Yeah, it’s an old black-and-white war movie from the forties. It’s dark – deep in the jungle, somewhere in the Pacific, on some awful island – and the young, clean-cut, wiry farm boy who drew sentry duty is nervous.
He hears something. “Who goes there?” Nothing. “Identify yourself.” He waits for a response.
What will he hear? Does he demand the evening’s password – “Hot shot Ralston on a Rilla Rack?” He’s been told that is helpful. The Japanese language does not have a phoneme equivalent to the English “r” or “l’ – so the bad guys cannot manage that. But he might be one of those gangster fellows – a yakuza back home. They like to show off by learning to pronounce a perfect “r” – like an American. “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy” would work better, but that’s not the night’s password.
Best to shout out the old standard. “Friend or Foe?” And the whisper comes back, “…friend.” Now what? Ah, ask who won the last World Series. Only an American would know, or care. But then, who did? He doesn’t remember. It’s time to panic. Where’s the trick question that will establish identity? Damn.
You know the movie. It’s the movie, whichever one, about tribal identity and the inhuman and vicious “other.” The Japanese did nicely as the cold-blooded other at the time. The platoon of soldiers, the guys in the submarine, the marines in the jungle, whatever, represented what we thought of as our tribe at that time – the farm boy, the dark curly-haired cynic from the Bronx (sometimes Brooklyn), the college-kid dreamer, the avuncular William Bendix (it was always him), the cowboy-type, the mama’s boy, the wheeler-dealer, and sometimes a black man (usually the cook or something), and sometimes, very rarely, the lovable Jewish guy or an Hispanic. It was the melting-pot thing – we were the good guys, putting aside our differences and pulling together to do what was right. And THAT was America. And we won. Fade to the credits.
They don’t make movies like that anymore. They can’t. We don’t think like that any longer. Aside from baseball turning out to be no more than commercialized hype now played by chemically altered mutants, we seem to have turned our back on inclusiveness. We don’t like it much. And the enclaves in our cities – the Chinatown, Thai Town, Little Ethiopia, all the others – are no longer cool places to visit, where you’re welcome. You’re not welcome. At best you’re ignored, or pitied. Back in Pittsburgh in the early sixties white high school kids could go up to Crawford’s Grill in the Hill District for the jazz – Horace Silver played there a lot – but now that’s a bad idea.
Everyone has separated. Those who can afford it now live in gated communities, and Horace Silver is retired and lives behind his gates out here in the San Fernando Valley. America has long been too large to really be a “community” in any sense of the word, but the quaint idea that we are an inclusive nation, a nation of immigrants, is now as quaint as the particulars of the Geneva Conventions. Some of the old-world divides are part of that – here in Los Angeles the Croats live in San Pedro and the Serbs out in Alhambra, and there’s no California Tito to force them to get along. They don’t. But in the “new world” out here, as across America, we get ethnic and racial self-selected city-states. No one has much use for anyone else, and most everyone else has become “the other.” As for putting aside our differences and pulling together to do what was right – that seems unlikely. Obama may try to pull that off – but he should remember what happened to Doctor King and Bobby Kennedy. To put it as blandly as possible, there has been some considerable resistance to such a thing.
And it’s all confusing – the Japanese are the good guys now, and make our cars. So we grab what identity we can. Being “American” is too vague, too amorphous – and that word, amorphous, without body, is right. “American” is an idea. There’s nothing to latch onto, nothing to see in the mind’s eye. Best to look around – what do “your people” look like? How do they sound when they talk? All that business in the forties was an exception, at an exceptional time. We’ve settled in the comfortable local, the smaller and more understandable tribe.
But the new tribes are not just ethnic or racial – now they’re religious. We complain about such things messing up what we want in Iraq. That’s rich.
But for a few years now the evangelicals, with the help of Bill O’Reilly at Fox news, have declared they are the oppressed minority, even if, objectively, they are neither. They feel that way. That’s good enough.
For those of you who can’t watch clips online, the ad is very straightforward: Huckabee speaking to the camera, Christmas tree in the backdrop, “Silent Night” playing subtly in the background, says, “Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you’ve been seeing? Mostly about politics. I don’t blame you. At this time of year sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and Merry Christmas. I’m Mike Huckabee and I approve this message.”
