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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Schooling Americans in Being Looney

Schooling Americans in Being Looney
Image © Austin Cline
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Given the speed at which America's looney right creates new silliness to be outraged over, the manufactured controversy over Barack Obama's speech to school children is already old news after just a few days. I think it's worth returning to, though, because certain aspects of it are illustrative of problems in the right-wing generally. It's not surprising that any one issue would express deeper, systemic issues, but the school "indoctrination" issue may do this a bit better than most.

It's counter-productive for ulterior motives and deeper agendas to be so readily visible, but this particular outrage was also hastily contrived. Most "culture war" issues that the far right has pushed were developed over the course of many years, so any early missteps could be easily covered over by consistently using the correct framing later on. Complaints about Barack Obama's speech to school students had to be mobilized very quickly, and there wasn't enough time to coordinate the best excuses that didn't make them look ridiculous.

As a result, more of their true feelings may ultimately be revealed than is typical.


Sadly, there is a lack of intellectualism all over the political spectrum in America, but anti-intellectual tendencies have been strongest on the right in recent years — the Republican Party appears to be the only mass political movement that is deliberately pandering to the lowest common denominators and fostering hostility towards education, knowledge, and expertise. Then again, maybe it's reached the point where they aren't "pandering" anymore but instead sincerely believe that there is something wrong with education and intellect. When was the last time you saw any prominent conservative consistently praise the values of learning, scholarship, academics, intellect, philosophy, etc.?

This attitude was on full display, albeit unintentionally, when Republicans so vehemently objected to a presidential speech that was almost entirely about the importance of getting a good education. Republicans objected even though they knew in advance what Obama would say, and even though the contents of the speech were completely consistent with principles espoused by conservatives for many years — the value of a good education is one which people of all political parties have always agreed upon, after all.

Some conservatives recognized that Obama didn't say anything truly controversial and praised the contents of that speech. Some conservatives remain capable of agreeing with Obama on matters where they have common ground — where indeed decent people of all political stripes should have common ground — even as they criticize him on other matters. The refusal of so many other Republicans to do this, however, indicates a lack of respect for intellectual values as well as just how much they hate Obama personally.

Fear Mongering

For years, Republicans have been focusing heavily on the use of fear to accomplish political goals. Instead of trying to offer positive, hopeful messages of what Americans can accomplish by working together, many Republicans have thought it more profitable to focus on negative, cynical messages about what Americans should be afraid of and whom they need to be suspicious of in order to keep what they've got. Targets have included Jews, foreigners, immigrants, communists, Hispanics, blacks, women, gays, and so forth. Republicans have been trying to make people afraid of losing what little they have instead of challenging them reach higher to improve their lives even more.

This was also on display in the Republican response to Obama's speech to school students. Republicans never offered anything like a substantive, serious disagreement with anything Obama did or might say. In other words, they didn't even make an effort to disagree with him on the issues. Instead, their attention was directed entirely at nonsense they pulled out of thin air. Conservative pundits seems to be vying with each other over who could make up the most ridiculous nonsense that might make Fox News viewers afraid. None of their "concerns" had even a kernel of truth: all that mattered was that they had the potential to create fear.

Opposing Progress Through Dehumanization

American history is far from perfect, but it's also generally one of forward progress when it comes civil rights and liberties. It hasn't been fast enough and there are occasional setbacks, but I think all but the most diehard racists will agree that at any point in time, matters are generally better than they were a couple of decades previously. Conservatives know this and the more honest conservatives will also have to acknowledge that, for the most part, it was conservatives fighting that progress at any given time. The names of their favorite political parties may change, but it's consistently conservatives fighting abolition, suffrage, desegregation, church/state separation, etc.

It's reasonable to expect that we should continue to make progress going forward in the future, again over the objections from and despite the activism of conservatives. Progress is slowed by conservatives, but not entirely halted. One reason for this is the fact that once culture changes enough, children who grow up in that culture adopt just enough of more progressive attitudes to make more fundamental and legal changes inevitable. Kids today are less homophobic than their parents, for example, and that's likely to make gay marriage inevitable.

Conservatives can retard this progress if they dehumanize others enough because dehumanization means that the concerns, interests, and suffering of others don't have to be taken into consideration. Dehumanizing gays makes it easier to deny them equality. Dehumanizing immigrants makes it easier to deny them basic social services. Dehumanization, however, won't be successful if the children are able to make real human connections with the targeted minorities, and so a lot of effort has to be invested in keeping them segregated from the wrong sorts of people.

Dehumanization of liberals, socialists, and blacks will stick longer if it's done earlier, but it won't be successful if a black president is allowed to come into their schools and put a human face on everything conservatives hate. Conservative evangelicals in particular have invested a lot of time, effort, and money into creating parallel social institutions to separate their children from the rest of culture and they aren't about to let that be undermined by a black, liberal president.


Have I mentioned the issue of race yet? The fact that it plays at least a supporting role in everything else demonstrates just how important of a role it plays overall. The looney conspiracy theories being spun by conservative leaders are held most predominantly by white southern conservatives — and by "southern" I mean the states of the former Confederacy. It's not a coincidence that they are willing to believe almost any silly claim that appears to undermine the legitimacy or morality of the nation's first black president.

