Wednesday, November 28, 2012

HATE AND SELF-DOUBT IN AMERICAN POLITICS: Sen. J. W. Fulbright’s 1963 Examination of The American Character

Years ago I viewed elections as competitive sporting events in which political teams gave their all, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.  I supposed that when an election was over, the teams shook hands, and the winners celebrated while the losers dusted themselves off and plotted to win the next match. No hard feelings.

Of course such a view was naive and over time I came to realize that elections are not a sport and they create hard feelings.  Unlike sporting events, elections have consequence that can be immense because they enable government actions to take things, such as money and status, from some people and give those things to others.

The Role of Hate in Politics

My view of politics-as-sport ignored much of what was going on around me in the late ‘50s and early 60s.  While the political scene seemed placid to a casual teenage observer, plenty of hate was at work.  Men and women wearing the mantle of anti-communist, Christian crusader, or die-hard segregationist spread their raw hatred of people and public officials whose ideas differed from theirs.  But they were not the only ones to do so. As I came to understand, both hate and love are common elements in politics.

While most of the extremist groups from the ‘50s and ‘60s have faded to irrelevancy or disappeared, they have been replaced by others with equally twisted views.  More importantly, the hate that inspired these groups has, to some extent, been mainstreamed, often encouraged by ideological movements and their propagandists. These movements use all available media to spread outrage, anger, fear, and hate among their followers.  These emotions fuel political battles with cultural or social or racial enemies.    

In truth, I never fully understood the power of hate in politics until the election of George W. Bush as president. Before him, I had disliked some politicians, but had never hated them.  However, by the end of Bush’s third year in office, I deeply loathed him and what he was doing.  Given such feelings about Bush, his re-election was not only incomprehensible to me, but also deeply disappointing and scary. 

Accepting the Undesirable Results of an Election: Humility and Self-Doubt

When the 2004 election was over, I (presumably like millions of other people) had to reconcile myself to its outcome.  I had to accept that my views did not prevail this time. Reconciliation with an undesired election result requires a bit of humility (the collective decision has been made and I am part of this collective) and a dollop of self-doubt (maybe Bush is not as bad as I believe).

As someone who had dipped his toes into the pool of political hate, I had some understanding of the nasty noises of Pres. Obama’s detractors, although it seemed strange that they started even before he took office. I certainly did not agree with most of the critics, found the willful miscomprehensions of some to be detestable, and quickly tired of the flow of lies from the true haters. Over time, I was appalled by the bitter, personal nature of the attacks on Obama and by the insane name calling: the names of Hitler and Stain were invoked by some of the most rabid extremists. (Of course, many people simply disliked Obama’s policies and decisions, and strongly stated their views, as they should have. Their criticism and opposition are part of the functioning of a normal democracy.)

By November 2012, Obama opponents, including the haters, had had four years to state their opinions and do their upmost to convince voters to remove Obama from office.  They failed.            

I hoped, but not really expected, that the failure to defeat Obama would lead some extreme anti-Obama zealots, through self reflection, to find a measure of political humility and self doubt and reconcile themselves to the results.  Perhaps for some, the election results did cause a questioning of the certitude of their views. However, Obama’s decisive victory clearly had little impact on others: the election results gave them more things to hate, including the millions of people who voted for him.

A good example of this response can be found in the messages of a Facebook “friend” who, starting many months before the election, had posted a generous flow of anti-Obama propagated created by groups who despise him.  After the election results were known, he wrote (or copied from someone; I don’t know which) the following into Facebook comments:

The danger to America is not Barack Obama, but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him to the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of an Obama presidency that to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president. The problem is deeper and far more serious than Mr. Obama, who is a mere symptom of what ails America. Blaming the prince of fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him the prince. The Republic can survive a Barack Obama, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him president.

A related message from this person conveyed this nonsensical statement:  “We the people can blame the people who voted for Obama for 4 more years.”  He also wrote, “A lot of people are buying guns. I’m buying food. If you want to eat it’s going to cost a lot more.”

