In 2001, zealots flew two planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and “everything changed.” Actually, most things remained the same. Our ability to critically analyze our foreign policy seems as subject to misguided analysis as it always was, and our national unity was short-lived. So what did change?
A couple/few wars (more on those another time), and a seeming willingness by the public to give up on civil liberties (more on that another time), and a new enemy (Doesn’t all this Putin-in-Ukraine business push some nostalgic buttons? It can’t last). So, a lot of everything. But everything? I think when people say “everything” has changed, they mean something (everything is something!) mass psychological. Something on a par with Jimmy Carter’s “National Malaise” (He never said malaise!) or Michael Bolton’s “Everybody’s Crazy.” Fear is a big mass psychological effect but it’s not sustainable, though the rash decisions we make when afraid are harder to shake off. What else?
I have a theory, which, unlike the substantiated theories of gravity and evolution, is, as they say, just a theory. Still, I think there’s something to it. I think Bill Maher got close to it, in his smug and pompous way (I call it smugpous) when he pointed out that flying planes into buildings was not “cowardly,” as people were saying at the time. Of course, Bill Maher lost his job, with few on the right championing his right to free speech, but I think he touched a nerve. Because it wasn’t cowardly to fly a plane into a building. It was insane. Yet it was a sane kind of insane: if God truly wants you to kill a bunch of people and die yourself, promising glory in the afterlife, it makes sense to do it. (Personally, I think you should challenge a God who asks you to kill people, but that’s another essay as well.) It is the sane insanity of the religious zealot. I think a lot of people, religious people in America, recognized that zealotry and got jealous.
Since colonial times, a hard-core religious streak has been part and parcel of the American fabric. Something can be “part” of something without the “parcel,” but I can’t really say a religious streak is a “parcel” of the American fabric without the “part” somehow, and what a streak is doing in a parcel wrapped in fabric is another question. Regardless, there’s always been a lot of religion in the U.S. There have been numerous Great Awakenings, and sometimes a witch gets burnt. The founding fathers were religious, but it was Enlightenment religious, and thank Deism, because now our constitution protects us from the crazies. Reagan tapped into it, and Bush 2 went in deeper.
So there was a moral majority Bible-belt holy-roller constituency well before 9/11, but watching those zealots made many of the faithful go frantic. “Our God is stronger than their God” and all that. Before, the political goal of the religious right was mainly to oppose abortion, which is fine; there’s a genuine cause there. Zealotry envy pumped steroids into the already well-muscled conservative-faith body politic, and it roided out. Evolution came back as an issue, creationism got rebranded (the right is good at rebranding) as “intelligent design,” and textbooks got rewritten. Rick Perry held a prayer meeting in a stadium to ward off a drought, and that wasn’t the reason he was a ridiculous presidential candidate (he’s got glasses now, so he’s been rebranded as an intellectual). Now religious corporations want to be able to control the religious choices of their employees in the name of religious freedom. The goal has shifted from gynecological prohibition to what I would call “Christian Sharia” if the term “Sharia” hadn’t already been so badly abused.
There are other forms of Insanity Jealousy that have afflicted the right. When Bush 2 invaded Iraq, people began to hate him. “Bush Derangement Syndrome” became a term. I would argue that this is a sane form of insanity. If your president starts against an enemy who’s not an immediate threat while there’s another war going on, it’s okay to hate the guy. I do think Republicans saw that hate and wanted a taste as well. That partly (there are other parts, and perhaps parcels we could talk about) explains the vehemence directed at our Socialist Kenyan Muslim Dictator President.
Some have pointed out that Republicans also vehemently hated that draft-dodging pot-smoking murderer Bill Clinton, but I think hatred was symptomatic of the great envy of modern times: Hippie Envy. We must realize that to this day our aged Republican base is still fighting the culture wars of the 1960s. We are in danger of forgetting what a big deal the Vietnam War was. It was once a recurring theme in political discourse and Hollywood narrative; now it’s eclipsed by the wars of today. It was a crazy thing, though. Our government used to force young people to strap on guns and kill strangers in a remote country to fight communism.
Nothing focuses the mind like the imminent possibility of death, and the baby boomers freaked out. Now we’ve professionalized the army, so generational soldiers and poor people do all our fighting for us. If you thought the Yuppies all “sold out” when they supported the last thirty years of wars, it wasn’t so much their lost values as their immediate fear of getting killed for a stupid reason. Back in the Nam days, though, the shit was real, and everyone who was cool was into “revolution.”
Everyone who was not cool got jealous. They wanted a revolution of their own. They got one in Ronald Reagan. Unsustainable tax cuts, belligerent foreign policy, and religiosity became the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the ’80s. We’re still living in the wreckage of the Reagan era, because a bunch of squares wanted to be cool. The hippies were nuts, and thanks to insanity envy, any yahoo who doesn’t like the federal government is a counter-countercultural hero.
So when a bunch of armed anarchists threaten federal land management officers in Nevada and are lionized as heroes, it’s not freedom, it’s not taking the power back, its insanity envy. The fact that their new folk hero is a flagrant racist is not directly related to the bellicosity being rewarded, though, come on, FOX, vet the nuttiness of your nut job.
Surely insanity envy runs both ways. Maybe I’m too in the bag for my side to see the Occupy movement as an appropriation of the Tea Party “movement” (it was a rebranding!) as opposed to a genuine outpouring of outrage building on prior protest movements, but maybe there’s a little insanity ping-ponging through America. Your Richard Dawkins brand of atheism would be an example of insanity envy, borrowing the Evangelicals’ fervor.
It isn’t all crazy reactions bouncing off and appropriating each other’s craziness, though. At some point, when the planet gets cooked, the new robber barons take all the money, wars never end, and the government spies on us, the national psyche’s going to break.
Then we’ll get a brand-new kind of crazy.