The fear factory

How cynical politicians, Fox ‘News’ and talk radio are manufacturing anxiety and driving us nuts

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”
—Randle Patrick McMurphy, the main character in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962

Eric Severeid, a journalist back when that word meant more than it does in this era of Fox “News,” once observed that “the biggest big business in America is … the manufacture, refinement, and distribution of anxiety.” A steady diet of anxiety can make people crazy, and as a nation we’re obese with it, gobbling up a smorgasbord of fear and fretfulness that has grown larger ever since those planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center nearly a decade ago. Much of what we read and see on television is busy trying to keep us scared witless.

Land of the free and home of the brave? Not so much. The sky is always falling, and we’re willing to set aside the Bill of Rights at the first sign of danger, real or imagined. We’ve become a nation of almost clinically diagnosable paranoids, and that’s no accident. From a thousand media mouths, we are told daily to be afraid, be very afraid.

All sorts of people are out to get us, starting with all those dusky Muslim fundamentalists, and those swarthy Mexicans streaming over our borders, not to mention the liberals who live next door, all of them hating “real” Americans for our freedoms, and all of them intent on taking those freedoms, our tax money, and even our lives if we let ’em.

Barack Obama is in on it, of course, ’cause he’s “not one of us.” In the words of Glenn Beck, “President Obama and friends are creating a global governance structure. Social and ecological justice and all of this bullcrap … are all part of a conspiracy by global-government people.”

Beck further upped the ante on paranoia when he warned his audience of fellow cuckoos that “we’re all at risk from the people who worship Satan” and are, “you know, in office.”

Wouldn’t you just know it? After eight years of being governed by a man who rarely uttered an unmangled thought, we finally get an intelligent human being in the Oval Office, and a whole chunk of the country goes bananas. Where else but in a loony bin would you find the spectacle of a man like Tom DeLay, corrupt former U.S. congressman, shaking his booty on Dancing With the Stars for the delectation of the inmates?

No one is immune. Live in a crazy environment, and you’re bound to start getting a little nuts your own self. People who know me have even begun to worry that I may have begun to sail my little boat around the bend. As evidence, they point to the fact that I regularly read the online “comments” that now follow most news stories in publications large and small, from coast to coast, including the very one you now hold in your hands.

“You have to be nuts to read that stuff,” they tell me. Reading the vox populi as expressed in those opinion threads can be injurious to one’s sanity, they tell me. Now that journalism has been redefined as a “national dialogue,” the sources of what once was called “news” are busily pumping out viewer or reader opinion with little effort to vet the truth of what’s being said. Filling air time and print space with opinion is way cheaper than paying reporters to do the hard work of finding out what’s really going on, so we’ve got less real news gathering, and way more opinionizing, most of it unvetted and lots of it utterly untethered from reality.

By much available evidence, lots of people who are reading the stuff are becoming untethered from reality, too, and I may be one of ’em.

For a half-dozen years, I’ve been writing a mostly left-leaning political column for the Paradise Post, a publication with a reader demographic that skews to the old, the cranky, and the rabidly reactionary. Not surprisingly, the hate mail began coming in from the very first column I wrote.

Cooler journalistic heads tend to ignore the hate mail their words generate, but I not only read the stuff, I often respond to it, as well. Not everyone who disagrees with me is crazy, of course, but some surely seem so.

Last week, for instance, one reader wrote to say that “by its very definition, tyranny cannot be imposed or enacted by a majority.” He was explaining how the popularity of Arizona’s demonstrably unconstitutional new anti-immigration law was OK because it expressed the popular will. Therefore, I suppose, those people who get hassled by the police because they look illegal are not being oppressed by a tyrannical law because, after all, the majority sanctioned it. And, of course, there was nothing tyrannical about slavery, since it was merely an expression of majority sentiment.

The ghost of Sen. Joe McCarthy looms behind a current crop of fear-mongers, including (clockwise from upper left) Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin.

