I was born, at slightly past the midpoint of the Twentieth Century, in the Deep South city of Birmingham, Alabama -- “The Heart of Dixie.” My earliest memories are of a time of societal upheaval and cultural trauma. At the time, as the world witnessed and history chronicles, Birmingham could be an ugly, mean place.
My father, employed at the time as a freelance photojournalist, would arrive home from work, his clothes redolent of tear gas, his adrenal system locked in overdrive, his mind reeling, trying to make sense of the brutality he witnessed, perpetrated by both city officials and ordinary citizens, transpiring on the streets of the city.
The print and media images transmitted from Birmingham shocked and baffled the nation as well. But there was a hidden calculus underpinning the architecture of institutionalized hatred of the Jim Crow South. The viciousness of Birmingham’s white underclass served the purpose of the ruling order. The city was controlled, in de facto colonial manner, by coal and steel barons whose seat of power was located up the Appalachian mountain chain in Pittsburgh, PA. The locals dubbed them the Big Mules. They resided in the lofty air up on Red Mountain; most everyone else dwelled down in the industrial smog.
These social and economic inequities, perpetuated by exploitative labor practices, roiled Birmingham’s white men with resentment. If they asked for higher wages, they were told: “I can hire any n*gg*r off the street for half of what I pay you.” In the colonial model, all the big dollars flowed back to Pennsylvania, and economic rivalry and state-codified delusions of racial entitlement, vis-à-vis Jim Crow Laws, was used to ensure the working class white majority rage at the ruling elite remained displaced -- their animus fixed on those with even less power and economic security than themselves. This was the poisoned cultural milieu, wherein George Wallace’s “segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever” demagogic dirt kicking caused the embedded rage of the white working class to pour forth like fire ants from a trampled bed.
In a similar manner, manufactured controversies such as the gay marriage and gays in the military dust-ups of the present time have little to do with gays or marriage or the military. These issues are served as red meat to arouse the passions -- and loosen the purse strings -- of the fear-driven, status quo-enabling, confused souls residing at the center of the black spleen of the Republican ideological base.
Although, as a rule, the right’s lies and displacements are most effective when liberals offer working people only bromides, platitudes, and lectures on propriety and good taste. Obama and the Democrats, time and time again, present demagogues with an opening the size of the cracks in Glenn Beck’s gray matter. Hence, the bigot-whisperers of the right are provided with a void that they can seed with false narratives; wherein, they are given free rein to cloud the air and clog the airwaves with palaver about fifth columnist threats from terrorist-toady mosque builders and gays in uniform undermining moral in the ranks by belting out show tunes in foxholes and impromptu shower stall instruction on the art of hand to hand sodomy.
Cultures are organic in nature. Combine the elements of the scorched earth policies of neoliberal capitalism, its austerity cuts and downsizing, plus the hybrid seeds of the consumer age -- and what alien foliage will rise from the degraded soil -- fields of right-wing AstroTurf. Add: industrial strength fertilizer. And see how our garden grows, with: Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin -- the mutant seed sprouted Chia Pets of corporate oligarchy.
Yet the idea of Beck and Palin leading a populist, pitchforks and torches style uprising in the US is sheer fantasy. Most Americans wouldn’t rally en mass unless they could bring their couches with them. It would look like The Prague Spring but held in a Rooms to Go showroom.
The recent demonstrations, in Washington, DC, attended by the ranks of the chronically discontent right, are about as populist as a vintage Soviet-era May Day parade was a celebration of the proletarian masses.
By the informal design of our present oligarchs and the self-referential nature of the corporate owned media, US citizens have the right to say almost anything that is on their minds, as long as it has little to no effect on the status quo. If there was ever a mass movement that effectively challenged the nation’s massive class inequity and threatened to rein in the excesses of the National Security State, it would be shut down faster than an open air, live sex show in the middle of Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
Moreover, the mid-life snit-fest engendered by the fading political power of the country’s white, middle class majority, as was the case with the racial resentment of the white underclass of my native Birmingham, serves the agenda of the moneyed elite. And its goals (which its rank and file seem ill-equipped to define, i.e., vague resentments and inarticulate rage, hardly constitutes an agenda for societal transformation and governmental reform) are equally as self-defeating in their ramifications for debt-beleaguered, economic security-bereft working people as were the racist displacement of rage embraced and perpetuated by the exploited, working class, white majority of the Jim Crow south. Working and middle class Republicans agitating for lower taxes for the wealthy is as silly as gaunt peasants, clutching torches and wielding pitchforks, besieging Louis XVI’s palace at Versailles, demanding their bread rations be cut so that the royal court could enjoy larger and more lavish feasts.
