The rage over the recent health care legislation is as Frank Rich wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times must-read op-ed, “disproportionate…to its proximate cause.” His is the first article I’ve seen that addresses the underlying issues driving what some might call an hysterical overreaction to what The Wall Street Journal noted is legislation based on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts bill and contains what used to be considered Republican ideas (sorry, you have to be a subscriber to get the full Journal editorial so you’ll have to take Rich’s word for it).
The reality behind the outrage, the wild accusations, and the violence is difficult, controversial, and perhaps even unpleasant. Accepting the premise requires that one step back from strongly-held convictions on the left and the right. While objectivity and rationality are myths, still it is possible to recognize one’s own biases and attempt to keep them in check.
Rich argues that the last time we saw this kind of reaction to legislation was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. More than social security or Medicare or Medicaid, “it was the one that signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance.” But the Civil Rights Act was only the beginning of the creation of a new American identity. In the twelve months ending in July 2008, 48 percent of babies born in the United States were Asian, black or Hispanic; by 2012, that figure will pass one-half, which means that white babies will be in the minority.
Whites as the new minority? How could this happen? This country was founded as a white, Christian nation. Even the Constitution makes that clear. Despite the WASP disgust and dismay over the hordes of Irish, Germans, Jews, and others flooding into their country in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at least those people were white; they assimilated, and the changes they made to the identity of America were, in the long run, tolerable.
No longer. For decades, whites have watched as our vision of America has been slowly replaced by themes and cultures many of us neither understand nor appreciate. Until recently, white people rarely thought of themselves as white; we just were. Blacks, on the other hand, could never escape the ever-present reminder of their difference from the majority, ruling class. But when we white people are the in the minority, what then?
At some point in the future, there will be more Members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, lobbyists and lawyers, doctors, chefs, police officers, members of the Armed Forces…you get the point…who are not white people. When you see the mobs roiled by the pitiful Palin or the large Limbaugh or the babbling Beck or the frenetic Foxettes, what’s really going on is that they’re terrified about losing their country. The one reliable constant about human beings is that we hate change—for all our rhetorical flourishes about embracing it. Our brains are wired from the old cave days to see change as dangerous, and we haven’t come that far in terms of our biological evolution to overcome that bias.
Any white person who claims not to be a little unnerved by all this is either denying or lying. As a good liberal, I accept this new vision of America, whatever it will be, as inevitable and probably even good. But I hate fusion food, and I’ll never learn to like rap or hip-hop which is o.k. because I’ve never been able to understand modern, atonal classical music either. And while I don’t condone the current language or behavior of the right wing, I think I understand them better, and, to quote an infamous former president, I feel their pain. Of course, if the violence continues and escalates, we'll all be feeling pain.
Now if you’re not white, you’re probably weeping great crocodile tears through your ridiculing laughter. “These silly white people. Whatever happens serves them right. You can always move back to Europe from whence you came. I’m sure they’ll welcome you with open arms.” While a fair point of view given American history, it misses one minor possibility: That the extreme right-wing won’t go down, whatever that means, without a fight, that a cultural change of this magnitude is rarely smooth and painless for any of the participants.
It's not his fault, but Obama cannot be the president who rises above partisanship to bring us all together; he is the future some people fear above all else, and one discounts the extent of that fear at one’s peril. The current debate about whether the new health care law is a harbinger of some socialist plot is a smoke screen. We’ll hear the same hysterical overreactions from all sides on the financial reform and immigration issues.
What we probably won’t hear is a discussion about what’s really going on—many white Americans see the future, and they’re afraid it won’t include them. Are they wrong? Beats me. The only thing I’m sure of is…
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