Tag Archives: framing

Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in Paradise. They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson

It doesn’t matter how many details you know. If you start the story in the wrong place, you won’t understand it.


Part of my regular news-watching cycle is to check in on Fox News from time to time. It keeps me honest and helps me anticipate the kinds of arguments I’m likely to start hearing from conservatives.

Watching Fox was particularly interesting in the early part of this week, because in the evenings they (like MSNBC and CNN) gave a lot of air time to their reporters on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. So it was a rare opportunity to see all three cable news networks cover the same controversial events at the same time. Most days, the difference between the networks lies mainly in what they choose to cover — a new report on climate change might lead the news on MSNBC, while Fox focuses on Benghazi hearings in Congress. But for a few days the what of the news was obvious and inescapable, so Fox’s unique perspective on the world could only express itself in the how.

Some of the difference in coverage has been on the detail level and is easy to filter out if you’re aware of the various networks’ points of view. When police would start moving in on demonstrators, for example, Fox would report as fact whatever they were hearing from police — that, say, shots had been fired from the crowd — while MSNBC would stick closer to what they could see (police moving in), express ignorance as to why it was happening, and then later report what police were saying (shots were fired from the crowd) as a claim they couldn’t verify. Whether you were pro-demonstrator or pro-police, you could watch either network and make a good guess about what the other was reporting.

But there has been a much more subtle, harder-to-compensate-for difference in the way each network answers the fundamental question: What are the demonstrations in Ferguson all about?

On Fox, the answer to that question is very simple. Demonstrators in Ferguson are reacting angrily to a single, one-of-a-kind event: White police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. That restricted context drives the rest of their narrative.

The apparent mystery. Like any good narrative hook, Fox’s omission of context creates a mystery: Why do so many people in Ferguson care so much about that particular event? Of course, Michael Brown’s family would be upset, and even Fox’s audience can cut them some slack if they want Officer Wilson nailed to the wall. But what about all those other people on the street night after night? It’s safe to say that most of them never even met Michael Brown. Why were they giving up their evenings and risking arrest or worse?

Once you have that question in your head, several answers suggest themselves: Maybe they’re all just crazy. Fox’s resident psychologist, Dr. Keith Ablow, says “the psyche of the community” deserves as much investigation as the actions of police.

Or maybe most of the protesters really don’t care about Brown, and the demonstrations are just an exciting thing to do in a boring town. At night on the streets, you’re where it’s all happening. You might even get on national TV. That’s the interpretation Fox correspondent Steve Harrigan was promoting when he described the demonstrations late Monday night as a “media event” and “child’s play”. (In response, he got cussed out on camera by one of the black “children” he was demeaning: “We go through this shit every day,” the young man reported. Harrigan did not follow up on that observation.)

An even more sinister solution to the mystery evokes racial stereotypes that Fox doesn’t need to spell out. A hint is enough: Maybe these young black men are just wired for anarchy and violence. The Brown shooting was nothing more than an excuse for doing what they’d do all the time if police weren’t stopping them. And once you raise the stereotype of the lawless black savage, the incidents of looting take on a significance far beyond their number or the number of people responsible: This isn’t about Brown or the police at all, it’s about grabbing some free liquor or a new pair of Air Jordans.

In addition, the why-do-they-care mystery leads right into a question Fox raises at every opportunity: Why do blacks only go to the streets about white-on-black cases like Brown and Trayvon Martin, when black-on-black violence [see endnote 1] kills far more people? How street demonstrations could prevent black-on-black violence is a question they never address. (Demonstrations speak to governments and the national electorate, and have little effect on criminals or hot-headed youth.) But Fox presents the Brown and Martin demonstrations as pointless anyway, so why shouldn’t there be equally pointless demonstrations against black-on-black violence instead?

Second, restricting your attention to that one context-free event makes the crowd look like a lynch mob. Why are they so sure Officer Wilson wasn’t justified in shooting Brown? Why can’t they wait for the investigative process to play out? And why can’t they cooperate with police now to keep the peace?

And finally, the mystery-framing makes the politics of the situation look purely venal. How outrageous it seems that liberals — they must be liberals — are exploiting the Brown shooting to register Ferguson’s black population to vote!

What makes Fox’s frame so convincing to its audience is that you can feel well-informed inside it. You can know how many people were arrested each night and which stores they looted. You can learn details of the shooting (though anonymous leaks from police will be reported more authoritatively than eye-witness testimony from black citizens). You can learn statistics about black crime in America. You can know just how rare police killings are compared to drug killings or other black-on-black murders. You’re not ignorant; you’re a walking storehouse of the kinds of information MSNBC would never tell you.

But in spite of that well-informed feeling, you don’t understand what’s really going on, because Fox is leaving out key background information and then beginning the story in the wrong place. The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence.

