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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Farting in church and other expressions of intellect

A Jesuit priest and adjunct professor who had the office next to mine said it took only one fart in church to destroy a service for hundreds of people. He said this in the context of discussing the complexities of communication and how hard it is to establish and maintain substantial and productive dialogues among human beings. A fart can characterize an entire church service to the exclusion of whatever else was the service's purpose and content. His point was that a few molecules of odious gas can so poison the atmosphere that people lose the sense of purpose and process in what is being communicated to them. This was during the time that the protests against the war in Vietnam dominated campus activities, and it was difficult, if not impossible at times, to keep words and minds on the work at hand.

Another way of describing the problem uses metaphors from the broadcast industry. There was so much "static" that the real point and substance of communication was lost in the noise.

And so it is in the "new media" and what the Internet has brought to blogs, discussion boards, and other "interactive" sites of information and discussion. While the odious emanations may come from a very small minority of people
, the new media amplifies them into a major and often controlling emphasis in the mental atmosphere. And it is manifestly evident that one political party has devoted itself to the production and emission of foul gas that is injurious and sometimes deadly to the sensibility. During the W. Bush administration, conservatives liked to rail about "liberal hate." Any criticism of the Bush administration was labeled as hate speech. People more thorough in their reading of news who were capable of exercising some modicum of independent thought could easily see that the claims of weapons of mass destruction were contrived as a reason to go to war on Iraq. Reports coming from weapons inspectors and the foreign media made these claims suspect. Yet those who opposed the war were said to be unpatriotic and traitors to America.

When Dick Cheney went into closed door session with energy company executives to formulate energy policy, some people protested the secrecy and total absence of public information. They were dismissed as Bush haters.
Still today those who opposed torture as a tactic that will come back and bite us in the throat are dismissed as people who would sell out their country to a few paltry scruples. There was a hatred of dishonesty, of incompetence, and of a total self-serving greed that has damaged and threatened the U.S. more than any outside enemy. There was a derision of Bush's intellectual abilities and his belligerence. What was termed "Bush bashing" was the routine response to a regime that went to war as a ploy to martial an uncritical spirit of patriotism and to the realization that the public was being duped. Some of us called Bush and his supporters fascist. That is because what they did, said, and professed fit the definition of fascism as it has been established by history. They believed in pre-emptive war, torture, government by the rich, and the systematic defamation of those who might not buy into rule by intimidation.

The regressives, the champions of ignorance and mindless meanness, have filled the air with shouts of fascism, socialism, communism, and all the other names they can think of. And plain old racism keeps erupting in some of the opposition comments. Many in the regressive sector are in a furor over the fact that an "n" is in the White House, and an uppity one at that.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich notes the circumstances of the hate campaign against Obama:

What is this fury about? In his scant 145 days in office, the new president has not remotely matched the Bush record in deficit creation. Nor has he repealed the right to bear arms or exacerbated the wars he inherited. He has tried more than his predecessor ever did to reach across the aisle. But none of that seems to matter. A sizable minority of Americans is irrationally fearful of the fast-moving generational, cultural and racial turnover Obama embodies — indeed, of the 21st century itself. That minority is now getting angrier in inverse relationship to his popularity with the vast majority of the country. Change can be frightening and traumatic, especially if it’s not change you can believe in.

We don’t know whether the tiny subset of domestic terrorists in this crowd is egged on by political or media demagogues — though we do tend to assume that foreign jihadists respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the words of their most fanatical leaders and polemicists. But well before the latest murderers struck — well before another “antigovernment” Obama hater went on a cop-killing rampage in Pittsburgh in April — there have been indications that this rage could spiral out of control.

This was evident during the campaign, when hotheads greeted Obama’s name with “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” at G.O.P. rallies. At first the McCain-Palin campaign fed the anger with accusations that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” But later John McCain thought better of it and defended his opponent’s honor to a town-hall participant who vented her fears of the Democrats’ “Arab” candidate. Although two neo-Nazi skinheads were arrested in an assassination plot against Obama two weeks before Election Day, the fever broke after McCain exercised leadership.

He notes how the hate incitements have created the circumstances in which the wingnutjobs have been moved to committing public murders.

But hyperbole from the usual suspects in the entertainment arena of TV and radio is not the whole story. What’s startling is the spillover of this poison into the conservative political establishment. Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan G.O.P. chairman who ran for the party’s national chairmanship this year, seriously suggested in April that Republicans should stop calling Obama a socialist because “it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.” Anuzis pushed “fascism” instead, because “everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.” He didn’t seem to grasp that “fascism” is nonsensical as a description of the Obama administration or that there might be a risk in slurring a president with a word that most find “bad” because it evokes a mass-murderer like Hitler.

The Anuzis “fascism” solution to the Obama problem has caught fire. The president’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and his speech in Cairo have only exacerbated the ugliness. The venomous personal attacks on Sotomayor have little to do with the 3,000-plus cases she’s adjudicated in nearly 17 years on the bench or her thoughts about the judgment of “a wise Latina woman.” She has been tarred as a member of “the Latino KKK” (by the former Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo), as well as a racist and a David Duke (by Limbaugh), and portrayed, in a bizarre two-for-one ethnic caricature, as a slant-eyed Asian on the cover of National Review. Uniting all these insults is an aggrieved note of white victimization only a shade less explicit than that in von Brunn’s white supremacist screeds.

The fact that words are expressions of intentions and have consequences has been lost on large segments within the GOP. The results of words can have effects that go far beyond a malodorous detraction in church. They can be the symptom of a deadly malignancy. The smell of rotting morality pervades the environment.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States