The IndigNation

The IndigNation August 16, 2009

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.)

Perlstein's op-ed had me rushing to Google "National Indignation Convention" to learn more about this delightfully named wingnut association. That led me to a Dec. 8, 1961, article from Time magazine titled, "The Ultras," a fascinating and far-ranging survey of the many groups of that time who regarded Barry Goldwater as a communist sympathizer. It includes this summary of the NIC:

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.

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  • Kathleen F.

    Kit: Your country is about as special as every other country, which is hardly a criticism.
    No argument here. I think what most people were objecting to about Ambrosia’s statement was that it implied that the failings of America (which are many) come from a unique flaw in the American national character. That’s not “about as special as every other country”; that’s a claim that America is vulnerable to moral failure in a way that no other country is. I’m no fan at all of American exceptionalism, but it goes the other way: I don’t believe America is exceptionally good (even potentially; I think most other countries have equal potential to be awesome), but neither is it exceptionally bad. It’s kind of a stretch to suggest that the phrase “adolescent temper tantrum” doesn’t imply some kind of unique badness (and furthermore, a unique badness that has been present from the country’s very conception, rather than the result of the confluence of several alarming cultural phenomena over the last few decades).
    What America *is* is exceptionally powerful, which means that the bad things that it does have far more terrifyingly devastating consequences than the bad things that less powerful countries do. That makes it a fair target for plenty of criticism, but I have a hard time believing that any other country with an equal amount of power wouldn’t do equally horrible things. Generally, I think that the existence of superpowers is a very bad thing for the world, but they seem to have been an inevitable feature of the international landscape for the past century or two. Undoing that won’t be easy and may bring worse stuff. Who knows?

  • Spearmint

    I thought Uncle Sam was a 19th century invention, originating around the time of the civil war.
    War of 1812, quoth Wikipedia. But it may have been Brother Jonathan I was thinking of in that cartoon; I just remember the U.S. being represented as some leering fellow in a hat and goatee, trying to get into Canada’s pants. (Presumably the cartoonist was British or Canadian.)
    Canada primly snubbed him, so Homer wasn’t wrong…

  • Coming in late with random points (some links removed in case of spam filter)…
    @Karen, Aug 17, 2009, 05:40 PM:

    I really, really want a sane Republican party. Eisenhauer managed to marginalize the frothers of his day, but there isn’t anyone with the equivalent credibility or courage today. I’m a Democrat and likely to remain so, but it’s really bad for the country to have one entire political party in the hands of the delusional.

    I’m a Republican chiefly for that reason, despite being left of Obama on many issues, particularly human rights. (I am sympathetic to Megan McArdle’s health-care arguments, however.) If in the future the Republican Party has gone the way of the Whigs, I’ll switch.
    @lonespark, Aug 17, 2009, 02:05 PM:

    When people do that that I notice (Angry White Doods who are thankfully not here this morning) they don’t even say they’re kidding. They just say you can’t get mad cuz it’s a joke. Even though the entire point of the joke is that certain people deserve to die or be mistreated. IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE THAT, IT’S NOT FUNNY!!!

    As a black dude with a white dude friend who tells racist jokes (rot13’d for your protection: jung qb lbh fnl gb n oynpx Wrj? Tb gb gur onpx bs gur bira!), I think I have to step up and defend him here.
    If I understand it rightly, the humor in modern racist jokes is like the humor in Too Soon (TVTropes) jokes – it’s funny because it’s wrong. To quote a much smarter (and funnier) person than myself:

    It is magnificent, isn’t it? You see, the thing about shock… is not that it upsets some people, I think; I think that it gives others a momentary joy of liberation, as we realized in that instant that the social rules that constrict our lives so terribly are not actually very important.
    – John Cleese, eulogy for Graham Chapman, 6 December 1989.

    I can’t say with confidence that it’s ever morally permissible to tell such jokes, and it’s downright irresponsible to tell them when they’ll be taken ha ha only serious, but I believe the motivation is often much less ugly than one might suppose.