Start by asking. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie did what Fox reporters (or most individual whites) hardly ever do: ask the black community what they’re concerned about and listen to their answers.

Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. … Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.

The right story begins here: A majority-black community feels abused by its almost entirely white police force. [2] And complaining to the white-dominated local government does no good. (As a report from Arch City Defenders spells out, the town of Ferguson gets significant revenue from assessing fines against poor people.)

If you start there, the narrative takes a completely different path. When a policeman shot Michael Brown six times on a city street in broad daylight in front of witnesses, the Ferguson community was not shocked (the way I would be if one of my white friends were gunned down by police in my majority-white town). Quite the opposite, this was the kind of incident they found all too believable, given the police behavior they see all the time.

So the reaction we’ve been seeing on the streets isn’t “OMG! How can something like this happen?”, it’s “This shit has to stop.”

No mystery. So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect?

Their tactics are also no mystery: When the political process is unresponsive, the streets are the only communication channel left. Trayvon Martin’s mother is supposed to have said, “If they won’t hear us, make them feel us.” And Ja’han Jones put it more aggressively on Salon: “What if being peaceful won’t change a thing?”

As far as Officer Wilson is concerned, the crowds are not rushing to judgment, they are speaking from experience. Yes, police act this way, and the result is always the same: If the incident isn’t ignored completely, it is shunted into a opaque “process” in which eyewitnesses are ignored and no quantity of physical evidence is sufficient to bring charges. Ferguson police have showed every indication of wanting to go that way: keeping back relevant information as long as possible, smearing Michael Brown, responding to protests with even more excessive force, leaking bogus “facts” that support Wilson, and arresting reporters.

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

Once you understand where the story really starts and what it’s really about, then the whole detour into black-on-black crime is revealed to be “the politics of changing the subject“. Other than corpses, the two issues have nothing in common. It’s like asking Sean Hannity, “Why have you spent so much time on the four Americans who died at Benghazi when tens of thousands of Americans die in car accidents?”

My reality and theirs. Demographically, I look more like a Fox viewer than a Ferguson protester. I’m white, over 50, and have an above-median household income. I barely notice when a police car goes by, and when I have had occasion to deal with my local police — usually because I approached them with a question — they have been unfailingly polite. When I arrange to meet people socially or promise to be somewhere, I don’t allow extra time for the possibility that I might be stopped and frisked, or taken down to the police station and questioned about some crime I never heard of. That kind of stuff never happens to guys like me.

If I did find myself in an unexpected and unpleasant run-in with police, it would feel like snow in July. My instinct would be to wait it out until polite normality re-asserted itself. So I could easily follow the advice of LAPD’s Sunil Dutta:

if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long? … Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop. [3]

Great advice for me, but I don’t believe it has much to do with the reality of places like Ferguson, or even parts of Dutta’s own Los Angeles.

What if I weren’t a middle-aged middle-class white guy? What if police abuse is normal in my experience? What if I’ve cooperated before, and before, and before that … and the stop wasn’t “complete in minutes” and I got tased, pepper-sprayed or worse anyway? What if I “saved my anger for later” and the appropriate channels laughed at me? What if I have dead or injured friends whose attempts to cooperate didn’t “end safely”, and other friends who weren’t “presumed innocent” in court, and are now in prison on sketchy or manufactured evidence?

What’s your advice for me then, Officer Dutta?

What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get. The frustrated citizens of Ferguson are pursuing a plan that makes sense: Wait for an incident so egregious that it can’t be swept under the rug, and then get out on the streets in large numbers. Tell your story to the country, put your political leaders on the spot, and show the world how “justice” works in your town. Shine a spotlight on the usual shadowy self-investigation process, and dare the powers-that-be to work their usual trickery in front of a national audience.

That plan might not work — it didn’t work in Florida — but what more likely plan have you got for them? They can’t just be quiet and wait for justice to be served. They’ve got to do something.

Because “we go through this shit every day”, and that shit has to stop.


[1] Reason‘s Steve Chapman asks:

Most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to “male-on-male crime.” Whites in the South are substantially more prone to homicide than those in New England, but no one laments “Southerner-on-Southerner crime.” Why does crime involving people of African descent deserve its own special category?

[2] Unlike Bill O’Reilly, Ferguson residents aren’t giving police credit for all the people they stop and don’t kill. What’s up with that? And what about the 3/4ths of the people police across the nation kill who aren’t black?

[3] This advice was funnier when Chris Rock was giving it.

The Ferguson Test

This week’s events in Ferguson have tested all of us, not just police and politicians.


