The theme here is simple. Let me wrap it up for you at the beginning. They are funny right up the moment when they are not. In the 50s and early 60s I lived right at the heart of it. Extremists fashioned the agenda simply by making themselves “more trouble than they were to people in the position to stop their idiocy. Rand Paul and his whack-a-mole kindred spirit, Sharron Angle make good TV. They give John Stewart and Stephen Colbert great material, and they give we left wingers someone to smugly and self-righteously dismiss.
Back in high school we had a Government teacher who was a stone-cold John Birch Society member. The John Birch Society was founded in Indianapolis at right about the same time my parents moved me to one of its suburbs. They were founded as an anti-Communist group, but like most other anti-Communist groups ended up defining a Communist as anyone who didn’t like their group. This teacher spent class time smearing Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and most of the other standard “red scare” targets with impugnity for years. I say this with only second-hand knowledge, because one of my proudest memories from high school was coming in late one year after a bout with mono and finding out he had refused to let me in his class.
Parents and one assumes educators and administrators laughed him off with a how-much-harm-can-he-do attitude at the same time that the school was squashing anything that even sniffed of left wing bias. As the years progressed, even as the red scare subsided, and professional baseball teams no longer had to fear calling themselves the “Reds” the Birchers and their ideological kin did everything they could to throw wrenches in the works. Honest restaurant owners even as late as the mid-seventies would apply for liquor licenses and have them refused because the committee was intimidated by the 200 or 300 right wing Christians who would crowd in and disrupt their meetings. Regretable, but “there are already enough places to drink, and this will get them off our backs.”
Well, the John Birch Society is still here and recently almost as popular as in its glory days. The woman the Republicans just chose to run against Harry Reid (not one of my personal favorites, but as far as I can tell living in this century) walks the Bircher’s political line. Major Republican politicians deny the existence of evolution science an are not held accountable. The Yahoos on the Texas Board of Education spray starch on American history, and the only response is jokes.
I write this, to be completely honest, not as the standard bearer of the solution but as the poster boy of the problem. The middle class and left wing response to this burgeoning right wing extremism is ironic detachment, self-congratulatory irony and snarky satire. The best advice I can give you on this subject is to avoid at all costs using me as a model! I write jokes; that’s how my mind works. I provide diversion and little else. But I interact daily with a generation of people made of greater substance–people who are better than me. They–you–have the energy and will to push back.
As much as I believe that people ought to be free to live how they want and believe what they choose, I draw the line at having them choose for me. People who want to push back have to do three things. First and most important, stop letting them define the terms of the debate. Dating all the way back to Reagan’s white wash in 1980, the right wing as succeeded in a concerted effort to get to decide what to call things. The left has become so defensive and scared of being tarred by GOP weasel words, that most won’t even admit to what they are. When someone uses the word liberal or progressive as a slur, the proper response is not to argue that it isn’t; the proper response is “You know better than that.” When people depend on the surface level propaganda of ten hours a day or talk radio, they are generally ill-equipped to go into much detail about what they believe. Someone needs to call them on it, make them say more. Make them come to terms with how little they actually know.
I am not in favor of returning harassment for harassment. Its not only unethical, its bad strategy. I am opposed however to allowing nonsense to go unchallenged. Being belittled and ignored just charges these people up. When their actions are brought to light of day, like they recently were in the case of the Arizona grade school mural, bad decisions get changed. When they do, we shouldn’t continue to vilify the people who succumbed to pressure, we should give them credit for seeing the light.
In the end it comes down to little more than realizing that we are not dealing with a temporary reactionary throwback here. Many of the grassroots people in these movements are well-intended and misinformed. I know some a lot of them and am pretty sure I have lost some valuable friendships to the cause. They are however committed. If they remain the only side that is committed the line that demarcates the “middle” is going to roll like a burning log over a lot of innocent people. It might be funny now, but before long this supreme court and the radical activists who are taking control of the states are going to close constitutional doors behind them. Then no one will be laughing.