Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Legislating God's Word: A Brief Look at Focus on the Family and their Quest to Build a Christian America

As I write this article, I am sitting five minutes from the Focus on the Family headquarters. I find myself so close to the belly of the American Evangelical Christian beast, by virtue of a brief portion of my self-imposed "sabbatical" in Colorado Springs-- and I must say that the location for Jim Dobson's Christian empire is fitting. In this state, Colorado Springs plays the part of the state's conservative bastion, a doppelganger to the liberal-minded university town of Boulder, just an hour and a half north. For all the commotion Focus on the Family causes on the national scene, their complex is really rather quaint and unassuming. I've strolled through their gift store, and browsed their collection of coffee mugs and doormats adorned with Bible quotes. Much like it's name, the institution appears rather benign at first glance. One would assume that it's a simple church organization and that it would be best to just leave them to focus on their families in whatever religious context they see fit. And this would be a reasonable stance, if this did in fact constitute the full scope of their activities. But Focus on the Family does not act as most traditional religious organizations do, minding their own flock and tending to internal affairs. On the contrary, they are a religiously motivated political action entity. And they are very, very busy.

With the exception of the US Air Force Academy, Focus on the Family may be the only institution that regularly garners national headlines, in the otherwise unremarkable Colorado Springs. Focus on the Family is the creation of the Dr. James Dobson, who I wrote about here when he interviewed Sarah Palin during the election race. Palin, who supported the Iraq War as a "task from God", was heavily endorsed by Dobson's organization.

Dobson uses the resources of Focus to "inform, inspire and rally those who care deeply about the family to greater involvement in the moral, cultural and political issues that threaten our nation". Upon reading this statement of purpose, I was immediately struck by two things. The first was the tinge of victimization. From the outset, the Focus on the Family Christian is being told that their values are threatened. This is a familiar tactic for anyone who tries to rally a group of people to a cause. Conflict journalist Chris Hedges was speaking of war when he noted this phenomenon, but the comparison is apt.
"The goal of such... rhetoric is to invoke pity for one's own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group... The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict"

I was witness to this culture of victimhood when I saw Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, speak at Air University. As his speech progressed, and he explained that under the Constitution, Christianity could enjoy no preference in the military, one officer after another broke into hysterics. While they voiced their discontent in varying ways, the central message was remarkably consistent: "you are attacking Christians". For this portion of the audience, Weinstein may have been reasoning with a tire iron as he tried to explain that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation represents more military Christians more than any other group.

I could expand on the irony of a group that constitutes 76% of the American population feeling victimized, but I will return to this later.

The other quality that struck me about this rallying cry is the remarkable sterility. Despite all that is known about Focus on the Family, the words "God" or "Jesus" are never mentioned, but passing reference is made to "moral issues". However, it only takes a little digging into Focus' political positions to see what ideological tenets are behind their curiously vague mission statement. On a range of issues from gay rights, to stem cell research, to gambling, Focus on the Family rallies their supporters to legislate what they perceive as "Christian values".

Recently, through the National Day of Prayer Task Force (headed by Dobson's wife), Focus on the Family endorsed an appearance by evangelist Franklin Graham at the Pentagon. The appearance was promptly cancelled by the Pentagon when Mikey Weinstein came out swinging, noting that Muslim military personnel complained that Graham had made a practice of vilifying Islam as "evil" and "wicked". The Pentagon's cancellation of this righteous hate-monger elicited impressive, if not frightful tantrums from Christian extremists.

It seems rather clear that Focus on the Family could simply avoid controversy by putting their weight behind humble and inclusive practitioners of Jesus' message. Instead they are always postured forward, endorsing divisive figures who demonize other faiths, or politicians intent on taking the nation to war. Such persistent habits lead one to wonder if American critic H.L. Mencken wasn't on to something in his caustic assessment, "Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Chistianity of Christ was founded upon love."

