Thursday, November 18, 2004
Committee for the Present Danger. I started this blog a year ago this month, and in looking back there's little I regret having written. I think that the major thrust of what I had to say has held up. I think, though, one thing that I was wrong about was in underestimating the country's polarization. I have been amazed how difficult it is for reasonable people to find common ground across the Liberal/Conservative ideological divide. It seems as though two different epistemologies have emerged for each. The first skeptical about everything the Bush administration says and does, the second trusting it as an honest, if fallible, representative of American ideals. Which group is right? Time will tell. Maybe neither is.
I am certainly in the skeptics camp. I don't really trust a word this administration speaks. I think its operatives are masters of deception, and that they are pursuing a stealth campaign to implement an agenda, which, if it were openly and publicly debated, would be rejected by a majority of Americans. The GOP understands this, and that's why its strategists package their agenda wrapped in the flag and moral values that have very little to do with their real objectives. It's this fundamentally dishonest approach, using all of the public relations and advertising tools perfected over the last century to deceive, that makes it legitimate to describe the GOP approach as Orwellian.
Now is it possible that my skepticism is just as much of a distorting lens as I think red voters' credulity is? Am I only seeing what I want to see and refusing to acknowledge evidence that would prove me wrong? I'm aware of that as a very real possibility. I'm aware also of the possibility that I might be overreacting and that I might be demonizing the Bush administration in the same way that I accuse right-wingers of demonizing liberals.
But here's what's at the root of my bias toward skepticism. I believe that power corrupts, and I am skeptical about the motives of anyone, on the left or the right, who has it. I believe that people are attracted into politics because they are attracted to power, no matter their professed ideals about public service. I think that most Americans want to believe that their system is not profoundly corrupted, that their public servants are the boy scouts that they present themselves to be, but most are not. I think that very little about what is presented to the public has much to do with what really is going on, which is all about bare knuckles and sharp elbows.
And as a group the Democrats are no better than the Republicans in this regard--they're just less effective. There is hardly anyone I can think of who is a prominent Democrat that I can look to with profound respect. Most are visionless hacks. But the Democrats are not in power now. And our country is particularly vulnerable because there is no counterbalance to restrain the GOP from pursuing its agenda.The GOP's agenda is first and foremost about consolidating power in the hands of the Big Money players who want to be free to do as they please without regard for the common good. And their primary objective is to dismantle the governmental institutions that have provided the rest of us the means to restrain them.
All of this is justified by reference to the mystic powers of the free market, which, if allowed to do its thing, brings peace and prosperity to everyone. That this contradicts common sense makes no difference. That a completely unregulated freemarket runs according to the law of the jungle does not concern them because in the jungle the strong dominate the weak, and since they are the strong--they have nothing to fear. But the rest of us do, and that's why it was so foolish for such a large segment of the American electorate to vote to give these wolves another four years to pursue their agenda. Our only hope is that they will be as incompetent in pursuing these goals domestically as they have been in pursuing them in the Middle East.
Wednesday, November 17, 200
More on the Southernization of American Politics. Michael Lind is the one guy who has the most to say about this:
By 2000, however, the Southern Right had taken over [the Republican Party]. They have turned the party of Lincoln into the party of Jefferson Davis.
Their core territory consists of the states of the Old Confederacy, plus those of the mountain and prairie West. With leaders like George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican Party now speaks with a distinctly Southern drawl. Their issues are those of the old Dixie demagogues: religion, the military, traditional values and (in coded form) race.
By slashing income taxes for the rich and estate taxes, the Republican Congress and George W. Bush have quietly shifted the overall tax burden from the wealthy to working Americans.
If the strategists of the Right succeed with the next stage of their scheme, rich people whose income derives from investments won't be taxed at all -- while working Americans will continue to suffer from high payroll taxes.
Small wonder that, like the Dixie demagogues of yesteryear [when the culture war was about race], today's Southernized Republicans prefer to change the subject from economics to "culture-war" issues like gay marriage. This cynical strategy has worked in recent elections, in which the white working class, distracted by such hot-button social issues, has voted against its own economic interests.
I didn't think so in the
spring, but I really do believe that the mentality of the South and mountain
West makes it a lost cause in the short run. In the long run their parochialism
will be overtaken by history, but for now it just seems that there are cultural
forces in these homogenous regions of the American white mind that are beyond
reason. They are just too easy to manipulate by flag waving demagogues. So
let the GOP have them for now. Hope lies elsewhere.
Tuesday, November 15, 2004
Judicial Battles: What's at Stake. There's an interesting piece by Kevin Drum about the stealth strategy of the GOP to dismantle the institutions that have provided the infrastructure that gives ordinary people a way to counterbalance the power of Big Money. His point is that "one of the problems facing Democrats is that Republicans are mostly nibbling around the edges, not taking a chainsaw to liberal programs. And why is this a problem? Because it's hard to mobilize widespread opposition to conservative policies when they're put into place a little bit at a time."
