The Rhetoric of Hate and Panic: What’s New?

That the public rhetoric of hate, panic, and violence in the U.S. seems new to me doesn’t mean it is new, so I’m cautiously trying to sort out what particulars may indeed be new, and I’m doing so chiefly as a layperson (with some expertise in rhetoric), and I’m confident that historians and political scientists have a better grasp of what’s going on than I do.

1. The gap between outrage and reality. For instance, a variety of groups and high-profile pundits assert that President Obama and others are “socialists” and/or “fascists.” It is difficult to produce reliable, grounded definitions of “socialism,” “Communism,” or “fascism” that would come close to matching the politics, record, and policies of Obama. Such a gap, however, does not seem new to me, even if the players are now different.

2. The racism, sometimes explicit, sometimes coded. Not new, obviously. Racism in American history and politics is rather like water in the human body; allegedly our bodies are composed of some enormous percentage of water; so it goes with race in the U.S. What is new, obviously, is that the President is African American.

3. Vapid political celebrities. A cynical political scientist I know, with Palin and Bachmann in mind, said, “It’s amazing: it [American politics] just keeps getting worse.” If this political scientist has political leanings, they are chiefly in the direction of libertarianism, with a small l. He is not a Libertarian. Nor is he even close to being a Republican or a Democrat. He is a constantly skeptical, often bemused observer. So for him to be taken aback by the rise of two such seemingly ill-informed, inept, craven persons as Palin and Bachmann is quite something. Palin is a product of McCain’s impulsiveness, perhaps even a kind of self-destructiveness; at any rate, without the accident of McCain’s impulsiveness, there would be no Palin, so in that sense, she’s a rare bird. Still, I think it’s hard to claim that vapid political “stars” are really new to U.S. politics or either major party. And in one sense, Palin is not inept: she’s efficiently reaping the rewards of the spectacle. She performs successfully.

4. Bad journalism (or no journalism), chiefly as a result of reporting being absorbed and disintegrated by entertainment. I think this has been a while coming, but I think it’s probably reached some kind of peak in the last decade or so. That parody-shows like Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s provide better analysis than the major networks do is one sign of the decline. The New York Times reporting (or lack thereof) on the “build-up” (Orwell would have loved that phrase) to the Iraq War is another. And when have newspapers been in worse shape (with nothing online that can genuinely fill the void)? It seems as if what has happened qualifies as a paradigm shift and probably distributes, disperses, and echoes the rhetoric of hate, violence, and panic in different ways. So let’s say this aspect is new.

5. The linkage between a major media company and one vein of one party–Fox News, the Neo-cons, and now the Tea Party folks. Hmmm. Not new? One thinks of Hearst, for example–and his alleged remark about being willing and able to manufacture a war. No doubt the New York Times, the National Review, and the Washington Post (for example) have “always” been cozy with different administrations, leaders, and parties. On the other hand, the obvious, ham-fisted, and unabashed linkage between and among Fox, Bush operatives, the Tea Party “movement,” Palin’s celebrity, Limbaugh, and other radio-spewers seems different in degree, at least. I don’t recall a network ever being so blatantly a participant in one party’s or one administration’s structure as Fox has been with the GOP and Bush. So perhaps the network-as-political operative is new. David Frum, conservative, seems to think so, as he noted (I’m paraphrasing) that “We [conservatives] thought Fox was working for us, but it turns out we are working for Fox.” This from a conservative.

True, Congressman Lewis’s being called the n-word, Republican Congresspersons whipping up a Tea Party crowd, a Congressman being spat upon, the astonishing, garish spectacles of Palin and Beck, the potency of the venom spewed against President Obama: these have struck me as unprecedented, saddening, worrisome, and awful. But truly new? For the most part, no–not with American politics and history in mind. Maybe that’s the truly awful part.


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