No sense of decencyBy
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
We all know those as the words of Joseph Welch to Sen. Joe McCarthy during the infamous 1954 Army–McCarthy hearings. When Welch was done, the gallery burst into applause. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt. The Senate censured him in December that year.
Our present (Muslim) witch hunt reached new heights of insanity this week with the arrest of 14 year-old Ahmed Mohammed in Irving, Texas. Known at school as “the Inventor Kid,” the son of Sudanese immigrants brought a homemade electronic clock to school to impress a teacher, only to find himself arrested and later suspended for – what? – inventing while Muslim?
The incident has brought the kid international fame and an even brighter future. Meanwhile, Irving’s mayor, whom the Dallas Morning News describes as “a hero among a fringe movement that believes Muslims — a tiny fraction of the U.S. population — are plotting to take over American culture and courts,” defends the action. And Irving’s police chief had to go on television to explain why officers arrested Mohammed as a suspected bomber, or as a hoax bomber, when they knew the clock was just a clock.
How many times in the last decades have we recalled Joseph Welch’s rebuke and wondered when some contemporary version of Welch would break the spell of the serial mass insanities, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and hoaxes that have beset this country for decades? And we’re not talking just Muslims post-September 11.
We’re talking about moral panic over ritual Satanic abuse in the late 1980s. Or fingerprinting toddlers against unseen abductors. Or a wave of false memory syndrome. We’re talking about the serial confabulations surrounding Bill and Hillary Clinton: the Clinton “body count,” the “hit” on Vince Foster, the Clinton “drug ring,” etc. We’re talking about the Birthers and the Truthers and all the others – including the leading Republican candidate for president – who have made it their business to traffic in the kind of propaganda that might make the KGB blanch. We’re talking about the popularity of reality TV that is anything but. We tune in for the spectacle. To borrow from the Bible, we have exchanged lies for truth.
Scholars have called this the “operational aesthetic”: a kind of spectacle in which the conversation surrounding the show becomes the show itself. And it was pioneered by P.T. Barnum in the decades prior to the Civil War, long before the showman became a senior partner in the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
What did this operational aesthetic look like in practice? Consider, for example, Barnum’s famous “Feejee Mermaid“: a stuffed monkey’s torso, sewn to the tail of a fish, that Barnum tried to pass off as a mythical sea creature – and which Americans flocked to see in vast numbers.
In Trump’s case, it’s his hair.
As Charlie Pierce says, “This is your democracy, America. Cherish it.” It is one in which there are bogie men under our beds, and bright, brown-skinned kids with science projects might be terrorists. The New York Times this morning observes of the Republican’s presidential field:
And that, America, is frightening. Peel back the boasting and insults, the lies and exaggerations common to any presidential campaign. What remains is a collection of assertions so untrue, so bizarre, that they form a vision as surreal as the Ronald Reagan jet looming behind the candidates’ lecterns.
It felt at times as if the speakers were no longer living in a fact-based world where actions have consequences, programs take money and money has to come from somewhere. Where basic laws — like physics and the Constitution — constrain wishes. Where Congress and the public, allies and enemies, markets and militaries don’t just do what you want them to, just because you say they will.
At long last, when will it end? Where’s Joseph Welch when you really need him?
(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)