Friday, 6 November 2009

Fear itself

How will Americans react to yesterday's terrible events?
A...[US-born Muslim] Army psychiatrist facing deployment to one of America’s war zones killed 12 people and wounded 31 others on Thursday in a shooting rampage with two handguns at the sprawling Fort Hood Army post in central Texas, military officials said.

As far as the Administration is concerned, along with most Americans, I'm sure any response will be measured (though I'm not sure how you can respond in terms of policy and action to something like this).

However, what of the Republican rump? There's something unworldly and narrow about this slice of American society, whose fears are voiced - and manipulated - by a clutch of media demagogues. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk make millions from orchestrating 'a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness', to borrow Orwell words. (This encapsulates Beck).

I think their critics over-emphasise the vindictiveness part of Orwell's pairing; fear is the more important because it's the wellspring. As Bertrand Russell observed, 'collective fear can stimulate the herd instinct, and tends to produce a ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd.'

Beck, etc. present themselves as members of an oppressed minority (here's today's whinge). They're not of course. But they give expression to people who feel as if they are. People who are scared, and who direct the consequent aggression outwards.

Now, there is obviously quite a bit to be scared about with regard to Islamist terrorism. God knows, living in London and regularly using public transport one could hardly be indifferent to it. But the fear found in the Republican rump seems particularly unreasonable and unbalanced. Dangerous too: it fuels what popular support there is for the unwise and extreme resort to torture under Bush-Cheney.

An insight into the nature of this fear is repeatedly provided by the controversy about where released Guantanamo detainees might be imprisoned. Today's outcry comes from the Herald, a South Carolina newspaper:
South Carolina politicians are rallying to prevent the federal government from sending suspected terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay detention center to the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston...
“It is dangerous to bring these terrorists onto U.S. soil and make targets out of our own communities,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

High-security prisons should be sufficient, one would have thought. Certainly, it doesn't seem to bother us or our neighbours having Pentonville Prison up the road, a home for terrorists of many different stripes over the years. But, anyway, aren't these the loudest declaimers of a full-blooded patriotism, of making a sacrifice for your country? Sarah Palin:
Are you doing--and are your intentions to do--all that you can to help secure these United States? And I think every elected official needs to ask themselves that.

The last eight years have seeded a fear - for some intermingled with guilt about feeling such fear - that is bearing the sourest, most misshapen fruit. This fear is perverting patriotism, turning it into a bitter, blinkered partisanship. It has grown, in some instances, into what can only be described as full-blown craziness:

Who is this America? Henry Fairlie witnessed it at the Republican's 1980 Convention, the one that chose Ronald Reagan as its candidate:
The America once of the Scopes trial; the America of prohibition; the America of ignorant isolationism. The America then of ‘‘better dead than red’’; the America of McCarthyism; the America of the last fundamentalists of the 1950s. The America now of the new evangelicals; the America of the Moral Majority; the America of a now ignorant interventionism; the America which can see homosexuals as a conspiracy; feminists as a conspiracy; perhaps even women as a conspiracy.
The America of fear.

This America, then, has a history. But it's rarely felt this salient, at least in my own lifetime. The worst economy since the 1930s. Mass media demagoguery whipping up an already extant fear, distorting patriotism into partisanship and paranoia. Extreme acts such as torture accepted as a necessity, even embraced as a badge of pride. And then a Muslim American soldier frenziedly murders over a dozen of his fellows. This America is primed.

Henry Fairlie again:
It is time that we pointed out to the neo-conservatives that democracy has never been subverted from the left but always from the right. No democracy has fallen to communism, without an army; many democracies have fallen to fascism, from within.

It's likely that nothing will come of these attitudes and these circumstances. But there's enough there to make one worry.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish made me aware of Henry Fairlie's American journalism. Before emigrating to the US he wrote for The Spectator, where he invented the idea of the Establishment.


Hey Skipper said...

Here's my bet as to what will come out of of it: Nada. Nil. Zilch. Zippo. Squanto moto.

You have latched onto just about every caricature (there is no excuse for Glen Beck -- or Keith Olbermann, for that matter -- but have you actually ever listened to Limbaugh or Hannity?) the US MSM has conjured up.

Gaw said...

I think you're right that most likely nothing will come of this. But if McCain-Palin had won the last presidential election and McCain didn't make a full term I think all bets would've been off. Why shouldn't a similar situation happen again?

Re caricatures: I'm not sure it's possible to caricature Palin, who I believe is capable of most anything (perhaps 'capable' isn't the right word to use near her). And she's hardly marginal.

I have seen quite a bit of Hannity but only read what Limbaugh is reported to have said. Beck is more farcical but the fundamental message is the same. I find Hannity comes across as a nasty thug.

Vern said...

I suggest you also watch Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC to see that frothing, venomous demagoguery is hardly the exclusive preserve of the right; or read the Daily Kos for that matter.

Andrew Sullivan is a poor guide to what's going on in the US. Bafflingly overrated, a subscriber to birther conspiracy theories (eg Palin's granddaughter is actually her daughter) and general bore who never emerges from out of his smug coterie of Beltway associates.

Shite, in other words.

Vern said...

.. and I might add that I don't see any Democratic senators/governors lining up to have the Guantanamo prisoners deposited in their prisons. It is a myth that opposition to this comes only from so-called 'rump' Republicans. It is nearly universal.

Gaw said...

Vern: Welcome!

I don't see Maddow and Olbermann putting themselves forward as leading lights of the Democratic party. Anyway, from what I've seen, heard and read their language is nowhere near as extreme as their counterparts on the right.

I suspect Sullivan could never really be considered in touch with 'real' America.

