Fields of Fear

Posted: January 13, 2011 in AZ, Non-AZ, The Economy, The Media

John Stewart on The Daily Show had a great interview with former governor, Tim Pawlenty.  Stewart said that got me thinking:

This administration does not appear to be fundamentally different than 8 years under George Bush, but the panic and the reaction that it has set off, does seem fundamentally different to some extent.

Pawlenty in response pointed out Liberal vitriol when Bush was in office.  John disagreed because under this admin, an entire movement has been created that has a “revolution fetish”.  The left under Bush were peace protestors, anarchists, and various other sub-groups….that have always existed.  They’re not a new movement.  He also pointed out that some college student protesting somewhere isn’t the same as the leaders of the GOP advocating on national TV.

What’s great about this in my viewpoint was that John is finally making arguments that we’ve been making in the blogosphere for a long time and he’s doing it on national TV in a calm way to a potential front runner for the 2012 GOP nomination.  Pawlenty makes an excellent argument…..fear drives anger….it is my personal opinion, fear is the root of ALL anger.  People, in general, under Bush weren’t afraid partly because he was so confidant (stupidly, irresponsibly so) and the economy hadn’t really tanked yet.  But when Pres. Obama came into office, the poop had hit the fan in re: the economy.  The GOP started to play on that fear, whipped some people into a frenzy and Pres. Obama became the perfect target for it.  And unfortunately the fact that he’s brown helps the GOP too in this aspect.

But this is simplification on my part that I’m not comfortable with (read my more detailed explanation below).  Ultimately I think John is wrong on one point and right on two other important points.  Political leaders in the US and elsewhere have taken up the banner of fear in order to use it as a political tool against an opponent.  So the GOP championing Tea Party ideas is not new.  However, Stewart is right that 1) that the level of vitriol was not the same under Pres. Bush and 2) the impact of national political leaders advocating what is fringe thinking through the national media is not equivalent in any way to the what occurs and will always occur when individuals and small groups protest publicly.

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I think Stewart and Pawlenty have touched on something really crucial that we on the left have been struggling with to understand.  It’s been driving us to distraction that the Tea Party and other GOP voters did not make a peep under George Bush when he expanded the Federal Government’s reach into our lives increasing the amount of tyranny we all experience.  Bush touched all of our lives with programs like No Child Left Behind, domestic spying from the Patriot Act, the suspension of Habeus Corpus, lying (or at least purposely misrepresenting data) to start the war Iraq, etc.  Unfortunately for us on the left, we’ve been seeing it through too narrow a glass for too long.

While in office Pres. Bush portrayed himself as supremely confidant and unworried.  Even in the most difficult times he was so confidant as to appear glib (remember the video of him talking about terrorists while on the golf course and then following that up with “Now watch this drive” accompanied with his cocky grin).  Americans have always looked to the President for guidance on how to feel about current events.  As independent as Americans are even we still look to our leader for emotional comfort in troubling times.

Also during his tenure, the MSM and both political parties provided little to no counterpoint to remind the American citizenry that we should be more worried than we were in regards to government intrusion.  Certainly there were those who did criticize Pres. Bush because he ultimately became the laughingstock of the country but for all the wrong reasons. Overall, we criticized his ignorance instead of focusing on what was important, the overreach of power (although some did).  In spite of all of that criticism taken as a whole, it didn’t make the average American afraid enough to do more than vote differently by electing Pres. Obama.  So while Americans should have been very anxious about governmental tyranny and all they did was worry a little and vote, mostly, for a different direction.*

Obviously what I’m talking about goes beyond worry or even beyond fear.  I mean the kind of bone-deep fear that causes citizens to take action.  And that is what we as bloggers and pundits on the left have been preoccupied.  What caused mobilization of Tea Party members?  Clearly it’s bone deep fear, but of what?

Let’s look at this idea of fear closer.  First let’s start with the somnolent national fear.  It is the feeling of distrust of governmental tyranny, of the might of the big against the powerlessness of the small.  It implanted deep in our national psyche from the birth of our nation when we rebelled against British control and periodically reinforced by our Constitution and the periodic adjustment and balancing of powers.

Another kind of fear is bone-deep but related to personal experiences where an entire generation is touched by the reality of the situation.  Call it a generational emotion.  What I mean by that is that some generations face greater challenges than others, searing patterns into individuals that never go away.  There’s a reason that The Greatest Generation earned that label…they lived through the Depression, they stood up against fascism in the trenches of Europe and the waters of the Pacific, and saw first hand the consequences of tyrannical governments (e.g., The Holocaust, Civil War in Spain, Mao’s supposed Great Leap Forward, etc.).  That generation knew fear of a different quality than my own^ but they acted with courage.  And that fear, remembering what it is like to go hungry, to see skeletal remains and ashes of millions of people.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of people left with those first hand experiences.  Certainly not enough for the younger generations to heed their words of caution, frugality, sacrifice and unity.  In essence we had a country full of people who could not imagine what a collapsed market would be like or what tyranny looks like.  It seemed so remote and unreal that psychologically we were not ready to accept such a possibility.

Another fear that WAS right on the surface of our awareness and omnipresent during the Bush years was that of foreign sponsored terror.  The very real event of 9/11 was a signature in the life many Americans.  One doesn’t need to look hard for the evidence of how powerful and pervasive that fear was.  It helped us to gloss over those threats to our liberty that did take place.  We traded security for liberty with The Patriot Act, with the suspension of Habeus Corpus, by allowing torture, by allowing rendition, with the invasion of Iraq, and so much more.  Some exhibited courage by enlisting to fight or protesting tyranny.  Others whipped the people into a frenzy of fear and profited.  What could have been another generation of greatness, turned out to be a mixed bag.

