“You really do hate America!” This was the parting shot from a man I had just debated on a television show shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Because he’s a notorious right-wing blowhard, I laughed it off as the raving of a crackpot in extremis.

Little did I know. …

Soon, those of us who opposed the Iraq war, torture, “extraordinary rendition,” Guantanamo, spying on innocent Americans and other illegal tools in the Cheney/Bush black bag began to hear variations on that theme from people one would have expected to know better. And it’s gotten worse as they’ve become more desperate — or do the depths to which we’ve fallen suggest a fault line in America’s culture?

Only a short time ago, we dissenters were called “Saddam-lovers,” “America-haters” or, when they really wanted to cut deep, “French!” But that usually came from the relatively unhinged, like my debate partner. Today, similar imprecations fall readily from the lips of media bloviators while the hoi polloi lurches toward lynch-mob tenor with screams of “traitor,” “terrorist” and “off with his head” — insults not aimed at lowly actors but rather at the man who could be the next president of the United States. Worse, they are winked at and ignored, or even defended and embraced by some of those from whom we expect better.

As one in the crucible of this volcanic yet potentially transformative moment, John McCain, who claims to put “Country First,” should reread the novel “The Ugly American.” Sarah Palin can watch the movie.

Fifty years ago, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book exposed the boorish behavior some of our citizens exhibit while abroad, warning that a “mysterious change seems to come over Americans” when they are amid people and cultures seen as different. While the ensuing half-century proved those in developing countries to be neither less intelligent, less capable nor less interested in improving their lives than human beings elsewhere, this breed of Americans, inclined to “isolate themselves socially,” per Burdick and Lederer, seems to have turned inward, chanting “USA, USA!”

As the world prospered behind their backs, those affected by this insular strain of American nationalism metastasized into swaggering jingoists full of Cold War machismo, content to wave the flag and “Go for the gold.” For them, the collapse of the Evil Empire proved the world’s sole superpower could do as it damned well pleased: “We’re No. 1,” baby! Anybody who doesn’t like it should get the hell out of the way.

“[L]oud and ostentatious,” per the book, this parochial group bequeathed its “mysterious change” to generations of Know-Nothings who stuck to their own, seeing “difference” as a threat. Dumbed-down by television and wary of anyone lacking sufficient fervor for their triumphant “Christian nation,” they made those of different color, heritage or belief into “the other,” a practice encouraged by coded appeals to racism from their would-be leaders. With Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and “silent majority” setting the stage, Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Bush the First’s “Willie Horton” spread the contagion while conferring it legitimacy.

Embraced as true conservatives and stoked by hate-radio millionaires, these changelings seduced the Republican Party, laid claim to the flag and launched a “culture war.” Adopted by anti-government hucksters, empire-seekers and profligate free-marketeers, they divided the nation with a God and Country ethos that declared the Bible inerrant, reviled homosexuality, “permissiveness,” liberalism and critical thinking, denied women equal rights, and children any at all, and cowed the media into submission.

For them, the horror of 9/11 lay at the feet of the enemy within — the ACLU, abortionists, pagans, gays and lesbians, secularists. And a stunned public, reeling from the assault and sinking into post-traumatic stress disorder, was led into a flag-waving frenzy of revenge-seeking and other-hating that targeted “rag-heads” and “sand-niggers.”

Drunk with power, this mob was galvanized by W’s “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” ultimatum, its malignant hostility dividing us more sharply at each iteration, until the enemy became the entire world of Islam and anyone who disagreed. Forsaking constitutional freedoms in favor of “security,” its adherents turned our very nation inside out, with Americans pitted against one another in states red and blue.

And today, while some dream of change, a perfect storm of cultural division, failed leadership, lost principles, military disaster and economic collapse has ripped the mask away, exposing a virus that has undermined quaint American values of tolerance, generosity, equality and fairness, replacing them with chauvinism, avarice, confusion, fear and despair.

But struggles that have trampled the principles urging America toward greatness are not new. That they have not destroyed us but rather helped us grope toward maturity is due to some who have called on our better angels and re-inspired the decency that ennobles our promise. Even with chaos at the doorstep people look for hope, for change, for reason to believe that the America of song and story persists.

Yet today, unable to rise to the challenge of hope, would-be-President McCain chooses expediency over country, potentially placing the priestess of parochialism, a barb-tongued, inanity-prone neophyte, a heartbeat away from his Oval Office. Schooled in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “American Idol,” she energizes the pitchfork mob, dividing “real America” from the rest, reviving faint echoes of white superiority and “manifest destiny” as her sponsor deafens himself to it all.

This failure of leadership affirms the ugly America, the nation of misanthropes. Yet the heartbeat of promise persists. There is hope, and there is truth — if the people demand them.

Mike Farrell, co-chair emeritus of the Southern California Committee of Human Rights Watch and president of Death Penalty Focus, is the author of “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist.”


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