made people generally more open-minded or even better informed, but merely more secure in their own already entrenched positions, and better armed to do battle against their adversaries, real or imagined. Obama may have won a comfortable majority in last year's election, but when civilized nations devolve into mindlessness and barbarity, it is almost never at the hands of the majority. It is deeply unfortunate that health-care reform is the most current target of the know-nothings in our midsts, but it is only the latest victim of a reactionary undertow that periodically drowns the people's will. Beware the wrath of a deposed majority that considers itself at risk of extinction. The loudmouth at the microphone is the tip of the iceberg.

September 6, 2009

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