Crazy Is A Pre-Existing Condition

In today’s Washington Post, probably the best young historian working today – Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland – reminds us that the current seemingly incomprehensible (to most people) madness of teabagger charges like “death panels” and “socialism” are far from new.

Reading Perlstein’s astonishingly detailed work, one comes away with not just the sense, but the knowledge, that America has a long and fairly homogenous tradition of conservative paranoia with regard to virtually any progress or liberal ascendancy. To really get the full impact of it, I urge anyone who’s even a bit interested to go read the whole thing. But a few of the most thought-provoking bits are after the jump:

In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as “20 years of treason” and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents…

Before the “black helicopters” of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a “civil rights movement” had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would “enslave” whites…

The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union…

When Adlai Stevenson spoke at a 1963 United Nations Day observance in Dallas, the Indignation forces thronged the hall, sweating and furious, shrieking down the speaker for the television cameras. Then, when Stevenson was walked to his limousine, a grimacing and wild-eyed lady thwacked him with a picket sign. Stevenson was baffled. “What’s the matter, madam?” he asked. “What can I do for you?” The woman responded with self-righteous fury: “Well, if you don’t know I can’t help you.”

Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people’s voices means they should treat Obama’s creation of “death panels” as just another justiciable political claim. If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.

Unfortunately, as Perlstein quite rightly observes, not anymore.


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