Saturday, September 18, 2010

WHO CAN WIN THE CULTURE WAR?

A Chinese curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.” The fulfillment of that curse has been the unending culture war begun on the home front during the Vietnam War. In this war at home like that war abroad, objectives and tactics shifted with changing circumstances. Opposition to the war first expanded to opposition to the “system,” then narrowed to opposition to the draft.

There were life-style protesters: hippies refusing to bathe, boys growing facial hair, girls not shaving their armpits and legs, many smoking pot or doing drugs, the more dedicated retreating to communes famous for naked kids, lousy food, and unsanitary conditions—the Woodstock Nation.

There were political protesters: young men, mostly white and middle-class, who burned (or pretended to burn) draft cards; and students who staged take-overs at universities, marched in large demonstrations, burned the flag, wore it on the seat of their pants, or fled to Canada.

There were civil rights activists: many black and some whites who conducted sit-ins, rode buses, canvassed for voters, marched in protests, and extolled posturing militants who mostly ran food kitchens in their ghettos.

And there were academics who inflated grades so that college boys could avoid service and let others take their place and the risks (the poster child of this stratagem is Dick Cheney). Responding to Johnson’s and Nixon’s manipulations and lies, these academics attacked the “system” of traditional educational structures (think grammar and the canon; think historical revisionism) and substituted doctrines of intellectual, political, and moral plasticity.

As a result, we lost much more than the war; we lost our way.

I anticipated a conservative reaction to counter-cultural, draft-dodging, civil-rights-crusading, and cynicism-sponsoring types. When a leading campus radical challenged me to say on which side of the barricades I would be when the revolution came, I said that there would be no barricades, for there would be no revolution. I knew most Americans to be reluctant and slow to change, to resent and resist those demanding it.

I did not anticipate—delicious irony—that radicals on the left would create radicals on the right. Conservatives—are some aging hippies, war protesters, civil rights activists, and liberal academics?—have slowly changed to become the new radicals attacking the “system,” now relabeled “tyrannical government.” Those who once rallied to support the federal government now rally against it. Newt Gingrich tried to shut it down. John Roberts and Samuel Alito lied to Congress about their impartiality and their respect for precedent; then, once seated on the Supreme Court, proceeded as activists to decide cases, even overturning settled law, to reduce government authority. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner advocate a politics of “no.” Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Breitbart, and others have become purveyors of reportorial fiction or editorial smarm. As liberals have taught them, so conservatives have learned that truth is plastic and decency optional.

Less ironically than hypocritically, conservatives decry liberals for the self-indulgence of the “me” generation, on the pretense that they are not part of the same generation and every bit as self-indulgent. Liberals tend to personal indulgence like pot, drugs, and casual sex; conservatives, to political indulgence like corporate greed, environmental abuse, and regulatory abandon. But I suspect that not a few liberals and conservatives have skeletons of the opposite persuasion in their closets. My suspicion explains why their children share a lifestyle once liberal, now conservative as well, with dyed hair, tattoos, and body rings and studs—outward manifestations intimating inward similarity. More important, the youth of both sides share something else: a greater tolerance of personal differences of ethnicity, race, religion, and sexuality.

That tolerance gives me some hope that the young, though ill-educated, are less ill-tempered and narrow-minded than their parents and grandparents, hostile opposites still fighting the old culture war. It gives me some hope that they, though less informed, are more inclined to work with one another. In that process, they will have to teach themselves and each other what their parents and grandparents have failed to teach them about times before their time, about persistent questions which each generation of Americans must answer for itself, and about the subjects relevant to developing their answers. Otherwise, they, too, will lose their way.