As part of its agenda to legislate Evangelical Christianity in the U.S., Focus on the Family has a been very heavily involved in the fight against gay rights-- or as they put it "act[ing] to defend marriage from attempts to redefine it as other than one-man and one-woman, or to abolish it as an institution". In support of their position they assert "The existence of two distinct genders reveals God's design for sexuality, relationships and family." It goes without saying then, that Focus has taken it upon themselves to determine what God's design should be for all American families, not just theirs. The theocratic implications of such views are frightening-- but Dobson's organization has a long history of pushing its views onto others.

According to Military Religious Freedom Foundation Senior Research Director, Chris Rodda (who recently appeared on Keith Olbermann), the foundation has received complaints from soldiers in the field concerning Focus on the Family's relatively recent endeavor, The Truth Project. The Truth Project is a program targeted specifically towards Christians. The problem that The Truth Project seeks to rectify is that "only 9 percent of professing Christians have a biblical worldview", and that "today's believers live very similarly to non-believers". The 12 lesson course is designed to bring Christians who have 'gone astray' back to Focus' more fundamentalist worldview. Prospective students of The Truth Project can look forward to a comprehensive biblical indoctrination program that includes lessons on the following:

- Flaws in the theory of evolution, and the "godless philosophy" of Darwinism
- God's established social order, as "family, church, community, state, labor, and the union between God and man"
- The government's "place under the sovereignty of God"
- The American experiment as "an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries."

[Click here to see the full lesson overview]
According to soldiers in Afghanistan, posters and pamphlets for The Truth Project have shown up in dining halls and other common areas, constituting an unwelcome evangelism in their daily lives. This is an unfortunate, but persistent trend in today's armed forces-- MRFF's most common complaints come from Christian soldiers who have been targeted for evangelizing because they are "not Christian enough". It's still unclear whether Focus on the Family was deliberately using the Chaplain Corps to expose soldiers to these advertisements, but it would certainly fall in line with their standard practice of entangling themselves within military organizations-- it was only a few years ago when it was discovered that Focus on the Family members (civilians) had been given permission to come on the Air Force Academy base to use the firing range (this unambiguous violation of regulations ceased immediately when Weinstein's MRFF raised the issue). It was during a routine conversation with a friend that I would discover that Focus on the Family's penchant for infiltration may go much further.

My friend Erika has been politically active in Colorado Springs for more than five years. During a casual exchange Erika told me about her experiences advocating for Referendum I, a proposed measure in 2006 that would have given Colorado domestic partnerships many of the same legal benefits as married couples. This meager offering of 'almost equality' to Colorado's gay community was opposed, predictably, by Focus on the Family, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the measure defeated by 53% at the ballot box.

Erika explained, "I was working with an activist group, and our intention was to raise awareness for Referendum I, and try to convince people that they should vote for it. Since this is a conservative area, we had agreed to be very careful in clarifying to people that this referendum would not legalize gay marriage, only that it would extend some of the legal benefits of marriage to couples in domestic partnerships"

Having been aware of Focus on the Family's political orientation for some time now, I asked Erika if they had been involved in the fight over Referendum I.
"Oh yeah, they really screwed us up. They had several people infiltrate our organization, and when it came time to walk around the streets with our clipboards, talking to people, they just told everyone they talked to vote against the referendum."

I was so stunned it took me several moments to process what she had just told me. Even for Focus on the Family, I thought, such subterfuge seemed too low.

"Yeah," she continued, "they pretended to be pro-gay rights, earned our trust, and then at the critical moment, when it came time to talk to people on the street, they pulled a 180. They told everyone they talked to that Referendum I would legalize gay marriage in Colorado, and that they should vote against it. It really undermined our work."

"How are you sure these people were with Focus on the Family?" I asked.

"Well we didn't understand it at first," she explained, "we just thought we had a few troublemakers, but the problem kept coming up again and again. Later on, the lead activists relayed to us that all these 'problem people' had actually been members of Focus on the Family. There was an article about the infiltration in my college's newspaper."

She added, "But I think it's important to say that this undermined our efforts. It really screwed our group up, and we don't know how widespread this tactic was, but the referendum only failed by a slim margin."

The activists in Erika's group were never able to determine if the usurpers were acting in any official capacity with Focus on the Family, or if they had organized independently. Opinions differed, with some believing that Focus on the Family had explicitly assigned them to disrupt gay rights groups from within, while others believed the organization's leadership simply looked the other way while their followers acted on their own.

