Monday, November 08, 2004

The War Prayer

One of the themes of the last 25 years in this country on the left has been a disbelieving indignation regarding the extent to which the right votes for candidates it identifies with “moral values” while these candidates have enacted a programmatic and devastating assault on the best and brightest ideals of our country that is nothing if not clearly founded in immorality. If only the more “moderate” or “reasonable” Republicans were finally made to see what it was they were voting for, we say, they would join with us to repudiate their elected officials and drag our country from the brink of insanity. If only, if only, we say, as we quote statistics that rebuke the ridiculous conventional wisdom on the economy doing better under Republicans by proving that Democratic Presidents have overseen all of the best periods for the stock market and the GNP in this country. We note that the only war everyone agrees had a moral center, World War II, was won by Democratic Presidents. This is a seductive idea, particularly given the incontestable evidence that so many of the voices of the right are truly insane, immoral wingnuts who ought not to be allowed to dominate our airwaves with their hate and lies. When admirers of Joe McCarthy like Ann Coulter (and no, that’s not an exaggeration) and insane anti-intellectual nutjobs like Newt Gingrich are felt to be “revolutionaries” against some invisible orthodoxy of the left that can never be defeated but must always be resisted, it’s clear we’ve entered an Orwellian universe. There are plenty of signs to confirm this, like a clean air statute that helps pollute the air, a healthy forests initiative that destroys our forests, and the hypocrisy of a right-wing indignation fest that feels that admiringly mentioning Mary Cheney, a woman who has quite literally based her career on being a lesbian, paid to advocate for much of her life for Coors in the gay and lesbian community in Colorado, is some sort of hate crime.

Despite our belief that the scales will fall from the eyes of those who have been, and continue to be, duped by the Republican Ponzi scheme into voting again and again against their interests, this never seems to happen. Although I am somewhat optimistic that the “moderate Republicans” in the Senate will soon be replaced with, or become, Democrats who better represent the blue areas they inhabit, I don’t think that expecting this miraculous transformation to occur on its own is much of a strategy.

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately that have started to get more attention from those of us on the left trying to decide how to fight these folks before they finish dismantling our country. One of these, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?" by Thomas Frank, deals with the problem of understanding where we’ve been and how we got where we are now. The second book, "Don’t Think of an Elephant" by George Lakoff, deals with understanding how to get from where we are now to where we hope to be in the future. In the interests of picking up the pieces of our country’s devastation and moving forward, I want to use these two books to make some points about concrete strategy and the purpose of this blog. I think I’m being pretty fair in describing what these books are about, but I also encourage you to go read them as soon as possible. Neither is particularly long and they have a lot of useful points to make.

"What’s the Matter with Kansas?" deals with the question of how Frank’s home state, which a century ago was a hotbed of the progressive movement and had a socialist newspaper with circulation in the hundreds of thousands, has gone through such a sea change that it is now dominated by the kind of wingnut fundies who have beaten not only the Democrats, but also the traditional Republicans who now spend much of their time fighting a losing rear-guard action against their fellow party members. Although different areas of the country have their own particular issues and one can’t just take the lessons learned in one area and apply them wholesale to the rest of the country, there is a central core of truth to Frank’s project of using what has gone wrong with Kansas to understand what has gone wrong elsewhere in the country. It is true that Kansas is often felt to be a kind of metaphorically average part of the country, yet currently it is inhabited by a party represented not by conservatives but by radicals. More to the point, Kansas is a state that has been systematically pulverized economically by the Republican policies, yet votes more and more Republican the more damage its representatives do to it.

In Kansas, you’ll find scandals that match up closely to the kind of immorality practiced by Enron. In Kansas, you’ll find environmental and economic devastation on a vast scale coupled with a zeitgeist that blames most of the decline not on its obvious economic causes, but on a decline of a very vague category known as moral values. While this category does encompass much of the bigotry and hatred we believe it does, it also includes more than that, and we would do well to consider this pattern. Kansas, in many ways, is a microcosm of what has happened elsewhere, and so we need to look closely at Frank’s description of the flaws in the Democratic strategy for dealing with this Republican wave. Reading his book, in light of the conventional wisdom about the recent election, is to see a Cassandra spitting into the wind of the coming storm. Fundamentally, Frank says, Democrats have failed because we’ve embraced a model for the Democratic party that builds on its social liberalism and something which is called fiscal responsibility but is often just cover for economically hawkish policies any Republican could endorse. If this sounds like the Democratic Leadership Council, that’s because it is almost exactly their ideal. What’s clear is that this truly is a strategy that continues to lead us to irrelevancy on the national stage, exactly as an analysis like Frank offers suggests it will. We just have to look at the devastating losses suffered since one of the DLC’s big standard bearers, Terry McAuliffe, was put in charge in 2001 to see this firsthand.

