The Heat Is On. We May Get Burned. Political rage is a national problem, not a partisan one.
So where are we? In a dangerous place, actually.
Politics is a rough arena, and understandably so, for our politicians tell us more and more how to order our lives. Naturally there will be resistance, and strong opposition. We have a long history of hurly-burly debate, and we all know examples the past 200 years of terrible things said and done. Capitol tour guides enjoy showing the stain on the marble steps supposedly left by the blood of Sen. Charles Sumner, beaten half to death on the floor of the senate in 1856 by Rep. Preston Brooks, who wielded a thick gold-tipped cane. So we've had our moments.
But it's a mistake not to see something new, something raw and bitter and dangerous, in the particular moment we're in.
Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, this week announced that 10 congressional Democrats have recently been menaced and threatened with violence, and that they found it necessary to meet with the FBI and Capitol Police. A congressman apparently said a casket had been left near his home; a congresswoman reportedly said she was worried for the safety of her children.
This is all completely believable.
Democratic officials are right to call attention to what they believe is a growing threat. It is a truly terrible thing. But it would be deeply unhelpful for the Democrats to use this story as a mere political opportunity, as a way to undermine opposition to ObamaCare by painting opponents as dangerous and unhinged. That would only inflame the country, and in any case is not true. The truth is this sickness works both ways.
Indeed. It is unacceptable that a member of Congress has to fear for the safety of her children. That just should not happen. But the casket was not left on the lawn of a Congressman:
The coffin, in fact, was used as a prop at a prayer vigil on Mar. 21 to symbolize the “loss of freedom and the loss of lives due to government medical rationing,” said the activists.
Back to Noonan:
There probably isn't a Republican leader who has not the past few years been menaced, and in exactly the same ways as the Democrats. Thursday I asked a staffer for a congressman who is a significant and respected opponent of the health-care bill if he had ever been threatened. Yes indeed. "Over the years and as recently as yesterday," both the congressman and his staff "have received countless threats—both threats of violence and of death. These come in the form of letters, faxes, emails, phone calls, and voice-mail messages. We've had the front window smashed in at one of our district offices. Rather than call TV crews or the Washington Post, we report threats to the proper authorities, and move on. We'd take issue with the recent narrative that conservatives are disproportionately hostile, prone to violence or whatever message the left is pushing these days. They have anecdotes, we have anecdotes."
Even columnists and pundits have anecdotes. Just about everyone in public life on whatever level gets threats now.
Here's the tenor and tone of the moment:
Under the news story on Mr. Hoyer's statement on the Yahoo! news site on Thursday, there was a lengthy comment thread, with more than 800 people offering their thoughts. "An American Hitler might be in the making who would purge the leftists," said one, who of course didn't use his or her name. "Republicans are criminals and terrorists," said another. "Republicans . . . are thugs, scoundrels and rascals." And: "What did they expect when they . . . went against the American people and are FORCING this bill on us." "It's what happens before the revolution . . . people are frustrated over not being heard . . . let the battle begin."
Here, edited for a family newspaper, are some of the recorded telephone messages left on the answering machine of Rep. Bart Stupak. These are messages left by individuals who appear to be pro-life activists—that is, people who have put themselves on the line to support generous and compassionate treatment of the unborn.
"I hope you bleed out your ___, get cancer and die." "You will rue the day. . . . I hope you're haunted the rest of your living day. . . . We think you're a devil. . . . The country loathes you." "You are one big piece of human ____. There are people across the country who wish you ill, and all of those thoughts projected on you will materialize into something that's not very good for you. Go to hell, you piece of ____."
These are people whose professed mission it is to save children. Whatever else these particular individuals are, they are people whose nerves have been rubbed raw.
There is no excuse for that kind of behavior, to be sure. It does not further dialogue, it does not engender good will, and it sure doesn't help to prove one's point. But Noonan is right - people's nerves are frayed, and too close to the surface:
Responsible leaders on all levels of American life ought to stop, breathe in, and see the level of anger and agitation that's rippling through the country. Both sides should try to cool it, or something bad is going to happen. In fact I am struck now by how, when I worry aloud about this and say to a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, that I fear something bad is going to happen, no one disagrees. No one says, "Don't worry, it's nothing." They say—again, left, right and center: "I'm afraid of that too."
What I keep thinking of is a beehive. A modern, high tech, highly politicized democracy is a busy beehive, and sometimes the bees are angry, and sometimes someone comes by and sticks a big sharp stick in the hive. The biggest thing Washington should do right now is stop it, stop poking the stick.
The beehive was already angry about a million things a year ago, and most of those things, obviously, were not the fault of the administration. People are angry at their economic vulnerability. They are angry at the deterioration of our culture, angry at our nation's deteriorating position in the world, at our debts and deficits, our spending and taxing, our threatened security in a world of weapons of mass destruction. Their anger is stoked by cynical politicians and radio ranters and people who come home at night, have a few drinks, and spew out their rage on the comment thread. It's a world full of people always cocking the gun and ready to say, if things turn bad, "But I didn't tell anyone to shoot!"
