Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care, Racism, and the New American Misanthropy

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game

- “Only a Pawn in Their Game”

Bob Dylan

A certain segment of the population want to believe the conspiracies about Obama because it allows them an “out” for their otherwise blatant racism. They hate the concept of an African-American president. They might be able to swallow the concept of a black Republican president because they might feel that the real power is in the hands of a sensible white man like Dick Cheney. But a black Democrat is the worst of all possible worlds. Not only are they inferior to good, Christian, northern-European descended wealthy heterosexual men over thirty (did I leave an adjective out?), but as a black man, be MUST want to seek vengeance for slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, Tuskegee experiments, segregation, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Rodney King. So obviously whitey is going to be a touch jumpy, no?

But racism is bad. You learned that in school. In any case, it’s not acceptable anymore to express prejudices in public like mom, dad, and grandpa use to around the house. It will be our little secret. You still have those feelings, though, don’t you? Oooh! You want to say the word so badly!

On the other hand, being that Obama is a Democrat, he can be saddled with all manner of slander and assumptions associated with Democrats since the Reagan era. It was during that time that the otherwise innocuous descriptor “liberal” became a slur, and “government program” became “socialism.” Socialism itself is not really very well understood by either party. The brain trusts who go into politics are seldom from political science or history backgrounds. There is some vague memory of the Soviet Union and how bad those guys were and we have some idea that they were socialists because it was in their name. (Although, the Soviet puppet state of East Germany was a Democratic Republic, even if only on paper.)

Socialism means something different to the belligerent yahoos who show up at the anti-Obama rallies that are disguised as anti-tax fetes and town hall meetings. It means a kind of broader community sensibility, a distribution of franchise, and maybe some obligation to one’s fellow citizen. But many Americans hate each other. They tolerate each other, sure. Most of the time they are ok with whatever Jones is doing because Jones lives in another city or state. But if we find out that Jones is gay and wants to marry, we are extremely annoyed because they are being forced to have an opinion on a lifestyle we don’t approve of. Politicians swoop in and say “hey, guess what, yahoo, you know that fag you hate, Jones? The one who lives nowhere near you and pays his taxes? Well, he wants to get hitched. I know! Yes, the world is coming to hell in a hand-basket. But you can do something about it! On the ballot this November is a little proposition…” and so it goes.

But as easy as it is to locate homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and racism in America life, I think to label these occurrences thus misses the broader trend. Because the homophobe also hates Blacks, Mexicans, Jews (if he is aware they are Jews), hippies, women, people who attended a different college than they did, people who live on the other coast, postal workers, drive-thru cashiers, mini-mart operators, teenagers, and the elderly. In short, he simply hates. The word for this type of person is not in common use so much anymore – misanthrope. We don’t use it much because it is a funny word, faintly French, and when it is used, it is usually seen as an innocuous, even endearing term for one who is simply cantankerous. Kurt Vonnegut described himself thus. I suppose Holden Caulfield, too. Linus is famous for saying “I love humanity, it’s the people I can’t stand.” But I think some distinction needs to be made about a kind of frustration with humanity’s failings and the sort of need-down resentment that many people feel that there are so many people about.

This isn’t to diminish the very real phenomena of specific acts against a specific group. I would only suggest that someone who hates African-Americans probably hates gays, too. A brief reminiscence: Some years ago catching an American Nazi Party “chat show” on a local cable access channel. (It was pretty vile but also fascinating because they had a potted plant in the background, just like a any other chat show.) At the end of the program an address flashed on the screen to write to the local sponsor of the broadcast. I quickly jotted down a few words of criticisms, suggesting that white supremacist could never really be truly happy because once they got their Aryan paradise in the Pacific Northwest, they soon discover reasons to hate Baptists, or Lutherans, or redheads, because what they hated was not so other races, but just other people in general. Once the specialness of the “clique” no longer gained them fellowship (there is no in-group if there is no ”other”) they would grow discontented and seek scapegoats to explain their angst or personal failures. I sent the missive off and much to my surprise, I received a very quick response. (He was probably surprised to get a reasoned critique in the mail rather than dog shit in an envelope.) He carefully explained that all white nationalists would move to the new Aryan homeland and live in confederated union, with various “clans” living independently of one another. Thus, Lutherans would get say, Seattle, while Baptists would get Salem. He explained this like it made all the sense in the world, as if he himself couldn’t see the deeper distrust at work here: white supremacist don’t like other white supremacists! It’s not that they are intolerant of other races, it’s that they are intolerant, full-stop.

This misanthrope I am describing is not, however, on a binary switch. It’s not as if between Clinton and Obama the racists and the anti-liberals were happy and carefree. I’m sure they were the same miserable, sulky, intolerant skin-sacks they always were. But even if Bush was rather a shade too liberal (believe it or not!) for these folks, there is a thought that, at least nominally, Bush (and Bush the First, and Regan, etc.) is “one of us.” When the Republicans talk about their “base,” they aren’t talking about the agents of capital, they are talking about these paranoid crypto-Birchers. Another factor playing into this is the comfort that these people find in all manner of conspiracy (it is a good substitute for education. Just make up reality.). In this case, they are comforted by the notion that although the Republicans are a part of “The Beast” known as the Federal government, they know that there are secret meetings going on to plot out some sort of End-time scenario. They know this because they can read between the lines when Regan talks about an “Evil Empire” or when W. Bush refers to America’s war in Iraq as a “Crusade.” They are speaking directly to them!

The only solace I take in all of this is knowing that the vast majority of Americans are like this. They may be annoyed, and even hateful of their neighbors. But most do not go down the road of conspiracy. The elements of paranoia and reality invention conspire to turn simple misanthropy into full-blown terrorism. What is terrifying is that the agents of capital – I am thinking of the health insurance lobby at present – have managed to organize the yahoos like a children’s crusade against Obama, ostensibly because he wants to bring socialism to the United States. But what has been organized is perhaps more than what the insurance companies had bargained for they will have to take on the liability of bringing into the debate extremely disturbed and disturbing individuals who are not above characterizing the president as a Nazi or brining assault weapons to public events.

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