  • jmaccabeus

    …You linked to TVTropes. There ought to be some sort of punishment for that, really.

  • Idivinev

    I think that we could do a lot more good for a lot less money if we stopped “helping” and just fixed out broken drug policy.
    Yeah, and we could stop doing drugs.

  • jmaccabeus, I did warn you, although that might just upgrade it to Schmuck Bait.
    *runs away*

  • Lori

    Yeah, and we could stop doing drugs.

    And monkey’s could fly out of our butts, but that’s not likely either.

  • Tonio

    What drives them up a wall is that these people think they’re *equal*.
    Or *normal*, which amounts to the same thing – the unconscious assumption that whiteness is the default skin color. Even the word “ethnicity” carries with it unconscious assumptions about Other.
    (Not that religous, actually. In original sentiment, closer to “In God we Trust, All others pay cash.”)
    Would you explain? I’ve never heard of that. I had speculated that the motto stemmed from the same theocratic sentiment that led to the amendment of the Pledge in 1954. (If I’m being unfair to the Knights of Columbus by referring to the sentiment as theocratic, tough shit – this is my country too, dammit, and no religion should get that type of endorsement.)

  • Fraser

    I dunno, Robin, I’ve seen very little racist humor that’s funny because it’s transgressive/un-PC, it’s mostly supposed to be funny because the jokester is at best tone deaf. For example, the florida doctor who photoshopped Obama into a witchdoctor outfit to show what Obamacare would like look: Either he’s resorting to some kind of ignorant savage stereotype or he’s completely clueless.
    I thought Blazing Saddles was hysterical, but you don’t see much like that these days. Or any like that.

  • Well. The Thursday flame war has arrived a couple days early. Good thing I had a busy day at work today…
    On making tinfoil hats: There’s a knitted tinfoil hat pattern on Ravelry. Srsly.

  • Robin Z –
    There is a fascinating and subtle difference between racist-flavored jokes that are heard as ridiculing the racist, Colbert style – embodying the pathological attitude to show how pathological it really is – and racist-flavored jokes that are heard as colluding with the racists. And I can’t entirely put my finger on when a joke crosses the line–nor whether, as a white woman, I have the right to try to define it. I can only say how a joke strikes *me*, and the joke that you ROT13’d up there, it felt like the former sort. The conflation of two terrible prejudices into one uber-bigotry somehow crossed the line into absurdity and therefore parody, in my ears. I’m not sure at all how universal my hearing of it is, though.
    Did I ever do the “compare & contrast these two child rape jokes” bit, here? It’s probably the best example I know of. The difference is much more clear-cut, right in the wording. And, well, we’re not exactly fighting off an influential movement of crypto-pro-pedaphiliacs; the distaste for the subject is well-nigh universal. I only wish racism had as low an approval rating as child rape.
    So. Stop me if you’ve heard these before.
    Joke 1 (told by a friend of a friend, while drunk, to prove that he finds anything funny): Q. What’s the best thing about raping a three-year-old? A. Hearing the pelvic bone crack.
    After he told that one, a lot of us sort of edged away or laughed nervously. After he left the party, we had a bit of a post-mortem discussion on why that joke was Not OK. What I came away with was this: The very formulation of the question invites the listener to collude with the enthusiastic rapist, which feels slimy and bad. Also, the answer doesn’t cross into the sort of absurdity that sounds like parody; it just sounded plain horrific.
    Joke 2 (shared by someone in that discussion as an example of a similar-themed joke with opposite intent): So, a man is fucking someone, and she’s all, “Stop, you’re hurting me. Stop, you’re hurting me!” and he’s just ignoring her, just pounding away without a care in the world, until finally she says, “Please, stop, this is excruciating!” And at this he does stop, and he looks at her, and he says, “‘Excruciating’? My, that’s a big word for a five-year-old!”
    I think Joke 2 manages to hold the rapist up to condemnation by means of making the girl’s age an unexpected reveal rather than part of the set-up. The reveal exposes the man, and invites the listener to share in being appalled that there are such monsters in the world.
    I am not claiming my analyses to be objectively correct. I’m just trying to explain my own experience of two different types of Jokes About Really Bad Things. There are racist jokes that approve of racism, and there are racist jokes that disapprove, condemn, ridicule, and parody racism. And context, of course, is important.
    …Thoughts? Flames? Death sheep?
    PS. Have joined the Second Life group, but have not actually been on when anyone else in it is online that I know of. Haven’t had a lot of time to hang out yet, having only just got back in town from Stuff. I’ll try to drop by Grizzy’s sooner or later.

