Obama Talks to Kids, Wing Nuts Erupt

The recent flap over President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren this week is a disheartening reflection of political discourse in today’s America, replete with the artificiality, paranoia and coarseness that have become all-too-familiar staples of our national, televised, on-line, roundthe-clock “yeller-ama.”

The September 8 speech, scheduled to air on the White House web site and C-SPAN and that the Education Department invited students, teachers and school administrators to watch, would, the department said, “challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning.”

Not so fast, say right-wing politicians, pundits and their grassroots followers who detect a sinister effort by Obama to indoctrinate students into his “socialist” outlook and build support for his agenda. Really.

They pointed to an earlier Education Department lesson plan to accompany the speech, in which students would write letters to themselves about how they can help the president. How this would nurture Obama-loving socialistic automatons defies logic but, facing conservative ire, the department revised the plan, suggesting students write letters about how they can reach their educational goals.

No one doubts that education is key to our economic future, nor that students need greater skills than ever to compete, nor that many of them don’t know enough when they graduate, nor that at least some of them surely could do better if they focused more effort on securing their own futures.

But not even an inspiring pitch from an inspiring, dynamic and gifted president – one who is especially well-placed to deliver it as the first African-American president of an increasingly multi-racial society – can escape the politics of controversy at a time of angst and anger in America.

Consider the elements of this pseudo-scandal, and note how they have become regular features of our national anger-fest:

Manufacturing mayhem.

The Education Department announced Obama’s speech weeks ago, but it was only when rightwing bloggers, web sites and talk radio targeted it for exploitation that the issue soared to more recent prominence.

Pushed by grassroots fever, opportunistic politicians like Minnesota Gov. (and presidential aspirant) Tim Pawlenty and Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer weighed in, stoking the flames that put school districts from Texas and California to Virginia and Georgia on the defensive.

Then, with parents bombarding administrators with angry phone calls about the speech, some districts refused to let students hear it in class while others left the decision to individual teachers.

It’s not unlike the manufactured mayhem over health care, stoked by the manufactured fears about mythical “death panels.” What’s common to both is the right’s efforts to demonize Obama, casting him outside the American mainstream.

Promoting paranoia.

“American political life has . . . served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in his classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” – minds that detect sinister motives behind even the most benign public actions or explanations.

In the current flap, columnist Mark Steyn fears that Obama seeks a “cult of personality,” though, he concedes helpfully, not as big as North Korea’s Kim Jong II or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Greer says he’s “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.” Explaining why she doesn’t want her kids to hear Obama’s speech, Colorado mom Shanneen Barron said, “I feel very scared to be in this country with our leadership right now.”

Paranoia is not reserved for the political right, of course. While some right wingers refuse to believe Clinton friend Vince Foster committed suicide and suggest the Clintons orchestrated a murder, some left wingers insist President Bush ordered, or knew beforehand but did not prevent, the September 11 attacks.

Defining discourse downward.

Was it that long ago that parents taught their children to admire the president, whoever he was? Was it just a half-year ago that Americans shared a true national pride in electing our first black president?

America, of course, has never been a land of solely respectful discourse. Harsh personal attack dates back to colonial days and, in the 1930s, millions who opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal refused to utter his name, calling him “that man.”

Nevertheless, public discourse has deteriorated of late. When House Democrat Charles Rangel defended President Bush from attack by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, left-wing bloggers and talk show hosts aimed their fire at Rangel, not Chavez. And portraying our presidents with Hitlerstyle moustaches has become standard fare of political protest.

And we wonder why our leaders in Washington cannot address our really important national challenges.

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