The story made every Blue Stater sit up straight and hiss: The mask has dropped. It's begun. A college student at the University of Massachusetts requested a copy of Mao's "Little Red Book" from the Dartmouth library and was subsequently visited by federal agents. A professor vouched for his tale.
The news wires picked up the story. Blogs frothed. Columnists great and small rent their garments. Finally, the true face of Chimpy W. Pretzelchoker's Amerikkka had shown itself. Today, goon-squads bracing innocent Mao scholars; tomorrow, the Reichstag burns. No, that was 9/11. Tomorrow, Kristallnacht! The worst has come true, and things are looking up!
The story turned out to be nonsense, of course. As if federal agents slide down poles, pile into Crown Victorias and hit the sirens because a kid checks out Marxist bromides. "Faster, Agent Smith! If he gets to the part about a single oxen having more power than a thousand flowers, the terrorists have won!"
For heaven's sake, you could teach a comp-lit course on the writings of Osama bin Laden, and the only repercussion would be fast-track tenure. So why did anyone believe the student? Two reasons.
One: It was fake but accurate. That's what they said about the Bush TANG memos, you may recall. Granted, the papers were forged, the dates wrong, the authors dead or retired, and the memos called Bush "Mr. 666 Helliburton Dry-Drunk Oil Shill Poopy Head," but that doesn't mean there aren't serious questions about whether he was 10 minutes late for his physical exam.
Likewise the "Little Red Book" affair: OK, it didn't happen. Granted. But if George W. Bush eavesdrops on people calling al-Qaida cells in Pakistan, you know he has plans to deport The Nation's subscriber base to labor camps in Kansas and make them sew covers for Gideon Bibles. Sometimes a lie reveals a greater truth. Just because "King Kong" is a movie doesn't mean there aren't monkeys, somewhere.
The lunatic right went through this in the '90s. Bill Clinton, as it turned out, did not tie small children to railroad tracks in Mena, Ark., to cover up his worldwide cocaine-distribution syndicate. To Clinton's foes, however, it was true in the macro sense.
Somehow. It had to be. In the '90s these people were marginal cranks, and no one listened to them. Today they're on Air America. Nothing's changed, in other words.
Two: the climate of despair. The longer one side is out of power, the more it takes solace in the gathering darkness.
Again, the far right went through this in the '90s. Ruby Ridge, Waco, programs to soak up all electronic communication and sift for security threats – each was proof that Y2K would be the excuse for herding everyone into FEMA-operated cattle pens and tattooing bar codes on the back of their necks.
But that was the nutwad ham-radio right, the guys who believed Art Bell was a disinformation plant. This muttering, bug-eyed despondency now grips great swaths of the left. Polls show liberals are far less optimistic about the future than merry Red Staters, as if hope were some devious neocon concept.
To the left, the booming economy is a slug on a hot tar roof. Iraq is another Vietnam – 48,000 casualties to go, G-d willing. Half the welfare budget has been diverted to subsidize solid-gold walking sticks for the rich, secret agencies are planting cookies in your Web browser, and somewhere in Texas a theater owner is intentionally understating the opening night grosses for "Brokeback Mountain."
Bad news is good news. Everything's going to hell, but at least they're smart enough to catch the whiff of brimstone. (Secondhand brimstone. There ought to be a law.)
But what if the worst doesn't happen? That would be worse than bad. That would mean all those bumper stickers they put on their cars had no effect whatsoever. What if people don't Question Authority, Visualize World Peace, speak truth to power, or rotate during cooking? What if letters to the editor don't end up in CIA files? What if subversive college students are ignored? What if the dark night isn't descending after all?
However will they go on?