Last week, I inadvertently found myself back in second grade. This is how it happened.
I recently published an essay on the tradition of suicide missions in the West that generated a lot of letters, some of them negative. But even the detractors generally respected the norms of polite discourse. Then, last week, several conservative blogs picked up on the article, and the tone of the letters became considerably more aggressive. Suddenly, as several emails informed me, I was a “boob,” a “libtard,” “pond scum,” and providing “moral support to terrorists.”
For a brief moment, in other words, I was caught up in the rabid right’s crusade to find vulnerable targets under their new banner of “one, two, many Van Jones.” Since I’m not in a position of particular power — and thus not worth the bloggers’ frenzy — the frothing beast held me in its jaws only briefly before dropping me relatively unscathed and moving on to a worthier victim. For those few moments, though, I was sorely tempted to respond in kind. My inner second-grader was yearning to come out and play.
“Extremism in the cause of liberty is no vice,” Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater once said, “and moderation in the defense of freedom is no virtue.” The heirs of Goldwater certainly took this maxim to heart over the last week as they brought American politics down to the second-grade level for us all. They claimed their first victim — Van Jones, the green jobs “czar” in the Obama administration — for the “crimes” of signing a petition, uttering an epithet, and supporting a death row inmate. Then the “tea-baggers” poured into the streets of DC in the tens of thousands last Saturday with placards denouncing socialist health care (if only), tax hikes (Obama actually implemented a tax cut for the middle class), and big government (no one seemed bothered by record Pentagon spending). They expressed their support for “Joe” Wilson — real name Addison Graves Wilson, Sr. — who behaved like a bully in the back row of class when he shouted “You lie!” at the president during his health care speech in Congress.
This extremism of emotions is accompanied by an extremism of beliefs: Obama is not an American citizen, he supports “death panels,” Mexico is poised to retake the Southwest with the help of illegal immigrants, and so on. This lunatic fringe, aided and abetted by savvy conservative organizations and their media darlings, isn’t interested in debate. It’s out for blood.
Popular anger is nothing new. For eight years, large numbers of Americans were in a perpetual state of outrage at the Bush administration. “They lied, people died,” was a popular bumper sticker of the era. Democrats howled during Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address. But, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins points out, “The difference between that and ‘You lie!’ is about the same as the difference between calling an opponent wrong and accusing him of ‘hatred of America’ as Wilson did in a TV debate with a congressman opposed to the Iraq War.”
We have our anger, and we have our lunatic fringe too. (I am, for instance, heartily sick of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists.) But during the Bush years we were protesting against a presidential team that broke laws and indulged in lies so huge they changed the rules of geopolitics. Bush administration policies led to more American casualties than 9/11 and a ghastly number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. What comparable misconduct brought the crowds to Washington on Saturday? A plan to address the obvious flaws of our health care system. The mismatch between policy and protest is almost satirical. Moreover, as Michael Kazin points out in The Nation, the conservatives are tilting at the same windmills that they helped construct: “[T]he very ineptitude of conservative governance in the recent past makes Americans more open to the right’s arguments now that it is out of national power. Why trust the federal state to do anything it promises?”
Of course there are very good reasons for people to be angry today. The United States is still fighting two wars. The recession continues to hit hard. And the government sometimes seems more concerned about bailing out banks and defense contractors than helping working people. If the populist left doesn’t focus this anger on the appropriate targets, then the populist right will channel it in racist, xenophobic, and paranoid directions.
One of those appropriate targets should be the war in Afghanistan and the Obama administration’s decision to kick U.S. involvement up a notch. As Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan points out, the administration’s policy is founded on several myths: that it’s a war of necessity, that counterinsurgency can work, that NATO is behind us. Those myths stand in stark contrast to the reality. “The Karzai government has stolen the election,” he writes in Afghanistan: What Are These People Thinking? “The war has spilled over to help destabilize and impoverish nuclear-armed Pakistan. The American and European public is increasingly opposed to the war. July was the deadliest month ever for the United States, and the Obama administration is looking at a $9 trillion deficit.”
In the next month, the peace movement will step up efforts to stop the war. Code Pink is organizing a national week of media action this week. United for Peace and Justice is planning events for October 7, the eighth anniversary of the war’s start.
But even as we mobilize for our actions and demonstrations, there also has to be room for civil debate and discussion, which are the lifeblood of democracy. Thanks to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and “Joe” Wilson, our democracy has suffered an embolism, and our capacities for speech have sadly deteriorated.
Saturday Night Live once featured a Point-Counterpoint between Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain that quickly devolved into Aykroyd’s infamous tagline: “Jane, you ignorant slut.” Yesterday’s satire has become today’s headlines. The fine art of argument is dead. In its place, we must endure playground taunts and invective.