Such deceptive political action targeted at activists seems to be more standard fare for an intelligence agency than a Christian coalition. Lying to a group of peaceful activists to infiltrate their network, and disrupt their good-faith efforts, strikes me as incredibly dishonorable, if not downright un-Christian. I'm no biblical scholar, but I don't think Jesus would have thought too highly of a person who takes advantage of another's trust, with lies and deceptions, all for the grand purpose of denying a vulnerable group of people the right to live as they please. I couldn't let this charge go unanswered, so I contacted Focus on the Family to get their side of the story.

A representative for Focus on the Family issued an immediate and outright denial, calling the charges “bogus” and “confused”, claiming that he “at no time engaged in or assigned staff to engage in [the group’s undermining].” Focus on the Family asserts that whoever the Christian infiltrators were, "they were not associated with Focus on the Family, nor staff of our organization".

For the record, Referendum I was on the ballot the same year as Amendment 43, the amendment to Colorado's constitution that explicitly defined marriage as between a man and a woman. This amendment, backed intensely by Focus on the Family, passed in the state by 56%. Given the prospect of such a ban on gay marriage in 2006, Referendum I seemed to have been a way for the gay community to hedge its bets. At least if gay marriage was banned, the logic went, they could secure some of the benefits of marriage to gay domestic partnerships. Even this watered down proposal was apparently too tolerant for the Christian right, who insist that gay Coloradans (and gay Americans in general) be made to feel like second-class citizens. The irony of a group of people who call themselves "conservative", advocating for government intrusion into the lives of its citizens, is simply overwhelming.

At present, the reality for the gay community in Colorado and many other states, is one of inequality. Under state law they do not enjoy the same privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. Thanks to the strident effort, massive financial backing, and deceptive tactics of Focus on the Family, gay Coloradans will have to make due with being second-class citizens.

Focus on the Family's adherants are indoctrinated with one story after another of attacks on Christianity in modern America. This "cultivation of victimhood" puts them on the defensive, and serves to rally them for a fight they believe to be cosmic in scale. In this hypersensitive state, they perceive harmless acts, like homosexuality, to be attacks on them, and their faith. They react by working tirelessly to manipulate the machinery of the state for the purpose of subjecting all Americans to their Christian worldview. One wonders if any of them will ever be able to see who is doing the attacking, and who the victims truly are.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An Open Letter to Fareed Zakaria

[This open letter to Mr. Fareed Zakaria is in reference to an interview he did with a radical Muslim on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS". The videos of that interview are included at the bottom of the post]

Mr. Zakaria,
I would like to thank you for your interview with Anjem Choudary. It was an enlightening exchange, and a valuable window into the psyche of an Islamic extremist. Your show has a record of illuminating complex issues, and is, in my humble opinion, an absolute service to American democracy.

Overall I enjoyed your dialogue with Mr. Choudary and the points you raised really helped to put the warped logic behind his “Sharia Law” views on display. I also appreciated the point you made when you reminded this “jihadist” that his willingness to see innocent people killed runs in direct contradiction to the religion he purports to follow, saying that if he knows his actions will kill civilians then he is morally responsible for those deaths.

My overall satisfaction withstanding, I felt compelled to make some points on your commentary. In your conversation with Mr. Choudary, you asked him to comment on the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Understanding that many people are reasonably aggrieved by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you asked him what motivation Muslim terrorists had for the crime of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks (before the US wars in the Middle East). In your debate with him you advocated the view that there was no reason for Muslims to be aggrieved with the US before this date. Surely, a man with your credentials must know this to be demonstrably false. The September 11 attacks were largely a result of what the CIA calls “blowback”. That is, actions of the American government around the world, mostly unbeknownst to the American people, have generated retaliations from militant factions. In the case of 9/11, the grievances came from the American government’s long-standing involvement in the Middle East, spanning from the overthrow of the Iranian government in the ‘50’s, to US support for Saddam Hussein in the 80’s, consistent and unconditional military support for Israel, and the US government’s sanctions on Iraq in the 1990’s, which are estimated to have starved 500,000 people to death, most of them children. Surely, you are aware of these controversial actions, which have generated support for a vicious form of “jihadism”, which views killing American civilians as a justifiable strategy.