  • Fraser 09:47 PM and Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little 10:02 PM: You’re absolutely right, of course – there really are racist jokes that are purely horrible. (And I’m quite sure my friend would be thrilled by Child Rape Joke #2, although I’m really not the kind of person who can tell it properly. #1 is definitely … slimy – it revels in wrongness, rather than driving it so far from anything sensible that it comes back from the other side. CrossesTheLineTwice, on TV Tropes, and I’ll omit the link for the sake of your sleep schedules.)
    Yeah, I guess that makes the issue more subtle – the joke is offensive, in that it breaks out of social norms (Q: How does every racist joke start? A: *looks around furtively*), but while it’s out there it shows just how wrong it is, out there. #1 fails because it fails the Poe test: it looks like something that could be said seriously – it’s not ridiculous. #2 is, and being ridiculous, it’s … funny ‘cuz it’s wrong.
    Geez, it’s way past my bedtime. You people are just too interesting!

  • Erl

    Re: Helping others is imperialism.
    I’d say the test is how “others” feel about it afterward. The Kosovo intervention, I understand–and I may well be misled–was wildly popular.
    Or, to take a more complex example, South Korea. South Korea would, if the US was a genuine empire, be considered some sort of tributary state. We still control their military in times of war. And some of their population chafes under that, and resists our presence. But their democratically elected government gets annoyed when we withdraw too many troops. So I have trouble understanding our presence there as malign, even though we do kinda have a lot of troops on foreign soil.
    I figure, as long as there is a legitimate and pressing need for evil to be fought, there’s no reason not to show up, on the side that we believe is right. I know that this sort of rhetoric lends itself periodically to abuse, but I don’t believe this excuses our moral obligation.
    Maybe a better superlative for America is not “Best” but rather, “Most.” The most wealthy, the most militarily powerful. We worked hard (and got considerably lucky) to become both of those, and I see nothing wrong with taking pride in them. The problem, I think, is assuming that material benefits confer a moral power.
    In other words, I agree, more or less, with everyone as regards general principles. But in terms of implementation, well. I think there are things America alone is capable of, with its Mostness, and that some of them should be used.

  • Ambrosia said:

    The American experience is (IMO) like a spoiled adolescent running away from home whereas the Canadian one is more in the nature of a young adult coming to a mutual decision with the parent that it’s time to move on.

    Uh, Ambrosia? Fellow Canadian here, and you’re dead wrong. If you want to use the parent-children analogy, America is the child who got kicked around, exploited, and then called ungrateful and spoiled for its trouble; it stormed out for good reasons, and later on both sides decided that blood is thicker than water and some mutual overtures of friendship were made. (This is not to say that America didn’t develop some deep-seated issues which it really needs to work out.) Canada, on the other hand, was the child which got favoured out of fear that if it wasn’t, it would take the side of its other parent in the bitter divorce-and-custody battle.

  • Mommybrain

    Late to the party and haven’t yet read all the comments so this may have been said much more eloquently elsewhere, but it seems to me the chief difference between IndigNation and now is that the wackos own the media and are all over my TV.

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  • I think that in the US you are definately more welcoming of immigrants than we are in the UK.