As the rhetoric heats over healthcare reform, the swastika has taken center stage. The problem is that no one knows whether the once dreaded symbol is being used to identify the target or the perpetrator. And therein lies the danger.
We live in toxic times.
The increasing displays of vitriolic calls to violence, fueled by frothy-mouthed commentators like Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh, and condoned – if not exacerbated – by cowardly elected officials are menacing and troubling.
The tone of discourse that America saw during the Presidential election, unbridled anger and blatant racism stirred by politicians like Sarah Palin was finally overshadowed by the media’s shift in focus once Barack Obama won the election.
As the world rejoiced in a President with a beautiful, intelligent wife, adorable young daughters and the ability to string a sentence together without sounding like a village idiot, the racists and the haters stewed and simmered. The seeming dissipation did not last long however, despite the media’s love fest with Obama, and although critics on the right loudly condemned Obama’s economic stimulus package before the ink had even dried, they strained credibility, covered only by Fox News and right wing blogs.
On April 7, 2009, a report released by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” was greeted with outrage by Republicans and naturally right wing extremists, who used it as a tool to warn against the President’s nefarious agenda to curtail both the First and Second Amendments.
The report included a caveat that “threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts,” although the election of the first black President, a faltering economy and “the possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.”
The stated goal of the report – to “effectively deter, prevent, preempt, or respond to terrorist attacks against the United States” -- was irrelevant. From Joe Scarborough on MSNBC to the obvious suspects on Fox News and right wing blogs, the report was roundly criticized as nothing more than a slanderous attack against anyone opposed to Obama’s liberal, socialist agenda.
On June 10, 2009, 88-year-old white supremacist and vocal Holocaust denier, James von Brunn shot and killed Stephen T. Johns, a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Racist and anti-Semitic screeds were found in his car parked outside the museum. According to a court affidavit, a notebook was found with a handwritten note reading, "You want my weapons — this is how you'll get them. The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews."
On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated as he attended a Sunday church service in Wichita, Kansas. Frequently targeted by extremists for willingness to perform late-term abortions, Dr. Tiller was gunned down by Scott Roeder, who has since become a darling of the radical and ironically termed “pro-lifers.” Jail visits have included prominent leaders of the anti-abortion movement, such as the Army of God, a fringe hate group that unapologetically and openly glorifies murder and violence against physicians, women and clinics in their purported defense of the unborn. And, of course, homosexuals.
Obama’s healthcare plan was the perfect catalyst to rile up anyone ideologically opposed to his policies, notably bitter McCain/Palin supporters – the same ones who were chanting “kill him, kill him” at pre-election rallies. Particularly after the fringe “Birthers” movement headed by Orly Taitz and Alan Keyes challenging Obama’s citizenship gained widespread support following support by CNN’s Lou Dobbs, was widely discredited after offering an easily refutable fake Kenyan birth certificate as evidence.
Astroturfing campaigns – namely well funded campaigns by industry lobbyists to appear as if they are grassroots efforts -- have turned town hall meetings into increasingly high-pitched battlegrounds. Egged on by groups with ties to insurance industry lobbyists, the “disruption” of town hall meetings continues to get more explosive by the day.
The strategy has been not to argue any counterpoint, but rather to drown out any other expression at all, and to ironically dismiss any criticism other than to bolster arguments that their First Amendment protections are being eroded. Fear mongers continue to propagate lies designed to play on the fears of those already scared, and who have yet to reconcile that a black man was elected President of the United Sates. Their America!
According to ABC News, the Secret Service has launched an investigation of a Maryland man who held a sign reading "Death to Obama" and "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids" outside a town hall meeting this week.
The batty, barely coherent former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who excoriated late night TV host, David Letterman, for making a joke about her daughter being “knocked up,” (even though one of her daughters had indeed been), and daring to shine a public spotlight on her children, took to Facebook to attack Obama’s “death panels” that she irresponsibly and inaccurately alleged would kill her parents and child with Down Syndrome, using her defenseless child as nothing more than a political prop to foment fear, hatred and mistrust.
On Fox News, Glenn Beck claimed President Obama harbored a "deep-seated hatred of white people" and accused him of being "racist." Only after he simulated poisoning Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, did advertisers begin bolting in droves; while Beck continues to spew his Rupert Murdoch funded hatred. Apparently UPS, HSBC, Visa, Pearle Vision and Broadview Home Security are still willing to affiliate themselves with this whack job. Visa, it’s everywhere you don’t want to be.
