Monday, March 12, 2012

Is political hatred the product or the tool?

A history of fear and loathing on the populist right.  
By Arthur Goldwag, Scribe, 368pp.

It's disturbing to watch the American democratic process so suffused with rage and hatred, from both left and right.  Free speech and open debate is to be cherished, but the cynical peddling of lies and conspiracies to influence frightened voters is the great weakness of democracy.

Plato warned about it in ancient Athens - at some point the Greek republic had laws that exiled demagogues from the city.  In modern western democracies, the challenge is to retain fundamental freedom of speech without turning over democracy to those with the greatest power to lie most loudly.

Thinking people of all persuasions share a broad discomfort about the political mobilisation of hatred . Some blame whichever party or interest group they don’t support, and many blame our news media for fostering political violence (real or synthetic) for the sake of cheap ratings points or journalistic one-upmanship.

Arthur Goldwag’s The New Hate looks at a wide range of current Obama-haters, from Tea Party to rabid broadcasters to Islamophobes and bizarre conspiracy-cult websites. He places them in a context of hate-farming that traces right back to the earliest Puritan colonists.  It seems there never was a time when American politics was not infected with conspiracy theories about unseen, powerful groups bent on subverting the Bible, the Constitution, or the apotheosis of the white race in American Exceptionalism.

Religious identity has often been the target, echoing the politico-religious purges that drove Puritans and many other waves of immigrants to America from their European homes.  Freemasons, Roman Catholics, Jews, freethinkers, Communists, homosexuals, witches and innumerable real or imagined secret societies have been the object of hate campaigns embraced by high-level politicians as well as rabble-rousers and entrepreneurs.  Goldwag is a declared liberal Democrat, but provides balanced accounts of many hate-merchants and their innocent or questionable targets across the centuries.

So why are human societies so susceptible to falsehood, prejudice, and paranoid fantasy?  Goldwag suggests that the common visceral element is a human yearning for a secure identity.  Any perceived threat to that identity, whether religious, cultural, race, or economic, induces a natural fear that is easily fanned into rage and hate.  The more that a relatively successful society has fostered a sense of entitlement and “rights” among its citizens, the easier it is to promote outrage and hatred whenever such entitlements may seem challenged.

Charitably, Goldwag accepts that some hate-peddlers at least believe what they are saying.  He concludes that the majority of those who claim to believe Obama is a foreign Muslim are less concerned about Obama’s identity than about America’s identity not being what it used to be, at home or abroad.

Richard Thwaites, when a broadcast current affairs producer and editorial executive, has struggled to balance coverage of punch-ups with coverage of policy.

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