The Obama phenomenon was supposed to usher in a new era in American politics. We would put behind us all those strident accusations and counter-accusations, the lies and half-truths, the abrogation of power, the trampling of the Constitution. There would be no more Blue states or Red states, only the United States of America, a nation committed to the ideal that human dignity and freedom should be shared by all. We would make hard choices, together, for the sake of the common good. We would have accountability and transparency, respect for law and the traditions of the Republic. We voted for that. We wanted that. Or we said we did.
But there were those who believed in the Divine Right of Rulers and they were unhappy about their loss of power. The new Administration had hardly put Abe Lincoln’s Bible back on the shelf when the catcalls began. The hate-filled rhetoric, the wacky conspiracy theories, and the distortions of truth echoed across the airwaves. It was clear that the GOP and its leadership wanted Obama to fail. They began a drumbeat calibrated to the tenor of fear. The hopeful crowds were replaced by Tea Parties and Town Halls filled with frightened people. Thoughtful debate was hijacked by snarling mobs. Effigies twisted in the wind. Racist paranoia poked its ugly head through the thin topsoil of hope and unity.
But the Republic was not really in danger, not as long as people could say what they believed–or even shout it thoughtlessly for the video cameras. As long as the right of a free people to assemble and seek redress of grievances (real or imagined) from their Government was sacrosanct, then all the Tea Parties on Fox could not conspire to sully Old Glory’s colors. But when the very ones who rose to power by their promise to rebuild the United States of America lose their commitment to its foundational values, the Republic is in very grave danger indeed.
The current debate over health care has taken a very disturbing turn. The AP has a story tonight that quotes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer as saying of the rancor: “These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views — but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American. Drowning out the facts is how we failed at this task for decades.”
That’s a lie. It was a lie when the Republicans called those of us who were against the Iraq war “traitors.” It’s a lie now.
To his credit, President Obama has disavowed Pelosi and Hoyer’s stupidity, but the damage is done. The rhetoric is spinning out of control and only the Democratic Party can stop it, through a consistent and relentless re-statement of the facts, not by becoming the fulfillment of the Right’s monstrous fantasies. If health care reform fails, because the GOP fear-mongered the American public, then so be it. The Republic will last and we shall fight another day.
But if the notion that freedom of speech (even foolish, blatantly false speech) is “un-American” takes root, then I don’t give a damn about health care reform. For this will no longer be a country worth fighting for, but a country to be fought against. The flag might still be red, white and blue, but it will no longer be an American flag. For what doth it profit a nation to gain health care and to lose its very soul?
The times are perilous. I was with a colleague recently, a decorated Army veteran, an elected official in South Carolina, and an African American. He said he was tired of the Right’s lies, and felt he was being pushed into a corner. “If they think that all liberals are a bunch of pacifist hippies, they are wrong. I’ve got guns and I know how to use them.”
America sits atop a powerkeg, and the only bomb squad we can call is we ourselves. Our first task is to make it abundantly clear that political speech is protected, no matter how vile it is. The second thing we must do is re-start the debate thoughtfully and truthfully.
The Revolution is in danger of going bad, quickly. For the fuse is terribly short.