As the rhetoric heats, the swastika has taken center stage. The problem is that no one knows whether the once dreaded symbol is being used to identify the target or the perpetrator.
An astonishing editorial on healthcare reform in the Washington Times, laced with Nazi imagery, titled “No 'final solution,' but a way forward,” saw fit to inform readers of Nazi Germany’s Aktion T4 program in which “children and adults with disabilities, and anyone anywhere in the Third Reich was subject to execution who was blind, deaf, senile, retarded, or had any significant neurological condition, encephalitis, epilepsy, muscular spasticity or paralysis.”
Demonstrators both inside and outside town hall meetings hold up signs depicting Obama as Hitler, and his attempts to reform healthcare as a giant step in his radical socialist, communist fascist agenda, seemingly unaware of the inherent differences among socialism, communism and fascism.
On August 5, 2009, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi suggested the opponents at town hall meetings were there as a result of astroturfing. “They’re carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on healthcare." Brian Baird , a Washington Democrat who has received death threats, later apologized for accusing health care opponents at town halls of a “lynch mob mentality” and their “close to Brownshirt tactics.”
The same week, radio-host Rush Limbaugh, told his listeners: “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate." He also stated; “"There are far more similarities between Nancy Pelosi and Adolf Hitler than between these people showing up at town halls to protest a Hitler-like policy."
Limbaugh told Washington Examiner's Byron York, “I've been listening to the left compare George W. Bush to Hitler for eight years. I've been listening to Democrats and the left compare conservatism to Nazis my whole career. This time I responded. In kind, by comparing the radical left policies of the Nazis to today's radical left leadership of the Democrat (sic) Party.”
Limbaugh’s comment is possibly the only intelligent remark he’s made over this whole fracas. That the left likened George Bush, and his policies, to Hitler is true. As an artist, I personally made frequent references to similarities to policies of the Bush administration and those of the Nazi Party.
The fundamental difference is that the left’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the constitutional desecration wrought by the Patriot Act, eavesdropping and spying outside the purview of FICA courts, black sites conducting torture on foreign soil, the politicization of the Department of Justice, extraordinary rendition and a host of other flagrant violations of the constitution were not masking a real and dangerous racism. And comparing those to Nazi regime tactics is not that difficult. Indeed, it may alienate some, or leave little room for meaningful debate or for others, trivialize the Nazi’s murderous rampage.
The coverage on the left by the likes of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, point to the Nazi rhetoric as a disturbing trend in a rise of hate speech. Seeking to criticize Obama as a Nazi, whether through imagery or rhetoric, is speech firmly protected by the First Amendment. Nazi comparisons, not matter how distasteful to some, are not the same as inciting people to violence, expression that the First Amendment does not protect.
Protestors at town hall meetings, like William Kostric, carrying signs with the same quote that Timothy McVeigh had on his T-shirt when arrested, packing unconcealed 9-mm Smith and Wesson handguns (actions protected by both the First and Second amendments respectively), are a lot more alarming than those hurling Nazi accusations, to be sure, but are still protected. And, more so than under the previous administration. As USA Today reported in 2006, “months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war and administration policies.”
During the Presidential campaign, a man with a Star of David atop his head, admitting he doesn't want a black man as president hanged an Obama effigy in his front yard. An act mimicked by an unidentified protester at an anti-Obama healthcare rally in Salisbury, Maryland, where freshman Democrat Frank Kratovil was hung in effigy, the protestor smilingly posing with his handiwork, reminiscent of photographs of lynchings from the South, where such disturbing imagery was used to send postcards.
A four-foot wide swastika painted over the sign at congressman, David Scott's Smyrna, Georgia office stood out from some of the hyperbolic signage at town hall meetings. A "Blue Dog" Democrat, David Scott is black, and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Unlike Nazi references related to Obama or Pelosi, the painting of a swastika on the premises of a black man has that unmistakable message that crosses that First Amendment line. As unmistakable as a fiery cross.
For the right wing extremists, neo-Nazi’s, resurgent Ku Klux Klan members and others harboring racist sentiments, comparing Obama to Hitler is blasphemous. Imagery of Obama as a Nazi must irk neo-Nazis and white supremacists as much as it did Hitler when Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras captured the beauty and grace of athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
It’s not the people holding signs comparing Obama to Hitler that America needs to be worried about. Fueled and fed by commentators, politicians and the media, it’s the ones whose racist hatred is being masked by more sinister, less obvious expression. Like heathcare.