Friday, August 21, 2009

Showing their true colors

I want to quote at length first Ron Beasley (from his post The Election Broke Their Brains):

John Hari writing at The Independent asks: How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality?

The election of Obama – a black man with an anti-conservative message – as a successor to George W. Bush has scrambled the core American right's view of their country. In their gut, they saw the US as a white-skinned, right-wing nation forever shaped like Sarah Palin.

When this image was repudiated by a majority of Americans in a massive landslide, it simply didn't compute. How could this have happened? How could the cry of "Drill, baby, drill" have been beaten by a supposedly big government black guy? So a streak that has always been there in the American right's world-view – to deny reality, and argue against a demonic phantasm of their own creation – has swollen. Now it is all they can see.

You have many say as much at the town hall meetings - "this is no longer my America " they say. They may talk about socialism, fascism and Hitler but what they are really say is the country is no longer white and right. Hari give us a rundown of the insanity:

Since Obama's rise, the US right has been skipping frantically from one fantasy to another, like a person in the throes of a mental breakdown. It started when they claimed he was a secret Muslim, and – at the same time – that he was a member of a black nationalist church that hated white people. Then, once these arguments were rejected and Obama won, they began to argue that he was born in Kenya and secretly smuggled into the United States as a baby, and the Hawaiian authorities conspired to fake his US birth certificate. So he is ineligible to rule and the office of President should pass to... the Republican runner-up, John McCain.

These aren't fringe phenomena: a Research 200 poll found that a majority of Republicans and Southerners say Obama wasn't born in the US, or aren't sure. A steady steam of Republican congressmen have been jabbering that Obama has "questions to answer". No amount of hard evidence – here's his birth certificate, here's a picture of his mother heavily pregnant in Hawaii, here's the announcement of his birth in the local Hawaiian paper – can pierce this conviction.

This trend has reached its apotheosis this summer with the Republican Party now claiming en masse that Obama wants to set up "death panels" to euthanise the old and disabled. Yes: Sarah Palin really has claimed – with a straight face – that Barack Obama wants to kill her baby.

And how else can you explain the health care debate?

You have to admire the audacity of the right. Here's what's actually happening. The US is the only major industrialised country that does not provide regular healthcare to all its citizens. Instead, they are required to provide for themselves – and 50 million people can't afford the insurance. As a result, 18,000 US citizens die every year needlessly, because they can't access the care they require. That's equivalent to six 9/11s, every year, year on year. Yet the Republicans have accused the Democrats who are trying to stop all this death by extending healthcare of being "killers" – and they have successfully managed to put them on the defensive.

The Republicans want to defend the existing system, not least because they are given massive sums of money by the private medical firms who benefit from the deadly status quo. But they can't do so honestly: some 70 per cent of Americans say it is "immoral" to retain a medical system that doesn't cover all citizens. So they have to invent lies to make any life-saving extension of healthcare sound depraved.

Yes, the health insurance industry is spreading the lies but why would people who already "socialized medicine" and even those with no health care at all be buying the lies? A local congressman had a town hall last night and the front row was full of skinheads complete with their swastika tattoos. When asked why they were there they said it was because the president was black. Now most are not that up front but they are still part of that group of angry white people who's world came to an end last November.

Following that up, Beasley would then state:
Now we here at hoggers have been trying to figure out what the next big story will be. I suggested it will be open violence on the right - at least part of which will be racially motivated.

[snip]

Now these same people are often well armed and angry. We ignore them and their motivations at great risk. They are not only being driven into a hate filled feeding frenzy by right wing pundits like Beck and Limbaugh but [by] the oligarchs of the medical industrial complex who see their profits as being more important than the future of this country and the Republican party which sees a return to power more important than the country. The racist card is one the Republicans have been playing since LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Bill. The president of FOX news, Roger Ailes was one of the architects of the "Southern Strategy" and it plays a big if subtle part of FOX programing. The racists are a declining but vocal minority. They should not be ignored.
From a somewhat different angle over at Lenin's Tomb, its proprietor - after commenting on what I agree is a relatively tepid effort at reform of the US health "care" system - has a few things to say about the rather disturbing racist undercurrents that have been made more salient during the recent August recess town hall meetings (see the post American psychos):
...it has been rather odd to watch America's unusually large number of cranks get to work attacking Obama and his socialistic Nazi communist Muslim death panels.

[snip]

This time, the major public attack is coming from people incited by Palin's claim that health reform would lead to 'death panels' in which bureaucrats get to inflict some foreign eugenics or euthanasia programme in all but name. It has been pointed out that those 'death panels' already exist, and they're all about the stars n stripes. But nonetheless, Palin is being defended by others on the Republican right such as Newt Gingrich, and continues to double down on her assertion when asked. At this one point one recalls the kind of race-baiting hysteria that Palin and the McCain campaign indulged in during the election campaign last year, and the mass audience that clearly existed for it - a minority, but a truculent minority with altogether too many guns. This is yet another expression of exactly the same derangement.