And yes, this mood, this anger, has only been made worse by this yearlong, enervating, exhausting, enraging fight over health care. The administration is full of people who are so bright, and led by one who is very bright, and yet they have a signal failure: They do not know what time it is. They cannot see how high the temperature is. They cannot for the life of them understand that they raise it.
Okay, I could so say something right now about how BRIGHT Obama and his Administration people are alleged to be, but for this once, I'll bite my tongue:
What we need now in our leaders is the knowledge that there is so much that is tearing us apart as a nation and that the great project now is to keep us together, to hold us together as much as possible, because future trends will be to come apart, and for many reasons. To come apart because we're no longer held close and firmly by the old glue of appreciation for a common heritage, history and culture; to come apart because we're a country that increasingly feels there are people in the cart and people pulling the cart, and the latter are increasingly overwhelmed and fearful; coming apart because we're now in at least our second generation of young, lost, unguided children with no fully functioning parent in their lives, kids being raised by a microwave and a TV set. All of these things weigh and grate.
They are all, of course, too big and complicated to be adequately dealt with in a year or even a decade. But one immediate thing can be done right now, and that is: lower the temperature. Any way you can, and everybody. Just lower it.
I cannot disagree with Ms. Noonan. I, for one, would love to see some civility in political (and other) discourse, a cessation of demonizing the other side to make ourselves feel superior. Even worse, to taunt and belittle the other side, as we have seen so much of these past few years.
But articles like this one, "In The Faces Of Tea Party Shouters, Images of Hate And History," by Colbert I. King. I won't include it all here, but this should give you an idea:
The angry faces at Tea Party rallies are eerily familiar. They resemble faces of protesters lining the street at the University of Alabama in 1956 as Autherine Lucy, the school's first black student, bravely tried to walk to class.
Those same jeering faces could be seen gathered around the Arkansas National Guard troopers who blocked nine black children from entering Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.
"They moved closer and closer," recalled Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. "Somebody started yelling, 'Lynch her! Lynch her!' I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd -- someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me."
Those were the faces I saw at a David Duke rally in Metairie, La., in 1991: sullen with resentment, wallowing in victimhood, then exploding with yells of excitement as the ex-Klansman and Republican gubernatorial candidate spewed vitriolic white-power rhetoric.
People like that old woman in Little Rock, the Alabama mob that hounded Autherine Lucy, the embracers of Duke's demagoguery in Louisiana, never go away.
It gets worse from there:
Hence, an explanation for the familiarity of faces: today's Tea Party adherents are George Wallace legacies.
They, like Wallace's followers, smolder with anger. They fear they are being driven from their rightful place in America.
Holy cow. Talk about stoking the fires of hatred and division. I do not consider myself a Tea Party member or anything, but I find this article to be exceedingly offensive. Never mind that the majority of Tea Party members are women, but to equate them with such a painful time in our history, without founding, is obscene. I don't think Mr. King is going to be one of the ones turning down the heat, if this article is any indication.
Neither will this man. The problem with him, though, is he isn't just a columnist for a newspaper. He's the President of the United States:
Well, when you have that kind of rhetoric coming from Obama, it is hard to expect any of his followers to tone it down, either.
Of course I am not saying it is only those on the left who need to ratchet it back, but I do find it interesting that Tea Party members are depicted as racist, homophobic lunatics because they feel government has gotten too large (and it has under Obama, as well as spending way too much money on TARP, programs, and even the increase of federal employees making six-figure incomes during this economic downturn). They have good reasons for their discontent. Calling them names and depicting them as horrible people for their use of Constitutional rights is extremely harmful.
And while the Tea Party members are being belittled by the other side, people raging against the war, or marching for Gay Rights, or against the World Bank, etc., are depicted as perfectly sane, as Jonah Goldberg pointed out recently. I guess it's all a matter of spin, and right now, the message being put out is that ANYONE who opposes Obama for any reason whatsoever is a racist, homophobic, nutjob. While that may entertain Obama's followers, it demonizes half of the country, and does a grave disservice by attempting to silence their speech.
That, as Peggy Noonan pointed out, doesn't help. It doesn't foster understanding, respect for differing opinions, or civility in discourse or action, as the egging of a Tea Party bus this weekend exemplifies. It needs to stop. The media needs to stop depicting people who think differently from them as a bunch of hillbilly yahoos, and OBAMA needs to stop depicting people who don't support his policies, be they Republicans, Independents, or true Democrats, in such an "Us v. THEM" way, fanning the flames of intolerance and division. I agree with Noonan - this needs to stop, and it needs to stop before the anger spills over in ways we don't want to see, by both sides and the middle. And it can happen none too soon...