At this crucial point in time we cannot afford to have any more Americans buying into the mythology that we were attacked “for our freedoms”. Without an understanding of what brought these criminal attacks on in the first place, we cannot hope to reduce the threat of terror to the American people. The views of Anjem Choudary are twisted and irrational, as you thoroughly demonstrated. I only ask that you deal with issues like this in the context of an accurate historical record. I understand you would not want to be seen as “America-bashing”, a charge that’s leveled at anyone who chooses to speak publicly of American crimes, but it is critical that Americans understand the sources of terrorism, and understand that violent religious extremism is only one of those sources. Americans need to know that we have the power to reduce the threat of terrorism against ourselves. Disillusioned fundamentalist maniacs like Choudary, wouldn’t have nearly the same power to recruit followers if the US were to engage in a more moral foreign policy. While it would be naïve to assume that adopting a moral foreign policy would eliminate all violent threats against Americans, it is also similarly naïve to think that unjust policies will not result in any sort of retaliation. Extending that thought, it’s incredibly naïve to think we can solve the dangerous problem of terrorism without honestly examining the motivations of the terrorists themselves.

Once this is done, Americans can work to rectify any grievances that are justifiable, while still seeking out and prosecuting those responsible for the crimes. This rational and cost-effective approach to terrorism can only work if the American people understand the nature of the threats against them. The process of critically examining the harmful policies of our government may be uncomfortable, but it is vitally important if we as Americans hope to live in safety and peace.

I noted earlier that I view your program as a service, and I hope that I haven’t come across as ungrateful. I would just like to see my favorite mainstream commentator keep his standards of excellence in examining the issues of our day in a dispassionate and objective manner.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Little Bit of Oil Soaked Americana

A few weeks ago I took a spur-of-the-moment trip with my friend Dan down to Panama City Beach. While the only items on our agenda consisted of relaxation and light boozing, the timing was a matter of necessity—we were determined to enjoy the beach one last time before the oil washed ashore. At this time Panama City Beach was one of the only beaches left in Florida that hadn’t been tarnished by the great oil gush of 2010. Some men with nice suits, yachts, and Ivy League educations had decided to be reckless with their oil rigs, and left a hole in the ocean spewing out 2,500,000 gallons of oil a day (and showing no sign of stopping thus far). All of this in the name of inflating the profit margin just a little. I’ve seen a number of different reactions by ordinary Americans, frustrated by an ongoing disaster they are powerless to stop. One that brought a little twinkle to my eye was seeing a Facebook group titled “We need a death penalty for corporations!” with the BP logo as the symbol. With corporations having won the right to be granted legal personhood, this would seem to be a pretty sensible approach. Incidents like this make me a little nostalgic for a time from deep in America’s past, when people used to really know how to riot. One thing that stands out in a reading of American colonial history was the colonists’ penchant for a good dust-up. It didn’t take a whole lot for mobs of Bostonians to take to the streets when they felt aggrieved. Now the average American is a little more domesticated, a little more tame, and only prone to rioting after a Lakers victory—but I’ll be damned if it wouldn’t warm my heart if I were to drive by a BP headquarters and see an angry mob smashing the place up.

My response, however, was not to grab a bat and head to the nearest BP station— I just figured we better enjoy some innocent American fun down by the beach before dead animals started washing ashore.

I would expect a range of emotions to be displayed at a time like this, but the response I can’t understand is defense for the oil industry, or defense of the status quo-- and yet I still hear such arguments, from the familiar haunts. Rush Limbaugh, corporate shill that he is, tried to downplay the crisis by insisting that oil is natural and that nature would take care of itself. Glenn Beck, in the midst of one of his tantrums railing against imaginary Leninists and Maoists, argued that it’s unnecessary to stop drilling because there is a 99% success rate for deepwater drilling (I could easily provide the rejoinder, but my friend Dan said it perfectly, a little further down in this post.) These men, the Beck’s and the Limbaugh’s of the media world, are the modern day Neros, fiddling from their studios while America slowly burns to the ground.

