When I linked last night to the New York Times story about Texas shutting down health care for poor women while claiming it was all about abortion, I said this: “This is just people being dicks and punching defenseless women because they can.”
In other words, bullying.
I know from bullying. Between third and sixth grade I got my ass kicked fairly regularly by a couple of neighborhood kids. My parents, as parents did then, said, “Deal with it yourself. Fight back.” I did, although not very effectively. The only time I unambiguously won one of those battles was when I smashed a lunchbox across the other guy’s nose. And, naturally, this did not make him go away but for about two days.
Nowadays, the public schools where I live are all about “zero tolerance for bullying,” which is at once both an improvement and kind of quaint when you have kids bursting into middle school in search of a student they believe sexually assaulted a relative. But that’s only an improvement for the kids. The adults are now more into bullying than ever. Sometimes it takes the form of policy proposals that would further enrich the already wealthy at the expense of society’s most vulnerable, such as Rep. Paul Ryan’s kill-Medicare proposal, or that Times article I linked to about cutting health care for poor women in Texas. And sometimes it’s not even that subtle.
Athenae at First Draft offers some suitable perspective:
The only people who like bullies are bullies and the pathetic, conflict-averse, morally cowardly hangers-on who think that by throwing a few rocks they’ll avoid getting stoned to death at some point too. Everybody else recognizes what’s going on and thinks it’s gross, and even kind of sad, and shouldn’t we be past this now, we’re supposed to be grown-ups.
Let me tell you something about pregnant kids and how radically the landscape has shifted since I was in school. I went to a doctrinaire Roman Catholic high school, and in my senior year there were a couple of girls who were pregnant. And not once did anyone in authority, principal down to the … janitor, treat those girls with anything less than the respect every single other student received. You can’t stop kids from gossiping, and I don’t know what went on between the girls and the authorities behind closed doors, but seeing those girls treated just like everybody else went a long way toward keeping the more vicious and nasty kids under wraps.
That’s the real difference between what goes on in the schoolyard and what goes on in our national politics. People have always been mean nasty bastards and they’re always going to be. But once upon a time we didn’t have an entire media establishment dedicated to cheering on the bullies and making them feel good about the dark places inside them that make them hack off on the powerless, 24 hours a day, on TV and the radio and now in the wingnutsphere. Once upon a time you got cuffed upside the head for picking on the smaller kid, the weaker kid, the poorer kid, the dumber kid. Once upon a time, no matter your politics, that was just considered rude, and too easy, and cut it out anyway, jerks.
For the past 30 years we’ve been building to a bullying critical mass, and with what happened to Sandra Fluke quite a few people got a faceful of what that looks like. And they don’t like it. They remember being in a situation where somebody richer, somebody faster, somebody with more friends, made fun of them and all that person’s little pals giggled along. They remember how that felt and they remember every time they didn’t speak up for someone else in the same situation, and they’re starting to speak up now.
The ugly truth that America has spent most of the last 30 years avoiding is that what juvenile delinquents do to their physically weaker peers differs only in degree, and not at all in kind, from what Rush Limbaugh did to Sandra Fluke and what the wealthy and powerful do to the less fortunate in this country via public policy every day: Just as stealing billions with a pen is as much theft as stealing a few bucks with a pistol, bullying via public policy is just as much bullying as stealing a kid’s lunch, tripping him on the stairs or punching him in the nose.
And unfortunately, knowing that bullying is the act of a person with power who still feels powerless doesn’t make it any easier to stop, nor does it make the victim feel one whit better. I don’t know what the metaphorical equivalent of a lunchbox across the bridge of the nose to these people would be, but we need to find it and start using it over and over and over, because to judge from Limbaugh’s actions, it’s the only language they understand.