Part of the irrational fear arising from economically forsaken members of the white laboring class toward President Obama is informed by race. Another aspect of it is more inchoate, as evanescent as the nature of the man himself.
Obama seems no more real, nor connected with the concerns of their lives than any other ghost in the media hologram. But Glenn Beck’s flutterhead histrionics reflect their desperation. This is the seduction of any garden-variety demagogue: Although their narrative is fictive, even malevolent in its deception, the emotional tone resonates with the deep-seated, helpless rage and nebulous night terrors of their audience. Beck’s community theater actor’s ability to cry on cue and work himself into a lather of outrage and anguish reflects the inner desperation of his audience’s experiences regarding their powerlessness before the crushing, impersonal complexity of events.
My childhood, in Birmingham, bestowed the knowledge: do not underestimate the danger of ignorant, angry people in large groups.
The feelings of drift of contemporary life in the US: its media empires -- with content as weightless in meaning and resonance as the electrons that transport the images, and the Internet’s pixel fiefdoms, in combination with the ad hoc, fast-buck-driven architecture of suburban nothingvilles gives present day life in the US a flimsy, provisional quality.
President Obama’s aura of weightlessness, his quality of emotional remoteness, only exacerbates the nebulous sense of unease on the irrational right who think with their guts not their minds. Conversely, guns feel real to these adrift denizens of the nation’s spleenland. The weapon’s weight in their hands wards off their unfocused sense of dread; its heft, momentarily, mitigates the unease inherent in feelings of being helplessly unmoored . . . Looking down the precise beauty of its barrel distills hazy hatreds into identifiable targets. Momentarily, the ground feels solid beneath their feet. Hence, guns must be stockpiled; massive amounts of ammunition stored for ballast. The mystifying events of the era . . . so muffled by the white noise of uncertainty, must yield to something as clear and decisive as the crack of a rifle shot.
Human beings will never transcend being capable of dwelling in madness on a collective level. David Hare quotes Rebecca West, in the introduction to his play, The Secret Rapture: “Only half of us is sane: only part of us loves . . . [desires] happiness, wants to die in peace . . . in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable . . . and wants to die in a catastrophe . . . and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”
Because we, on a personal level, in most cases, chose the primary option, our hidden, shadow half can live out the latter on a collective basis. Empires gather their élan vital from such bacchanals of blood. Individually, the atomized populace of empire attempts to mitigate alienation by a vicarious revelry in violence; collectively, in the manner of any mob, from the road rage and carnage enacted on soul-devoid US interstate to the phosphorous-poisoned flesh of the people of Fallujah, the mob finds its collective comfort zone in catastrophe. Beck, Palin, and their followers are the empire’s human delivery system of The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Used as tools, by corporatists, to preserve the status quo, their hidden half might well serve as its wrecking crew.
The paranoid, domestic douchescape works in the service of the US created deathscapes overseas and vice versa in a self-resonating feedback loop. Therefore, whenever the neoliberal economic policies of corporate oligarchy and the empire’s ever expanding military industrial/national security/surveillance/prison complex are questioned, many conservatives personalize the critique. In their gut, they feel as if their identity is under attack. Consequently, the limbic system ascends to the throne of consciousness, as palace guards of casuistry defend the status quo. This could be termed Authoritarian Simpatico Syndrome (ASS) -- a pathology manifested in personalities who have been traumatized by authority, but who seek to assuage the hurt and humiliation by identification with their victimizer.
This phenomenon is what is at the root of the rage rising from the faux populist right: the ground level realities of life in the corporate state are vastly incommensurate with the capitalist hagiography they hold in their heads. Moreover, when one’s mental imprinting and social conditioning is challenged, one can find oneself in a bewildering place. Though the state is emotional in nature, it feels akin to being physically lost . . . same disorientation, same sense of panic. Many people were never given and/or didn’t develop a compass of logic by which to navigate the novel landscape that one is cast into when one’s sacred beliefs are challenged. This is why change is a long time coming, and when it arrives it will not be greeted fondly.