Of course, if the opinion is aired on right-wing talk radio or Fox News, you can count on hearing it repeated by some regular folks in Alabama. Even as their beaches are being ruined I’ve heard many Southerners issue the opinion that deep water drilling should continue, without demanding any change in practice or regulatory oversight. I’m not quite sure how they managed such a victory over men’s minds, but corporate propaganda has convinced many common Americans to come to the defense of the very practices that are ruining their lives.

Far away from corporate board rooms and Washington offices, the people whose lives are touched by this disaster are debating how we should proceed. The turmoil over how to handle this crisis is crystallized perfectly in the following email exchange from my rugby team.

[The first email is one of those cut and paste forwarded emails that tends to find its way to the rugby email list. It was terribly long, so I’ve put up excerpts from it]

Forwarded email:
The reason for this letter is to ask you to write your congressman Charlie
Melancon and Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter. Or whoever it might be
wherever you are. I know some of my contacts are out of state. We all know
what's going on in the gulf. But all our lives are about to change...
drastically! Here's how.

There is a Moratorium set in place for 6 months or until further notice. And
this doesn't just affect the oilfield, its going to change your life too.
Let me explain. With this "Moratorium" or ban of drilling in the Gulf, that
means that 33 rigs are going to be put out of work. For every rig there are
about 200-300 people per rig. That's somewhere in the ball park of around
9000 people. There are an estimated 3 people for every person who works on a
rig that indirectly work for each person on a rig (Crew Boats, Supply Boats,
Chopper Pilots, etc.) So that brings us up to around 27000 people out of
work in the next two weeks. That doesn't include individual company layoffs.

Obama is pissing off these companies and they're threatening to go overseas.
Just like the Jones Act protects us in that non U.S. flagship vessels have
to employ U.S. citizens in this country, they have the same rules wherever
these boats end up. On boats, that means "ONE" American captain and"ONE"
American engineer if they push the issue. The rest of the crew is foreign on
"OUR" boats.

The oilfield has supported the economy throughout the entire country for a
very long time much less South LA. They said that if all the southern
Parishes in LA formed a single State, that we would be among the tenth
largest economy in the world. That's how much money is coming through here
from the oilfield. What do you think has kept our economy going?

They said that if a hurricane come through it will suck up the oil and it
will rain oil. There goes the sugarcane. Pour some oil on your lawn and see
what happens. What about seafood? Well we already know that's shot, but even
if it weren't, go take a ride down the bayou. How many rich fisherman do you
know? Ask any fisherman and they will tell you that throughout their life
they have supplemented their income in the oilfield. That's right. Most of
them work in the oilfield in the off season.

I'm the first one to say that we need alternative fuels but we can't just
cut off oil overnight. That fact is oil companies have been very safe over
the last 50 years. They have among the fewest casualties, per amount of
people who work there, in any industry. I realize the impact the this is
having on our environment just as well as anyone. I'm right here in the
middle of it. I see the birds covered in oil and I hate it as much as you.
But we have to get our priorities straight. The birds affected are going to
be affected whether we stop production or not.
With a moratorium, not only are the birds going to be dying on our beaches,
but now our kids will be starving in our homes.

The fact is BP messed up. Not us. We are having to pay for the mistakes of
one man (or two men or ten men whatever the case may be) that made a tragic
decision that's impacting the lives of so many. If you think we were in a
depression before, you don't know what's about to hit us. How much of oil
revenue money has affected your life when you put it in perspective? People
this is not an"oilfield" problem. This is a national issue.

Geno this is not an industry that needs apologists now! They've got enough $1,000 an hour attorneys doing their dirty work for them!

Little bit of history, google " IXTOC 1 June 1979"

This is a load of crap! It doesn't matter if they have high paid attorneys. The fact is gulf coast seafood makes up less the 5 % of the economy in LA the Oil industry 16%. Do the math! It is going to do no good to stop the oil industry in the gulf even if only for six months! We all will suffer from this. In my opinion it is only making the situation worse!