The issues are too complex and boring for most people to focus on or get excited about. It's not like hot button issues such as abortion and gay rights. The Big Money wing of the GOP, who for the most part could care less one way or the other about these social issues, is using them as a smokescreen to provide cover for their more radical restructuring agenda. As Sam Rosenfeld talks about it in relation to the coming battles over nominees for the supreme court:
I’m hardly the first to make this point, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the real locus of profound change that a Supreme Court filled with several Bush appointments will concern itself with is unlikely to pertain to social issues, but rather to matters related to economics, property rights, regulation, and the scope and reach of government policy. As Jeffrey Rosen (a pro-choice but anti-Roe legal analyst) recently argued in The New Republic (subscription-only), abortion is probably a red herring in the Supreme Court battles; Bush and his people seem most preoccupied with stacking the court with proponents of the “Constitution in Exile” movement, which seeks to return American jurisprudence to pre-New Deal interpretations of the interstate Commerce Clause that hugely limit the scope of federal action and policy. Last year, Michael Scherer wrote a terrific piece for Mother Jones that, in a similar vein, focused on the massive corporate underwriting of most of Bush’s controversial judicial nominations in his first term, and argued that media accounts focusing on, say, William H. Pryor’s religious extremism or Priscilla Owen’s anti-choice advocacy miss the more important story of these judges' radical fealty to corporate interests. What Grover Norquist told Scherer last year is likely to turn out to be an apt description of how the Supreme Court battles will unfold over the next few years:
So far, the public debate has all but ignored this quiet corporate campaign. Unlike high-visibility battles over abortion, the death penalty, or gay rights, the legal fights over tort reform, regulatory powers, anti- trust law, and property rights do not lend themselves to easy explanations in news stories. In Beltway parlance, such issues "translate poorly" to voters -- a fact that has not been lost on conservative activists. "Because of the smoke and fire of the abortion issue, it is probably all anybody will talk about, but there is much more at stake," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. His group, which receives funding from corporate and conservative foundations, has organized resolutions in at least 10 state legislatures supporting Bush's judicial nominees. "The New York Times understands sex," he added. "It doesn't understand money."
This isn’t just a media problem, of course. As much as Democrats pine for the day that socially conservative working- and middle-class folks vote in their own economic interest rather than according to their views on social issues, these same hot-button moral issues are what excite liberals’ attention and activism in judicial fights.
This is a cagey strategy by political operatives who understand how things work in this brave new world. Most Americans have thought of this agenda as crackpot, but here we are. The GOP has both houses, the executive, and the judiciary--and the Jacobins in the Party are in the driver's seat. Who's to stop them now from sweeping away the institutions established over the course of the last seventy years to clear the field for them to do as they please? Whatever flaws there might be in these institutions, they are the tools the middle and low-income majority has to counter the power of Big Money.
One thing we learned this spring is that the American public can continue to believe the GOP spin about George Bush is the right man to fight terrorism despite all the blatant, well-reported evidence to the contrary. How is the public ever going to see through the spin on these other more complex, abstract issues?
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Philosophers, Artists, Saints.
The growing rush and the disappearance of contemplation and simplicity from modern life [are] the symptoms of a complete uprooting of culture. The waters of religion retreat and leave behind pools and bogs. The sciences . . . atomize old beliefs. The civilized classes and nations are swept away by the grand rush for contemptible wealth. Never was the world worldlier, never was it emptier of love and goodness. . . . Everything, modern art and science included, prepares us for the coming barbarism. . . .Everything on earth will be decided by the crudest and most evil powers, by the selfishness of grasping men and military dictators.
Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season, 1873-76
Nietzsche lamented the loss of the philosopher, artist, and saint as bourgeois modernity replaced the older aristocratic culture of the premodern west. And I lament it , too. Not the loss of the aristocratic social order, but the loss of the culture-wide aspiration toward the More that the philosopher, artist, and saint used to symbolize. N's antidote to the leveling forces of modern culture was his promotion of the idea of the uebermensch or superman, but that creates as many problems as it solves. But he recognized the problem--which was the loss of the aspiration toward transcendence as a universal cultural ideal. I have always taken his famous statement that "God is dead . . . We have killed him" to be simply a description of a loss of an intuitive certainty about a transcendent dimension in our human experience. The result is the growing barbarism he describes in the quote above, and which so many of us find so dismayng in the cultural trends around us.
The word "transcendence" is not a word often used in our day-to-day lives, and so let's be clear about its meaning. As suggested above I mean by it the "More" to which human beings aspire. By "More" I mean that dimension of our humanity that goes beyond our instinctual life. It's most often thought of as spiritual. Barbarism, on the other hand, is life lived completely circumscribed by instinctuality. An effective religious practice is the soul work people do to transform their instinctual lives by a form of training or discipline, a work which is inspired by this fundamental transcendent aspiration.
"Transcending" is is the human project by which that which is lower is transformed into that which is higher. It can't be done if there is no belief that there is a higher and that humnas are nothing more than animals with a highly developed cerebral cortex. Deep down all of us know that we are more than that no matter how "modern" our sensibility. Transcendence calls us to become that More. It's a call to become completed, a call to realize that which we were created to become.
