While in Washington for totally different reasons, I found myself, unexpectedly on the Mall, in back of the Washington monument, in the middle of the anti-Obama rally on Saturday. I had been with a bunch of Europeans, all of whom were quite surprised that people were rallying against government-sponsored health care that they did not so much celebrate—all said that they had needed to supplement their public insurance with private care when necessary--but assumed as a matter of course, indeed as a social right. The Europeans also were amused that those protesting thought that any reform that would be passed by the US Congress would be "socialist". To go from this point of view to the radically different one of those at the rally was disconcerting, but I was actually impressed by the demeanor, if not the beliefs of the people assembled. They seemed civilized, friendly, well-behaved, and after all they were exercising themselves of the great American right to peaceably gather and represent a point of view. It was also surprisingly diverse crowd, there were certainly people of color as well as people who (from my admittedly snap judgment) did not look as if they could seamlessly afford catastrophic health care costs without some sort of systemic help. One may have said that these people were perversely going against their socioeconomic self-interest, but it could also be said they were standing up for their convictions. There were tons of children there who could not necessarily consciously avow the views on the banners they were holding, but that could be said of left-wing or anti-war rallies as well….
It was when I continued to be surrounded by rally members on the train ride home that I had a few more qualms. First of all, the protestors began, in their conversation, to stray from health care or economic issues into various Obama conspiracy theories, including some with clear racist overtones and I had never heard before and were just incredibly outlandish and full of venom and spite. This was not only reprehensible in itself but detracted from the purity of the convictions I had sensed earlier; they seemed to be looking just for an outlet to attack Obama who they disliked anyway. In addition, a squadron of men wearing identifiable blue-jean jackets with the American flag created a slight impression of uniformity which, with the references to Pat Buchanan and lurid scenarios such as the prospect of the US breaking up into several balkanized regions in the near future, made the group seem more ‘fringe’ than they wanted dot appear (The conversation was full of claims the media had belittled thief renumber, which they said was 1.8 million, the media—CNN, they said scornfully--saying less than 100,000; the media seemed right even if one added ten or twenty thousand to their estimates at the maximum). What also surprised me is that so many of them were going all the way to New York—although hoof course 20 percent of New York City routinely votes for Republicans, and that adds up to a lot of people numerically if not percentage-wise, although of course a lot of the people on the train could have been from the suburbs or other points….a layer of irony was provided by the fact that, of all the ways to get from Washington to NYC, Amtrak is the one run by a quasi-governmental entity it is the public option. Indeed, the Northeast Corridor gets, through Amtrak, the kind of efficient public transportation denied the rest of the country. There seemed to be no protest against that….