Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Driving the wedges soul-deep into our country

With no black man in the White House, with Hillary Clinton pushed into political retirement, the National Rifle Association faces a challenge in sustaining the paranoia that it feeds upon, that drives its fundraising, that pays the million-dollar salaries for its top people, that pushes weapon sales.

Yet in every crisis, there is opportunity. In this case, that opportunity is labeled, for lack of a better term, "they."

Everybody understands who "they" is. "They" is the opposite of "we." "They" are the enemy, whom patriots must battle if true patriots they be. And it's interesting. The call to arms in the NRA's newly released ad posted above is just a harsher, more brutal version of many of the ads that we saw in the recent 6th District race, which also featured a central narrative of them vs. us. It's yet another iteration of a rising theme in conservative circles that we find ourselves in a Second American Civil War, an era in which unity is possible "only when the left vanquishes the right or the right vanquishes the left."

Of course, the message becomes a little more ominous and creepy when it comes from a group dedicated to selling guns, that argues as a central tenet of its philosophy that guns are a legitimate and constitutionally protected means of seeking political change.

That sense is compounded by the imagery and word choices in the ad.

"They use their media to assassinate real news...." The NRA had other choices that would have conveyed that meaning -- "undermine," "undercut," even "destroy" -- but it went with the odd "assassinate."

"They use their schools to teach children that our president is another 'Hitler'...," a charge that is of course false on its face. More insidiously, the phrase "they use their schools" asks its audience to ignore the fact that our public schools are governed by locally elected school boards, comprising citizens elected by fellow citizens in the communities where we all live. Public schools are OUR schools, not "their schools".

"The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth." Again, study the word choices. "... violence of lies" is not an everyday expression. Nor is "the clenched fist of truth." In an era of heated passions and bitter divides, this is rhetoric designed to drive the wedges soul-deep into this country, to suggest that violence must be met with violence.

The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, when we celebrate the founding of this nation. The entire audacity of the American experiment has been the idea that through representative government, we could create forums and institutions through which we could govern ourselves peaceably, that our rivalries and disagreements could be worked out through compromise. However, that system presupposes that as Americans, we do not see or treat each other as bitter enemies caught in a twilight struggle for existence.

Again, in its modern incarnation this troubling trend can be traced back 30 years or more to Newt Gingrich, the man who rejected compromise as a leftist conspiracy and taught a rising generation of Republicans how to "speak like Newt." Look back at that infamous list of words -- "betray, decay, destroy, they/them ... traitor" that Gingrich instructed his acolytes to apply "to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party." Look at those words, and look where we stand today.

Look again at that ad, and see where we might be headed.

The idea is to make people angry and fearful, because angry, fearful people are stupid and easily led. The idea is to destroy faith that debate, discussion and compromise are possible with those who might see things differently. The idea is to destroy what remains of our faith in our fellow Americans, because power and profit can be reaped from the resulting chaos.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.