Sunday, August 16, 2009

One nation, all mobbed up

President Obama’s town hall on Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo. — like the one on Friday in Belgrade, Mont., and the one on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H. — was his attempt to rescue, in the name of civility, a health-care debate whose tone owes more right now to the roll-the-tumbrels style of the French Revolution than to Roberts’ Rules of Order.

The right wing’s appeal to the mob is especially cynical this time, as well as ominous.

According to findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Department of Homeland Security, nativist right-wing extremists (and their enablers in various high places) are exploiting the health-care dilemma, and the bruised economy in general, to gain new and passionate adherents in numbers large enough to form the infrastructure of a national threat.

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The president explained the use of the Recovery Act money to help Americans who can’t afford health insurance:

“One third of the money in the Recovery Act … is for emergency relief for folks who've borne the brunt of this recession. We've extended unemployment benefits for more than 150,000 Coloradans. We've made health insurance 65 percent cheaper for families who rely on COBRA while they're looking for work.”

And he again explained the crucial elements of health-care reform for everyday working Americans (and those Americans who wish they were working every day):

“Insurance companies will also be stopped from cancelling coverage because you get sick or denying coverage because of your medical history. … And we will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies.

“At the same time, if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep seeing your doctor. I don't want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care. But the point is, I don't want insurance company bureaucrats meddling in your health care, either. So if you're one of the nearly 46 million people who don't have health insurance, you will finally have quality, affordable options. And if you do have health insurance, we will help make that insurance more affordable and more secure.”

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Using the bully pulpit of the presidency, Obama clearly understands what’s at stake in the health-care reform debate — he’s made the point more than once that an estimated 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day, a statistical time bomb waiting to go off.

But all of last week, the debate was hijacked by hordes of shit disturbers bussed into various locations by the coalition of Congressional conservatives and lobbyists for the insurance industry. Their objective has been plain and simple: sew discontent, shout down honest dissent, cultivate a climate of fear and rage.

This cheap bid for American ochlocracy would be disturbing enough if it originated solely as a result of Obama’s health-care policy; fact is, there are Democrats honestly opposed to it as well.

But there’s a lot that points to this being a purely personal bid for character assassination. Simply put, for many in this national discussion, this isn’t a debate about Obama’s health-care plans, it’s a debate about the president himself — and it’s one they’re framing in disturbing ways.

A healthy debate on the future of the nation’s health-care system, for example, shouldn’t have made it necessary for one Portsmouth protester, William Kostric, to show up outside the town-hall location openly carrying a loaded gun (albeit hours before Obama spoke there).

A robust debate wouldn’t have made it necessary for another extremist protester, in Hagerstown, Md., to brandish a sign saying “Death to Obama, Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.”

Not much of a message there about concern over health insurance premiums.

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At times, though, it’s hard to separate the ad hominem attacks from a generalized rage against the machine.

Katherine Zaleski went to the Grand Junction event and reported for The Huffington Post:

“A number of people told us that this isn't just about President Obama. Some have been angry since the Bush administration, others don't trust government at all. A few people spewed out remarks against the president that were reminiscent of those seen at campaign rallies for [now former Alaska] Gov. Sarah Palin last year. We even met two Birthers -- obviously misinformation was strongly represented. When we asked people for evidence or to clarify their positions with the facts, they just continued with their talking points.”

But it’s more than talking points: Richard Terry Young was arrested by Portsmouth police on Aug. 11 for carrying a pocket knife into the school where Obama was to speak. A search of Young’s car on the school grounds found a loaded gun for which Young had no license.

And when some anonymous nutjob someone feels free to exercise his First Amendment right at a malign level — painting a swastika on the office sign of Rep. David Scott, a Georgia congressman — there’s something deeper and more dangerous at work.

Just like during the French Revolution, when mob passions were tragically exploited in the furtherance of political objective, there’s a grim menace in the making here in the United States — something less about talking points and, ominously, more about hollow points.

It’s the quietly building sense that for many impoverished, resentful Americans, intolerance has acquired a cachet, a certain element of cool that’s proving to be irresistible. That’s a prescription for nothing less than a national disaster.
Image credits: Obama: Image from pool. William Kostric: Still from MSNBC's "Hardball." Scott sign swastika: The Associated Press.

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