Monday, September 14, 2009

The Silent Majority versus the Moronic Minority

Remember Nixon’s “silent majority.” It was made up of the un-cool, middle aged working stiffs who stood for good old American values like short hair and support for the empire in all its predations, while remaining politically impassive – the very opposite of insurrectionary blacks seeking “liberation” or spoiled, sex- and drug-crazed white kids looking to stop the Vietnam War. Nowadays, of course, almost everyone claims to have been against that war. But, in fact, until war weariness and Watergate sent his popularity plummeting, depleting the ranks of his silent defenders, Nixon was probably right about which side was in the majority. [Post-war France provides another example of this phenomenon. Nearly everyone claimed to have been in the Resistance. In fact, very few were, and most French people collaborated more or less actively with the German Occupation.]

But that was then. Nowadays, the shoe is on the other foot and the foot has grown much larger. Today’s silent majority is, if not exactly progressive, at least not reactionary; it is comprised of nearly everyone who has his or her head screwed on right. Meanwhile, the ones making noise, lets call them “the Moronic Minority,” are a tiny assemblage of misinformed, alienated and resentful creatures – recruited by corporate PR types from the minions whom daytime television, talk radio, and Fox News long ago pre-moronized.

America has seen it all before, even in recent decades, especially when there were Democratic presidents in office -- or Republicans like Ike, who were no worse than Democrats. Eisenhower and Kennedy had to contend with the John Birch Society and the Minutemen; Clinton had the militia movement. However in those days, the craziness, though sometimes violent, was effectively sequestered; it therefore had little effect on policy. Now, thanks to the internet and the cable news networks, it is spilling over into the mainstream. The problem is made worse by the fact that the Republican Party -- even at its best, the party of the Greater Evil -- has all but turned itself into the Moronic Minority’s political vehicle.

What Richard Hofstadter long ago called “the paranoid style” in American politics has been a factor in our political life almost since the country’s founding. But it only becomes a serious threat in those times when a portion of the elite identifies with it or exploits its potentialities. That is what is happening now.

On the other hand, there has been progress of a sort in comparison with the recent and more remote past. Today’s Moronic Minority, like its ancestor political movements, is transparently nativist (anti-immigrant) and racist. Can anyone doubt that the fact that the President is African-American rattles the cages of tea party militants or that, in their minds, “illegal immigrants” are the new Negroes! But, on matters of race and ethnicity, no matter how unhinged they become, the demonstrators at town hall meetings or in the halls of Congress at least have the decency not to be too overt. Following the lead of Fox’s hapless Glen Beck, they even accuse the other side of “racism,” effectively conceding what their predecessors never would -- that racism is a bad thing. It’s progress too that “Nazi” and “fascist” are terms of reproach for these later-day Know-Nothings; or, at least it would be progress, if those who use these words as derogatory epithets had any idea what they meant. [That they conflate “Nazi” and “fascist” with “socialist” and “communist,” and then claim that this has something to do with health insurance, is reason to think that they haven’t a clue.] In addition, today’s Moronic Minority, though comprised mainly of fundamentalist Protestants, is not anti-Catholic. This too is progress; but we should not forget that part of the explanation for this happy turn of events has to do with the unholy alliance between Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants in the inaptly named “pro-life” movement.

Most startling of all, there seems to be little, if any, anti-Semitism in today’s Moronic Minority, in stark contrast to right-wing movements of the past. But even that advance is not quite as much an improvement as one might suppose, inasmuch as throughout our political culture, it is taken for granted that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are more or less the same thing. Once that mistake is taken on board, it is only natural that birthers and deathers and tenthers and tea partyers would assume ostensibly philo-Semitic attitudes. How, after all, could they not identify with a state whose very existence depends on ethnic cleansing; indeed, one that periodically wages wars on Muslim peoples, and imposes an Apartheid regime on Muslims in the territories it has occupied for more than forty years! How could they not be pro-Israel and therefore pro-Jewish? Then too there is the theology that runs rampant in Moronic Minority ranks, according to which Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled in the Holy Land before their very eyes. Of course, the original Crusaders were as delighted to kill Jews as Muslims. But they were Papists, after all; and therefore, Christian Zionists think, in the thrall of the Anti-Christ, not that they would say so directly given their anti-abortion driven détante with Rome. The Crusaders therefore didn’t realize, as fundamentalist Protestants do, that killing Jews was not the business of right thinking Christians; that pleasure is reserved for God who, at the end of time, will see to it that Jews who do not accept Jesus will get what they deserve. Until then, Christians should make common cause with Jews in killing Muslims, the better to hasten the Final Days.

Still, all this “progress” is small consolation. The fact remains: unhinged Know-Nothingism is again dragging the political “center” rightward. Would that the Left were similarly vociferous; would that it would drag Obama and the Democrats in control of Congress the opposite way!

But today’s equivalent of the militant minority of the Nixon era has gone into hibernation; the champions of Reason have faltered. Part of the problem is the transparently untenable idea, still held by many, that President Obama will, through sheer charisma, make things right. Part of the problem is exhaustion after countless, feckless “marches on Washington” and demonstrations elsewhere. What a waste of time and effort they have been!

[In that regard, it is worth noting how The New York Times and The Washington Post always underestimate the size of anti-war demonstrations by orders of magnitude. In contrast, both papers were more than happy to declare that “tens of thousands” of “anti-government” (i.e. anti-Obama for the wrong reason) demonstrators descended on Washington on 9/12.]

But Obamamania and exhaustion are not the whole story; misplaced civility, the ‘niceness’ liberals promote, is part of the problem too. To the degree, often exaggerated, that protests helped bring the Vietnam War to an end, it was not because masses of well-behaved demonstrators assembled together to plead their cause. For that sort of thing to have had much effect, we’d have to have had a much more democratic polity than we did back then or than we have now. What helped to restrain Nixon and Kissinger was the “war at home” – and in the military – because it threatened the maintenance and reproducibility of the existing order. The anti-Iraq war movement never rose to that level. It was too decorous, too “respectful” of contrary views, too supportive of “the troops,” too inclined to assume that, with compelling arguments, the enemy was persuadable. On the unhinged and otherwise mindless Right, they know better.

Obama’s “bipartisanship” is cut from the same cloth as the civility of today’s left opposition, except that it is even more plainly disabling. Thus he and his co-thinkers still labor to find “common ground” with the nut cases who came to Washington on 9/12 and with the public relations manipulators and political entrepreneurs who stirred them into (re)action, making paranoia, yet again, a major factor in American political life. Instead, like those to his left, Obama should learn what the nut cases in the streets can teach him: that rational discourse is an improver only to the extent that people are rational; and therefore that, in a world like ours where Unreason is rampant, a little, unreasonable obstreperousness (for Reason's sake) – or, better yet, a whole lot of it -- can go a long way.

No comments: