by Bob Dorn
Until recently, I’ve been mystified by the emotional fits and righteousness that seems to dominate the politics of people who identify themselves as conservatives. From sneering condescension right up to murderous invective, the rhetoric of those who consider themselves more holy than the rest of us has blown past the bounds of realism and into a sort of hallucinatory inferno of loose hatred and speculation.
And it hasn’t taken much to set it off.
Mention the U.N. or World Court, or the possibility of expanding voting hours, or improving our infrastructure and you’re likely to unleash an avalanche of accusations and epithets– one worlder, voter fraud, socialist idiot, moron, traitor.
Infrastructure? Voting? Are those bad?
Okay, infrastructure. As a kid reporter back in the mid-70s covering a city planning committee meeting, I learned that public transit is sure to take a beating from conservatives. I remember a beer-gutted older citizen who went past his allotted 3 minutes as he accused the council of betraying the taxpayers by funding the then-infant San Diego Trolley. They couldn’t calm the room down, because he had a posse behind him doing the same beatdown.
It was the mass quality of the trolleys that caused him to fear it. He felt it more than he thought it. He just knew it; the government ought not to put people together. Something bad might happen. Like what happened to the woman who got on a bus I was riding on my way to answering a jury call some five months ago. It was the No. 7, which winds from La Mesa along University Ave. to City Heights and on to North Park, where I can catch it at a stop 150 yards from my front door. It was crowded, and I worked my way to the wide bench seat in the back of the bus, where the standing room was less crowded.
At the next stop, a trim middle-aged woman entered the rear door near me, seeming out of her element. Her eyes darted right and left, as she looked for a seat. A man got up to offer her his, and she shook her head, no, avoiding eye contact. She moved in the direction of one of the brothers and, changing her mind, she emitted, unaccountably, a desperate, “Don’t touch me,” and fidgeted until the next stop arrived and she got off the bus. She’d traveled no more than two downtown blocks. We looked at each other. A brother who got off at the next stop gave us the laugh we needed when he called out, “Don’t Touch Me!” just before stepping down.
This kind of behavior – on the net or on the bus – can incorporate racism or classism and at the same time go beyond them. It isn’t even a question of competing ideologies, which have a conditional kind of commitment to reasoning from some principled base. Fear gets in the way of that commitment. Fear stops the conversation. It doesn’t care about making sense.
Fear has been around a long time in the political trick bag of the authoritarian classes. Plato knows I’m not trying to claim ownership of the idea. An important book, The Politics of Fear, by Frank Furedi, expanded on it in 2005. A man named Barry Glassner wrote The Culture of Fear in 2000, perhaps in a salute to Noam Chomsky for his own essay with the same title that was published four years before. Richard Hofstadter lectured on The Paranoid Style of American Politics at Oxford College in 1963, the year JFK was shot. It became an instant classic when it was published by Harpers Magazine the following year.
And, for the historically minded, the following is piquant:
The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.
That was from Hermann Goering, Hitlers’ right hand Nazi, at the Nuremberg Trial just before he was sentenced to death by hanging. (He took cyanide instead.)
Fear seems to have worked well in this country.
Consider Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, the former famous for having disappeared from duty in Georgia during Vietnam, the latter for sitting out WWII by making recruiting films for the War Department. They promoted wars – in Central America and the Caribbean and, of course, the Middle East — employing battalions of high-priced cheerleaders as their foreign policy aides who themselves never in their lives suited up. Elliot Abrams who, along with Dick Cheney (missed Vietnam thanks to college deferments), built Reagan’s Iran-Contra gun- and money-laundering scheme to prop up dictators in Central America, hidden wars that led to his conviction for perjury during the Congressional investigation that exposed it. He avoided Vietnam with a complaint about a bad back.
The list of these chicken-hawks (not to be confused with the other usage of that term) is very long. A few on it: Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, and former Bush adviser; Tom Tancredo, a would be hero Congressman who according to the Denver Post, missed Vietnam because a doctor’s note certified he was depressed; Paul Wolfowitz (bad back excused him from Vietnam) who dreamt up those weapons of mass destruction that scared us all into warring on Iraq, where they weren’t. Green Berets’ star and all-purpose macho John Wayne never went to war, nor did Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Jerry Falwell, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and the Koch Bros.
One of the lead birds in this strangely homogenous flock — that wild man with the Yosemite Sam mustache – is John Bolton, a Washington fixture since he became one of the uber-trolls at American Enterprise Institute and was Dubya’s hatchet man at the U.N. Having initiated a call for the U.S. to back an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, he resurfaced last year as foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney (another reason to rejoice at November’s election results).
Here’s how the bellicose Bolton explained, in his statement for the Yale University 25th reunion book, why he never fought in Vietnam.
“I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy… by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.”
No, all too often the words of so-called conservatives are not based in basic principles. Bolton didn’t realize when he wrote that note to his Yale classmates that if everybody had done what he did we would never have made war on Vietnam. The war’s critics–people to whom he should have been listening–awakened his resentment and scorn because they only served to remind him of his own discomforts. So he raised the volume and anger of his own voice, and because of his entitlement, became just another leader of the so-called conservatives. Hermann Goering would have understood why he had success, and a lot of imitators.
Anna Daniels says
Fear and fury have shaped the political landscape like nothing I’ve seen since the Clinton years. Bob- you of course point out that these sentiments have been with us for a long time and that the US doesn’t have a corner on them. They are staples of the right and it is not accidental that they are amplified by religious zealotry, which is really more of the same.
The question of course is how to combat those sentiments in the real world- at the Thanksgiving dinner table (yep, we’ve seen them erupt there. It’s part of the tradition.), on your block and beyond.
The ironic fallout is that fear and fury create an enormous group of people who defines itself as the innocent victim of some undeserving, depraved “other.” The right wing fills in the specifics, and Fox news leads the crusade.
Dana Law says
Bob, I’d say the Left is guilty as well. They can be wrong about things. They can have a secular religiosity about unions, the undocumented, taxes (more) women’s rights, the environment, etc. An obsession with race, gender and class that borders on the absurd. It’s not always clear thinking on both sides. Avoiding military service through education. They both can be corrupt and hypocritical. I guess we all are.
Anna Daniels says
The “not always clear thinking on both sides” requires further analysis. The left has (imperfectly) been committed to expanding democratic participation and establishing an equal playing field. It is the left that has brought us Civil Rights, women’s rights, progressive income taxes, and labor rights- which you typify as our absurd obsession. Cory Robin, who wrote the Reactionary Mind, sums up pretty well the position of the right:
“From the French Revolution to the Tea Party, conservatism has been a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.”
Frank Gormlie says
Anna, I’d also refer Dana to my series on Left vs Right and Politics 101.
bob dorn says
Not all my friends are lefties; I just had a gun control argument with him yesterday morning, after staying overnight in his and his wife’s house. He said more controls couldn’t stop any of an unaccountably growing tribe of nut cases from getting hold of semi-automatic, military-style rifles and blowing up schoolchildren, no matter how stringent the law. I said, maybe not, and in the early years after the gun control laws are passed those gun mutations WILL blow up more schoolchildren because … they don’t like gun control laws.
Now, Dana, don’t be suggesting I’m a “secular religionist” with some unnatural dedication to certain kinds of people that “borders on the absurd.” You wanna be more subtle and not use that broad brush, if you want people to think like yourself.
bob dorn says
Dana, see my reply, at bottom of the column.
bob dorn says
..er… at the top of the column… no….er… next to your original…