Rick Perlstein ran a great story in the Washington Post on how the crazy tactics we are seeing at Town Halls and such across America are actually old hat. I suppose on the one hand I could view that as frightening, but honestly, it seemed comforting. There have been similar cries of ruining America, hijacking the government, and outlandish treason and conspiracy theories that surrounded FDR’s New Deal, the civil rights movement, and other ultimately progressive, useful, and ethical changes to U.S. policy dating back to the mid-20th century.
The good news is that despite similar outrage from the fringe that boiled over into the malleable mass market, sanity ultimately prevailed. Progress was made. But Perlstein points out a key difference between then and now that merits more than passing caution.
“It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.”
The media has to own up to a complicit role in the current lunacy. The “birther” movement was getting coverage as a serious concern worthy of debate. “Death Panels” have now become part of the discussion I think in part because no one was willing early on to denigrate the people espousing that idiocy as liars.
There is a line between “spin” and an outright falsehood. Clearly everyone spins events and positions to their own benefit, and while sometimes annoying, that’s political fair game. But when the line is crossed and conclusions or facts touted by pundits and politicians are clearly outside the spin zone, those touting need to be called out, discredited , and discarded from the political scene. Ideally, those people would just be ignored. But we’ve reached a point where a lie (e.g. death panels) strikes a resonant chord with groups of people who are reacting emotionally rather than intellectually, and then others propagate and inflate the lie to maximize the emotional impact on their constituents. This sort of blatant manipulation has to stop.
But it won’t. Many people like to feel more than they like to think; even if that feeling is fear or hate. Thinking is hard. Feeling is easy. And so these poor souls will continue to be swept up into pitchfork and torch mobs by people willfully exploiting them for their untoward purposes. Ironically, often getting the mob to rail against policies primarily in their own interest.
As comedian Steven Wright once commented… “I wish there were a knob on the TV to turn up the intelligence. There’s a knob called ‘brightness,’ but that doesn’t work.”