The peasant mentality lives on in America
It took a good long while for news of the Teabag movement to penetrate the periphery of my consciousness — I kept hearing things about it and dismissing them, sure that the whole business was some kind of joke. Like a Daily Show invention, say. It pains me to say this as an American, but we are the only people on earth dumb enough to use a nationwide campaign of “teabag parties” as a form of mass protest, in the middle of a real economic crisis.
What’s next? The Great Dirty Sanchez-In of 2010? A Million Man Felch? (Insert Rusty Trombone joke here).
This must be a terrible time to be a right-winger. A vicious paradox has been thrust upon the once-ascendant conservatives. On the one hand they are out of power, and so must necessarily rail against the Obama administration. On the other hand they have to vilify, as dangerous anticapitalist activity, the grass-roots protests against the Geithner bailouts and the excess of companies like AIG. That leaves them with no recourse but to dream up wholesale lunacies along the lines of Glenn Beck’s recent “Fascism With a Happy Face” rants, which link the protesting “populists” and the Obama adminstration somehow and imagine them as one single nefarious, connected, ongoing effort to install a totalitarian regime.
This is not a simple rhetorical accomplishment. It requires serious mental gymnastics to describe the Obama administration — particularly the Obama administration of recent weeks, which has given away billions to Wall Street and bent over backwards to avoid nationalization and pursue a policy that preserves the private for-profit status of the bailed-out banks — as a militaristic dictatorship of anti-wealth, anti-private property forces. You have to somehow explain the Geithner/Paulson decisions to hand over trillions of taxpayer dollars to the rich bankers as the formal policy expression of progressive rage against the rich. Not easy. In order to pull off this argument, in fact, you have to grease the wheels with a lot of apocalyptic language and imagery, invoking as Beck did massive pictures of Stalin and Orwell and Mussolini (side by side with shots of Geithner, Obama and Bernanke), scenes of workers storming the Winter Palace interspersed with anti-AIG protests, etc. — and then maybe you have to add a crazy new twist, like switching from complaints of “socialism” to warnings of “fascism.” Rhetorically, this is the equivalent of trying to paint a picture by hurling huge handfuls of paint at the canvas. It’s desperate, last-ditch-ish behavior.
It’s been strange and kind of depressing to watch the conservative drift in this direction. In a way, actually, the Glenn Beck show has been drearily fascinating of late. It’s not often that we get to watch someone go insane on national television; trapped in an echo chamber of his own spiraling egomania, with apparently no one at his network willing to pull the plug and put him out of his misery, Beck has lately gone from being a mildly annoying media dingbat to a self-imagined messiah who looks like he’s shouldering more and more of the burdens of Christ with each passing day. And because he’s stepping into a vacuum of conservative leadership — there’s no one else out there who is offering real red meat to the winger crowd — he’s begun to attract not professional help but apostles, in the form of Chuck Norris (who believes we have to prepare for armed revolution and may prepare a run for “president of Texas”) and pinhead Midwestern congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a woman who is looking more and more like George Foreman to Sarah Palin’s Joe Frazier in the Heavyweight Championship of Stupid. Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!
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This new Holy Trinity of right-wing basket cases has been pushing all sorts of crazy hallucinations of late, from Bachmann warning that the Americorps program would eventually be turned into a regime of forced re-education for American youth, to Beck’s meanderings about Obama creating FEMA-run concentration camps to warehouse conservative dissidents, to Norris and Beck stirring up talk of secessionist movements. And a lot of people are having fun with this, because, well, it’s funny. It’s like a Farrelly Brothers version of right-wing political agitation. But it’s also kind of sad.
After all, the reason the winger crowd can’t find a way to be coherently angry right now is because this country has no healthy avenues for genuine populist outrage. It never has. The setup always goes the other way: when the excesses of business interests and their political proteges in Washington leave the regular guy broke and screwed, the response is always for the lower and middle classes to split down the middle and find reasons to get pissed off not at their greedy bosses but at each other. That’s why even people like Beck’s audience, who I’d wager are mostly lower-income people, can’t imagine themselves protesting against the Wall Street barons who in actuality are the ones who fucked them over. Beck pointedly compared the AIG protesters to Bolsheviks: “[The Communists] basically said ‘Eat the rich, they did this to you, get ‘em, kill ‘em!’” He then said the AIG and G20 protesters were identical: “It’s a different style, but the sentiments are exactly the same: Find ‘em, get ‘em, kill ‘em!’” Beck has an audience that’s been trained that the rich are not appropriate targets for anger, unless of course they’re Hollywood liberals, or George Soros, or in some other way linked to some acceptable class of villain, to liberals, immigrants, atheists, etc. — Ted Turner, say, married to Jane Fonda.
But actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit. Whatever the master does, you’re on board. When you get frisky, he sticks a big cross in the middle of your village, and you spend the rest of your life praying to it with big googly eyes. Or he puts out newspapers full of innuendo about this or that faraway group and you immediately salute and rush off to join the hate squad. A good peasant is loyal, simpleminded, and full of misdirected anger. And that’s what we’ve got now, a lot of misdirected anger searching around for a non-target to mis-punish… can’t be mad at AIG, can’t be mad at Citi or Goldman Sachs. The real villains have to be the anti-AIG protesters! After all, those people earned those bonuses! If ever there was a textbook case of peasant thinking, it’s struggling middle-class Americans burned up in defense of taxpayer-funded bonuses to millionaires. It’s really weird stuff. And bound to get weirder, I imagine, as this crisis gets worse and more complicated.