A healthy culture provides a trellis upon which the souls of the people born into it can grow upward toward the More that calls us to be More. Unhealthy or decadent cultures like ours have only the memory of a trellis, or if there is one, it is at best rickety, neglected, and unused. Unused mainly because most people have ceased to believe that it leads anywhere. And so without a trellis upon which to give shape to one's growth, humans develop aimlessly in whatever direction along the ground, living their lives driven primarily by the three basic instinctual drivers symbolized by sex, power, and money. To the degree that these three shape our cultural life uninfluenced by the aspiration to transcend their limitations, to that degree a society is barbaric.
Look at our youth culture--its monotonous music, its obsession with violent video games, sex and drugs. It's a swamp. And what you have there is Nietzsche's nightmare of the barbarism of the Last Man. So I could imagine that many people think that the kind of "redneck" culture or the subcultures that are built around rightwing Christianity are more preferable--at least they give lipservice to traditional virtues out of which the trellis was constructed. But I would say that they are two sides of the same Last-Man coin. There are left-wing and right-wing Last Men. Both are equal as attitudinal social systems in promoting a blindness to transcendence. The former is the condition of the younger brother in the gospel story of the prodigal son, the latter the condition of the older brother. More on that later.
How can I say that any Christian group is blind to transcendence? Isn't that the whole point of faith--it's openness to the transcendent, the absolute, superabundant More of God? Yes, but I think it's fair to ask whether that's what these Christian groups are about, and whether, despite their purported commitment to truth that speaks through the Bible, they have in fact developed an attitude that closes them off more than it opens them up to it. By their fruits you will know them.
The archetypal form of such blindness is Phariseeism--Jesus described the Pharisees of his day as whited sepulchers, pristine clean on the outside, enclosing what what was dead and rotten on the inside. But as they were a type of religious personality then, so have they been through history in all religions.
The Pharisee is the man of faith who has no faith--and doesn't know it. He's someone who is going through the motions because in his doing so he thinks that he is a better than others who don't. The whole goal of the Pharisee is to create a false identity that makes him appear good rather than being truly good. Pharisees can be but are not necessarily hypocrites. They can be very sincere and intense in their project to appear morally blameless. St. Paul was such a one before his conversion.
But this kind of project is really a compulsive disorder, and has very little to do with real faith, even though this type of person is attracted to religion and often plays an important role in its institutions. One of the major themes of the Gospels is is to warn about the dangers of becoming such a person. These are the wolves in sheep's clothing.
The gospel repeatedly contrasts the blindness of these self-righteous prigs with the supple-hearted people who often enough are scandalous sinners. The point that the gospel makes is that the most important trait that a human being can have is not to be morally perfect but to have the cognitive capacity to see with one's heart. The Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners recognized in Jesus what the Pharisees simply could not see. Why? Their minds and hearts had not rigidified in the way that the Pharisees' had.
I don't think that the point is to validate moral libertinism, but to say something important about religious psychology. Usually the people who recognize God in their lives are the ones who one way or another have come to realize their need of Him. There are all kinds of people who think they have no need of God in their lives, but the toughest cases are those who think they have no need of God because they already possess Him. This is the condition of the Pharisee, and it's a form of mental illness and cold heartedness parading as normalcy that is so severe that when the very incarnation of truth and goodness appears in their midst, the Pharisee has no capacity for recognizing Him.
And his cluelessness is the same as that of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. Remember how it goes? The younger son asks his father for his inheritance and goes to a far off country where he squanders it. Impoverished and abandoned, he figures he would do better if he returns to his father, tells him that he was a fool, and asks for a job as a servant. The father, overjoyed at his son's return instead throws a big party and returns him to his place of honor. The older son, however, who was the boy scout who followed all the rules, seethes with resentment. Are there no consequences? How can this be fair? This resentment is one of the chief symptoms of 'whited sepulcher syndrome.' It's a picture of the soul rotting inside.
For those suffering from it are blinded by their inability to understand what is really going on. He misses the point, because the story is about the discovery of the need for the More. Nothing else matters. The Father is overjoyed not because his younger son lived a life of depravity, but because he survived the shipwreck that was necessary to awaken him to a deeper understanding of the way things really are.
The older son hadn't awakened yet. If the older son had, he would have been as overjoyed as his father to learn that his younger brother had found it too. The younger son has made a discovery that the older has not yet made, and no matter how it's done, making this discovery is the only thing that matters. The gospels are full of stories about something being lost and then found. The only important thing is the finding. Everything else is secondary.
Now the finding does not mean that things become safe and secure for the finder. Certainty, safety, and security are the obsessions of the Pharisees. The goal is not peace and serenity as it is in the Eastern religions. The finding means that one becomes a disciple and that means being called to go places where one would rather not go. It means having an awakened conscience which requires in a very real sense dying to the normal understanding world, and not living as normal people do. I think this plays out for different people in different ways. But one of the fruits is a growth in freedom and individuality and an increased capacity for love. This is what we mean by a saint, which brings us back to where we started.
