Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Political Insanity Will Continue—As It Always Has?

Adam Gopnik posted an interesting note on The New Yorker website titled The John Birchers’ Tea Party. The point he made was that the current Tea Party looks a lot like the John Birch Society of 50 years ago.

"The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America. This really is your grandfather’s right, if not, to be sure, your grandfather’s Republican Party."

What has changed over the past 50 years is not so much the incidence of craziness but its distribution. With the conversion of southern Dixiecrats to Republicans the crazies are now all in one place.

"Half a century ago, the type was much more evenly distributed between the die-hard, neo-Confederate wing of the Democratic Party and the Goldwater wing of the Republicans, an equitable division of loonies that would begin to end after J.F.K.’s death. (A year later, the Civil Rights Act passed, Goldwater ran, Reagan emerged, and we began the permanent sorting out of our factions into what would be called, anywhere but here, a party of the center right and a party of the extreme right.)"

Gopnik uses the recent book Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis to compare the extremists of 1963 to those of the present day. Those authors

"....demonstrate in luxuriant detail just how clotted Dallas was with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy’s fatal visit. The John Birch Society, the paranoid, well-heeled, anti-Communist group, was the engine of the movement then, as the Tea Party is now...."

"....the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat—mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged. There is also the conviction....that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate."

Gopnik pinpoints a few examples of the eerie similarities between the environments faced by Kennedy and Obama.

"Medicare then, as Obamacare now, was the key evil. An editorial in the Morning News announced that ‘JFK’s support of Medicare sounds suspiciously similar to a pro-Medicare editorial that appeared in the Worker—the official publication of the U.S. Communist Party.’ At the same time, Minutaglio and Davis write, ‘on the radio, H.L. Hunt (the Dallas millionaire) filled the airwaves with dozens of attacks on Medicare, claiming that it would create government death panels: ‘The plan provides a near[sic] little package of sweeping dictatorial power over medicine and the healing arts—a package which would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life or death power over every man woman and child in the country’."

"The whole thing came to a climax with the famous black-bordered flyer that appeared on the day of J.F.K.’s visit to Dallas, which showed him in front face and profile, as in a "Wanted" poster, with the headline "WANTED FOR TREASON." The style of that treason is familiar mix of deliberate subversion and personal depravity. ‘He has been wrong on innumerable issues affecting the security of the United States’; ‘He has been caught in fantastic lies to the American people, including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce.’ Birth certificate, please?"

Gopnik could have gone further with his analogy between the Birchers of then and the Tea Party of now. The Birchers have at times come out in favor of disassembling the Federal Reserve System, and returning to the gold standard. They have always been against the United Nations claiming it was conduit through which the Communist conspiracy would form a world government that it could then control. These are all themes that occasionally emerge in Tea Party demonstrations.

Gopnik’s claim that the craziness is passed down from one generation to another is clearly supported by the fact that one of the twelve founding members of the John Birch Society was John Koch of Koch Industries, father of the two right-wing activist brothers who now run that company and support Tea Party activities.

Gopnik addresses race as an issue and describes the sentiments of the right-wing extremists as being only marginally based on race.

"The common core belief, then and now, is....the federal government exists to take money from hard-working white people and give it to lazy black people, and the President is helping to make this happen. This conviction, then and now, may not fairly be called racist in the sense that it isn’t just (or always) an expression of personal bigotry; rather, it is more like a resentment at an imagined ethnic spoils system gone wrong."

Gopnik could have made one more comparison between Kennedy and his time and Obama and his. Kennedy was a Catholic and, based on today’s data, to be one of the crazies you have to be a Protestant. Hatred between Catholics and Protestants has a longer and bloodier history than any such animosity between whites and blacks. His Catholicism gave Kennedy a hint of that "otherness" that Obama evokes from his political enemies.

A case can be made that race is a big issue in the confrontation between the right-wing extremists and Obama. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) keeps track of hate groups, antigovernment "patriot" groups, and armed militia movements. It concludes:

"Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 67 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president."

"These factors also are feeding a powerful resurgence of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement, which in the 1990s led to a string of domestic terrorist plots, including the Oklahoma City bombing. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813 percent since Obama was elected – from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012."

An article in The Economist provided this chart based on the SPLC data and coined the phrase "The Obama Effect.".

The ignorant, the violent, and the bigoted get disturbed when a Democrat is elected president; they really get riled up when that Democrat is also black.

Gopnik’s article provides a timely correlation between the current madness and past madness. But what are we to draw from that correlation? That madness is conserved through time and that that the similarly mad have always been among us? But the John Birch Society had a definite beginning, and its main concern was Communist domination. That is a fear that can be firmly placed in time.

Consider this comment by Archibald MacLeish written in 1949 and reproduced in the Introduction to Studs Terkel’s wonderful oral history "The Good War".

"Never in the history of the world was one people as completely dominated, intellectually and morally, by another as the people of the United States by the people of Russia in the four years from 1946 through 1949. American foreign policy was a mirror image of Russian foreign policy: whatever the Russians did, we did in reverse. American domestic politics were conducted under a kind of upside-down Russian veto: no man could be elected to public office unless he was on record as detesting the Russians, and no proposal could be enacted, from a peace plan at one end to a military budget at the other, unless it could be demonstrated that the Russians wouldn’t like it. American political controversy was controversy sung to the Russian tune; left-wing movements attacked right-wing movements not on American issues but on Russian issues, and right-wing movements replied with the same arguments turned round about....."

"All this....took place not in a time of national weakness or decay but precisely at the moment when the United States, having engineered a tremendous triumph and fought its way to a brilliant victory in the greatest of all wars, had reached the highest point of world power ever achieved by a single state."
This is a description of a country having a nervous breakdown; a country that had lost faith in itself. There is the reek of fear about that quote. What could have caused that fear?

World War II ended with the dropping of two nuclear weapons. The world could never be the same after that. The United States had to face the task of fighting the next war with nuclear weapons. It would take a while before the absurdity of that concept became evident. We also had to face the certainty that the Russians would also possess nuclear weapons. In that eventuality, we could no longer be protected by the broad oceans that separated us from potential enemies. A single bomb could destroy an entire city. We could no longer feel quite so "exceptional."

The Europeans suffered mass devastation and patiently went about rebuilding their nations and developing kinder, gentler versions of their former selves. We merely feared mass devastation and went bonkers, descending into wave after wave of destructive paranoia.

It is comforting to view our madness as having a specific beginning. One can then more easily believe that it can be dissipated or subdued. Rather than being passed from generation to generation as a genetic defect, it is a cultural defect that is transmitted. Those are a bit easier to deal with.

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