Daily now, I get responses from readers who inform me that Hitler was, in fact, a left-winger, like me, and that the National Socialism of Nazi Germany was really the same as the socialism currently being practiced in places like Denmark or France. In this over-the-rainbow view, Obama is just like Hitler. Except for that little detail about murdering all the Jews, I guess.

They’re mosh pits for mad men and morons, these online-comments threads where addled ideas and phrases recycled from Fox “News” slam into one another, all of them posted by people who adopt fake names for themselves—True Patriot, or Real American, or Don’t Tread on Me.

And there’s entirely too much silence from the left, as usual. Or even from the middle. Sanity needs to pose a counterweight to insanity, and non-crazy people need to show the flag, need to remind everyone that craziness is not the new sane, that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are not the natural inheritors of the tradition of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and that racism, xenophobia, hate, and fear are not hallmarks of the well-adjusted.

But if, like me, you should argue with these people, they will insist on “facts.” Should you give them any, however, they will dispute the sources. New York Times? No good. Associated Press? Too liberal. Any inconvenient truth is merely the product of the “left-wing media.” Meanwhile, climate-change scientists are receiving death threats from the climate-change deniers. When crazy people don’t like the science, they kill the scientists, a fine old tradition dating back to the Dark Ages.

It’s been said that you can’t reason people out of ideas they weren’t reasoned into, and there are lots of unreasoned—and unreasonable—ideas flitting around.

How crazy is it out there? Well, one out of four people in the Republican Party thinks his or her state should secede from the union. And, if that ain’t crazy enough for you, one in four Republicans also thinks that President Obama “wants the terrorists to win.”

We’re not talking about some desert-dwelling cultists here; we’re talking about people who identify themselves as members of one of our two mainstream political parties.

According to FBI stats, threats of physical violence against the nation’s lawmakers were up 300 percent in the first months of this year. The number of hate and vigilante groups has increased by 54 percent over the last four years, most of that explosive growth having occurred since Obama took office. There are now more than 1,000 such groups in the United States.

One cadre of these crazies was recently busted for plotting acts of domestic terrorism, hoping to wipe out cops at a funeral, then start a war against the lefties they’d hoped to blame for those killings.

The more vocal nut jobs spouting off during the current state of affairs seem reminiscent of characters from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s novel in which it was very difficult to tell the cuckoos from their custodians. If the movie based on Kesey’s novel is ever remade, Sarah Palin would make a really good Nurse Ratched, and Glenn Beck could surely play the insane asylum’s public-relations man. And who else would play the Bull Goose Loony but Rush Limbaugh himself, that cheerleader for crazy ideas?

Limbaugh recently applied his cuckoo vision to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and came up with the notion that the catastrophe was probably caused by crazed environmentalists who sabotaged the rig to discredit the oil companies.

Then there’s the aforementioned Beck, the Professor of Paranoia, with his chalk board and his hyperactive tear ducts, a teacher to all those who never benefited from a college education even if they had one. Here’s a nutty professor who’s just the right fit for the zeitgeist, though it’s hard to say whether the times made the man or the man is actively helping shape the times, spreading his own craziness with each infected tear drop.

There wasn’t so much chirping in the cuckoo’s nest during the eight years in which we were A) attacked on our own soil by religious whack jobs, even while alerts were ignored in the White House, and B) we were taken to an expensive, bloody and unnecessary war in Iraq, and C) national disasters like Hurricane Katrina were mishandled with a wholly inept response from the federal government, and D) the nation’s financial institutions were allowed to run amok, bringing us to the brink of financial collapse, and E) defense contractors pillaged the national treasury without oversight or competitive bidding on jobs, and F) our prestige, our credibility, and our moral authority around the world declined with each passing year.

In a September 2009 issue, Time magazine calls attention to “Glenn Beck and the angry style of American politics.”

But now the nut jobs are popping up everywhere, wanting to wear firearms to Starbucks, wanting to organize themselves into state militias in order to resist the “tyranny” of the federal government. Tea Party crowds form to parade their illiteracy and their dim understanding of our system of government while demanding that their country be returned from the “Nazis,” the “socialists,” and the “Marxists” who have stolen it from them.

