There he was, Rudy Giulliani, at yesterday’s Republican Convention, whipping the crowd into a frothing frenzy. As he said “Islamic Extreme Terrorists,” his face turned red and angular, and when he screamed “We’re coming to get you!” the crowd exploded.
This was not the calm mayor who got New York through The World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. This was the id made flesh.
And the speeches that came before it were more of the same.
Patricia Smith, the mother of the Benghazi victim Sean Smith, said she personally blamed Hillary Clinton for her son’s death. Someone in the crowd yelled, and she responded, in a voice of pinched rage: “That’s right—Hillary for prison. She deserves to be in stripes.
Then there was Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who began his speech by saying “I just want to say Blue Lives Matter,” and then said “but there’s good news in Baltimore, where Brian Rice (one of the officers on trial for the death of Eric Garner) was acquitted.” To chants of “Blue Lives Matter,” Clarke attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, saying, “What we witnessed in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Baton Rouge was a collapse of the social order…I call it anarchy.”
Then there were the raft of speakers who told stories of their children dying at the hands of illegal aliens (never, ever "undocumented"), either from gunshots or drunk driving.
And as I listened to these primal screams from the well guarded panic room of the Quicken Loans Arena, I thought about one of my favorite movies, 1984’s “Starman.”
The film stars Jeff Bridges (who got a well-deserved Oscar nomination) as an alien who crashes to earth, assumes human form, and has a few days to get to the huge impact crater in Winslow Arizona, where his extraterrestrial buddies will pick him up. Chasing him are a group of scientists who want to study him (read: cut him up like a lab rat). There is also, however, a kindly scientist (played by Charles Martin Smith) who just wants to talk to him and help him get home safely.
At one point in the film, Jeff Bridges and Charles Martin Smith have an exchange in which Bridges has a line about humanity that my friend, Jim Cole (a film critic for The Cape Cod Chronicle) and I have quoted about a million times:
“Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”
And we are.
Yes, it is a genuinely frightening world right now. Yet we when we are calm, and reach for those better angels of our nature that Lincoln talked about (back in the days when Republican conventions were, no doubt, quite different in tone), we find a relaxed, graceful strength. This strength connects us to others who may look different, act differently, and have beliefs utterly alien to ours (literally, in the case of this film).
Which is why yesterday was so upsetting. What was on display was not a collection of civilized humans but a pack of wild, chanting dogs who would have torn Jeff Bridges’s character to pieces out of wild, irrational fury. Calm strength had given way to blind fear, a sort of mass de-evolution in which the evolved frontal lobes of thousands of brains dissolved, leaving behind the primitive minds of rats and lizards.
It is no coincidence that so many memes have evolved from the wonderfully wise English World War Two phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This is where noble power resides, the ability to be brave when every fiber of being says "be afraid...be very afraid." All that was on display yesterday was not strong calmness but impotent rage, an insistence on being at our worst when things are worst, that allows terrorists to look at each other, smile, and say “we won.”