Monday, August 17, 2009

The GOP's Courtship of Our Reptilian Brain

Republicans. Aren't they just about the cutest things ever?

(Warning: This is a long but ultimately worthwhile post. Anyone who thinks they might have to go to the restroom, go now.)

Reflecting upon what's been happening in health care hysteria over the past month, I am immediately reminded of Ridley Scott's 1984 futuristic Reagan-era classic, The Terminator, starring the greatest action hero and worst California governor of the past 25 years.

In the film, we discover that the gay-pride-parade-bedazzled Terminator, an amoral futuristic cyborg, who possesses no regard for organic life, is hell-bent on killing "Sah-rah Kahn-ah." He stalks his prey relentlessly and ruthlessly, using the most destructive means at his disposal. Now, not only has some anonymous intergalactic douche programmed The Terminator to eliminate Connor; he's also apparently wired this monster to accomplish the task while simultaneously producing the greatest amount of violence, misery, and mayhem possible (Cue Arnie's Austrian accent: Surgical strikes are for pussies.)

During the first two acts of the film, we never once wonder about The Terminator's allegiance, though his snazzy Ray Bans, ass-hugging leather pants, PhD in ass-kickin', and deliciously hokey comebacks make him virtually impossible to hate (Add to that fact that, at this point, most of us didn't know he was Republican.) That is, until his "human" skin unsheathes and we finally see this thing for what it truly is: A cold, indomitable, malevolent incarnation of all things evil. It is at this point that most - if not all - of us resolve to root against The Terminator for the balance of the movie. Shame on us, though, for being seduced by Arnie's artificially pumped-up moobies and unforgettable one-liners, for we knew he was Timothy McVeigh on 'roids all along.

Enter the Grand Old Party of the past three decades, the pre-unsheathed Terminator, if you will, which continues to exist despite its ever growing reputation for faux folksy populism, exploitation of American fear, and an incessant reliance upon a seemingly endless reserve of American ignorance. 

And in case there's any question in your head about this last point, please watch this.

Oh, and Bill, you forgot to mention this.

These characteristics of the GOP are not revelations to any progressives who've been paying attention to politics at any point between Nixon's "I am not a crook" and Palin's "I can see Russia from my house."

And many of the Republican misdeeds we've witnessed since 1973 - Watergate, Iran Contra, Reaganomics, attack-dog politics, the Florida recount, alliances with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and all the major health insurers, the rise of cronyism, the courtship of "values" voters, Jack Abramoff, ineptitude, the prevention of scientific inquiry and research, chronic lying, the suppression of dissent, Terri Shiavo, hardball politics, preemptive war, the accumulation of massive debt, wire-tapping, Swift-Boating, scapegoating, homophobia, no-bid contracts, and "Disaster Capitalism" - have done little to dissuade a large segment of the populace from continuing their unwavering support, irrespective of whether or not it's in their best interest to do so. 

In his landmark 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank writes,

On closer inspection, the country seems more like a panoroma of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

And then:

Meatpacking Garden City [Kansas] voted for George W. Bush in even greater numbers than did affluent Johnson County. The blue-collar, heavily unionized city of Wichita used to be one of the few Democratic strongholds in the state; in the nineties it became on of the most consistently conservative places of them all, a mighty fortress in the wars over abortion, evolution, loose interpretation of the Constitution, and water fluoridation.

In a genius maneuver, the GOP discovered several decades ago that they'd never be able to hold power at any level of government based on their policies alone, which, for the most part, called for power-shitting on anyone not netting at least a mid- six-figure income: unfettered free markets, rampant deregulation, bare-bones social services, tax breaks for the wealthiest 3 percent, and the overall preservation of a system that maintains a strict socioeconomic order, making the rich richer, the poor more destitute, and the middle-class perpetually in the urinal. 

But who in the hell would ever vote for a candidate espousing less healthcare, lower pay, and diminished social services for Joe and Flo Blow from East Idaho - in addition to a rigged game that funnels ever more money to the bankers and CEOs of this world? Exactly: No one. In their right minds, at least. 

So why then does the working class - the demographic that can least afford another round of suppressed wages, job outsourcing, tax cuts for aristocrats, and de-fanged regulation - continue on with this endless cycle of political self-flagellation? 

The answer to this question may lie in a dusty study in Northern California, some thirty-plus years ago.

(The scene: Stanford's Hoover Institute, sometime in the mid-1970s. The door creaks open, revealing two patrician, middle-aged men in Brooks Brothers suits, sipping aged brandy. Both are balding almost by the minute. One is Karl; the other is Karl's lackey, Mr. Twizzlesticks).

