Updated: March 12, 2013 6:25AM
Imagine a public meeting — it doesn’t matter about what. Some local issue: the looming impact of the emerald ash borer.
A thousand people show up — very popular tree, the ash — and listen politely to a thoughtful program of arborists and park district officials, talking seriously about trees. About an hour in, some guy in the back jumps up and starts screaming nonsense — again, it doesn’t matter what: how emerald ash borers are actually pre-invasion scouts from the Crab Nebula and we must unite to eradicate them using collective mind rays.
A security guard eventually muscles the guy, still raving about invasion, out the door.
When the program is finally over, and the 999 people who remained depart, who do you think they will be talking about? The well-spoken public works supervisor and his five-point plan? The botanist from the Morton Arboretum and her sensible suggestions? Or the lunatic screaming about space aliens?
You know the answer. You talk about the loon. Our attention goes to nuttiness like a tongue seeking out a broken tooth. Extremism is noticeable, arresting, sometimes amusing, sometimes frightening, or both.
We focus on it. But should we? Maybe we give fanatics too much attention. Maybe we push back too much. Or maybe we don’t push back enough. I can’t decide.
On Friday, as you know, a big storm hit New England. Up to three feet of snow. At lunchtime Friday, Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, issued an order banning all driving during the storm. No cars after 4 p.m. — drivers could be fined $500.
That caught my interest — as something highly unusual and a sign of the gravity of the situation. I jumped online to read more. All traffic was banned “except for emergency workers, government employees and health-care workers on official business, utility workers and news media.”
It was the first time in 35 years such a ban had been put into place in Massachusetts, since an infamous 1978 snowstorm that stranded hundreds of drivers on the roads.
“Welcome to the jack-booted police state of Massachusetts,” one “Concerned Citizen” wrote on the Washington Examiner’s website, the top hit on Google. “When did we give Governor Pinhead the authority to ban the free movement of the citizenry?”
“I don’t believe for one minute this is about a damned storm,” wrote another. “This is about the government playing martial law . . . watch what comes next.”
Sigh. You’re familiar with this mindset. These Robinson Crusoes seem to view any kind of organization as intrusion, oppression. It’s all about their rights: them them them. The idea that they have obligations, too, is met with jaw-dropped wonder. I’ve been listening to their hectoring hysteria for years. No matter how many elections their side loses, they are still audible under discussions of the range of American problems — starting with gun control, naturally, immigration, health care, anything that involves government. We can’t face a weekend storm without their input, repeating a mantra that goes like this: Citizens live in the grip of tyranny, our lives constrained by an overarching government.
What should we, the responsible non-crazy, do? Ignore them? Shout them down? Online, a lot of people did just that. Traded snarl for snarl. But to what end? Fanaticism is resilient. No facts can intrude upon those whose opinions aren’t based on facts to begin with, but on hallucination and paranoia.
Pushing back is a waste. They’re not listening. No one in Massachusetts was arrested for driving during the storm. No one. Yet hundreds were stranded on the Long Island Expressway — no ban in New York. So the ban was a good call, right? Silence. It’s like the line about not trying to teach Latin to a pig: It frustrates you and annoys the pig.
But ignoring them seems cowardly. Because their worldview is a grotesque insult to almost everybody — to truly patriotic Americans, to those who actually do live in and battle tyrannies. To the people in government, who must cope with the gamut of public problems. How many people might die in the next storm because another governor is loath to take some sweeping action that jams his arm into this hornet’s nest of delusion?
Maybe this is how it’s always been; in the past they were grumbling behind their plows, now they’ve got the Internet. Madness they used to print on leaflets and leave in bus stations is now bullhorned across the Web. The Internet is a masked ball for fanatics.
Though I’m beginning to think that what’s called for is a little justified outrage of our own. The black helicopter — or snowplow — crowd is a stumbling block to seriously addressing our real ills. So fixated are they on their precious selves and their self-ascribed rights, they forgot they are part of a community, or should be. They have no hesitation to give voice to the most laughable nonsense at full volume. Maybe they need an earful back.