Monday, September 14, 2009

America, I Don't Know You Anymore

My country, ‘tis of thee
Goodbye Tranquility …
So far off track.
No more great pride to flaunt,
Just hateful words that haunt
Oh please can you give me
My country back.

-- An anonymous, disgruntled citizen substitutes his own words for those of the American patriotic song, "My Country Tis of Thee".

Glenn Beck, conservative talk-show host, saying he wanted to bring back a feeling of unity in the nation after 9/11, called for a rally the day after the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Tens of thousands of supporters showed up in Washington, D.C.  wearing T-shirts and carrying signs and placards whose messages implied the emphasis was not on unity but on maintaining Divisiveness.

In America, we have freedom of speech. You can stand in a public place and carry a sign advocating the torture of the President and you won't be put in jail.

When George W.  Bush was president, if you attended one of his public appearances wearing a T-shirt that said "Impeach Bush", you risked being  forcibly removed,  told to go stand in the Free Speech Zone (behind a wire fence or cage), or possibly arrested.  But apparently, people in a public place calling for Obama to be tortured are free to spread this chilling message without interference. 

That may be because the word "waterboard" is perceived by some as somehow in the same category as "surfboard" or "skateboard", which terms evoke images of "sport" and "pleasure".  For some people, the jury's still out on whether waterboarding is actually torture.  Some have gone so far as to hire lawyers to define it to more conveniently fit their moral comfort zone.  But that's neither here nor there.  The point is, this fellow feels Obama deserves to be given the "let's-make-you-think-you're-drowning" treatment.  Then maybe Obama will tell us whatever it is the man doesn't think Obama is telling us--it's not clear what, exactly.  Its meaning eludes me.  I'm not sure the man himself knows.  If he knows, he's not telling.  Maybe he should be waterboarded.  (Words!  See what I mean?)

Obama, to one particular citizen, is an "Oppressive, Bloodsucking, Arrogant, Muslim Alien."  How cute. As opposed to George Bush, I suppose, that Brilliant, Upstanding, Superior Human, who in the course of only eight years got us into a never-ending war, tripled the national debt, illegally spied on the populace, cut taxes for the rich and discontinued programs for the poor, bringing the country closer to ruin.  (Now, now, show some respect for the guy; after all, he was the President.)

These people are said to be here ostensibly to oppose increased taxes, Obama's plan for health reform, and to "feel united."  But mostly they seem to be here to show how much they hate Obama.

Obama's "arrogant."  His middle name is Hussein--he must be a Muslim! He's not White.  
He's not Black, either.  He's of mixed breed (i.e., not PURE-blooded. ) 

Notice no one has called him "stupid" or "inarticulate" or "incompetent".
All the labels focus on attacking his lineage, his suspected religious affiliation and--his Foreignness.  He's "Not Us".


These conservatives are proud of who they are and what they represent. As this man's T-shirt boldly proclaims:

"Any Questions?" 
(Translation:  "You got a problem with that?")
Er.. no, but how is that relevant to "unity", the so-called theme of the gathering?
He equates Fox News with the Freedom Rider, Paul Revere.  Fox News will be the 21st century's mouthpiece for the coming revolution.  Militias are forming as we speak.

Last week scores of American parents refused to let their children attend or listen to the President's speech, in which he encouraged students to finish school and use their knowledge to contribute to their country's future.  The parents termed this message "brainwashing our kids."

Instead they bring their children to rallies such as this one, to advocate a return to McCarthyism, no less, to combat what they see as  "Obama Communism".
They tell their children that Obama is a racist.  This they don't consider brainwashing, though.

One protester wants to do away with the United States Post Office, Am Trac [sic], Medicare and Social Security.
That's because they're all "run by the government."
Anything run by the government is SOCIALISM.
Socialism is ...  COMMUNISM!!
Obama is a COMMUNIST.
This anger seems directed more at who Obama isn't (i.e., "Not-Us"), than anything to do with taxes, health care, or wanting unity.

Calling for your President to be tortured--excuse me, waterboarded--and comparing him to Hitler (implying he's a Fascist) while at the same time expressing a desire for the return of McCarthyism (where you could be rounded up and brought in for questioning based solely on someone's anonymous tip), is ludicrous.  Of course, the fact that we do an enormous amount of business with China--which is Communist, by the way--is irrelevant.  You are allowed to visit China if you're an American citizen.  You can't, however, visit Cuba, because... well, they're Communists. 