Chaney, are economic indicators, employment, GDP, and economic production metrics the only things that matter to our society/government???? If so, what will you say when, in our lifetime, China's Gross National Product exceeds our own?
Does that mean that we should switch to their method of top down social control, restriction of right to assembly, limited freedom of press, and greatly limited individual freedoms and property rights because their form of governance produces higher economic output?
My point is this, there are other things in this world that have value besides the all mighty dollar. If you didn't see JW's post earlier this already happened once in 1979. How many environmental disasters do we have to suffer through before we wonder if this is worth it? The fact is these guys don't know what they are doing or how to fix their screw ups when they make them. They don't listen to their own engineers and they repeatedly choose the quick, easy, and cheap ways to do things which puts all of us in jeopardy. I don't care how many damn wells they have operated safely in the Gulf if when one screws up it ruins the Gulf for an entire generation.
If I can't make the emotional environmental responsibility argument then what about if, as computer models predict, this thing spreads out of the Gulf moving around the state of Florida and up the entire Eastern Seaboard? Crushing the fisheries and tourist economies of Florida the Carolinas and beyond. How will the loss of Oil drilling in Louisiana compare to the economic losses there?
This can and likely will happen again!

AMEN Chaney. Since we don't know the answer or have the facts lets shut everybody down. Keeping it simple...."2 wrongs don't make a right".

Pauley, so if we don't have all the facts and know the answers shouldn't we try and get them and make sure we understand them before we open ourselves up to repeating this tragedy??? I mean the facts as I see them are; the status quo led to this disaster, federal regulators don't seem to be doing their jobs, we don't know how to shut off deep water rigs when their wells blow and none of these companies have viable comprehensive clean up and containment plans when the shit really hits the fan.
So I agree with you we don't have the facts or the answers and I suggest we get them before we give these guys a chance to repeat this tragedy.

The piece of legislation referred to in the original forwarded email was the moratorium on oil drilling— what "moratorium" would have amounted to would be a temporary pause, to reconsider how (or if) we should be drilling for oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the government’s request for a six month deep water drilling moratorium. The federal government will pursue other avenues to put a moratorium on deep water drilling— a decision which clearly shows that they aren’t confident in the effectiveness of the regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service. And rightfully so; the MMS was inadequately funded for many years and its members were literally in bed with the oil industry.

The corruption of the MMS by the very industry it was supposed to be regulating is no isolated incident. Instead it falls neatly into the longer trend of federal deregulation in many areas of the American economy at the behest of big business. The weakening, and in some cases, crippling of government oversight has allowed American corporations to run away with record profits, tending only to shareholders, while ignoring detrimental effects on stakeholders. This deregulation has been going on since Reagan took office, and has been lauded by Republicans as a triumph of the “free market”. Federal oversight, contend free market cultists, is an unnatural intrusion of the government into the free market— which, if only allowed to run unfettered, would naturally create the best possible society. It’s easy to hide behind such rhetoric, but it falls apart almost immediately upon serious examination.

For one thing, you won’t hear a peep out of these same legislators when it comes time to pass the most extreme and overt manifestation of government intervention in the US economy— the US military budget. The 2011 Pentagon budget comes in at over $720 billion. In fiscal year 2009, $376 billion of the defense budget was given directly to defense contractors. Have you heard any complaints from the business community, or politicians, or Fox News pundits, that this is inappropriate government interference in the free market?

Here’s another easy way to examine the claim that less government oversight will lead to prosperity. Simply examine other countries to see if the claim holds up. Take a look at the UN’s human development index to see where the US falls. Most of the top countries in the index have economic systems that modern Republicans would smear as “socialist”. And let’s not forget that one of the world’s fastest growing and most powerful economies, China has anything but a free market.

The fact of the matter is, that the health of the economy effects the livelihoods of all Americans, and as such the US government, representing the American people, has every reason to regulate powerful corporations who are legally obligated to seek profit above all else.

