Sunday, November 27, 2005

Ah, the Yuletide Season is upon us, with its attendant culture war crusade! This year’s most promising battle is Boston’s “Great Christmas Tree Controversy”: the city’s annual Nova Scotia spruce is being officially referred to as a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree,” awakening the ire of right-wingers nationwide. "There's been a concerted effort to steal Christmas," Rev. Jerry Falwell fumed on Fox. CBS conducted a poll that found that 64% of respondents thought that “Christmas has become too politically correct.”

Now, for Falwell’s fundies, PC is only the most pernicious example of their ememies’ excessive approbation of difference, because the radical right opposes the very diversity—of peoples, traditions, histories, and viewpoints—that is the life-blood of modern free and open societies. Right-wingers, clinging to a belief that nothing ever changes, or at least mustn’t be allowed to, claim to object to the left’s shifty semantics. But the truth is, as most people know, things change. And when worlds change, words do, too. What the right really objects to is the acknowledgment—never mind the celebration—of difference and change. We Americans are clever enough nowadays not to talk about race and ethnicity straightforwardly, partly because it’s no longer simply black-and-white. We often cloak our fears and prejudices in other issues, from immigration to school prayer, but Christmas trees will do nicely, too.

The religious right is better at keeping the controversy than the Christ in Christmas, that’s for sure. Every yuletide is a new chapter in their cultural jihad. Last year it was a boycott of shops advertising “holiday sales” or sporting signage wishing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”—never mind that the relentless commercialization of Christmas, by self-professed Christians as much as anyone—is itself a distraction from the true spirit of the season. So this year, it’s “The Great Christmas Tree Controversy”. The only problem is, there is nothing essentially Christian about a Christmas tree. It’s the right that’s playing semantics here. Newsflash: Jesus was not born under the evergreen. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah inveighed against the pagan practice of cutting down and decorating trees as a form of idolatry. The puritan fathers called the practice a “pagan mockery”. So, Rev. Falwell, who stole what from whom?

Clearly “holiday tree” is unacceptable precisely because it’s inclusive, and fails to acknowledge the primacy of one tribe over the others. The right’s shrill insistence on institutionalizing religious supremacy is indeed a reflection of tribalization in troubled times. Sure, there’s justifiable fear of the ascendancy of immigrant cultures, with different customs, beliefs, and skin colors. But the right’s rigidity won’t halt their rise. They should take a hint from the tradition they claim as their own, and embrace the Other. 'Tis the season.

Can’t get over the semantics? Here’s a suggestion: I recently came upon an ad for e-cards online, urging me to “get into the Christmahanukwanzakah spirit!” I thought, right on. Why not rename Boston’s “holiday tree” the “Christmahanukwanzakah tree”?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Lies, damned lies, and plummeting poll numbers! The Bush administration, after its customary deer-in-the-headlights act, suddenly sprang back to life last week. The big headline: Bush has been exonerated! Cleared of any suspicion of having misled the public in his quest to unseat Saddam! If you weren’t paying attention you might have thought there was a real story here. But the fact is, he was “exonerated” by one of his own political appointees, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley. You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Stevie!

After having his good name cleared (whew, that was a close one!), Mr. Bush lashed out at Democrats: didn’t they know by now that it’s “irresponsible” and unpatriotic to criticize him? His coward’s cabal then set about trashing thrice-decorated Vietnam vet and Representative from Pennsylvania John Murtha for daring to do so, linking the legislator, bizarrely, to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Apparently that’s all it takes to throw someone’s sanity into question nowadays. But if we’re talking insanity, it’s the pot calling the kettle black here. Curious, while there was endless analysis in the press and around the water cooler of Clinton, Bush, arguably a worthier subject, has utterly escaped it. Admittedly, Clinton’s adolescent libido was riper for ridicule that Bush’s pre-adolescent omnipotence complex, which we’d all rather just ignore in the hopes that eventually he’ll outgrow it. (He won’t.)

