Through the right-wing looking glass
Carlton M. Caves
2009 June 20

I have taken a long break from writing commentary. Partly that's because most of my previous commentaries were criticisms of the inanities of the Bush administration and the right wing. It's easy to write that kind of polemic---it's cathartic as well---but what's the point when the right is no longer running the country. After last November's election, I thought there would be far less to criticize in American life, and frankly, my goal was---and still is---to start writing more substantial pieces on big issues facing America and the world, instead of being driven by the short-term topics of our political discourse. Writing such articles requires more thinking than writing polemics, so if you're charitable, you can attribute the break in my writing to all the thinking I've been doing.

The country is moving in a different and better direction now, not as swiftly as I would like or as dramatically different as I would prefer, but distinctly better overall. I had no illusions that the right wing would reform itself after last November's defeat---on that score, I was right---but I did think there was a chance they might be quieter for a while or even if they weren't, that they would be ignored---on these two scores, I was quite wrong. The right is as loud and obnoxious as ever. And so this commentary.

Maybe the right's behavior amounts to no more than shooting itself in the foot, and if so, keep on shooting. Certainly they have no shortage of guns to do the shooting, and that suggests the first big dysfunction they have imposed on America. The gun nuts on the right have been railing about how Obama and the Democrats are going to take away their guns, despite the fact that nearly every politician in Washington is scared so witless of the NRA that the subject of gun control never even comes up.

This has had some strange consequences. The Holocaust Museum gunman, James von Brunn, together with other incidents at Jewish centers across the country, has crystallized concern among Jews that virulent anti-Semitism might be stirring in America. Here in Albuquerque, this led to an absurd scene at the Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico: a prominent member of the Jewish community urged everyone to carry concealed weapons into the Jewish Community Center so they can defend themselves against the likes of von Brunn.

The gun-rights lobby, exemplified by the NRA, began by telling us that hunters have a right to their guns. As violence in America increased---and continuing now as it has decreased for well over a decade---they told us that ordinary citizens need to carry guns so they can protect themselves against criminals carrying guns. Now the NRA has no qualms telling us that citizens should be armed against an evil and monstrous government, which might otherwise trample on citizens' rights. Exactly which evil government is that? Well, it's our government, headed by an African-American with a Jewish chief of staff. So some anti-Semitic kook starts firing at the Holocaust Museum, and we are presented with the curious spectacle of a Jewish gun-rights advocate in Albuquerque warning all the rest of us Jews to arm ourselves against anti-Semitic kooks carrying guns.

Curious indeed! The right-wing gun advocate arrays himself in his weapons, the rest of his gun collection spread about him, looks in the mirror, and turns to the rest of us to announce, "Look at that! It's a dangerous world out there, with all sorts of kooks and nuts and criminals carrying guns. You better get a gun as soon as possible to protect yourself."

This is the most egregious example of an odd habit of thinking among those on the right. Take their attitude toward government. Government is the problem, they say. It doesn't work. The best government is no government. Of course, they have a point, in some limited sense. Government doesn't work perfectly or even close to perfectly---there's corruption and incompetence and stupidity in government---but what big organization is immune to these things? Were they perhaps thinking of GM or Merrill Lynch or Citibank as examples of how to run things? The real point is that making government work well is hard work, just as making any organization work well is hard work. It requires the sustained attention of our leaders. But Republicans, having abandoned their commitment to good government long ago (where are TR and Ike when we need them?), instead systematically defund government (except for the military), devalue its employees, and outsource its functions, thereby reinforcing their argument that government is the problem.

There they are in front of that same mirror. In it they see themselves demonstrating conclusively how government doesn't work---remember Katrina?---so they turn to the rest of us and announce, "Look at that! Government doesn't work. You know how to spend your money better than government, so let's cut taxes for the wealthy."

Then there's the threat of extremist Islam. The right proclaims that the world is a scary place, with evil people out to kill Americans. They then start wars, whose execution they bungle, all this having the effect of sending more people into the waiting arms of the extremists.

They're standing in front of that mirror again. Looking into it, they see the chaos they helped create, and they turn to the rest of us to say, "This is truly scary! These people want to kill us. You should be really scared, and the more scared, the better, because only when you are really scared can we sell the purely military response that is the only strategy we have."

These situations are eerily similar. The right starts with a grain of truth---there are kooks and criminals with guns, government often doesn't work perfectly or even well, there are extremists who want to kill Americans---and uses these grains to promote policies that turn the grains into rocks on which our country founders. How much better it would be to consider carefully how to deal effectively with those grains of fact as they really are, instead of letting the right appropriate them for its demagoguery.

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