Toxic Times

I returned to Indianapolis after a week of being blessedly unconnected to “the usual suspects”—otherwise known as the media/chattering classes/punditocracy—to find that the National Organization for Marriage had been through town. Some forty “pro-marriage” demonstrators had promoted loving relationships with signs suggesting that gay people should be murdered. One particularly nasty poster featured a picture with two nooses.

Lest the gay community feel singled out, our local Tea Party crackpots have added anti-Semitism to their toxic brew of pique and racism, handing out materials about the Jewish Bankers Who Control Obama, among other pleasantries. And I won’t even revisit the much-publicized and despicable effort by Andrew Breitbart and Fox “News” to demonize Shirley Sherrod, the African-American civil servant with the Agriculture Department by twisting her words to make a plea to get beyond racism sound like an endorsement of racism.

In short, these are not the best of times.

I know the drill: we are hurting economically, and at such times, intergroup tensions tend to be high. There is a desire to find someone to blame for what ails us, and that must be the person or persons with the different color, religion or sexual orientation. Choose your “Them.”

I have my own pop psychology take on what ails so many people these days. As I noted in last month’s column,  I think a lot of people who have fewer resources—emotional, intellectual, fiscal—find themselves a bit like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to a world that has changed while they slept. Suddenly, there is a black man in the White House. There is a woman (a strong one) running Congress, another one heading up the State Department, and it looks like there will be three women on the Supreme Court, all time-honored bastions of male privilege. Turn on a television set or go to the movies, and there are all these openly gay people acting as if they were entitled to be treated like everybody else. The local weatherman or news anchor has a name like Huang or Sanchez, and at the office, there are brown and black coworkers of various genders and orientations.

The whole world is different, and those without the ability to cope with the changes—or even understand them—are fearful and angry and confused.

What we are seeing right now is analogous to the tantrum a two-year-old throws when he is tired and frustrated and not getting his own way. That’s why the Tea Party doesn’t have a coherent complaint or policy agenda, why Fox “News” and the right wing blogosphere disapprove of anything Obama does—even when it is the same thing they approved when Bush did it—because that usurper did it!

Most of the anger and hateful behavior we are seeing is really just lashing out at a world that isn’t behaving the way it is supposed to—at least, in the reality inhabited by those who are angry and frightened. It doesn’t help that there are political actors with a personal stake in fomenting that anger and stoking those fears.

The question we are left with is: what do we do? What do those of us with a more inclusive worldview and a less apocalyptic agenda do to tamp down the ugliness and defuse the hate? I wish I had a quick and pithy answer to that question, but I don’t.

I do know one thing. Until our political landscape settles down, until cooler heads prevail, we all need to speak up: to call the hatreds out, to advocate for understanding and acceptance, and to remind the people who are still able to reason that all people are entitled to be treated as individuals and judged on their behavior, not their identities.