Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lead Torchbearer

"What an evil little thing. Poor thing. And it's not her fault. She's being ... trained to be like that."
Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo (D - Cranston)
Okay. I get it. Atheists are Different, and That's Bad. And I'm starting to suspect that Atheist parents are raising their children to be too brittle, using them as weapons against the dominant culture or both. Back when I was an Atheist teenager in Roman Catholic high school, the idea that I would have felt alienated and that I didn't belong over a prayer on the wall would have seemed ludicrous. I had plenty of other reasons for feeling like I didn't belong there, but even the Benedictine monks who ran the place didn't seem put out by my stated disbelief.

But for a State Representative to go on the air, apparently to score points with constituents by bashing a teenage girl who's already been receiving death threats*? Even if Palumbo is being absolutely sincere in his assertion that Jessica Ahlquist is both an evil thing and a pawn of evil parents and/or mentors, that strikes me as the sort of politically craven bullshit that gives politics a bad name. I understand the political impulse to rush to the head of any parade that forms and proclaim yourself the leader. But when you're seeking props for leading a lynch mob, you're feeding into the biggest problem that we have right now - the reflexive demonization of people who publicly proclaim themselves to be different.

Publicly throwing one of your constituents to the wolves shouldn't be a viable campaign tactic, but it is. And I suppose that I understand that. For all of its calls for Democracy and Enlightenment (sometimes, it appears, at the point of a gun), the United States is just as tribal and petty as the rest of humanity, for all that we constantly tell ourselves otherwise. "I'm just like you - I understand your hatreds and fears," works, and so it's a tool in the political arsenal. I suspect that had Palumbo taken the high road on this one, it would have become a campaign tool against him in the next election cycle. And the problem with political courage is that if you're voted out of office, you can't save the world anymore.

* To be honest, I don't normally take such threats seriously. There's some broken bit of the American psyche that revels in the fear and stress caused by threatening to murder those one disagrees with. But when facing the consequences of so serious an action, that same bit of the American psyche forces its host to fold like a bad hand of cards. We, as a nation, have become host to legions of craven bullies, seeking to frighten one another to conformity from the safety of anonymity. But people have been murdered for being outside the mainstream, so it's dangerous to be too dismissive.

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