Monday, March 29, 2010

In the Kingdom of the Unhinged

From North of the 49th Parallel, watching the opposition to President Obama's health care legislation has been like watching a play from the Theatre of the Absurd. Those of us who have lived with a more radical version of health care -- single payer -- know that medicare does not put insurance companies out of business; and there are no "death panels."

But as congressmen and women entered the Capitol last Sunday to cast their votes, it was particularly disturbing to hear the slurs which were directed at some of them. And last week, when the bill was reconciled and signed into law by the president, the rhetoric turned even uglier. As rocks were thrown at windows, and the bombastic Rush Limbaugh and the less than brilliant Sarah Palin announced that it was time to get rid of "these bastards," others were suggesting that every Democrat who voted for health care was about to face "Armageddon."

A Baptist minister in Orange County asked his flock to pray for the deaths of the apostates. Choosing Psalm 109 as his text -- "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow" -- the Rev. Wiley Drake assured his followers that justice would flow down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It did, indeed, appear that a significant portion of the population -- and all the elected representatives of the Republican Party -- had lost their minds.

It was Frank Rich, in yesterday's New York Times who -- as he does so often -- helped make sense of the nonsensical. "To find a prototype to the overheated reaction to the health care bill," he wrote, "you would have to look a year before Medicare to the Civil Rights Act of 1964."  That bill "signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance."

The election of Barack Obama was a similar moment. It served as a sign that American politics had caught up with the rest of the world. No longer were white men in charge. When Tea Partiers shout, "Take our country back!"  they are -- like William F. Buckley -- standing "athwart history yelling STOP." That was Buckley's prime directive; and it led him to support racial segregation -- a position he later admitted was wrong. Those who were spitting on black legislators last weekend have never undergone Buckley's epiphany. But, Rich pointed out, demographics are against them:

The week before the health care vote, the Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non Hispanic white births will be in a minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven't had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three since 1935.

It's worth remembering that the first Republican president signed the Emancipation Proclamation, established the land grant colleges and signed the Homestead Act --  all  of which looked forward to the future and the 20th Century. 

The March Backward began when Richard Nixon conceived his Southern Strategy -- which was a cynical attempt to capitalize on the anger white southerners felt after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It continued when Ronald Reagan began his campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- where three Civil Rights workers were killed shortly before the act became law. From then on, Republicans began talking in code. Anyone who knew anything about the South understood the code.

The remnants of the Republican Party are those unhinged voters who Nixon courted -- and they have stopped talking in code. The United States has moved on. But a significant number of people, trapped inside their own paranoia, refuse to recognize that fact.


Anonymous said...

Josh Billings, a backwoods humorist and a contemporary of Mark Twain, wrote: "They say that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together. I shall be as glad as any any man to see it. But I am still putting my money on the lion."

Not since the American battle for civil rights has the struggle between the lion and the lamb been more apparent than in that country's tussle over health care reform. The quarrel over whether or not to improve the lives of millions of Americans has become exceedingly vicious, fueled mainly by "over the top" political rhetoric - the worst of it coming from the "let it all hang out" comedians and hacks like Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh - people who, in the interests of free speech, are paid to say what they say. Then there are the much vaunted popular "news" sources like CNN, FOX, and a plethora of "Democrat" and "Republican" newspapers which, in their competition for ratings and readership, boost the bitterness.

It's ironic, isn't it? Although tens of thousands of Americans are fighting to improve the lives of millions of their fellows,on the whole, American society is being made to look more dystopian than it did before.

The lion, it seems, is always ready to seize the lamb.

Owen Gray said...

The guarantee of free speech does not ensure the triumph of wisdom.

No one knew this better than Twain. He also knew that most people possess a "deformed conscience."

It is only people who are willing to "go to hell" for the sake of another human being who understand the meaning of goodness and justice.

ChrisJ said...

Your observations are bang on. Health care reform is the issue of the moment masking other more divisive and troubling issues.

With Dubya in power, the wingnuts believed that they could come out of the nut closet and that their politicians would be in charge forever. They still have not accepted that they lost the election in Nov '08.

Owen Gray said...

You're right, Chris. The Republicans did not take their loss well. And they figured that, if they brought everything to a screeching halt, the public would blame Obama for the dysfunction and toss him out in 2012.

He's still not out of the woods -- and he has a lot on his plate. But he has thrown a wrench into the opposition's strategy.

bard said...

This is a very confusing time for America because while the Repubs do not support anything Obama does, the fact is that, to the chagrin of many on the left, he is far from a progressive figure. It's hard to believe he's a democrat. The health care bill has some benefit for people for sure, but it also creates 40 million new customers for the insurance companies. As with the other bailouts the average joe is being screwed again - and again. The scary thing is that while the tea partiers are incredibly ignorant, some of their concerns are legitimate. It's just easy to discard them because of their overarching racism and ignorance.

Owen Gray said...

Your point is well taken. Obama himself has said that his health care bill is anything but radical.

Essentially, it delivers 32 million customers to the insurance companies as it sets up some rules about what those companies can and cannot do.

The ordinary citizen is right to be skeptical. But, lately, skepticism has been drowning in paranoia.