America is second to none in the realm of political ridiculousness, despite some truly frightening challenges from several foreign leaders. Still, who could top Fox News recently speculating that Chelsea Clinton and her husband agreed to time her pregnancy so that Hillary would become an adoring and adored grandmother during her expected presidential campaign? But it was topped, bested even in its own realm of politics making uninvited bedfellows, by Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation, when he recently warned that if businesses cannot refuse to serve gays, bakers will be forced to prepare wedding cakes in the form of penises for gay marriages. Just penises? Lots of us could conjure up more provocative wedding confections-but few could surpass the most recent contender for absurdity, Cliven Bundy. Outfoxing the government by attracting the media to his armed stand-off with federal authorities, Bundy took center ring in America's political circus by declaring he did not recognize the existence of United States government, meanwhile riding his horse while waving a U.S. flag. He even out-absurded Fox, which glumly unplugged its cameras when Bundy went on to speculate as to whether African Americans were better off as slaves than they are today.
Has American political panic gone to the dogs? Consider these Seven Wonders of American political panic and you will see the answer is yes-and that, from the get-go, it has been going to the dogs.
1. Two dogs were executed during the 1692 Salem witch hunt, when those in panic believed the unfortunate pooches were possessed. Bear in mind, these colonists also hanged nineteen people during their frenzy. Piled atop them in the years that followed are thousands of African Americans and Native Americans, along with many Chinese, Catholics, and Latinos who have been lynched, shot, or mauled to death for no other reason than panic over their presence. Heaped atop them are considerable numbers of gay Americans and Muslim (or mistaken for Muslim) Americans.
2. In an 1886 book, a little-remembered man named Charles Chiniquy asserted that the Vatican was behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. At the time however, Chiniquy-like Cliven Bundy today-was not alone in his views. Up through the election of John F. Kennedy, many Americans feared Catholics would do whatever the Pope told them. Several convents were burned in this country during the 19th century, in the belief that they were secret covens, inside which unspeakable, even murderous, evils took place.
3. Chiniquy's ridiculous religious panic may have been trumped recently by the man who seems to think his last name is his quest. In 2011, Donald Trump declared that President Obama was hiding his birth certificate because, "Maybe it says he's a Muslim."
4. Also in the ridiculous religious ring, Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly was impressive, performing without a net of knowledge when she asserted, "Santa just is white"-but she still has a long way to go before she can challenge the career of Phyllis Schlafly. In over 60 years of purveying panic, Schlafly recently made news yet again when she warned that equal pay for women will undermine their finding a suitable husband. During her heyday in the 1980s debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly opposed women working while they still had young children, despite the fact that, when her children were young in the 1950s, Schlafly ran for congress and traveled far and wide to Republican Party events, all the while doing a weekly radio show and speaking to citizens' groups on the dangers of communism.
5. Still, Megyn Kelly may yet overtake Schlafly, just as Schlafly surpassed Miss America finalist Anita Bryant, who dominated the 1970s with her panic over gays. "If gays are granted rights," Bryant warned in her 1977 book, At Any Cost, "next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters." Admittedly, I hadn't thought the issue through in regard to nail biters. Nor was I aware that prostitutes didn't have rights.
6. Before Anita, another entertainer on whom our political circus turned its spotlight was Shirley Temple. In 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee accused this ten-year-old movie star of supporting communism. Shirley Temple's treachery came to light when her name appeared, along with those of other celebrities, in a letter of congratulations on the first anniversary of a French news and literary daily, whose editor was a communist. Such guilt-by-association follows from what classical Greek philosophers did for fun: Come up with syllogisms such as, All cats have ears. Socrates has ears. Therefore, Socrates is a cat.
7. This same absurdity surfaced not long ago during our health care debate, when a woman holding up a placard of President Obama with a Hitler mustache asked Congressman Barney Frank, "Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?" After all, Nazi Germany had a government health care plan, and President Obama wants a government health care plan, therefore President Obama is a Nazi. Barney Frank, with his own keen sense of the ridiculous, replied, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"-then aptly added, "Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table."
Not all political alarm is panic. Even vehemently expressed alarm is not necessarily panic. Political panic is a realm of alarm in which fears and needs trample reason-which is the reason one cannot reason with a person in panic. Barney Frank had it right. Trying to do so is ridiculous. Or would be, if it weren't so scary.
Mark Stein is the author of American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why [Palgrave Macmillan, $27.00].