It's not a coincidence that the one conservative to heckle the first black president, Joe Wilson, once denounced a woman for revealing that she was the product of an affair which the virulently racist Thurmond once had with his 16-year-old black maid. Wilson thought that telling the truth about Thurmond "smeared" his "good name." Joe Wilson voted to keep the Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina state house and is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization which has been taken over by radical neo-Confederates who favor secession, slavery, and white Christian theocracy.

Of course race is a factor — the only real question is how much of a factor.

None of these people complained when white, Republican presidents addressed the nation's schools. None of them objected when white, Republican presidents included in those speeches elements of a far more political nature — like taxation — than what Obama spoke about. How strong of a reaction would there have been if Obama's speech had been made by Joe Biden? I'm sure there would have been some, but I really can't see the outrage being as strong. What if it had been John McCain? That would have been cheered, I'm sure.

The Republican Party has for decades now relied heavily on racism — fear, suspicion, and hatred of racial minorities — to secure its electoral victories. It hasn't just tried to benefit from already-existing racism, it has actively sought to encourage and enhance that racism. It hasn't just tried to benefit from people's suspicion about racial "others," it has actively encouraged the belief that white Christians are superior to all others, are more genuinely "American" than all others, and thus are more deserving of power than all others. Others are not legitimate leaders. Others are not truly American.

This is American xenophobia at some of its worst, and instead of just being a problem of the fringe as it has tended to be in the past, is has thoroughly infected the entire Republican Party. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any inoculation available for this and quarantines to prevent the infection from spreading just aren't possible.


  1. Fantastic post, sir.

  2. Cline, if you wasn't such a egghead, you'd know how powerful the kkkonservative forces are that are lining up against your Islamoatheistifascist self. AND YOU'D BE AFRAID!

    Just like the people at Glennbeckday's Million Teabag March on 9/12 were telling those pointy-headed electocrats in Washington -- "Be afraid of us! Be very afraid!" I don't know what we're going to do to them -- we haven't had orders from the top yet -- but when we get the word, we're going to do something fraidy. Our tops are going to come up with something even better than death panels and indoctrinating schoolkids and bringing guns to presidential speeches.

    I don't know what it is, but I know I'm for it. And the less that everyone knows about it before it happens, the fraidier it seems!

    (And don't tell me that "fraidier" isn't a real word. That's just the kind of thing you four-eyes smarty-pants dictionary bookworms would say, ain't it?)

  3. "Republicans have been trying to make people afraid of losing what little they have instead of challenging them reach higher to improve their lives even more."

    They are trying to make us a nation of cowards. No more "home of the brave". Be afraid, be very afraid....

  4. The most dangerous dogs are the ones which are very afraid and don't know exactly why.

    We need to move forward without waiting for these anti-intellectual mobs to get on board, 'cause they ain't coming. But we also need to be prepared for their violent response to any change which they perceive as threatening, which is, of course, any change at all. They've got Blackwater and myriad other private armies all ready to go, and seriously, they're not afraid to kill us all, from the President on down to you and me.

    Change is inherently fraidier than stasis, and these dogs are dangerous.

  5. As the proverbial outsider looking at the American experiment, I find myself torn on whether a mistake was made at the time of incorporation (1787) trying to placate those of the Confederacy.

    I'm wondering if America wouldn't have been easier to manage if the Confederate States had been left to form their own union, their own country.

    Had this been the case, America could have been as progressive as it would have liked, and could safely abandon the horrible compromises it had made in order to retain the South.

    I'm sure there are no shortage of political science theses dealing with this subject, because it's simply too obvious that too many of the dumb things about America come out of your conservatives. The easiest way to partition them into a world unto themselves would be to offer them a home in the South, then cut them loose.

    I don't make this suggestion lightly, because we similarly have a large minority that bristles at the majority (Quebec and the francophones), and while we understand that we're the richer for having them, if they are so pissed at the arrangement, then frankly they'll need to go, and they wont be keeping the benefits of a Canadian citizenship.

    As it stands today, America would seem to be operating under an undeclared civil war between those who greedily want to retain every historic benefit they traditionally had, and those who understand civilization is a work in progress, and that with it we have obligations to both past and future generations, and we need to have the grace to accept that while we have it good, it does need to get better for our kids.

    I've been toying with the idea that were the American Senate appointed instead of being elected, this would create a mechanism that demands compliance between the politically polar opposites in the process of vetting proposed laws.

    While partisan politics plays some part in such a senate, the specific mechanism whereby senators were appointed (to represent all geographic areas and the spectrum of vocations) would give senators greater solidarity as such. Also, senators are called to join caucus meetings with their House of Representatives/Parliament to learn and comment on partisan policies.

    This arrangement goes a long way to reconcile the polar perspectives of the parties, and in America this is SORELY needed. I know this works terrifically for us.

    On another note, I've been suggesting that the best way for Americans to understand where America's problems lie is to live outside of America for awhile. Bukko in Australia is perhaps the best example of this: dammit, he has a view of America that allows him a rapier wit in skewering America, easily better than close outsiders like me (assuming I could claim to have a wit) and often better than even those living there.

    Way to go Bukko!

  6. Remember eggheads, as typified by Adlai Stevenson? The anti intellectual bent goes back to it and gallops way past it.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.