My prayer is that they will reject unrestrained selfishness and accept some public service and personal sacrifice as more fulfilling than unstinted self-indulgence. If so, they will recognize that government cannot do all things but can and must do some things. They will realize that all resources are limited and must be prudently conserved and fairly allocated; and that social programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—cannot serve if they cannot survive, so that their benefits must be distributed on the basis of need, not—wonderful word decried by moralists—entitlement. When they match realism with tolerance, they will end the culture war which need not have been fought but, having been fought, needs no winner.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

THE SINS OF THE MANY ARE VISITED UPON THE FEW

America is not a “Christian Nation,” but most of its people are practicing, professing, or self-presuming Christians. By identification with this religious majority, Christians enjoy a comfort or security of association denied members of smaller religions. They also enjoy a sense of superiority, usually unrecognized and often undiminished by a lack of information about Christian doctrine or church history. Not surprisingly, they know almost nothing about the doctrines or histories of other religions and can be remarkably insensitive to their followers.

Juxtapose two current examples. One is the objection to the proposed Islamic community center in New York on the historical claim that Islam builds mosques on the grounds of destroyed churches. Obviously, many Christians believe that it desecrates holy ground and resent the idea of Islamic supersession. Obliviously, many Christians deny, do not know, or do not acknowledge the identical Christian practice in spreading Christianity throughout pagan Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Pots and kettles.

The other example is Diane Alba’s Sun-News story (8 Sept) about Rosh Hashanah. In it, she recounts the meaning of Rosh Hashanah to local Orthodox and Reform Jewish congregations. Then she reports its “messianic”—read: Christian”—meaning to a local proselytizing Jews-for-Jesus group. As a Christian journalist, Ms. Alba is either ignorant of or insensitive to Jewish opposition to such proselytizing imposters and thus the inappropriateness of including all together higgledy-piggledy.

The important point is the parallel between architectural and textual substitution. Like Christian churches razing and rebuilding over Aztec temples, or Islamic mosques razing and rebuilding over Christian churches, Jews-for-Jesus delete the Jewish meaning of Rosh Hashanah and substitute their meaning. Ms. Alba does not and probably cannot perceive the parallels and understand the offense given. So, too, most Christians.

Indeed, the use of Holy Scriptures as prooftext for the New Testament is a doctrinal variant of desecration by reinterpretative supersession. The traditional Christian response to the refusal of Jews in Jesus’ time and place to follow him is imputed to the character of the Jewish people as “proud and stiff-necked.” Such labeling is inherently disrespectful. It dismisses the possibility that first-century Jews in the Holy Land believed in the values of their religion, regarded emergent Christianity’s departures from or repudiation of them as unacceptable, and resented its manipulation, even its perversion, of their Holy Scriptures.

I am not making a case for Judaism or against Christianity. I am trying to make the case that those who, one way or another, are, or identify themselves as, members of a religious majority have much work to do to respect others. Some want to respect those of other religions; most say that they do. Then many give themselves away as either hypocritical or ignorant.

Consider the request for the Islamic community center to relocate out of sensitivity to the feelings of family members of victims, members of the armed forces, or the troop of those who sympathize with them. The assumption is that, by honoring this request, Muslims can restore civility and comity to the community and the country. Rubbish. The opposition to this community center in New York is being played out at the sites of other Islamic buildings of all kinds throughout the country. The request is a reflection of Islamophobia—period.

I hope that the Islamic community center is built on the site approved for its construction. For compliance with the prejudices of Islamaphobes will lead, not to social harmony, but to further requests or actions hostile to Muslims. The truth is that prejudice knows no bounds. Thus, efforts to placate prejudice by acts of accommodation to its demands do not satisfy, slow, much less stop prejudice, but inspire it to further demands.

The anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany is a historical example. Jews attempted to abate the abuses of anti-Semitic legislation by compliance, not confrontation. With the tacit consent or active support of the largely anti-Semitic Christian population, Nazis made the laws increasingly severe, and embarked on increasingly inflamed verbal assaults, and engaged in ever more frequent violence, against Jews. No Jewish efforts at acquiesence or accommodation saved Jews from ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps, and extermination camps. The Holocaust is a monument to the failure of appeasement and pacifism as answers to prejudice.

My practice is to offer solutions to problems which I identify and dissect. One solution to prejudice, a variant of the cardinal sin of Pride, is prayer and fasting. Another is action following the example of righteously practicing, not merely ritually observant, Jews at this time of year. For them, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of repentance, during which they seek forgiveness from those whom they have offended or wronged. Perhaps committed Christians should consider, not vicarious atonement, but face-to-face absolution; or, in the absence of individuals affected, resolve to study, examine themselves, and repent any prejudice, however manifested. It would be the Christian thing to do.