I don't see any Democratic senators/governors lining up to have the Guantanamo prisoners deposited in their prisons

I wouldn't argue that it's only people on the Right that might be easily spooked. Besides, I imagine it's a difficult case to make now: you'd be asked to prove a negative, i.e. that Gitmo detainees won't murder you in your beds. But that's what happens when politicians engage in unprincipled or ignorant scaremongering.

Gaw said...

Caricature? The Republican 'leadership' have really jumped the shark.

Venomous demagoguery barely does it justice.

Hey Skipper said...

Why shouldn't a similar situation happen again?

Because of all the anti-Muslim pogroms that didn't happen after 9/11.

Besides, what Vern said about Olbermann, Madow, Kos, etc. They are the activist wing of the Democratic party. Remember General Betrayus?

Neither Hannity nor Limbaugh are a patch on them.

Re caricatures: I'm not sure it's possible to caricature Palin, who I believe is capable of most anything ...

Despite living in Alaska, I am not particularly a Palin fan. However, there is no parallel with the vitriol heaped upon her by the left. Particularly including Andrew Sullivan, who, IIRC, never apologized for being so spectacularly wrong.

And just to say some more of what Vern said, Guantanomo will not close by January, and blaming that on Republicans is a half dozen different kinds of wrong. Obama was some combination of ignorant, idiot, or liar to say it would.

Spend some time over at the Daily Kos. Try submitting a comment that doesn't hew to the party line. Then get back to me about venom.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I think the US system of government very often displays the virtues and vices of what is, essentially, small-town politics writ large. When it works well it can be surprisingly inclusive and responsive for such a large and diverse nation. When it works badly it deminstrates the worst kinds of pork-barrel politicking and small-mindedness.

(Just for the record, I think the UK system has the virtues and vices of a local golf club committee.)

What will come of it? Probably not much, just so long as more moderate and considered voices can be arsed to shift themselves and do something about it.

Vern said...

Gaw- many thanks for the welcome. Glad to be here.

Don't get me wrong- I have no love for the Republican party. I just don't buy that the 'right' are the only ones spouting off, or engaging in inflammatory rhetoric or venomous demagoguery. That's a myth put about by CNN, the NYT and probably the BBC.

Case in point: when the Tea Party rallies began Nancy Pelosi penned an op ed in USA Today (I think) denouncing the protestors as un-American. My jaw dropped at the use of this McCarthyite language to demonise voters. Subsequently MSNBC edited footage of a Tea Party, cutting off the head of a black man wielding a gun so that they could spin the whole movement as redneck whites getting uppity.

FYI, during the administration's short lived and absurd war on Fox, Obama invited Olbermann and Maddow for a private audience at the White House. I don't know what they talked about, but I suspect it wasn't about Bo, the White House dog.

I also recommend you watch a few of Olbermann's vicious, nightly ad hominem tirades against right wingers if you would like a taste of Orwell's 2 minutes hate.

Hannity is a dimbulb and a bore. Beck is trickier phenomenon. He's paranoid, but in spite of this his show has done some actual reporting. No, really. Most famously, he outed Van Jones, a 9/11 Truther and professional race-baiter who was working in the White House. It was not made up; Van Jones had to resign. He has also drawn attention to all manner of idiots (e.g. Anita Dunn) working in the WH, but because he has so little credibility and is in Fox, the stories struggle to break into the mainstream.

Also, Beck is not a Republican. He hates Republicans. In fact, if you listen to him closely he rails against the 'oligarchy' and the 'big corporations' as much as Michael Moore. He has a lot in common with the Kos crowd. But he also despises the government and has no truck with their kneejerk antiwar stuff, and that's where they differ.

In spite of the various fatuous comments made by the Republicans about healthcare, they have probably been outdone by Alan Grayson, a Democrat congressman who is a dickhead of cosmic proportions. Google him.

And for the record, the healthcare reform bill is a malodorous pile of shit, even if Republicans say so.

Vern said...

Sorry for that long response by the way. And I didn't even elaborate further on the froth put about by super sage Andrew 'Birther' Sullivan.

Steve said...

I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, and I don't want to add to the pile on, but (1) Olbermann and Maddow are every bit as nutty as Beck and Hannity, and (2) as for Andrew Sullivan and Henry Fairlie: you're joking, right? I agree with Hey Skipper that you have fallen hook, line, and sinker for Mainstream Media/"liberal"/"progressive" caricatures.

As I said, I enjoy your thoughtful writing, so I was surprised to see you fall into this kind of broad-brushed stereotyping. I know that you know this, but applying stereotypes to American culture is a tricky undertaking, particularly when one is doing it on the basis of the media and popular entertainment.

Whenever I read someone going on about the looming danger of American fascism, I am reminded of the famous passage from Tom Wolfe's essay "The Intelligent Coed's Guide to America":

"He sounded like Jean-Francois Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe."

I hope that this does not sound like a rant, because it is not meant to be. I am not going to abandon you. But I am disappointed in your simplistic take on this topic.

Best regards,

Gaw said...

Vern and Steve: Thanks for your thoughtful responses and welcome Steve. I do really appreciate them as I've learnt more from this blog and its commenters than I have from anything for a long time.

I'm sure there are wingnuts on the Democratic side. It's just that their narrative doesn't seem to be integrated as much with their leadership's. The thing I can't get over is this, from the link on my previous comment:

Boehner..declared that the health care bill is the "greatest threat to freedom that I have seen."

If I took him at his word I would be encouraged to rule nothing out in opposing the current administration.

I'm wondering at myself for getting involved in this debate and I think I'm going to have to do a separate post to try to explain!

Hey Skipper said...

Oh, BTW, I'll bet Sarah Palin says absolutely nothing incendiary about the killings at Ft. Hood.