Cracks in the Armor

Americans don’t get around much. Sure, Johnny Cash sang I’ve Been Everywhere, Man – not a bad patter song, if you can imagine Gilbert and Sullivan going Country – but in that song everywhere was, save for two Canadian cities, here at home in the United States. He doesn’t mention Rio at Carnival, or April in Paris, or any Marrakesh Express stuff, or even a Foggy Day in London Town. Everywhere is quite parochial. That was cool enough. And that list of American places was enough.

And yes, George Bush had hardly traveled anywhere in his life before he became president – no need, and certainly no desire. He was secure enough with himself and his values to be able to avoid being distracted then weakened by curiosity. And there was Sarah Palin’s second CBS Evening News interview with Katie Couric – Palin was asked why she didn’t get a passport until 2006. Did it show a lack of curiosity and interest about the world and other cultures? Palin said no – she had been busy:

I’m not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduated college and their parents get them a passport and a backpack and say, “Go off and travel the world.” No, I worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life, until I had kids. … I was not part of, I guess, that culture.

That’s sort of Johnny Cash answer – she’d seen it all, in her own parochial way. Was there more to see? Sure, but that was for those rich, snotty kids and their condescending parents. Real people, the salt of the earth, have to work and have no time for such nonsense. And yes, she framed it as class warfare – the culture of idle and useless curiosity versus the culture of Real Americans, folks who have to work for a living and know as much as they need to know. And those are the real things one needs to know. Why would any good parent want their kid backpacking through Europe? They’d come back as condescending jerks too – thinking they’re better than anyone else, because they have experienced other cultures and can say a few things in a foreign language no one understands. They’d be insufferable.

Some say Palin blew it with those two Katie Couric interviews, but that answer was pitch-perfect. She was speaking to her natural constituency – the resentful who don’t get out much. They got it, and we’ve always got it – near the end World War I there was that song that swept the nation – How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree) – “Imagine Reuben when he meets his Pa / He’ll kiss his cheek and holler OO-LA-LA!” It’s those damned French, you see.

All this is obvious stuff, but we pay a price for the idea that it’s not our job to understand other peoples and their cultures, as it is obviously their job to understand us. Of course some of that is just geography – Europe has all those countries with different cultures and different languages all bumping up against each other, so people there are forced to account for each other and be at least a bit multilingual and quite a bit accepting of other customs, and other foods too. They don’t have much choice. But we do. We can choose to be tolerant and understanding, or to tell someone we don’t understand at all to be more like us or at least have the decency to fade into the woodwork and not make a fuss. And we often choose the latter.

And we fall into that habit of mind, on social and political issues, particularly when times are tough. We’d rather not understand the difficulties gays face in working out how to get along in this culture. We want them to understand our moral outrage and how icky we feel that matter is. We’d rather not understand the agony a woman goes through when abortion seems the best option. Again, we’d rather they understand our moral outrage and how icky we feel the matter is too. And as for illegal immigrants, we’d rather not understand what drove them to come here, with all the humiliation and danger, to take crappy jobs, and then cut them some slack. They need to know how we feel, and get out. And so it goes, on and on, with no one cutting anyone any slack. No one gets a free ride, for any reason.

And it does get strange. In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank offered a curious column on the larger significance of a billboard in Mason City, Iowa, if there is a larger significance. As you might know, this is the billboard “depicting three leaders: Adolf Hitler (with swastika), Vladimir Lenin (with hammer and sickle) and Barack Obama (with 2008 campaign logo). Over Hitler were the words ‘National Socialism,’ over Lenin was ‘Marxist Socialism’ and over Obama was ‘Democrat Socialism.'”

The billboard was sponsored by local Tea Party activists, but they backed down – they meant what they said but the media coverage made them look bad. They took it down. But Milbank says that billboard was inevitable, as it was “a logical expression of a message supported by conservative thought leaders and propagated by high-level Republican politicians.”

