Politics of fear
Posted on Wednesday, December 28, 2005
At year’s end, here’s a question worth pondering. Self-styled conservative Republicans dominate Washington. They currently control the White House and both houses of Congress. With the Samuel Alito nomination pending, they’ve got a good chance of turning the U. S. Supreme Court into a veritable right-wing star chamber. So how come they and their media enablers are acting like such soreheads and crybabies lately? Witness the so-called war on Christmas. This imaginary struggle was largely dreamed-up by FOX News personalities Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson. The subtitle of Gibson’s book gives the game away: “How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.” For conservatives” of Gibson’s ilk, the word “liberal” now means approximately what “Jew Communist” once meant to the Ku Klux Klan. But hold that thought. I was too busy posing disobedient basset hounds for their Santa Claus photo shoot to actually read the fool thing. But as near as I could tell, the most insidious “liberal” weapon against Christmas consists of substituting godless slogans like “Happy holidays” for “Merry Christmas.”
Never mind that “holiday” derives from “Holy Day,” in the same way “Christmas” does “Christ’s Mass.” (Or even that the White House Christmas card read “Happy Holidays.” ) It’s no longer enough to wish these knuckleheads health and happiness. Failure to actively acknowledge the superiority of Christianity to rival faiths is deemed blasphemy.
Never mind, for that matter, that according to the Catholic liturgical calendar that O’Reilly, the chief FOX News theologian, professes to revere, what he calls “the Christmas season” is actually Advent. What we’re witnessing is the mainstreaming of paranoid persecution fantasies that used to be the provenance of fringe outfits like the John Birch Society and the Klan.
As Michelle Goldberg pointed out on salon.com, the “war on Christmas” theme made its first appearance in Henry Ford’s 1921 anti-Semitic classic, “The International Jew.” The seeming irony of its now being peddled by Irish Catholics like O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan (Birchers and Klansmen feared the pope, too ) isn’t entirely new. The notoriously anti-Semitic radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, peddled the same poisonous line during the Thirties and Forties.
In a modest triumph of political repackaging, crimes once held to be exclusively Jewish—impiousness, disloyalty, cosmopolititanism, physical cowardice, sexual license, communism, etc. —are now held to be liberal. Maybe it’s even progress of a kind, because as Jewish friends are quick to observe, liberalism’s a voluntary state of mind, while the anti-Semitic undertones never go away.
In a nutshell, it’s the politics of fear. Authoritarian Catholics and fundamentalist divines of the Jerry Falwell / Pat Robertson / James Dobson persuasion now sing from the same hymnal. See, it’s not enough to be tolerant; anything but wholehearted agreement constitutes an attack on their faith. When I encounter that kind of frantic certitude, I figure it’s not me they’re working so hard to persuade.
All that I get. As I say, it’s an old story. The classic historical study of the subject is Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” What I cannot understand, however, is how the Bush White House appears to have succeeded in turning so many once-proud Americans into little whiny crybabies seemingly willing to abandon their constitutional freedoms in the name of the “war on terror.”
From the rise of Barry Goldwater onward, all we’ve heard from the American right is how we need to get government off our backs; how the scariest words in the language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you”; and how we need to wean ourselves from the government tit and strive to be rugged individualists like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, currently under indictment, once called agents of the Environmental Protection Agency the “Gestapo of government” and “a bunch of jack-booted thugs.” Then came 9/11, and what happened? My man Digby (digbysblog.blogspot.com) may have put it best: “Suddenly the he-men of Wal-Mart and the NRA leaped into Big Brother’s arms and shrieked ‘save me, save me! Do whatever you have to do, they’re trying to kill us all!’ They now look to Daddy Government... to check under the bed for them every night, reassure them that the boogeyman won’t hurt them and then read them a nice bedtime story about spreading freedom and democracy. It turns out that underneath all this swaggering bravado, the Republicans aren’t the Daddy party—they’re the baby party.” Constitution? We don’t need no stinkin’ constitution. Our dear leader, George W. Bush—the same guy who went fishing after somebody read him a Daily Briefing titled “bin Laden Determined to Strike in U. S.” —is the only guarantee we need to protect our freedoms. Just this morning, I had an e-mail from a Bush supporter who assured me that if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear. Thanks, comrade. Now I feel much better.
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
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