It is the absence of real dialogue--a conversation where each side listens to the other and carefully considers both viewpoints, whether the subject is health care reform, one's religious beliefs, or politics in general--the U.S. is becoming more and more a  nation deeply, DEEPLY divided.  It has become a nation now of the Us's and the Thems.  Echoing the former President, "You're either with us or against us."  (The Thems, of course, are all the people who fall into the category of  the "Not-Us's." )

What is evident here, it seems to me, in all these spiteful personal attacks and in some cases, suppressed rage, is lack of either reason or tolerance.  No one is listening, truly listening any more.  One automatically assumes that because a person is a Not-Us, that everything that comes out of his/her mouth must therefore be suspect.  One comes to a discussion, not to seek understanding or to find a solution,  but to bombard the other party with one's arsenal of accumulated diatribes.  "This is who I am," these protesters seem to be saying.  "And Obama is NOT one of Us." 

"He has to be stopped", says the poster at the top of this page.

Stopped how?  In the next election?  By ensuring that his programs never get passed?  By assassinating him?  To me, the words "Stop him before it's too late" sounds urgent.  Like you have to do something NOW.   ("I don't understand why everyone is so upset," said the man outside the ripped off doors of the collapsing movie theatre as scores of ambulances cart away the mangled bodies of the panicked patrons. "All I did was yell FIRE.  I thought I smelled smoke. We could have all been in danger.   What would you have done?")

Do people not realize how powerful certain words and images are?  What they mean, how and when they're said, what they suggest?!

According to an observer at the Glenn Beck rally, there were signs calling Obama "Hitler, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, the Anti-Christ, Socialist, Communist, Marxist, Fascist, Nazi, Tyrant, Traitor, Thief, Lier, Racist, Puppet, False Messiah, Proponent of Eugenics, Un-American, Russian, Musslim, Jew, Terrorist."  (Have they left anything out?)  It boggles the mind.

"When we smell the burning flesh from the ovens, it will be to [sic] late for us all, says that poster.   An image of the Joker is superimposed onto Obama's face.  His eyes are blackened, his face suddenly all chaulky white.  The "burning flesh from the ovens" -- I guess that means Obama intends to send "us all" to the gas chambers--why he's just as power-mad as Hitler. You can see the connection, right?  Hitler--ovens--Obama?  See?

The problem with these mixed, hateful messages is they are absorbed, uncritically, lock, stock and barrel by those who have absolutely no idea what the real issue is, or in fact, the meaning of the words they so unconsciously bandy about.  They simply repeat them, for anything that has to do with Obama, on cue.

"Do away with Social Security!  No more government-run programs!" Uh, you sure you got a plan in mind for when your Social Security check stops coming?  How about your Medicare?  

How about your mail?  You sure you want the entire national postal system to dissolve and go to private companies?  No more uniform stamp prices--you'd have to shop around for the one that sells the cheapest stamps and offers the best mail delivery.  Maybe you live in a state where mail would only be delivered twice a week now due to decreasing profits. 

But hey, at least it's not "government run."

To be fair, not everyone who goes to these gatherings or demonstrations is  in an angry, hateful mood.  Some of them are quite festive.  And if you stand politely holding up a sign advocating that someone be waterboarded, or even hung, you're still peacefully protesting.  It's only the printed words, and the meaning they portend, that hint of untapped rage.  

Humor surfaces occasionally, though, to remind us that there are other ways to get one's message across.  Not to be outdone by the hordes of naysayers to Obama's proposed health plan, a small group of Billionaires for Wealthcare, the men dressed in tuxedos, holding glasses of champaigne and smoking Havana cigars; the women dressed fashionably, wearing high heels and pearls, carried signs that said:
"Fight socialism--end Medicare now!" 

"Do no harm to our bottom line"
"Nothing says 'Freedom' like denying claims"
"Warning:  Affordable Healthcare may cause severe loss of profit".
"CIGNA-Palin, 2012"

Satire on a stick.  Obviously from the lunatic frindge, ha ha.
Look at the picture (below).  They're all smiling.

