On a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon in a mid-sized French city, a fellow American friend and I walked to our local bakery to indulge in French pastries. As we walked home, nibbling at our sweet treats, I spied a magazine cover displayed prominently in the window of a tabac. It read, Ils veulent le tuer, or "They want to kill him," and had a picture of President-elect Barack Obama.
"What does that mean?" I asked my friend, horrified. "Who wants to kill him?"
"People do," she said. "Crazy people who didn't vote for him."
"But that's terrible," I answered. "How could people say such things?" Then I fell silent for a moment before wondering out loud, "But, I suppose it's really just the same thing as all those people wishing Bush were dead these last four years..."
"Well, yeah," she said, "We all wish that!"
I felt myself grow very wary, but I could not allow that to pass. This girl was my friend, a young teacher like myself, a fellow citizen abroad. When you live abroad you realize how many more things you hold in common with your compatriots, even the liberal ones! "Did you hear yourself? You are exactly like those people wishing Barack Obama dead. How could you wish a man dead?"
"Well, he wasn't my president," she huffed, and we returned home in silence.
I had just found a point where we could not be more foreign to each other.
The French have a saying that we've appropriated in both its English and French forms: plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose, or "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Barack Obama rode in to Washington on a wave of "change" that only temporarily disguised the new status quo of our political culture -- one which has grown so rankly uncivil as to be dangerously anti-democratic. The popularization of murderous thoughts has no place in the conversation of a free society. But for at least the past four years we have nurtured a spirit of hatred in our media, in our schools, and in our coffee shop conversations.
We could analyze and condemn the tendency to villainize a man to the point of wishing him dead for its sheer illogic. Attacking the man instead of his policies and ideas halts intelligent debate. From the perspective of pure logic, our political culture has become thoroughly infantilized.
And, much like debating a child's bedtime with her is wearying, I find myself quickly tiring of discussing anything political with those on the hardcore Left. The newest and the most depressingly effective tactic (if one wants to be so generous as to attribute anything so strategic as a "tactic" to the practitioners of this new rhetorical style) is the habit of taking my every critique of the President-elect's policy plans as "proof" of my dislike of him as a person. "Ah ha!" they actually say, "you're just saying that because you don't like him." In one surreal move, they've checkmated me. To answer their bizarre claim is to dignify it and to allow the argument to be derailed from policy to personality (yet again). To ignore it is to passively accept it. No matter my response they've stymied me. Yet, I cannot send them to their rooms without dessert.
But there's a much darker side to this trend; an eerily mindless tendency has emerged. Having closed the debate with violent epithets or character assassination, those who accuse their opponents of being "every inch as bigoted and ignorant as their white Christian right wing counterparts" for disagreeing on the definition of marriage (where is the love, after all?) have committed the first step in accepting totalitarian controls over speech and political dissent. Without our noticing, a significant percentage of our society has tacitly accepted the viewpoint that those who disagree with them should be silenced or even...die? When one segment of the population wishes another segment of the population were dead rather than listen to a different viewpoint, we have progressed dangerously far from a society in which liberties are protected. We are dancing on the edge of despotism.
We live in a nearly 50/50 society. The freedom of the minority to express dissent relies on the rule of law and the respect we all hold for our rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights. For the past four or more years, those of us on the right have politely allowed rancor and rage to stew on our airwaves, in our classrooms, and in our communities because we value the freedom of speech. Many of us, myself included, were remiss in not responding to the hatred for what it is: ugly. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, and the bad news is that when someone spews venom such as wishing a man dead it makes him very ugly indeed.
But, worse than general uglification, I fear we may be at a point where "change" has only brought "more of the same" to higher positions of power. More of the same bitterness, more of the same dehumanizing anger, and more of the same disrespect for the highest law of the land (the Constitution as a document filled with "negative liberties," anyone?) I keep telling my friends on the Left, I am waiting to see what the President-elect does with his time in office. I wish him a hearty good luck. I hope his election really does herald a new tone in our political culture. But I fear plus ça change...