Bush Derangement Syndrome is still with us despite our entry into the Golden Age of Obama, but it now takes on multiple guises. One manifestation we've heard about lately is "Rush" Derangement Syndrome. But overall it's a detestation of conservatives ranging from smug condescension to outright hatred. Most conservatives have encountered it even among family and friends. For instance, I have a friend in Chicago who simply won't speak to me. I'm in disgrace. Another will speak to me, but only in the most vile ways.
When I was a student at Feather River College, a community college in Quincy, California, in the 1970s, I had an English teacher named Jaime O'Neill. It was around this time that I first entertained the notion of being a writer, however daunting that task. I recall that Mr. O'Neill encouraged my first efforts, though he did so with all his students, and I didn't talk about my literary aspirations. Like many 21 year olds in 1975 I was apolitical, mostly just following the post-Watergate-Vietnam War liberal herd mentality. The only conservatives I knew about at that time were the much media-maligned Richard Nixon and ex-Governor Reagan, and Bill Buckley, who had a television show and amusing mannerisms. The California media was full of stories about crazies throwing bombs or the whereabouts of Patty Hearst. President Ford visited twice as part of what seemed to be Secret Service training for live ammo assassination attempts. The sometimes ascetic Jerry Brown was governor and sleeping on the floor in Sacramento, when he wasn't flying off to Los Angeles to date Linda Ronstadt. Anyway, O'Neill.
O'Neill taught for 35 years at a half dozen small colleges. When I first met him he'd been at it for about a decade, starting in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then at Feather River College. I stayed in touch with him periodically over the years from wherever I was living, and sent him odd pieces with an SASE, which he in turn edited and sent back with comments, which I appreciated and told him so.
O'Neill wrote, of course. Newspaper pieces, essays, short stories, and I believe an unpublished novel or two. I'm not at all familiar with his entire output -- which is considerable -- but over the years I've seen his byline in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Chico News & Review, and -- in the last decade -- online (more on that later). O'Neill and I even shared space in the '70s in a Northern California alternative newspaper called the Green Mountain Gazette. O'Neill wrote a regular column called "The Old Crock," where he took on the persona of a Twainesque curmudgeon. I recall that the pieces were funny. I played reporter and covered a few local municipal government meetings -- badly.
In 1985 O'Neill landed in Newsweek with a "My Turn" feature about his travails as a teacher entitled "No Allusions in the Classroom," and in it he wrote of how by the mid-'80s he began to give new students a general knowledge test designed to tell him how prepared they were for college-level work. Even in 1985 the results were awful (so imagine the state of higher education today). One student thought "The Great Gatsby" was a magician; another that Socrates was an Indian chief; a third knew Picasso was a painter, but also thought he had lived in the 12th century. You get the idea. The test had a geography section with equally dismal results. The piece was in the end a plea for both grammar and high schools to do a better job at preparing students for college. It's interesting that liberals are concerned about the health of an educational system that they themselves destroyed.
The Newsweek article led to a series of four tomes that can be described as drill books designed to alleviate the problems noted. I have one -- signed by the author -- called We're History! Other than an introductory essay and an epilogue, the book is roughly 350 pages of multiple choice -- fill in the blanks -- true or false questions, with the answers found elsewhere in the book. It's also interesting to note that after the Newsweek piece appeared, O'Neill was part of a 60 Minutes segment on the then state of American education, and was interviewed by Mike Wallace.
As I say, I've mostly been out-of-touch with O'Neill over the years, but that changed in 2001 when he had a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Dum and Dummer" (the title refers to the spelling foibles of an anonymous student). It slammed George W. Bush's gifts for malapropism, and his intellectual abilities in general, as judged by O'Neill. O'Neill mentions his academic credentials in that he has instructed some 7,000 students, and graded 70,000 papers, which contained 35 million "mostly ill-chosen words." He compared the president to his students; in fact, the subtitle of the piece posed the question: "Can George W. Bush match wits with a typical community college student?" This screed appeared nine days before 9/11. As for the slowly expiring Chronicle, I still look at it online occasionally, and it's wackier than ever.
I e-mailed O'Neill about this piece, our first communication in years. I criticized it in a lightly sarcastic but good-natured way, but wasn't prepared for his response, which was so nasty that I couldn't record it here without blanking out words. Besides, those e-mails are on an old computer modem in storage, but I certainly remember their tone. And I remember -- buried amongst all the profanity -- a phrase about my "carrying water" for the conservative press. I found this odd because most of my work has been apolitical, but was flattered O'Neill kept up with my stuff.
In the last few years O'Neill in retirement has penned scores of pieces for the Chico News & Review and now his local Paradise (Ca.) Post excoriating the Bush-Cheney tenure and conservatives in general. Except for occasional book and music reviews, he writes about nothing else. The political articles in turn are reprinted on a blog called "The Smirking Chimp: In dishonor of the worst president in U.S. history, 2001-2009," a sort of Daily Kos wannabe. The site features an odd photo of our ex-President with a rather simian expression on his face, and a newly added "Return to Sender" superimposed on it. Maybe they'll get around to replacing it with a picture of Rush Limbaugh. I counted roughly eighty O'Neill pieces on the site.
In a recent effort called "Limbaugh's Treasonous Hope for Obama's Failure" (O'Neill isn't one for snappy titles), our author easily gets in lockstep with the great thundering herd on the loony left as he blasts those "fascist" and "piggish" voices on talk radio who have "enabled some of the worst crooks and incompetents of the Bush years to reign supreme," and who are the "ignorant and hollow blusterers who contaminate hope and thwart change." These voices are led by that arch-demon Limbaugh, the "agent provocateur for right wing dimwits." Us conservative dimbulbs ain't nice, because "no one can afford to hope Obama fails. If he does, so do we all."
That's just one piece. As I say, I counted 80, and even read some of those. To give the reader a good overview, I'll rattle off a few titles: "Bush-Cheney: High Crimes and Big Criminals"; "Is Bush Stupid? Well, Duh?"; "The Death of a Bad Man" (Jerry Falwell); "Scumbags" (Alan Greenspan); "Who Would Jesus Torture? And How?"; "A Modest Proposal for Waterboarding Judge Michael Mukasey." Though all is not venom and vinegar. Not long after Election Day, O'Neill wrote a piece entitled "Obama, and the better angels of our nature" (Yes, Professor O'Neill, yet another shopworn Lincoln allusion in the classroom). This last tells me that he'll actually miss the Bush-Cheney years as his great moment in the sun, a triumph more ecstatic than having coffee with Mike Wallace so long ago.
O'Neill strikes me as being a bitter man. Certainly when young he had higher literary hopes. Didn't we all. Maybe staring into those 7,000 blank faces soured him. Nowadays, he's a left-wing Ezra Pound, one of a million mad Ezras with a modem on a raft and bobbing around out there in the great gray ocean of the tin hat blogosphere.
The Old Crock has finally become The Old Crock.