Nobody's advocating torture or calling anyone names.  They have, well, "class."  They actually seem--happy.  This group chose to voice their opinions and stage a counter protest by putting on a one-act, silent comedy.  They were, understandably, in the minority, representing those who believe that the U.S. should at least consider talking seriously about adopting universal health care for its citizens, a benefit enjoyed by countless other countries.  But last I heard, it was actually something like 50-50, in that regard.  Or maybe it was 70-30.  (Or was it 60-40?  It's hard to keep up with all the polls.  But a significant number of the populace want it at least discussed.)

Note, they're not there to scream at, raise their fists or hurl obscenities at the persons holding an opposite view at this demonstration.  They prefer slinging irony.  Contrast that with how Glenn Beck's 9/12 rally supporters treated this lone individual, in the blue cap and white shirt, simply trying to hold up a sign saying "Public Option Now".  He is followed, loudly booed, circled, and surrounded by people shouting with megaphones into his face as five security guards arrive behind, in front and to the side of him, to try to ward off them off. 


 One wonders if those security guards had not shown up to escort him off onto the sidewalk, if he would not have been accosted and trampled, or worseThink about it--all he's doing is holding up a sign saying he's FOR having a public option in the proposed health care reform.  Meaning  the public should have a  choice about what health care program they get.  That's all. That's what public option means.  And for this, he is the object of rudeness and scorn--because his viewpoint is different from theirs.  (Some commenters to the video add that he is "old" and "fat" and just did this for attention, i.e., walking around with his sign "instead of just standing there."  Never a dull moment in Comment Land.)

I happen to think the public option should be included in health care reform discussions as well.  This could be anyone, with a similar sign.  This could be me, had I gone to participate.  I can't even imagine how fearful this would be, to be the brunt of such intolerant reaction simply for expressing an opinion.  What if there were no security guards around to keep the crowd from closing in?  Is this an isolated incident?  Perhaps. But I suspect it may be more common than not. 

It's not about taking sides here.  It's not about Us versus Them.  At least it shouldn't be. But that is the impression I get at seeing photos and videos like this.  (Note the snarky caption for the video above:  "Teabaggers can't handle a little dissent."  Obviously the person captioning this intended irony, but note the generalization re:Teabaggers.  Teabaggers, Birthers, Confederates, Gun-Nuts--they're all just labels.  What would we do without our labels to define ourselves?)

Unfortunately, this (reaction to a Not-Us in the crowd)  is an example of what happens, at certain times and places in the United States today, when you publicly reveal what you believe or how you think.  It happens  in conversations, where you might simply repeat a verifiable fact, only to be met with an instant hostile reaction, and told "If you don't like it here, then get the hell out." This tone and these words seem to crop up regularly as well, in the comment sections appearing under certain news articles, for example where one commenter simply writes, "I agree with this", only to be blasted with the most venomous rebuttals, called obscene, viscious names, and again ... told to leave the country.  "If you're not with us, you're against us."  (Thank you Mr. Bush, for making those words a lasting legacy from your administration.)  These angry, visceral  reactions, to another's merely expressing an opinion, seem to be increasing, and the media stokes the fires by continually showcasing the frenzy.  You're not, you suddenly realize, getting a balanced view of things. 

Playing the devil's advocate:  

"But you're painting a one-sided picture," one might argue.  "You only highlight one side's activities here--the mostly Conservative citizens.  What about the wacky Liberals and all their demonstrations?  Didn't they call George Bush a liar, tyrant, traitor, Hitler, the anti-Christ too?  And you're saying one can't say that about Obama?"  

Well, there's a difference.  In some cases, the accusations leveled against George W. Bush were true. ( Instituting a program to illegally spy on one's own citizens, launching an unnecessary war, come to mind.)  When there were massive demonstrations against the war and Bush's policies, millions took to the streets.  The media yawned. European newspapers carried more coverage than American ones, where protests were consistently underreported, and when they were reported, protesters were often referred to as radicals or anarchists.   Contrast that with the current media mantra that Americans are angry (implying all Americans) at Obama, where the message of only one segment of the population (albeit a large one) is portrayed:  as the man's T-shirt proclaims--they are mostly white, Christian, heterosexual and pro-gun advocates.  It's hard not to draw the conclusion that if your views are liberal, you're a "radical anarchist socialist"; if you're a Conservative, you're a Patriot.  Period.  This is the impression one gets from the way certain news stories are slanted.

