Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blow by Blow

Charles Blow writes an interesting column in today's New York Times about the anger of the far right that has been visible for all to see in the aftermath of the passage of the health care reform legislation.

"Whose country is it?" the headline on his column asks, and Blow proceeds to make the case that, in the words of the old Bob Dylan song, the times they are a–changing. And they can't be stopped.

Blow sees this as the general ranting of extremists against the perceived takeover of America by the non–white, non–male, non–straight, non–Christian, non–European elements of the population, resulting in the loss of control of their country.

"It's an extension of a now–familiar theme," Blow writes, "some version of 'take our country back.' "

But they can't have it, Blow says. "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."

Blow may be right when he refers indirectly to the inevitability of what is happening — the black man in the Oval Office, the woman wielding the gavel in the House, the Jew and the gay man who were the "most visible and vocal proponents" of health care reform.

And change — any change, really, but especially change on that scale — is unsettling. Blow is right when he observes that it frightens many on the right.

When people are frightened, they can be defensive. They can be irrational. They are seldom logical.

But Blow makes the mistake that many on the left make. He tries to apply logic to the situation.

Those on the right are outnumbered, Blow implies. Their numbers are dwindling. He concedes the possibility that the Republican Party may enjoy "a short–term benefit" from not taking a stand against "the radical language, rabid bigotry and rising violence" while profiting politically from expressing concern about legitimate issues of taxation and government's role, "but it's a long–term loser."

It's probably admirable that Blow thinks of things in the long term. But if the right wing really is as concerned about the societal shifts as he suggests — and, to be sure, some of the members of that faction are primarily concerned about that — I doubt that they have analyzed the long–term implications. Blow writes about the wave of the future, but those about whom he writes are thinking about the past and the present. Blow might find them shortsighted and intractable. But, to use the familiar movie line, what we've got here is a failure to communicate. The two sides might as well be speaking languages the other does not understand.

What is really called for, it seems to me, is an understanding of the fear that is at the bottom of all this rage; then, appropriate steps can be taken. We've all been scared at one time or another, right? Think about the last time something really terrified you. Were you inclined to analyze the long–term implications? You may have felt a profound sense of loss or you may have been angry about the fact that something dear to you was being taken from you. You may have said and/or done things that you later regretted, things you wouldn't necessarily have said and/or done if you had allowed a cooler head to prevail. But I would be willing to bet that you never gave any thought to the long–term consequences.

Most people — but not all — feel inclined to lash out at those whom they believe (rightly or wrongly) to be their tormentors when they get backed into a corner. And extremists can be dangerous enough when they act spontaneously. We've all heard about the threats against House Democrats who supported health care reform, threats that don't appear to be coordinated or necessarily planned out. And Blow observes that gun sales have escalated since Obama took office. The ingredients for a tragedy are in place.

I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss what extremists might be capable of — especially if they take the time to think about their actions. Don't forget what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City.

I grew up in the South, where I learned early that right–wing extremism tends to go hand in hand with a belief that there is a mandate from God to do whatever may be deemed necessary to preserve the way of life that has always been. The fact that a majority of Americans accept abortion rights, for example, did not prevent an anti–abortion activist from killing an abortion provider in church last year. He was not deterred by the fact that the numbers were against him. I suspect that, if anyone asked him, he would say they merely needed to be shown the light.

Granted, that wasn't in a state that is considered part of the Deep South, but hatred isn't confined to one region. And Blow doesn't specify the South in his column — although it is the region that has produced most of the conservative lawmakers in Congress. Even so, the South has earned its reputation for intolerance over the years, and I'm a little surprised that Blow doesn't seem to understand that. I don't know where he was born and raised, but I know he went to school at Grambling in Louisiana so he lived in the South for awhile at least.

Things have changed a lot since the 1960s, but it is still necessary to exercise care when dealing with the South. And, by definition, whenever one is addressing the right wing, one is addressing the South.

Perhaps he has been away too long to remember just how virulent Southern thinking can be. Perhaps he only remembers the history book accounts, which are bad enough but still mostly focus on the headline news — the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964, the shooting of Martin Luther King in 1968, etc. — and not the routine acts of violence that were carried out against mostly nameless, mostly faceless, low–profile victims.

Thankfully, that part is greatly diminished from what it was, but it would not be wise to let the application of logic allow potentially tragic complacency to be in charge.

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