In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, Rick Perlstein cuts to the chase. His piece is titled, "In America, Crazy Is a Pre-existing Condition."
After surveying "birthers, health care hecklers" and other contemporary manifestations of "right-wing rage," Perlstein reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun and takes us on a survey of the angry, delusional right-wing groups of earlier decades.
In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as "20 years of treason" and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America."
When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, his proposals to anchor America's nuclear defense in intercontinental ballistic missiles — instead of long-range bombers — and form closer ties with Eastern Bloc outliers such as Yugoslavia were taken as evidence that the young president was secretly disarming the United States. Thousands of delegates from 90 cities packed a National Indignation Convention in Dallas, a 1961 version of today's tea parties; a keynote speaker turned to the master of ceremonies after his introduction and remarked as the audience roared: "Tom Anderson here has turned moderate! All he wants to do is impeach [Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl] Warren. I'm for hanging him!"
Before the "black helicopters" of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a "civil rights movement" had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would "enslave" whites. And back before there were Bolsheviks to blame, paranoids didn't lack for subversives — anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists even had their own powerful political party in the 1840s and '50s.
Did you catch the delicious admission of the name of that one group? The National Indignation Convention. This was their purpose, their motive, their calling. To cultivate and savor a sense of indignation.
What I have been calling the Cult of the Offended once referred to themselves by almost exactly that name. Comparing the IndigNation of the past with that of the present, Perlstein sees many similarities:
The instigation is always the familiar litany: expansion of the commonweal to empower new communities, accommodation to internationalism, the heightened influence of cosmopolitans and the persecution complex of conservatives who can't stand losing an argument. My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.
So, crazier then, or crazier now? Actually, the similarities across decades are uncanny. When Adlai Stevenson spoke at a 1963 United Nations Day observance in Dallas, the Indignation forces thronged the hall, sweating and furious, shrieking down the speaker for the television cameras. Then, when Stevenson was walked to his limousine, a grimacing and wild-eyed lady thwacked him with a picket sign. Stevenson was baffled. "What's the matter, madam?" he asked. "What can I do for you?" The woman responded with self-righteous fury: "Well, if you don't know I can't help you."
The various elements — the liberal earnestly confused when rational dialogue won't hold sway; the anti-liberal rage at a world self-evidently out of joint; and, most of all, their mutual incomprehension — sound as fresh as yesterday's news. (Internment camps for conservatives? That's the latest theory of tea party favorite Michael Savage.)
THE NATIONAL INDIGNATION CONVENTION, one of the fastest growing of the new groups, was started recently by Dallas Garage Owner Frank McGehee, 32, to protest the training of Yugoslav pilots in the U.S. It has since spread across the country through supporting committees. With a keen eye peeled for "modern traitors" in government, the movement holds evangelistic-like meetings at which members have heard the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations condemned as "treasonous." along with suggestions for lynching Earl Warren.
The group's agenda also included the defense of segregation and opposition to the fluoridation of water. Really. These were people who would have cheered Gen. Jack D. Ripper's vehement defense of "our precious bodily fluids" in Dr. Strangelove.
The woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson with the picket sign was affiliated with the National Indignation Convention. Photojournalist Wes Wise, who captured that incident on film, reveals another revealing detail in Robert Huffaker's book, When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963. After the woman's assault on Stevenson was condemned nationally, the crazy lady offered what she considered an excuse for her behavior. "I was pushed from behind by a Negro," she said. There were, of course, no black people in the vicinity.
Throughout Wise's account, Stevenson comes across as unflappable. I picture David Niven playing the part. When a member of the IndigNation — Frank McGehee himself, actually — heckled and tried to shout down his speech in Dallas, Stevenson paused and said, "Surely, my dear friend, I don't have to come here from Illinois to teach Texas manners, do I?" The crowd cheered.
Stevenson may often have been, as Perlstein writes, "earnestly confused" by the irrational claims and behavior of his opponents, but his response to McGehee and to the crazy woman with the sign don't convey such confusion. He knew exactly what to make of those people: They were rude and irrational. The politeness of his rational response in both cases doesn't blunt the implication of those responses — that these people ought to be ashamed of themselves.
That's an example of what's often missing today in dealing with the IndigNation. These people are offended and outraged and so politicians and journalists respond by trying not to further offend or enrage them. As though that were possible. Indignation is their raison d'etre. They will take offense whether or not it is given. There is no point trying not to offend them. There is no point in trying not to make them angry.
An appropriate response isn't to be more offended or more offensive, but it should involve going on the offense. The IndigNationalists are behaving shamefully and it is appropriate and necessary to point that out to them. It's our duty
to point that out to them.
The appropriate and ne
cessary phrase when confronted by members of the IndigNation — by the birthers, the deathers, the baggers, the immigrant-blamers and homophobes and cryptoracists and misogynists — is simply to tell them the primary thing they need to hear: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Anyway, "In America, Crazy Is a Pre-existing Condition" by Rick Perlstein. Go read the whole thing.