No one wants to understand what the Obama folks are up to. We only need to be reminded of how angry and frightened they are, by Obama. And Milbank comments on a recent column from Thomas Sowell, the one that equated the Obama presidency with the rise of Hitler, the column Palin told everyone to read:

These sentiments have long existed on the fringe and always will. The problem is that conservative leaders and Republican politicians, in their blind rage against Obama these last 18 months, invited the epithets of the fringe into the mainstream. …

Consider these tallies from Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News since Obama’s inauguration: 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels. Most of these were directed in some form at Obama – as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck’s nightly “report.”…

Isn’t there a grown-up to rein in these backbenchers when they go over the top? Don’t ask House Minority Leader John Boehner, the man who would replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker. He accuses the Democrats of “snuffing out the America that I grew up in” and predicts a rebellion unlike anything “since 1776.” Boehner also said one Democratic lawmaker “may be a dead man” for his vote on health care and predicted that the bill would bring “Armageddon.”

And thus, now “accusations that once were beyond the pale – not just talk of Nazis and Marxists but intimations of tyranny, revolution and bloodshed – are now routine.”

Steven Benen adds this:

It’s tempting to think there will eventually be a Joseph Welch moment, but no one in the party seems willing to step up and acknowledge that Republicans shouldn’t follow the orders of unhinged zealots. On the contrary, they’re afraid to disappoint the radical base, which may in turn undermine the GOP’s “enthusiasm gap” edge.

And so the Republican Party shows no meaningful qualms about becoming the party of conspiracy theories (“Birthers,” Gulf oil spill was deliberate), wild-eyed accusations (ACORN, “re-education camps,” Gestapo-like security forces, New Black Panther Party), and radical policy positions (a five-year spending freeze to address a global economic crisis, the belief that tax cuts pay for themselves, a freeze on federal regulations, willful ignorance about energy, health, and education policy, the entire Sharron Angle/Rand Paul platform).

Rage and paranoia are not an attractive combination, but they’re driving the GOP talking points and the larger political discourse. So, when a member of the Republican leadership talked about the GOP emulating the Taliban, no one in the party deemed this controversial. When Republicans regularly compare U.S. leaders to Germany in the 1930s, the party mainstream barely bats an eye. When GOP policymakers openly discuss the prospect of state nullification of federal laws, no one in the Republican ranks steps up to say, “Good Lord, these people are mad.”

Best of all, Republican “leaders” are content to keep it this way. Indeed, it seems to be the centerpiece of the midterm election strategy.

In short, it is not a matter of wanting to engage on the issue of what is being proposed, and what is troublesome about it, and why. It’s about saying I don’t like this, and you need to understand that I really, really, really don’t like this. It’s the same mindset. I don’t have to understand you. You have to understand me.

But, now and then, there are are cracks the armor. The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein offers this:

At a time when the prospects for immigration overhaul seem most dim, supporters have unleashed a secret weapon: a group of influential evangelical Christian leaders.

Normally on the opposite side of political issues backed by the Obama White House, these leaders are aligning with the president to support an overhaul that would include some path to legalization for illegal immigrants already here. They are preaching from pulpits, conducting conference calls with pastors and testifying in Washington – as they did last Wednesday.

“I am a Christian and I am a conservative and I am a Republican, in that order,” said Matthew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a conservative religious law firm. “There is very little I agree with regarding President Barack Obama. On the other hand, I’m not going to let politicized rhetoric, or party affiliation, trump my values, and if he’s right on this issue, I will support him on this issue.”

When President Obama gave a major address pushing immigration overhaul this month, he was introduced by a prominent evangelical, the Rev. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Three other evangelical pastors were in the audience, front and center.

Something odd is going on here, having to do with the work of politically active Hispanic evangelical pastors ganging up with non-Hispanic ones in recent years while working in coalitions to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. It’s just that the Hispanics decided it was time to convince their brethren that immigration reform should be a moral and practical priority. It’s a matter of understanding how this effects actual people, not cartoons. That makes it a moral issue, and one where it’s time to understand them, not us.

It’s just that this is a hard sell:

“Hispanics are religious, family-oriented, pro-life, entrepreneurial,” said the Rev. Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm. “They are hard-wired social conservatives, unless they’re driven away.

