×

John Sheirer: When the political fringe goes mainstream



Sunday, November 17, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — Two guys recently set up posters on a street corner near where I work showing President Obama with a Hitler moustache. They yelled at passing cars that President Obama was a foreign, Nazi, mass-murdering terrorist who should be impeached and sent to prison. Between shouts, they pushed flyers at glaring pedestrians.

I walked up and politely asked what evidence they had for their claims. “It’s all in here,” one guy said, shoving a flyer toward me.

“I’m asking you as one human being to another,” I replied. “When did the president commit mass murder?” I looked into his face until he finally made eye-contact. He couldn’t answer my question — literally couldn’t answer. Both guys actually stopped talking and looked embarrassed, suddenly more interested in studying the sidewalk than talking with me.

Because I didn’t know the next time I’d be face-to-face with people voicing such ridiculous views, I asked some simple follow-up questions: “Where did you get your information? Do you know that I found five factual errors in a 10-second skim of your flyer? Who’s paying you to be here? Are you trained to ignore people who ask reasonable questions? Do you believe this stuff, or is this just performance art?”

But they turned their backs and resumed yelling their nonsense with slightly less gusto. Either they were ashamed of what they were saying or they were ashamed of their inability to defend their accusations.

Our nation is full of people who inhabit the fringe of public opinion. Unfortunately, many aren’t limited to yelling on street corners. Radio host Alex Jones rants about the Aurora and Newtown shootings being “false flags” staged by the government. Glenn Beck spins tales of impending government concentration camps. Rush Limbaugh — well, everything he says is a farcical froth of belligerent misinformation.

Lunacy exists, and I suppose it always has. When I was a kid, some crackpots claimed that blacks and Jews would come from the city to our farms and imprison or kill us. Back then, though, most of those people didn’t have powerful microphones. They just whispered their crazy theories in church basements to people too polite to tell them to screw off.

Unfortunately, there’s not much difference between the street-corner guys yelling about Obama and many “mainstream” Republicans these days. More and more, they sound like church-basement whisperers of my youth. Prominent Republicans make frequent guest appearances for Jones, Beck and Limbaugh as if they’re on the nightly news and not legitimizing unhinged ignorance.

Many current Republican positions are so absurd that no one should take them seriously. Tax cuts for the wealthy trickle down to the middle class. Poor people are lazy. Government is evil. Smaller government is always better — unless you’re gay or pregnant, in which case government must be big enough to invade your most private places.

And then there’s the litany of lies about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. One after another — from death panels to socialism to the IRS carting us off to jail — these lies all get debunked. That doesn’t stop Republicans from repeating them and creating more.

Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Barton said in a Congressional hearing that a secret message in the Obamacare website strips Americans of their medical privacy. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who once said Republicans should stop being “the stupid party,” recently told six lies about Obamacare in less than a minute on national television. In his defense, he never claimed that Republicans shouldn’t be “the lying party.” Republicans are now led by far-right reality-deniers like shutdown champion Ted Cruz and serial-plagiarist Rand Paul.

They spread their lies on propaganda-enabling Fox News and are rarely challenged by sloppy journalists in the mainstream corporate media. Longtime conservatives get primaried out of office by tea party neo-confederates who campaign on birther jokes and gun conspiracies. Twenty-seven Senate Republicans recently voted to condemn their 2-week-old votes to avoid a debt default, denouncing their temporary sanity. Some of my Republican friends on Facebook post charts to prove that Obama caused the recession in 2008.

When I point out that Obama took office in 2009, they reply, “spoken like a true liberal,” as if they’ve made a winning persuasive point. They use “liberal” as a safe word to make me stop hurting them with sadistic facts. Then they tell me that God will punish me, but their cringe-worthy spelling would make any higher power blush.

Some Republicans compare liberals to Saul Alinsky (repeating a name they probably don’t know but have heard their right-wing media role models use), or they just accuse us of being crazy or dishonest when we cite facts. I generally ask them to look up “projection” in a dictionary of psychological terms.

As my father once said, “Some people should flush the B.S. in their own toilet before they start sniffing around their neighbor’s bathroom.” We live in a free country where we can all voice our views — but freedom requires responsibility. The jerks with the Obama-as-Hitler poster couldn’t answer basic questions. Members of Congress blather about secret computer codes. Facebook friends post obvious falsehoods and flail against facts.

When people abuse freedom of speech with ignorance and outright lies, they just look like fools. Our country deserves better.

John Sheirer of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.