Personally, I think it’s high time all our presidents were evaluated as a matter of protocol, before they took office. We would at least be better prepared for the spurious wars and wrecked budgets the loonies leave in their wake. May I recommend the Hare Psychopathy Checklist- Revised (PCL-R), which consists of several items, each scored 0-2 (0 = trait absent, 1 = possibly/partially present, 2 = present)? The higher the score, the greater the likelihood of psychopathy. Simple. But don’t take my word for it. Put down your “su doku” and take a minute to tally up Mr. Bush’s score yourself (in the brackets to the left of the noxious trait):

Factor 1, aggressive narcissism: [ ] Glibness/superficial charm; [ ] Grandiose sense of self-worth; [ ] Pathological lying; [ ] Cunning/manipulative; [ ]Lack of remorse or guilt; [ ] Shallow affect; [ ] Callous/lack of empathy; [ ] Failure to accept responsibility for own actions. Factor 2, socially deviant lifestyle: [ ] Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom; [ ] Parasitic lifestyle; [ ] Poor behavioral controls; [ ] Early behavioral problems; [ ] Lack of realistic, long-term goals; [ ] Impulsivity; [ ] Irresponsibility; [ ] Juvenile delinquency; [ ] Continual acceptance of antisocial behavior.

It reads like W’s CV, doesn’t it? To give you an idea of the competition: although I’ve omitted a few criteria due to space, a normal score is five. Prison inmates average around 22. This may be the one test the prez could pass with flying colors, graduating at the very top of his class!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Last week was a critical one for Democrats around the nation. They celebrated victories in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey; rashly defeated all of Governor Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiatives in California—more a repudiation of the governator than a judgment on the wisdom of the measures themselves, I’m afraid; and, in Pennsylvania, all eight members of a school board that single-mindedly sought to force “intelligent design” into the science curriculum were trounced, leading Pat Robertson to warn the good people of Dover, PA: "If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God …and don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there.”

I quote the Reverend Robertson at length here because he is the single best argument against Intelligent Design that I know of. ID is nothing if not an irrational reaction to what is perceived as liberalism’s threat—political, not religious in nature—and all it really seeks to do is lend legitimacy to the fear of The Other and of pragmatic inquiry into the nature of things that is at the core of modern-day evangelicalism. ID brooks no argument, spawns no debate, and calls for no further investigation. Its adherents argue, simply, that certain forms in nature are too complex to have evolved through natural selection and must have been created by a "designer." That’s where debate ends, and prostration and praise begin, apparently. Is it a kind of desperate plea to stuff the genie back in the bottle, to not look any further into the mysteries that science is daily revealing to us—in genetics, physics, astronomy? Of course it is. Does it fit into a politics rife with xenophobia, homophobia, and fear-mongering in general? Very nicely. Because we fear what we cannot understand, and ID helps us—indeed, encourages us to understand nothing.

The God of Reverend Robertson is in many ways pre-Christian. He reminds me of the Gnostic demiurge more than any—pardon the expression—fully evolved Christian God. He’s the petulant child-god of Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger: reveling in his omnipotence, oblivious to empathy, he’s capable of appalling acts of evil. He would gladly wipe out a Pennsylvania town for its impudence in denying his existence.

There have been times in our history when fruitful debate of mortal questions was possible. Revelations of World War II atrocities sparked a brief period of painful discussion on the nature of God. Humanism, a term that has been demonized by the right, seemed an alternative to religious belief that allowed men to justify as godly their hatred of other men. And in an era when “God is in the White House” and ready to veto legislation outlawing torture, Humanism still seems like a pretty good alternative to me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ah, the Blame Game. You know the Right’s in trouble when all that’s left in their arsenal is “blame Clinton.” This has been the fool’s chorus ever since Mr. Bush took office, but now the whole Republican party is singing along. Last week, when it became obvious the Democrats were not going to drop their investigation of sexed-up intelligence on WMD, the call from conservative quarters was “blame Clinton!” The ubiquitous David Brooks quoted a Clinton staffer as saying: "The U.S. Intelligence Community's belief toward the end of the Clinton administration [was] that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and was close to acquiring nuclear weapons." So, if you have a problem with the war in Iraq, or the nearly 2,050 US soldiers dead, the over 15,000 wounded, or the nearly $220 billion spent there so far, blame Clinton.