Karl: This goddamned McGovern. Let's see: What qualities does the American citizen possess that we can most easily exploit to our electoral advantage? 
Mr. Twizzlesticks: Well, first off, Americans love their bibles - and much of the country is trending toward Evangelical Christianity. So we definitely need to get on board with the J.C. - like yesterday. Then, there's that stubborn puritanical strain embedded in much of the nation's DNA - you know, no sex out of wedlock, unless, of course you then subsequently decide to keep the baby, get married and run for public office, no abortion - even in cases of rape and incest, no divorce - 
Karl: Even if, at some point you decide that you prefer young men named Chad giving you "neck massages" in the sauna room, 
Mr. Twizzlesticks: Exactly. Uh, where was I? 
Karl: Incest.
Mr. T-sticks: Oh. Yeah. I was done with that, though. How about a distrust and general dislike of dark people - except maybe for some Hindi Indians? 
Karl: And Clarence Thomas.
Mr. T-sticks: Who's he?
Karl: Some pencil-pushing black dude with a law degree. We'll make him a Supreme Court Justice one day, just to make everyone think it's all on the up and up.
Mr. T-Sticks: Of course, sir.
Karl: How about also a dogged fear of change of any kind. These people need to know that we intend to keep this country looking like their favorite Thomas Kincaid painting for evermore. And no Thomas Kincaid painting I know of has Mexicans in it. Or blacks. Or gays. Or crackheads. Or socialists. Or fissures in the American social fabric. And another thing: The average American isn't terribly educated, well-read, worldly, or analytical. So keep things simple. Nuance is death on policy - people think that you're talking down to them. Or that you're a pussy. Neither is good. 
Mr. T-Sticks: Indeed -
Karl: Good is good, bad is bad. You either have friends or enemies. You're either with the terrorists or against them -
Mr. T-Sticks: Sir?
Karl: Nevermind. We'll save that one for a special occasion. Are you getting all this down? This is prime stuff here.
Mr. T-Sticks: Oh yes - of course.
Karl: This snifter of 100-year-old cask-aged Scotch I'm drinking right now is either dry or it's not. Get me?
Mr. T-Sticks: Absolutely, sir.
Karl: Freedom or bondage. Liberty or oppression. Open markets or communism. And remember, Middle America doesn't have the intellect to withstand the emotional power of their reptilian brains. We need to appeal to their reptilian brains! 
Mr. T-Sticks: What's a rep -
Karl: Emotion, struggle, survival, desire, vengeance. 
Mr. T-Sticks: (scribbling frenetically) It's all very biblical, sir.
Karl: Veeerrry biblical. Yahweh would've played exceptionally well in Kansas, had he made a gubonatorial run. These folks - and let's call them folks from now on - these folks need to think that their way of life is constantly under siege.
Mr. T-Sticks: Under siege? From whom, sir? From what?
Karl: Twizzle, have you learned nothing from me? From change. And they need reassurance from us that we will do everything in our collective power - providing they keep us in office - to protect them from the tide of change - from the gays and minorities and dirty movies and sexy clothing and rap music, and...and...
Mr. T-Sticks: Commies, sir?
Karl: And the commies. Especially the commies. Oh, also - get all this down...
Mr. T-Sticks: Yes, sir. Go ahead.
Karl: More guns.
Mr. T-Sticks: For whom?
Karl: For everyone. Every damn one. These fools love their guns, almost as much as their god. We need to make sure that they know we're okay with that. Also, more war.
Mr. T-Sticks: More...war. By that do you mean defending other countries, defending our homeland, or preemptive war - or surgical strikes as a show of American might?
Karl: Yes. One last thing. Are you ready?
Mr. T-Sticks: Of course, sir.
Karl: No, I'm serious. You need to be ready for this one. Are you really ready?
Mr. T-Sticks: Absolutely, sir.
Karl: Okay. Here goes. More flags. American flags. Everywhere. Draped from buildings, painted as murals on walls and billboards, fashioned into jewelry - pendants and so forth. Most importantly, we need to adopt it as the symbol of the new Republican party. 
Mr. T-Sticks: But I thought that was the Dixie flag, sir.
Karl: Shut up, Twizzlesticks. No one likes a wise-ass.
Mr. T-Sticks: But sir?
Karl: What is it now?
Mr. T-Sticks: What if we promised to protect them from real things?
Karl: Wuh?
Mr. T-Sticks: Real things. Like what if we said we'd protect them against bursting dams or polluted air or harmful pesticides or, God forbid, catastrophic illness? 
Karl: (Spits out his brandy, forces Twizzlesticks to clean up and refill his sifter, resulting in a five minute break in the action.) That sounds like a sensational idea, Mr. Twizzlesticks. And right after we do that, we can tell all the corporate hacks who've put us in this position to go straight to hell! Idiot!
Mr. T-Sticks: A thousand pardons, sir.
Karl: You should have your honorary Yale law degree revoked this instant!
Mr. T-Sticks: Sir, you're right. How can I ever -
Karl: And your honorary MBA...and your honorary doctorate.


(Author's Note: The above conversation never actually took place. Or did it?)

So now I present to you the worst recipe since my Aunt Tessie's ambrosia salad: A hot-button issue, typically off-message Democrats, an overly cautious president, a phlegmatic mainstream media, health insurance lobbiests, angry, white - frequently armed - males over 50, incendiary right-wing talk radio hosts, stratospheric levels of ignorance, the always well-oiled GOP fear machine, and the ill-advised town hall "I Feel Your Pain" open forum. (They may as well just dangle a sign across the facade of these places that reads, in scrawled chicken blood, "Welcome Rural Survivalists, Disenfranchised Loonies, and Heavily-Armed Cult Leaders.

