by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
September 25, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It might have been too much to hope for, but wasn't the election of President Barack Obama supposed to mark a watershed in America? Wasn't it supposed to be another important step toward a post-racial America, where old hatreds would be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Instead, since Obama's election, we've seen a resurgence of all the worst elements of American politics. And people who point out that racism and hatred are poisoning our political dialogue are getting attacked in the corporate media.
Take last week's remarks by former President Jimmy Carter and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, two people who know all too well about what happens when racism and hatred enter a political debate.
Mr. Carter grew up in rural Georgia, a place that then had more lynchings than any other state but Mississippi. In his first campaign for governor in 1966, he lost to Lester Maddox, a man famous for using an ax handle to bar black customers from eating at his popular restaurant - sometimes at gunpoint - and then selling his the place rather than comply with desegregation laws.
Maddox, who ended up being Carter's lieutenant governor from 1971 until 1975 (the governor and lieutenant governor don't run on the same ballot line in Georgia), was a prominent and charter member of the Ku Klux Klan's political wing. He made his reputation by being an unrepentant bigot for his entire political career. So when Carter last week said that "the overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity" toward Obama "is based on the fact that he is a black man," he knows what he's talking about. Maddox later became Governor of Georgia.
Pelosi started getting involved in politics in her hometown of San Francisco at a time when the fight over gay rights culminated in the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, an openly gay member of the city's Board of Supervisors and the proponent of an anti-discrimination ordinance. Moscone and Milk were gunned down in City Hall by a former supervisor, Dan White, who had opposed the gay-rights ordinance.
So when Pelosi expresses her concerns that the political rhetoric of President Obama's opponents is getting overheated, it's sparked by the memories of what she saw herself "in the late '70s in San Francisco" when "this kind of rhetoric was very frightening" and "created a climate" that sparked violence. Pelosi told a news conference in Washington last week that people who make political speeches "have to take responsibility for any incitement that they may cause."
Naturally, many in the media - particularly conservatives -- attacked Carter and Pelosi for pointing out that this is happening. Few in the corporate media are willing to acknowledge the undercurrent of racism in the attacks on Obama because this nation has supposedly "gotten past" these issues and we're now a more "colorblind" society. But having a black man in the White House has pushed some people right around the bend, and sadly, the Republican Party is cynically exploiting the paranoid, irrational and frequently racist antics of the anti-Obama crowd in the hope of winning elections in 2010 and 2012.
It's not racist to oppose Obama's policies. And there's plenty for Americans to be angry about - especially since the economy crashed and the federal government has spent trillions of dollars to bail out the fat cats who were responsible. But instead attacking the banksters who nearly destroyed the global economy, we are seeing the familiar scapegoating of non-white, non-male, non-Christian and non-heterosexual Americans as being menaces to our way of life.
There's no shortage of charlatans fanning the flames of extremism without a thought for the consequences. While the worst elements are thankfully small in number, they are given an outsized voice thanks to the need of the cable news channels to fill 24 hours of airtime each day.
The late American diplomat George Kennan once observed that "the counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain. And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt over the validity of democratic institutions. And until peoples learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves - as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government - this sort of thing will continue to occur."
Today's America is behaving much like the scenario Kennan describes. The economy is broken, the political system is broken and the public is struggling and angry. The history books are filled with examples of the danger posed by bombastic demagogues who offer both a scapegoat and a solution.
Are we strong enough and mature enough to resist the bombast, and the people who are manipulating it for political and financial gain? Can we take the actions we need to take to make this nation better? Is it possible to have political debates based on reason and facts or we will allow extremism motivated by fear, hatred and lies to take control of the national dialogue? Upon these questions rest the future of our democracy.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.