Letter from the United States

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In recent months a populist right wing movement has taken to the streets. Chip Ward reports on the mad hatters at America's Tea Party

In the US you can witness how the unfettered culture of capitalism unfolds. Here we are free to profit from anything. On Wall Street, or hedge-heaven as I like to call it, brokers bet on bets on bets on bets. This hasn't worked out so well but they are still at it.

Bankers made billions on bogus balloon-loaded loans to people who bet the bubble wouldn't burst. Health insurers make fortunes promising insurance to people who they disown as soon as they become ill. If we ever get climate legislation it will, no doubt, be rigged to assure obscene income from the commodification and trading of the very air that supports life. But perhaps there is no more alarming signal that hyper-casino-ponzi-anything-goes capitalism is spawning self-destructive, even suicidal, behaviour than the selling of media commentator Glenn Beck.

Other popular so-called "conservative" pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity may be demagogic, hyperbolic liars but they at least play in a stadium that resembles reality. When Glenn Beck stands before his whiteboard and connects the dots politically and outlines arcane conspiracies it's like watching a show 'n' tell in a psychiatric hospital. He makes up paranoid stuff and insists it's real. Barack Obama, for example, is deeply racist and hates white people. His presidency is the result of a vast liberal conspiracy. At Easter, Beck urged his followers to walk out of church if the sermon was even tainted with a "social gospel" - a clear sign that ministers and priests are part of the lurking evil waiting to undo the US's divine destiny.

His followers, of course, follow. Beck is the favourite of the emerging Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is not Beck's creation any more than he is its creation, but there is powerful synergy between them. The Tea Party is a populist movement. People are hurting and struggling. While they drown in debt, bankers and brokers are rescued. Anger, outrage and resentment are understandable. Unfortunately, they can also be incoherent and that is where Beck comes in. He amplifies the noise, distorts feedback, scapegoats the innocent and creates a delusional environment.

The extent of misinformation is boggling. Recent surveys show that about half of registered Republicans think Obama is a secret socialist and a foreign-born Muslim. About a third think he is the Antichrist. The political landscape is crowded with super-patriotic militias, apocalyptic Christians and resurgent white supremacists. In Michigan recently arrested Christian militia members, the "Hutaree", planned to spark a popular rebellion by killing policemen and then blowing up their families at the funerals. Oh yeah, that would be popular. Delusion knows no limits.

The immediate danger in all this paranoid ranting is that we will hasten a return to political violence. This would not be new. Indians were slaughtered to make way for settlers who dragged slaves along in chains. Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King were assassinated. During the struggle for civil rights little black girls were blown up in their church in Alabama. More recently, Timothy McVeigh blew up a daycare centre in Oklahoma. We are now enjoying a respite from mayhem but our long violent history shows us that it is likely just that - a pause in the storm. Let's hope Beck's irrational dance doesn't bring a rain of blood.

We have daunting challenges ahead. Climate chaos, peak oil and economic collapse are upon us and will only intensify. Even giant corporations are recognising that our economy is unsustainable - and what cannot be sustained collapses. How well we navigate the chaos ahead will depend on if we can draw on all our powers of perception, critical thinking and innovation. Delusional performances that fabricate and distort, that play on fear and confusion, that are not just divisive but incite hate, cannot be tolerated.

Think of it this way. If you are driving towards a precipice and the vehicle is speeding up, it is crazy to hand the driver a tab of LSD and a bottle of vodka. And when your entire culture is headed towards the brink, don't let Glenn Beck anywhere near the steering wheel.

Chip Ward is an author and activist in Utah.