Saturday, August 15, 2009

The audacity of hope, the inevitability of angry old white people

This week I listened to an interview of Orley Taitz, spearhead of the “birther” movement and noted Obama detractor. Although I don’t buy her “proof” that Obama’s a bi-sexual or that he played a part in having someone killed, I really enjoyed listening to her crazy ideas, mostly because listening filled me with a guilty schadenfreude. Ms. Taitz seems to me to be a walking, talking straw-man; she says and believes things that most normal, grounded people would reject without a second thought. Given that the crazies have been dominating the news lately, however, and that unfounded rage can be contagious, I thought it might be fun to address this blog post to beating up on the right-wing extremists (I think of them as the American Taliban) and disrespect-mongers.

The news is very fun to listen to these days. As I listened to the Sotomayor confirmation hearings and the associated media blitz that the Republicans made over Ms. Sotomayor’s reverse-racist statements I had a smile on my face the whole time; Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck calling Obama and Sotomayor racists in the subtle and intelligent manors that they are known for had all the wit and persuasion that I have come to expect from such gentlemen scholars.

Now that we’re in the midst of a debate on health care policy in America I was eager to start having debates with people about the proper role of government, the ethics of medical coverage, the marginal costs of insurance, or externalities inherent in various health care plans. Instead of giving arguments, however, militant right-wingers have come out in droves to interfere with actual conversations and town halls. When persuasion and democracy failed them and delivered the congress and white house to the Democrats, some bitter Republicans have found solace in all they have left—volume. Although their plans may work and reform may indeed fail, I have to smile when a debate devolves into screaming like it has. Whenever I had arguments in high school, I would consider myself the winner as soon as the other person swore at me or threatened me with physical violence (I’m amazed that I never actually got punched). When a war of words is clearly lost and the moral high ground is ceded, there’s nowhere else to go than insulting the other person’s mother or beating them into submission.

To you screaming, angry town-hall crashers or conspiracy theorists hell-bent on getting Obama disqualified, I have some advice for the future:

Dear Ms. Taitz and co.,

First, although I’m sure you’re already aware, bringing about chaos and destruction is always easier than order and construction are, so you absolutely have the advantage right now. Although it costs billions of dollars and thousands of brilliant people to build things like the World Trade Center towers or Boeing 767s, it only took a few angry Saudi Arabians with box cutters to reduce such things to smoldering pits of carnage. Democracy, consensus, compromise, rational law, and peaceful order take a lot of patience, debate, and shared values to bring about. If you feel that you’re being left out of the conversations entirely, or that your place at the table has been unfairly taken away from you, a proportionately small wrench can destroy a complex machine when used in the right way. I don’t support your methods, even if I agreed with your cause, but I’m not so idealistic that I can’t see the elegance and wisdom of your idea.

The lurch you find yourself in, however, would have been much easier to avoid in the first place than digging yourself out is likely to be.

Contrary to what you might have heard, the world is not exclusively divided between the absolutely righteous and the pure evil, Olbermann fans and O’Reilly fans, or even jocks and geeks. In fact, most of the country and even the world is full of pretty moderate, apolitical people (just look at how many people don’t even vote). There’s a pretty significant constituency who will always vote for Republicans and another constituency who will only ever vote for Democrats no matter what. The rest of the voting public, however, is open to persuasion and decides based on their circumstances and impressions. Although I have my beefs with how and why this population sometimes decides, there really isn’t much point in arguing or complaining about the decisions they make; the swing voters, independents, and occasional voters play the largest role in tipping the balance of power in both Congress and the Executive branches. Furthermore, this group probably gives more intelligent thought to political matters than the people on the extreme poles of the spectrum, who largely only indulge in media and spin which reinforces their extant world views (this is where O’Reilly and Olbermann come in). Sure, sometimes this swing group sometimes decides based on things as asinine as which politician has the better tie, but neither political party is the exclusive victim of such flippant behavior, so neither really has much reason to complain.

In case you didn’t notice, dear Ms. Taitz, most of the moderate people in the country have decided that your brand of reality is simply not worth having. Right or wrong, these people—not some socialist conspiracy or the illuminati—simply stopped buying what you are selling. We can debate later whether they were right to do so, but priority number one should be to take a deep breath, acknowledge that something is wrong with your brand, and take steps to correct the perceptions that people have of you. It only took you one election cycle to get over Nixon, so don’t give yourself heart attacks or high blood-pressure just because you lost your power for now.

The thing to keep in mind is that most Americans support market capitalism, not because they’ve read Adam Smith or Ayn Rand, but simply because they know that America is a mostly capitalist country and they are pretty well-off, especially in comparison to the rest of the world. The paradigm that most people actually use is one of subtle negative-feedback. When their house feels too warm they crack a window or turn their A/C up a little; most people don’t have strong moral arguments about how hot or cold their house should be. The implication of this is that the Democrats picked up the seats that they did and have gotten the political mandate to try Keynesian economic fixes of the economy exclusively because Bush was considered such a disaster. After the economy utterly tanked last year under the seemingly incompetent hand of the Republicans, a good chunk of moderate and independent voters decided that maybe the Democrats might do a better job. Throwing T.E.A. parties or raging against socialist doctrines is likely a waste of time, since people don’t support Obama because they necessarily believe in his philosophy, but because the G.O.P. screwed up; the problem is not creeping socialism, but visibly failing capitalism.

It probably shows what I horrible person I am that I so revel when people I have no respect for—Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck—are so profoundly angry and scared about Obama and the democrats having power. Even though I have my own conflicts with some things the Obama government is doing or will do, I think that the tone and style that these pundits bring to the world (and have taught to the town-hall crashers) makes it an actively worse place and uniquely harms democracy. My only consolation to the anger I feel when Obama is called a racist or when medicare benefits for talking about end-of-life issues is called a “death tribunal” (which I feel is a measured, purposeful lie, told by unethical people to fool stupid people) is the knowledge that the propagators of these half-truths are decidedly out of power. I do not need to rant against or even argue with such insidious and half-baked arguments primarily because they are not working.

My parting advice to the jilted Republicans is to keep in mind that it’s probably easier to discredit your opponent than it is to actually rule well. Since few people are actually focusing on what, if anything, this crisis says about capitalism in general, there’s a good chance that all they’ll care about in 2012 is whether or not the economy has improved or if the Democrats have passed health care reform. So, even though I do think that the current financial crisis is proof that there is a critical flaw in the philosophies that the Bush government practices, you might just be more likely to win more voters in the 2010 and 2012 election with unbridled rage and incoherent screaming; if this is indeed your strategy, Limbaugh and Beck are absolutely the right people for the job.