Over the past few days the angry mobs that have gathered to try to kill the health care reform bill have been discussed extensively by the media. Among progressives, one of the main themes to emerge is to compare these mobs to the infamous “brooks brothers riot” in Miami that disrupted the 2000 recount. The basis for the comparison is the notion that just as the angry mob in 2000 was a contrived “astroturfed” event, so too are today’s anti-reform teabagger mobs.
While it's certainly true that the organizers behind the current wave of protests are funded and controlled by various organs of the Republican party and the health insurance industry, I disagree with the notion that they are completely inorganic. The individuals showing up to disrupt town hall meetings are for the most part not paid operatives the way the brooks brothers rioters were, and their anger, though undoubtedly rooted in ignorance, fear, and outright hatred, seems frighteningly sincere.
What seems to be missing from the media analysis is a contextual understanding of this phenomenon as merely the latest manifestation of a much deeper, older, and darker conflict that has plagued our country for generations. This is not the first time we've seen angry mobs of this sort, and it has very little to do with health care reform. Indeed, I'm convinced that the issue of health care reform is not much more than a catalyst for what we're seeing, an excuse for generations-old simmering hatred to boil over into the public square for all to see.
In the late 1950’s in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, as school districts throughout the South began to integrate, however reluctantly, they found themselves confronted with widespread resistance in the form of mobs of angry, frequently violent whites who vehemently opposed desegregation. African American students enrolled in what were previously all-white schools risked their lives just by showing up for class, and the President of the United States was forced to assign national guard troops to serve as bodyguards to prevent bloodshed.
This phenomenon was hardly limited to the states of the old Confederacy, however. In the 1970’s, after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that forced busing of students was a permissible method of integrating public schools, suburban whites all over the country, enraged that their children would be forced to attend the same schools as African American children, took to the streets in protest. Many of these protests were tainted by violence and even resulted in some fatalities, most notably in Boston, Massachusetts.
Understand that I am not suggesting, as some have done, that the angry mobs currently disrupting town hall meetings around the country are primarily motivated by race. Rather, I'm suggesting that the anger, fear and hatred which fuel these mobs comes from the same place as the anger, fear and hatred which has fueled race riots throughout our sordid history. The anti-reform mobs of today and the pro-segregation mobs of decades past are siblings born of the same foul parents. To use the vernacular more recently en vogue, both movements are byproducts of the “culture war” that has pitted the forces of ignorance and fear against the forces of social change.
To understand this, we only need to take a minute and listen to what the protesters themselves are telling us. The rhetoric in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s was little different from the rhetoric we hear every day, not just from the protesters, but from FOX news and even the Republican Party iteself. The main theme, then as now, is a violent resistance to social change on the grounds that it would destroy the protesters’ “way of life.” Then, as now, this resistance is born entirely of ignorance, fear, and hatred towards anyone who was seen as part of the larger movement to bring change, including the federal government itself. Then, as now, anti-government rhetoric became commonplace, and some even openly talked about revolution. The Orval Faubuses and George Wallaces of yesterday have become the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of today.
It’s time our media recognizes just what’s going on, and confronts it for what it is. I understand that there is a political calculation involved in the decision to emphasize the astroturfing component of the protests, however this is an exercise in losing sight of the forest for the trees. The people who comprise these mobs are not political operatives, but rather they are ordinary people, even if they are being whipped into a frenzy by special interests lurking behind the scenes. They are ordinary people who have become consumed with rage, ignorance and hatred, but they are ordinary people, nonetheless. Dismissing them as phonies may or may not work as a political tactic, but it is also certain to obscure the fact that they are part of a far deeper, far more insidious social pathology that has infected our country since its inception, and will continue to do so until we decide to confront it head on for the cancer that it is.