Lately, GOP debate crowds have earned the reputation of being bloodthirstier than any mob since Constantine declared that Christians were for loving, not for feeding to wild animals. They erupted into cheers when Brian Williams reminded Rick Perry of the 234 prisoners he’d executed during his tenure as governor of Texas. When Wolf Blitzer presented Ron Paul with a hypothetical situation — that a 30-year-old man who, having knowingly declined to buy health insurance, becomes deathly ill — and asked whether society should let him die, audience members cried, “Yeah!” to general jubilation.
These reactions have a number of observers clutching their pearls. Slate pronounces the ejaculations during the Blizter-Paul exchange “an appalling mob-mentality moment.” While that’s true in a strictly technical, localized sense, it does no more justice to the American Right than, say, the Amanda Knox trial does to the American junior year abroad.
In making this call, I claim the advantage of having partied with the Tea Partiers back when they would have denounced tea as the drink of Eastern elitist NPR addicts. Over the course of seven years, from 2003 through 2010, I posted over 12,000 messages on a very popular right-wing discussion board. In time, the regulars adopted me as part of their loyal opposition. It was an experience analogous to being the sole U.S. citizen living in the midst of Lakota, or samurai, or Na’vi. If, at first, the natives horrified me with their savagery, they eventually won me over with their nobility. And I flatter myself that I won them over in my turn. Nobody came right out and said, “You, Dances with Big Government — stay’um in village with us! Take’um Ann Coulter (she still single!) for squaw! Make heap’um big fun!” But it was implied.
Anyway, I want America to know the Right as I came to know it. I can think of no better way than to list the categories of people whose deaths cause right-wingers to dissolve into bathtub-warm puddles of sensibility.
1. Animals. I know — I promised people, and we‘ll get to them. But ever since Sarah Palin came out in favor of aerial hunting, perceptions of right wingers and their relations with the animal kingdom have pleaded for nuances. As long as an animal is 1) domesticated and 2) cute, it could find no safer a haven than at a Heritage Institute picnic.
On our board, wedge issues sometimes caused tempers to fray; indeed, any thread on evolution or legalizing marijuana threatened to run on for weeks. To avoid having to suspend or ban any of the combatants, moderators would hunt all over the net for some instance of animal cruelty. Driven to high dudgeon inexpressible with words, men would post red emoticons spontaneously combusting with rage; women, large-eyed emoticons turned blue by sorrow. The ensuing catharsis would wash our differences clean, at least for the moment.
There was more than empty sentimentality at work here. A few years ago, two teenage girls set a kitten on fire, apparently for no other reason than they were bored. A couple of the regulars who lived nearest the crime scene made serious inquiries about adopting the stricken creature. (It turned out to have already found a home.) When a gang in the U.K. was accused of lynching a dalmatian from a lamp post, it was gravely proposed that socialism had corrupted the land of Churchill and Horatio Hornblower to the point where our nation’s special relationship with Britain might have to end.
2. Kids. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s really anything but. As much as conservatives deplore Roe v. Wade, they also reject the idealization of children as Spockian piffle. If a child deserves protection in its larval stage, it quickly pupates into a rotten little punk. Once, someone posted a thread about a boy who was barred from Little League for being able to pitch a ball 80 mph; he had devastated the opposition with such consistency that spectators could feel no suspense. Rather than lodge responsibility with the parents or the sponsors, or whoever was betting on the point spread, consensus blamed the kids themselves, who obviously hadn’t spent enough time out back, by the woodshed.
But having said that, conservatives do allow kids a brief grace period during which they can do no wrong. Perhaps not coincidentally, this ends not too long after the age of seven, at which the Church fixes the beginning of moral responsibility. As long as that window remains open, there flows tenderness that is as unguarded as it is disinterested. Whereas folks on the Left might praise a six-year-old in the hope of spurring her to claim the John M. Duff, Jr. Chair of Law when her time comes, their counterparts on the Right will chuck her chubby chin simply because she’s as cute as the dickens.
Whenever tragedy befell any child of that age, the board broke down. Naturally, foul play and neglect were the causes of death to which posters responded with the greatest inensity, but accidents and illness weren’t very far behind. Here, even emoticons failed people; to express their grief, they posted pictures of teddy bears, floral arrangements, and especially of angels. Catholics could be relied on to pony up with Our Lady of Sorrows. In their rawness, these displays were matched only by the murals painted by gang-bangers to commemorate their dead homies. They were maudlin in the purest and best sense of the word, meaning they recalled the grief of Magdalen, who stood at the foot of the Cross.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that Salon readers don’t mourn the deaths of children acutely, only that they might not be able to mourn strangers’ children with such coffin-tackling abandon.
3. Television stars of the ‘60s and 70’s. In 1961, FCC chair Newton Minnow scolded his way into history when he damned television as “a vast wasteland.” Compared to whatever entertainment Minnow grew up on — Homer’s Iliad, or the radio version of Amos ’n’ Andy — this might well have been true. But to the late-boomers who formed the board’s moral center of gravity, TV-land of Minnow’s time was a model of innocence to rival Eden itself. It was a place where men could share a desert island — or a Santa Monica condo — with two beautiful women and forbear from compromising the virtue of either. It was the place where Zelda Gilroy could repress her Sapphism and wrinkle her nose at Dobie Gillis.
The passing of any worker in this dream factory typically turned into something like a state funeral. With no hint of the irony that marks my generation — Gen-X — like a facial tic, bereaved fans would post, “Goodbye Mr. Denver!” or “Goodbye, Mr. Ritter! Thank you, sir, for all the laughs!”
If the departed had ever served in the armed forces, even in the safest, least glamorous capacity, saluting emoticons would proliferate until the mourning thread came to resemble Lord Nelson’s burial in St. Paul’s. The Navy veterans wished Don Knotts “Fair winds and following seas,” not because he’d ever served in the Navy — in fact, he’d served in the Army — but because they rated The Incredible Mr. Limpet an effective recruiting tool. When news got about that Mr. Rogers had not, pace urban legend, served as a SEAL sniper in Vietnam, it was like he’d died twice
For better or worse, these people may soon hold all three branches of government under their sway. That could spell the end of Obamacare; presidential addresses could start looking an awful lot like 700 Club broadcasts. From now on, when we see strangers explode into mirth, we may have to ask ourselves, “Who died?” At least we can rest assured it won’t have been Lassie or Timmy, much less their mother. Most likely, it will have been someone like Maynard G. Krebs.