Tag Archives: hysteria

Times that Try Us

It seems to be increasingly fashionable—at least among angry Teabaggers—to quote (selected) Founders. So perhaps I should begin this column with Thomas Paine’s famous “These are the times that try men’s souls…” 

Of course, Paine was writing during some of the darkest days of the Revolution, not during a sustained snit by people with a very tenuous grasp of American history. Whatever the temptation to over-react to the over-reactions all around us, those of us who haven’t yet lost all our marbles should probably exercise some restraint.

And yet…as Charles Blow recently wrote in the New York Times,

“The far-right extremists have gone into conniptions.

  The bullying, threats, and acts of violence following the passage of health care reform have been shocking, but they’re only the most recent   manifestations of an increasing sense of desperation.

 It’s an extension of a now-familiar theme: some version of “take our country back.” The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.”

 We are experiencing a perfect storm—a confluence of rapid social change, economic stress (or worse) and electronically distributed demagoguery that could easily ignite into something profoundly ugly. And lest we forget, minorities and marginalized people do not fare well at such times.

 Angry and frightened people want someone to blame. In the past, it was Catholics or Jews or blacks. To a considerable extent, those groups are still “on the line;” anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and racism all spike upward when times get tough. But today, the targets of choice are those most in the news: immigrants and gay Americans.

 In the “old” America that these people are so nostalgic for—those better days that exist primarily in their imaginations—Americans all looked pretty much the same. Sure there were black people, but they knew their place. They certainly weren’t occupying the White House and Congress! Women were in the kitchen or nursery where God meant for us to be—we sure weren’t in charge of American foreign policy, or presiding over the House of Representatives. Gay people—out ones, anyway—weren’t chairing the House Banking Committee, or hosting popular television programs, or holding elective office. And they certainly weren’t marrying each other! And everybody who wasn’t black was white and spoke English without an accent.

 For a great many Americans, the resentments they have harbored over these signs of change have simmered below the surface, waiting for some trigger that would release them. And now, the demagogues on the Right are providing that trigger, many of them knowingly. The rhetoric that has been employed during the healthcare debate has been deliberately provocative (and the purported grievances mostly fabricated, but that is a somewhat different issue.)  As I write this, the media is reporting on an epidemic of brick-throwing, aimed at windows of Democratic party offices around the country. The instigator has shown no remorse; he is proud, he says, that he is leading a protest against a big government that is taking over responsibilities that government shouldn’t have. Ironically, he lives entirely on Social Security Disability.

 When people are this delusional—when protestors are screaming things like “keep government out of my Medicare!”—it can be a short trip to murderous dementia. And the first attacks won’t be against the “good ole’ boys.”

 They’ll be coming after you-know-who.