The silly season

It's the "silly season," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, when asked about the unexpected and highly emotional reactions of people at town hall meetings and the expressed enmity when the White House announced that the president would speak to our nation's children.

The "silly season," responded Gibbs. He was never asked to explain exactly what he meant by that characterization; apparently it seemed self-evident. Though it also seemed a bit flip. In truth, silly doesn't begin to capture what has been going on in America throughout August and into the first weeks of September. To be fair, some of the events reported do seem silly. But not all. And it begs the question: What is behind this patina of vitriol and anger?

A conservative gentleman, passionately against what he claimed was a government takeover of health care, walking past a town hall demonstration favoring reform, got into a scuffle with several of the demonstrators. In the melee, the tip of his left pinky finger was bitten off. He was taken to the hospital, where he produced his Medicare card and was treated. Does this not define cognitive dissonance?

And, of course, who can forget the citizens who showed up accessorizing with nine-millimeter Glocks strapped to their Dockers. Strange, a bit scary and, yes, silly.

When the White House announced that President Obama would speak to the nation's schoolchildren, simply encouraging them to work hard and stay in school, echoing what teachers and counselors tell their students every day, parents and cable news pundits went off the rails. They raised the specter of socialism, whatever that means, and the indoctrination of their children. These comments were followed by straight-faced comparisons of Obama to Mao of China and Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Grave claims were made by Republicans that there was a political agenda embedded in the president suggesting that kids believe that they, too, can make a contribution to our nation, no matter the obstacles that might stand in their way.

Sadly, surprisingly, school administrators and district superintendents equivocated, some canceling plans for the speech to be viewed by students, citing strong parental objections. Other educators said they would record the speech and perhaps screen it for select students at a later time. Or not. For the cable news pundits (specifically those on Fox News), it was a craven performance. For educators, it was not their finest hour.

Truth be told, what took place in August transcends silly. Unsettling, indeed. Disconcerting, yes. Even alarming. But in the aggregate, certainly not "silly."

Something is going on that seems elusive, as if there's a subtext to these events that can't quite be decoded.

How to explain it? Are some folks having an emotional meltdown, triggered by what has been a harrowing economic downturn followed by record unemployment? Is that what's behind this patina of outrage, made manifest by "I just want my country back?" And what does that mean, anyway?

Or are people profoundly unsettled because America is inextricably changing, that it is no longer the land of WASPs but increasingly the land of people of color, some latte, others brown, black and yellow? A country of wise Latinas.

Does the "silly season" lead us to the conclusion that there are a significant number of Americans — not just a fringe element — who cannot accept the fact that we have a black president? Is that what's behind the rise of the birthers, chanting "show me his birth certificate" while selling the idea that Obama was smuggled into Hawaii after being born in Kenya? Are such efforts not an attempt to make Obama "the other" and not one of us.

What's behind this seemingly reflexive hostility to Obama's administration? It can't just be ideology. Can it? Does ideology reject a president's benign speech to our nation's children? Does ideology explain the unprecedented outburst of Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), calling Obama a liar during his speech on health care to a joint session of Congress? Or does racism still haunt our present as well as our past? Know that the black community viewed Wilson's accusation through a completely different prism than simply one of rudeness or a lack of decorum. They saw a Republican gallery of country club white men, smirking, some texting, while one of their members shouted "You lie" at the president and another, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), walked out in the middle of the speech. A speech that elegantly asked the representatives present to step forward and solve this exigent problem called health care.

There is much to do. Issues confront our nation that cannot wait. If Republicans have a solution to health care reform, let them put their oar in the water before this intractable problem drives us over a fiscal cliff. Ditto for global warming, education, the pillaging of the planet's resources, Afghanistan and not to forget the Damoclean sword of nuclear proliferation. There's work to do. Saying "No!" and nothing more is not an option. We have a gifted president whose racial background can only enrich us as a nation. Disagree with him if conscience dictates. But then offer another solution. Ideology is not theology. It's time to move forward.

Chris Honoré's reviews appear weekly in Revels.

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