By Josh Schrei
Thu, 09 Oct 2008
When the shell-shocked, illiterate, and pissed-off country folk of Cambodia who later came to be known as the Khmer Rouge finally drove back government forces and stormed the capitol of Phnom Penh in the 1970s, they focused all their pent up rage on one class of people — intellectuals.
Basically, if you had a college degree, you were killed. If you were a doctor, you were killed. If you wore glasses, you had your face bashed in with a bat. The initial killing spree that took place was rabid and brutal, carried out with the type of rage that is only seen when a people who have lived under the boot of a real or perceived enemy for years are finally let loose.
In this case, however, the rage was misguided. The intellectuals in Cambodia weren’t really the problem. And the disproportionate anger towards them was not historically intrinsic to the peasantry; it was a slowly, methodically developed political tactic employed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot to do one thing and one thing only — whip his base into a frenzy and keep him in power.
Certainly scapegoatism is not a new political tactic — the Nazis being the classic example. But what is interesting and terrifying about cases like Cambodia is the particular type of rage that is generated when a country-dwelling ‘underclass’ who have felt inferior and put down by the ’smarter’ urbanites finally get their day to… shine.
Unfortunately, the years that follow such bloodbaths tend to be — to put it mildly — not very fun. During the cultural revolution in China for example, infant mortality rates soared because qualified doctors were often seen as elitists and were either not allowed to practice or were killed outright.
There’s a simple reason why the years after anti-intellectual purges aren’t fun. Because intellectuals matter. It really shouldn’t even need to be said, but frighteningly in the current political climate, it does.
Obviously no-one in the United States is overtly advocating violence against the intellectual elite, but in metaphorical and increasingly real terms, the Republicans are waging a war pitting middle American ‘Joe Six Pack’ and ‘Hockey Moms’ against coastal elitists with Harvard degrees. Sarah Palin is the personification of this, taking George Bush’s strategy of ‘everyday speak’ to even greater heights (or lows) than George ever did. Apparently, in the Karl Rove strategy book, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, so much so that now the war of ‘everyday America’ vs. ‘the smart people’ is absolutely central to Republican electoral strategy.
There should be no underestimating how dangerous and toxic this strategy is. By simultaneously gutting the very educational and social programs that support and sustain ‘Joe six pack’ with one hand and with the other creating a vitriolic culture in which those who actually are educated are seen as ‘other’ and therefore not worthy of governing, the Republican party is toying with the future of this country in ways that can and will cause irrevocable damage.
We all might laugh or cringe when Sarah Palin talks about being ‘five weeks on the job’ and bringing ‘Joe Six pack’ into the white house or describes herself as a ‘pitbull with lipstick.’
What we should be is very, very afraid.
Leaving aside the fact that what America needs both domestically and abroad at this particular juncture in history is to be governed by a pair of really, really smart people, the truly frightening prospect is what will happen if the Republicans continue with this tactic. The historical parallels are ugly. Nineteen-thirties Italy comes to mind. As does post WWI Germany. As does — in an extreme example — Cambodia.
In immediate terms, the natural outcome of this ‘everyday man’ nationalism and anti-elitist frenzy combined with economic downturn is a drastic drop in America’s ability to compete in the world. Our nation’s economy lessens as our nations ability to lead the global conversation lessens, and then, as the economy tanks and jobs diminish, the gap between ‘Joe Six Pack’ and the coastal elites widens, the hatred and division grows. To the point that to half the nation’s people, it somehow, astonishingly, becomes a negative to speak of how smart, or well educated, or articulate, or worldly a person is.
A nation such as ours, founded on a very heady document written by some very smart and very well educated people, should never, ever shy away from electing scholars as president. We have, and we should, embrace it.
There are two saving graces here. One is that thinking Republicans are actually starting to realize the danger that Palin — and the campaign of class war that she represents — poses to their party and are becoming more and more vocal about it.
The other is that everyday Americans have suffered the most at the hands of the current administration and many of them realize it. Hopefully more will.
The ones that don’t — the ones that rabidly call for a ‘hockey mom’ in the white house while the rug is being pulled out from underneath them — they’re the ones whose blindness would soon have them picking up the metaphorical bat and taking it to the very doctor that could heal them.
Hopefully the rift in the republican party over the new Palinism — and a democratic victory — will create a shift towards a more thinking, issue-based Republican party. Otherwise, to put it bluntly, we might as well close our schools, shut down our borders, send more of our sons and daughters off to die, and rename 2008 Year Zero.
GNN contributor Josh Schrei is a producer, writer, and nonprofit strategist living in New York City.