There were lots of political rallies on Saturday, not just the big one on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The Rally to Restore Sanity / Hate of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert projected little in the way of politics from the stage, but did make a plea that people stop demonizing their political rivals and stop elevating exaggeration and hyperbole to the standard political rhetorical technique of American politics.
But the plea fell on deaf ears in some quarters. Musician Ted Nugent told his audience that Republicans were partly to blame that rats had taken over Washington, and he said he wanted to be the Orkin Man for the Democrats. He implied that Democrats are a party for hundreds of millions of welfare queens who won’t work for a living. The pampered star dismisses the tens of millions hard-working Americans who are paid a pittance and whose average income hasn’t increased significantly since 1970, and millions of whom have been put out of work by corrupt and greedy bankers.. Nugent the rock star, in contrast, “works hard.” Here is what Nugent told a Republican crowd in Charleston, West Virginia:
Here is a partial transcript:
‘ (JOINED IN PROGRESS) TED NUGENT, ENTERTAINER: With my children and my wife and my neighbors and my co-workers and my band and my crew and all my hunting buddies, the people at church, the people at school, now we’re talking about an army.
So here’s what we need to do, John. I see a bunch of people out there, and I bet you know a bunch of people. I bet you got friends and I bet you got buddies that go hunting with you and go bowling and go hanging out and barbecue with you that are as frustrated as you and they’re not here.
Go out into your lives, go back to work on Monday and go to church tomorrow and go trick-or-treating and don’t just give away candy, go hey, kid, who you voting for?
Each of you – I am convinced — I’m not in charge. I’m not the boss. But here’s the ugly fact. If each of you, your enthusiastic and you got flags waving and you look good and you got some attitude.
God bless the attitude. I love your attitude. I got some spirit going wild out there today. You’re really turning me on. But here’s how you will win, and if you don’t do this, you’ll lose and Nancy Pelosi will keep her puppet. Here’s how you fumigate the rats . . . If each of you don’t get an army of voters to get John Raese to go to Washington and fix it, if each of you don’t get all your friends, all your co-workers, all your neighbors, everybody in your life, you cannot relax between now and Tuesday. You might not even want to sleep. You might want to realize that it’s not good over bad. It’s good over evil.‘
Nugent’s rhetorical technique is to dehumanize his opponents. Pelosi does not have a political ally but a “puppet.” The Democratic representatives are not humans, but “rats.” He is talking about Al Franken, John Dingell, and Nancy Pelosi. They are rodents and ‘varmints.’ He even uses the language of mass murder against them. He calls for them to be ‘fumigated.’ That the Democratic Party is the party of urban ethnic minorities, of Italian and Polish Catholics, of Jews, of Latinos and African-Americans, and that Nugent was demonizing them before an all-white rally in West Virginia, underlines the ethnic tensions on which he was implicitly playing, and in that context his imagery of extermination is extremely smelly.
Nugent contrasts the vermin in Congress to an imagined organic community of hunters, church-goers, and bowlers, who must mobilize as an “army.” The use of fascist imagery, of solidarity-producing activities producing a martial commitment, is striking. Only about 4 percent of Americans hunt, and only ten percent fish. Less than a third regularly go to church. The organic army he is raising is clearly white, relatively well off, unusually religious, and able to afford rural estates. (Nugent was born and raised in old, white, industrial Detroit but now lives on a farm, from which he did a reality show for clueless city-slickers such as his teenaged self had been).
His flourish is to end on an ominous black and white note. The political battle, he says, is not a matter of choosing good over bad. It is good over evil.
Nugent is a horrible human being, perhaps not all there. He told a British journalist of Iraq in 2006, “Our failure has been not to Nagasaki them.”
This political season has been Nugent’s not Stewart’s. And while some Democrats have occasionally crossed a line, Nugent’s sort of cult-like discourse has been so common on the Republican side of the aisle that we have become inured to it. In fact, CNN broadcast Nugents remarks without comment, without recoiling from their moral ugliness or the danger this way of thinking poses to democracy.
