• BEST IN STATE—Senior Courtney Schoen Lewis was named Best PR Student in Utah. Story

Schadenfreude from Congress and media has brought us to a new political low

March 12th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Helen Cannon

I’m a woman in her seventies. That means I’ve been politically aware as an adult for probably 50 years or more, and I must say that the political climate of our country has never, until now, made me feel so sad and helpless. And yet a year ago, when Barack Obama was elected President, my heart swelled with pride, and my eyes welled with tears of hope and promise.

What brought about this transformation? I had not anticipated—not in my worst nightmares—the latent rancor and hatred and greed, as well as perhaps disguised prejudice, that lay in wait for this man who also assumed that he could muster bipartisan support to address hard, almost impossible to solve problems. Nor had I anticipated a press bent on disseminating lies and fomenting fear and mistrust. I had not envisioned the smug, tight-lipped, dark-suited Republicans with their arms folded across their chests that displayed lapel pins of the American flag. Once I celebrated the two-party system. Now I realize that in the world of athletics, this angry Republican contingent would be called “Poor Sports.” They’d be issued the penalty they deserve.

I try to replace these distressing images with an image that I wish I could get to our beleaguered President. It’s a photograph of my friend’s 94-year-old mother not long before she died. She has a broad smile on her pretty, intelligent face, and a picture of President Obama taped to her walker.

Other telling images come to mind, and I organize them categorically as 1) A Parable for Our Times; 2) Lines from a Famous Poem that also prove timely; 3) An Archetypal Symbol that fits; and 4) A Word that is unfortunately apt.


The parable is the famous story, “The Grand Inquisitor,” as it appears in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s story seems made for our time, though it is set in Seville, Spain in the 16th Century during the terrible time of the Spanish Inquisition when so-called heretics were being burned at the stake, and the people, in need of a savior, yearned and prayed for The Second Coming. And, as Dostoevsky’s parable has it, the Savior does indeed come. “He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, everyone recognized Him…” They fell at His feet and worshipped Him, and even witnessed as The Savior causes the scales to fall from the eyes of an old man, blind from childhood, and watch as He raises from the dead a young girl laid out in her coffin. “The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him.” But then, the appearance of the Grand Inquisitor changes everything. The Savior is condemned as the worst of heretics, thrown in prison, threatened with burning, castigated as One who would impose freedom and enlightenment on a people unable to handle freedom and light, and then finally banished from the earth. “Didst Thou forget,” the Inquisitor queries the Savior, “that man prefers …even death to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.” The Savior is reminded that man does not want to be weighed down by the “fearful burden of choice.”

A year ago many of us looked to Barack Obama as a sort of a savior, come to rescue us from the terrible mire into which we had been sunk. And candidate Obama, himself, felt great hope and the desire to help save this troubled nation. He truly believed he could make good on his promises for massive and significantly helpful change. He was not naive, but neither did he envision the nasty and determined opposition he would meet at every turn. In effect, President Obama has been shackled by a vindictive, mean-spirited opposition–by a solid Republican block determined to defeat any legislation that the President supports and wishes to promote, and by a press out for blood and criticism—grudging with praise and often gleeful to find or imagine reasons for criticism.

The President’s mistake was to have believed in the essential goodness of the American people and in trusting that bipartisan equanimity would be forthcoming from the Congress, allowing him to accomplish common goals. (What common goals? We are a people divided, a “house divided against itself.”)


The vitriol and rancor and angry, often untrue, invective directed at the man elected to sail this Ship of State bring to my mind William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” portraying a nightmare vision not unlike the one that haunts my mind:

“…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. …

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

“Passionate intensity”—doesn’t this describe Glenn Beck in his saying with utter and evil passion that the tragedy in Haiti “is tailor-made for Obama.”

Or consider the self-righteous intensity of the televangelist Pat Robertson, who smugly declared on television that Haiti is being punished for black sins of their past. Passion—I’ll give you passion when I declare that this man should be locked in stocks in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and made to witness the suffering of innocent people.