Fox “News,” the asylum from which so much of this craziness oozes, tells its devoted listeners each day that their worst fears and most outrageous hallucinations are, in fact, real.

In a climate like this, it no longer surprises anyone when a Republican senatorial candidate believes that businesses should have the right to deny service to blacks. That’s Rand Paul, Republican senatorial candidate from Kentucky, who also told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Obama’s rather mild criticism of BP was “un-American.”

Meanwhile, that Alaskan woman who decided to turn her back on her commitment to the people of the state who elected her as their governor picks up a cool $12 million in less than a year by merely going around spouting a little boilerplate paranoia about threats to freedom from the aforementioned “socialists” who sought to bring improvements in health care to people who aren’t favored with $12 million in easy cash.

Then there’s the always-lurking Newt Gingrich, who wrote in his most recent book that Obama’s “secular socialist” policies were “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.” Sure, he knows the Ann Coulter trick of saying the most outrageous thing imaginable in order to attract media attention and sell books, but that kind of hyperbole is just nuts.

There’s also media-hungry Michelle Bachmann, an elected representative from the state of Minnesota, babbling on about armed insurrection, and there’s our own congressman, Wally Herger, giving assent to “real Americans” who proclaim themselves proud to be domestic terrorists.

People like Bachmann and Herger play to the crowd of loons rounded up by people like Glenn Beck, who recently wondered if President Obama had ever said anything “that sounds like an American” and who also described the current occupant of the highest office in the land as a man with a “deep-seated hatred of white people.”

Such crazy talk serves as a conduit to the deep strain of racism that fuels the nation’s recurring craziness. The recent incident in which Nigerian-born Chico State student-body President Joseph Igbineweka was stabbed revealed the deep gusher of racism that pollutes the groundwater of local opinion, a subterranean river of hatred and insanity that turned up in comments on the website following the Chico Enterprise-Record’s stories about the incident.

One E-R reader wrote: “The only thing that talking chimp will accomplish in life is to become a public charge. He’ll impregnate as many American women as he can get his dick into, spreading his African STDs along the way. Then he’ll totally abandon ALL of his parental responsibilities, leaving the US taxpayer footing the bill for his fatherless children. Just like Barry Soetoro’s father did.”

“If he does earn his degree,” still another reader observed, “he’ll end up working for the government. That’s where 90% of black college graduates end up because the private sector knows better than to hire them. Again, the taxpayers foot the bill.”

Those comments are not just rabidly racist; they’re crazy. And, alas, such madness is ubiquitous.

Nothing runs this country more nuts than the subject of race. Our founders, intelligent men and products of the Enlightenment, twisted themselves into logical knots to proclaim the rights of man while condoning the enslavement of darker-skinned people, defining blacks as three-fifths of a human being, a neat bit of insanity if ever there was one. We later found ourselves fighting a bloody civil war in an attempt to resolve the contradiction.

Still later, decades after the civil-rights movement inched the nation a little closer to sanity on the subject, we finally elect a man who embodies the black and the white of us, and the insanity arises once more, with all the “he’s not one of us” stuff that gets echoed in the campaigns of state and local conservatives who wink and nod at fears of darker-skinned people with paranoia-based campaign slogans. All of them are vying to scapegoat brown people and capitalize on the divisive anti-immigration rhetoric that diverts attention from the fact that California is broke, and illegal farm workers ain’t our most pressing problem.

In a fit of insanely spendthrift spending, gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner jointly spent almost a million bucks a day in an attempt to convince voters that they were fiscally conservative. Each of them vowed to be tougher than the other on illegals, and Whitman won the endorsement of the ever-so-sane-and-lovable Dick Cheney.

