Last week, when I wrote
about the birther phenomenon and its parallels to the anti-choice movement,
the phenomenon was still largely relegated to email lists and mainstream media
interviews with wide-eyed conspiracy theorists.
It was alarming because it’s so
widespread and so obviously rooted in a need to express racist contempt towards
Barack Obama and his parents’ interracial relationship, but it didn’t seem like
it would grow much bigger. Well,
obviously I didn’t draw a strong enough parallel between the birthers and the
anti-choice movement. If I’d been paying attention to my own ideas, I would
have realized that as anti-choicers’ frustration with their daily lack of
control over women’s bodies erupts into violence, so too would birther
frustration over the perceived loss of control over the reins of power enjoyed
by white people for the entirety of our nation’s history.
There’s not a formal link between the birther conspiracy
theory and the mobs that are trying to shut down discussion about health care
reform–and not-so-subtly sending the signal that they are flirting with resorting
to violence in order to stop it–but it’s not a coincidence that the birther
energy rolled up into this mob scene, or that the leaders pushing the birther
line are also encouraging
mobs of right wingers to shut down town halls by being disruptive. Unsurprisingly, these mobs have turned
violent, something anyone who’s dealt with the anti-choice protestors could
have told you was inevitable. Right
wing mobs have broken out in violence in Tampa, FL and St. Louis, MO. Journalists, union
activists, and Democrats, who are the perennial favorite villains of right
wing talk radio, seem to be favorite targets for violence and threats.
Looking back over the timeline of the growing volume in
birther conspiracy theories that rolled up into mobs threatening and delivering
violence, it’s easy enough to see what instigating issue activated the right
wing, furious about its loss of power.
Oh, they’ve been angry and right wing violence has been on the rise,
with domestic terrorism incidents that include the murder of Dr. George
Tiller. But there’s organization and
momentum where there wasn’t much before, and as
Sara Robinson points out, the leadership has been more overtly enabling and
cheerleading conspiracy theorists and right wing disruption mobs than they have
before – all in the service of hamstringing health care reform.
As I argued in last week’s column, the birther movement is a
way for the huge percentages of Americans harboring blatantly racist beliefs to
express racist sentiments without coming right out and saying things that are
considered racist now, like using racial slurs or expressing disapproval of
interracial relationships. Every time a
birther engages in spreading the conspiracy theory, he gets to subtly freak out
over the fact that Obama has a white mother and a black father, as well as
imply that African-Americans have no right to claim the office of the
Meanwhile, the opposition to health care reform has taken on
a racist tone that can only be denied by the people who require someone to be
wearing a hood before they’ll admit it’s racism. I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that
one reason that Americans don’t have universal health care already–unlike
every other industrialized Western nation–is that enough white people in power
are so unwilling to share with non-white people that they’d rather go without
than share. History would certainly
indicate this is the case. Ta-Neishi
Coates pointed out that New Deal had to exclude black people to get passed,
for instance. Under Johnson, the social
safety grew expansively, and conservative anger about the Civil Rights Act
blended with conservative anger about social spending. After decades of overtly racist rhetoric
against welfare, opponents were able to scale it down to nothing.
Krugman agrees that the birther thing plus the revolt against health care
reform are part of one big mish mash.
Pointing out that at least half of the mob at one event were on
"socialized" health care–Medicare–demonstrating that their opposition to it
is opposition to other people
getting guaranteed health care, Krugman argues:
But they’re probably reacting less
to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s
doing, than to who he is.
That is, the driving force behind
the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s
behind the "birther" movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.
I’d say that’s exactly what it is. According to research done by
the Kaiser Family Foundation, low-income and uninsured Americans are far
more likely to be members of a racial minority than Americans with insurance.
This fact should surprise no one, and I’m sure that the
teabaggers/birthers/cute-nickname-for-right-wingers showing up at town hall
events are instinctively aware of how much universal health care will benefit
communities of color. And they’re not
It’s frustrating, not just because racism is wrong, but
because it’s stupid. It trips up my
corny meter to say this, but it’s important. We all do better if we all do
better. I’m better off if my neighbors
have access to health care, from a strictly selfish perspective. I want to live in a society that’s productive
and healthy, where disease doesn’t spread unchecked because we’ve written off
huge sectors of our society based on race and class. I look at these right wing mobs and I think
that they just must think that doing the right thing morally (rejecting racism,
getting health care for everyone) must somehow exact a cost from them. But the truth is the opposite. Racism prevents you from seeing how much we
all rely on each other, and therefore how we all do better if we make sure the
most vulnerable amongst us have their basic right to housing, nutrition, and
health care met.