As the philosopher is a prodigy of thinking about what's true, and the artist a prodigy of the feeling for beauty and the making of what is beautiful, the saint is the prodigy in the use his or her will for the doing of what is good and of becoming someone who is truly, deeply good. Not just nice. Not just decent--but someone who is terribly good. The whole idea of truth, beauty, and goodness as transcendent ideals that call us to be More has become something of a joke, something to which we refer only with irony. And so one of the great signs of the decadence of our culture is that genuine prodigies of truth, beauty, and goodness are no longer recognized or honored. They have always been rare, but now they have become invisible.
The rest of us suffer for it because we rarely meet such prodigies who can inspire us by what they have become to realize the unrealized possibilities in our own lives. We need that inspiration, because without it it's so easy to give up, and to believe that nothing More is a real possibility for us or for anyone.
If there were a living tradition, it would produce the kind of people who would realize those possibilities and show those of us who follow how to become what they have become. Instead our philosophers and artists have no feeling for the transcendent. And our religious leaders are for the most part Pharisees or lightweights. And the rest of us are mired in mediocrity as a result. The only prodigies these days are the prodigies of barbarism.
There is no trellis there anymore for us to climb up out of the swamps of barbarism, so the job, I suppose, is for us to build one. For the religious right, for the most part, offers us not a trellis, but a whited sepulcher.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
That's What I'm Talkin' Bout. Richard Thompson Ford comes at what I've been trying to get at regarding this new "moral majority" issue more vividly and from a somwhat different angle:
The emergent conventional wisdom is that moral values cost the Democrats the election. This proves what many have suspected for some time: Democrats can't connect with the heartland because they don't attend church regularly. If they did, they would realize that there's a big difference between expressing a commitment to moral values (say to your pastor, to fellow congregants, or in an exit poll) and actually wanting to live by them. The bad news for Democrats is that evangelical religious moralism is quite broad. The good news for Democrats is that often, it is not very deep. Many of the relatively new evangelical churches are a hybrid of entertainment, business networking, and free child care. True, there's a hard core of true religious zealots—people who speak in tongues, kiss venomous snakes, or eschew indoor plumbing based on their faith. The Democrats will never reach those people. And from the distance of my hometown of San Francisco, where a typical Sunday morning ritual includes use of the name "Mary" only when it is immediately preceded by the word "Bloody," all of the heartland evangelicals sound like zealots. But the key to the appeal of suburban evangelism is that it doesn't require much in the way of sacrifice or risk. [because it's smiley-face evangelism]
This is potentially good news for Democrats because it means these "morals voters" may be almost as scared of the real religious zealots as we are. They'll support symbolic reforms like prayer in school. They'll vote against gay marriage. They'll say they categorically oppose abortion. But despite (because of?) their superficial religious piety, their teenage daughters are getting knocked up at alarming rates and a lot of them are getting safe legal abortions. They can afford to rail against abortion rights, safe in the knowledge that the people they vote for can't actually take them away. At least not yet.
Democrats should not pander to religious zealots or religious hypocrites—the Republicans have cornered that market. Instead, they should appeal, unapologetically, to another set of values: separation of church and state and respect for individual privacy.
I would frame it a little differently by saying that there are a lot of people in the red states who are very uncomfortable with the secularist cast of the Democratic Party--they have bought into the way it's been branded by the GOP, and they say to themselves, "That's not me, and I don't feel comfortable voting for people like that." Neverthless their behavior and basic values are not really aligned with the fanatics on the far right, whose agenda they are nevertheless supporting with their votes. Ford is probably right that most of this moral middle really doesn't care much one way or the other. But given the choice between the demonized version of the Democrats as they have been branded by the GOP and the God-fearing moralism of the religious right, they figure the safer bet is with the religious right. At least it says things that echo what they were taught when they were kids. There's a basic comfort level with that if you don't look at it too closely or don't take it too seriously.
The GOP has not won the soul of America; but they have won the marketing war. Ford says it well:
If, as Laura Kipnis suggests, political debate in United States takes place at a junior-high-school level of sophistication, let's put it in Nickelodeon Channel terms: The Democrats are goody-goody student government types. They're earnest, studious, well-manned, talented debaters. And after working so hard on their speeches and staying up all night making election posters with fluorescent paint and stencils, they just can't understand why the jock with a C-minus GPA and a permanent smirk on his face won the election. It's just not fair. Why does everyone hate us so much?
This reaction to Kerry's defeat speaks volumes about why the Democrats lost.
As Tom Tomorrow points out, the ex-model-student-government Democrats are hopeless at spin while Republicans, the Eddie Haskells of American politics, are masters at it.
And red-voting Americans--the moderate, conventional, Ward and June Cleavers of American politics--are buying Eddie's b.s. bigtime.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
What's to Be Done? Many might have read what I wrote about rednecks as Last Men and think that it's precisely this kind of judgment on my part that makes rednecks resentful of Democrats and more likely to vote Republican. So instead of criticizing their attitudes I should be looking for ways to bring them into the Democrat fold.
