Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Poisonous Political Climate

"There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue."

Erich Fromm

During the presidential campaign my fear that candidate Obama might be assassinated was more abstract than real. However, in the past few weeks that fear has become real. When the Rush Limbaughs of America pollute the air waves with blatant lies questioning Obama's citizenship, when the irresponsible rhetoric of the Bill O'Reilly's and Glenn Beck's mobilizes people to shout down anyone who speaks in favor of the health care legislation, when demonstrators carry signs depicting President Obama as Hitler, my fear for the president's life ceases to be abstract and becomes very, very real.

If something should happen to the president, the mouths of hatred will be quick to deny that they had anything to do with it because they did not pull the trigger. And this is what is so despicable about these people; they refuse to take responsibility for their words; they refuse to acknowledge that speech is action, that words are not just words because words create emotions, and emotions get translated into actions.

I wanted to believe that Obama's election heralded the beginnings of a post-racial America. This may still be the case, and what we are witnessing from the Right represents the final outbursts of a thinly disguised racism. But this does not mean that serious damage is not being done to the atmosphere in which issues are discussed and decided. When one side has no interest in discussion, when one side has no interest in knowledge, when one side has no interest in listening, when one side has no interest in any truth other than what it deems as truth, when one side will say and do anything to maintain its narrow and self-centered view of life, it must be countered by those who envision a dynamic and creative society in which people listen to and learn from each other in an atmosphere of civility and respect. Wherever those who hate gather to disrupt, they must be met by the anger of those of us who will not permit thus hatred people to poison democratic ideals.

However, I find myself thinking about the political atmosphere in the country in 1963 when it was far from certain that the civil rights movement would succeed, when thousands of white people blamed President Kennedy for what they perceived as his compliance with the goals of the civil rights movement, which, as they saw it, was to destroy their "way of life". There was violence in the air then, and it expressed itself in the murders not only of John Kennedy, but Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.

There is violence in the air now, and I am afraid.

© 2009 Julius Lester