After appearing on FOX News this weekend to defend Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s speech at the United Nations, I got the usual assortment of fair-and-balanced emails from viewers, many of whom were critical of my support of "this Satanic barbarian," as one of my critics put it.
That email in response to my appearance on "Heartland with John Kasich" ended with an invitation (reproduced here exactly): "You can KISS MY A** you faggot piece of sh**."
My focus here is not on the juvenile and hostile nature of the message; anyone who writes or speaks about controversial subjects can expect these kinds of angry responses, especially in the age of email when people’s emotional reactions can be dispatched in a matter of seconds, without adequate time for reflection.
Instead, I’m intrigued by the choice of the ** to shield me from offensive language. The writer used the ** for these two common terms that, while perhaps vulgar to some ears, are relatively mild in the contemporary vernacular. Yet the writer uses "faggot" — a cruel term meant not only to insult gay men but often used to convey a physical threat and/or challenge to their basic humanity — without apparent concern for its obscenity. Some curious values underlie that decision about what constitutes acceptable language in political dialogue.
Call it the triumph of propriety over humanity.
Whatever the intensity of this man’s hatred of U.S. leftists and gays, it’s nothing compared with his fear of foreign leaders who criticize the United States. He doesn’t interpret the Venezuelan president’s critique of U.S. military domination of the world as an expression of support for an international order rooted in law and morality. Rather my pen pal thinks Chavez is out not simply to critique the United States and its leaders, but "to help destroy America."
Call this the triumph of paranoia over analysis.
Two things are obvious about the relationship of the United States to the countries of Latin America: (1) no Latin American nation has had the ability or motivation to destroy the United States, while (2) the United States has long had the diplomatic, economic, and military power to intervene in Latin American nations and has used that power often — typically to the benefit of elites in the United States and to the detriment of ordinary citizens there. Republicans and Democrats alike have pursued policies of coercive meddling in the affairs of our neighbors to the south, many of whom have reason to be nervous today.
No doubt Chavez pays attention to the steady stream of hostile rhetoric out of Washington, and he likely remembers that in the 2004 campaign he was condemned by both George Bush and John Kerry, as the Democratic nominee tried to out-hawk the Republican. Despite the fact Chavez was democratically elected and remains immensely popular, especially among the poor in his nation, he is routinely referred to as "autocratic" or a "strongman" in the United States. I’m reasonably sure it didn’t escape Chavez’s attention that the coup plotters who in 2002 attempted to oust him had the strong backing of the United States.
Yet when an independent-minded Latin American leader — who has himself been the target of a campaign by the United States to remove him from office — asserts that international law (such as the fundamental prohibition against aggressive war) should apply to all nations, including the United States, such a statement becomes evidence of a plot to destroy an apparently vulnerable America. Some curious logic underlies that conclusion.
This combination of an abandonment of humanity and a deepening paranoid fear is enough to drive such people to fantasies of assassination. My correspondent continued:
"You and your left wing ilk are what is wrong with this once great nation. Personally, I would love to see someone put a bullet between Hugo Chavez’ eyes, and another in the head of that Satanic bastard Ahmadinejad, and a third in your own stupid looking pumpkin head."
I don’t take this to be an actual threat, of course, and I’m not trying to paint all those who oppose Chavez and his policies as irrational and vengeful. This email is from one man in a nation of nearly 300 million; it’s not my goal to pick out the most hateful response I received and pretend that is how all right-wingers think.
But it’s also true that I get a steady stream of email in this same vein, as do all the people I know on the left who write and speak critically about U.S. empire-building. While this particular man is angrier than most, he represents a real position in U.S. political discourse these days — an odd combination of a superficial propriety that masks an underlying viciousness, and a delusional paranoia that undermines the inability to analyze.
Reasonable people can disagree, and disagree passionately, yet politics can proceed in a healthy manner when there is a shared respect for people’s dignity and a commitment to rational argument. When those two qualities are absent, politics becomes either a freak-show distraction or a breeding ground for violence. In other words, democratic politics becomes impossible.
Yes, it’s true that in other periods in history our politics has been raucous and violent. Certainly the great progressive social movements used harsh language to condemn injustice and were sometimes willing to make the political struggle physical. But in this case, the confrontational style is not in service of expanding the scope of freedom and justice but is deployed to prop up a thoroughly unjust distribution of power and resources in the world.
If the combination of this superficial holier-than-thou moralism with an ignorance-based paranoia were idiosyncratic to marginal characters who fire off email rants after being primed by right-wing TV shows, maybe we could chuckle at them. The problem is that this stance is hardly marginal. Think about how many U.S. politicians take positions that, while less harsh, reflect that same mindset. Think Pat Robertson, who regularly condemns gays and lesbians, and openly called for Chavez’s assassination earlier this year. Remember that Robertson, who runs a television network and a powerful political machine, made a serious bid for the 1988 Republican nomination for president.
It’s a cliché among pundits these days that U.S. politics is too polarized, but there’s nothing inherently dangerous about sharply divergent views jockeying for position in a democratic society. The real threat is in how this fusion of propriety and paranoia can trump humanity and analysis.
We might worry about whether that’s what animates the real bastards and barbarians. Maybe that is the truly Satanic force being unleashed in this world.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com.