Ironically enough, we pretended that we weren’t afraid. Flag waving and declarations of American Exceptionalism were all over popular culture and MSM.  From corny country songs to flag lapel pins we pounded our chest to show all the other gorillas in the world just how big and scary we were.  This behavior matched Pres. Bush’s own personal bravado to a T.  We were afraid but damned if we’d admit it.**

By early 2008, it was being reported that the banks and investment firms were in trouble due to the housing bubble. There had been rumblings for the past couple of years….mainly from consumers who were unable to buy homes due to the inflated prices.  But such complaints do not a crisis make.  By mid 2008 it was clear, to an elite few, that we were headed for a recession unless action was taken.  Bush did little at this point–at least so far as we know in spite of warnings from some visionary economists, investors and the rare government employee who was paying attention.

At that point the people weren’t aware of just how bad things were and how much worse they would become.  During the campaign, when the story broke that we were at the point where drastic action was required, most Americans were taken by surprise.  The idea that the economy was in trouble was really news and it would take time to sink in.  It was very evident to Pres. Bush and the two candidates, Obama and McCain because they were being given information on the whole picture, information to which the average person is not privvy.  They turned around and warned us and still there were those in the MSM and politicians that played it off as trivial.

Again, the people should have already been afraid of multiple government intrusions and malfeasance but they weren’t yet.  Still the only seed of fear that had yet blossomed was of foreign terrorism.  The fear of tyranny and financial ruin were germinating underneath the soil.  The economic crisis was being reported more and more but it hadn’t filtered down to enough consumers to cause widespread financial hardship, although that kind of trouble was beginning to grow.

How do we know people weren’t afraid?  Look back at how hard politicians and citizens pushed back against TARP.  If they had really understood the seriousness and depth of the crisis that push-back would have been minimal or non-existent.  Instead they focused on how TARP would affect the presidential election and the deficit.  The people didn’t yet understand that we were potentially looking at the collapse of the entire US market and thus the world.

It wasn’t until Pres. Obama was being sworn into office in January 2009 that the reality of what was going on economically had finally sunk in.  Financial hardships began touching enough of the populace that they finally understood that we were facing our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Former Pres. Bush was already back to clearing brush on his ranch in Texas and Pres. Obama was in charge of dealing with the economic mess left behind.

Here’s the crucial point….the populace was finally getting a clue on what was going on in the economy and all of their fears sprung up at once like millions of tiny, vibrant green shoots.  The seeds of suspicion and distrust against government intrusion and malfeasance that had been planted during the Bush years combined with the fear of what had bloomed since 9/11.  New fertilizer and watering took place during the 2008 presidential campaign, particularly as they related to Pres. Obama’s “otherness”.  During the campaign and during the election the shoots broke the surface and grew until his inauguration.  America woke up and found that their field of mud, once sparsely populated with blossoms of anxiety, was now resplendent and filled to the brim.  The germination and growth of those blooms, created The Tea Party.

The fact that their name is drawn from a Revolutionary event (in spite of their misinterpretation of the term) is no coincidence (as many others have noted).  They feel threatened by things larger than them, things they feel are outside their control. I am essentially arguing that the rise of The Tea Party wasn’t sudden, although it appears as if it was.  I am saying that the sprouting of fears and the blossoming into full-fledged action is what we saw and what seemed so sudden.  The germination went mainly unnoticed, unrecognized.  The individual sees did not go unnoticed (again I am referring to en masse those same insightful pundits, bloggers and journalists as before).  I use “en masse” because they all had a piece of the larger picture.  What they failed to notice was what went on within the seed itself.  The chemical and biological reaction within the seed is what we didn’t see and are just now getting a handle on.

So when Olbermann says that racism was a cause of The Tea Party’s creation, he is focusing on one seed at single points in time.  It doesn’t make him wrong but it does make him look as if he is simplifying and reducing too much.  The same could be said for those claiming that age differences or socio-economic levels or right/left thinking account for the rise of the Tea Party.  They are all correct and they are all wrong.

One of the negative aspects to this type of reductionism is that The Tea Party and the GOP can rightly claim that not all Tea Party members are racist, and by doing so, brush over the fear of anything “foreign” or “other” that does play such a big part in the Tea Party movement.  It gives the other side a ready  argument, provides easy self-justification, facile avoidance of responsibility, and an excuse to avoid introspection.

Perhaps Pres. Obama doesn’t take the jibes personal because he recognizes, in the larger picture, they aren’t personal.  They are part and parcel of a larger pattern that has been growing deep in national soil.  Thankfully we know from historical experience that IF we outlast this season by continuing to emphasize rationality, justice, and unity of purpose, the blossoms of fear will die off and the seasons will shift again.

^I belong to Generation X, an oft maligned demographic, but that’s for another day

*Obviously this wasn’t true for some on the right (Andrew Sullivan being a fine example) and most on the left (like Keith Olbermann).  However, these individuals don’t blanket coverage of the news and aren’t what the average American is exposed to, night after night.

**Again, failure to admit our fear was noted by some observers and again, they weren’t the ones that the average American listened to or watched very often.  They pointed out what should have been obvious to any one with some kind of introspection–find a braggart in a group of people and you will find he or she is the most insecure person of them all.  I don’t mean to imply that we should be ashamed of fear, we shouldn’t.  Even the Greatest Generation wasn’t afraid to admit it.  FDR’s famous radio speech exhorting us not to give in to fear shows that they did acknowledge it and its power to derail us.  I do argue that we failed in our courage whereas that generation did not.  Their exhibition of patriotism underlined the need for unity, sacrifice and courage.  Ours was hollow without sacrifice (except those families that have lost loved ones in the wars–no respectable liberal would argue that those soldiers lost in war were not an incredible loss and sacrifice).

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