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Stanley Crouch: A nation tired of paranoia and lies

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When things are especially harrowing, we hope that our leaders can take us to the truth. If we are unlucky, they will instead feed us paranoia and lies. Only in retrospect do we usually know the difference.

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It was not so long ago that J. Edgar Hoover held sway, when Richard Nixon sat in the White House. They fed on fear. America became a land of conspiracy. Some of the fears were valid, but the bulk of them were used for political power.

Then again, there have always been Americans to push back against rampant hysteria — Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson. They knew that truth could not always be simplified or made comfortable. Those kinds of individuals are not held down by fearsome actualities.

Last week, a little truth came the way of the elephants when GOP strategist Frank Luntz was secretly taped as he spoke to students at Pennsylvania.

Speaking of right-wing fire-breathers like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, Luntz said, "And they get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it’s really problematic." He suggested that right-wing radio was keeping moderate Republicans from achieving a compromise on immigration, saying of GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida: "Talk radio is killing him."

This was nothing new, really. Sane conservatives like David Frum and Joe Scarborough have long talked in a forthcoming manner about what Frum calls the "conservative entertainment complex." And as Peggy Noonan once wrote on her blog about her party’s self-imposed insularity: "Republicans should be going to Brooklyn, to the street fair in Bay Ridge. Everybody’s there, young, old, all colors and religions, all views and conditions. There are immigrants from what looks like every country in the world and they’re here working and getting used to America." Noonan also has warned that if the GOP refuses to face demographics, they should face the fact that losing the White House will be a 50-year fate for the deaf, blind and dumb party.

Nevertheless, Luntz’s comments caused something of a dust storm.

Those familiar with Luntz know him to be an eager promoter of the Republican cause. Yet the current GOP — infected with a tea-party mania, pushed ever further right by the National Rifle Association, embarrassed and hobbled by the likes of Limbaugh — obviously spooks him to no end. As it stands, this is a party without a future.

Talk radio has nothing to do with the constitutional right of free speech. It is largely about profit, not governing — and certainly not about responsibility. Millions of dollars are made off rumors about President Barack Obama’s origins and the senseless screeching about the Second Amendment.

Yes, this is to be expected in a nation of 300 million where freedom of speech is, indeed, the law. But as Luntz pointed out, "This is not on the Democratic side. It’s only on the Republican side." The beast that has served them for so long is starting to get restless, foaming at the mouth, now dangerously rabid.

A half-century ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which was especially insightful about the rise of a new right, as signaled by Barry Goldwater. In the years that followed, the elephants only got stronger, expanding their paranoid base.

That’s not to say that there have not been brave leaders who stood up to the right wing of hot air and hustle. Among the finest of the 20th century was President Johnson, who went down the road that Lincoln, one of the first Republicans, began paving. LBJ was unafraid to challenge the redneck South in the fight for civil rights. He knew the turning away from paranoid delusions would put redneck Southern politicians in a position to take power. He faced that inevitable fact, but continued on that road until the legislation dramatically changed the country.

But fear has its limits. Frank Luntz and all of the others who are tired of paranoia must have the courage to show the country that our politics will not be driven off the cliff by talk-show hosts, big money and conspiracy theories. Our democracy is on the phone; it expects a return call.

Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley@gmail.com.

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