So, don’t worry, be happy if these scenes are being repeated at home …
Scene 1: You come down for breakfast and a Mexican is in the kitchen painting. You come home from work, late, and the same immigrant is stooped in your wife’s garden; his wheelbarrow is in your parking place.
Scene 2: You’re tucking in your little girl when she asks, “Mommy, will you look under the bed and make sure there are no Muslims there; check the closet, too, mommy, and please, please leave the door open a crack.”
The manner with which you responded to the two scenes — silly or serious — depends on the pictures you carry in your head, images of the world beyond our reach constructed from words planted there by some authority.
The late columnist-philosopher Walter Lippmann, whose Public Opinion was first published in 1922, tells us, “It is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.”
When the country is hurt, angry or afraid, when forces beyond our control are unleashed that threaten our livelihood, disrupting normal patterns of life as in the Great Recession, we are more susceptible to the fictions of demagogues.
Our fears of Islamic terrorism or being overrun by job-stealing immigrants can be exaggerated by irresponsible media and political leaders, creating a sense of panic in people who do not hold a clear picture of reality in their mind’s eye.
One of the silliest exaggerations came from a man who knows better, U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, who told an audience in Trussville that there were 17 (secret) Socialists in Congress. Should we fear the rise of socialism?
Norman Thomas, an ordained Presbyterian minister, ran six times for president as a Socialist before retiring in 1964. At a banquet in New York’s Astor Hotel, the old man shuffled to the podium and with a palsied hand pulled down the microphone into which he whispered, “Creeping Socialism.”
If you’re afraid of socialism in America, you also fear the boogeyman.
Then there are politicians like Rep. Peter King of New York, who is conducting hearings to determine if the boogeyman is Islamic and is being radicalized in little mosques such as the quiet, peaceful one in my hometown.
Pictures of the 9/11 attacks seared into our consciousness are frames into which wildly irresponsible scenes are painted, such as those of the peripatetic writer Brigitte Gabriel, who asserts:
“America has been infiltrated on all levels by radicals who wish to harm America. They have infiltrated us at the C.I.A., at the F.B.I., at the Pentagon, at the State Department. They are being radicalized in radical mosques in our cities and communities within the United States.”
When the Big Lie, patched with random facts here and there, is sold with enough confidence to an audience already rendered suspicious, the only antidote is large doses of truth over time.
Twice the nation has gone bonkers over the threat of communism, which provides a backdrop against which to judge today’s anxieties about Muslims and immigrants.
Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer amassed a list of 60,000 “Reds,” launching raids in 12 cities that needlessly scared the country and earned him a censure from President Wilson.
At the height of the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin created a second “Red Scare” with the bogus claim to have a list of Communists in the State Department, a panic that touched me personally.
McCarthy was speaking at fairgrounds a mile from my boarding school in Danbury, Conn. Roy Jackson, a bright, slight classmate, who weighed maybe 130 pounds, got to the speech just as the senator was holding up his “list,” which moved Roy to pipe, “But how many have you caught, Joe?”
He was seized by two state patrolmen, taken to jail and charged with “inciting to riot.” Little 16-year-old Roy inciting a riot was an example of the hysteria fanned by demagogic politicians’ phony alarums.
Midway in the six months of the Army McCarthy hearings, Edward R. Murrow, in his televised commentary “See It Now,” exposed the senator as a charlatan and even members of the senator’s own party became nervous.
Congressman George H. Bender noted, “There is a growing impatience within the Republican Party. McCarthyism has become a synonym for witch-hunting, Star Chamber methods, and the denial of ... civil liberties.”
Walter Lippmann may not have had great faith in the public getting it right, but I do. In the six months of hearings in 1954, McCarthy’s approval rating dropped from 50 percent to 34 percent.
Give the American people enough facts over time and they’ll see no need to look under the bed or demand the police stop and search anyone suspected of being Hispanic. They’ll know the storm is just a foul wind blown by politicians.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.