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Sunday, March 28, 2010


Not too long ago, I posted a long blog ruminating on the sources of the hysterical anger emanating from the right. I suggested that the cause is not the complex, centrist health care reform bill, loaded with ideas originally put forward by Republicans, but rather the powerful, inchoate fear in some parts of the American public that the world has changed so much as to make them bewildered and terrified. The blog provoked a great many extremely interesting responses, some posted as comments and some in emails to me.

Today, in the NY TIMES, Frank Rich has a long column arguing essentially the same thesis, although with rather more detail and factual backing. He makes a good deal of an important fact that had eluded my attention, namely that this year may well be the first year in modern American history in which non-Hispanic white births [a census category] are in an absolute minority. Demographics being what they are, it will take several decades or more before the population as a whole is minority White [although that is already a fact in some large cities and other regions of the country].

Rich links this to the fact -- striking, if one makes the mistake of taking the Tea Partiers at their word -- that among the targets of the hate epithets and spitting have been an openly gay man [Barney Frank] and a civil rights hero [John Lewis] who had little or nothing to do the drafting and enacting of the health care reform bill. It is too easy, and essentially misguided, to explain the anger as simple racism, though there is plenty of that to go around among the almost all white, relatively less well educated, economically stressed Tea Partiers. Psychodynamically, it seems to me, the reactions from the right are rather like the terror that the presence in their midst of an openly gay man strikes into the hearts of some belligerently heterosexual men, who feel that the mere acknowledgement of someone else's homosexuality threatens their own sexual orientation.

America has changed dramatically in the past half century, both culturally and demographically. Those of us old enough to have lived through the forties and fifties can testify from personal experience just how much change has been accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement, by Women's Liberation, by the Gay Liberation Movement, by the sexual revolution, by the advent of a drug culture, and even by the transformation of popular music. Scores of millions of Americans feel unsettled by these changes, decentered, threatened, undermined. The core organization of personality, the complex repressions, sublimations, deferrals of gratification, and identifications that is for each of us the foundation of what we think of as ourselves, has in their case come to be fundamentally at odds with the social reality which they confront daily. It is not surprising that their reaction should be hysterical irrationality.

For those of you who do not quite know what I am talking about, try the following thought experiment. Imagine that you are invited to a small social gathering, at which there are a number of people you have not met before. As you are introduced to some of them, you notice someone whose face, hair, body, and dress are ambiguous with regard to gender identity. You wonder idly, "Is that a man, or is it a woman?" As time passes, you begin to feel a curious urgency to find out -- just to know -- which it is. But absolutely nothing disambiguates the situation for you. This is not a man in drag or a woman in a pants suit. It is a person whose gender is genuinely unclear. There are a great many people who would be made so uncomfortable by the presence of this person, even though he or she was doing nothing at all in the least offensive or even noteworthy, that they would almost be driven to rip off the person's clothes in order to settle the matter.

I suggest that what is being expressed in the political arena are feelings similarly deep, fundamental, and inaccessible to factual rebuttal or rational argument.


Unknown said...

Marcuse would be proud! :-)

Unknown said...

Possibly, but many of the rabid right are too young to have been influenced in that way and even use relatively recent rock'n'roll memes as their reference points, yet resist "going with the flow". Some of their leaders are in it for notoriety and gain, financial and political. It shouldn't be too long before their followers realize that bird won't fly, and will desert them for other opportunists.

Todd said...

Hi Robert, I have just been introduced to this illustrious blog by your dear sister Barbara, a dear friend of mine. I love your Frank Rich ruminations - and resonate with them. I wonder if you are familiar with another blog "None So Blind" by my friend Andrew (Andy) Bard Schmookler (out of Berkeley, author of "Parable of the Tribes," etc.) He has been castigating the "Bushite" right for over 6000 posts!! See As I introduce him to you, so will I introduce you to him. I'll be tuning in. Todd Waymon, Silver Spring, MD

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hi, Todd. Welcome to the blog, and thank you for the link to NoneSoBlind. We need all the progressive voices we can muster in these difficult times.

NotHobbes said...
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Jim said...

Just read the Frank Rich piece and I think that the crucial point he makes is that the extreme anti-government rhetoric began prior to the final results of the most recent presidential election. Some people see certain aspects of their world view changing (e.g. an African-American elected president) which, rightly or wrongly, may be interpreted as a threat to their traditional way of life. This perception is exacerbated by politicians and pundits (people who know better) who routinely whip up anger and opposition. The bureaucratic opaqueness of the Health Care Bill is understandably a cause of confusion and concern for a large segment of the population. However, the deliberate misinformation about the bill that is being put forth by politicians and pundits alike strikes me as gravely irresponsible and, in a sense, childish. It is looking more and more like a bad case of sour grapes: you won but we will do everything in our power – including the issuance of outright falsehoods – to make you look bad. It is downright cynical. “Have they no shame?” The citizenry deserves better.