What accounts for it? Clearly, it is only incidentally about Obama's tepid healthcare proposals. The undercurrents of racism being reported at these rallies, and the appearance of heavily armed crowds, clearly indicates that something far greater is at stake. There are some good analyses out there, such as this piece on Al Jazeera, which - despite basically resting on Hofstadter's analysis of the 'paranoid style in American politics' - hits the nail on the head with this:
But the sheer manic intensity of the foam-flecked tirades bursting out in the town halls, so out of proportion to their proximate cause, bespeaks much deeper roots of rage.

These are some of the same people who howled "traitor!" and "kill him!" at Sarah Palin's rallies last year.

They are the ones convinced Obama is a Muslim "sleeper agent" who will destroy American values and hand the country over to Osama bin Laden.

The flip side of their rage is fear. They scream: "We want our country back!" Their country is one where white, Christian conservatives rule.

Right-wing Americans are said to believe in small government. Certainly, where that government is doing something to look after poor people, they are opposed to it. But historically, the state's legitimacy has always been unquestioned when it functioned as the racial state. When it functions in a racial capacity, either through its capacity to imprison, police, blockade immigration, or make war, its legitimacy is assured. I am not saying that these functions of the state can be reduced to racism - far from it. If you really want to get to grips with the reasons behind, eg, the rise America's authoritarian prison state, you should consult Ruth Gilmore Wilson. But if you think of America's astonishingly high prison population, the severity of its policing, the regularity and expense of its wars, the byzantine bureaucracies devoted to policing immigration, and the trashing of civil liberties - all of these are accepted by a sufficient number of people because of America's unique racial dynamics. In a similar way, the de-legitimising of the welfare state took the form of barely coded racial slurs about black 'welfare queens'.

The interesting thing is that most of those protesting stand to gain from these reforms, especially if there's a public option with any meaning. It would reduce insurance costs and reduce the incidence of people being denied treatment on the basis of previously existing conditions. But this is channelling an existential crisis for white conservatives, who think of the country as belonging to them. That crisis arises not because of who or what Obama is. All of the crazy stuff about Obama being born in Kenya, or being a secret Muslim, is merely symptomatic. It is because of what the potential new electoral coalitions, flagged up by the 2008 election, might mean for politics in the future. Look at the way protester Katy Abrams put it to Senator Arlen Specter a while ago:
"I don't believe this is just about healthcare. It's not about TARP. It's not about left and right. This is about the systematic dismantling of this country. I'm only thirty-five years old, I've never been interested in politics. You have awakened a sleeping giant. We are tired of this. This is why everybody in this room is so ticked off. I don't want this country turning into... Russia, turning into a socialised country. [applause, cheers, idiotic hooting] My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution."
Well, there you are. It's not just about healthcare or any other particular issue. Nothing less than America's survival as the original invention of the founding fathers is at stake. Abrams sounds nuts, but she compares rather favourably to some of her compatriots in the lunacy stakes. The militant rightists who put on such an ugly show last year, particularly those given to prominently bearing arms, are in the tradition of racial 'counter-conspiracy'. From the KKK to the gangs who ethnically cleansed Chinese workers from the Pacific coastal towns, there is a long tradition of reactionaries taking matters into their own hands when the state appears to them to be neglecting its proper role. They argued that they were countering a malicious conspiracy on the part of their victims to destroy the country from within. And of course, since racism defined (and still defines) labour markets, state practises, political communities, etc., it was usually contiguous with other issues - class rebellion or conscientious objection - so that this kind of 'counter-conspiracy' could shade easily into anti-Bolshevism, pogroms against Mexican workers, union-busting, etc. The language now being deployed, about having to resist tyranny, about having to restore the Constitution, about having to resist the systematic dismantling of the country itself, clearly evokes this tradition and its martial tenor.

At base, this racist hysteria and paranoia isn't about 'status anxieties', nor is it a peculiar cultural tic. It is really about the possible threat of class dislocation and downward social mobility for relatively well-to-do whites, a threat that is being amplified by the recession. For such people, whose privileges have always been expressed through private property (however modest their actual possessions may be), the idea of any trend toward 'socialisation' really does seem menacing, weird, alien, threatening. They really want to believe that they can return to conspicuous consumption, even with the impossible debt levels and high working hours that has sustained such consumption. And they really do believe that this lifestyle, based on some spurious 'free market' values, is mandated in the Constitution, somehow part of the country's genetic make-up, stitched into the blueprints. They really do believe that this crisis for their way of life is a crisis being wrought by nefarious, treasonous others. And there is a ready-made militia movement, with tens of thousands of members already signed up, should they decide they have to take matters into their own hands. And if these people get serious, they'll make Timothy McVeigh look like Eddie Haskell.
I think there is plenty of food for thought in the above posts. Suffice it to say, it's highly doubtful that some of the batshit crazy behavior we've seen at these town halls (and not too long ago at the so-called tea-parties, etc.) really persuades anyone outside of this largely white, extremely right-wing demographic. That said, the members of this demographic are certainly escalating the extremeness of their behavior, which in itself should be cause for concern. This is a topic that regrettably I'll likely be revisiting frequently in the coming weeks.

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