What's All This Then?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I suppose most people aren’t particularly disturbed when they hear about polls that say a majority of us think the country is "going in the wrong direction." That may because most people agree with that sentiment. Maybe that’s why Barack Obama is ahead in the polls that measure how we feel about presidential candidates. But as of this morning - for me at least - those "going in the wrong direction" poll numbers have taken on a frightening new feeling. We are beginning to see more and more of a dark side of a portion of the American populace. I don’t know how large it is - but I think it’s large enough for the rest of us to be afraid. Afraid at the possibility that they may achieve the power they seek.

Over the past two or three weeks, I have become more and more concerned about the tone of the Republican presidential campaign. Both sides distort and exaggerate in their stump speeches and media ads. But only the Republicans have settled on a campaign of personal attack on the character and patriotism of the Democratic candidate. That campaign has attracted a following of mindless, right wing yahoos - and as far as I can see, they are being welcomed by John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Yes I know that there have been at least two occasions when Senator McCain has had to rebuke people at his rallies who have spoken hateful things about Obama into a microphone while their images were being captured on countless cameras. But there was no way McCain could have let those moments pass without stepping in to defend Senator Obama. It would have looked devastating on the evening news - or on You Tube. Even so, his supporters at those rallies booed his defense of Obama’s character and patriotism - and of course his ads and his running mate continue to supply reasons why rally attendees say the things they’ve been saying and will likely continue to do so. But even though he has been forced to chastise some of them, McCain defends his rally audiences as fine, upstanding Americans - along the way never failing to mention the veterans that show up to hear him or Sarah Palin speak - and attributes the cries of hatred and intolerance to a few fringe rowdies. You could almost buy into that defense and explanation if those unacceptable reactions occurred in a vacuum. But the cries of "terrorist" don’t come in response to criticism of Obama’s health care ideas - or "kill him" in response to a comparison of tax plans or "traitor" in response to criticism of his Iraq policy. The most vocal at the McCain/Palin rallies may indeed be rowdies - but they are responding to both candidates’ portrayal of Obama as someone not quite American whose motives are clouded in a smoke screen of unanswered questions.

The depth of the feelings that these expressions of hatred represent was brought home to me in chilling fashion the other day as I watched a news clip of a McCain rally. I don’t recall where he was speaking - but he was greeting the crowd and acknowledging veterans in attendance - presumably identified by wearing souvenir military regalia. Some people carry their military service with them into civilian life and for the rest of their lives. I was in the army for 3 year 77 days and the only thing I kept as a souvenir was my discharge papers. But I digress. The acknowledgment of veterans brought polite applause and moments later, the crowd broke into a chant of USA, USA - and chills ran down my spine.

I remember the saga of the impossible dream when the US hockey team defeated the Russians at the 1980 Olympics to the crowd’s chant of USA, USA - and chills ran up and down my spine at that time too. But they were chills of joy and amazement and exhilaration. We had done the impossible We had beaten the Russian ice hockey colossus and those chants said it all - it was US versus THEM. We were the good guys and they were the "enemy" and our jingoistic chant seemed appropriate. And to the most partisan among us, I suppose the candidate we are supporting for president could be thought of as the "good guy" and the other guy the "enemy." But they are not opponents in the same way we and the Russians were opponents. They are both Americans. Both of them love our country and what it stands for. You can yell "four more years" at a campaign rally if an incumbent is running. You can yell the name of your candidate. You can yell a slogan - "yes we can" or "you betcha betcha betcha." And I suppose, under some circumstances, if a candidate is being critical of a foreign country and asserting that in any kind of conflict, the USA would prevail, you could chant USA in support of that sentiment. But when one side in a presidential race has been demonizing the candidate of the other side - implying that he’s "not like us" and "sees America differently" - those chants of USA, USA sound very much like an "US" versus "THEM" chant - "US" being the American candidate and "Them" being something else. Something not quite American.

Then on Friday, a crazy women who voters elected to congress from Minnesota’s sixth district two years ago, appeared on MSNBC’s "Hardball" - questioning Obama’s patriotism and suggesting that the media investigate all 535 members of congress to determine who is pro-American and who is anti-American!!. She actually said those things. The reaction to this nonsense has been an outpouring of donations to the campaign of her Democratic challenger - not just from Minnesota but from all over the country. And yet, punching in one radio station after another while in my car the other day, I caught Michael Medved in the midst of what was obviously a statement of support of Michele Bachmann’s outrageous attempt to resurrect McCarthyism. What’s wrong with that kind of investigation he wanted to know - and he went on to cite the case of a congressman he once worked for who had engaged in activities that could be considered "anti-American." I didn’t stay long enough to catch the name, but I have to assume that he was talking about former congressman Ron Dellums. And you can read all points of view about him on line if you feel so inclined.

On Sunday General Colin Powell announced his support for Barack Obama in six and a half minutes of reasoned eloquence - and Rush "open mouth" Limbaugh promptly proclaimed that the endorsement was simply because of the color of Obama’s skin. Both Powell and Obama have black skin, though Powell’s is considerably less black than the Senator - despite the influence of Obama’s maternal Caucasian ancestry. But the fact that they both share African-American ancestry was enough for the foul mouth one. In a rational world, this would be a source of rolling in the aisles laughter. In a rational world, a crazed bigot like Limbaugh wouldn’t be allowed access to the airways. I don’t know who else from the world of right wing punditry has joined in this unvarnished display of racism - but I know there is support for it among the mindless on the right because I’ve seen and heard some of it and it’s scary. We know that racism didn’t die with the civil rights laws or with the ascendance of Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods - but for some time now it’s been beneath the surface and the chances of it becoming a disruptive force seemed to be slowly fading along with the generations that practiced and revered it. But now it’s back - out in the open with very little attempt to mask it as something other than what it is.

I don’t think it will end with the election of President Obama. We are not the country we once were. That could be an uplifting statement if I was talking about the progress we have made from the horrors of our own version of apartheid to today’s society, when millions of us have selected Barack Obama as our candidate for the presidency and millions of us will vote for him by or on November 4. But I’m talking about the country described by columnist Leonard Pitts in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune. In case you don’t have the time or inclination to read it, let me quote just one paragraph.
Then you look up one day and realize how profoundly that fear has changed your world. People are imprisoned without charges or access to attorneys, and it's routine. People are surveilled, their reading habits studied, their telephone usage logged, and it's commonplace. People, including children, end up on a secret list of those who are not allowed to fly, nobody will tell you why, there is no appeal, and it's ordinary. We swallow lies like candy, nod sagely at babblespeak, and it's unexceptional.
To those on the extreme right, there’s nothing wrong with this "new world" that Pitts described. To the rest of us it’s the reason we have worked for, sent our money to and - for those of us who believe in a deity - pray that Barack Obama will be elected the next President of the United States.