“A mob’s a monster; heads enough, but no brains.” – Benjamin Franklin
Folks, It is dangerous to be a public figure and to appear to be too reasonable. The two extremes will always find fault with you. That is, there will always be those who hate so much that nothing short of denunciations flowing from your lips will satisfy them. As that hate flows in both directions, you can see why standing in the middle of it might not be a comfortable place to be.
I am talking about President Obama. But a quick lesson from the 19th century American frontier will illustrate my point.
Western people were generally very hostile to the Indians. They stood to suffer most when hostilities broke out and they stood to gain the most if some excuse were found to push back or exterminate the tribes and open up the land to settlement. Folks in the East, however, far removed from the scene, tended to feel sorrier for the Indians.
A soldier on the frontier was caught in the middle.
George Armstrong Custer described the problem in his My Life on the Plains (1874):
How many military men have reaped laurels from their Indian campaigns? Does he strive to win the approving smile of his countrymen? That is indeed, in this particular instance, a difficult task. For let him act as he may in conducting or assisting in a campaign against the Indians, if he survives the campaign he can feel assured of this fact, that one-half of his fellow-citizens at home will revile him for his zeal and pronounce his success, if he achieves any, a massacre of poor, defenseless, harmless Indians; while the other half if his efforts to chastise the common enemy are not crowned with satisfactory results, will cry “Down with him. Down with the regular army, and give us brave volunteers who can serve the Government in other ways besides eating rations and drawing pay.”
No. The middle is not a fun place to be. You’re everyone’s target, sometimes simply because you’re willing to be reasonable. Fanatics hate reasonable people, whether they are left- or right-wing fanatics. Fanatics like mobs.
Colonel John Chivington, a conservative Christian, led a righteous mob to Sand Creek. There are lots of potential Sand Creeks in America; lots of mosques; lots of righteous mobs.
Chivington said, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!”
Does this sound familiar? It ought to.
Those who took a reasonable view of Native Americans in the 19th century were often labeled “Indian lovers.” In those days that was as bad a thing as a Muslim-lover today. President Obama, for his reasonable approach to Islam and the question of Islamic terror, is called not only a Muslim-lover but a Muslim.
And as we all know the old saw, that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Anyone who is not vociferous enough in their denunciations is, as Custer and other officers found out, suspect: The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Muslims!”
President Obama has made the same discovery. A Newsweek poll released Monday shows that most Republicans believe that he “Favors the interests of Muslims” and worse, “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”
If you look at the results of the poll. You find that, for example, that to the question, “As president, do you think Barack Obama has been tough enough in dealing with terrorists, or not tough enough?” that 43% say “yes, tough enough” and that 50% say, “No, not tough enough.”
It sounds like a poll frontier army officers like General Custer would have understood.
The partisan lines are clear in the poll results. Look at the following poll question: “Favors the interests of Muslims.” 59% of Republicans say “yes” but only 9% of Democrats and 28% of Independents. To the question, “Has generally been even-handed” the percentages are 34/82/62.
It’s pretty clear that GOP propaganda is working well on its own base, but while the looniness of Republicans is unsettling we can be relieved that it seems to be contained within their own ranks.
President Obama has shown in his first two years that he is taking a very centrist approach to the problems of this country, trying to bridge the gap between right and left, just as he promised, and trying reach out and work with his opponents across the aisle.
His opponents have shunned his conciliatory approach and then accused him of refusing to work with them because he refused to govern the country the way they told him to.
At the same time, President Obama has taken heat from progressives who feel he has in some way “betrayed the revolution” by not pushing for enough change fast enough. Like the army officer on the frontier, he is caught between the two extremes and his actions are pleasing to neither. A reasoned approach is anathema to ideologues.
Isn’t it enough that George W. Bush governed the nation by the seat of his pants, shooting from the hip like a cowboy? If you read accounts of western gunfights, you find that aim was not all that Hollywood makes it out to be. People missed more often than they hit. And often, the wrong people were hit. Wild Bill shot and killed one of his own deputies.
Carry that over to the results of Bush’s policies and you will see the connection.
Wouldn’t you, if you had somebody on your side, take aim before firing, to make sure they hit the target – the right target – than to just pull out a pistol and start banging away at anything and everything? It was in one of those wild shooting sprees that the United States invaded Iraq.
What President Obama needs, and what he deserves, are informed voters who think about and try to understand the issues and the ramifications of policy decisions, not those who want them made from the hip, as a knee-jerk reaction or in the heat of the moment. We don’t need any more invasions or any more Sand Creeks.
Voters need to understand that turning the United States into the very thing Islamic extremists say we are is not going to solve the problem of Islamic terrorism. The ripples of Bush’s policy missteps are still being felt. It will take time for the waters to settle; time for America to show the world that it is a credible partner and no longer behaving like a rogue state.
It takes courage to do the right thing when it’s the unpopular thing to do. A coward finds it easy to go along with the mob and it is the exceptional man who, like President Obama, will say, “Now, hold on just a minute…”
We should take that cue. We should step back from that mob too.
Let’s remember the words of John Quincy Adams:
“America…goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy…The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. the frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”- John Quincy Adams, 4 July 1821
I don’t think that President George W. Bush read John Quincy Adams; he wouldn’t have understood what he was saying if he had. Neither would Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. But I think President Obama gets it. Let’s give the first president we’ve had in eight years who thinks rather than reacts, our support.
Reason shines; mobs tarnish. Let’s do nothing to tarnish the luster of our great nation.