Poison in the Air
In November of 2011, sad clown painting come-to-life and one-time Michael Jackson interviewer Martin Bashir sat down with Apostle Claver, founder of Raging Elephants. Before launching into the interview, Bashir played a clip of Claver saying the following:
"It's the Democratic Party that's the racist. The Party of the Klu Klux Klan. The Party of Jim Crow. The Party of Bull Connor. The Party of the KKK. They are the racists."
Convinced he had a slam dunk, Bashir was in fact unprepared for Claver's dogged, charismatic skullduggery. Claver, grinning like a maniac, started in with:
"Mr. Bashir, thank you for the invitation. I have made it to the big time - I am on MSDNC. I love it."
For the remainder of the interview, Bashir, rattled by Claver's reference to MSNBC's Democratic leanings, sweated through his makeup and stammered to out-Bible Claver. He failed. It was an amusing incident, and Claver won many over with his winning smile and confident demeanor, but behind the theatrics, there is a larger issue at hand, one typified by Claver and numerous others seeking to pull of the grandest public repudiation of Democratic and Liberal values in modern history.
While not the first to try and convince Americans which political Party is actually the racist one, Claver is among a growing legion of Conservative Libertarian, anti-Obama, anti-Democrat, and pro-Tea Party activists in this country whose passion far outshines that of their ideological opponents. Claver, as an example, is on a mission to get as many African-Americans as he can to reconsider (what he feels is) their blind, self-defeating allegiance to Democrats. If he has any sort of legacy, it can be found on one billboard in Texas, a billboard his organization placed with the express purpose of converting African Americans away from the Democratic Party. On it, a simple historical fact:
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican.
This is true. Some don't know it. Not only was King a Republican, but Republican involvement in pushing through civil rights legislation is often understated by history. Indeed, during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, many Democrats (like Governor George Wallace) were Southern Dixiecrats opposed to social progress and civil rights legislation.
That said, the cultural makeup, shifting allegiances and social legacies of our nation's political parties, in the forty or so years since the civil rights era, have all shifted considerably. The Republican Party of 2012, for instance, is of Lincoln because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, but beyond that, similarities wane. Or, take proposals by Republican Presidents - like Nixon and even Reagan - in the decades since the era that Claver references. Many of their social and economic platforms, if presented to the public now, might be considered unacceptable to the growing populace for whom the Tea Party message of limited Government has resonated.
Our collective value system - as a nation - has shifted in a multitude of ways in just the last fifty years, but some of our basic tenets - fairness, respect for the middle class, a sense of duty to help those in need - persists. Unfortunately, some have even made it their mission to cut the strings between Americans and their lingering sense of duty about those things. In the no-holds-barred environment we now find ourselves in, even sustaining peaceful coexistence, charity, and fairness is a struggle, and it's exhausting.
Defying classic narratives about the roles that Democrats and Republicans have historically played in order to shift perspective on the modern era is a bold and effective stroke of genius. Billboards proclaiming Dr. King's Republican affiliation, or that 'GOP is the new Black,' are totally within the bounds of political discourse, but statements referencing the KKK, or the Holocaust, or Nazis, only serve to erode the discussion. That is Claver's purpose, to shock people into re-evaluating their fundamental belief structure.
His organization stands publicly behind its willingness to utilize 'aggressive' and 'offensive' tactics. Some of these tactics are nothing more than the willingness to employ plantation-era terms and metaphors in expressing outrage at the so-called Socialist aims of the Democratics. Like the Holocaust, Slavery is an ugly blight on civilization, particularly in our country, and incendiary mention of it, especially to score political points, has enormous visceral impact. This divide and conquer strategy only requires one organization or public figure to incite division by making one party the Racists, and the other non-racists.
These tactics, unfortunately are becoming the only way that salesmen like Claver and others like him can get their Norquistian fantasies heard.
Through recitation of pronouncements related to slavery, servitude, and African American identity, the aim is to transform fundamental value systems through a systematic shock campaign of re-education, speeches, and advertising. These tactics are employed by hundreds of think tanks, PACs, and other political organizations throughout the country. Salespeople like Claver aren't merely content with research and propaganda, though. He seeks to straddle a line between the Cato Institute and Fred Phelps: equal amounts statistical propaganda and outrageous sermonizing.
Raging Elephants aims to convince black Americans to turn against the Democrats, Liberals, and the value systems they espouse, rejecting the socialist themes in left-leaning social contracts. He uses isolated historical pronouncements about historical, regional Democrats, for instance, to infer things about modern Democrats all over the country. While fallacious, it works. Another goal of Claver's organization is to get specific communities to shift political affiliation, and in turn elect representatives who support limited Government, anti-tax themes of the Tea Party and the Libertarian Party. Another goal is to get all Americans on board with the narrative that Government welfare is a form of slavery keeping communities mired in poverty, particularly where African Americans dwell. This notion is not exclusive to Claver's organization, and is not new; in fact, it is a notion repeated by almost any group promoting values of personal responsibility and limited Government.
While leagues away from any sort of comprehensive indictment of any one political group, and far from the coup de grâce that Claver wants it to be, such campaigns still have a way of up-ending peoples' conceptions of what they think is true. By ignoring a holistic assemblage of facts about right-leaning legislation's enormous contribution to social inequality and financial malfeasance, and instead focusing on generalized indictments of the various imperfections of Federally funded social welfare, and liberal usage of what Robert Jay Lifton termed 'thought-terminating cliches,' the most ardent political propagandists seek to seize hearts and minds through a kind of thought reform experiment.