I’ve done some cursory digging, and asked a few knowledgeable friends, and there’s no record of any major-party presidential candidate every mentioning Christ in a TV ad. That includes TV preacher Pat Robertson, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1988 (and came in second in the Iowa caucuses).
Purely at face value, what’s the harm in a presidential candidate wishing voters a merry Christmas? Nothing. Is there something wrong with an evangelical Christian, who worked as a Baptist preacher, remembering the “reason for the season”? Nope.
But it is worrisome –
First, Huckabee is playing a little game. He’s running this ad in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, lamenting ads “about politics,” while hitting a political note – targeting evangelical voters and the Fox News crowd with heavy-handed religious rhetoric. As Michael D. put it, “They’ll see Huckabee as the person who’s not afraid, like so many candidates are, to come out and say ‘Happy Birthday, Jebus.'”
Second, it’s hardly a stretch to think Huckabee is being intentionally provocative. By becoming the first candidate to reference “Christ” in a TV ad, Huckabee is hoping a) that the media finds the spot newsworthy and gives his ad lots of free airplay; and b) that religious minorities, secularists, and advocates of church-state separation raise a fuss, which would only make him more popular with the GOP’s religious right base.
Third, the ad is rather crass. Not to get too Book of Matthew on Huckabee, but Christ’s name, for the devout, isn’t supposed to be used as a campaign talking point. As I understand it, the faithful don’t perceive the birth of the Big Guy as being about scoring points a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
And finally, the whole thing seems to be terribly gratuitous. Does Huckabee really need to go there? Are there still evangelical voters in the early primary/caucus states who don’t know about Huckabee’s religious background? He’s presented himself as a “Christian leader,” he’s explained his belief that he’s God’s anointed candidate, and he’s taken his obligatory shots at Mitt Romney’s faith. Now, he’s talking about Christ in a TV ad.
Something is going on here. The cross floating around in the background should tell you that, and combine it with House Resolution 847: Recognizing the Importance of Christmas and the Christian Faith – that passed in the US Congress 372-9.
It may be no big deal. All sorts of crap like this is passed all time – recognizing the probity of dairy farmers or the historical wonder that is creosote (not really, but close). Why should this raise any alarm?
Well, if your work through the seemingly endless “whereas” clauses – the tradition handed down since Blackstone that all such things should be writing in one long sentence can be a bother – you get to this –
Resolved, That the House of Representatives—
(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;
(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;
(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;
(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;
(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and
(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.
If you’re Jewish, you may feel a tad nervous. If you’re Muslim, you’re used to this now. If you’re one of those who has no use for religion – there are some of us left – you just sigh.
The widely-read Digby raises a warning flag –
When you have a huge bipartisan majority feeling it’s politically appropriate (necessary?) to put something like number four above into the congressional record, why would evoking the name of Christ in political commercials be anything but appropriate also?
Get used to it folks. And it won’t be just the Republicans. The Democrats are preaching like crazy out on the stump too. It’s the new reality.
But don’t fight it –
This will never end by secularists (whether religious or not) objecting, so there’s no point in even trying. This blatant use of religious symbolism and rhetoric will only stop when the sectarian wars make it necessary. We’ve had a little taste of what can happen when the religious wars break out with the (so far) mild skirmishes between Huckabee and Romney. It won’t be the last of it. While Christianity certainly played an historical role in the development of western civilization, its role in sectarian religious wars is also undisputed.
Forget Martin Luther nailing his theses to that cathedral door. What may be starting here is our own westernized version of Iraq. Over there they have the Sunni and Shi’a at each other’s throats, and murder in the streets. We’re more civilized so far – the born-again evangelicals lining up against that Mormon cult with its heretical ideas. They combine forces to fight the evil secularists. (The Jews are okay so far – just undeveloped Christians who haven’t yet seen the light, but full of potential.) O’Reilly urges us all to help win the “War against Christmas” – even if he only imagines there is such a thing. What war? And that Fox News guy turned White House Press Secretary turned Fox News guy, Tony Snow, has just jumped in –
Tony Snow, former press Secretary to President Bush and Fox news anchor, spoke to the Academy of Leadership & Liberty at Oklahoma Christian University last week.
