It’s one of the long-running jokes in recent American cultural history. You might remember Rodney King – in 1991 a whole lot of LAPD officers beat him to a pulp, and it was a rather protracted process. But they didn’t know they were being videotaped by a civilian in the distance. The tape was pretty damning, and it looked like a clear-cut case of police brutality and use of excessive force and all that, as King was flat on the face on the ground for most of the time, enduring the hundreds of slams from the batons and big police flashlights, unable to do much about it. When the tape surfaced the LAPD went into full defensive mode – this wasn’t sadism, or a power-trip run amok, or racism, even if King was black and all the cops were white. No, King had been resisting arrest, and also, they were dealing with someone who posed an immediate threat to their lives, even if King was unarmed and in a near-coma rather quickly – or it was disorderly conduct on the part of King or something – so it wasn’t their fault. They had to do what they did, for twenty or more minutes.
Of course, the whole thing finally went to trial, but as things were hot, there was a change of venue. They trial would not be in Los Angeles – too many people were hot and bothered, one way or the other. You’d never seat an impartial jury. So the trial was moved, but out to all-white Simi Valley, at the edge of the county, just before you get to Ventura. As that’s where a lot of LAPD officers actually lived, the jury found the cops innocent of any and all charges. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots followed that – much of the city burned to the ground, and Hollywood Boulevard was in flames. A later federal trial for civil rights violations ended with two of the officers found guilty and sent to prison, for thirty months, and two officers acquitted, but it didn’t matter much by then.
Of course, as Los Angeles burned, some enterprising newsman decided to ask Rodney King what he thought of what was happening. To be clear, King was a bit of a street thug and not too smart, but he did utter that classic line – “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”
That was the joke, and that is the joke, as we all know the answer. No, we can’t. And now when someone utters any variation of that line – Can’t we all just get along? – the irony is thick and heavy. King said those words to the cameras as Los Angeles burned behind him. All he had to do was turn around. The answer was there. No, we can’t.
But of course we now have a president whose approach to everything can be summed up in his campaign theme and what seems to be his personal and political philosophy – Yes, we can. Maybe he needs to turn around. Or read any news report, like this from CBS News’ Brian Montopoli – “Republicans and Democrats have been going back and forth in recent days over the nature of the disruptive protests now popping up at Democratic town hall meetings around the country.”
Here’s one – protesters shout and scream and stop the Democratic congressman or senator from saying anything. The Montopoli item concerns the website Operation Embarrass Your Congressman, but that’s just a little slice of it.
And Think Progress offers some background – they have this memo by Bob MacGuffie of FreedomWorks, which lists “best practices” for “rocking the town halls.” Basically, spread out, make noise, and shout down the speaker. Don’t let him say anything. FreedomWorks is a lobbying firm headed by former speaker Dick Armey – he represents AIG and insurance firms and such. They’re not happy with the idea that there might be any sort of healthcare reform. They seem to be organizing all this.
Of course, Republicans will have none of that – the protests are an organic response to the Democrats’ healthcare plans. And they’re pissed that the Democrats are saying the protesters are a “mob” of “extremists.” The polls are wrong, the whole country hates the idea of any healthcare reform, and thinks Obama is a fool, and want things to stay as they are. This had to happen. The “best practices” memo doesn’t mean anything – all these things would have happened anyway.
The Democrats see it differently – this is an organized effort, organized by the insurance companies’ lobbying firm, to stop all discussion of reform. They’ve poured a lot of money into inciting chaos, encouraging those who love to shut others up, and they want their money’s worth. Chaos, meetings with constituents disrupted or shut down or cancelled outright – that’s what they’re paying for. In fact, you’ve got people now shouting down everyone else at meetings with curious chants – What’s wrong with profits! What’s wrong with profits! And there are chants about lowering corporate tax rates. That’s a very odd sort of populism.
Of course it had to descend into scuffles and mild violence – and the odd folks shouting that Timothy McVeigh was a true American hero and Obama the Antichrist and so on. A lot of folk are waving Bibles – the rich and powerful are obviously God’s chosen so don’t mess with God’s clear judgment.
And there are the threatening phone calls, like the ones in North Carolina to Congressman Brad Miller – if he doesn’t change his mind and oppose healthcare reform he will be killed. Miller referred that to the FBI – but he wasn’t planning on any town hall meetings anyway. He’s no dummy, even if such calls may be protected as all part of political free speech. Ann Coulter has, after all, called for the assassination of a Supreme Court Justice, Stevens, and the bombing of the New York Times’ building in Manhattan, and she’s been on the cover of Time. It’s just a way of making your point.
