Descent Into Madness? Updated 3/30 11:30a ET

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson


I’ve been thinking, and hinting here from time to time, that I fear America’s descent into madness, what with last summer’s near-violent town hall meetings, politicians and reality-show wannabees using words like “reload” and crosshair gunsights to indicate legislators who should be defeated in November, with rocks through windows and veiled and, increasingly, not-so-veiled calls for assassinations.

My fear is not the trembling, nightmare inducing kind. It’s more of a deep concern, enough to make me want to write about it, make phone calls about it, talk with shoppers in the supermarket about it, complain to radio and TV sponsors about it, even demonstrate about it — the kinds of things I did, and do, about war and other forms of social and economic injustice.

When I was five, my mother, who rarely let me out of her sight, left me with a neighbor for a day.  Where my mother went, I know not, but it must have been important. The neighbor, in a moment of abject stupidity, took me to the movies.

I have an uncanny memory for events early in my life and this is one of them.  The year was 1941. The feature was “New Wine,” the biography of the composer Franz Schubert. There was a scene in which someone was dying and I can play it back in my mind’s eye to this day. I didn’t know what dying was, but it could tell it was awfully sad. I can also replay some of the background music. Schubert composed it. My passion for playing the piano may have come from that movie.

But what I remember most was the Newsreel that preceded the film. In it an announcer with a tone in his voice that made stress seem like a day at the beach in comparison narrated a clip of Adolph Hitler shouting from a balcony, crowds below cheering and holding their right arms straight out in a way I’d never seen anyone do.  Hitler was giving a speech in a language I associated with people who sometimes slept on our living room floor for a few nights at a time — Jews, I later learned, who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany and sneak into America (which had closed its doors to them) before they got hauled off to the gas chambers.

You never lose touch with what frightened you at five.  Even if you don’t remember it consciously, as I do, it’s in there somewhere, maybe stirring feelings of discomfort at times when you least expect or understand them.

So what I’m seeing and hearing now has me more than a little on edge. And, it turns out, I’m not alone. Over at Truthout, James Howard Kunstler has an essay entitled “Our Turn?” that says things I haven’t had the courage to say, until he opened the door for me.

Nations go crazy. It’s terrifying when it happens, especially to a major nation with the ability to project its craziness outward. We look back on the psychotic break of Germany in 1933 and still wonder how the then-best-educated population in Europe could fall under the sway of a sociopathic political program. We behold the carnage and devastation left in the wake of that episode, and decades later you still can do little more than shake your head in bewilderment.

China had a psychotic break in the 1960s in its “cultural revolution,” provoked by the mad neo-emperor Mao. He sent cadres of Chinese baby boomer youths rampaging across the land, turned every institution upside down, and let millions starve. Mao’s China lacked the ability then to export this mischief, but enough of his own people suffered.

Cambodia was the next humdinger of a national nervous breakdown when the Paris-educated classic marxist Pol Pot decided to make the world’s biggest omelette by cracking a million eggs. He took everybody wearing eyeglasses, everybody who appeared to have a thought in his or her head, and sent them out to the bush to be worked to death, or shot in ditches, or disposed of otherwise. The mounds of skulls remain to tell the tale.

Lately we’ve had the Hutu-Tutsi genocides in Rwanda, the craziness in former Yugoslavia, the cruelty of Darfur, the international suicide-bomber craze (including today’s blasts in Moscow). Surely, I’ve left a few out… but these are minor episodes compared to what be coming next.

Am I the only one who senses it might be America’s turn to go nuts? I don’t mean a family squabble, like the Boomer-Hippie-Vietnam uproar that was essentially an adolescent rebellion against bad parenting in the national household. I mean a genuine descent into madness, with the very high probability of persecution, violence, murder, and mayhem — all more or less sponsored by various authorities and institutions.

Republican leaders’ avidity to ally themselves with the followers of hate-monger entertainers like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and the Fox News gang is only the beginning of the process that will lead to a political convulsion possibly worse than the one that started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 1861. If it comes, it will certainly be a far more incoherent conflict. The guerilla forces of the radical right will not know whether they are fighting for WalMart, or the Financial Services arm of General Electric, or against abortions, or for bigger and better freeways, or the rights of thoracic surgeons to drive families into bankruptcy, or against the idea of climate change, or evolution, or Jews-in-the-media, or their neighbors having something they feel envious about….

When you hear about pictures of nooses left on the desks of black legislators, rocks thrown through windows and death threats left on voice mail of white ones, calls to chase out of the country undocumented immigrants — or worse — don’t let anyone tell you those are isolated incidents.  They’re not.  They’re incited by political radio and TV hosts on whom the First Amendment bestows much more latitude than they can handle responsibly, and a bunch of politicians and associated wing nuts who think guns are the cure for all evil.

Hitler was promising “real” Germans a return to prosperity by blaming the Jews for their financial distress.  And all the while, many Jews, and Catholics, and Romani people, and others who didn’t fit the Aryan model, were saying the threats and attacks were isolated incidents and things wouldn’t get worse. Guess what happened.

The economy has a major role in this madness: When you’re stretched thin enough, when you have the weaponry and the will to use it, the likelihood that one more straw will break your back is enormous. When people in positions of authority — in politics, government, or media — encourage you to violent action, the chance you’ll lash out increases by an order of magnitude.

Get enough of these people ready to pop off, give them a target — liberals, blacks, immigrants, Jews — and there comes a time when the toothpaste is out of the tube and there’s no putting it back. Hitler did it. Limbaugh/Beck/Palin/Bachman can do it.

When an obviously psychotic man posts blogs threatening death to specific politicians, as is the case with Rep. Eric Cantor, now that’s an isolated incident. Unfortunately, this kind of  pathology is fostered by those who have the platform — and enough violence and madness in themselves — to encourage this kind of behavior. And Cantor’s wouldbe assassin has been arrested; doubtless, he’ll be hospitalized and, if it’s possible, healed, which is how it should be.

That’s what happens when you’re sick and violent.  If you’re just inciting others to violence, you get a free pass, and can continue spreading your toxins to those whose emotional immune systems have failed them.

This is what makes it even more scary: In the wrong hands, provisions of the PATRIOT Act having to do with surveillance and arresting people and holding them indefinitely, without charges or trial, make dissent increasingly dangerous.  And who knows anymore which are the wrong hands?

If it could happen in highly educated, culturally sophisticated Germany of the 1930s, it can happen here. We can watch it happen, or we can call them out on it every time they open their foul mouths to spout hatred and hint at violence. There are more of us than there are of them. That should count for something.

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