It's okay to get angry.  Especially when one feels that nobody in one's government is listening, and not just re: health-care,  education, the economy and the War--but the choice of certain advisors in the President's cabinet.  I, too, am a little disappointed in Obama, for continuing some of the policies he campaigned promising to change, for some of the decisions he's made that seem unwise.  But hate him?  Call for him to be waterboarded?  Come on, people, get real.  Or was that meant as a joke, that sign.  Something tells me the sign-carrier meant it:  Waterboard him. 

My point is that meaningful dialogue seems to have stopped and raw emotions have taken over.  The country seems more and more divided.  We're in another war, but this time the enemy is a domestic one, a war of words, of gestures, ridiculing and threatening being the preferred methods of expression.  This is what Isee, even when I'm not looking.  It just kind of jumps out at me, breaking into my consciousness in the most unlikely instances.  In words and images, a visual and audial cacophany that arrives like an insidious silent siren (and yes, that contradiction is intentional) as if someone snuck up and thrust a needle dispensing the Fear virus into your arm while you were sleeping).

Today words,
tomorrow, guns.

How did we get to this point ... and how can we change it?  CAN we change it? ("Why can't we all just get along?")

I began this posting saying I don't know America anymore.  Maybe it was always like this but I was less aware of it. Or maybe, it's not as pervasive as I perceive it to be and I am succumbing to alarmism.  One can only determine that, I supposed, by examining its history and following its growth and decline, its triumphs and setbacks, its stated purposes and its real actions.  I only know I, personally, am disappointed, distrustful and greatly concerned about what's happening to and in the U.S. these days.  Perhaps my views would alter somewhat were I still living there.  Perhaps, because of that fact, I have no right to speak, that I'm now what one would call an outsider.  But one needn't BE a cucumber to talk credibly about cucumbers, right? 

I love the idea of America.  I hate that in a country that was founded on the principle of equality and freedom that there's so much fear and distrust, so much hatred and intolerance for the views of another. It's become like a schoolyard full of angry children, acting out by bullying and name calling, who have no idea how to manage the chaos their existence has become.

So what is the solution?  Stay out of it and just go about your normal routine and hope it'll all sort itself out eventually. Tend to your garden and focus only on what's positive and shut it all out, because really, what can one person do anyway.  Stand on a soapbox and scream to the heavens about the world's injustice. (Are you upset about what's going on in that one particular country, or the madness in the world in general?)    Put your money where your mouth is and go out and try to DO something about it.  Write your thoughts on your blog in an effort to make more sense of it?  All or none of the above, depending on the day.

If only things were that simple.  But perhaps they are.  Maybe the answer's there and just no one's come up with it yet.  Meanwhile the circus continues.  It would be comical if it weren't so serious.  At least it seems to me, to be rather serious.  Citizens of a country shouldn't be at each others' throats, shouldn't be attacking one other so visciously, verbally or otherwise.  We are not the enemies of each other.  How sad that for some, a feeling of worthiness can only arise when there's an enemy to defeat.  And if none exists, one manufactures one.  What a mindset.

I don't think it manifests only in public demonstrations, though.  That's just the more visible part of it.  It's its subtle permeation in other areas that is disconcerting.  In who we choose to marry, hire, spend time with, confide in, trust with our lives.  First question:  Are they a "Them" or an "Us"?  And if a Not-Us, how do we act towards them?  It is the answer to this question that forms the basis of who we are, I think.  And it can't be neatly lumped into the simple categories of  "Tolerant" and "Intolerant".  Welcome to the Gray Zone.  But we might at least acknowledge who the true enemy is, and what we mean by the word "enemy." 

I remain, unconvincingly, optimistic--that things will somehow sort themselves out and sanity will reign again.  It is so counterproductive to dwell on, highlight, encourage and perpetrate such ... explosive hatred.  For ALL sides.  It sounds so corny, but ...   how about a little peace and love for a change?

Or if not love yet--then just ... peace.
It's time.

Big bunch of words.  I could have just shown the pictures and let them speak for themselves.  
Why didn't I.  Sometimes I talk too much.  
It's a curse.

Photos of the Glenn Beck 9/12 project demonstration in Washington D.C.  can be seen  here, and  here.

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