Fear and Loathing in Ohio

The passage of health care reform legislation in the House of Representatives last weekend was met with such a crescendo of hyperbole and vitriol on both sides of the political aisle that even William Shatner thought, "Jeez, tone down the theatrics.”

The passion is understandable but in some cases has crossed the bounds of political rhetoric and into strange and dangerous territory. In the last week, there have been multiple reports of death threats made against elected officials who voted for the bill’s passage.

Slaughter, a Democrat who chairs the House Rules Committee, said a caller to her office last week vowed to send snipers to “kill the children of the members who voted yes.” …

Mike Troxel, an organizer for the Lynchburg Tea Party, posted what he believed to be Perriello’s home address on his blog this week, sarcastically urging other tea partiers to stop by and “say hi and express their thanks regarding his vote for health care.”

The address turned out to be the home of Perriello’s brother — who has four children — but Troxel told POLITICO he didn’t intend to remove it from his blog. “If they would like to provide me with the address of Tom, then I’d be more than happy to take it down,” he said. “I have no reason to believe it’s not his house.”

It’s tempting to dismiss these as isolated incidents and those who perpetrate them as fringe crackpots. I’m sure some of them are. But their anger and fear are far from isolated. I’ve often wished that carbon dioxide were visible, so we could actually see how much of the stuff we emit. I now wish the same for the flow of powerful emotions (and don’t talk to me about mood rings, okay?)—that we could somehow see when and how love and fear were passed from person to person. In these days of economic, environmental, and social uncertainty I bet fear would hang over many of our houses, neighborhoods, cities in varying layers of darkness.

The contagion of fear and anger can infect those you might least expect. Take the case of Chris Reichert who became an Internet sensation when he threw dollar bills hostilely at a man suffering from Parkinson’s Disease (video here: 1:15 mark). In the days following the incident, Reichert struggled to make sense of what he had done. He finally came forward to issue an apology.

"I snapped. I absolutely snapped and I can’t explain it any other way… He’s got every right to do what he did and some may say I did too, but what I did was shameful," Reichert said. "I haven’t slept since that day… I made a donation (to a local Parkinson’s disease group) and that starts the healing process."

Reichert said he is not politically active. He said he heard about the rally on the radio and a neighbor invited him to attend. "That was my first time at any political rally and I’m never going to another one," Reichert said. "I will never ever, ever go to another one."

Thanks to the massive reach of television and radio talk show hate-mongers, and the untold number of websites calling for violence and sedition, these days you don’t even have to leave your house to join a mob. The mob will come to you.

And don’t fool yourself in thinking that this is all just uncontrolled, and unorganized, populist rage. When nested fears meet vested interests, a cloud of discontent can turn into a raging storm. It’s instructive to look at the role that corporate-minded special interest groups like Americans for Prosperity have played in the healthcare debate. 

In early November, thousands of protesters descended on Capitol Hill to hear Representative Michele Bachmann decry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “takeover’’ of health care. As they disembarked from their buses, they were greeted with doughnuts and coffee, and handed protest signs and talking points about socialized medicine. Few of the protesters were aware that a right-wing billionaire had paid for the meals, buses, or salaries of the helpful guides…

Across the New York social circuit, Koch is hailed for his donations to reputable causes, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But for years, Koch has also been funneling tens of millions of dollars to more subterranean efforts that reflect his conservative politics. His flagship group, Americans for Prosperity, sponsored Bachmann’s rally against health care reform.

David Koch is the ninth wealthiest person in the United States, worth an estimated $14 billion. How did his family make all that money? Oil and gas, of course.

If Koch and others are feeding fear to protect the profits of health insurers, just imagine the kind of fomenting we’ll see when the stakes are even higher—when the energy and climate crises come front and center in the national debate. For a glimpse of what we could be dealing with, consider this: in 2008, just ten percent of the profits of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy company, could have funded the campaigns of every single Congressional, Senate, and Presidential candidate. By that I mean every candidate.

Forget coffee and doughnuts for rent-a-crowds. Forget the signs littering the Capitol Mall and the halls of Congress comparing healthcare reform to laws in Nazi Germany. The battle over our energy future could make all this furor look like a real tea party.

If this reads like fear-mongering, it’s not. All hope is not lost, but let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that this will be an easy fight. Thanks to the recent, lamentable Citizens United v. FEC decision by the Supreme Court ("a ruling that may make the hundreds of millions spent in past presidential and congressional elections look like a pittance"), it’s now abundantly clear who is David and who is Goliath. 

And our stone? Direct action. We don’t need buses to deliver us at the doorsteps of Congress and the White House. Or not only. What if we respond to fear and anger with a shrug and a trowel? As Rob Hopkins wrote in this brilliant post during the Copenhagen Climate Conference last December:

How would it be if we all took a very different tack, if the approach of activists was one of ‘practically modeling the world we want to see’? …We stay home and insulate whole streets, create community gardens, work meaningfully with our local authorities to do projects with them, eat local food diets for the duration of the conference, live without cars, insulate our schools, set up an area of the settlement in question as a model for what it would look like transitioned. We start bringing the future that we can imagine but which is still beyond the comprehension of so many, into focus.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to plug in to just such efforts. Our friends at 350.org are organizing work parties on 10.10.10 to make this very statement and, of course, Transition Initiatives are popping up left and right. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

image source: Huffington Post


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