Well, as I've said many times before, I'm not particularly interested in the Democrat Party as such, and I've been convinced for a long time that a new kind of post-secular progressive politics has to emerge if we are to go forward. This may or may not happen within the Democratic Party. But nothing much good for the country is going to happen so long as the progressive agenda in the U.S. is associated with the kind of ragtag, flaky groups that tend to dominate progressive/left politics. These people are simply talking to themselves and with a few exceptions are as clueless as they come, and are very hard to take seriously.
I go to their events occasionally to see what's happening in these precincts of the left, and then vow that I'll never go to another. But given the choice, I'd hang out with them anytime before hanging out with the kind of people who take Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or Jerry Fallwell seriously. The lefty flakes are harmless enough and are often entertaining, but the wingnuts just give me the creeps.
The answer doesn't lie with the Democrats contorting themselves into taking religion more seriously. If they don't, they don't. It's ok. I don't know if I could have stood much more of John Kerry talking about his days as an altar boy. It seems pretty clear to me that he's a decent enough guy, but he is pretty tone deaf when it comes matters religious or spiritual. Howard Dean seems to be cut from the same cloth. I did find Bill Clinton believable, however. There was a part of his life where religion is very genuine. The problem for him, it would seem, is that the religious part doesn't converse regularly with the other parts. And Jimmy Carter, of course, was the real thing.
But a person's religion, like his sex life, really shouldn't be that important a consideration. The best leaders in the political sphere are savvy operators who know how to get things done. We hire them to achieve practical tasks, and we should fire them if they don't. To expect more of them is unrealistic, and in a democracy quite often dangerous. We have to get beyond the personality cult when it comes to electing our politicians. We don't need them to be great; we just need them to be competent. They are, after all, nothing more than our elected representatives.
The secular left in these fringe groups that I mentioned above are a dead end. But my hope is that in the next decade or so, a new progressive coalition can develop that embraces a serious kind of religion in the Reinhold Niebuhr/Martin Luther King tradition. The politicians we elect don't have to be true believers, they just have to be sympathetic enough to work hard to fight for the objectives such a coalition would lay out.
Now this might come across as overly simplistic, but my take is that about a third of the country is comfortable with kind of Last-Man, James-Dobson, evangelical Christianity that I talked about yesterday. They are an unpersuadable lost cause, and while they may be enjoying their day in the sun now, sooner or later their attitudes will be overtaken by history as our culture fuses into the coming global culture.
Then there's another 30% or so which is more comfortable with the secularism typical of modernity--they are rationalist, and agnostic about matters religious, but progressive in their politics. A guy like Kerry and Dean fit in there pretty well. Their attitudes are the ones that the pundits are saying were so soundly repudiated in the election last week. And while I think that's an exaggeration, I also think there is something to it. This website is founded on the idea that the secularist politics of the Democratic Party is dead and has no future.
But there's another third that straddles the middle point of this values spectrum that is both religious and sane, and for that reason does not feel particularly at home with the secularists to the left and the religious nuts to the right. And if the 15% on the left side of the center, people like me, were to develop a progressive alternative to the progressive politics of the secular left, it would carry the secularists because the politics would be very similar, and it would carry a good part of the 15% on the right side of the center point because the basic values would be similar.
I have no idea about how this kind of coalition could emerge to take a more active role in American political life. I respect guys like Jim Wallis at Sojourners who has been grappling with this issue since the mid seventies, but without getting much traction. The question for me is how to get some traction, and I'm just not very good when it comes to understanding how that works. Do we have to take a page out of the play book of the religious right? I don't know. It's a matter of timing, and maybe soon the timing will be right.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Better and Worse. This is another element in the propaganda coup achieved by the GOP--branding the Democrats as the party of out-of-touch, effete, quiche-eating elites who have nothing but disdain for red America's rednecks.
As with any negative stereotyping, there has to be an element of truth in it for it to work. And the really great thing about this particular piece of political propaganda is that it takes the political correctness of the so-called liberal elite and turns it on its head. One of the great mortal sins of multi-cultural political correctness is to think that some cultures are superior to others. But of course the one culture it's ok to sneer at is redneck culture.
Sneering is the affect of snobs, and snobbery is always repugnant. But that doesn't mean that you are therefore rendered incapable of judging whether something is better or worse. And insofar as redneck culture is a place in which Nietzsche's Last Man is a presence, it can be judged inferior. For the Last Man hates anyone who suggests that there is something better or higher than what he is capable of attaining. He celebrates mediocrity as the virtue of the common man, and despises as elites anyone who aspires to anything more. He is too sensitive to slights to his dignity, and full of resentment toward those who do not see him as a fine fellow.
The Last Man is the lover of safety and security, the man or woman who cannot think for him or herself, who is always taking his cues from the "master," the strong, steady leader. Bush's manufactured image as strong man is designed precisely to exploit this slavishness in the Last Man type. The Last Man talks about freedom with romantic fervor but he hasn't a clue what real freedom means. He gives it up willingly to the strong man who asks it from him, and for this reason he makes a great soldier because he's so easy to command. Tell him to jump off a cliff and he'll do it without a doubt or a question. There is a kind of primitive idealism here that rulers love and praise, and for good reason, because without it they would be unable to perpetrate their crimes. I'm sorry, but I don't find much to admire there.
