Saturday, August 15, 2009

America's Summer of Discontent: Some Fear a Looming Class War, Others Cite Racism

By Lee-Anne Goodman (CP)

WASHINGTON — An expert in anti-government militia groups warns of another domestic terrorism attack like the bombing in Oklahoma City 14 years ago.

Angry protesters are showing up at town hall meetings across the United States, some of them saying their country is unrecognizable as they rail against illegal immigrants. Conservative websites, and even Fox News's Glenn Beck, are drawing parallels between Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler, claiming the president's political agenda amounts to a similar brand of murderous fascism.

It's a summer of seething discontent in the United States, with a deeply polarized populace going head-to-head across an ideological divide that has found its boiling point in an unlikely issue - public health-care insurance, something Canada and many other democracies around the world take for granted.

"None of this really has anything to do with health care," Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, said Wednesday.

"If there was another stimulus package, we'd be seeing the same thing from the very same people. ... "

One Democratic politician recently went further.

"Some of the rhetoric that we're hearing is eerily reminiscent of the kind of things that drove Tim McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma," Brian Baird, a congressman from Washington state, said last week after cancelling his own town halls due to what he described as the "lynch mob" mentality.

Baird was roundly attacked by the right for making the comment. But a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center says militia groups with axes to grind against the government are regrouping throughout the U.S., fuelled in part by their distaste for Obama and his policies.

The civil rights organization says that among other theories, some of the militia members - who are opposed to paying taxes and rail against any government involvement in their lives - are convinced there's a secret Mexican plan to reclaim the Southwest.

Bart McEntire, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the law centre's researchers that militia group growth is at a 10-year high.

"All it's lacking is a spark," McEntire said in the report, adding he feared it was just a matter of time before another domestic terrorist attack happened. Boehlert points the finger at right-wing news organizations for fuelling much of the populist rage.

"This does all tie back to the militia movement of the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton was elected," he said. "But the right-wing media wasn't nearly as well-organized then as it is now. And even Rush Limbaugh wasn't calling Clinton a Nazi back then. There's been a breakdown of any kind of standards in terms of decency, especially from Fox News. They have fashioned themselves as the opposition to the Obama White House, but at the same time they've come loose from any traditional moorings of journalistic ethics."

Many of the charges coming from right-wing media organizations about Obama's expensive health-care reform plans are fabrications, Boehlert said.

"When you're telling people that Obama plans to start up death squads that will kill your grandparents, well of course people are going to be pissed off, even though it's completely untrue."

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said he was optimistic Obama would be able to quell the discontent and dispel the many myths surrounding health-care reform.

"I don't think the president ever believed that all the people were going to agree with him all of the time," Gibbs said during his daily press briefing on Wednesday.

"The president will continue to reach out to Democrats and Republicans for ideas, both in Washington and outside of Washington, (and) continue to find a way to bridge the differences that we have."

But others believe much of the anger is truly about Obama's race, with his liberal politics simply serving as a convenient excuse for those who resent his presidency.

"What some are calling class anger is actually anger about a black man in the White House," Toni-Michelle Travis, a professor of African-American studies at George Mason University, said Wednesday.

"It's racism being expressed differently than what we've seen in the past. People can't do what they did in the days before the civil rights movement; you can't get away with being Archie Bunker anymore, but you can say someone's politics amount to fascism."

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, agrees. He points to the woman at a recent town hall meeting in Arkansas who said she no longer recognized her country.

"Whether she realizes it or not, she's talking about race. I suspect she doesn't recognize her country anymore because there is a black man residing in the White House," he said.

"It seems pretty clear that this rage isn't all about ideology - it's also about skin colour. Those opposed to health care will say it's about ideology, but at the tea party gatherings, during the birther movement, during the town hall meetings - some of it was certainly tinged with racism."

Travis added that the Obamas represent a vexing reality to racists.

"There's a powerful black man, devoted to his wife and children. And there's a glamorous, fashionable and highly intelligent First Lady. They're like real-life Huxtables, and they don't fit in with the myth some racists have about black people. Racists have never known black professionals, have never seen families like the Obamas before, and it's simply not sitting well with them."

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