The examples I’ve cited above could be easy for the average American to ignore. After all, doing research and crunching numbers isn’t exactly fun, and most people don’t think seriously about any issue until it touches them personally. But now these problems are literally at our doorstep, affecting Americans in a very real way. The recession of 2008, triggered by risky and exotic financial practices following the deregulation by Clinton and Bush II, is still affecting Americans. While most of the business entities that the American taxpayer bailed out have recovered nicely, the story is different for average Americans, as we face an unemployment rate of 9.5%. It would seem clear, that what is good for Wall Street, is not necessarily good for the rest of us.

For those who are still skeptical of the need for government oversight over certain enterprises, the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico should serve to drive the point home, and for many it actually has. The basic facts are uncontroversial: lax enforcement by the government’s MMS allowed risky drilling practices that resulted in a major ecological disaster— probably the greatest ecological disaster the US has ever experienced. Ecosystems are far too complex for even the best scientists to foresee all the consequences this oil spill will have on the gulf, and we will likely be dealing with the secondary and tertiary effects for years to come. Those who would attempt to downplay the consequences of this spill as merely “dead birds” are being criminally dishonest.

And still, with this disaster affecting them personally, I witness average blue collar Americans making apologies for the oil industry— arguing with all their passion against a moratorium, and coming out strongly in favor of continuing the exact same practices that destroyed their coastline! I can understand apathy, but I am simply baffled to see so many people organize against their own self interest. It would seem that many modern Americans have been carefully trained to react against anything that can be labeled as “liberal", and to react especially harshly to any measure which can be attached to the “evil Obama”. If you listen to right wing talk radio you can hear the message over and over again: do not cooperate with the liberals, do not listen to the liberal, they will just trick you with fancy words, and they will destroy our traditional society. Instead, the conservative is taught to resist any and all things liberal, and to organize to help Republicans regain control of the government.

Thomas Frank observes this phenomenon in his book “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, where he examines a state comprised almost entirely of middle and working class Americans, who were at one point in history, radically organized in their own economic self-interest. Now the state is carried almost completely by a Republican party who continually acts to give tax breaks and government subsidies to the rich while cutting benefits for their income level.

The contention of Frank is that lower income Americans have been hoodwinked into the Republican party on the platform of peripheral “cultural” issues. Issues like flag burning, prayer in public schools, evolution, Christmas wars, gay marriage, and abortion have served as decades-long rallying points for lower income “conservative” Americans, who vote in lockstep for Republicans, or in some cases Blue Dog Democrats. And yet none of the progress that these people were wishing for has been made on these “cultural” issues. Instead, once these politicians have ridden these “culture war” waves into office, they pursue legislation aimed at lining the pockets of their contributors in industry.

The effects of such practices over time are evident. Since the Reagan administration, through to the present, the gap between the rich and everyone else has been steadily widening. While a small percentage of wealthy Americans have amassed fantastic fortunes in the past decades, income levels for middle class Americans has been stagnating or declining. Now many families must have two bread winners living off of borrowed money to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Contrary to the popular sentiment that Americans are lazy, the American people are actually some of the most overworked in the developed world. American workers are subject to longer work hours, lower wages, less vacation time, less benefits, and more restrictions on unionization than their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan. And yet, thanks to intense and sustained propaganda, you can walk into a blue collar bar and witness the staggering irony of watching an American working class man complain that unions, the minimum wage, and unemployment benefits are responsible for his misery.

The success of this large scale propaganda campaign to turn Americans against their interests has manifested itself in the debate over the unstoppable oil gush. As demonstrated in the email exchange I posted above, there has been a surprising backlash by too many ordinary citizens against any sort of moratorium on drilling—they would rather deepwater drilling continued unabated, with no plan in place to avoid disasters like the one they just experienced. Like drug addicts looking for their next fix, segments of the American populace are advocating for policies that may provide a sense of comfort and stability right now, but are clearly unsustainable and dangerous in the long run.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

