Crazy in America

At the grocery checkout today, I snapped this photo of a tabloid cover:

Sarah Palin on the cover of Star

How perfect is that?! Surely Sarah Palin’s core demographic is the same segment of the population that reads supermarket tabloids!

But Palin may laugh last. Tabloid readers are voters — and there are lots of them.

Coincidentally, immediately after my shopping trip, I read a Washington Post article, “In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition ,” written by Rick Perlstein.

The title refers to the healthcare protests (hence “preexisting condition” ). Perlstein argues that the craziness we’re seeing now is a perennial phenomenon in America. Actually, not quite perennial:  “the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy”.

Perlstein gives a series of illustrations of his thesis. Here’s a sample:

My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.

So, crazier then, or crazier now? Actually, the similarities across decades are uncanny.

When Adlai Stevenson spoke at a 1963 United Nations Day observance in Dallas, the Indignation forces [comparable to today’s “tea party” protesters] thronged the hall, sweating and furious, shrieking down the speaker for the television cameras. Then, when Stevenson was walked to his limousine, a grimacing and wild-eyed lady thwacked him with a picket sign.

Stevenson was baffled. “What’s the matter, madam?” he asked. “What can I do for you?” The woman responded with self-righteous fury: “Well, if you don’t know I can’t help you.”

So “crazy” is not a new phenomenon in America. But Perlstein does point out one significant new development:

If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air.

The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.

Have you ever heard the expression, “the mainstreaming of porn”? I’d like to suggest that “crazy” has also gone mainstream.

(At least in the U.S.A., it has. Canada has nothing remotely comparable to the contemporary tea party protests, or the 1961 National Indignation Convention.)

The mainstreaming of crazy is good news for Sarah Palin. Sure, the supermarket tabloids are spreading false rumours about her marriage. But “false” is an outmoded concept, anyway. Facts shouldn’t interfere with a story that can move product off the shelves.

Sarah dear, celebrity is a mixed blessing. Ya gotta take the bad with the good, hun!

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