Why Do Things Get So Nutty Sometimes?: Three Indispensable Readings


I don’t want to give the impression that dispassionate distance is my automatic response to every bit of craziness that occurs in society.  

I am not always a social scientist. I feel rage and anger.  My first reaction on  hearing some loony extreme view is not to immediately to unfurl the flag and  celebrate the right to free expression. I do eventually celebrate free expression, but that is not until I finally calm down and pull back from some of the nastiness of which I am capable.

Today, though, after a week of hearing some of the most vicious and extremist rhetoric I can recall, I have been thinking  a lot about three pieces of writing that strike me as indispensable in understanding our latest period of lunacy.  Believe me, I almost choked when I heard Sarah Palin talk about “reloading,”  but today I am thinking less about her mindlessness than about how and why we periodically produce movements so drenched in rage and racism. Why does the United States have such a rich and revolting tradition of individuals  like Palin who — while not  even remotely equipped to think with any originality — are brilliantly  equipped to read the rage and stoke the  hate and irrationality of others?

This is obviously a complex question. But just over 45 years ago, in a classic essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter opened a door on one of America’s  creepiest corners, a place where every loony strain of racism, nativism, millenialism, sexism, homophobia, and nuttyism come together in an incoherent, yet incendiary, brew.   

This where you find the library  for every  imaginable conspiracy theory that a twisted mind is capable of imagining. And this is also the setting for Hateland’s fully stocked pharmacy —  shelves full of folk-devils of every race, ethnicity , gender, and sexual orientation available to relieve anxiety about everything from a recession to an upset stomach.

Hofstadter understood so much of this and I can’t recommend his essay strongly enough.

Also, in today’s New York Times Frank Rich covers some of the same territory. Rich zeroes in on one of the key symptoms of paranoid politics —  a group enraged, out of control, and armed with a lengthy and astoundingly  incoherent list of grievances. These are the sophisticated political thinkers who can weave Chinese food, unpolished shoes, and aspirin into the evidence that finally proves the government’s secret plan to require weekly colonoscopies.

Finally, I recommend the latest annual report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism, by Mark Potok.  The report is packed with proof that all the hate and incoherence and bizarre conspiracy theories have  attracted adherents, money and angry people  eager to move from anger to violence.

We can laugh all we want at their  mind-bogglingly nutty ideas, but we would ignore them at our great peril.

You don’t have to make sense to make trouble. Serious trouble.

Governor Sarah Palin Interviewed by Katie Couric

While some partisans might fairly consider me overly cautious, my tendency is to not immediately jump into all sorts of controversies. I prefer to wait and watch as they play out. I have enough experience with news coverage and the public arena to know that — even in several days — what looked certain might not end up being certain at all.

This is especially the case with public figures. I like to see what they say and how they handle themselves before I jump in with an expert opinion that turns out to be anything but expert, or even correct.

I try to be fair. I like to be judicious. Maybe I remember times when I felt I was judged prematurely and unfairly. I simply am not comfortable being part of any initial attack-pack.

So I have waited on Governor Palin.

Until today.

I just saw the video below. Watch it and decide for yourself.  Watch it closely. Think about it. Replay it.

I am quite serious: For the first time in a long time, I have really been stunned into silence. 

Pregnancy and the Presidency: Some Words of Wisdom and Compassion from Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute

I have been sitting here trying to tease out all of the conflicting feelings I have about the frenzy over the pregnancy of Governor Palin’s daughter. 

It reminded me of an op-ed piece I wrote for the LA Times early in the Bush administration urging that the Bush daughters be allowed to grow up and screw up with a minimum of media scrutiny. Having done my share of screwing-up, I guess I have alwasy felt a special kinship with young people who find themselves needing need some slack rather than condemnation. 

My opinion about their Dad as President is still the same (another topic for another time) but I have learned over the years that, as a Dad, I have a real weak spot for kids thrown into the lion’s pit because of the actions of their parents. 

Believe me. I am well aware of all the well-reasoned arguments about how a candidate’s personal life can and does reveal fundamental characteristics that might be relevant to how they will perform in the public sphere.

But I still can’t get past the fact that underneath all the debate, all the political combat, is a pregnant teen trying to make sense of her life and her future.

I’m still ambivalent, but I want to share a very thoughtful, compassionate and well-written piece by Bob Steele, who writes about journalism ethics for the Poynter Institue.

Bob Steele of The Poynter Institute

Bob Steele of The Poynter Institute

It comes as close as anything I have read to getting a handle on why the focus on Bristol Palin has me so confused.  We do need all the information we can get to make reasoned political choices. We need to know when someone’s public positions might be at odds with the way they live their own life. 

But a 17 year-old girl also has a right to make mistakes and learn and grow. Some of you may feel less inclined to empathy. I understand. I also hold very strong political views. And they happen not to include support for her mother’s candidacy or political views.  But I also agree with Bob Steele when he writes:

“Bristol Palin is Sarah Palin’s daughter. But she is also, in some ways, our daughter, too.”