Sunday, April 08, 2007

Past is Prologue

American political factionalism that brewed for decades became worse – much worse – after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And in the flood of articles and analyses that asked why do they hate us, how could this have happened, what do we do now, and so forth, there was one question with serious implications that had no immediate answer, and about which few even bothered to speculate: would America keep its head?

The years since have shown it did not.

In the wake of 9/11, but beginning long before, the American conservative movement and its leaders in Washington sacrificed the world’s post-9/11 goodwill and America’s moral authority in conducting a “war on terror” that has seen prisoner abuse and murder, torture, kidnapping (euphemistically, “extraordinary rendition”), domestic surveillance and indefinite detentions of those declared “enemy combatants” by government fiat. They have sought to squelch critics and tighten their grip on executive power. Many had observed, as Salon’s Joe Conason did, that this has been a period reminiscent of the rise of authoritarianism Sinclair Lewis depicted in his dark, 1935 satire, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

Glenn Greenwald cites criticisms by prominent conservatives of the radicalism at the heart of the neoconservatism that predates the current administration:
"a spectacularly misnamed radicalism" -- George Will

"Unfortunately, far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power. . . . President Bush's constitutional vision is, in short, sharply at odds with the text, history, and structure of our Constitution, which authorizes a government of limited powers."
-- Cato Institute

"The "liberty vs. power" paradigm ... [has] been replaced in the public consciousness with a "security leads to freedom" paradigm..." -- David Brooks
Greenwald distills Brooks' central point:
"... the dominant right-wing political movement in this country that has spawned and driven the Bush presidency has nothing to do with -- it is in fact overtly hostile to -- the ostensible principles of Goldwater/Reagan small-government conservatism. Though today's so-called "conservatives" exploit the Goldwater/Reagan mythology as a political prop, they don't believe in those principles in any way. That movement is the very antithesis of those principles."
Contemporary conservatism has become confounding, frustrating, and at times frightening, following a logic almost impenetrable to non-believers.

In her book “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation,” Deborah Tannen explained that when men and women talk they regularly misunderstand one another, because although speaking the same language, it is cross-cultural communication. It is the same with liberals and conservatives.

George Lakoff attributes the differences to “strict father” (conservative) and “nurturant parent” (liberal) models of parenting. His “Moral Politics” outlines the parameters of those models and how they influence views toward domestic politics on the left and the right.

Into the domestic clash of cultures and permanent fear-mongering throw a pastiche of get-rich-with-God, free-market capitalism and a post-9/11 patriotism defined as preemptively attacking America’s enemies, foreign and domestic, in a millennialist war of civilizations. The Bush years have been a mind-bending introduction to the twenty-first century.

I hope to record a few new insights into the thinking that led us here. An ongoing series of observations, perhaps.


In an effort to elicit a more concrete definition of the faith, from the horse's mouth as it were, I once tried to flush out a conservative crusader with this letter to the editor of the local paper:
The commentary, "Bush's public displays of 'godliness' can't mask actions that Jesus wouldn't stomach," questioned whether America is living by the principles Christians hold dear. In truth, many of us simply find the principles of the marketplace more seductive.

Why did Jesus feed the multitude at the Sermon on the Mount? Why did he cure the sick, heal the lame, restore sight to the blind and make lepers whole?

Shouldn't those people have had to develop some self-discipline, take responsibility for their circumstances and pull themselves up by their own sandal straps?

Wasn't what Jesus did in trying to "help" those people just another wrongheaded, destructive, failed social policy? He simply reinforced their dependency on a higher power to solve their problems for them. Shouldn't he instead have preached on the virtues of independence, hard work and entrepreneurship?

We can debate endlessly whether or not our Founders intended the United States to be a Christian country. But if one argues that they did, and that its policies therefore ought to reflect Christian morality, shouldn't that morality seek inspiration first in the gospel of Jesus Christ before the economics of Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek?
A reader rising to the challenge responded by setting out some basic outlines of the contemporary conservative worldview:
The author of the letter asserts Christian morality is incompatible with free-market economics, and that the state should seek guidance from Jesus Christ instead of "Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek." I must disagree. Jesus did everything he did as an individual, not as an agent of some earthly government. He didn't steal from some people to give others loaves and fishes. He didn't form his apostles into some bureaucracy in order to cure the sick. Jesus set a great example for us, because he did his works on his own, without the government.

His actions, his charity, his compassion, were the results of no legislation or regulation. Unlike Jesus, when the government tries charity, it first needs to steal money from its citizens. I assert that the state cannot emulate Christian principles, because the modern "welfare" state is antithetical to those principles. Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." Everything the state has, it got through theft and extortion, not through honest trade. Free marketeers have no problem with the charity of individuals, whether mortal of divine. We just have a problem when the government gets into the act.
Okay, an admirer of Jesus, but not exactly a spokesperson for "Focus on the Family."

I had not said Christian morality is incompatible with free-market economics. Just that those who promote Jesus as the inspiration for American democracy and its laws, past, present and future have an obligation to demand that America's "Christian" government attend to "the least of these my brethren." Promoting laissez-faire capitalism instead is a pathetic substitute for practicing the gospel.

Separate church and state and their obligation goes away. But that is not American conservatism today. When pushed to defend themselves, many grassroots conservatives exhibit a tortured mix of “strict father” authoritarianism, righteous patriotism, and Ayn Rand’s morality of selfishness while brandishing a cross in defense of America's right to shop.

Writing in Harper’s in 2005, Bill McKibben noted,
“How nice it would be if Jesus had declared that our income was ours to keep, instead of insisting that we had to share. How satisfying it would be if we were supposed to hate our enemies. Religious conservatives will always have a comparatively easy sell … It's hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq.”
What seems incompatible is Christian America rhetoric and conservative attitudes and policies based less on Jesus’ actions than on Cain’s, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Well, at least it’s biblical.

Next: "The Irresponsibles"

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