When it comes to finding scapegoats for our problems, we’re equal-opportunity haters these days. After the India-born proprietor of a Paradise liquor store was found to have sold liquor to minors, one reader of the Paradise Post wrote in to say: “Pack up your miserable family, go back to India and sell Ganges water and curried cat. Last thing we need here in Paradise is more urine-colored people with their nasty habits and criminal behavior. DEPORTATION NOW!!!”

That comment was followed by another that read: “This country was founded and built BY and FOR the white, Christian male.”

These Internet hysterics are like children who enjoy being frightened, and when they cannot get enough of that stimulation from the usual vendors, they eagerly engage in scaring one another, sending out little alarums via e-mail and Facebook and Twitter, directing one another to websites that promise to tell them the real truth about the socialist menace or the reconquista intentions of the Mexicans or the welfare scams of the black hucksters who are bleeding the good white taxpayers dry.

We’ve inhabited these zones of fear before, of course. There was the red scare of the 1920s, and those of us who were kids during the McCarthy era can still faintly remember the atmosphere of menace that gave Joe McCarthy his initial fame and his subsequent ignominy.

And, as a remnant of that insanity, we have the current insanity being exhibited by the Texas schoolbook commission that wants to rewrite recent history by indoctrinating American students with the idea that ol’ Joe McCarthy wasn’t such a bad guy after all, and that Ronald Reagan was more important than Thomas Jefferson.

Those Texas right-wing crazies also want to expunge the phrase “slave trade” from our history. The historical traffic in human beings that was such a big part of the American story will henceforth be known as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade,” a euphemism that tidies up our history while scrubbing our collective conscience.

Are all the discontented and angry people in this country crazy? Of course not. There’s plenty of cause for anger, and not all the fear in the land is irrational. We’ve seen far too many jobs exported, and a big transfer of wealth from the middle class to the very wealthy since this century began. There’s lots of real pain out there, and lots of inequities that are enough to try people’s patience. But the people who are cheering Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have nothing to offer except the kind of stuff that got us in this mess in the first place.

Does the left harbor nuts of its own? You betcha, to quote Sarah Palin. But if you think that’s where most of the insanity is coming from these days, you may be even crazier than the people who think that we’d be in better shape at this moment if Sarah Palin were just one heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

The Republicans and the Tea Party people (is there a difference?) have made many of us forget just what a momentous thing we did as a nation when we elected Barack Obama as our leader.

He took decisive action to stanch the catastrophic bleeding in our economy, and by most indicators those efforts are slowing the hemorrhaging. He’s also taken historic action on the world stage, scaling back nuclear weapons and forging new understanding with other world leaders.

We can all find fault with this or that decision Obama has made, and reasonable people may still be impatient with the pace of change or the still staggering rate of unemployment or the ecological horror unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, but the ginned-up outrage being fomented by Fox “News” is ersatz populism, funded by corporations whose bosses hate even the minimal restraints being proposed to rein in their hegemony. They’re not known as the ruling class for nothing, and they’ve proven themselves adept at using the same old fear and hate that has always worked so well to maintain their rule, and make people nuts.

The people who are shouting the loudest against President Obama remind me of the townsfolk in episodes of the old Lone Ranger television series I watched as a kid. Because the Lone Ranger wore a mask, and because he was often accompanied by his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, he was frequently seen as the bad guy by the townspeople he’d ridden in to save from the real bad guys. After all, who can trust a man who wears a mask and hangs out with a redskin?

So, time and time again, the Lone Ranger would have to escape from the townspeople—who were intent on stringing him up in the nearest tree—before he could go after the bad guys who were causing the townsfolk their problems in the first place.

That seems a lot like the scenario we’ve been watching play out since even before President Obama took office. Way before he did anything at all, lots of townsfolk were being whipped up into a frenzy of suspicion and mistrust by the very villains who’d robbed the town blind. With a fortune spent on lobbyists, and with a daily megaphone on talk radio and Fox “News,” the bad guys managed to make the town’s potential savior look like the guy who’d robbed the bank.

Getting in the way of the man who’s trying to save you might be one indicator of just how crazy we currently are.