The Worst Angels Of Our Nature: Rage And Racism On The Campaign Trail
Like everyone else, I am worried about the economy and the financial panic I sense around me. But I am absolutely terrified--I tremble for my country--by the rage that has been expressed at Republican campaign rallies during the past two weeks. It is a rage that partakes of the worst forces in American history--xenophobia, racism, anti-intellectualism, religious fanaticism, envy, and utter contempt for truth and reason. Lest anyone suggest that this is a bipartisan phenomenon, I should point out that no one at Obama rallies is calling out for anyone to kill the other candidate. Worst of all is the behavior of Sarah Palin, a candidate for the second highest office in the land who stood on a platform, heard the cries of "treason" and "kill him" after her anti-Obama rant, and said absolutely nothing. She went on with her vile speech as if nothing had happened.
John McCain has belatedly realized that his campaign has unleashed forces that it cannot control; perhaps he came to that realization when he was booed at his own rallies for contradicting supporters who called Obama an "Arab" and a "traitor." Pundits on the left and right (and Barack Obama himself) always preface their acknowledgments of McCain's effort to calm the waters with an obligatory "to his credit." Talk about unearned credit. McCain picked the rabble-rousing Palin as his running mate, and he picked her because she appealed to the far-right Republican base. Her speeches, with their accusation that Obama was "pallin' around with terrorists," followed by attempts to link Sixties' radicals with the 9//11 bombers, leading logically to audience's conclusion that Obama himself may be a terrorist, were certainly cleared by the Rovian McCain campaign strategists. That McCain is now recognizing that he may be inheriting the wind says nothing creditable about him. The least we can expect from respectable candidates is that they decry calls for murder and accusations of treason. You don't deserve a gold star for doing that.
I am afraid, as others are afraid and reluctant to say so, that some unhinged Joe or Jane Six-Pack will pick up a gun and act on the passions aroused at these rallies. How can anyone who came of age in the sixties--whose youth was punctuated by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, not be afraid? The ignorant and bellicose governor of Alaska badly needs a history lesson. Most of us demon liberals weren't pallin' around with terrorists during the sixties; what we were doing, too many times in our young lives, was mourning the loss of leaders who did try to speak to the better angels of the American nature.
The trouble begins with the notion that there is some special wisdom in the virtuous, uneducated Joe Six-Packs of this nation. I met my very own Joe-Six Pack (that's what he called himself) a few weeks ago, and if he exemplifies the purported wisdom of ordinary Americans, we are in trouble that cannot be measured by any decline in the stock market. I wound up at the same table with Joe, the owner of a Polish delicatessen, in a packed bar as we waited in the Milwaukee airport for a delayed flight to New York. After volunteering the information that he was flying to New York for his niece's wedding in Brooklyn, Joe said he wasn't looking forward to the event because his niece was marrying a native New Yorker and they were "moving into some kind of hippie loft under some bridge."
Then Joe started talking about the economy. He didn't blame Wall Street nearly as much as he blamed ordinary Americans who, pursuing the dream of becoming homeowners, had obtained subprime mortgages with no down payment. "These people knew they couldn't afford to pay back those loans," he said, "and they didn't give a damn because they hadn't had to put down any of their own money. So they're losing nothing when they get kicked out. No money down, and they've been getting free rent for as long as they've lived in the house."
How, I asked, did Joe figure that people had been getting "free rent," since most of them had been making mortgage payments--at increasing interest rates--for years. Wasn't it possible that many of the homeowners facing foreclosure had simply not understood what it would mean for their monthly payments if the rate on the mortgages went up by, say, 5 percent? Wasn't it possible that they thought they could make their payments when they signed the mortgages but subsequently lost their jobs? Or that someone in the family got sick and piled up medical bills that lend to bankruptcy?
"Don't you believe it," said Joe, whose face literally turned purple with rage. "So maybe they made payments for a while, but they were a lot lower than rent payments would be. That's always the excuse with these people, that they've been unlucky, that they're poor little victims."
"These people." I wanted to ask who "they" were and what separated them from "us," but I didn't have to. He exploded again. "You have a whole group of people who don't really want to earn what they have. These bad home loans, they're like special treatment for blacks who want to get into the best universities. You want it, you don't have to work for it, the government will give it to you." As soon as I boarded the plane, I took notes detailing everything about this conversation.
I hope that this Joe Six-Pack was just one Joe Six-Pack, and that there are many other blue-collar Americans who do not share such views, reeking of class and racial resentment and absent any awareness of the ways in which unexpected blows of fate can derail the honest efforts and hopes of hard-working people. We will, I suppose find out on Nov. 4. The fate of our nation rests on the hope that a majority of Americans are not as uneducated and angry as my Joe Six-Pack. I do know that a real leader ought to challenge such ignorance, wherever it exists, instead of praising is as an example of down-home American values. Any politician who provides fuel for the worst sort of American fire, or remains silent in the face of bigotry and threats of violence, is a disgrace to this country.
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