As the post-election euphoria wears off, many of President Obama’s supporters – myself among them – ponder his future and that of the conservative movement. Conservatives seem to be moving through the various stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – though not necessarily in that order, leading many of my more optimistic and level-headed friends to suggest that it is now time for President Obama to work with moderate conservatives to get things done. This point of view reminds me of the story of St. James Davis and his pet chimp Moe.
St. James and his wife LaDonna raised their chimpanzee Moe from a baby like a son. He learned to eat with a fork. Speak some sign language. Make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He could nod ‘yes’ or shake his head ‘no’. He played with toys and occasionally wore a dinner jacket and trousers on formal occasions. Chimps are the closest relatives of human beings but as they age they often turn aggressive.
In August of 1998, Moe escaped and injured a police officer who tried to capture him. Then in September of the following year he bit the finger of a visitor, according to the Davis’s, mistaking it for licorice. Local authorities did not buy the story and later that day took Moe into custody, moving him to a refuge for exotic animals. The Davis’s and many in their community fought to win Moe’s freedom, an effort that would itself end in tragedy.
While many animals can be tamed only a few can be domesticated. Siegfried and Roy tamed tigers and lions. Circuses tame bears and elephants. Animals with nasty dispositions and complex social structures can be taught to work and occasionally live safely with humans, but taming and domestication are not the same thing. As Chris Rock noted about the tiger attack on Roy of Sigfried and Roy: a tiger attacking a human is not going crazy; he’s going ‘tiger’. It’s crazy to expect a tiger to ride a tricycle and wear a helmet. Some animals are dangerous no matter how you cut it. Its best to understand this and work to manage and contain them, but you will not negotiate with them.
The conservative movement has become a vessel and conduit for fears bordering on the primal: black rage; female agency; Hispanic fecundity. These fears can perhaps be discussed but they cannot be assuaged. One could argue that some of the charges against the President are ‘politics as usual’ – the socialist charge for example. If you want to argue that President Obama is a socialist – and by extension FDR, Nixon, and a few others – then fine. But what does one say to the charge that he is a Kenyan Mao tribalist Muslim? Clearly this is a sophisticated way of saying that he is ‘black and dangerous’, to which there is no real response. How do you explain to someone in the 21st century that only rapists think rape is legitimate? Or that the children of immigrants – regardless of their legal status – should not be called ‘anchor babies’.
The behavior of the last few years is a sign of a movement that has descended into chimp-rage. Certainly, you can argue that this or that person has misspoken, but in many cases the movement’s elder statesmen – Newt Gingrich – and the presidential candidate – Mitt Romney – have doubled down. In the case of the ‘war on women’, for example, accusing the public of hysteria, which ironically enough, began as an illness exclusively diagnosed in women until the 19th century, the treatments for which included everything ranging from seclusion, bed rest, shock treatment and – nope not making this up – forced vaginal penetration or rape. That this accusation does not help their case is obvious to everyone but them, in the same way that their favorite woman of letters – Ann Coulter – thinks that calling the President a retard is perfectly reasonable because everyone knows that a retard is a slur intended for losers and/or liberals, not the mentally handicapped.
There is no ‘negotiating’ with folks with this mindset. Will they agree to a deal when they have no choice? Of course, but that is not a real negotiation and it would be a waste of the President’s momentum. In the past years movement conservatism has proved itself to be racist and divisive, alienating large swathes of the American public and what we need is not a reconciliation, but a reckoning. No more railing against stimulus then writing letters begging for stimulus dollars like Paul Ryan; or demanding that government get its hands off of your subsidized healthcare; or railing against government when the department of defense is the biggest employer in your district. Conservative leaders are often hypocrites because the base demands hypocrisy and the contradictions are maddening.
St. James Davis was unsuccessful in his fight to win Moe’s freedom, but he was able to have him relocated to a private sanctuary. His plan was to visit him regularly and ensure that he was treated with care as he aged, but that was not to be. On his first visit, two other chimps escaped from their cages and attacked Mr. Davis mauling him terribly. Mr. Davis lost an eye, several fingers, a nose and his genitals. Yep. His genitals.
In the past few years, conservatives have grown fond of comparing the president and occasionally his wife to monkeys and chimps, so it’s ironic that their behavior is sending them into the wilderness. There are moderate Republicans of course who see the dangers and absurdity of extremism and would very much like to preserve their dignity and that of their party. The President must find and work with them. The rest must be contained and managed.