“I’ve had some older conservative leaders say: ‘Richard, stop this. You’re going to split the conservative coalition,'” Dr. Land continued. “I say it might split the old conservative coalition, but it won’t split the new one. And if the new one is going to be a governing coalition, it’s going to have to have a lot of Hispanics in it. And you don’t get a lot of Hispanics in your coalition by engaging in anti-Hispanic anti-immigration rhetoric.”

Good luck with that. Congress is not going to pass an immigration law this year. Republicans and Democrats who face re-election in November are scared silly about the issue, given the polls showing public support for Arizona’s new law aiming to crack down on illegal immigration, by any means necessary, is sky-high. But this roils on:

Although other religious leaders have long favored immigration overhaul – including Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews and Muslims – the evangelicals are crucial because they have the relationships and the pull with Republicans.

“My message to Republican leaders,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of the leaders who engaged his non-Hispanic peers, “is if you’re anti-immigration reform, you’re anti-Latino, and if you’re anti-Latino, you are anti-Christian church in America, and you are anti-evangelical.”

But it’s not that easy:

Each side draws on Scripture for support. Those who oppose comprehensive immigration overhaul cite Romans 13, which says to submit to the government’s laws. Supporters cite Leviticus 19: treat the stranger as you would yourself.

Both sides agree our borders needs to be strengthened, so this is biblical, but there is the issue of what to do with the twelve million or more illegal immigrants in the country now:

Advocates of a comprehensive new immigration law want to establish a path to citizenship that would allow illegal immigrants to register with the government, pay a fine, undergo a background check, prove they can speak English and only then get in line to apply for permanent legal residency. Those not interested in permanent residency could become legal temporary workers.

Opponents call this approach amnesty. “I think there’s a need to reform the system, but I don’t support amnesty,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm that plans to file an amicus brief in support of Arizona’s immigration law.

Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, a national conservative Christian organization in Tupelo, Miss., said, “What my evangelical friends are arguing is that illegal aliens should essentially be rewarded for breaking the law.

“I think it’s extremely problematic from a Judeo-Christian standpoint to grant citizenship to people whose first act on American soil was to break an American law,” said Mr. Fischer, who hosts a daily radio show on which immigration is a frequent topic.

And so it goes – the National Association of Evangelicals passing a resolution calling for comprehensive immigration overhaul, and making that one of the top three policy priorities, along with reducing abortions and studying the impact of climate change on the poor. Who knows what the Fox News folks will make of that list, especially when one of these folks is saying this – “We’re going to break up families, and I don’t see how you could claim to be pro-family and condone the separation of families.” Maybe it is time to consider them, not us all the time. It’s a thought, and a crack in the armor.

And all sorts of other cracks are opening, as you can see in this odd theater item in the New York Times:

From fourth grade to high school, at school board meetings and in state assemblies, temperatures are rising over censorship, control, religion and education. The battle over who teaches what – and how – has become one of the fiercest arenas of the culture wars. Perhaps a big, gay dance party is what it will take to help the intractable sides find common ground.

In “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party,” the playwright, Aaron Loeb, sparks a firestorm amid the cornfields of Menard County, Ill. The uproar happens after an elementary school teacher inserts a plea for gay rights into the mouths of 9-year-olds in the Christmas pageant.

Of course the teacher is arrested and goes on trial – that’s the play – but here’s the context:

Pundits from Larry Kramer to Larry Flynt have speculated that the 16th American president may have been gay or bisexual, a view fueled by Lincoln’s close male friendships, particularly with the storeowner Joshua Speed.

Mr. Loeb finds goofy comedy in the premise – all of the seven cast members at some point don beard, topcoat and stovepipe hat to play Honest Abe, and the play’s title could be a “South Park” episode – but his interest in the uses of history is dead serious. “If you recontextualize Abraham Lincoln as queer,” he explained in a phone interview, “suddenly our whole idea of what it is to be an American for some people becomes challenged.”

And just how are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen this play?

With a nod to “Inherit the Wind,” those main characters are the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and the cynical reporter, in town from the big city to cover “the trial of the century.”