In a classic South Park bit, Stan’s Dad is on Wheel of Fortune. The category is “People Who Annoy You”, and the letters showing are

N-_-G-G-E-R-S

The solution is naggers, but Mr. Marsh is so overwhelmed by the horror/forbidden-pleasure of saying “niggers” on TV that he can’t think of anything else. Watching for the first time, neither could I. Surely no TV-game-show puzzle could have niggers as its solution, but it instantly jumps to mind anyway. And once you’ve had that thought, calmly running through the other vowels to find a more probable solution doesn’t seem like an option any more.

By the time he blurts out “Niggers!”, Mr. Marsh even seems proud of himself for having found the courage to overcome political correctness and speak the truth as he sees it. But it isn’t truth. It’s just an idea that shines so brightly in his head that he can’t see any alternatives.

That’s how unconscious racism works.

Stan’s Dad is not an I-hate-black-people kind of racist, and undoubtedly he would be offended to be described as any kind of racist at all. In most ways, he’s a fairly typical middle-class white parent. He didn’t wake up that morning thinking, “I’m going to say ‘nigger’ today, and don’t let anybody try to stop me.” He knows what attitudes and behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable in today’s society, and he does his best to pretend that his mind really works that way.

But it just doesn’t. Whatever his conscious intentions, his mental reflexes have been passed down from another era, when racism was as common as air.

Reacting to presidents. Earlier this year, I described how unconscious racism figures in people’s responses to President Obama. Being president and living in the White House has always been a pretty sweet ride. Protocol requires everyone to defer to you. Wherever you go, no expense is spared to keep you and your family comfortable and safe.

The public has known and accepted this for a long time. The President symbolizes the United States, so of course the Kennedys or Reagans or Bushes should be treated with utmost respect. But when the First Family became black, all that luxury and deference suddenly looked different. Why were the Obamas lording it over us like this?

So, those white folks who didn’t even notice when Reagan’s or JFK’s feet were on the desk, but who see Obama’s and think “He was raised so badly.” — are they also secretly thinking “Who does that uppity nigger think he is, acting like he’s a real president or something?” Maybe a few here or there, but mostly no. They aren’t consciously hating Obama because he’s black. But they can’t look at a black president the same way they looked at the 43 white presidents. Things just look different when Obama does them.

And once the thought “Why are the Obamas lording it over us?” pops into your head, it’s genuinely difficult to back up and think: “Wait a minute. Are there other ways to look at this? Would I be interpreting the situation this way if he were white?” In fact, not voicing that bright and shiny “truth” feels like cowardice. The racial influence is long forgotten: Who does this Obama guy think he is, acting like he’s President of the United States or something?

Unconscious racism in the police. At this point, we don’t really know what Darren Wilson was thinking when he killed Michael Brown, sparking more than a week of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. But we know that there’s a long history of police officers reacting differently to black citizens than to whites. Ezra Klein put it bluntly:

Incidents of excessive force are commonplace, and increasingly, there’s a list of young black men who have died for no other reason than that they ran into a police officer at the wrong time and in the wrong way.

Earlier this month, for example, 22-year-old John Crawford was killed by police in a WalMart in Ohio. After he picked up a realistic-looking air rifle from the shelf, another customer called police about an armed man in the store. Crawford was talking to his girlfriend on the phone when police demanded he drop the weapon. While he tried to explain that it wasn’t a real weapon, they killed him.

By contrast, white open-carry activists have been showing up in public places like Target or Home Depot, prominently displaying actual deadly weapons. None of them have provoked a similar misunderstanding. In Aurora, Colorado (site of the 2012 movie-theater massacre) an 18-year-old white man was carrying a shotgun down a public street. When stopped by police, he argued with them and refused to turn over the gun or show any ID. They let him continue on his way, gun in hand.

Most of this disparity, I suspect, is unconscious. I sincerely doubt that Crawford’s killers went to work that morning thinking, “I hate those young black bucks. I’m going to shoot me one today if I get the chance.” But police have to deal with emergency situations that may require quick action. Somebody seems to have a gun and people might be in danger — do you calmly talk him down or go in shooting? There may be no time to work through a checklist and make an objective decision; you have to go with your gut.

But what if your gut is prejudiced? What if seeing a young black man in an emergency situation is like seeing N-_-G-G-E-R-S on the puzzle board? One possibility — that he’s a dangerous criminal and innocent people will die unless you shoot him right now — pops to mind and blots out all others.

The Ferguson test.This is a test,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said. But it’s not just the people of Ferguson or the police or Nixon himself who are being tested this week. It’s all of us. As we watch events unfold, in how many ways do they just look different because of race? How hard is it to back up, re-examine our initial framing, and ask ourselves what we’d be thinking if race were not a factor?

The Ferguson police as an organization. Looking at their initial treatment of the Brown shooting, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Ferguson police didn’t think killing a black teen-ager was a big deal, or that his family or the community deserved any answers about how it happened or who did it or why. Shielding the shooter appeared to be the paramount concern.