The problem is, whatever Clinton or his staffers may have believed, they did not spin intelligence or create it out of whole cloth for the sole purpose of starting an unnecessary and costly war with no thought as to an exit strategy. Nor did Clinton or his staffers seek to revenge themselves on their critics by revealing any of their critics’ wives’ undercover status. Sorry, but for these and other related crimes, the blame falls squarely on Mr. Bush and his own band of brothers. Of course, we’ve known all along that W has trouble taking the blame. When, during the last of the presidential debates with John Kerry, he was asked to “give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision” he could not come up with even one.

The desperation of the “blame Clinton” defense is obvious. The surprising thing is that, for the moment at least, it has even eclipsed the “blame the liberal media” defense favored by the Right. Funny, we bandy about the L-word without really thinking what it means to live in what is accurately called a “liberal democratic society.” Traditional liberalism argues that defense of individual liberty and private property are the purposes of government. One of its chief tenets is the right of dissent. It is utterly opposed to totalitarian and collectivist ideologies like communism. If you look at it this way, all media in a democracy, if true to the purpose of the media, should be liberal.

The problem with our supposedly liberal media is that it has been so thoroughly infected by politics. Of course the press is by nature political—not because it is mired in a particular ideology, but because it is moored to the liberal ideal, and thus threatens to expose the pretense, hypocrisy, and decadence of politics with truth-telling, which, when a nation is governed by dogma, is a form of dissent. I would actually like to be able to blame the press for Bush’s problems, but unfortunately, our press is beholden to the same interests as our politicians. No, this time the blame is entirely Bush’s own to bear.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Last week was rough for Bush & Co. The American death toll in Iraq reached the grim milestone of 2000. The Harriet Miers fiasco ended in her unceremonious withdrawal. And a Grand Jury indicted Darth Cheney’s alter ego, Scooter Libby, on five counts. This, on top of the general stink of corruption in the upper echelons of the GOP, has Democrats gloating, some gleefully speculating that the Bush Administration may finally be imploding.

This has been the singular, desperate hope of the Democrats for years now, and it’s a sad comment on the state of the opposition, which offered no leadership of its own to fill the vacuum in Katrina’s wake, to name just one recent and glaring example. The Bush administration has not been subtle in its contempt for ordinary Americans here at home (in New Orleans) and abroad (in Iraq). Working class and poor people are good for cannon fodder and the occasional photo op, and that’s about it. But Democrats have yet to show any backbone in opposing this regime. Instead of reacting to crises with real, viable, alternate solutions that show that good government is still possible, Democrats seem to have nothing better to offer than hand-wringing, crowing critiques, and speculation that this could be the moment the enemy self-destructs. In the modern Democrat’s version of things, you can lose all the battles and still win the war by default.

But even if the President himself is cannibalized by his own runaway congress, while it may be a personal defeat for him, it will not spell victory for the opposition, much less ordinary Americans. Big business is still the biggest constituent of both parties, often the only one that matters, and elections are still being bought right and left. The conditions that gave Bush & Co. carte blanche remain the status quo, and it’s in neither parties’ interests to seek real reform. And real reform is the only route to real choices in governance.

Of course, we’re all entitled to a little well-earned Schadenfreude every so often. But before we get too smug, let’s remember: these failures are ours. Anytime our system is systematically abused and we come to accept corruption as business as usual, we all lose. When we choose the rhetoric of bald propaganda over facts, regardless of party affiliation, we all lose. And this time there is no “how did this happen?” It happened not only because the administration took liberties (literally and figuratively), but because the political opposition, and Americans in general, could not muster the will to stand up and speak, and demand the truth right under our noses. It’s a credit to our system that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald could, but corruption will continue, and deepen, unless Americans step up to the task of self-government. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It’s not merely the White house that’s to blame for abuses of power. We the People are to blame for letting it get this far.