Here in California, as Josh Marshall notes, Mike Thompson caught some of all this as some right-wingers, on their own or part of Dick Armey’s Army, in a town hall meeting Monday night, as the Napa Valley Register reports here:
Speaking in a packed church, Thompson and other speakers were met by shouts of “This is America!” and “What’s wrong with profit?” as they also tried to answer questions from supporters and critics in the audience.
The display was unwelcome – and unsuccessful if it was meant to move healthcare reform supporters toward considering the concerns of the critics. Several callers to the Register on Tuesday reported they were repulsed by the aggressive tactics of some members of the crowd.
To the degree the catcalls, chants and shouts were organized – and it appears from events around the country that they were – we strongly suggest that the organizers find more constructive ways to get their message out.
Marshall is collecting such things – this stuff has him worried. He’s pleased to see some Republicans are not willing to play along.
But he’s not pleased with this from MSNBC’s Chuck Todd:
If you’re a reporter who covered politics back in 2005, you know this pretty well: Brad Woodhouse and Americans United (funded by organized labor) helped defeat Bush’s Social Security reform. They organized protests, ran TV ads, and held town halls to get members of Congress on the record on Social Security. All of which seems ironic now that Woodhouse – the current communications director at Obama’s DNC — issued a statement yesterday denouncing the conservative “mobs” at Dem town halls. “Republicans and their allied groups … are inciting angry mobs of a small number of rabid right wing extremists funded by K Street lobbyists to disrupt thoughtful discussions about the future of health care in America taking place in congressional districts across the country,” he said. And now the DNC has upped the ante, producing a Web video, entitled “Enough of the Mob,” that conflates these protests with the so-called “birthers.”
Marshall argues that Todd is only half-right:
The Social Security supporters who showed up at Bush town hall meetings and those held by Republicans and wavering Dems in 2005 didn’t show up for ‘thoughtful discussion’, to put it mildly. They knew exactly what they thought. They were trying to make the opposition to privatization very clear, make their voices heard, etc. And most specifically they were trying to pin members down on just what their position was because most wanted to fly under the radar and didn’t want to face the full public exposure of their willingness to phase out the program.
But give me a break. They just weren’t doing what these teabag crowds are doing at a lot of these events, which is basically appearing en masse and doing chants and yelling to shut the meetings down. I don’t think I’ve yet heard a case where one of these teabag crews actually pressed a member of Congress on a specific policy position. I have no doubt it happened. But it doesn’t seem to be a big part of the plan.
So something is both the same, and different:
Politics, as they say, ain’t bean bag. And more than that, real political engagement is not and should not be a debating exercise. There’s organizing and rough-and-tumble. That’s not an unfortunate concession. That’s how people with strong beliefs peacefully hash out their differences in a democratic society. But, c’mon, showing up as a mob and shouting people down is showing up as a mob and shouting people down.
Don’t run away from it. And reporters making a false equivalence do themselves no favors.
But Marshall does go on to point out that Chuck Todd did report this:
A person who was involved in those anti-Social Security reform protests back in ’05 tells First Read that they discouraged civil disobedience, frowned on arrests, and coached their people to stay on message. Indeed, these anti-Obama, anti-Dem protests do pose a potential risk for the GOP, especially as we see images of devil horns on a relatively popular congressman from liberal Austin, TX, Nazi “SS” references, and even protestors now joking about Chris Dodd’s cancer.
But Todd only reports that because he says it’s good to see “an enthusiasm from Republicans that we haven’t seen in years.” Todd likes enthusiasm in all its forms – he’s not too picky.
And conservatives like James Joyner are doing the parallel thing, saying that both sides have their crazy people:
There’s plenty of crazy to go around. Remember Bush Derangement Syndrome? The 9/11 conspiracy theorists who thought Bush and Cheney were in on the whole thing? The Diebold plot to steal the 2004 election? Should we judge the Left by the whackos that show up at the anti-trade rallies? PETA? Greenpeace? Of course not. Almost by definition, the people motivated and available enough to show up in the middle of the day to express their outrage about something are not like you and me.
Professional intellectuals surround themselves with likeminded folks and get the idea that they and their cohorts are the norm for their group whereas the crazies on TV are the norm for the opposition. It just ain’t so.
So don’t assume the other side is crazy – as he concedes that there are “a lot of angry nuts on my side of the aisle.” You don’t “judge the left by the whackos” – he doesn’t. And he hopes the left returns the favor.