From these messages, we see a person who has gone beyond his hatred of Obama to deep contempt for the 61 million fellow Americans who voted for him in the 201 election.  According to him, they (we) are members of the “depraved electorate” and a “confederacy of fools.” They (we) are people who are a threat to the Republic.

Messages with similar sentiments, usually oozing with the venom, can be found in un-moderated comments on news stories, on far-right web sites, and in the opinion columns of rabidly conservative magazines.  Also, extremist public figures, public officials and preachers have chimed in with the latest manifestations of their deep hatred of Obama and, now, the voters who favored him.

Sen. J.W. Fulbright Talks about “The American Character”

As I thought about the new flow of invective from anti-Obama extremists, I ran across a speech related to the topic in Senator J. W. Fulbright’s papers at the University of Arkansas Special Collections library. It reminded me that hate manifested by extremists is not a recent phenomenon.  Fulbright knew all about them. Right wing zealots had often attacked him during his three decades in public office. Fulbright’s files are full of letters from people charging that he was an unpatriotic traitor, a communist, and worse.    

Fulbright gave this speech on December 5, 1963, just a couple of weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which gave it an emotional edge.  It was titled “The American Character,” and was delivered at a ceremony bestowing the 1963 Rockefeller Public Service Award on five distinguished recipients. 

Apparently the speech struck a chord across the nation. According to a letter Fulbright wrote in April 1964 to R. B. McCallum, his former Pembroke College instructor at Oxford, his office had been swamped with over 10,000 letters responding to it, most of them favorable to his views.  (The letter to McCallum is in the Fulbright Papers, Series 88 Subseries 11 Box 19 at the University of Arkansas Special Collections Library; the complete speech, which was published in the Congressional Record a few days after it was delivered, can be found at this Scribd link:

Fulbright Examines the Dark Side of the American Character

Sen. Fulbright began his speech by suggesting that Americans in most respect are “decent, civilized, and humane” people. In most ways, our values reflect the dominant values of Western Civilization including  “tolerance and moderation” and “empiricism and practicality.”

However, United States society is also influenced by a darker strand of Western Civilization, a strand that manifests intolerance and violence among some people. Fulbright noted that this strain is easy to see:

It is in evidence all around us. It is in evidence in the senseless and widespread crime that makes the streets of our great cities unsafe. It is in evidence in the malice and hatred of extremist political movements. And it is in evidence in the cruel bigotry of race that lends to such tragedies as the killing of Negro children in a church in Alabama.
Fulbright pointed to “moral absolutism” as the force in Western Civilization that has contributed to “righteous crusading and intolerance.” He told his audience:

Whether religious or political in form, movements of crusading moralism have played a significant, and usually destructive, role in the evolution of Western societies. Such movements, regardless of the content of their doctrines, have all been marked by a single characteristic: the absolute certainty of their own truth and virtue. Each has regarded itself as having an exclusive pipeline to heaven, to God or to a deified concept of History – or to whatever is regarded as the ultimate source of truth. Each has regarded itself as the chosen repository of truth and virtue and each has regarded all nonbelievers as purveyors or falsehood and evil.

These movements are free from any element of doubt as to their own truth and virtue. Their zeal and certitude has led “in the name of noble purpose” to “unspeakable acts” dating back to the burning live of heretics in medieval times.

The moral absolutism was brought to the United States by Puritans. According to Fulbright:

Their religion was Calvinism, an absolutist faith with a stern moral code promising salvation for the few, damnation for the many. The intolerant, witch-hunting Puritanism of seventeenth century Massachusetts was not a major religious movement in America. It eventually became modified and as a source of ethical standards made a worthy contribution to American life. But the Puritan way of thinking, harsh and intolerant, permeated the political and economic life of the country and became a major secular force in America. Coexisting uneasily with our English heritage of tolerance and moderation, the Puritan way of thinking has injected an absolutist strand into American thought – a strand of stern moralism in our public policy and in our standard of personal behavior (emphasis in original speech).