Friday, September 3, 2010

WAKE ME UP WHEN THE ELECTION IS OVER

If we look to the philosophical precursors of the Declaration of Independence, we find much emphasis on property. But with Benjamin Franklin’s encouragement, Thomas Jefferson discounted its importance and demoted its status. So the Declaration of Independence resonates with the words expressing the Creator’s endowment to all people: “inalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

All Americans honor the words, but only half really believe them. The radical split in our two-party system, which arose in George Washington’s administration, is between those who give priority to property and those who give priority to people. The split is small-c constitutional; it defines who we are collectively; it divides us into those whom we now call Republicans (also conservatives) and Democrats (also liberals).

We need no help to identify which party prefers property to people and which prefers people to property. Republicans want small government and low taxes. They prefer state rights because state governments are small, also weak, thus even less able than the federal government to resist the corrupting blandishments of fat cats, big corporations, and their campaign contributions. They want low tax rates for the rich, in defiance of the economic facts about the decreasing value of money as its amasses and the dangers of its aggregation. They resist regulations as restraints on the free exercise of property rights and the pursuit of profits. They want little or no corporate regulation regardless of the safety, health, and environmental effects of corporate operations, products, or services on peoples’ lives. For the same reasons, they resist laws favoring equity or equality. Those who are not rich but hope to get rich and thus support the rich are praying to win the lottery of life. Good luck, and best wishes that you do not discover that the rich are laughing at you all the way to and from the bank.

Republicans are campaigning anew and vigorously on distortions, misrepresentations, and blatant lies; and using scare tactics, tried and true, to direct anger and hatred at the scapegoats-du-jour. Their Tea Party associates—say, Sharron Angle, Jan Brewer, Rand Paul—are dissembling their far-out positions and dodging the press. In recent weeks, only two Republicans have acted honorably: Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Hatch, both outspoken in rejecting anti-Muslim hysteria. When a New York Jew and a Utah Mormon take a shared stand virtually alone against bigotry, they shame other party leaders and most followers. I find it hard to vote for the mendacious, the mute, or the mean.

I subscribe to the Preamble of the Constitution. Like the introductions to most legislation, the Preamble gives direction for understanding and implementing the articles and amendments which follow. It reads: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The Preamble is not very Republican; “property” is mentioned nowhere. Nevertheless, I doubt how many or how much Democrats subscribe to the Preamble, although it favors their traditional values.

Currently, Democrats seem incapable of campaigning. Obama has done his usual stand-up-one-minute, stand-back-the-next routine. As they say in his Windy City, all talk, no walk—and no cred. Everywhere they are so demoralized that they are calling their convictions into doubt because they lack the courage to advocate them.

If the Democrats think that their major legislative initiatives—stimulus, bank and Big Three bailouts, health care reform, among others—resulted in laws which did, have done, or will do the country much good, why are they silent on them? Why do they not tout these achievements if they believe in them? Instead, demurring or mumbling about their accomplishments, they give credence to Republican obstruction or rejection under the brand name “party of ‘no’.” Ironically, Democrats going into the campaign are acting like the party of “no” by decrying Republicans and their promises to hold investigations ad nauseam, undo what good has been done, and, in fulfillment of party dogma, repeat the failed policies of their all-Republican, Bush-league government for six years. Sorry, my friends on the left, these counter scare tactics are no rallying cry for hope, transformation, or anything else, including my vote.

Will Rogers joked, “I belong to no organized party, I'm a Democrat.” I belong to no organized party either, am a registered Independent, and do not want a choice between autocratic ignoramuses, ideologues, or incompetents on the right; and know-it-all wafflers and weaklings on the left. So I am more apprehensive about the approaching elections than about any other which I have ever anticipated. The parties differ in their policies but agree on their politics. But politics always wins out, and the people always lose. Prove me wrong, or let me sleep through it.