Thursday, August 13, 2009
"He's a socialist." "He's a communist." "He's anti-American." "Heck, he wasn't even born in the United States."
By most accounts, Obama has been taking a public pounding lately. His poll numbers are falling. His attempt to revamp our health care system appears decidedly stalled.
Of course, that very same health care agenda has even been blitzed by angry protesters at town hall meetings all around the country, protesters accused (by those on the Left) of either being extremist zealots or disingenuous provocateurs/plants.
These same indignant protesters claim to read between the lines of Obama's public statements about health care, accusing him of trying to nationalize it. Or worse.
Over the last few days, there has even been talk (media-covered talk) about an Obama-led Democratic conspiracy to create "death panels" charged with determining which sick Americans will be given the privilege of government-dispensed health care.
There are also rumors about secret FEMA "concentration camps" being built by an Obama regime with a specifically Totalitarian and Fascist endgame. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck went on FOX News to announce that after "several days of research" to debunk such claims about secret camps, "I can't debunk them."
FEMA is one "usual suspect" in conspiracy theories about evil government plots. In my book Racial Paranoia, I discuss similar theories from the 1950s and 60s about secret concentration camps being built for troublesome Americans. In that earlier version of things, those on the Left were prime candidates for such ideologically driven gulags. Today, far Right conservatives are the ones imaginings themselves most vulnerable to the possibility of political imprisonment. And pundits such as Lou Dobbs (for his straight-faced coverage of the "birthers") and the aforementioned Glenn Beck have been consistently criticized for fomenting such outlandishness.
Of course, Beck already didn't like Obama. "This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people," Beck claimed (on another FOX News program). "This guy is, I believe, a racist." (Some of Beck's show's advertisers have dropped his program as a function of such statements.)
But Beck isn't alone in this game of high-profile Obama-bashing. Michelle Malkin's bestselling book Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks and Cronies is a manifesto of Obamaphobia.
In many ways, this is simply how politics gets done. And it probably always has been. Many of the attacks on George W. Bush were brutal and merciless, and they still hardly hold a candle to some of the partisan rhetorical assaults of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In some ways, we've mellowed as a nation, even as the non-mellow among us gain increasing access to far-flung members of their "fringe" with advances in global media. A relatively small group of like-minded people can have a disproportionate impact on our collective public stage, especially if they make effective use of new media technologies. They can almost create Movements, and seemingly overnight. Indeed, we might be living in an era of the incessant and media-spawned Mini Social Movement. (Again, think of the "Birthers Movement" and its claim about Obama not really being an American citizen.) We could call such things social movements du jour, maybe pseudo social movements. But with a little media coverage, even pseudo social movements become "real" in ways that can have substantive consequences for all of us.
Americans' current "run on guns" isn't just about a potential change in national policy around gun control and the right to bear arms. Some of it also seems to be predicated on an uptick in right-wing militias and their renewed calls for a "race war." Part of it is about a kind of "racial paranoia" linked to economic insecurities, a racial paranoia that pivots on a growing social movement around reactionary racial politicking. (The way "race" functioned in the Sotomayor confirmation hearings was one example of what this reactionary racial rhetoric sounds like today. The fallout from the Gates-Crowley Affair was another.)
Mark Potok, editor the the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report sees "a resurgence of right-wing hate groups and radical ideas" linked to the ascendence of America's first Black President. Recent reports put out by the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms seem to corroborate that claim. With unemployment and deficit spending on the rise and Americans full of fear about their own economic futures, we should be careful not to fall into the same old trap of racial scapegoating. It is easy. We've mastered it. It might even allow some of us to sleep more soundly at night. But it is utterly and ultimately the most self-dstructive response we can have to our present predicament.