This Independence Day, Thank an Activist

Just a few days ago I took a long drive from Alabama to Colorado. Sometimes, on long drives like this, I’ll quit listening to my CD’s and begin cycling through the local radio stations. When I do listen to the radio, I have this habit, some might call it unhealthy, of listening to right wing talk radio. These programs, by the way, are broadcast nationally, and I could manage to pick them up even in the most rural of areas, where the rest of the radio spectrum was just static. I was listening to one of the speakers go on about challenging Obama’s radical socialist agenda, when he moved on to the upcoming Fourth of July. He reminded all of his listeners to thank a “military member or veteran for our freedoms” this Independence Day. This is all fine in theory. We should be grateful for our military members—if our freedoms are ever truly threatened they will be ready to put their lives on the line. But I always feel a slight twinge when I hear this sort of rhetoric—and I hear it constantly. I like my country, but this is a consistent element of American culture I’ve always been uncomfortable with: the blind adulation of all things military. Have all our national holidays just become occasions to revel in our militarism? Is there no other piece of our society we should be proud of? If all I cared about was worshipping the armed forces I could live in North Korea. I’d like to think America has a little more to offer. As I listened to this talk radio pundit I was immediately reminded of an old quote I recited many times as an Air Force Academy Cadet while I was braced at attention.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

-(Upon doing a little research it turns out there is actually a bit of controversy as to who this quote is from, so I’m not going to bother attaching a name to it)

What a nice little bit of philistinism this is. I always especially hated screaming this quote out while I was in the front leaning rest. I don’t mind the appreciation of a soldier’s willingness to fight, but why is it necessary to adopt a superiority complex towards every other element of our society? This quote strikes me as the kind of thing drill instructors jerk off to at night. I never joined the military with the intention of looking upon the rest of American society with disdain and condescension, and I know many other soldiers who feel the same way. I rather liked the idea of defending a free society, full of artists, journalists, protestors, and environmentalists. I wouldn’t have signed on the dotted line for anything else.

So this Independence Day let’s think of all the other Americans who have given us the freedoms we have today. Regular men took up arms and fought a guerilla war against professional British soldiers to free the American colonies from illegitimate British rule. Groups of active citizens formed the women’s suffrage movement in the 1800’s, and after a long struggle finally won the right for women to vote in 1920. Civil rights activists fought a long campaign beside leaders like Martin Luther King to guarantee black Americans the full legal rights of citizenship. Antiwar protestors, also following the lead of Martin Luther King, eventually managed to end the US assault on Vietnam, a war that claimed the lives of many Americans and many many Vietnamese. As a result of this activism, no American has since had to suffer the injustice of an involuntary draft into the armed forces. Now, thanks to more committed activism we are on the precipice of gay Americans being granted the rights of full citizens, and the legalization of marijuana, a drug far less dangerous than alcohol.
Looking ahead, activists right now are working to end wasteful wars abroad, so that these resources can be used to enrich an ailing American populace.

If the concept of “America” is anything, it is the concept of lofty ideals that were met with inadequate action. Our founding fathers gave us a nation that guaranteed equality under the law, and the right to pursue happiness. But American society at the time was nowhere near realizing those ideals. Since then popular struggles have helped to bring those ideals closer to reality, and to build the relatively humane and civilized society we live in today. There’s no reason to stop now. We should be grateful for what we have while we continue to push for a more just America. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some activists, and I can assure you they sacrifice a lot in the name of a better American society and a better world—and they don’t get any medals pinned to their chests, and they don’t have grandmas thanking them for their service.

So this Independence Day, be grateful to be an American, living in a country that is in many ways more free than many others in the world. Thank a veteran. Thank Smedley Butler, a Marine Corps General turned antiwar activist who foiled a coup against President Roosevelt. Thank an artist for enriching your life. Thank a teacher for helping you learn about your world. Thank a journalist for keeping you informed. Thank Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who exposed a shocking truth when the US Army tried to lie to the American people about the killing of two Reuters journalists. Thank a poet. Thank a video game designer. Thank a pot dealer. Thank Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt for expanding the domains of freedom of speech. Thank a farmer. Thank a musician. Thank an ACLU lawyer. Thank a construction worker. Thank Col Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell who has spoken out repeatedly against the Iraq War and current detention practices. Thank a political activist. These are the kinds of people who have built an America worth sacrificing for.