Friday, November 12, 2004

[politics] where's FDR's spirit when you need it?

"The only thing we have to fear... is Fear itself." So, what's a closer-to-forty-than-thirty-year-old geek doing quoting FDR? Roosevelt had been dead almost 25 years by the time I was born. At the time of my birth, we were mired in Vietnam: liberalism was stalled at home, drained dry by the costs of an unwinnable war and the exit wounds left by a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in Dealey Plaza, Dallas TX and a .30-06 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TX. How can FDR be relevant to someone who came of age and political awareness during the Reagan-Bush years? Easy. The GOP has decided to become the Crazy Eddie of fear. Fear of swarthy, bearded, hook-nosed foreigners; fear of men fucking men; fear of men liking fucking and being fucked by men; fear that you might have to read something other than the Bible; fear that having a penis no longer means being lord and master of all you survey; fear that somehow, somewhere, a dark-skinned evil-doer might have a bigger gun than you; fear that freedom of religion might actually mean freedom from religion; fear of pornographers and pederasts and pushers; fear that the ACLU might actually be right; fear that Darwin might have been right; fear that you might actually have to be nice to one of those people; fear that you might actually have to work for one of those people; fear of a world in which the Pill and abortion and equal access to education and equal pay for equal work mean that women can't be treated as chattel. Sell these fears below cost; you'll make it up in volume. My first memories of 'history' unfolding are also of fear: gas lines, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Northern Ireland, 3-Mile Island, race riots over school integration and court-mandated busing, hostages in Iran, the sack and rape of Afghanistan, heavy-handed nuclear gamesmanship, cruise missle deployments. To me, the choice always seemed obvious: closing your mind to the complexities of the world was a dead end. Letting fear take over can only result in a society (and a world) that isn't worth living in. Reacting to fear with more fear seemed to me to be pathological. Welcome to that pathology incarnate. A couple of nights go, for the first time in years, I re-read the historian Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Some 40 years old, it is particularly trenchant today. Observe:
If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
Okay, remember: this is 40 years old. Our current situation is the product of a movement some 60? 70? years in the making - the New Left flared out after a mere decade, squandering the intellectual capital and hard-earned lessons of a full century of Leftist words and deeds. Among other reasons, I believe a factor in it's decline was that it fell prey to it's own version of this psychosis. What scares the hell out of me, though, is this: the beliefs that these lunatics espouse are a lot closer to the core beliefs of most Americans. The GOP has found a way to package this fear and make it palatable. 9/11 certainly helped facilitate this transaction, this transition from 'reality-based' politics to something more akin to Napoleonic or Romanic Imperialism. The Enlightenment is the Enemy; Thomas Jefferson would be deemed unfit for office in this day and age. Cotton Mather has returned to the dual-use pulpit of Church and State. I don't know how we can resist this fear-mongering, nor do I see how we can avoid sinking into our own fear-based economy, our own paranoid body politic. The alternatives that seemed so clear to me in my youth stand in even starker contrast today. The once-obvious choices to be made, paths to take, words to say; once-clear ideas to promote, territory to proudly stake, legacies to claim and embrace; these now all seem much less so definite.

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