The town hall meetings being held across the country by Democrats to revive Obama’s gasping healthcare plan have opened a door that Americans from all corners of the political spectrum hoped would stay closed. This time around, the right may have gotten more than they bargained for.
Whatever opponents to Obama’s healthcare plan had in mind for the Democrats’ town hall meetings this summer, one thing is crystal clear: Those turning up at the forums across the nation are upset about a lot more than healthcare. Whether or not they’ve been duped by right wing talk radio hosts or, as one article posted at Common Dreams asserts, little more than "useful idiots," what is apparent is that by exploiting the most reactionary elements of the far right to mobilize their base, the Republican opposition has managed to unleash a far more sinister force than "anger over Obama’s healthcare plan" (that benign phrase so faithfully echoed in the mainstream media). In fact, if William Kostric, who showed up on August 11 at one such meeting in New Hampshire with a loaded 9 mm pistol strapped to his right hip is any indication, the already-feeling-marginalized classes who attended the meetings en masse are not only mad as hell, but they’re ready to do something about it.
Despite conservatives’ dismissive – and in some cases disdainful – attitude toward the left’s charges of, among other things, racism, it was pretty obvious on August 11 that protestors who showed up at the New Hampshire town meeting had their own agenda. Emboldened by instructions posted on right wing message boards by the same lobbyist-run groups who orchestrated the anti-Obama tea parties earlier this year, some felt free to blurt out epithets that most Americans thought – or at least hoped – had long since vanished from the American lexicon. And notwithstanding FreedomWorks’ Max Pappas insistence on the talk show circuit that his and other groups like them are ‘grassroots,’ a leaked internal memo reportedly put out by pro-industry groups Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks and subsequently posted at Governor Howard Dean’s website is revealing. The memo, titled "Rocking the Town Halls – Best Practices" spells out in no uncertain terms how members should be infiltrating town halls and harassing Democratic members of Congress:
"We here in Fairfield County Connecticut conducted an action at Congressman Jim Himes’ Town Hall meeting in May 2009," the memo begins. "We believe there are some best practices which emerged from the event and our experience which could be useful to activists in just about any district where their Congressperson has supported the socialist agenda of the Democrat leadership in Washington." Among the memo’s instructions:
– Artificially Inflate Your Numbers: "Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive with your questions and follow-up. The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington."
– Be Disruptive Early And Often: "You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early."
– Try To "Rattle Him," Not Have An Intelligent Debate: "The goal is to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down. Look for these opportunities before he even takes questions."
Thomas Jefferson, Meet William Kostric
Such explicit instructions go a long way toward explaining why the right wing, pistol-toting Kostric felt just fine about attending a town hall forum with his 9 mm on display for the whole world to see. It also explains why another white, middle-aged male felt perfectly safe spewing ugly hate speech through a megaphone. "Why are we bankrupting this country for 21 million illegals who should be sent on the first bus one way back from wherever they came from," he frothed. "Send them home with a bullet in their head the second time. Read what Jefferson said about the tree of liberty. It’s coming baby."
The vitriol doesn’t end there. The Hill reported that still another protestor in Hagerstown, Maryland on August 12, where Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was attempting without much apparent success to sell the Democrats’ healthcare plan, was spotted holding up a handwritten sign with the words, "Death to Obama" scrawled on it. It’s worth noting also that slave-owner president Thomas Jefferson, who back in 1787 penned the words, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots," is very popular with this crowd. The quote apparently worked for Kostric, who, along with his 9mm, carried a self-styled placard bearing the words, "It’s time to water the tree of liberty."
The socialist-branding of Obama by his opponents has further stoked the hate. "Throughout the first six months of his administration, President Obama – perhaps one of the most politically cautious leaders in contemporary history – has been routinely portrayed as a radical by his opponents on the far-right," observes anti-racist activist and writer Tim Wise in an article posted at CounterPunch.
Wise, who garnered my un-ending respect back in the 1990’s through a series of live on-air phone interviews during my days as a radio news producer, writes, "Reducing all government action other than war-making to part of a larger socialist conspiracy, the right contends that health care reform is socialist, capping greenhouse gas emissions is socialist, even providing incentives for driving fuel efficient cars is socialist. That the right insists upon Obama’s radical-left credentials, even as they push an Obama=Hitler meme only speaks to the special brand of crazy currently in vogue among the nation’s reactionary forces.
"It is not," he explains, "a simple belief in smaller government or lower taxes that animates the near-hysterical cries from the right about wanting ‘their country back,’ from those who have presumably hijacked it: you know, those known lefties like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emanuel."
An Unharmonic Convergence
Wise believes that what differentiates Obama from any of the other big spenders who have occupied the White House is "principally one thing – his color." And, says Wise, "it is his color that makes the bandying about of the ‘socialist’ label especially effective and dangerous. Indeed, I would suggest that at the present moment, socialism is little more than racist code for the longstanding white fear that black folks will steal from them, and covet everything they have the current round of red-baiting is based on implicit (and perhaps even explicit) appeals to white racial resentment Unless this is understood, left-progressive responses to the tactic will likely fall flat. After all, pointing out the absurdity of calling Obama a socialist, given his real policy agenda, will mean little if the people issuing the charge were never using the term in the literal sense, but rather, as a symbol for something else entirely."
Americans would do well to consider Wise’s words carefully as the health care fiasco all but consumes the first African American president. Properly managed by the left, conservatives’ tactics could just backfire – big time. Assuming no one gets gunned down in coming months – and that’s assuming a lot – it just might turn out to be a good thing that the right and their talk show poison-pushers have managed, by exploiting the simmering anger at the party base, to change the subject.
Despite the ongoing denial seemingly from every corner of the political spectrum, America’s history, as it turns out, still demands to be reckoned with. For better or worse, the ‘healthcare debate’ has unmasked (still again) the darkest corners and least explored aspects of American culture. And, shameful as they are, we will have to deal with them. Racism and violence are proving yet again to be powerful forces – and Americans can’t simply wish them away. They were only posing as a conversation about healthcare reform.
Sandy LeonVest is the editor and publisher of SolarTimes, an independent quarterly energy newspaper with a progressive slant. SolarTimes is available online at www.solartimes.org, and distributed in hardcopy throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Sandy LeonVest’s work has been published locally, as well as internationally, and includes 15 years in the news department at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, CA.