Forget the Swine Flu. America is suffering from an outrage pandemic.
Like everybody else in America, I was surprised when the Nobel committee awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to Barack Obama. I was pleased, but surprised. Apparently, just about the only living creature not surprised was Bo the First Dog. But the outrage that flowed from every corner of the political conversation was far more depressing than learning about the award was surprising.
When did American optimism succumb to this constant outrage?
Less than a year ago, tens of millions of Americans descended on Washington, DC, just so they could say, "I was there," on the day Barack Obama became President. Nine months later, a majority of Americans seem convinced that this same man--who once inspired them so deeply--has personally slighted them.
The right-wing is certainly responsible in part for the spread of the outrage pandemic.
The right has reached a level of outrage at Barack Obama that already exceeds what the left mustered after eight years of George W. Bush. The result is that right-wing politics in America now follows one general argument: If Obama wants it, then it is so bad it must be stopped or it will destroy America.
The insanity in this approach became clear in the health care reform debate where we have heard Republicans on Medicare say crazy things like, "I'd rather die than see this country adopt government-run health insurance" (e.g., I would rather die than have the kind of government health insurance that I currently have, which keeps me from dying).
When people shake their fists in protest at the very things they say they will die to defend, the result is far worse than a nation divided along political lines. It is a form of national schizophrenia.
While the outrage pandemic may have reached critical levels on the right, the left has done its part in the past nine months, too.
Try talking to anyone in the left-wing, nowadays, and it seems everyone has a bone to pick with Barack Obama. Whatever Barack Obama does, more and more people on the left are outraged by him. First it was the bank bailout program, then the auto-industry rescue, then the health care bill. Then it was not moving fast enough on closing Gitmo, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then withdrawal from Iraq. Now the left is outraged at Obama's Afghan policy and his view on cap and trade and home mortgage relief and marriage equality and the prosecution of past administration officials.
Is there anyone left on the left who is not outraged at Barack Obama for something? If they're out there, I never come across them.
Some outrage is good for politics, but only if the outrage can be translated into action. The Democrats needed more outrage to advance their health care initiative, for example, so an online whip count effort to rally votes for health care reform was created, inspiring tens of thousands of ordinary Americans to participate in the health care debate in a constructive way. That was outrage put to useful ends. But for the most part, the ordinary people I talk to say that they are turned off by the 24/7 general, non-productive outrage they see from their friends on the left and the right.
What Americans see, lately, from this outrage pandemic is a daily drama of name-calling hurled at President Obama from both sides of the political spectrum. The right now routinely says Obama is no different than "Hitler" and "Carter" and "Arafat," while the left compares him to "Kissinger" and "Reagan" and "Bush." None of it is true, of course. I could argue that the schnauzer across the hall is like Hitler and that the Pekingese is like Kissinger--but it doesn't make it true. All this historical name calling is just shorthand for both sides saying: Obama is the worst there could be, and that's all I'm going to contribute to this debate. Outrage, thy name is Hitler (and Carter, and Arafat, and Kissinger...).
Curiously, while the outrage pandemic has spread to every corner of the American political system, reducing it to the point where it seems near death, the Europeans are not suffering as we are.
From the perspective of the Nobel Committee in Oslo, American politics is not a patient laying comatose on a table, but a shining beacon of hope shining anew after the darkness of the last eight years.
For the Europeans, Barack Obama ended nearly a decade of outrage in response to Bush's and Cheney's military policies. The election of Barack Obama was greeted by Europeans (and Asians, and Africans, and Latin Americans) not just as a turning point in history, but as step in the direction of survival.
Over the course of nearly a decade, the rest of the world watched the policies of the Bush administration and worried about the rising specter of nuclear annihilation--a fear that had not gripped the world so strongly since the end of the Cold War.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama seemed to carry with it a collective sigh of relief from Europe, if not the world. If the Nobel medal could speak, this year it would say, "Thank you, for stopping that crazy march to military madness that worried us all so much!"
America is still in Iraq and considering sending more troops to Afghanistan. Yet, these military actions are not being driven through by propaganda campaigns and bellicose brinkmanship. We no longer turn on our televisions to be greeted by constant White House speeches warning that terrorists will destroy our shopping malls with nuclear bombs tomorrow if we fail to invade Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan today. The world still has problems, but the biggest kid on the global stage is no longer picking fights everyday with everyone else.
In response to the logic behind this year's Nobel, it is not surprising that the left and the right vented their outrage at Obama. Our outrage pandemic is far from over. And yet, as someone who stood in the cold to watch Barack Obama's inauguration, and who felt that optimism for Democracy in a way that I cannot recall feeling before or since, I understand why the Europeans might still feel it strong enough to give Obama the Nobel Prize.
Perhaps we should take this Nobel Peace Prize as an invitation to remember that feeling of optimism we felt less than one year ago--a chance to recall that feeling with the help of an old friend who still believes in its potential.
So, amidst the latest outbreak of outrage springing up across America, take a few moments to enjoy Barack Obama's Nobel Prize. The way our outrage pandemic is growing, it could be a long time before we feel good again--about Barack Obama or anything else for that matter.
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