I laughed out loud at the sign for two reasons:
1) it was funny;
2) it used laughter to tell the truth.
The sign at the Washington, D.C. rally showed a picture of Adolph Hitler on the left and another picture of Adolph Hitler on the right. The caption read, “Hitler is Hitler.”
The sign encapsulated the problem and provided a solution—with two photos and three words.
Suggesting that those who don’t agree with you are just like Hitler insults not just the targets of your message but the millions slaughtered in one of the world’s worst crimes against humanity. That principle applies to my co-worker who once called Walter Hickel a Nazi for trying to cut state funding and to those who draw Hitler mustaches on photos of President Obama because of his position on health care.
Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the “Hitler is Hitler” sign maker did a great job of lampooning the insanity. Not all of us are so brilliant. But we can fight the insanity our own way.
Last week’s Anchorage rally didn’t do that. It turned out to be little more than politics as usual. A friend who participated in the rally observed that partisanship can be--and the rally was--civil. I agree. But it did not address the insanity in any constructive way. My last essay did not address the partisanship in any constructive way, either. That’s the function of this essay.
Restoring sanity involves more than deploring insanity. We need thoughtful action. I suggest the following steps:
1) Name your goal or goals. Be specific.
2) Define what you mean by insanity. Be specific.
3) Discover the patterns of insanity and their causes.
4) Devise a strategy for opposing the insanity effectively.
The only goals I could discern in Anchorage’s rally were possibly to engage in a feel-good exercise in which people could congratulate themselves for their civility and to encourage people to vote for Democrats.
For me the goal of a rally to restore sanity should be to convince people that insanity weakens our country and that restoring sanity would strengthen it. Saying that isn't enough; we need to show how that's true.
The insanity is the rejection of reason in public policy and in debating public policy. Colbert satirized that mentality when he pointed out that reason is only one letter away from treason.
Here are some of the patterns of insanity I have seen in the media and experienced on these cyberpages:
1) The hypocrisy game. People pretend again and again the other side fails to practice what it preaches and continually criticizes us for what it does just as much as we do. Again and again, we notice the other guy’s hypocrisy but fail to notice our own. The message we send is that the other guy calls us hypocrites but doesn’t notice his own. The insanity here is : a) that we fail to recognize the inherent absurdity of such a position; and b) we fail to recognize our own role in the hypocrisy game—perpetuating it.
2) What general semanticists call the “allness reaction.” We constantly treat Sarah Palin and Barack Obama as either sinless angels or Satanic demons. But human beings are neither. We are all complicated compilations of good and evil. So are the policies we support.
3) Another version of the allness reaction is playing with the word, “the.” As in “The Jews crucified Christ” and “The Palestinians danced with joy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.” Blaming all Jews or all Palestinians for the alleged crimes or misdeeds of a few is a form of madness. So is believing such nonsense.
4) The same observation applies to labels like “socialist” and “free enterprise.” If a person concludes that our private-sector health care system is broken and a government program would work better, that person is instantly accused of being an ultra-socialist who wants the government in charge of selling you beer and of forcing all Americans to pick their noses in Poughkeepsie. How about discussing the pros and cons of such a policy?
5) The worship of labels. We use the expressions, “socialism” for government intervention that we don’t like and "free enterprise" for government intervention that we do. I have yet to understand the sanity of believing a ban on smoking tobacco in the work place is socialism but a ban on smoking marijuana in the home is not. I have yet to understand how voluntary compliance by the private sector is so effective in ending air, water and land pollution but so ineffective in ending abortion. No one has yet explained to me why government bureaucracy is so ineffective in helping poor people but so effective in fighting wars and combating terrorism.
6) The preoccupation with raising standards for our teachers and our students and with lowering our standards for our adults and for our politicians. Consider the message we send to our kids—stay in school, go to college and you can grow up to be a politician who believes without any evidence that Saddam Hussein was buddies with Osama bin Laden, Iraq had WMD on 3/2001, and Saddam bought yellowcake uranium from Niger. Learn to read so when you run for office you can draw a blank when asked if you read a newspaper or when you run against Roe v. Wade you can duck a question about which Supreme Court decisions you oppose. Go to an elite Ivy League college and study the science of medicine for years so you can deny the science of climate change and “believe” with no scientific evidence that opposing military aid to a country is hating everyone who practices the prominent religion of that country and opposing some US foreign policies is blaming America for every evil in the world including male pattern baldness.
7) The exaltation and gleeful adoption of two of the most discredited fallacies known to humans—the “straw man” technique of deliberately distorting what a person says and then criticizing that construct as if it were a reality and the “ad hominem” approach of trying to demonize the messenger in hopes people will disregard the message. I am particularly struck by the use of these fallacies by teachers with advanced degrees, people whose profession is supposed to be enlightening young people. Talk about standards for teachers.
So far the technique for combating these insanities seems to consist in pretending those who disagree with our politics own a monopoly on the insanity. I think that was the real reason Stewart and Colbert created their rally. If we use insanity simply as another political weapon against those who do not agree with us, we conspire with them to perpetuate the insanity.
We have to recognize the insanity within ourselves and within those who agree with us. Then we can begin to understand the insanity we perpetuate is tearing our country apart and—eventually—jeopardizing our national security.
Maybe we can begin the road to sanity by realizing the most damage the terrorists can do to our country is to let us tear our country apart.
It’s a lot easier for the attendees at the Anchorage rally to stand up to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh than to stand up to Shannyn Moore. Maybe someone out there will have the guts and the principle to tell her that using demonization to fight Sarah Palin’s demonization doesn’t end the demonization, but only perpetuates it.
That’s why I invite my friend who pointed out that partisanship is not incivility to actually take the trouble to respond to my request to comment on:
1) my co-worker who called Hickel a Nazi,
2) my former roommate who complained about allowing a television commercial that offered adoption as an alternative to abortion,
3) the woman who complained that Palin was a monster for giving birth to a Down Syndrome baby,
4) radio commentator Randi Rhodes who once shouted "SARAH PALIN IS NOT AN AMERICAN…….SHE’S AN ALASKAN!”
Maybe my friend can realize that such insanity hurts her own partisan political agenda. Maybe we as a country can understand the insanity of fighting demonization with demonization. Maybe we can fight back by responding to insanity with sanity and to incivility with civility. Maybe, like the guy with the Hitler sign, we can fight the insanity with the truth.
That’s one virus I want to spread.