Am I being unfair in painting all rednecks with this broad brush. Probably. I realize that there are many fine human beings who come out of this subculture. It's the social psychology of the group I'm judging here, not how individuals deal with it for better or worse. But while I'm sure that some would argue with it, most would agree that the need for values conformity is stronger among southern whites and among whites in the evangelical churches than it is, for instance in the more cosmopolitan coastal subcultures. And I don't think I'm asserting anything particularly controversial by saying that this conformist mentality is rooted in a fundamental cultural insecurity, and that as such it has been a key emotional driver in the areas that tend to vote red.
There are lots of nice, decent people in this American subculture, but there is something fundamentally primitive, fearful, and regressive in the social attitudes that unite them as a group. These attitudes, of course are not restricted to this subculture--they are fairly common among the I'm-a-victim and the politically correct left. It's found among certain reactionary Catholic groups. But wherever the Last Man shows his face, you find a form of cultural leveling that is one of the chief symptoms of our current cultural decadence.
The attitude that all cultures are equal is just plain stupid, and you don't have to be a right winger to believe that. All you need is common sense. Cultures that value reasoned discourse, which promote and protect human rights, which are open to diverse opinions and cultural values, and which have strong spiritual and artistic traditions are superior to cultures that don't have these characteristics. Some cultures might have strengths in one or another of the elements on this list, but the most advanced societies are the ones in which all of them work together.
There is an odd attitude abroad, associated with this leveling attitude about cultures, that holds all art is equal. It's all subjective judgment. What one person does or likes is no better than what another does or likes. But is there any question that Dostoyevski is better than Danielle Steele, that Bach is better than Lennon & McCartney? This isn't to say that Lennon and McCartney or Steele don't have value and cannot be enjoyed, but it's ridiculous to assert that one thing is better simply because you enjoy it more. There are standards, and these standards while they may be subjective are also transpersonal--they transcend one's personal likes and dislikes. The standard assumes that there are levels of spiritual aspiration which some attain and to which others aspire. To say that there are no standards is to say that there is nothing worthy of our aspiration.
The whole idea of a advances in civilization relies on the assumption that there are great souls who have broken new ground and that some of these may have gone beyond what we who follow after them can understand or achieve. But that does not mean that because we don't understand or cannot replicate what they have done that we can dismiss it as "not for me."
This is essentially what the anti-elitists on the cultural right are saying. Science?--not my bag. Great art? Who needs it? Now the great propaganda achievement is to reduce to mere snobbery this aspiration to achieve greatness or to understand and appreciate it. Are there sneering snobs who look down on those who haven't reached their level of achievement? Certainly there are, and we would rightly describe their snobbery as a moral deficiency because we do have standards by which we can judge certain states of soul as morally deficient. So is it reason enough to describe all aspiration to higher levels of cultural achievement as elitism or snobbery? That would be moronic. And we can judge it moronic by standards that we have for judging it so.
There are standards. There are good and bad, better and worse. And the cultural right is correct to insist on preserving such standards. And they are correct in criticizing the soul-deadening qualities of contemporary American life. But as as I have argued elsewhere, the cultural right misdiagnoses the causes of our ailment. Our soul sickness is not the product of cultural elites--left-wing professors, Hollywood moguls, and nihilist artists; it's rather the product of the social adjustments made necessary by the creative/destructive forces released by freemarket consumer capitalism. The best intellectuals and artists are simply struggling honestly to understand what has happened to us in this neither here nor there era that we call the postmodern that more than anything is the creation of consumer capitalism.
These forces have all but killed the living, vibrant, spiritual traditions of the West, and what we are left with are the empty forms which too often seem attractive primarily to personalities who have an emotional need for order and security and find it in an alienated, conformist, smiley-face Christianity. Such a Christianity is completely at odds with a Christianity that has any depth or authenticity. The symbol for the true Christianity is not a smiley face, but a man dying in agony on a cross.
Death and Resurrection compose the essential rhythm of Christianity. Without the first the second is meaningless and impossible. And Christians who understand this should have the inner resources to live with steadfast hope through those times when death seems to be the main cultural theme. For we are living now in a period when the old thing has died, and we are waiting for the new to be born. We are in a cultural winter waiting for a springtime of the spirit. It will come, maybe not in my lifetime, but it will come. And our job now is to prepare for its coming rather than trying to resuscitate the corpses of old forms which are dead and gone. Resurrection is not resuscitation; it is the creation of something completely new by transforming that which was old. It's a movement forward, to a higher level, not backward to something that we have already left behind.
We are like the apostles in the upper room on the Saturday after Good Friday. We are dazed, confused, shocked at the seeming invincibility of the forces of death and evil, and we feel incapable of hoping that there is some other possibility. But there is, and we must not lose faith.
The Fear Card. My life is slowly returning to its normal levels of confusion and bewilderment. And I don't know about you, but I am bewildered by the new conventional wisdom that seems to understand this election as a vindication of traditional-values sanity.
