Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Big Tea Party Lie

It's starting to show up everywhere, on TV, in the blogosphere, even in major newspapers*.

The enormous lie--or at least the stupendous exaggeration-- that the US has never been more divided than it is today.

But it's not even remotely true. Divisions were far more acute during the Sixties, by at least a factor of two or three.

At that time more than two-thirds of the population seriously believed that the government was busy preparing internment camps to lock away rebellious youth.

And at least one-third of Americans agreed that such camps were desperately needed. Another third was less sure but probably wouldn't have objected if the camps had ever opened their gates. 

And of course another ten percent of Americans were fairly sure that they had a good chance of ending up in  the camps.  There's even a 1971 film devoted to this theme, Punishment Park--it depicts the growing sadism of the American soldiers who guarded the prisoners.

Why are so many pundits suddenly voicing these doom's day sentiments? First of all, most of them are too young to know better, while the older ones have simply forgotten. Besides, it always sounds good to use  superlatives. "Most divided in our history" sounds a lot better than just "divided" or "severely divided." "Most divided since Lincoln" sounds even better and suggests that the authors know something about our history.

But they don't.  There have been quite a few periods that have rivaled or surpassed ours in divisiveness.  The fight over Joe McCarthy and alleged communists in the government during the Fifties, for example. Or the political climate between the Crash of '29 and Roosevelt's election in 1932.  Or the divisions between 1914 and 1916 over whether to enter World War I.

In any case, today's divisions center around our Congress, around the refusal by one political party to cooperate with the other one.  In other words they are limited to the workings of our government, as our constitution intended,  and with few exceptions have not yet spread to our streets or our citizenry.

Sure, there are thousands of Tea Partiers around.  But so far no one is calling for their imprisonment. Sure, Tea Partiers are pretty ugly, but this cabal of libertarians, racists, and outright loonies has been a constant over at least the last century. 

In 1900 they would have been screaming over the ratio of gold to paper money as the be-all and end-all of civilization as we know it.

So however you cut it, we're still quite unlikely to come anywhere near the level of Sixties anger.

Unless of course the likes of Palin, Paladino, Angle, and O'Donnell are actually elected to office.  If that ever happened, and they ever started to work their will on American laws and institutions...that's when we might begin to see a return to Sixties levels of anger.

If you need any further evidence that the passions of the Sixties far surpassed our own 
simply click here. . .

No, the nation is not more divided now than ever before. It is simply caught up in a rhetorical whirlwind--one that could  conceivably turn into a truly destructive political tornado, even a hurricane. Or it could with a bit of luck simply dissolve back into the dirty little swirl of hot air it came from.

*Just a few examples:

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