Columns » Max Brantley

Republicans: the scaredy-cat party

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The agenda of the rising Republican Party reflects the close of Carl Sandburg's poem about exceptionalism (and ignores the hubris). We are "the greatest nation. Nothing like us ever was."

But if we are so great, why are they so scared?

Many of the American exceptionalists fear diversity of religion — particularly, but not only, Islam. They root blasphemy out of textbooks and demand recitations to their favorite deity in public assemblies.

They fear the small minority whose hard-wired sexual preferences differ from their own. Why else oppose equal legal rights for this little group?

They fear foreigners, particularly those with yellow and brown skins. Nordic people don't seem to cause as much alarm, but Swedes aren't massing at the border either.

State Sen. Bart Hester, a Republican Cave Springs dweller, sounded the alarm last week about Central American children seeking refuge. The border must be secured against them, he said, even as he acknowledged the horror of their young lives. He demanded to know if the Arkansas legislature had been asked for permission by the federal government to allow 166 children to cross our borders for temporary shelter with friends and relatives.

The mostly imaginary threat of disease powers hysteria about immigrant children. The same group of objectors seems less fearful of the poisons injected into Arkansas air and water by corporate polluters.

The panicky exceptionalists fear, in general, for their safety. Thus, they pressure for still more guns — in homes, schools, churches, bars and parks. Once, they clamored for concealed weapons. They also said safety demanded that the public not know who was armed. Now many of them argue that only open carry of weapons — including semi-automatic rifles designed for mass killing — guarantees true peace of mind in a Starbucks or Walmart.

But they remain easily spooked even when armed. Open carry demonstrators in Austin, Texas were flummoxed last week by two topless women who counter-protested the gun display with nothing more than bared breasts and signs proclaiming "Boobs for Peace." The First Amendment won the standoff with the Second Amendment, it seemed to me. Mighty weaponry couldn't silence two middle-aged topless women, much less a world full of asymmetrical threats to order.

For fear run rampant, it was hard to top Republican State Sen. Jason Rapert last week. He said it was "ludicrous" and "maybe treasonous" to allow the return of a U.S. medical missionary to a hospital in Atlanta for treatment of Ebola. Let the U.S. citizen stay in Africa, he said, or on a military ship where the risk of exposure would be limited to U.S. military men and women.

Rapert, an alleged minister of the Gospel, was not alone in finding a waiver from Christ's call to welcome the sick. A Times Facebook post on the episode drew 40,000 readers and dozens of comments, most critical of Rapert. But not all. One defender suggested it was safe for Jesus to treat lepers because he was the Son of God and imbued with superhuman powers. The rest of us mortals are right to insist that an ocean separate us from the sick and those brave enough to treat them.

This is the same variety of American exceptionalism that hungers to commit American volunteers and rockets to world trouble spots, so long as there's no draft for the timid and no tax exacted for the expenditure of American lives and resources.

Join me in a modest counter-demonstration. For the 42nd year, I intend to go to work in downtown Little Rock without a gun. I'll buy a meal from a Latino immigrant. I'll scan the legal filings for advancement of equality for gay people. I'll happily pay my taxes. And I will not fear the consequences.

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