Well, health care “reform” passed, and it doesn’t seem to be wildly popular. Mid-term elections are looming, and the Republicans may very well stand to gain some seats in Congress. So what does a “progressive” do? Put on a big show about how crazy and dangerous and racist everyone who opposes health care reform is and hope that’s enough to make indepenents think twice about voting Republican, of course. The trouble is, it’s all pretty thin gruel. A couple of people phone in a few threats or some guy in a crowd of 30,000+ says something racist to a member of Congress and suddenly everyone is getting the vapors. Grand narratives are woven, linking “simmering right-wing hatred,” Republican Congressmen, and a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement that’s been waiting for a black man to have a desk in the Oval Office to finally go critical.
The thing is, it’s all a sort of epistemological kabuki theatre.
Everyone knows full well that during the eight years of the Bush Administration, Democrats and “progressives” indulged themselves in all sorts of rhetoric, ranging from mere comparisons to Hitler or Osama bin Laden to assassination fantasies. It’s not like there isn’t photographic evidence of this stuff. The existence of prior art, as it were, doesn’t legitimate any racial or threatening remarks by “Tea Party” protesters, of course, but it does make all of this “have you no shame?!!?!?” posturing coming from the left pretty unbelievable.
The fact is that no one, right or left, really cares about racial remarks being said to Congressmen, and no one really cares whether someone fantasized about murdering George Bush. What it comes down to — and what we’re seeing in the media right now — is the fact that these obviously isolated and minor incidents can be cast as being wholly representative of one group or another and reified as such. Democrats don’t care that John Lewis may or may not have been called a “nigger” (and indeed, Andrew Breitbart has famously offered to pay out $10,000 of his own money if someone can actually prove that the event happened at all). They care that that incident can be reported ad infinitum on 24-hour news channels during mid-term elections, just as “soft on terrorism” charges were in vogue back in 2004 and 2006.
It’s scare tactics, plain and simple. Of course, we all know it. But no one really wants to believe it. For Democrats, it really is easier to believe that everyone who is against health care reform is a knuckle-dragging, gun-toting, racist, stars ‘n bars-waving lunatic. And look! There are stories on MSNBC to prove it! Henceforth it’s safe to completely disregard anything that opponents of health care reform have to say. They’re just a pack of racists after all, right?
For thoughtless Republicans, of course, health care reform itself is all the proof anyone needs that “ObaMao” is a socialist (if not an outright Bolshevik) and that the nation is under threat. So they dig up a few old Revolutionary War slogans and march around being outraged.
None of this is particularly novel. It’s been going on ever since people have been able to express themselves politically and it won’t stop until our freedom of speech is entirely curtailed. Even then, the government will step in to invent some enemy — “wreckers,” perhaps, or Jews — because every polity needs its bad guys. What’s troubling (or maybe just annoying) is that people seem unwilling (or unable) to stay cognizant of the fact that by engaging in this sort of rhetoric, they’re becoming part of a narrative of reductionism, a sort of self-righteous, maybe even self-conscious limitation of intellectual horizons. The cries that “Republicans are racists” or “Democrats are socialists” aren’t really about socialism or racism, or even Democrats or Republicans; They’re really semiotic shorthand for the process of mentally delegitimating certain viewpoints a priori and staking a claim not just to belief, but to truth.
What one believes to be right is right, because the other side is tainted. To even admit that the other side might have a point would be to somehow admit that “racism” or claims of “socialism” aren’t truly as important as they’re made out to be. In a sense, it is a self-reinforcing worldview: one mustn’t listen to Tea Partiers because they’re racists; to admit that they may have a reasonable point regarding, say, runaway government spending, whether one agrees with that position or not, is to also admit that racism is wholly irrelevant to opposition to health care reform — one does not logically follow from the other; therefore, the fetishization of racism and the demonization of putative “racists” take the place of actual debate. One may of course substitute “socialist” or any other ostensible slur for “racist” and achieve the same results.
In the months leading up to November, then, we can expect both sides to deploy their rhetorical artillery and precious little of it will carry any substance whatsoever, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with politics. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how much of that rhetoric is of a fundamentally self-reinforcing nature. Expect most media outlets to immediately pounce upon anything that even hints at “right-wing racism” or violence while Fox News and talk radio will continue to strike fear into the hearts of men with tales of “death panels” and incipient Bolshevism.
These are scare tactics, obviously. But the people using them are actually only trying to scare themselves.