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Posted by on Aug 7, 2009 in Media, Politics, Society | 29 comments

A Descent Into Ugliness

Nancy Pelosi has been roundly mocked by the right for her comment to a reporter about Republican opponents of health care reform carrying swastikas, but she was telling the truth. And that is far from the only evidence of dangerously high levels of thuggishness on display at townhall meetings and political events across the country, where even Blue Dog Democrats are being treated to behavior more reminiscent of rabid dogs than rational human beings.

Joan Walsh documents the insanity:

Who’d have imagined that our first black president would turn out to be a Nazi? Just when you think political discourse can’t any uglier, Rush Limbaugh is comparing President Obama to Hitler and calling all Democrats Nazis, while the frothing right-wingers turning Democrats’ town halls into “town hells” routinely refer to Obama and his supporters as “brownshirts.” Right-wing blogger Steve Gilbert has transformed Obama’s healthcare reform logo into a Nazi symbol by cleverly adding a swastika; meanwhile, some Republicans insist Democrats are lying about “town hell” rowdies carrying signs with swastikas, but they’re the ones with a problem telling the truth.

If you thought right-wingers’ claim that Obama is a racist was projection, here’s another case study for psychology students everywhere. At district meetings Democrats are being shouted down by angry mobs inflamed by corporate interests spewing lies about healthcare reform — Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil was hung in effigy. Rep. Tim Bishop needed a police escort to his car, Rep. Brad Miller reports death threats, while Republican Todd Akin of Missouri joked — to cheers from his GOP audience — that his Democratic colleagues “almost got lynched” by the “town hell” rowdies. Glenn Beck is joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi’s wine — but it’s the Democrats who are Nazis, fascists and brownshirts. Got it.

It was just a few years ago that MoveOn was pilloried — by the mainstream media, not just the right — when a couple of filmmakers used Bush-as-Hitler imagery in a video contest. MoveOn quickly took the videos down and apologized, but the controversy boiled for days. Sure, some on the left continued to refer to the administration as fascists or as Nazis, but they were mostly marginalized. Now two of the biggest right-wing pundits, with huge megaphones on the radio and Fox News, call Obama Hitler, and the media mostly shrug.

Glenn Greenwald puts up the video of Rush Limbaugh on his show today equating Pres. Obama and Nancy Pelosi with Hitler and the Nazis. He (Glenn) provides a dozen examples — specific examples, with quotes — of that storm of outrage that greeted MoveOn’s implied comparison of Bush to Hitler. Tomorrow, he plans to ask as many of those people as he can reach for their reaction to what Limbaugh said today.

And then there is the plastering of posters all over Los Angeles depicting Pres. Obama as the Joker. Right-wingers can sneer all they like about how the posters are just saying that Obama is a “joker” because his campaign message of hope and change was “false advertising,” but the fact is the Joker — especially as portrayed by the brilliant Heath Ledger — is a psychopath who kills and terrorizes: Just the perfect image to play into 400 years of white racial fears of the crazed and violent black criminal.

Philip Kennicott has a good article in today’s Washington Post about the ways in which the anonymous poster campaign exploits and manipulates centuries of racist white fears about black people — especially black men (emphasis is mine):

Between Jack Nicholson’s 1989 portrayal of the Joker in “Batman” and Heath Ledger’s 2008 characterization in “The Dark Knight,” something sinister happened to the villain’s iconic makeup. What had been a mask, with the clearly delineated lines of a carnival character, became simply war paint, and not very well applied.

The visual change signaled a change in the Joker’s inner mechanism. Nicholson’s dandified virtuoso of violence was replaced by a darker, more unpredictable and psychotic figure. What had been a caricature became more real and threatening. An urbane mocker of civilized values became simply a deformed product of urban violence.


The Joker’s makeup in “Dark Knight” — the latest film in a long franchise that dramatizes fear of the urban world — emphasized the wounded nature of the villain, the sense that he was both a product and source of violence. Although Ledger was white, and the Joker is white, this equation of the wounded and the wounding mirrors basic racial typology in America. Urban blacks — the thinking goes — don’t just live in dangerous neighborhoods, they carry that danger with them like a virus. Scientific studies, which demonstrate the social consequences of living in neighborhoods with high rates of crime, get processed and misinterpreted in the popular unconscious, underscoring the idea. Violence breeds violence.

It is an ugly idea, operating covertly in that gray area that is always supposed to be opened up to honest examination whenever America has one of its “we need to talk this through” episodes. But it lingers, unspoken but powerful, leaving all too many people with the sense that exposure to crime creates an ineluctable propensity to crime.