Two Saturdays in April 2018

April 21 and April 28 are two Saturdays that rather perfectly typify the divided America.  On April 21, in Houston, Texas, the nation could observe on placid channels such as C-SPAN the memorial service for First Lady Barbara Bush.  On April 28, Americans could observe the secular homily of fire and brimstone skewering the Republican presidential administration.  The highest of American Idealism contrasts with the ever lower calls to Jacobin depravity.

Barbara Bush's most famous rhetorical foray was perhaps her 1990 commencement speech at Wellesley College.  Bush, like so many potential Republican icons before and after her, was vigorously protested by students at the college – demanding that her quaint wife status as first lady be dismissed in favor of a known liberal commodity, Alice Walker.  Despite fierce protests against her, Bush showed up and exuded the grace that was admired beyond the day that she died.  Showing grace under fire, the first lady not only gave a great commencement speech, but delivered a critique of academic feminism, incisively severing the bonds of the ideological straitjacket so continually refined on reactionary college campuses.  Her closing line was a withering curve ball that had her skeptics swinging and missing while throngs cheered her appeal to the future: "Who knows?  Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president's spouse – and I wish him well."

That grace abounded again in her memorial service on April 21.  Tears rolled down her husband's face as her son read lines from the husband's love letters to Barbara.  Melania Trump, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton all sat shoulder to shoulder on the front row as her granddaughters read from the Bible in Proverbs 31:


She is not afraid of the snow for her household,
For all her household are clothed with scarlet.
She makes coverings for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
When he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies belts to the tradesmen.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future.
She opens her mouth in wisdom,
And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and bless her;
Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
"Many daughters have done nobly,
But you excel them all."

Afterward, the bipartisan cast of America appeared together in a photo that was a "who's who" of American presidents and presidential candidates – all present to honor a hand that rocked the cradle and ruled the world: Barbara Bush.

Flash forward one week to the White House Correspondents' Dinner.  Comedian Michelle Wolf is feeding on the partisan Jacobin spirit continually boiling for the president.  She picks feminine prey such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump.  Much of her pedantic moral invective is organized around a powerful Jacobin fantasy theme: The Handmaid's Tale.  Preaching to America's secular elite gathered in D.C., Wolf said, "I love you as aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale."  

Since Atwood wrote her dystopian fantasy (1985) of right-wing Christians taking over America, the reactionary left has cast itself as continually holding the nation back from the brink of this dystopian nightmare.  This tightly wound delusion contrasts sharply with the penitent reality of conservative Christians gathered to honor their saintly Christian mother in Houston.  Jeb Bush, George W. Bush, and Bush Sr. all qualified as aspirant Gilead commanders who wanted to make every American woman into their sex slaves.  This unhinged fantasy that animated the comedian on April 28 and stirred laughter in the room remains one of the most salient rhetorical features of decades of culture war launched by the radical left against the Christian community of America.  In the audience was Kathy Griffin, a comedian who unapologetically held up the bloodied severed head of President Trump as a humorous political statement.  She has since applauded the evening.

It is part of the media's echo chamber continually reverberating in every presidential election cycle since 1992 that the Republicans are fighting a "war on women."  It was this passion and fantasy that led to the burning of Sarah Palin's church in December 2008, with women and children trapped inside and temperatures 20 below zero outside, as political payback for nearly defeating President Obama.  It was part of the zealous calls for her to be raped in both 2008 and 2012 – again by a "feminist" comedian.  In 2013, a gunman named Floyd Corkins went into the Family Research Council building in Washington, D.C. to kill as many of these right-wing fanatics as he could.  His violent fantasy that was designed to extend to a number of targets specified by the Southern Poverty Law Center included a backpack full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches.  The social justice warrior intended to have his victims eat the sandwiches as he watched them die.  

All of this is part of the deranged, hateful delusion that Christians want to take over America and institute a violent annihilation of anyone who disagrees with them.  Mike Pence is openly taunted by current TV versions of the show as being a model for the dystopian male characters.  

At what point will the Democratic Party and its leaders acknowledge that this sick anti-religious hate speech is intolerable and regrettable?  Its contributions to direct acts of terrorism are observable and not unrelated to a larger national and international ethic of anti-Semitism.  The Semitic origins of Atwood's analogy should not be ignored.  This is hate speech directed at Jewish orthodoxy as transmitted into a neo-Christian fanaticism constructed by the author's choices.  We must collectively fear the Jews, who rise among us to take over our society, according to Atwood's portrayals.

The rhetorical choices for Americans have rarely been this stark: the placid idealism that embraces both political parties and multiple sides of divisive issues found in that memorial in Houston or the savage, escalating, caustic ridicule of entertainers pandering in D.C. for another lowbrow sexist attack.

Until the nation embraces and returns to the grace embodied by a fine first lady, we will find ourselves more deeply embittered and divided than ever.  Moreover, a growing number of ideological fanatics will unleash violence in frustration that this caustic ridicule is not getting the political results they too desperately need.

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of corporate communication and public affairs and director of debate at Southern Methodist University.  His research on debate, civility, and argument aims to reduce the risks of genocide and violent social conflict and can be studied in his books: The Rhetoric of Genocide (2014), Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy (2017) with Dr. Robert Denton, and James Farmer Jr: The Great Debater (2017).

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