Steve Benen comments:
That sounds a like an entirely sensible approach to modern politics. But I think James is making an important mistake, which I hear/see frequently, especially from major media outlets. The conventional wisdom is that the left has some nut-jobs, and the right has some nut-jobs, but this is unrelated to political mainstream of both major political parties. Wacky liberals said ridiculous things under Bush; wacky conservatives are saying ridiculous things now. Move along; nothing to see here.
But it ain’t so, as he cites Kevin Drum:
Now, obviously there’s some truth to this, but there are a couple of things that have struck me about the recent surge in conservative nut-balls. First: there are just a whole lot of them. The Diebold folks couldn’t even get a hearing at Daily Kos, let alone anywhere more mainstream. The 9/11 truthers have always been a tiny band. And most of the people who believed Bush “knew about 9/11” just thought he had been warned something was coming down the pike. There was never more than a trivial handful who thought he literally knew the details and deliberately let the plot go forward.
Second: the conservative lunatic brigade appeared so goddamn fast. It’s true that some precincts on the left went nuts over Bush, but anti-Bush venom didn’t really start to steamroll until late 2002 when he was making the case for war against Iraq. Nobody drew BusHitler signs after he signed NCLB [No Child Left Behind] or called him a war criminal for signing a tax cut. It took something really big to create a substantial cadre of big league Bush haters.
Conversely, the conservatives who think Obama is a socialist, or think Obama was born in Kenya, or think healthcare reform is going to kill your grandma, or think Obama is going to take all your guns away – well, that stuff started up approximately on January 21st, if not before. And it’s not just a weird 1% fringe. There are a lot of conservatives who believe this stuff. And there wasn’t any precipitating cause other than the fact of Obama’s election in the first place.
Benen calls it “the mainstreaming of Republican radicalism.”
…the line between fringe right-wing stupidity and the Republican/conservative mainstream has all but disappeared. Vile nonsense may start on a Freeper thread, but it won’t stop there – the same garbage is invariably found on major far-right blogs (Malkin, RedState), prominent conservative magazines and newspapers (National Review, Weekly Standard, WSJ), talk-radio shows with huge audiences, Fox News, and far too often from elected Republican officials.
Whereas Dems kept the fringe at arm’s length, Republicans embrace the fringe with both arms. Both sides have nut-jobs; only one side thinks their nut-jobs are sane.
And of course, there was a time when things were really insane. Bob Somerby takes us back to the good old days of the nineties reminds us Clinton Derangement Syndrome:
Is this attack on Obama “simply nuts?” Actually, yes – it is, quite sadly. But the last time a Democrat went to the White House, the following beliefs were widely asserted – and those beliefs were clinically crazy too…
• As governor, Bill Clinton murdered many rivals. Hillary Clinton was involved.
• As first lady, Hillary Clinton was involved in Vince Foster’s death.
• As governor, Bill Clinton trafficked drugs through Mena, Arkansas.
• Bill Clinton was himself a major coke user. It’s why his nose is so red.
• As a graduate student, Bill Clinton visited Moscow because he was a Soviet agent (or something).
• The Clintons decorated the White House Christmas tree with condoms and drug paraphernalia.
Those beliefs were also clinically insane; they were widely trumpeted and believed all through the 1990s. Indeed, one of the nation’s most famous “Christian leaders” actively pimped the lurid film which detailed the many murders. He remained a cable favorite – and a Meet the Press guest.
Ah, you remember the cast of characters.
And see Harold Meyerson on the Birthers:
When future historians look back at this passage in our nation’s history, I suspect they’ll conclude that this Obama-isn’t-American nuttiness refracted the insecurities and, in some cases, the hatred that a portion of conservative white America felt about having a black president and about the transformation of what many thought of as their white nation into a genuinely multiracial republic. But whatever the reasons, a mobilized minority is making a very plausible play to thwart a demobilized majority.
He’s onto something, and as a friend from the South said in a recent email:
And the new twist, right wing radio and of course Fox News lead the gullible who are convinced they follow the truth. But at its truest core it is racial, and will be for the rest of our lives. Minds are spinning and legs are weak like it was in Reconstruction, we serve our commander-in-chief, who looks like a man who should serve us… sweet tea or something.
There is a lot of anger out there, at many things. And some can tap it for profit and power. But whatever it is, racial or economic or having to do with specific subsections of the tax codes as they apply to transnational corporations regarding profits and bonuses – it’s all change, and we do know the answer to Rodney King’s famous question. It seems we cannot get along.