Naturally, the media is intoxicated by all the high drama of our nation's "Cops" alumni parading through these town halls, monopolizing microphones, and having conniption fits in front of their congressman or senator. Meanwhile, the handful of sane individuals who still possess most of their mental faculties, some of their original teeth, and actual questions about the nuts and bolts of health care policy get zero camera time and no impending reality show deal.

Summoned by right-wing groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity - both with strong ties to the health insurance industry (surprise!) - many of the crazies at these venues have, predictably, turned irrational - even mobbish - engaging in far more screaming, name-calling, and emotional melt-downing than actual dialogue. From The Times:

“This is about the dismantling of this country,” Katy Abram, 35, said forcefully to Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause. “We don’t want this country to turn into Russia.”

And then:

“It says plainly right there they want to limit the type of care elderly can get,” said Laurel Tobias, an office manager from Lebanon, referring to a bill in the House. “They are talking about killing people.”

It says plainly right where, exactly? Has Laurel Tobias of Lebanon, Pennsylvania somehow gotten her paws on an advanced draft of Congress' final health care proposal. She has indeed. Except it's the congressional draft that exists only inside her head, along with a firm belief in butterscotch waterfalls, rainbow-colored unicorns, and that Jesus' profile appeared in her Cocoa Pebbles this morning.

Because down here, on planet earth, such a thing has yet to be crafted. There's currently five different unfinished bills, each bouncing around a different congressional committee, with no real resolution in sight. So then who's responsible for manufacturing and propagating such falsities? Once again, from the New York Times:

On Thursday, Mr. Grassley [Republican senator from Iowa] said in a statement that he and others in the small group of senators that was trying to negotiate a health care plan had dropped any “end of life” proposals from consideration.

And yet...

A pending House bill has language authorizing Medicare to finance beneficiaries’ consultations with professionals on whether to authorize aggressive and potentially life-saving interventions later in life.

Also known as killing Grandma. Seriously, how does one get from "aggressive and potentially life-saving interventions later in life" to "euthanize Nanna"? Oh, that's right - I almost forgot: We're dealing with professional bullshitters. Here's yet another nugget from another key Republican voice:

The syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote, “No one should be surprised at the coming embrace of euthanasia.” The Washington Times editorial page reprised its reference to the Nazis, quoting the Aktion T4 program: “It must be made clear to anyone suffering from an incurable disease that the useless dissipation of costly medications drawn from the public store cannot be justified.”

Wait, you weren't aware that Obama and his congressional allies were Nazis? What cave have you been hiding in? 

The extent to which it and other provisions have been misinterpreted in recent days, notably by angry speakers at recent town hall meetings but also by Ms. Palin — who popularized the “death panel” phrase — has surprised longtime advocates of changes to the health care system.

And here's the actual quote:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgement of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Bureaucrats? Subjective? Productivity? Look who's finally cracked open the shrink wrap on her Kaplan Vocabulary for the SAT flash cards! Nice work, Madame Crazy. 

And, finally, sage words from the always incisive Glenn Beck:

“Sometimes for the common good, you just have to say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, you’ve had a good life.’ ” 

Because he wields it with the facility that Renoir would have wielded his pallet knife, sometimes Beck's sarcasm is almost too subtle to discern. 

Most of the people who've been screaming their heads off at town halls are precisely the types who should despise The Right's economic policies: They're frustrated, disenfranchised, unemployed - and scared shitless. These are individuals who shouldn't be shouting into a microphone, red-faced and teary-eyed, lamenting the onset of socialism (They should be so lucky!)  They should be embracing a more humane society, one in which safety nets exist to protect us from financial, environmental, and health catastrophies -  any of which can happen to any one of us at any time. 

From The Times, comes the story of Lawrence Yurdin, a 64-year-old computer specialist:

Although the brochure on his Aetna policy seemed to indicate it covered up to $150,000 a year in hospital care, the fine print excluded nearly all of the treatment he received at an Austin, Tex., hospital. He and his wife, Claire, filed for bankruptcy last December, as his unpaid medical bills approached $200,000.

And then:

“Underinsurance is the great hidden risk of the American health care system,” said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who has analyzed medical bankruptcies. “People do not realize they are one diagnosis away from financial collapse.”

Last week, a former Cigna executive warned at a Senate hearing on health insurance that lawmakers should be careful about the role they gave private insurers in any new system, saying the companies were too prone to “confuse their customers and dump the sick.”

But we just can't help ourselves, can we? Imprisoned by a cascade of emotions, ignorance, and biases - all of which The Right adroitly reinforces through catchy sound bytes, double-speak, and an array of other common propaganda techniques seemingly lifted straight out of Animal Farm Cliffs Notes - leaves the average American incredibly vulnerable to intellectual manipulation.

And instead of shunning these disingenuous, villainous thieves, nearly half of the American electorate continue to align themselves with them.  

Now that we see the villain for what it truly is, it's not too late to root for the good guys (assuming they still exist).

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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