Tea Party organizers in Danville, Virginia are planning to burn Congressman Tom Pierriello (D-VA) in effigy, because they object to Pierriello’s yea vote for national health care reform. This has caused some consternation over at Talking Points Memo, where commentators have likened effigy-burning to hate speech, anti-patriotism, and the Ku Klux Klan. In this respect, they share the sense of alarm expressed by the local Democratic Party chairman:

“These shocking and despicable acts are becoming all too common at extreme right-wing Republican rallies. Hanging Members in effigy or displaying images of Nazi concentration camps on the steps of the Capitol have no place in any debate and Republican Members of Congress must condemn these actions….”

One commenter had the presence of mind to point out that this sort of activity is actually protected speech — much like flag burning — and has a long tradition going back to the Revolutionary War period. But why go back that far? Do a Google image search on “Bush effigy” and see what you get.

It’s not hard to find images equating Bush with Nazis, either. Personally, I think there are much sounder arguments to make that analogy (torture, domestic surveillance, secret detention, etc., etc.) than the paranoid fantasies teabaggers would suggest. But we on the Left should at least be intellectually honest enough to recognize our own overheated rhetoric in the mouths of our opponents.

I understand the alarm. I share it with my colleague Jenn Sorensen. Intellectual honesty is certainly sorely lacking among those who equate the “public option” with Joseph Mengele or the mass graves of Nazi concentration camps; by all means, criticize it. And the mentality behind such associations — the paranoia, the ahistoricity, the racism — becomes all the more worrisome when expressed by gun-strapped idiots eager to “water the tree of liberty.” Paul Krugman diagnosed this paranoia brilliantly the other day, and rightly worries that “the country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster.”

What he didn’t mention, although I bet it was in the back of his mind is that the teabaggers are not only the latest expression of right wing irrationality, but also the latest manifestation of populism-preluding-fascism: “Right-wing populism can act as both a precursor and a building block of fascism, with anti-elitist conspiracism and ethnocentric scapegoating as shared elements.” Sound familiar? This is what really concerns me about this movement, not the effigies. I don’t see what “politeness” will do in the face of these people.

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