I will try not to spend a lot of time on the latest overblown media spectacle to distract from what really matters. It probably won’t last long anyway. But the Hank Williams Jr. incident does say something about what’s wrong with the way Americans talk to (or around, at, or through) each other about America.
A quick recap, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter:
Hank Williams Jr. is retreating from comments he made Monday on Fox News’ Fox & Friends comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler.
The singer issued a statement Monday afternoon in which he claims his remarks were “misunderstood.”
“Some of us have strong opinions and are often misunderstood,” he said. “My analogy was extreme — but it was to make a point. I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me — how ludicrous that pairing was.”
The singer, talking to hosts Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade live via satellite from Nashville, got into a political discussion in which he called Speaker of the House John Boehner’s golf game with President Obama was “one of the biggest political mistakes ever.”
“It’s like Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” he said.
The kerfuffle over the remark caused ESPN to drop Williams from his traditional spot as musical opener to Monday Night Football.
I don’t think Williams is going to get Dixie Chicked, i.e., lose fans, gigs or slots on country radio stations for insulting the president, and frankly I don’t care. I’m not a fan. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a Williams song in my life, which must mean he’s no Hank Williams Sr. (Now there was a country singer!) But if corporate country music wants to tilt far right, that’s its prerogative. I don’t listen to it or find it interesting. I just don’t care. Nor do I care if ESPN slaps Williams’ hand or shakes it vigorously in congratulation for sticking it to the man. I don’t care if everyone just ignores his intemperate, impolitic bloviating. He’s clearly an idiot. Let him be one!
I do think it would be a sign of a healthier America if, instead of media outlets constipatedly and hypocritically piling on to shame a miscreant for saying something outside the Overton window of acceptable media discourse, they just called idiocy idiocy and left it at that.
And to be clear, Williams’ remark was idiocy and nothing more sinister. He’s a partisan Republican who is just speaking the modern Republican party’s mind virus-degraded, deeply idiotic language. To Republicans, Democrats are evil. Hitler is evil. Obama is a Democrat. Therefore, Obama is Hitler, Q.E.D. To Republicans in 2011, it is “ludicrous” for the Republican Speaker of the House to play golf (or do anything polite or friendly) with the Democratic President. Williams’ main criticism was not directed toward Obama, anyway, but toward Boehner, the traitor. He was just “telling it like it is.”
No matter, by the way, that Netanyahu wasn’t even born when Hitler’s life ended in his bunker. Never mind that Israel didn’t even exist at that moment in history. For Republicans, history is not real, anyway. Nothing is real. All is symbolic. Hitler is evil. Netanyahu is Jewish. Obama is Other. You can move these symbols around, if you’re a Republican, like stickers on a Colorform board and never fear going outside the party line.
Interestingly, however, when Williams apologized (in the non-remorseful Greek sense of the term), he revealed that he does, in fact, have some clue about reality (my emphasis).
“Every time the media brings up the Tea Party, it’s painted as racist and extremists — but there’s never a backlash — no outrage to those comparisons,” he said. “Working-class people are hurting — and it doesn’t seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job — it makes a whole lot of us angry. Something has to change. The policies have to change.”
It’s absolutely not true that the Tea Party is viewed uniformly in the media as racist or extremist. The Tea Party, on the contrary, has often been portrayed as mainstream conservative and profoundly influential. Perhaps the main reason they’ve been polling poorly is that the media have been strongly associating them with the very unpopular tactics the Congressional Republicans employed last summer during the debt ceiling fiasco. They’re viewed by more and more people as powerful beyond their numbers by virtue of the fact that the Republican party is in utter thrall to them. And I think it is generally understood among the electorate that any group that is motivated–as the media have suggested, fairly or not, that the Tea Party is–to do away with business regulations, corporate taxes, and social programs is not on the side of the working people, who, even Williams notices, are hurting.
In fact, I would agree with Williams, probably, that the media have been unfair in painting the movement as monolithic; the fact is, the “leadership” of the movement is not the same as the membership. I have difficulty myself keeping in mind that a good portion of the most energized rank and file members of the Tea Party are not well off. Often when I’ve debated or engaged with Tea Party sympathizers online, I find they’re struggling economically. During the debt crisis debate, I had a couple of lengthy exchanges on Twitter within a couple of days with conservative women who said they were single mothers working two or more jobs. They were angry that “Democrats” who didn’t have their kind of gumption now wanted more of their tax dollars to maintain a standard of living for “the poor” that they believed the country could not afford anymore. (Never mind that these women’s tax bracket is more vulnerable to partisan Republicans than partisan Democrats.)
So to these women, and I imagine to millions more in similar straits, it makes no sense for people who are struggling to feed their own families to chip in more to feed strangers’ families as well. Of course, Democrats have been saying exactly the same thing. But whereas the Democrats (supposedly) want to end tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and try to return to rates closer to the ones that worked in the late 1990s, these rank and file Republicans (of a Tea Party stripe) want Americans to simply stop relying on the government for “handouts.” They don’t want tax reform. They want moral reform.
I think we on the left also want moral reform, but unlike the Tea Partiers, we don’t want it to come from working people and the middle class. We want it to come from the class that caused the economic ruin of the last 30 years. That’s why we occupy Wall Street and State Houses, rather than dress up in colonial garb at partisan political rallies. Our protests confront the powers. Their protests try to influence the politics of a single party.
Maybe the best we can hope for is that the discourse will move entirely away from the partisan–or from the bi-partisan, to be more precise. Partisan discourse in the US is not relevant to the “hurt” that doesn’t know Republican from Democrat but only haves from have-nots. And it may come to pass that our friends on the right will see this also, will see that their Tea Party has failed them and can only fail them and will join in the only discourse that matters. And when that happens, the ones who caused the hurt–the ones who golf together while the rest of us bleed–will be forced to join that discourse as well.