In the midst of any economic crisis, especially one of this magnitude, there will always be stark divisions in opinion and frenzied, emotionally charged debates about the role of Government. However, these divisions grow starker as the media sees no money in being the referee and has become more of a kind of bookie, bartering whatever headline grabbing opportunities it can find, even at the expense of a fair fight. Organizations like Claver's - indeed, the words and deeds of various Tea Party Conservatives/Libertarians like Rep Allen West (R-FL), Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, Joe Walsh, and many, many others - have taken the public narrative into a space that borders on apocalyptic. Those folks have varying degrees of notoriety, but collectively, their words and deeds have shifted the narrative landscape in which we all dwell. And we all can feel it, around us, stealing our oxygen.
I've heard the argument - not unfounded - that all politically engaged citizens make divisive statements when they feel their attitudes and beliefs are being threatened by the hegemonic power structure around them. While George W. Bush occupied the White House,lLiberals of all stripes engaged in apocalyptic rhetoric about the future of the country. This sort of complaining is nothing new. It's as old as human history and certainly as old as politics, but the apocalyptic rhetoric I hear now isn't just coming from voters, or concerned citizens, or web sites, but from prominent public figures, who, to some degree, are held up as leaders. Thereby, they are standard bearers for the state of public discourse. That discourse is enabled by the media's collusion in all of this - their tendency to strip outrageous public statements of the historical and factual context that might deprive them of their poison. Instead, we get 'he said, she said' political theater, where each statement is allowed to breathe, free of facts, free of corroboration, and free of substance. It's all part of the media's new role as bookie instead of referee.
Here are some of the players:
I listen to Ted Nugent's survivalist tirade at last weekend's NRA Convention, and his subsequent patriotic backpedal, and I wonder how that whole escapade advantaged any element of the discussion about the Election and what each candidate stands for. I don't know about you, but I heard him threaten violence.
I listen to Rick Santorum, and I feel like social progress that we took for granted during the latter half of the twentieth century is something we should never take for granted ever again, not ever.
I listen to Allen West, and I wonder how someone so intent on making hateful statements, vilifying Islam and slamming peaceful coexistence was ever able to get into office.
I listen to Joe Walsh, his numerous fact-challenged tirades, his almost disarming ability to offend, frighten, and vilify good people, and I wonder how he was ever able to get into office.
Those last two men, of course, along with countless others, and at least a hundred set for the 2012 Elections, all have one thing very much in common, and that's the Tea Party. West and Walsh (and many other Tea Party freshmen whose acrimonious 'contributions' to public dialog have poisoned the air) are among a growing contingent of lauded public martyrs worshiped by hardcore Libertarians, social conservatives, and survivalist types.
I hear a lot of their sort of talk nowadays. Debates rage on about Obama's healthcare initiative, the health and sustainability of our military forces, the civil rights of unlawful detainees, torture, veterans initiatives, the future of Medicare and Social Security, the size of Government, the role of Government, and much, much more. What the Tea Party has done is capitalize on post 9/11 anxieties about the United States' usurpation by foreign entities. Gut shots about Obama's legitimate birth are sidelined as fringe issues, but they get to the heart of this irrational but very deep fear about the United States somehow losing its National identity. Obama's ascendancy in 2008 tapped into a vein that lay dormant among Americans who considered themselves tolerant, law abiding, God fearing people. The ugliness came out. Poison filled the air. The success of the Tea Party followed, and since then, so-called 'moderated,' Institutional discourse has descended to something I have not seen in my lifetime. I expect tirades by angry citizens and deranged message board commenters, but that sort of speech has become a part of the official dialog, and it's getting worse.
This rise in extremist, take-no-prisoners rhetoric among politicians and news leaders is the best evidence that our collective National trauma has radicalized and divided us. I don't feel our nation ever recovered from 9/11. After that event, there was a collective intake of breath right afterwards, and then a shift, that reverberated, that all of us felt to some degree. Eventually, our fear flooded some of us, and it controlled the way we perceived the enemy, and subsequently, the way we engaged that enemy. Unfortunately, the enemy in ourselves was the one to really fear, and it's the one we didn't anticipate. It's around us now, not in individuals that I would consider evil, but it has infested the better nature of people whose worldview had limited space to begin with.
In every era in human history, there has always, at some point, been a sense of 'impending catastrophe,' and I see that taken full advantage of now, with the participation of Politicians, leaders like Claver, and especially the media. I am not so oblivious as to say that we are in an unprecedented time. However, the free flow of information, while a wondrous thing, has enabled information, in all its forms, inspired and deadly, constructive and full of bile, to gush forth over us, unrestrained. This lack of editorial oversight - even as ratings-hungry editors stand by, letting it happen - has taken a debate in our National consciousness, a debate about the size and role of Government, and has turned it into a free for all, where even the most ridiculous assertions are given thoughtful considerations by sober, nodding news analysts.
There is a kind of lonely and paranoid desperation among fervent Tea Party enthusiasts. They are, of course, pinned to that loneliness by the very nature of go-it-alone economic conservatism. The so-called socialist political platform of our President, for all its potential pitfalls, does not make room for the apocalypse. The notion of sharing a collective burden cannot inform a bleak future. Those bleak worldviews are much better served by rabid social libertarians like Ted Nugent.
As an Independent, I see that there are foibles to be found in each and every party - imperfections, misinformation, silly politicking. By and large, though, when I see the word socialist, I see the world social. When I see the word liberty, I see a concept too broad to belong to one party. Platforms based on social contracts like 'help thy neighbor,' may be attacked on the basis of economic naivete, and at worst, unfair vilification of success, but they do not allow for poison to infest the air, or for the bleakest of thoughts to infest our future certainly no room for apocalypse.
The apocalypse belongs, body and soul, to the Tea Party, and to people like Apostle Claver. He can grin all he wants at which political party is more racist, but I can only hope that most of us see it for how divisive it is, and for the mean-hearted manipulation that it is.