One of the elemental byproducts of the growth of big media was a sense of powerlessness projected on the audience. In the last century, newspapers and television stations spoke to us like proctors in a one-way conversation. As those fabricated walls crumble, so too does the idea of decorum.
Hate speech has reached another cyclical high as right-wing activists and barely literate conspiracy theorists have connected with one another to rally against Barack Obama. He is a fascist, a socialist, a communist, and desires to bring about a totalitarian state of big government bloat. His gets to wear a Hitler mustache or have his lips painted in Joker-style red lipstick. He is created as a villain upon whom every undereducated American can pile their fears of an apocalyptic future.
With some especially desperate protesters bringing guns to demonstrate against Obama’s healthcare reform initiative, things seem like they’ve reached an insurrectory high.
A lot of people have been digging into the roots of this mindless opposition as if it were novel or heartfelt (neither are true). I remember seeing “Bye Bush” pins on my classmates backpacks in 1992. I was a freshman in high school and the youth vote was rallying around a Rhodes Scholar who could play saxophone and was hammering the first George Bush on the economy and not having intervened in Bosnia to prevent an obvious genocide.
I wasn’t political then, but I remember being struck by the directness of the statement. It was a total rejection of someone who held an office that seemed incompatible with the idea of “total” rejection. How can a person in charge of as much as the president be rejected completely, without equivocation?
What was even more striking was how personal the sentiment was. The ‘92 election was a generational one, Clinton sailed by Bush and Perot, on a wave of young voters eager for “change.” Their resentment against the previous generation was built on a resentment of the “old guard.” What that meant was never clear.
Ever since then, the idea of personal defenestration of the nation’s leader has seemed second nature. It’s a cultural white noise that lingers in the background of all political conversations. Clinton was a communist. George W. Bush was a fascist, a National Socialist (with no sense of irony), and a religious zealot. Now Obama is taking his turn on the fascist merry-go-round.
All of this roots back to education, which has been the lingering chancre on the face of American politics for years. Every election cycle there are new issues (the ’91 recession, Bosnia, tax cuts, Iraq, healthcare, the ’08 recession); every major public debate over national policy winds up polarized by people with fervent beliefs and no fundamental understanding about what they believe.
How many people who fear that Obama is a closet Socialist know what the term actually means? How many people jeering these dissenters could define the term with any more lucidity? The echo of this fundamental ignorance can be traced back throughout the decades, from the tragically incoherent debate about the invasion of Iraq to the mutual demagoguery of the Clinton scandals (least of which is the first legal invocation of the phrase “act of genocide” to buffer against the Genocide Convention during the Rwandan atrocity).
The greater irony is that this virulent hate speech has continued in an era where information is more freely available than ever. It’s entirely reasonable that someone would rather listen to Glenn Beck than read through a Congressional Budget Office report. But it is pure and gullible ignorance to take that polemic as truth.
Slandering those in control of the government as witch doctors of imminent destruction (a Bush neo-imperialism, or Obama’s tyrannical socialism) is a good story, but it’s stunning to encounter people who really, seriously think this is true. And it’s even sadder to think that one side has any moral authority over the other because of invented distinctions that are more entertainment than truth.
But it sure feels good to call someone a fascist. If our education system was on a more level playing field, we might have a population better equipped to engage in a national debate about real, mundane politics. Instead, instead we wrestle with tax cuts, healthcare reform, social security, abortion law, or any other serious matter of policy as if they were inscrutable objects in some grand theater, bookended on either side by ignorance and indifference.