This election is first and foremost a testimony to the superior political savvy of GOP operatives like Karl Rove. They know how to manipulate public opinion--they are masters who make the Dems look like babes in this regard. They have found a way to make a fundamentally radical agenda seem mainstream and ordinary. They have done it by repeatedly telling Big Lies. And they have done it because they understand power and how to use the media in a way that is quite frankly frightening.
What is most disturbing to me is that we have given them another four years to consolidate. These guys needed to be roundly defeated, but the country was reluctant to do that because of the masterful and I think cynical way the GOP has played the fear card. Like all good Madison Ave. strategists, they look for a primal emotional driver that they can leverage. The entire thrust of what they do is designed to circumvent the rational thought process and appeal to primal instinctual drivers. Advertisers use sex, fear, greed, the need to belong, for status, and to feel good as typical emotional drivers. The GOP marketing strategy was to use only one of these, namely fear. As I mentioned before, it's truly embarrassing how successful they were.
There are two fear themes. The first is the fear associated with the terrorist threat, and the second is the fear associated with pluralism and diversity. With regard to the first, the GOP was successfully able to play on negative stereotypes of all Democrats being wishy-washy peaceniks, and it doesn't matter what facts there are to refute that. It's a branding problem that the Dems have, and they tried hard to overcome it--that's essentially what their whole convention was about--but the GOP wouldn't let them. The swiftboat smear was a masterful tactic in destroying whatever legitimate credibility Kerry had gained. That it was a Big Lie is inconsequential to these people who suppposedly seek a moral renewal for this country.
At the same time they promoted this clueless, thoughtless, mediocre man as a strong, steady leader. That they were able to do this is perhaps the real mark of their propaganda skills. These guys, it has to be admitted, are good. Frighteningly good.
The second fear theme, like the first is grounded in reality. The terrorist threat is real, and the sense of the culture having lost its moral anchor is real. Our culture is in a transitional phase right now. In Jacques Barzun's terms we are in a decadent stage. That does not mean that we are morally inferior to the people who preceded us. It just means that the old thing has died and the new thing has not quite emerged, and things are confusing. When they are, fearful people tend to cluster together in tribal groups to reinforce their sense of identity and moral righteousness against the Other--who represents the forces of chaos and confusion. Gays played that role in this election. Jews have played it in other contexts.
We are in a period of transition similar to the one in the late medieval period as it shifted into modernity. The cultural conflicts we are experiencing now are not unlike those the nascent modern Europe went through in which the Protestants represented the forces of the future and the Catholics represented the forces of the past. I don't want to get sidetracked into a development of this historical analogy in greater detail now--I'll do that another time. The point I want to make here is that in confusing times like ours today people feel lost and anxious. There are many people who need a clear, objective cultural moral framework as a guide that tells them how to think and what to do. They have identity needs that are easily exploited by demagogues. We saw this in Germany in the twenties and thirties, and we're seeing it now in America in what I would estimate to be about a third of the population. It's this third, primarily associated with the religious right--evangelical Christians and right-wing Catholics--that Rove is using as a leverage point to promote his agenda. More about what I think that agenda is at another time.
He couldn't do it with them alone. He needed to do it in combination with the fears associated with the terrorist threat, but it was working that combination of fears from terrorists and what might be described as a fear of pluralism that he was able to pull off his victory. We were sold a bill of goods, and it's only a matter of time before buyer's remorse sets in. It's just something we're going to have to go through, I guess.
Monday, November 8, 2004
Stolen Election? It just sounds like the lament of sore losers, and this time the margin of victory is too wide for such a claim to be taken seriously. But nothing would surprise me. Elections do get stolen where strong political machines are in place. Kennedy stole the 1960 election in Illinois, and the evidence is very strong it was stolen in Florida in 2000. But this year in Florida or Ohio? I doubt it.
If there is anything to it, the evidence would have to be overwhelming and unambiguous, and I doubt that we'll get that. In the meanwhile I'm going ahead with the assumption that the election was legit.
Friday, November 5, 2004
I'm back, more or less. I have an internet connection once again, so my posts should be more regular now.
Whither the Democrats? They lost for two reasons. First because the GOP successfully stereotyped Kerry as a wishy-washy liberal who could not stand up to terrorists. Second, because the GOP has successfully branded the Democrats as the party of moral decadence--the party of Hollywood, abortion, and gay marriage. But at the root of the GOP success is its basic strategy of stimulating fear and resentment.
But for me the issue is not--What can Democrats do to reassert themselves? I could care less about Democrats. The real question is--What needs to be done to return the country to sanity? I believe the people who feel more comfortable with the Democrats, not as they are stereotyped by the Atwater/Rove propaganda machine, but as they are in their ordinary humanity and diversity represent the American future. The cultural right is to the American future what Islamic fundamentalism is to the future of the Middle East. Both factions here and there fear the future; they want things simple and clear, and they are ruled by fear and resentment.
