Who’s “Anti-American” Now?

On July 15 while visiting Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had her motorcade pelted by tomatoes and shoes by a mob of angry protestors. You don’t have to be a charter member of the Hillary fan club to be bothered by this. They weren’t just attacking Clinton; they were attacking the U.S. itself, as evidenced by the nature of the signs they bore. And what starts out as footwear and a fruit often mistaken for a vegetable quite easily could develop into shoe bombs and bullets.

But what makes the incident particularly interesting is that — again, as evidenced by the signs — the mob was angered over a mistaken impression that the United States had interfered in Egypt’s elections. Egyptians, it appears, are just as capable of gullibility as Americans.  And they got that false impression from some of Clinton’s fellow Americans — specifically, from several character assassins who are obsessed with bringing down President Obama and anyone connected with him at all costs.

Most conspicuously, the rumor mill was cranked up by some of Clinton’s fellow government officials. Five members of Congress, all Republicans (surprise!) sent letters to intelligence and security officials, warning them of a vast Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate the U.S. government, singling out Clinton aide Huma Abedin, whom they alleged had “ties” to the radical group Muslim Brotherhood.  (Abedin subsequently has fielded death threats.)

Foremost among them was Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who has a long history of making batshit loony utterances — and then denying it ever happened when she gets called on it  (As Jon Stewart so hilariously points out, Bachmann’s own “ties” to the Muslim Brotherhood are much more direct than Abedin’s.)

This time, her remarks were so over-the-top that even several of her fellow Republicans chastised her. (If you thought today’s GOP was just one big loony bin, you weren’t entirely correct.)  As Ron Reagan, son of the supposedly quintessential “conservative” put it, “If crazy were people, Michele Bachmann would be China.” Speaker of the House John Boehner at least paid lip service to adulthood, noting that “I think accusations like this being thrown around are pretty dangerous.”  Nonetheless, he declined to consider removing her from the House Intelligence Committee, commenting that “I don’t know that that’s related at all. ” (What the hell’s she doing there in the first place? And if you don’t know a simple thing like that, what the hell are you doing there, John?)

Arizona Senator John McCain was more blunt, and more eloquent:

When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.

Even one of her former advisers urged her to put a sock in it and apologize. Instead, she made another unfounded allegation of terrorist ties against Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. In the eyes of many right-wing extremists, you see, all Muslims are potential terrorists.

But not to worry, Bachmann has plenty of fellow loonies who are willing to back her up. Glenn Beck  even gave her a radio forum to encourage her.  There are lots of people out there who equate (their own) ideology with patriotism and everything else with anti-Americanism. Unable to grasp the fundamental fact that there are other American values besides their own, they conclude that anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideology is hell-bent on bringing down the country.

Just recently I saw a sticker that said “I’m anti-Obama because he’s anti-America”. There may be plenty of good reasons for being anti-Obama, but they do not include regarding him as “anti-America” because his values are different from yours. Actually, most Obama haters really don’t have values that different from Obama’s; they’ve just been conned into believing they do. Many of them spend too much time listening to the likes of the ever-adorable Sarah Palin, who just recently stated:

So if Obama is reelected, well, America, you will no longer recognize the country that today you truly love and can enjoy all of its freedom and prosperity and security if Obama is reelected because this “ObamaCare” is a harbinger of things yet to come.

And the ever-quotable Bachmann has said:

I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?

Remember, this woman keeps getting elected, so it appears that someone out there is actually voting for her. She has a support base of people who denounce as anti-American anyone whose principles or policies they don’t like, yet they enthusiastically support someone who actually incites — through dishonest claims — riots against American officials. The irony is so thick you could use it for a hockey puck.

(Incidentally, Rachel Maddow offers a brilliant commentary on this incident, and in the process illustrates the typical difference between left-wing punditry and right-wing punditry — “we love our village idiots” vs. “these scumbags are destroying America”.)

Propaganda Prop # 2: Flag Waving

When the 112th Congress, freshly perked up with newly elected Tea Party darlings, convened this week, they did something that had never been done before: they read the entire Constitution on the floor of the House. The whole thing. No, really. Well, except for, um, the parts they didn’t want to read.

In a sane society, the common reaction to such grandstanding would be disbelief if not outrage. After all, the time for reading the Constitution is long before you even decide to run for public office, not after you come to town to do the job on the taxpayer dime. But instead, the typical reaction was, “How nifty. Somebody in Washington is finally paying attention to the Constitution.”

Which is, of course, precisely the reaction they wanted. They were making good use of another common technique from the propagandist’s toolkit: flag waving – i.e., wrapping oneself in the cloak of patriotism. Patriotism itself is nothing objectionable, mind you. It becomes propaganda when patriotism is equated with a particular partisan ideology. And in contemporary America, that almost always means “conservatism” (which in truth is anything but conservative, but that’s another story).

But there is certainly nothing new about the tactic itself. Back in 1775, Samuel Johnson remarked that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.  To which others have replied that it’s actually the first. Neither is strictly accurate; flag-waving is not the most commonly used propaganda technique. In fact, we hadn’t planned to cover it so soon, but sometimes a timely news item like the one above serves you something so delicious you just have to feast on it. On the other hand, it’s not the last thing propagandists would think of using, either.

