The rage being displayed at Town Hall forums is more than disturbing,
but by no means surprising.
When Barack Obama assumed the presidency we assumed (or at least hoped
for) a new era of civility. That,
of course, was never possible, certainly not by itself. Bitter dispute has been in the air and
systematically fostered for almost four decades. Ironically, while much of the current rage is coming from
the Right, it was the liberal columnist Tom Braden who is credited with
bringing its emblematic broadcast Crossfire to CNN. While Braden, who started the Left/Right dual on radio in
1977, died earlier this year, his opposite number Pat Buchanan continues to
spew vitriol in the cable world.
Crossfire set a tone, one that has been taken to its predictable heights
by people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly but also by Keith Obermann. It has also raised its ugly head on the
floors of the House and Senate and is a pervasive leitmotif in political
discourse at all levels.
Rage as a method of communication is corrosive. Shouters whether they be domestic
squabblers, schoolyard disputants or anyone else are rarely, if ever,
listeners. Rage is an often-irrational
emotional expression and it’s no wonder that it is so often accompanied by
illogical outbursts or purposeful misinformation. The whole idea is if we yell loud enough our opposite number
will be intimidated and as a result even accept our claims as fact not fiction. Sadly, it often works.
Pundits of all stripes are rushing to microphones and into “print” to
explain the underlying causes of this rage. Presenting themselves as objective rational and evenhanded
voices, they say that healthcare proposals, the current subject of rage, have
not been adequately explained.
They say Americans are unnerved by government takeovers (somewhat
exaggerated) of banks and auto companies and fear for our free market
system. They speak of underlying concerns
of White America who, despite voiced pride in the accomplishment, see the first
African American President as a token for their own projected loss of majority
status. All of this may explain
some of what is going on, but it is an of-the-moment rationalization, beside
Rage is who we have become.
It is a pervasive and debilitating national illness, one that needs to
be addressed before it becomes terminal.
It has been suggested that part of the problem on the Republican side is
an absence of leadership. In fact,
the leadership it has is playing a significant role in stoking the rage and one
can’t help but wonder (considering its self-defeating potential) to what
end. But again, blaming their
current situation is just another distraction. It’s not a one-sided partisan problem but what as become a
universal way of doing.
Some have suggested that quieting rage must be a prime objective of
the President. He should use his
extraordinary communicative skills to that end. I can’t disagree.
But in truth all of the burden can’t stand on his shoulders. The sad thing is that it isn’t only the
Republicans who seem to lack leadership; there is a widespread vacuum in that
regard. The country is bereft
of credible moral voices. Walter
Cronkite, not the man but a most trusted figurehead, is not to be found. To be sure we have individualized
social and religious leaders, but they speak largely to and for their own
constituencies. They lack national
name or face recognition. Everyone
is, or seems to be, a partisan.
None of those "evenhanded" voices we hear explaining rage are in fact
independent. They are but
Historians have long debated whether leaders make the times or whether
circumstance produce them. My
best guess is that it is a combination of both. One thing I do know for sure is that the first step is to
observe, to really listen. The
next, and this is an absolute requirement, is to look in the mirror. That may help us understand if we
ourselves are part of the problem, which is surely the case if only in our
silence. But the most important
thing we should be asking ourselves, and most especially those with a voice and
a potential following, is what are we going to do about this national rage? We had better do it soon.