What embarrasses me about being an American is the same thing that would embarrass me if I were a sane Muslim--that as the extremists there are defining what it means to be a Muslim, the extremists here are defining what it means to be an American (and a Christian). Sub-rationality is driving things both here and there. And an awful lot of stuff is going to get broken because sanity at this point here as there is a minority position.
The greatest virtue of the Democratic party is its greatest weakness. And that's its embrace of pluralism. Democrats are more comfortable with complexity, values ambiguity, and cultural diversity. Republicans want things clear and simple, they want it in cliches and formulas, and they want it in terms that make them feel safe and secure.
Now I realize that this is not true of every person who voted for Bush, but it's the reason he won the election. I understand why there might be some thoughtful conservatives who see Bush clearly for all of his negatives but still thought that there were more negatives associated with Kerry whose policy ideas they simply could not embrace.
But I think that they went wrong in thinking that the real issues here are policy grounded. They are not. It's the sub-rational, cultish element that has played such a prominent role in GOP politics in the last decade that should concern all of us, whether we tend to be liberal or conservative on policy. My main argument with thoughtful conservatives who vote GOP has been that the GOP is not really conservative anymore; the party is being steadily driven by the agenda of extremists on the far right--and that's where the danger lies. Extremism is never conservative. Bush won, I believe because not enough sensible conservatives are as alarmed by this as they should be.
Kerry in this election would have been the truly conservative choice. His presidency would not have been particularly exciting or inspiring, but far fewer things would have been broken.
That being said, the Democrats as they are currently constituted need to redefine themselves in a way that disassociates them from the extremist elements in their own ranks. The agenda of the secular left has dominated the party since the seventies, and that faction, while it has a role to play, has to be removed from the driver's seat. The Democrats are too easily branded as the party of godless secularists and most Democrats are not that, and so they have to find a way of reaffirming core American values in a way that effectively counterbalances the dangerous trend that has possessed the GOP.
At the same time the Al From/Evan Bayh Rockefeller Republican wing of the Democratic party is as bankrupt as the secular left wing. It's time for the Democratic party once again to become the party of normal people--people of all kinds, in all of their diversity, in all of their different lifestyles, but united in their love of freedom and in their aspiration to decency, moderation, and fairness. This is not what the GOP represents either at home or abroad, and it needs to be stopped before it's too late.
Wednesday, November 3, 2004
Bush Wins, America Loses. I'm disappointed, but not surprised. I was still holding out some hope even last night. What we have just seen is astonishing, but my astonishment dates to February and right after the time after Abu Ghraib. If we were living in a world in which everything were not wrongside up, no president would have survived that. But then that was only the beginning of seven or eight months of unrelieved bad news, all of which redounded to the poor judgment and and delusional thinking of the policy makers in this administration.
America has made a foolish choice, and they have made it because they are frightened and because their judgment is impaired by their fear. The GOP did a very good job of keeping the electorate in a state of anxiety, and they did an even better job of selling what is essentially a defective product to assuage the anxiety. They did it by playing on the negative stereotype of Liberals of being wishy-washy, spineless losers who could not stand up to the terrorist threat. To the very end, the American electorate saw Bush as stronger on protecting America by a fairly large margin. There is no evidence to support that he has been or will be more effective.
The public's perception of him as a strong, steady leader is all public relations spinning the stereotype of Republicans as strong and Democrats weak. Bush is a poser. He has proven nothing, has accomplished nothing. His seeming steadfastness of purpose is simply spin. It's easy to be steadfast if you are oblivious to the impact of your policies, if you are incapble of entertaining a doubt or a complex idea.
Half of America apparently sees his rigidity and inability to deal with complexity as a virtue appropriate for dealing with the multilayered reality presented to us by the terrorist threat. It is precisely these attributes that make things worse, and that will contribute to making life for Americans and Iraqis far less safe. Bush is simply not in a position to make things better. It would have been a difficult task for Kerry, but at least he would have had a chance. We needed a fresh start. We needed somebody who has some credibility with the international community. We needed somebody who is capable of entertaining a complex idea and some nuance.
So I hope I'm wrong, but the best I can take away from this is simply the notion that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. I do not believe that Bush has the kind of soul that is capable of rising to the challenge of healing the rifts that his party has created. Maybe he wants to, but he has no real personal strength to take on the vicious forces of partisanship that have taken possession of his party. He has no capability for independent thought. He is a creature of his handlers. And his handlers will continue to blow smoke and will continue with their thievery.
So I'm not surprised, but I am nevertheless appalled that a majority of Americans has endorsed these thugs who have swathed themselves in the Amercan flag and traditional values. Now what's to stop them? They know that they can get away with anything if they can keep the electorate in a cloud of fear that prevents it from looking too closely at what they are really doing.
And for this reason I have to say I am feeling intensely embarrassed to be an American. I'm embarrassed to be associated with such a group of Nervous Nellies who can be frightened into to doing the will of these manipulators. This administration will prove itself to be one of the worst in American history and most damaging to the real interests of the American people and of the world. Things are going to get very messy, and we will have only ourselves to blame.
More later on the bancruptcy of the Democratic Party.