Nineteen terrifying words from the Omaha World-Herald:
The U.S. Department of Justice has joined the discussions over a controversial float in the Norfolk Independence Day parade.
Thus did the federal government dispatch an emissary to investigate a minor instance of Midwestern dissent.
A quick recap for the happily uninitiated: The “controversial float” in question was one of many included in this year’s Independence Day parade in Norfolk, Neb. The entry, which featured a zombie standing on an outhouse marked “Obama Presidential Library,” was created by a veteran named Dale Remmich, and was designed, Remmich claims, to express the “political disgust” that he feels at the Obama administration’s mismanagement of the Department of Veteran Affairs. As is the habit now, pictures of the float were quickly pushed around the Internet, attracting the attention and disapprobation of such august institutions as the Washington Post, CBS, ABC, and the Huffington Post — and, it seems, the interest of the United States Department of Justice. This week, the World-Herald reports, the DOJ “sent a member of its Community Relations Service team, which gets involved in discrimination disputes, to a Thursday meeting about the issue.” Present at the summit were the NAACP, the mayor of the Nebraska town in which the float was displayed, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which sponsored the event.
Now for the obvious question: Why? What, exactly, was the problem here? Nobody was killed. Nobody was maimed. Nobody had their material or spiritual interests injured, nor were they stripped of their livelihoods. No federal or state laws were broken. Indeed, not even private rules were broken. More to the point, there was no “discrimination dispute” of the sort with which the DOJ likes to concern itself. Instead, a few free people were vexed because a politician that they like was depicted in an unflattering light. One might well ask, “So what?” Once, Americans tackled the Oregon Trail. Are they now in need of their political “discussions” being arbitrated by glorified social workers sent by Uncle Sam?
In a typically risible statement, Nebraska’s state Democratic party described the incident as one of the “worst shows of racism and disrespect for the office of the presidency that Nebraska has ever seen.” That this is almost certainly true demonstrates just how much progress the United States has made in the last 50 years — and, in consequence, how extraordinarily difficult the professionally aggrieved are finding it to fill their quotas. If a fairly standard old saw is among the worst things to have happened to the Cornhusker State in recent memory, the country is in rather good shape, n’est-ce pas?
Exactly what it was about the float that rendered it “racist” was, of course, never explained. Instead, the assertion was merely thrown into the ether, ready to be accepted uncritically by the legions of righteously indignant keyboard warriors that lurk around social media as piranhas around a fresh carcass. But, for future reference at least, it would be nice to have the details of the offense unpacked. Are outhouses racist now? Are zombies? Or was it perhaps the overalls in which the zombie was dressed? Moreover, if any of these are now redolent of something sinister, at what point was this association held to be operative? A popular cartoon from 2006 depicted a latrine standing in the middle of the desert, on its outer wall the words “Bush Presidential Library.” Was this “racist,” or is this one of those timeless truths that were only discovered in 2009?
The float’s maker has insisted that the zombie represented himself and not the president. “I’ve got my bibs on, my walker, I’m covering my ears and I’m turning a bit green; I intended it to look like a zombie who has had enough,” he explained. Unsurprisingly, the NAACP didn’t buy it. “Looking at the float, that message absolutely did not come through,” the president of the outfit’s Iowa and Nebraska chapters griped. Fair enough. Arguendo, let’s presume that some of the spectators misunderstood the piece and believed that the president of the United States was being compared to a toilet-dwelling zombie. Again: Who cares? Are we now so hopelessly epicene that we expect federally funded conflict-resolution teams to swoop in on the hinterlands if the locals mutter too loudly about the government? I rather hope that we are not.
Frankly, as superficially appealing as they might sound, appeals to “the dignity of the office” are invariably prissy, serving more often than not as a means by which humorless partisans might grumble about their team’s being dinged without appearing hypersensitive. Indeed, far from damaging the national fabric, astringent mockery of the powerful is a healthy and necessary thing — a source of valuable catharsis that serves also as a canary in the proverbial coal mine. When I see the most powerful man in the country being not only mocked, but hanged and burned in effigy too, my first thought is less “gosh, how awful” than “wow, is this a free country or what?” A historical rule of thumb: If a ragtag group of political dissenters can simulate the violent execution of the head of the executive branch and not be so much as scratched as a result, the country is a free one. Who cares if a few of our more delicate sorts reach for the smelling salts?
It is always tempting to believe one’s own time to be particularly interesting or fractious, but there is little in politics that is genuinely new. Sharp and violent denunciations of the executive branch have been a feature of American life since the republic’s first days. Before the Revolution, the colonists routinely hanged likenesses of unpopular royal representatives, including King George III; Andrew Oliver, the Massachusetts Distributor of Stamps; and the loyalist Supreme Court justice, Thomas Hutchinson. Afterward, having dispensed with the old guard, Americans took to lambasting the new, among them George Washington, who had effected the king’s defeat; Thomas Jefferson, who had authored the charter of separation; and James Madison, who had drafted the lion’s share of the new Constitution. Chief Justice John Jay’s 1795 treaty with the British was so wildly unpopular among the Jeffersonians that Jay reported being able to travel from Boston to Philadelphia by the light of his burning effigies. Later, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was subjected to the treatment. In one form or another, most presidents have been.
The modern era has served as no exception to the rule. During his two terms, George W. Bush was the object of considerable opprobrium, his likeness being frequently hanged, knived in the forehead, and even assassinated on prime-time television. At the height of the Left’s umbrage, progressive heroes Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield went so far as to take a twelve-foot effigy of Bush on a national tour, setting fire to it at each stop to the audience’s hearty cheers. Ben and Jerry make ice cream, not apple pie. But their barnstorming road trip could not have been more American. There are few things more indicative of human liberty than the ability to castigate power with impunity — up to and including the moment of offense. “To learn who rules over you,” Voltaire suggested, “simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” Is Barack Obama to be a ruler?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.