Lakoff’s book, which is really a tract based on his longer analysis in "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," is an attempt to strategize about the problems Frank’s book documents. While on the one hand we know it’s true that the country just elected a profoundly immoral administration and President, Lakoff points out that in order to combat this Orwellian rhetoric we have to understand why it works. His book is basically a description of the rhetorical and linguistic underpinnings of the hard-right ideology and an attempt to begin formulating a response. Much of it is somewhat simplistic, but it has to be realized that as we acknowledge that Democratic positions often take too long to articulate because they are reality and fact-based, we are allowing the simplistic sound-bites of the other side to frame the debate.

Framing is really the central issue for Lakoff. He points out the way in which Orwellian Republican terms like tax relief, partial birth abortion, and tort reform put the debates in this country on a “when did you stop beating your wife” footing that Democrats tend to accept far too quickly. It’s hard to argue on the most simple-minded level against something called tax relief. What we need to do, Lakoff argues, is reframe the debate in a systematic way to begin pushing back against this tide of wingnuttery. This isn’t just a matter of marketing, as much of the conventional wisdom in the party has held for years now; it is a matter of articulating a coherent message. As Lakoff says and as literary studies acknowledges, the medium is the message, and if you can’t articulate your ideas clearly you may not have clear ideas to articulate. While Kerry clearly would have been a vastly superior President to Bush merely by virtue of taking the day-to-day business of governing seriously and using the talents of experts instead of condemning their results as un-American, it is not unfair to say that Kerry never fully articulated a truly simple core message that pushed back against this values nonsense and showed these Pharisees for what they are.

And that is what our enemies are: Pharisees. Here I’m going to talk Christianity, and if some of my readers get uncomfortable about that, I’m sorry, but the left simply has to do a better job of clarifying the nature of this fight by linking up with the larger, but somewhat quieter, mainstream Christianity that is to the left of the smaller, but more vocal, rightwing fundamentalist community. Otherwise we will continually be stuck with Republican officials who invoke Jesus but don’t come anywhere near practicing his teachings.

Jesus wasn’t a big fan of bombing the crap out of his enemies. In fact, he really has very little to say about that at all. He wasn’t a big fan of ostracizing any particular social group like gays, lesbians, blacks, Jews, Native Americans, or Muslims. This is a guy who rebuked the Pharisees for their attitude about Mary Madgalene. This is a guy who made it clear that while being rich wasn’t necessarily a bar to getting into heaven, it certainly wasn’t going to make it easier. When he said he brought a sword into people’s lives, he didn’t mean to kill innocent wedding parties and preschoolers in Iraq (to the tune of 100,000 folks so far). He certainly didn’t recommend replacing one brutal dictator with another dictator who turned around and declared martial law with one side of his mouth while talking about democratic elections with the other.

Nope, by this turn of phrase Jesus means he brings transformation. He means that Christianity isn’t a religion that lets you off the hook just because you joined his club. Just because George Bush found Jesus 20 years ago doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to live by his teachings now. Jesus is all about social justice; he is all about the common welfare. Mainstream Christianity doesn’t teach much about the moral values of bigotry, warfare, and economic injustice. It has quite a bit to say about social equality and economic justice, though; even the medieval Christian nobility of England, for example, which was not noted for its social enlightenment, understood and acted on ideals of economic justice by giving tithes and alms to the poor in a way the modern Republican party and their Pharisaical leadership would be horrified by. That’s right – the modern Republican party is in some ways not as enlightened as 13th century English nobles. That’s progress for you.

