Wednesday, August 12, 2009

random thoughts from the archives

Coincidentally, I am researching the American Legion's anticommunist and nationalist record in the 1940s and 50s this week for a new chapter to my manuscript. Especially at the national leadership level the Legion was a dyed-in-the-wool McCarthyite organization. Every month the organization's magazine outlined a new sinister threat from the Communist conspiracy, often penned by the star witnesses of the HUAC and McCarthy hearings. The culprits are who you'd expect -- the press, Hollywood, universities, weak-willed liberals elsewhere.

There are not a lot of similarities, really, between the McCarthy period and either the Birthers or Tea Baggers. Nobody's been fired for liking national health care reform or for being a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party.

One thing that has struck me as I read these sources, though, is a similar sense of self-empowerment and self-righteousness among the Legionnaires and conservative activists today.

Ed Kilgore actually raised a similar idea in the New Republic today in comparing conservative activists to the rejection of welfare in the Reagan years, that "endowed some pretty ugly emotions with self-righteousness, and even a sense of victimization, for people who felt they were being punished for being productive. It seems clear that many of Obama's right-wing critics are motivated as much by moral judgments about the beneficiaries of his polices as by their alleged impact on the economy or the health care system."

Putting the issue of who "deserves" the fruits of health care reform aside for a moment, let me poke at this from a different direction. The relatively democratic nature of our political culture allows self-designated groups to claim special status as "real" Americans, as the quintessential citizens who uphold the ideals and values of the nation through their participation in public life. Such self-empowerment is derived from some kind of tacit approval from the larger society. In the case of my Legionnaires, it's generated from Americans' acceptance of the special citizenship status of veterans (which, of course, the Legion was careful to cultivate). The folks on the right today get their green light from the radically conservative drift of the GOP.

It's hard work to be such a special class of citizens, especially when so many people do not understand the fundamentals of the American democratic system the way you and your compatriots do. Special classes have to assert the power of their own example, or, conversely, cry out against the wrong-headedness of those driving politics in the opposite ideological direction. The real problem, though, is that most Americans really don't care one way or another, magnifying the power of the elites on the other side to drag the nation away from its core principles. Such apathy is incredibly frustrating and leads these self-empowered groups to hunker down even more. Convinced they alone understand Americanism and permitted in a democratic society to assert themselves they turn on their fellow citizens for being such failures. Criticism of such efforts by those who do not agree with their politics exacerbates the situation into one of self-victimization. (To read anticommunists claim that they are the real victims of McCarthyism because "Communists" say mean things about them challenges one's ability not to chortle in front of the microfilm reader. Kind of like hearing someone demanding government keep its hands of Medicare.)

So, to me, cries of "I want my country back," or "wake up, people," or "this is not the America I know," resonate with the past not out of some analogous political agenda but through this more fundamental sense of self-defined privilege in one's citizenship.

1 comment:

  1. That was well said and does a better job of explaining the emotions that have been triggered in this debate. Similar to the paradigm of whiteness in that there is a fundamental assumption that the baseline of what is normal and acceptable begins and ends with ones skin color, but that this assumption is so widely shared and reinforced by your community that it ceases to be an assumption at all and is just a fact - like grass is green and the sky is blue. But isn't this just part of human nature - the disinterest or refusal to imagine realities and experiences other than your own. On top of this we have the ethos of our consumer-based capitalism that tells us we should 'have it our way' in everything we do.