Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fear, Hate or Hope

I just finished seeing the new documentary on Lee Atwater entitled "Boogie Man". I love the way it picked apart the Republican political playbook. It is pretty simple, you spread fear with wedge issues and get third parties to promote the fears then deny the racism, hatred and fear you spread. And if cornered then you act like a Patriot and proclaim you are a victim of the elite media. It was simultaneously funny and nauseating to watch Tom Delay flash his creepy grin and say Lee Atwater's downfall came because he spoke the truth. Wow! No wonder Atwater got brain cancer. His polluted mind must have forced the grey matter to rebel and create a tumor just to hobble any chance of biological integrity in the face of such moral degradation.

It is hard to believe people believed this crap but I am reading a book by Reinhold Niebuhr entitled "Moral Man & Immoral Society" where he argues that individual desire for good gets clouded at a collective level due to social pressure. A reasoned person could hold fast to their sense of right but, "The individual character of conscience does not preclude the determination of most moral judgments by the opinions of the group. Most individuals lack the intellectual penetration to form independent judgments and therefore accept the moral opinions of their society. Even when they do form their own judgments there is no certainty that their sense of obligation toward moral values, defined by their own mind, will be powerful enough to overcome the fear of social disapproval."

The documentary's revelations had even more punch for me in light of this quote and because yesterday I engaged in a conversation with an old friend who is very conservative and a fan of guys like Hannity and Limbaugh. She is the type of person who believes America is some sort of New Israel where an Evangelical theocracy must happen as our birthright. It makes sense because she travels in circles that keep her well-connected to fellow Country Club Baby Boomers who have attached their narcissism to an odd form of white, wealthy bible living. Many seem to do so to reconcile the guilt left-over from multiple divorces and probably the joys found in mid 1970s key parties.

To be fair, they honestly feel a sincere sadness over abortion issues (and enjoy their money) so the Republican's pro-life, low-tax pledge becomes for them God's party. I share my friend's faith but not her politics nor her skewed historical perspective. It is hard to ponder Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson as willing members of a mega-church prayer group or the fact that all of the founding fathers ignored the pleas of real bible believers like the Quakers to abolish slavery at our founding. Our Judeo-Christian founders ignored the biblical pleas of a brotherhood of man because of course it wasn't economically expedient. So much for our history as a Christian nation eh?

After my conversation with my friend I could see how our historical collective moral blindness is alive and well and still at least partially wrapped in Atwater's cloak of fear.

She started spouting off to me messages that I had heard on evening newscasts during the pre-election hype but dismissed as silly. Maybe it is because I live in Illinois and a major city but I thought the belief that Obama is a Muslim, or a terrorist or a Socialist were ideas too absurd to motivate any type of acceptance. That was until I heard the raw fear in my friend's voice, "He's a Muslim!" "He believes we have 57 states. That's because there are 57 Muslim territories!!" "They hate us!!" "If he is a Christian, why did he change his name to a Muslim name?! Hussein!!! Hussein means sword!!!" "He said we would be a Muslim nation!!!" I couldn't believe it and strongly disagreed but didn't break through at all. Today I received an email about how Barack Obama had an American name Barry but changed it to Barack in college because he is a Muslim and no media is reporting this. I wrote back that in March Newsweek had done a cover story on this.

I am saddened by this continued fear that passes as faith and courage in our country. I also am humbled by President Elect Obama's intelligence to craft a communications strategy that obviated the Atwater plan by employing direct courage, calm and hope. There are generational dynamics at work here that Boomers won't get (primarily because their self-centered minds convince them of their right to be the authors of all social experience) but, the pragmatist X and pluralist Millennial generations don't take too well to fear. The former because they had to live with enough of it as latch-key kids watching their divorced boomer parents leverage it in their self-centered campaigns for love and approval and the latter because it is irrelevant to their sense of specialness.

Atwater admitted as he was dying that he didn't stand for anything and didn't believe anything he peddled. He also said that his strategy to use hate and fear to win elections damaged our country's collective integrity. Most conservatives who subscribe to Atwater's form of politics will be, as Niebuhr illustrated, blind to Lee's amoral power-lust because it interferes with the moral rationalizations that allow their comfort. I wish my friend would get this but anything that opposes the social construct she has created only seems to reinforce the strategy of fear and makes me duped by the conspiracy theory.

My hope is the hope that President Obama won with becomes a continued strategy for public discourse. I hope we empower our individual minds to question messages of fear and find a way to bend the collective mind to "hope".

But Niebuhr also said, "Power is poison" so, the Democrats could fall victim to the same hate that defined Atwater. At the very least we can all recite another Niebuhr classic when the going gets too hateful, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."