Irony and the current American Moment

| Forum Editor

While we wait and see if the Obama presidency was worth all the trouble, we can distract ourselves with the sheer strangeness that pervades the current political moment, perhaps best typified by the spate of right-wing demonstrations that are such a source of consternation for all those not involved in them, Republicans included.

Around the country hundreds of mostly white, mostly non-urban people have assembled, flourishing signs denouncing Obama variously and sometimes paradoxically as Stalin, Hitler, Che Guevara, the Joker, a Muslim, an atheist, a false prophet and Satan. All this before he’s really done anything but pick out a dog, as the writers of “Saturday Night Live” recently pointed out.

From whence comes this rage, and what does it mean? The Left, in office and in print, has found itself in the strange position of having to contend with a vociferous grass-roots movement that is not only in no way liberal (which is weird enough), but in fact doesn’t actually seem to want anything remotely tangible.

Frank Rich at The New York Times has been mediating the reaction of what I’ll call the Established Left (again this sense of the uncanny) to these demonstrations, which is one that seems equally composed of joy at the utter disintegration of the GOP’s legitimacy and fear that allowing such barn-storming to continue will see Obama eventually shot by a right-wing lunatic. The fact that U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose otherwise un-notorious office has recently received a windfall of $2.4 million since he publicly called the president a liar, mostly in denominations of less than $100, testifies that there is real clout emanating from this troubling pseudo-movement.

A recent article by Phillip Weiss in New York Magazine startlingly depicts just how unreconstructed some of this vitriol can get. At one of the rallies he describes how “a burly Pennsylvania correction officer named David McElwee held up a poster of Obama photoshopped as a half-naked African native in a hut with a grass skirt and a bone in his nose. That was Obamacare, ‘voodoo’ health care,” McElwee said.

That Glenn Beck assumes the persona of Thomas Paine, that other great American pop-ortunist, or that these gatherings are often dubbed “tea parties” is no accident. They are all part of a deliberate attempt to hearken forward to a future yesteryear that more resembles the Colonial Williamsburg theme park than any period of even the middle-distant past. It’s all very confusing.

What I’m seeing is racism and fearmongering of the basest sort clothed in the idiotic accoutrement of the Fourth of July. If that isn’t worth combating, I don’t know what is. But all I can muster for these people is a vague pity. Like an industrialist at a rally of Luddites, history just feels so on my side that I can’t regard these people with anything more than morbid curiosity. This does them a disservice. They have the right to be taken seriously, which I suppose comes down to the fact that the horror of their opinions deserves my angry response. I’m just not sure what that amounts to. Boycott Fox News? Call Glenn Beck a demon-baby? I already do that anyway. What of a counter-revolutionary response, a protest of the protesters?

The problem with this line of thinking is that acknowledging these loonies feels like I’m handing them a victory, like rewarding a streaker at a football game with camera time. The weirdest feeling about it is that for the first time in like a decade, we are the ones controlling the camera. It is our conventional decency that they are shaking up, our sense of propriety that they are offending. Maybe it’s time, as some have suggested, that Obama appeal to the “silent majority”? I’m just going to have to get over the fact that he’s talking about me.

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