Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
I recently heard audio from one of the town-hall meetings held during the late summer. We all know the script: A lone member of Congress faces down a screaming, shoving and potentially violent mob of angry people.
I'd tuned the phenomenon out but reconsidered when a suburban friend told me about survival training he'll hold for nervous folks in his subdivision. He's no survivalist, but he figured that the meetings would help him teach neighbors how to get ready for an ice storm or hurricane. He added, however, that fear of social collapse or governmental tyranny fueled the fears in his cul-de-sac.
It's time to pay some serious attention to this clotted rage against the government. Perhaps we can even reach across a nasty divide that's opened during our ongoing economic crisis. I wish we could await the arrival of an economic recovery for tempers to cool. But the anger on display cannot wait, and now may be our state's moment.
Here in progressive, urban Richmond, such rage seems surreal. I never encounter these sorts of folks in Carytown or the galleries during First Fridays Art Walks. In fact, as I heard the town-hall tirades, I nearly spilled my shade-grown, Vienna-roast, fair-trade coffee in panic. We bohemian and bourgeoisie cultural arbiters all pretend to know the other side by now. We might look up a second from our Blackberries, sniff in condescension, then ridicule undereducated hicks marginalized in a meritocracy based upon educational achievement, professional networking, skill with technology, even fashion choices and body-mass index. We decry these screamers as rubes goaded on by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. Then it's on to the next e-mail.
I wish it were as simplistic as my peers in the Twittering class make it seem. At times I'm no exception; my rather spineless response to the town hall reflects my own paranoia about segments of the right. I wished, darkly, for cops in riot gear to pummel some of these malcontents. I was as guilty as my political opposites a decade ago, when they cheered on the beatings of protesters against global capitalism in Seattle and at Davos, Switzerland.
Such action breeds more discontent, and we have some professionally disgruntled folks in America who I'd rather not push farther into a corner. Among the anti-reform coalition are so-called birthers, many linked to militia movements, who deny the president's citizenship. Even Ann Coulter has denounced them. Yet with her own rhetorical strategies she aided and abetted their rise. These same folks so feared Obama's seizing guns that they hoarded small-arms ammunition until stocks ran low nationally. And scattered among this paranoia pack are probably a few madmen who won't stop to measure consequences. Think back to Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City.
Luckily for the rest of us, such backyard bin Ladens are mixed into a saner group, a mainstream citizenry we used to call a middle-class. These “real Americans,” as Palin calls them, have real grievances, including about such things as outrage about excessive deficit spending, outsourced jobs and the financial elite's role in fueling an economic crisis without parallel since the 1930s.
I'm hoping that these stressed-out taxpayers who were shouting down members of Congress are the very ones who might listen to reason. First, reforming health care is a meritorious cause, and how we go about it without hurting each other should be open to democratic and civil debate. Second, both left and right have reasons — albeit different ones — to fear an overreaching government, and they should act up, but do so peacefully. Anger tempered with a dose of humor — think of that very first tea party — and civil disobedience, with an emphasis on civil, can work well in a democracy. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax and spent a night in the local slammer. Grievances against the state, however, need the backing of social justice to become ennobled; Thoreau refused because his tax supported slavery. In the debate over health care, however, a common argument runs: “I'm insured! I might have to pay more taxes! Let the poor go to Patient First!”
The rhetorical power of such statements comes from a privilege under threat, not from reasoned discourse.
Virginia used to have a reputation for measured response to crisis, even when it picked poorly; we were, after all, one of the last states to make the wrong choice and leave the Union. We also have a more recent history of punishing elected nincompoops whose bigoted remarks appear on YouTube. So now is time to take the high ground before potentially violent and racist rage. Our Congressional delegation should lead and make a bipartisan declaration denouncing not the mob, but its rabble-rousers. Certainly a rising star in the GOP like Rep. Eric Cantor has the power and political capital to lead a call for decent, measured debate. Sen. Jim Webb, one of a few Democrats able to speak to and for rural white Virginia, should join Cantor in this.
The signal myth at play here, and one easily debunked by both parties, holds that reforming health care is a socialist scheme to undermine American values. Some complex mess, in place of our current complex mess, seems a likely outcome, not socialism. If a compromise covers our uninsured and my taxes rise a bit, so be it. I'll settle for compromise over combat any time. Not so for Machiavellis like Grover Norquist, tea-party zealots and the potential McVeighs hidden among us.
While we still have time, Limbaugh's fans might turn Rush off for a bit and Utne Reader readers might set aside their iPhones to experience vicariously the consequences of not backing away from rage. I recommend picking up Nathaniel West's satiric “The Day of the Locust.” Near the end of this 1939 novel, an unruly crowd, fresh from the California suburbs, turns into a mob.
An Everyman named — no joke — Homer Simpson joins a throng of people in Hollywood waiting to catch a glimpse of movie stars. Homer, who's as big a loser as the cartoon patriarch he inspired decades later, makes a tragic mistake out of anger, and this spark makes the powder keg explode. In an apocalyptic riot, the disgruntled mob vents its rage and frustration at being losers in a land that ignores them.
They turn on the screaming Homer, pulling him down by his open mouth and trampling him.