It’s certainly true that separation of Church and state was one of the key principles of this country, and our founders are definitely not happy as they see what we have wrought. But these wingnuts we’re fighting are also taking over the language of values we’re ceding to them, and that has to stop. Jesus didn’t leave the Pharisees alone; when the Dick Cheneys of his time set up their stalls in the temple, he didn’t ignore it, but overturned their carts and ejected them forcibly. We are the party of moral values, and one way of showing that is to allow the many Democrats who are progressive because of, rather than in spite of, their religion to take the fight to the enemy.

It’s hard work, as Bush would say. Many of the nutty ideas put forward by our enemies are so insane that even a decade ago no one gave them more attention than they deserved. Many of them involve fake crises like the claimed Medicare crisis (according to the least optimistic projections, Medicare is safe until the 2040s unless we do something truly nutty like elect Republicans to gut it). When faced with a weird non-issue like that, it’s hard to argue in anything but a negative way born of the incredulity of looking into the void that is the Republican mind. But we have to do so. We have to find our fire and articulate our vision. We have to reclaim our moral center, but not just by marketing ourselves better and sliding ever rightward as a party to the point of total irrelevance.

A large part of this involves taking the kinds of stands as that of the main character in Mark Twain’s famous story from which I take my title. We have to draw the line and expose the hypocrisy and evils of our enemies where they are. We have to better clarify just what people are voting for, because while we won’t win back every bigot by doing this, we will reach the many Americans who really are decent human beings. We have to hold the feet of our leaders in Congress to the fire so that they constantly recite the truth of what those who vote for Republicans are praying for. While the rest of the world knows what many Americans just prayed for in this election, those selfsame Americans need to have it told to them again and again.

Our task also, more fundamentally, involves a different kind of war prayer. We are at war for the soul of our country, just as the world is at war tonight in many places most of us don’t know. This is a war that can only be won by a concerted effort to speak and witness the common truths involved in all of our diverse faiths, the truths that end in the simple statement that while there is injustice anywhere, there is injustice everywhere. What this means for the Democrats is clear: we must reverse our slide into irrelevance by articulating core progressive values of economic justice over everything else. We can’t console ourselves by the occasional social victory while the economic reality on the ground turns that same ground into a world of dust.

By saying this, I’m not suggesting that we give up on social justice like the struggle for civil rights. Anyone who knows me knows I’m pretty far on the left, and I do think that those struggles have to be fought over and over. But as the right has learned by spouting tax relief, tax relief, tax relief, battles fought on economic ground have far-reaching social consequences. From their point of view, by destroying our tax base, social conservatives enact social injustices as a bonus. Because we have not stood up for places like Kansas as they are ground into nothing, we have allowed our enemies to paint us, with some truth, as a party that is incoherent. Because we don’t hold the line against Walmart, blue collar workers desert us and take refuge in bigotry and vengeance against anyone they can find. By standing for economic justice, we can stand for much social justice. By pointing out that the invisible hand of the market is not the hand of God, we can be what we have been in the past and must be to prevail in this struggle. In doing this, we show people what we are as a party and we cut into the obscene and disgusting profits that are continually reinvested to fund the wingnut takeover.

This blog will try to be several things, but at its core it will try to give us a space to articulate how the progressive movement can retake the Democratic party that is our only powerful actor in Congress and the White House. I hope folks will use this space to think things through, to consider different issues and how we might reframe them to make our moral values clear and simple. I hope we’ll talk in anger, but also in hope, with ideals, but also with clear eyes. It’s great that the State of Illinois is a blue heaven, but there’s a lot of work left to do, and I think it starts in places like this one. To win, we have to examine our beliefs so that our leaders can be forced to follow them.

Finally, I hope we’ll realize that not every prayer in wartime is a perverse exercise. I’ve been rereading Thomas Jefferson in the last few days and have come across a number of quotes I found inspirational. Remember that the party founded by one George who was almost made a king and passed the dreadful Alien and Sedition Acts was the party that called Thomas Jefferson, the true founder of our best ideals and the source of the Democratic party, a traitor. This is what he prayed, these are the ideals he upheld, and in an America that looks more like "The Handmaid’s Tale" every day, these are the ideals in whose service we can war and pray:

"A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."