Revenge of the Little People
"Ambition is not a vice of little people," or so posited the French essayist, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. When it comes to the sins of radicals, haters, and assassins, however, Montaigne would have been out of his league, since he traveled in the orbit of statesmen and nobility. Frank Rich raised some hackles this week when he spoke of a different sort of ambition: the type that drives lonely fringe dwellers to seek out and kill those who represent their deepest foes and fears.
In his column "The Obama Haters' Silent Enablers," Rich angered many conservatives by extending the discussion of "right-wing extremists" in the wake of recent scenes of carnage and Fox's Shepard Smith's analysis of the little people on the fringe who are "out there in a scary place." While many readers may not care for the characterization, his musings offer a chance to look into the real nature of ambition and how it's defined.
A far less famous philosopher -- my father -- was always fond of telling me that "you never worry about the dog that's barking." He's just marking his territory and putting on a show. The dog you really worry about is the one who lays quiet in the grass until your back is turned.
No matter whether they are conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican, our reference to "bomb throwers" is very much misplaced. The people with microphones and audiences may feed red meat into the maw of the invective machine, but you don't see them taking to the malls with an Uzi. They have ambition, but it's for fame and fortune. The ones we have to watch for seem to be the ones who are listening.
Five days per week I have the opportunity to moderate an online chat in conjunction with Ed Morrissey's talk show. We are fortunate in having a host who is not only open to lively discussion across the full range of the political spectrum, but will tolerate no nonsense in terms of criminal activity, hate speech, or rumblings from the lunatic fringe. We have a standing agreement that the chat will not be dominated by truthers, birthers, or other conspiracy theorists. People are immediately ejected for blatant hate speech. Perhaps the most stringently understood and enforced rule is that there is to be absolutely zero tolerance of threats or doing any form of harm to the U.S. president (or anyone else, for that matter), even in a "joking" fashion.
I'm not sure if we should be relieved or frightened that, since last November's election, we have only had to eject three or four people for violating this ban. None of them struck us as being serious or any real threat to elected officials. They were just exhibiting extremely poor judgment and taste. But it's the other comments which I encounter on a daily basis that have me reflecting more on Frank Rich's analysis. Ed Morrissey generally does an admirable job of debating the merits of conservatism over liberalism and the virtues of Republicans as being superior to the sins of Democrats. He makes the odd generalization about "the Left" but is often willing to cast aspersions at the Right as well.
His listeners spice up the chat with much more colorful commentary, however. While not straying into areas of violence, there is a very common thread of remarks which are not restricted to President Obama or any other individual. Rather, they are directed at Democrats and/or liberals in general. There is no need to delve into the list of creative descriptions for members of these groups which you are likely to encounter, but the visceral hatred is palpable in many instances.
Is this phenomenon restricted to the Right? Hardly. I've also participated in both online chats and blog comment moderation for significantly more left-leaning venues. Much of this came during the later portions of the George W. Bush years, after I had been protesting the Iraq war for five years and picking up a strange new set of bedfellows in the process. The Left has their own set of public voices which throw the occasional barbs, but their more unknown followers in the rank and file demonstrate every bit as much hatred when the opportunity arises. The phrase "Bush Derangement Syndrome" may anger our friends on the port side of the political ship, but it was more than appropriate. Sadly, Obama Derangement Syndrome has already taken its place in full force.
When it comes to left-wing extremism, it seems to be a different flavor, but it's just as common. As I mentioned in this space earlier, the left-wing loonies may be more inclined to shove metal spikes into old-growth trees or ram whaling boats, but violent intent and orchestrated mayhem are still easy to find. Again, it's not the ambition of the rich and famous which wind up in the headlines, but the unknown followers who swallow the hellfire of public pabulum and then slip off over their own private edge and take to the road with violent intent.
Rather than the aristocratic experience of Montaigne, in this matter we may be better served by inspirational speaker Zig Zigler, who observed that "the way you see people is the way you treat them." When you see people as living, breathing human beings -- albeit with sometimes radically different points of view -- you approach them as equals where some common ground might be found. The danger lies when we begin to view some group as The Other -- American fascists, commies, rednecks, treehuggers, brownshirts, baby-killers, gay bashers. For most it will result in unkind words and socially inept behavior. For a rare few, anger quietly simmers until some unforeseen trigger sends them to the door with the hardware of violence in hand.
Do we bear some of the responsibility for loading them up with poison? Or would they have simply found another target for their venom when their buttons were pushed? In either case, the way we see people probably is the way we treat them. Let's leave that as food for thought in a season of violence.