The winsome and articulate Snow charmed his audience with wit: “The average Iranian is more Pro-American than virtually any college faculty in this country.” And with serious talk about the war on terror and “the second war in this country, the war on God.”
Hey guys – indifference is not war. They’re quite different things. A shrug is not an attack.
I’m afraid we are going to have to see that played out in ugly fashion before this explicit religious proselytizing masquerading as politics will fade back to the more generally soothing bromides like “may God bless the United States of America” with which nobody except the most vociferous absolutists have a problem.
In the meantime, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that if these candidates are all going to run as the second coming that they be able to heal the sick with a universal health care plan and turn the deficit into a surplus.
There will be no loaves and fishes thing, of course, nor any healing of the sick. You can’t expect that much.
On the other hand, maybe will we all can come together, even if William Bendix is long gone. We found a useful “other” outside the tribe. Digby points to the clear evidence. That would be the new Democracy Corps poll (PDF format) that shows we do not need the Japanese or the Muslims. It shows that “a majority of Americans, not just Republicans, quite intensely loathe all immigrants now and want to deport all the illegals because they are stealing all of our hard earned health care and other services.”
The conclusion is that “Democrats must be encouraged to run as hard as they feel they need to against the illegal hordes, pushing ‘enforcement only’ rhetoric and generally pimping racist, xenophobic attitudes with everything we’ve got or they will lose the election.”
In short, Democrats must let everyone know that they “get it.” And the advice is only vaguely subtle –
They make a few feints toward some sort of flaccid “path to citizenship” and maybe these “people” should be allowed some brief emergency treatment in a hospital if they’re bleeding all over the sidewalk, but they don’t advise Dems to make too much of it because so many people believe that the Mexican invasion is at the heart of all their problems and it will just confuse them. (But lest you think they aren’t going to hit Republicans too they very explicitly say that the Democrats should excoriate Bush for letting all those awful Mexicans in here in the first place, so that’s good.)
And you know where this is going –
Get ready, my friends. This is going to be an ugly, despicable racist campaign the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many moons. It shouldn’t surprise us. The Republicans are cornered and don’t have anything to fall back on except tickling the bigot id, so they’ve successfully used their wingnut tom-toms to pump this issue into full fledged paranoid, nativist hysteria.
The Democrats are advised by people whose imaginations stalled back in 1980 when they woke up one morning and discovered that a lot of angry white guys wouldn’t vote for a party that allowed black people in it. The highly successful Democratic politics they’ve run over the past 25 years have been devoted to getting them back. (And it’s worked out very well, you must admit. Why fix what ain’t broke, eh?)
And, of course, the political candidates themselves have signed on to the “don’t make trouble” strategy so they’ll be happy to ape even the most heinous GOP talking points if it will keep them from having to take even the slightest risk. (That’s what the Democratic consultants term “winning a mandate.”)
Of course it is a bit mad –
The fact that all these enforcement-only measures (which our politicians are advised to flog with the zeal of converts) will alienate and suppress the Latino vote in certain contests that are likely to be close is apparently not even a practical consideration. Neither is the idea that we might try to educate people to the truth that immigrants, legal and otherwise, actually contribute far more than they take out of our system. Far be it for leaders to try to educate and set the record straight. Certainly they should never be expected to set an example or stand by their principles or even be decent human beings when they can just ride the demagogic themes being pimped by right wing talk radio gasbags – and win!
Seriously, imagine what this thing is going to sound like after six months of the two parties trying to one-up each other on who’s “tougher” on immigration. I’m literally getting queasy about this.
Yeah, but if you’re Jewish you are a bit relieved.
But what do we tell the nervous young sentry on the border? Those sneaky and vicious sub-humans can pronounce both “l” and “r” – and they play baseball down there.
It’s hard being a true American. Defending the meta-tribe has all sorts of odd twists to it.