The prosecutor, a former Republican congressman and champion gay basher, “Honest” Tom Hauser is looking to restart his career with a run for governor, but his paranoia about the “Radical Homosexual Agenda” gets in the way. The defense lawyer, Tom’s protégée, Regina Lincoln, is a moderate Republican running against him, angling to be the state’s first African-American female governor. Anton Renault is a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times with an ax to grind over the friends he lost to AIDS, and an itch for Tom’s closeted son.

It’s all a matter of understanding other people, not demanding they understand you. And it’s just a play:

Mr. Loeb acknowledges that conclusive proof of Lincoln’s alleged “streak of lavender,” to quote a 1926 biography, may never be found. But the compelling evidence to suggest gay or bisexual tendencies makes for a stimulating trigger point, he said.

Just don’t look for it in a history textbook in Texas any time soon.

Well, look for it one day, as things change. See Frank Rich on Mel Gibson:

The clandestine recordings of his serial audio assaults on his gal pal were instant Web and cable-TV sensations – at once a worthy rival to Hollywood’s official holiday releases and a compelling sequel to his fabled anti-Semitic rant of 2006. A true showman, Gibson offered vitriol for nearly all tastes, aiming his profane fusillade at women, blacks and Latinos alike. The invective was tied together by a domestic violence subplot worthy of “Lethal Weapon.”

It really is nasty stuff, and no one’s business, except for the back story:

Six years ago he was not merely an A-list movie star with a penchant for drinking and boorish behavior but also a powerful and canonized figure in the political and cultural pantheon of American conservatism. That he has reached rock bottom tells us nothing new about Gibson. He was the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard then that he is today. But his fall says a lot about the changes in our country over the past six years. We shouldn’t take those changes for granted. We should take stock – and celebrate. They are good news.

Does anyone remember 2004? It seems a civilization ago. That less-than-vintage year was in retrospect the nadir of the American war over “values.” The kickoff fracas was Janet Jackson’s breast-baring “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, which prompted a new crackdown against televised “indecency” by the Federal Communications Commission. By December Fox News and its allies were fomenting hysteria about a supposed war on Christmas, with Newt Gingrich warning of a nefarious secular plot “to abolish the word Christmas” altogether and Jerry Falwell attacking Mayor Michael Bloomberg for using the euphemism “holiday tree” at the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center. In between these discrete culture wars came a presidential election in which the Bush-Rove machine tried to whip up evangelical turnout by sowing panic over gay marriage.

It was into that tinderbox of America 2004 that Gibson tossed his self-financed and self-directed movie about the crucifixion, “The Passion of the Christ.” The epic was timed to detonate in the nation’s multiplexes on Ash Wednesday, after one of the longest and most divisive promotional campaigns in Hollywood history.

Gibson is in such disgrace today that it’s hard to fathom all the fuss he and his biblical epic engendered back then.

So narrow provincialism bit the dust here. It’s not our job to understand others, as it is obviously their job to understand us. Mel shows us all how that’s done. It’s not pretty at all. And we finally get it:

The cultural wave that crested with “The Passion” was far bigger than Gibson. He was simply a symptom and beneficiary of a moment when the old religious right and its political and media shills were riding high. In 2010, the American ayatollahs’ ranks have been depleted by death (Falwell), retirement (James Dobson) and rent boys (too many to name). What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades, from the potentially lethal antihomosexuality laws in Uganda to the rehabilitation campaign for the “born-again” serial killer David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) in America.

Conservative America’s new signature movement, the Tea Party, has its own extremes, but it shuns culture-war battles. It even remained mum when a federal judge in Massachusetts struck down the anti-same-sex marriage Defense of Marriage Act this month. As the conservative commentator Kyle Smith recently wrote in The New York Post, the “demise of Reagan-era groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority is just as important” as the rise of the Tea Party. “The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade,” he concluded, and not unhappily. The right, too, is subject to generational turnover.

How are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Mel? Rich says this – “The death throes of Mel Gibson’s career feel less like another Hollywood scandal than the last gasps of an American era.”

Yep, so now get your kid a passport and a backpack and send him off to see the world. No one is distracted and then weakened by curiosity. You just become more human, and humane.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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