Over the past few weeks as Michele Bachmann's star has risen in the firmament of GOP presidential hopefuls, I have been reading a flurry of emails, blogs, and Facebook status updates from fellow Minnesotans of a leftish bent decrying Bachmann not only for her extremist ideology but for being “insane” or “crazy.” Last week she was even treated to one of Matt Taibbi's gonzo wrecking jobs in Rolling Stone that made essentially the same point — she's bonkers, man. Whacko. Cuckoo. A runaway train with no crew on board.
True, her unblinking gaze and frozen smile, her self-serving foster motherhood, her soft-mannered therapist-husband specializing in “curing” gay men of their sexual orientation, and her record of pathological lying and misstatement of fact does give one pause. But her sanity – or lack thereof – like her ultraist policy positions and flamboyant rhetoric, is not the real issue. There are other, systemic problems that must be addressed if we have any hope of preventing “The Handmaid's Tale” from being magically transformed from dark ficition to even darker fact.
And by systemic problems I am not simply referring to the complete takeover of the mainstream news media by unaccountable corporate interests happy to promote politicians who espouse a primitive form of theocratic Social Darwinism that in no way threatens corporate earnings.
Indeed, the policies proposed by Bachmann and her ilk would only serve to fatten corporate coffers even more, not only as a byproduct of anarchic deregulation but by aggravating the very anomie and anxiety that already provide the dry rot that nourishes the spores of consumer capitalism.
No, the real demon we must name and exorcise is that Bachmann is no anomaly, a freakish exception to the rule. She is, like Sarah Palin or George W. Bush, a “real 'Murcan” just as much as thee and me and all our brethren piloting Toyota Priuses to Whole Foods.
In this regard, it's important to remember that, while the ideology she embraces is clearly destructive and therefore pathological, she herself is probably not clinical in any diagnosable way.
More to the point, the dominionist, authoritarian, hyper-nationalistic and, ultimately, racism-tainted ideology she embraces is not antithetical to, but on a continuum with, normative American values, although they are admittedly at one end of the spectrum.
Just as the crime, domestic violence, widespread substance abuse, broken homes, and other social pathologies of the inner city are merely distilled versions of social pathologies present throughout American society, a product of a culture that breeds despair and its attendant addictive behaviors, so Bachmann's belief system is just a more concentrated form of exceptionalism, with its corresponding conviction that we are not bound by the same laws of necessity that govern the rest of the world: that, at heart, the catchphrase, “The American Dream,” translates into a God-given right to lead the unexamined life. Whatever the cost.
The big challenge facing liberals and progressives is to acknowledge that we, too, are infected by the same notion of exceptionalism (“Ameria's high consumption lifestyle is a blesséd lifestyle,” as George Bush so eloquently put it). Failing that, we will continue to disarm ourselves in the face of the power and influence of individuals like Michele Bachmann.
As Dostoevski said, “Only a few are guilty. All are responsible.” As a starter, all of us need to admit that we drink from the same poisoned chalice of exceptionalism. Next, we must devote our energies not just to combating the ensuing sickness as it manifests itself in individual “enemies” like Bachmann but to analyzing and exposing the false values embedded in ourselves.
Hysteria, after all, is the handmaiden of the unmentionable, and the alarm, apocalyptic thinking, and overly personalized reactivity she evokes are unmistakable symptoms of hysteria.
Hysteria may provide a refuge of sorts — however shaky and uncomfortable — from our own demons. Yet, as we can see played out every day on our national stage, hysteria is a very poor weapon for countering malign ideologies that are, themselves, the product of hysteria generated by people separated from us only by such superficialities as class, geographic background, and education.
The answer to Michele Bachmann, then, is not name-calling and commands to abandon ship. The real answer lies in a truly radical transvaluation of American values. While this would not necessarily entail radical political action at the outset, it would certainly have a radical — possibly even life-saving — impact on our politics and the culture from which those politics arise, like a malignant spirit in the dark of night.