Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday. The Reflections archive of of previous essays is here.
I first encountered the abysmal political ignorance of so many Americans during my coverage of the final days of Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 run for the presidency. That ignorance, I believe, accounts in large part for a society (and the press) that countenances the organized mobs of lumpen proletariat that seek to kill the presidency of Barack Obama.
Make no mistake that’s what they, and their aiders and abettors on radio, television and the right wing of the Republican party are about. I repeat, they’re trying to kill Obama’s presidency, one way or the other.
I was sent by my bureau to South Philadelphia to see if the relatively new issue of abortion was having any effect on the race. A group of Catholic clergymen meeting in Washington had criticized Carter on the issue and embraced the Republican incumbent, President Ford.
I stationed myself inside a coin-operated laundry, across from a prominent church and school, to talk to Catholic women who were doing their wash and waiting for their kids to get out of school. To cut to the chase, fully half these women did not know – in late October – who was running for president. Nor did they care.
The experts I talked to as I prepared my story were not surprised. They made excuses; people are too busy with kids, house, plumbing problems tp pay attention. Such people are discounted by the political canvassers. And pollsters, asking about, say Afghanistan, did not bother to ask if the voter knew where that country was. Indeed, even now the polls don’t reflect the ignorance of the people who answer these polls. I doubt if these hooligans know much of anything.
It’s not only beleaguered working people who are politically ignorant. I have it on good authority that at one time – years before we got into a war in the Middle East – a copy desk person at the Wall Street Journal was heard to ask, “Hey, what’s our style, Iran or Iraq?”
On a bus during one campaign, a political reporter for a major publication wrote that Harry Truman gave them hell in his 1948 race with Dwight Eisenhower. A foreign affairs reporter for a prominent publication once asked me who Dag Hammarskjold was. When I explained that he was the second secretary general of the United Nations, and was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1961, the reporter said, “Well that was before my time.” I muttered, “So was Abe Lincoln.”
These may be isolated incidents, but they represent an ignorance among my press colleagues that I have encountered and am encountering still. How many reporters continue to write about the imminent crisis in Social Security without knowing how Social Security works? And now, I’ll bet that most reporters covering the White House can’t explain what’s in the health reform bills moving through Congress, so they can counter the garbage they’re hearing.
Nor are they looking beyond the inane questions about Obama’s birth to understand and probe the links between the birthers and the mobocracy seeking to lynch the health care bills and their supporters. At this writing, neither the Washington Post nor The New York Times, nor any White House reporter has gone after this story the way Rachel Maddow has.
But it’s the dangerous ignorance of the mobs that worry me most. One mob, for example confronted, threatened and yelled epithets at Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, the longest-serving member of Congress. How dare they?
I doubt if they knew that Dingell, a life-long member of the NRA, has also been a champion of the auto industry. His father was a great New Dealer who gave us the National Labor Relations Act. And Dingell, who took his father’s seat, has been trying for years to win universal health insurance. But what does a mob know? Especially when the press doesn’t itself know, or bothers to confront the mob with the truth.
As a result, the lies take hold. Imagine. The right-wing talkers call Obama a fascist, when they are encouraging the brown shirts of today. I doubt if any of these goons in the mobs even know what fascism, socialism or even Nazism is. I doubt if they know who fought in World War II.
Comedian Bill Maher has called the country “stupid.” I think ignorant is more accurate, although such ignorance produces stupidity. How else can one explain opposition to a perfectly reasonable (if too complicated) attempt at guaranteeing all of us (as well as them), access to quality health care.
Says Maher, 34 percent of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Nearly a third of Republicans don’t believe Obama was born in the U.S. More than two-thirds of Americans don’t know what’s in Roe v. Wade. Twenty-four percent could not name the country we fought in the revolutionary war.
Sarah Palin and many of the 2008 Republican presidential candidates doubted Darwin because, Gallup found, 60 percent of Republicans believe God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, and the poll found that 18 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth.
Such ignorance, which leads to stupidity, makes them suckers for any charlatan or demagogue. Their Republican allies would kill Medicaid and Social Security. Yet they yell, “Keep government out of my Medicare.” They lose jobs and apply for unemployment insurance, part of the Social Security system, and denounce taxes and government without having the faintest idea of what taxes pay for. They are easily turned into a mob by agents working for insurance and drug companies, as Maddow has reported, and they don’t even catch on.
Many of them, alas, are white men who can’t come to terms with their racism. And Glenn Beck goads the mob (and makes a hefty salary) by fantasizing the poisoning of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I think he should be arrested and charged with threatening her life. Such overt threats are not protected speech. His vicious words falling on the mottled mind of an ignorant, stupid and racist oaf are dangerous. Some of them have already killed.
So, when will responsible Republicans and the press, with the kind of reporting, probing and editorializing that seems reserved only for the sex lives of politicians or the death of rock stars, quit shrugging and call a halt to this assault on our country?
EDITORIAL NOTE: Tomorrow is a special celebration at Time Goes By. Then on Wednesday, there will be a pre-August 20 post with information about Elders For Health Care Reform Day on Thursday. If you don't yet know what that is, see these two posts here and here.
Until then, you can warm up with Saul's Gray Matters column in Newsday from Saturday titled, Don't Fear Health Care Reform.
At The Elder Storytelliing Place today - Jeanne Waite Follett: Dear William