While I was, generally speaking, a relatively happy kid, I hated recess and I hated P.E. They both represented a cut-throat world of popularity contests wherein we'd either bask in wild admiration or suffer the agony of humiliation. Being bespectacled and slightly doughy meant that I was more prone to the latter than the former. Beyond the plain-vanilla resentments that this engendered in me and every kid like me, the real frustration came in the group-think loyalty that the popular kids were rewarded with. Dissention in the ranks was not tolerated at all. If King Bobby Cool liked red t-shirts, you'd better not show up to school in a blue one. If Bobby Cool was pissed off at Johnny Slick, then we ALL had to be pissed at Johnny. Anyone caught daring to refrain from outward hostility toward dear John found himself sitting alone at lunch or being made into the day's impromptu dodge ball target.
Naturally the dynamic didn't change as we navigated from the smaller tortures of the playground to the larger battles of middle and high school. The props just evolved. Social success and failure was all but dictated by the choice between Toughskins or Jordache. Bobby and the Bobbyettes were a political faction unto themselves, with a hierarchy of leadership rarely challenged. Pecking orders were clear: Bobby got his first pick of cheerleaders, and his lieutenants could choose from the remainders with relative impunity. But if Johnny Slick presumed to eyeball Bobby's babe during chemistry class? Oh the horror! The resulting scandal swept through the halls at light speed, and by lunch, the Bobbycrats and the Slickians would be at war. How the battles played out would vary, of course, but methods were universal: Intimidate and smear any and all demonstrating allegiance to the day's target, and eviscerate any presuming to question the purpose behind the battle to begin with. If you were anything like me, you stood on the sidelines, observing these Clique Wars, and desperately watching the calendar. "I can't wait to get out of school and into the real world." The fantasy being, naturally, that people outgrew this kind of behavior.
Of course, it's patently obvious that we haven't, and that we don't. We've replaced our battles over acceptable fashion with battles over acceptable ideologies. Which, one would expect, is the natural way of things as we get older and we become concerned with the complexities of the world. Trouble is, our basic responses haven't evolved at all. Where we once ostracized the inter-clique rebels for questioning Johnny Cool's superiority, now we ostracize the rank & file members that dare to challenge the status quo. Allegiance to the ruling party, once Johnny Cool, now George Bush, is expected and enforced with a fervor. His detractors are called "traitors", his critics called "un-American". All for daring to exercise the rights guaranteed to us by our venerated Founding Fathers: the right to question one's own government. The hypocrisy of neo-conservatives in condemning criticisms of Bush while "bringing Democracy to the Middle East" is stark and undeniable. Except that Johnny Cool's gang learned the power of denial as group-think years ago, and they've become masters of the art.
Patriotism has been redefined by the GOP power brokers to mean rabid flag-waving and pious acceptance of any and all mutterings of our Boy King. From supporting the Iraqi invasion to calling "nuk-ya-ler" an "acceptable pronunciation", our measure of patriotism is now inversely related to our willingness to question Bush and his policies. The patriotism of our past -- critical assessment of policy, advocacy of the underrepresented, fighting the tyranny of the majority -- is now labeled as "liberal" and dismissed as political heresy. This is sandbox logic at its very worst. The playground mentality of bullies from our childhood, dressed up in three-piece suits and cloaked in the legitimacy of public office.
As if adopting these juvenile tactics isn't absurd enough, they've thrown in just enough fire & brimstone to intimidate the hold-outs that insist on a degree of philosophical freedom. Posturing by neo-conservatives aims to convince us that this is what America was always meant to be, shamelessly enlisting the aid of revisionist historians to explain that the Constitutional framers meant for this to be a Christian Nation. Therefore, proselytizing is a national imperative, for we are the Greatest Nation on Earth, empowered by The One True God. The rest of us heretics might not literally burned at the stake, here in 2005; instead, we're just smeared in the press. The priests of the Inquisition have been replaced by DeLay, Dobson and Rove, their foot solidiers replaced by O'Reilly, Limbaugh and Coulter. Their roles, however, are barely distinguishable from their predecessors, and the zeal with which they undertake their Mission From God…er Bush, is the same.
So where is our 21st century Voltaire? Is he roaming the halls of the blogosphere raging, as Maryscott O'Connor puts it, against the lying of the right? Or does he wander about the Hill in the guise of a progressive junior senator from Illinois? Maybe he's a crusty governor from Montana, reluctant to get embroiled in the shit of presidential politics. I don't know. Where ever he is, though, I wish he'd hurry the fuck up. 2008 is closer than we think.