We seem to be living in crazy times. A substantial number of conservatives have a number of delusions, including that that Barack Obama is a Muslim and not a natural born American citizen, believe in creationism, still think there was WMD in Iraq at the onset of the war, and think that the scientific consensus on climate change is part of a conspiracy to destroy industrialized society. The health care debate has added a number of new delusions as conservatives listen to the wild claims of “death panels” from a crazy lady in Alaska posting on Facebook. Right wingers see additional conspiracies ranging from a plot to destroy private health insurance and have government take over health care to the Obama administration collecting email for the purpose of creating an enemies list.
Rick Perlstein writes that there is nothing new in the crazies coming out to protest health care reform. He notes that, “If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.” He provided some examples:
In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as “20 years of treason” and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America.”
When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, his proposals to anchor America’s nuclear defense in intercontinental ballistic missiles — instead of long-range bombers — and form closer ties with Eastern Bloc outliers such as Yugoslavia were taken as evidence that the young president was secretly disarming the United States. Thousands of delegates from 90 cities packed a National Indignation Convention in Dallas, a 1961 version of today’s tea parties; a keynote speaker turned to the master of ceremonies after his introduction and remarked as the audience roared: “Tom Anderson here has turned moderate! All he wants to do is impeach [Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl] Warren. I’m for hanging him!”
Before the “black helicopters” of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a “civil rights movement” had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would “enslave” whites. And back before there were Bolsheviks to blame, paranoids didn’t lack for subversives — anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists even had their own powerful political party in the 1840s and ’50s.
The instigation is always the familiar litany: expansion of the commonweal to empower new communities, accommodation to internationalism, the heightened influence of cosmopolitans and the persecution complex of conservatives who can’t stand losing an argument. My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.
Perlstein notes that while there have always been right wing nuts there is a difference in how the media responds to them:
It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.
The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”
Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill — because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.
Edward Luce makes a similar argument in the Financial Times:
More than a generation ago, the great American historian, Richard Hofstadter, wrote the classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Having watched many public servants and colleagues in academia hounded out of their jobs on the flimsiest of pretexts during the “red scare” of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, Hofstadter identified what he saw as a peculiarly American pathology of proneness to conspiracy theory.
America, he pointed out, was a relatively rootless society, which meant that anyone suffering from economic or status anxiety, particularly its struggling white middle classes, was particularly susceptible to the politics of scapegoating. Although also exhibited on the American left – think of the indefatigable Noam Chomsky, who sees a conspiracy under every rock, or Ralph Nader, the former consumer activist who believes corporations run everything – Hofstadter saw the paranoid style mostly as a right-wing phenomenon.
His theory holds up very well in 2009. Anyone who visits a few of this month’s rowdy town hall meetings can grasp that opposition to Mr Obama’s healthcare proposals is a lightning rod to a far larger world view, which seeks to protect American values and the US constitution from an alien takeover.
The word “alien” is appropriate. A poll last week found that only 42 per cent of Republicans believe Mr Obama was born in America. “Birthers”, or those who believe the election of the president is a conspiracy that dates back at least to Hawaii in 1961, the place and time of Mr Obama’s birth, made up a slim majority of respondents in the south. Foreign-born candidates are ineligible for the presidency under the constitution…
No amount of contrary evidence will puncture the view that Mr Obama plans to establish “death panels” that will decide which grannies get to live or die. Nor will reason counter the view that countries such as Canada and the UK push their weakest to the back of the queue. “Who will suffer the most when they ration care?” asked Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska on Thursday. “The sick, the elderly and the disabled, of course.”