Friday, August 7, 2009

Town-Hall Mobs and the Politics of Racism: Continuing to Make the Connections

Yesterday, I noted that there is a direct line of inheritance from white mob violence during the Civil Rights movement in the South, which sought to stop integration in its tracks, to the mobs now disrupting town hall meetings occurring across the U.S. I noted that the violence of angry white mobs in places like Little Rock in 1957 was orchestrated: well-organized, well-funded right wing groups disseminated lies to inflame the fear and rage of whites who felt they were losing control as racial mores shifted. Mob behavior was the predictable result of that process.

I remember some of the inflammatory literature circulated in my own high school in south Arkansas as integration began there in the early 1960s. For years, a friend of mine held onto the pamphlets, to document what had taken place in our little town in that time frame—in our churches, families, businesses, and schools; in all the local institutions in which these flyers were disseminated. If, years down the road, we doubted what people had been capable of in our own town, we pulled out those flyers and read them again.

They were lurid. They were shameful. They were full of lies. They traded on the deep fear of Southern white men that “their” women were about to be snatched away by sexually powerful black men. They showed blond white women dancing with very black men.

The pamphlets asked if this is what we wanted—because it was what we were going to get, if we didn’t fight for our Southern way of life. This racial mixing, the loss of our daughters and sisters to black men. Venereal diseases transmitted by school toilets. The mongrelization of the race.

I stated in yesterday’s posting,

Sound familiar? For anyone who lived through this period of Southern history, it is impossible, I suspect, to look at the rage-contorted faces of the organized mobs now shouting speakers down at town hall meetings and not call to mind what went on in our part of the country in the 1950s and 1960s.
The faces are the same. The tactics are the same. The goal—dissemination of lies to fuel fear and rage leading to social regression—is the same.

And today, I’m encouraged to see that I am not the only one who is getting the direct line between those racist demonstrations of the Civil Rights period in the South and today’s mobs disrupting town hall meetings. Frank Schaeffer has published a piece at today’s Alternet site noting the same connection.

Schaeffer knows the underbelly of right-wing mob behavior intimately. As he notes, he and his father were among the leading architects of religious-right mob activity in the 1970s.

Schaeffer notes the racial hysteria that lies just beneath the surface of the mobs seeking to disrupt town-hall meetings. In his view, the mentality underlying these demonstrations is apocalyptic: the white men who have called all the shots in this country for so long cannot accept their loss of power, and violence is their reflex response—violence designed to bring everything down, if they are no longer in control:

[Dick] Armey was once a decent guy, whatever his political views. How could he stoop so low as to be organizing what amounts to America's Brown Shirts today?
I think I know what happened to him, Gingrich and the rest: They can't compute that their white man-led conservative revolution is dead. They can't reconcile their idea of themselves with the fact that white men like them don't run the country any more -- and never will again. To them the black president is leading a column of the "other" into their promised land. Gays, immigrants, blacks, progressives, even a female Hispanic appointed to the Supreme Court... for them this is the Apocalypse.

And so we have organized interest groups doing everything in their power to inflame the rage of those who sense that they have lost control, disseminating lies to fuel the rage, encouraging those on the rampage to tell further lies, and to engage in violence if necessary, to stop progressive change. Just as happened in the 1950s and 1960s in town after town across the American South . . . .

Paul Krugman also catches the strong racist subtext of the town-hall meetings in an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. As he notes, the mobs and their organizers are employing precisely the strategy (and exploiting precisely the subliminal fears) that Nixon’s Southern strategy used to capture the loyalty of white Southerners to the Republican party:

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a substantial fraction.
And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.
Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.

He also notes that the new administration’s inability to energize its base, as the far-right fringe now comes alive with passionate intensity, may well create serious problems for the administration. If health-care reform fails because this administration has undercut the passion and conviction of its most loyal supporters through a politics of cool pragmatic calculation rather than moral conviction, we may be in for a very troubled time. And those who remember what happened in the 1950s and 1960s should know what is possible, when emboldened mobs full of passionate intensity are allowed to rampage freely while those who know better lack all conviction.