The contrast with the Colbert/Stewart funfest at the Mall could not have been greater, at least as far as the stage went. I am told by someone who was present that the media largely missed how left-liberal the crowd was, with MoveOn.org and other such insignia very widespread. (I was also told that the organizers appear to have underestimated the size of the crowd that would turn out, which came to some 215,000, because they did not have speakers set up down the Mall, only toward the front. Thus, apparently tens of thousands who were present could not actually hear the below, concluding soliloquy by Stewart).
Stewart’s was a gentle ‘can’t we all get along’? plea. It at times seemed to echo Barack Obama’s increasingly naive-sounding 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention about the lack of difference between blue and red America.
I am sympathetic to Stewart’s amazement and disapproval of where political exaggerations in the hothouse petrie dish of 24/7 cable “news” may be taking us.
But with all due respect, I think Stewart’s statement mistook the problems as being solely ones of rhetorical imagery. The 80 percent in America have been royally screwed over for 40 years now. They’ve been deprived of a real share in our increasing national wealth, with wages and compensation having been kept down, in part by massive union-busting. They were robbed of whatever little progress they had made by corrupt or greedy unregulated bankers and financiers,who were mostly bailed out with the people’s money. The “tax cuts” of this century were actually a massive transfer of wealth to the ultra-wealthy. As a result of these transfers, the wealth of the 400 billionaires and the more hundreds of near-billionaires, has increased exponentially since the Reagan tax cuts. And, when the voting public finally seemed to have woken up to the scam, the Right wing deployed phony racial and cultural issues to rile up “whites” to make sure they are kept down and the great billionaire bank robbery can continue. At the same time, much of the wealth at the top derives from environmentally ruinous activities, such as exploitation of hydrocarbons or depleting the oceans of life, or mountain-top removal mining, or selling people cigarettes and other carcinogens, or mounting private security armies for deployment in the country’s ever-increasing war zones. The outcome, over the coming decades, of growing inequality and growing environmental degradation, could be catastrophic.
Me, I worry about whether the Republic can survive a situation in which 1 percent of the population has over 40% of the privately owned financial wealth, or in which they take home a sixth of the nation’s income every year. I worry about tens of millions of unemployed, thrown out of work by deregulation and high-level criminality, and millions more of the working poor barely making ends meet. I worry about the end of commercial fishing and the droughts and dust bowls of climate change. And I think those things are worth getting a little hot under the collar about, and that what politics is is a way of attributing positive and negative traits to political ideas and officials, and making these judgments accessible to the public through affect. I don’t think climate-change deniers, anti-science ignoramuses, or laissez-faire capitalists who screw up the economy and put millions out of work are “nice.” And while I do believe we have to convince them and their followers they are wrong with reasoned democratic discourse, I think some snark and outrage is entirely called for. The political implication of a Nugent-world, were it implemented, is extremely ugly and in fact just in the end wholly unacceptable.
Here are Stewart’s remarks:
And here is a transcript of his talk:
‘ And now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity. If that’s okay – I know that there are boundaries for a comedian / pundit / talker guy, and I’m sure that I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.
So, uh, what exactly was this? I can’t control what people think this was: I can only tell you my intentions.
This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear–they are, and we do.
But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.
The country’s 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.
There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned! You must have the resume! Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Party-ers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult–not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.
The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker–and, perhaps, eczema. And yet… I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us, through a funhouse mirror–and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist, and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead, and an ass shaped like a month-old pumpkin, and one eyeball.
So why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle, to a pumpkin-assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable–why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution, and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?
We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don’t is here (in Washington) or on cable TV!
But Americans don’t live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done–not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.
Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.
(Points to video screen, showing video of cars in traffic.) Look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That’s a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he’s going to work. There’s another car, a woman with two small kids, can’t really think about anything else right now… A lady’s in the NRA, loves Oprah. There’s another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.
But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear–often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers’. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river.
And they do it, concession by concession: you go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. ‘Oh my God–is that an NRA sticker on your car?’ ‘Is that an Obama sticker on your car?’ It’s okay–you go, then I go.
And sure, at some point, there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder, and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst!
Because we know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land.
Sometimes, it’s just New Jersey.’