Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Days of rage


What is happening to us? What explains the boorishness, hate and even violence that increasingly mark our politics?

No, this isn't another prissy commentary on "negative" ads—another high-sounding homily on how we ought to focus on "the issues," by which the writer means "the issues that I think voters should focus on." Nor is this a screed against demonstrations, however boisterous, or some young fools' lawn-sign stealing. There's no interest here in trampling on free-speech rights or spitting into the wind of what must be a rite of passage.

What troubles me—what should trouble us all—is the outbreak of largely liberal intolerance we've seen over the last few elections, and especially this one.

Something's happening here, and it's getting scary.

We've had two 23-year-old males in Portland tossing Molotov cocktails to burn down Gene Scrutton's John McCain sign in the Sellwood neighborhood.

In Minnesota, graffiti messages ("u r a criminal resign or else") were spray-painted on the garage of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's St. Paul home.

A 23-year-old Michigan man, a Democrat, has admitted to plotting to detonate a homemade bomb in the tunnels near the Republican convention.

In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, a motel with a McCain sign on its lawn received threatening calls and a McCain-signed pumpkin patch was vandalized.

In central Florida, the Republican headquarters manager told police he believed that his home with two McCain signs was shot up because of his support for McCain.

It doesn't involve physical violence, threatened or real, but "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart's "[expletive] you" to Sarah Palin in a recent comedy (?) act suggests how far we've gone in the age of the unhinged.

Yes, I know this stuff runs both ways. Here in Oregon, we had the hanging of an Obama cut-out at Newberg's George Fox University. The Washington Post reports that Obama signs in Alexandria, Va., were painted with racist epithets. We learned Friday that a McCain campaign worker's claim that she was beaten up and had the letter "B" cut into her face because her car had a McCain sticker was a hoax. Such deranged doings are just as appalling when it comes from the right, though my sense is that this hate-filled intolerance more often comes out of left field.

I also know we're a big country, and a few goofballs do not a national trend make. But I don't think I'm committing sociology based on a few incidents. We're talking about more than a few beer-addled goofballs here.

A young friend of mine was working for the Bush campaign in 2004. One weekend he left his car outside a friend's Eugene house for safekeeping while he was out of town. Upon returning, he noticed the "W" sticker had been removed from his car. Hey, buddy, you were supposed to take care of my car, he said to his friend. Oh, yeah, his friend said, my father did that when he was here this weekend. He couldn't stand a student having a Bush sticker on his car.

Now, mind you, this wasn't a practical joke. The father was dead serious, and he wasn't some ne'er-do-well with a six-pack of beer aboard. He was an immaculately credentialed Portland professional who also headed a major community organization.

I love politics and public policy, but the ugliness, the anger, the coarseness and even the threats of violence I've experienced as a conservative opinion-writer in achingly "tolerant" Portland have contributed to my decision to leave the business after this election. My heart was starting to harden—do we conservatives not have hearts, do we not bleed?—and I didn't want that to happen.

I joked at first about some of it. When a reader sent me my column covered with dried feces, I looked on the bright side. He could have said he wouldn't .... on my column. I took comfort in the fact that law officers visited the Iraq War foe (a peace advocate!) and the liberal critic (a Portland public school teacher!) who threatened my family. But the constant expletive-laced rants, the nifty Nazi-Hitler-German references, the holier-than-thou hate for any opposing view from the half-informed—well, it's not what our public discourse should be about. It wasn't in a better age. If I sometimes responded in kind (and I did), forgive me.

What accounts for this rage? Maybe it's that so many feel the White House was stolen from them eight years ago. Maybe they just feel entitled to rule. (Dude, where's my country?) Maybe it's the Iraq War. Or George Bush, though many lefties have worked themselves into the same derangement syndrome over Palin. Maybe the cause is deeper. I don't know. I only know it's not a good thing for civil society.

Obama's not my candidate—McCain is—but, if he's elected on Nov. 4, Obama will be my president and I'll be happy to cheer two things. One, the fact that the United States has, at long last, elected an African-American president. Two, the possibility that Obama's election might deliver us from this nastiness. I think it's called the audacity of hope.

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