|The debate took place at a suburban high school in Denver in front of 1,500 people. These were almost all fans of Prager - I'd say the breakdown was 85%-15% Prager fans, to progressives. It was an almost uniformly white suburban crowd, and - judging by the giant SUVs and luxury cars in the parking lot - a wealthy one. At each and every turn when Prager slandered blacks, poor people, Muslims and liberals, the crowd went wild.
For example, Prager said race in America is as significant "as shoe size" and then blamed African Americans for a society still struggling with structural racism. He said blacks are victims of liberals who tell them that there's racism, when - according to Prager - there isn't. That's right, Prager insisted that African Americans are so stupid that they can be programmed by "liberals" to see a racism that he says doesn't exist. When he said this, the crowd went crazy with applause, and when I pointed out the self-absorbed paternalistic insult of an all white crowd assuming such mindless ignorance of an entire community, I was booed.
Prager styles himself as a biblical "scholar" and he flaunted his conservative interpretation of the Bible as proof that conservativism is morally just. When I cited food stamp cuts as an example of how conservatives don't really govern in any way that respects the Bible's words about helping the poor and sick, Prager laughed and said he never knew there was a Biblical passage on food stamps. Again, the crowd went crazy with celebration, and later, I got an email from one of his fans not taking issue with my point, but saying that it was unacceptable for me to make the point I made because Dennis Prager is a "biblical scholar" and apparently, that means no one can question him.
After I discussed the right questioning progressives' patriotism, Prager got mad and said there was no concrete examples of this happening - that, in fact, the right never questions the left's patriotism. Apparently, he forgot that the primary mantra of the right is to claim that those who want to end the war want to help Al Qaeda. And, of course, when we moved onto another topic, he was soon claiming the left "hates America" - apparently forgetting his insistence that conservatives never question progressives' patriotism.
Most of the time Prager would make an outlandish statement about what is - or is not - "moral" and I would refute his nonsense with empirical facts and data and then he'd counter by saying he doesn't care what the data or the facts say - that, in fact, citing data and facts is a bad thing. I've been getting email all week from some of the audience telling me that's the way it should be. As one lunatic wrote to me today, "you had a do a bunch of research to prove your side because you have no moral compass to guide your answers - you don't need 'back up' when you're acting morally." Indeed, hateful know-nothingism is alive and well in America.
I've felt sick to my stomach since the debate. I can't really get it out of my head, not because I think I did poorly (on the contrary, most of the objective observers who were there said I held my own), but because I'm nauseated by the number of selfish, hateful and ignorant people that - even in the face of an intensifying war on the middle class - don't care about anyone other than themselves, adamantly refuse to verify their beliefs with empirical facts on the principle that they don't need facts to know "what's right," and cannot see the world from any one else's perspective. You cannot even meet them on the supposedly "conservative" issues like civil liberties that we should all agree on - many conservatives today are blind authoritarian partisans, people who truly think it is outrageous to say America was misled into the Iraq War, and that that war has something to do with oil. They can only see the world from the gilded gates of their own wealthy white suburbia, and they self-righteously believe that privileged existence is the way every American lives - and if they don't, it's their fault for not trying harder.
So when I think about the presidential race, I'm going to be proudly voting for Barack Obama who, while I have a lot of concerns about him, does fundamentally reject the conservative world view that is destroying our country - and I mean that: these people are really, truly destroying our country and our communities. It's really hard not to hate them back as much as they hate so much of America. It's hard to take pity on them, as they and their ideology pillages this nation. And I am convinced these people will be casting their vote for John McCain either because they are racists, or because they believe McCain will make sure that they have to sacrifice not a damn thing for their country during this time of crisis. A McCain presidency will mean they can keep scapegoating others - blacks, the poor, "liberals," the media - for the problems their me-first ideology has created.
We cannot have another four years where the audience I met at this debate are allowed to run our country into the ground. The Era of Hate and Greed and Self-Centeredness and Ignorance has to end - and it has to end right now. Obama is an imperfect candidate - he's got some really bad people around him on economic issues, he's been timid at times, he seems too comfortable triangulating against mainstream progressive positions, and he even may vote for this horrific $700 billion bailout. But at a deep level, he represents a move away from mindlessness that I came face-to-face with this week, and that's really, really important.
Everytime I get disappointed with Barack, I will be thinking about who I met at this debate. It doesn't absolve him when he sells out - not in the least (and I do believe - unlike many partisans - that we can simultaneously pressure him and support him, that we can use both the carrot and stick, and not just not hurt him - but actually help him do the right thing AND be a better candidate). But it does give me an emphatic reason to support him when election day comes.