I do realize that people are frightened and suffering repercussions from the awful Bush legacy. In primitive societies, people sought protection and release from fear by designating a sacrificial animal (or sometimes even a person) to bear all the troubles and frights of the society. This scapegoat was sacrificed in order to bring about protection.

As a people we’ve not come that far. Still we choose a scapegoat to carry the weight of all our fears and errors. I’m afraid the President, innocent and good-intentioned as he is, is being made our scapegoat—the sacrificial lamb to expiate the political sins of the past and present.


Of the four tropes I’ve set about to use in this writing (a parable, lines from a poem, an archetypal symbol, and a word) the last—a word—serves to describe what I observe far too often in our political scene. The word, Schadenfreude, comes from the German. It means taking pleasure in someone else’s failure or sorrow or defeat. Fox News is not the sole source of such sick pleasure. The mode of contemporary news too often goes by the rule of thumb, “Let’s see how mean and calculating we can make the president look today. Get him—at all costs, get him!”

Why must we be battered with this incessant negativism? Spiro Agnew coined the phrase (by way of his speech writer, William Safire) “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Well, the negativism that Nixon and Agnew endured was mild compared to what we must hear. I tire of listening to the news, especially the rabid extremes of cable news, that hotbed of relentless lies and negativity. But even NPR seems to have bought into taking pleasure in painting a negative picture of our President. As Justice Sandra Day O’Conner recently told the Utah Bar, “Complicated decisions are reduced to slogans, and fealty to law is subordinated to sound bites.” It’s as if television journalists believe that their public has been given a taste for blood that keeps them wanting more. Even the fact that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize receives not praise, but ridicule.

The man we now call our President, and not always with due respect, is not a monster with a desire to make this country fail. That would be colossal Schadenfreude and foreign to what the President wants to achieve. Look—this man has two little girls who, he hopes, might grow up in a world where the air is breatheable and where the melting of Arctic ice has not caused even more “natural” disaster to our poor, polluted world—to a world where willing people can work and make a reasonable day’s wage, and were the rich do not exploit the poor in every dealing. What would this idealistic but pragmatic president have to gain by bringing about things that would not be good for this country?

The President is an intelligent man, but he is also a humble man who has the good sense to consult the best and the brightest before he makes any decision. How ludicrous it is to suggest that the President has dithered in making important decisions. I and others are immensely grateful that our President is not trigger-happy and knee-jerk in decision-making. How glad I am that he remains deliberative and thoughtful in making crucial decisions and that he will not be driven by a capricious, ill-informed press.

–Helen Cannon has retired from the Department of English at Utah State University, where she loved her teaching and her students. Her favorite course was one she herself designed, using The New Yorker magazine as text. She is still passionately engaged with her former students, corresponding regularly with many of them who still look to her as mentor and friend.


Tags: , , ,

  1. 3 Responses to “Schadenfreude from Congress and media has brought us to a new political low”

  2. By Carole Warburton on Mar 16, 2010

    This is a very fine essay from a very fine teacher. It’s so difficult to watch reasonable people becomes swayed by the rancor of talk radio and television hosts who are hell-bent on destroying President Obama even at the cost of destroying our country.

  3. By Will Pitkin on Mar 21, 2010

    Wonderful, my friend, simply wonderful. Good will still come of all this.

  4. By J. Bach Acostia on Mar 21, 2010

    Ms Cannon:

    Unfortunately, change, at least in my dictionary means that: change. As in health care change, i.e. a substantive change in the way we treat and resolve health.

    From the country that decided and went to the moon in less than a decade, giving more money to a broken system seems wrong. I would have expected an Apollo program to CHANGE health care and its inefficiencies.

    My heart goes out to the President. My mind tells me he is wrong.

    How do we resolve that dichotomy?

    From a foreign student at USU (pardon my English)

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.