In Stunning Display Of Myopia, Ross Douthat Wonders Where The ‘Frightening Fringe Groups’ Are (October 2, 2014)

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As a general rule, we’ve accepted that it’s best to ignore the right wing pundits and writers who overrun large swaths of our local and national media apparatuses. As most of us learned in childhood, once you give a loudmouth attention, it’s unlikely he or she will ever retreat. These talking heads are really just speaking to their own kind anyway, right?

Sometimes they’re whipping up the base over social issues fashioned into a wedge-shaped instrument with which to blunt public discourse (see: gay marriage 2004 or abortion 2012). Other times they are inflating a non-scandal (such as the supposed Benghazi conspiracy) to create a political distraction. And when not occupied with the previous two scenarios, these “journalists” are usually looking to provide disingenuous cover for the GOP’s indefensible positions on a whole host of issues such as: the rejection of Medicare expansion, the out of control proliferation of guns and ammunition, a head-in-the sand approach to immigration reform, and tax policy that enriches the one percent at the expense of everything else (the middle and working classes, public education, infrastructure, etc.).

But sometimes, it’s hard to let a tone deaf piece of right wing commentary slide, particularly when it appears in the “newspaper of record,” The New York Times. And doubly so when it is symptomatic of the GOP’s greatest ill: a shocking and dangerous lack of self-awareness.

At the end of a recent Sunday Review Op-Ed entitled, “The Cult Deficit,” I found myself annoyed by some of Douthat’s bland, unquantifiable assertions about the state of religious pedagogy. Take this example: “Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe.” I’m not sure the majority of Americans found recently deceased Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps comforting or safe. Vapid possibly, but Phelps’ form of hate-filled ignorance was certainly not benign. However, we’ve come to accept this kind of selective memory from conservative commentators.

What really took me by surprise was the crux of Douthat’s argument, the base upon which the entire ludicrous column was constructed:

“From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore.”

To this, I would offer three counter observations/ questions:

  1. Frightening fringe groups with religious underpinnings have progressed beyond the edge, working their way to the mainstream with shocking alacrity.
  2. Do you really not know who these people are, Douthat?
  3. To quote the character Ted from How I Met Your Mother, “If you can’t spot the crazy person on the bus, it’s you.”

Mr. Douthat, the radical fringe is, in fact, alive and well and to drop another pop cultural reference, their calls are coming from inside the House. The GOP-led, gerrymandered, ideological purity tested, Tea-Party infested House of Representatives. Your argument that “many fewer Americans ‘take unorthodox ideas seriously,’” is undone in seconds, without much effort.

  • Only 25 percent of Tea Partiers acknowledge the reality of climate change.
  • We’ve made it a mere 83 days without a male GOP candidate using the word “rape,” typically alongside a swipe at a woman’s right to choose.
  • Despite years and years of evidence to the contrary, Republican orthodoxy insists we can leverage austerity to starve our way out of recession.

It must be noted that across most of the Western world, suggestions that global warming is a hoax, that reducing access to family planning options is positive for “women’s health” or that widespread gun ownership saves lives, would be laughed out of the room. But here in good old America, these arguments are accepted as educated disagreement. And nothing is more radical and “crazy” than that. What need have we for cults when Washington is overrun with fringe lunatics with dangerous ideas, damaging the country and the direction of its policy each and every day?

Apparently when Douthat looks at a reflection of his party in the mirror, he sees normalcy. That’s how deluded the GOP perspective has become. Worse yet, the rest of us have become enablers. I opened the column with an observation that “it’s best to ignore the right wing pundits and writers who overrun large swaths of our local and national media apparatuses.” But no, that is incorrect. We are on the fringe because we allowed the conversation to be moved there.

It’s tempting to extrapolate from Douthat’s statement, “the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms,” that the current radical right fever will eventually cure itself. But if there’s nothing forcing the fever to break – decreased media traction, lost votes and other forms of public rebuke – it will continue to burn.

So this column is my minor contribution to the effort. Can’t find the cult Mr. Douthat? It’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time.

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