Another factor shaping American character was “the experience of the frontier.” Fulbright described its influence this way:

The frontier experience taught us the great value of individual initiative and self-reliance in the development of our resources and of our national economy. But the individualism of the frontier, largely untempered by social and legal restraints, has also had an important influence on our political life and on our personal relations. It has generated impatience with the complex and tedious procedures of law and glorified the virtues of direct individual action. It has instilled in us an easy familiarity with violence and vigilante justice. In the romanticized form in which it permeates the television and other mass media, the mythology of the frontier conveys the message that killing a man is not as long as you don’t shoot him in the back, that violence is only reprehensible when its purpose is bad and that in fact it is commendable and glorious when it is perpetuated by good men for a good purpose.

Moral absolutism, the negative aspects of the frontier mentality, and other factors had a negative influence on post-World War II politics. According to Fulbright:

The voices of suspicion and hate have been heard throughout the land. They were heard a decade ago when statesmen, private citizens, and even high ranking members of the armed forces were charged with treason, subversion, and communism, because they had disagreed with or somehow displeased the Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy. They are heard today when extremist groups do not hesitate to call a former President or the Chief Justice of the United States a traitor and a Communist. They are heard in the mail which United States Senators receive almost daily charging them with communism and treason because they voted for the foreign aid bill or for the nuclear test ban treaty.

This malice and hatred which have become part of our politics cannot be dismissed as the normal excesses of a basically healthy society. They have become far too common. They are beyond the pale of normal political controversy in which honest men challenge each other’s judgment and opinions but not each other’s motives and integrity. The excesses of the extremists in our country have created an intolerable situation in which we must all guard our words and the expression of an unorthodox point of view is an extraordinary act of courage.

Fulbright suggested that the “prevailing atmosphere of suspicion and hate” found in the United States “spawned” the assassination of President Kennedy, even if it was not a direct cause. He hoped that the death could be redeemed by actions to reduce or eliminate the poisoned atmosphere.

He urged calling forth “the basic decency of America,” which might be possible because of the “national revulsion against extremism and violence” following the assassination. He sensed that there was a desire among Americans to heal of the wounds of “divisiveness and hate.” Above all, he suggested efforts to reshape the character of controversies to conduct them “as the honest differences of honest men in the quest for a consensus.” He said:

We can come to recognize that those who disagree with us are not necessarily attacking us but only our opinions and ideas. Above all, we must maintain the element of doubt as to our convictions, recognizing that it was not given to any man to perceive ultimate truth and that, however unlikely it may seem, there may in fact be truth or merit in the views of those who disagree with us. (Emphasis in the original.)

Fulbright concluded his speech with a plea to “revive and strengthen the central core of our national heritage, which is the legacy of liberty, tolerance, and moderation that come to us from the ancient world through a thousand years of English history and three hundred centuries of democratic evolution in North American.”  According to Fulbright,

It is this historic legacy which is the best and the strongest of our endowments. It is our proper task to strengthen and cultivate it in the years ahead. If we do so, patiently and faithfully, we may arrive before too long at a time when the voices of hate will no longer be heard in our land and the death of our President will be redeemed.

Fulbright’s Hope Unrealized

Unfortunately, based on recent experiences with governing and elections in the United States, it is clear that Fulbright’s prescriptions either were not implemented or they did not work. We failed to redeem the murder of President Kennedy and to realize the hopes of Senator Fulbright for an American political system characterized by self-doubt, toleration, and moderation that permit civil discourse about our most difficult problems.  The politics of hate thrives among a portion of our citizens who believe they possess knowledge of absolute truth that is either unavailable to or ignored by people who do not agree with them. In 2012, as in 1963, the American Character – fine, generous, and admirable in many ways – still has its dark elements that stain democracy.

But, of course, I could be wrong.