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The Demons in Our Midst: Political Fear Mongering and the Coming Election

October 28, 2008

It gets dark earlier these late October days, and signs of the season are everywhere. In my neighborhood, inflatable Halloween witches and ghosts can be found dotting the yards as if lying in wait for little ghouls and goblins who will soon demand a “trick or treat.” Children, we know, love to be frightened, which makes October 31st one of their favorite and most anticipated holiday events.

As if taking this cue, at least one of the presidential campaigns and their supporters have gotten into the spirit of things. Dark forebodings about “the real” Barack Obama hover over the conservative blogosphere and airwaves like a thick brooding fog–and the McCain campaign itself has engaged in incendiary “robo” calls and misleading brochures. If you were to believe even half of what these outlets say you’d think a ravenous hound is about to emerge and rip still-beating hearts from the chests of Innocents. Their characterization of Barack Obama as a “closet terrorist,” a pedophile sympathizer and a would-be Marxist might inspire sheer amusement if the power of this primitive emotion called “fear” weren’t so powerful, and so deeply imbedded in our psyches from childhood.

I was always a kid who hated horror movies. Halloween was at the bottom of my holiday list. When I did ring bells for Snickers bars or Tootsie Rolls I always dressed up as Cinderella or Snow White. The one year I did go as a creature, I masqueraded as a “One Eyed One Horn Flying Purple People Eater.” But I did it so I could wear the lavender leotards, not because I intended to scare anyone. Nevertheless, most of my friends wanted nothing more than to don Dracula capes and leave girls like me clutching our fathers’ legs.

This year, decades after taking my own daughters up and down leaf- strewn streets for candy, the early darkness, the sting of cold air and the heightened sense of anticipation make me feel THE CHILL all over again. But this time the blood suckers are not the kids in costume, but the frenzied grown-ups telling terrifying political stories. Those purveyors of Grimm’s New Fairy Tales spin yarns on the internet and the radio about the arrival of an alien “other,” a person implanted here from birth with a diabolical mission to rise to power and subvert all that has been bright and American. This can be explained, they say, by the “fact” that Obama’s birth certificate never surfaced. (Then how did he get a passport? I ask myself.) 

Apparently it is not enough that our country and the world are in the grip of an economic crisis of historic proportions, and that we have a two front war underway. The Socialist boogie man has also come back from the dead, and is poised to rear his ugly egalitarian head. The prospect of his arrival has left listeners of Talk Radio and cable television trembling. Without unflagging vigilance, the hosts warn us, Socialism will snatch all we hold dear from our beleaguered and tentative grasps.

A sitting US Senator, Mel Martinez (R FLA), actually suggested that Obama’s ideas were “Communist,” and Senator Joe Biden was questioned by a media host about Obama’s Marxist views. Biden rightly asked if it was a joke. No wonder. Obama’s proposals are about tax policy, not about ending our system of private enterprise. Ironically the far-reaching government intervention into our financial system, which is currently underway, was advanced by a Republican Administration that Senator Martinez and Talk Radio have supported through thick and thin. These measures to nationalize much of our financial system have received bi-partisan support because their objective is to save our capitalist system not to destroy it. Facts like these, however, ruin the alarmists’ storyline, and don’t provide the adrenaline rush required to mobilize the base of a political party that has no new ideas.

Fifteen years ago I used to be a regular talking head on foreign policy issues. I always tried to be accessible to everyone from all ends of the political spectrum. Citizen dialogue and education, I believed and still do, are the cornerstones of a vibrant democracy. I was on Christian Broadcasting as well as Pacifica Radio—and every ideological outlet in between. On either ends of the political spectrum questions were often tough, but they were always respectful and there seemed to be a mutual gratitude that somehow moderates, like me, could engage them and talk about ideas.

Recent experience tells me how far we have come in the coarsening of our public discourse. I have appeared on many television and radio programs in the last few weeks which were hosted by people who questioned my decision to support Senator Barack Obama for President of the United States. Compared to my earlier experience, these interlocutors are much more argumentative, their questions are far more aggressive, and the subtext that begins many of these encounters is often based on the premise that if you don’t see things their way, you are either unpatriotic, uninformed, or simply a fool. I was forced to ask one of these talk show stars if he had actually invited me on the air so that he could ridicule me. The same host proclaimed that Former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, is a liar and doesn’t deserve to call himself a Republican. I provided a strong rejoinder to this, but was shocked all the same that anyone could say this about one of America’s great heroes.

We have had many chapters in American history with pages that testify to the sad fact that some Americans readily embrace “guilt by association” or “guilt by ethnicity, race or religion.” The Witch Hunt conducted by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s is a vivid case in point. But in the old days those who smeared others and destroyed their careers and reputations did so mostly for the maintenance or acquisition of power. Today money may be the new, most potent driver of this phenomenon. Our new Merchants of Fear live handsomely and many sit atop multi-media empires, raking in more and more money the farther to the fringes they go. They are entertainers, who titillate their audiences with dark songs of betrayal, subterfuge and sometimes even treason. Whether right- leaning or left-leaning these Weavers of Tall Tales do not have the Republic in mind as they spin their fiction. They know their customers. They know what sells. Like the children at Halloween stores, many in their audiences get unacknowledged excitement from preparing and waiting for the THING to go bump in the night.

As a youngster I eagerly awaited November 1, All Saints Day– that sun-filled morning that followed the night of staged horrors. I always marveled that the world looked like a very different place. The masks were gone and our neighbors were just neighbors again, not Ax Murderers, Frankensteins, or Jack the Rippers.

We can expect more Grimm’s Brothers stories before November 4th—more comments taken out of context, more innuendo designed to erode Obama’s support and besmirch his character. But the election will be held after the long night of October 31st is over—at a time when Americans will begin to turn their attention to our finest traditions embodied in Thanksgiving, the greatest of all our holidays. As we reach the voting booth next week, we should pause and look at our communities and be grateful that this country has produced fine, talented people who want to serve their country in this time of dislocation and crisis. And we should, we must, shrug off the fear mongers who have profited hugely from selling us an election season that had far too many devils and demons.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Emily Wussow permalink
    March 20, 2012 8:06 pm

    “IKE was the first president I was old enough to vote for and I could have written this myself.

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