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Paradise Lost

America was great, once (in November 2008).

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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There is a great deal of hatred and bigotry in this country, but it does not define the country. The daily experience of most Americans is not a bitter experience and for all of our problems we are in a much better place on these matters than we were a half century ago. But I worry about the potential for violence that grows out of unrestrained, hostile bombast. We’ve seen it so often.

No one has been more jilted than Frank Rich. Here’s Rich rhapsodizing about America the Beautiful just after Obama’s election:

For eight years, we’ve been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid—easily divided and easily frightened. This was the toxic catechism of Bush-Rove politics. It was the soiled banner picked up by the sad McCain campaign, and it was often abetted by an amen corner in the dominant news media. We heard this slander of America so often that we all started to believe it, liberals most certainly included.  .  .  .

So let’s be blunt. Almost every assumption about America that was taken as a given by our political culture on Tuesday morning was proved wrong by Tuesday night.

There was lots more where that came from. In November 2008 Frank Rich was, for the first time—or at least for the first time in a long time—proud of his country. “The actual real America is everywhere,” he sang. 

It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of “patriotism.” What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That’s not who we are. So even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him.

These days, Rich is rediscovering the nation that elected Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. Taking stock of New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, Rich warned that 

Paladino is no anomaly in American politics in 2010. He’s just the most clownish illustration of where things have been heading for two years and are still heading. Like the farcical Christine O’Donnell in another blue Northeastern state, he’s a political loss-leader, if you will, whose near-certain defeat on Nov. 2 allows us to indulge in a bit of denial about the level of rage still coursing, sometimes violently, through our national bloodstream.

Rich goes on to warn Times readers about death threats against the president and an increased danger from man-caused disasters (domestic militia division). “Don’t expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day,” Rich whispers, “no matter what the results.”

The actual real America? She was glorious while she lasted.


 

For his part, President Obama has resisted such excitable over-readings of his fellow citizens. In fact, his appraisal of the public has remained reasonably constant. Sure, Obama explained a couple weeks ago that “part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country’s scared.”

But Obama was never completely sold on the soundness of the body politic. Recall that when he first let slip his view that people “get bitter” and “cling” to their “guns” and “religion,” it was April 2008. He wasn’t talking about Republican mouth-breathers​—he was talking about Democratic primary voters. And even after Americans got with the program and voted for him, Obama still wasn’t convinced the country had changed. 

In his Inaugural Address he sighed, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” In other words, just because Americans voted him in, he wasn’t ready to let us off the hook for being a bunch of petty, lying, childish nincompoops.

We probably had it coming.

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