The objective in wrapping your ideology in a star-spangled cloak is not just to make yourself appear patriotic, but to make those who do not wholeheartedly support your ideology appear unpatriotic. The Teabaggers want not only to present themselves as champions of the Constitution but also to suggest that certain policies of the current administration (especially “Obamacare”) are somehow unconstitutional. Democrats could either refuse to support the reading of the document (in which case the Republicanoids would say “What do you have against the Constitution, anyway?”) or go along with it (in which case they could say, “Aha! Why didn’t you think of this?”) Either way, brilliant ploy.

Every now and then, as if to validate the maxim that nothing is so enduring as a bad idea, certain right-wingers demonstrate their reverence for the Constitution in another way: proposing to alter it in order to ban flag-burning. That’s right: a political faction that loudly proclaims its support of “limited government” and personal liberty wants to give the government power to dictate how individuals might use their own property when it’s adorned with the very emblem of that liberty. The mind reels.

Just how big a problem do you suppose flag-burning is, anyway? When was the last time you ever even heard of an American citizen burning the flag? Thirty years ago? Forty? But there’s one prediction you can take to the bank: if they ever do succeed in passing such legislation, there will be THOUSANDS of flag burners in the streets to protest it. And virtually all of them will be genuine patriots who never would have imagined they’d do such a thing, but feel it’s their duty to challenge such idiocy.  (I might even be the first to strike a match.) Surely even Glenn Beck can figure that one out. But then, the real objective is not to protect the flag (as if there were only one in existence) or liberty; the real objective is to present themselves as morally superior by being patriotically superior.

This kind of tactic has been a right-wing staple at least since McCarthy, who under the pretext of ferreting out communist spies and subversives, put stars in his own crown by persecuting anyone who varied in the slightest from the conventional mold – which potentially included everyone.  And all you really need to know about most of today’s right-wing extremists is that they regard McCarthy as an unjustly maligned hero. Never mind that he destroyed the lives of countless innocent people; he was on the “right” side, so he was a demigod. (Ironic historical footnote that will no doubt be deemed as irrelevant: Yes, Virginia, there were a few communists lurking around. And how many did McCarthy actually find?)

In the post-Cold War world, it has become difficult to label your fellow Americans as communists without making yourself sound like a total ass (which doesn’t stop some from doing it anyway), so the usual approach is to tone down the epithet to “socialist” instead. (Neither communist nor socialist is really synonymous with un-American, but just try explaining that to a Tea Partier.) It’s not unusual for them to brand the president as a communist, a socialist and a fascist all at once, blissfully unaware of any contradiction.

James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, allegedly summed up the attitude by saying, “I never use the words Democrats and Republicans. It’s liberals and Americans”. More recently, Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann channeled McCarthy by declaring, “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.”

Just take a good look at the right-wing websites, books, magazines, newspapers and TV programs, and you’ll see the same theme hammered on over and over and over: “Liberalism” (whatever that may be) is evil, and “liberals” hate America. That has become the very backbone of contemporary “conservatism”. Consider just a few in the seemingly endless stream of vituperative book titles: “Treason; Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror”; “Let Freedom Ring; Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism”;  “Deliver Us From Evil; Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism”; “How the Left Swiftboated America; the Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History”.

The latter is especially interesting. It says that it isn’t just adherents of a particular ideology, or those who reject a particular ideology, who are un-American. Even criticizing one single person constitutes an attack on America itself – if and only if that person happens to be a Republican. In contrast, right-wingers who attack Barack Obama, even in the vilest and most childish terms, generally label themselves as “patriots”. Today’s “patriots” jeer when the President of the United States is awarded a Nobel Prize, and cheer when he fails to bring the Olympics to America.

And then there’s this literary gem: “The Real America; Messages from the Heart and Heartland”.  Got that? It’s only the “red” states that make up the real Amurrca.  Ask any of Sarah Palin’s admirers (and apparently she does have some) just what she has to offer of value besides being within spittin’ distance of Russia, and the answer you’re likely to get is that she’s a “real American”. You know, as opposed to those plastic Americans who have less reactionary views. Sarah herself is at least savvy enough to cash in on the divisive rhetoric, referring to small towns as “what I call the real America… very patriotic, very pro-America” areas of the country. You know, as opposed to the false America of those elitist metropolitan areas where people think they’re special because of their geographical location, and where major media outlets allow prophets like Palin to get their message out to Real America.

As publicity stunts go, perhaps the reading of the Constitution in Congress is harmless enough. It only cost taxpayers a million or so, and just think, that dough might have been squandered on something totally frivolous like school lunches or public libraries or even (shudder) saving the lives of a few impoverished children through communist/socialist/Marxist/Nazi/Muslim/Klingon healthcare. Maybe the Tea Party will even absorb some of the things the Constitution actually says, to root out what they fantasize it says. (Huh? The Second Amendment is really about militias? Gee, who knew.)

But don’t bet on it. Most likely, it will have exactly the kind of PR payoff they hoped it would. This is indeed the Real America now. And it’s a land where demagoguery, bitter partisanship  and “patriotic” polemics reign supreme. Get used to it.