When protests did erupt, police seemed to see only the public order and safety issues rather than the community relations issues. Instead of working with community leaders to balance public safety concerns with the public rights of assembly and free expression, police attempted to dictate to the community, and to enforce their edicts with overwhelming force.

The fact that the police version of the shooting was at odds with the accounts of eye-witnesses, including at least two who did not know Michael Brown, did not seem to bother them. Witnesses and the family’s private autopsy (results of the police autopsy haven’t been revealed) paint the picture of an intentional, unnecessary killing: shots aimed at Brown’s back while he attempted to run away, and then more shots after Brown turns with his hands in the air. After interviewing one witness, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell assesses her testimony as a description of first degree murder, and the legal experts on his show agree. And yet the officer has not been arrested or charged with any crime at all.

When police finally released Wilson’s name, they simultaneously released video of Brown apparently stealing cigars from a convenience store. That video has no relevance to the legal case — officers can’t shoot down suspects trying to surrender, no matter what they are suspected of doing — but it did have public relations value. It fed the storyline that focuses on black lawbreaking and violence to the exclusion of police misconduct.

Political leaders. It was obvious early on that local officials in Ferguson were making the situation worse, and yet higher authorities were slow to intervene or comment. The swing voters in Missouri are rural or suburban whites, and Governor Nixon has been careful not to look too pro-black. You have to wonder: If police were treating a white community like an occupied war zone, and if large numbers of local whites and their elected representatives were protesting, would it take that long to get a response?

Media. Some reporters are doing their best to get the facts out and portray them fairly, but it is far too easy to treat Ferguson residents as one big black blob. If there is looting and violence, then the citizens of Ferguson are violent looters. No wonder police are shooting them in the street and riding around in tanks and paying no attention to their concerns. Let them stop breaking the law and then maybe we’ll listen to them.

It’s hard to imagine a white community getting this kind of treatment. Whites who break the law are typically presented in the media as aberrations. Often they are portrayed as crazy loners, even when they belong to groups that promote precisely the kinds of crimes they commit. If you’re a law-abiding white homeowner with complaints about your local government, you stand very little chance of being lumped together with thieves and vandals who live in your neighborhood and also happen to be white.

Again, maybe a few journalists or TV personalities are thinking, “Here’s a chance to smear blacks”, but I doubt that’s the primary motivation. I think rioting black ghetto is another one of those bright shiny notions. Get it in your head and it’s hard to get it out.

Also, I can’t count the number of times I’ve run into the comment that we shouldn’t “jump to conclusions” because “we don’t know all the facts” or “we don’t know what really happened”. If several white eyewitnesses gave consistent accounts of excessive force by a black police officer, would we be instructed to ignore them in the same way? Or does the fact that the witnesses are black make it easier to discount their testimony? Does the whiteness of the police chief make his version more authoritative?

All of us. We can blame the police for laying out self-justifying and community-diminishing narratives, and we can blame the media for promoting them. But why do we fall for them?

And I do mean we. Like Randy Marsh, I was raised at time when racism was common as air. When I take a step back, I can see the effects of that training in the way my pre-conscious processes shape the perceptions that my conscious mind then wants to treat as facts.

Situations involving black people just look different. Their lives seem less consequential, their deaths less tragic. When I hear of their misfortunes or the injustices they suffer, part of me is waiting for the explanation of how they brought this on themselves. Their stories and testimonies are easily discounted. The thought, “I need to do something about this” does not arise on its own, unless the something involves defending myself and other respectable white people. A crowd of blacks easily stops being a collection of individual humans and becomes a malevolent unit. I expect violence and lawlessness, and when it appears it dominates the picture I see. “Well, there you go,” I think.

I can see how unfair those thoughts are, when I take a step back. But it’s so easy not to.

Unitarian Universalist minister Meg Riley writes:

As a white person in the U.S., I am conditioned from birth to see whiteness as safety — white neighborhoods, white people, white authority figures. My lived experience, my conversations with people of color, and my study of history have shown me over and over that this is a wild and cruel perversion of the truth. But the cultural conditioning is strong. Unless I fight it every day, white superiority seeps into my brain in slow, almost undetectable ways.

A lot of whites get offended by the suggestion that America is a racist society. They know that the vast majority of whites are not KKK-style racists, actively plotting evil against non-whites. (Some are, of course, but it’s not fair to judge the many by the misdeeds of the few — at least not when we’re talking about whites.)

My point is: We don’t have to be KKK-style racists. We can maintain a racist society quite well just by letting our minds do what they do: assemble age-old stereotypes into the narratives we’ve been hearing all our lives.

We can do that, or we can “fight it every day”. I invite you to take the Ferguson Test and see how you’re doing in that fight.

The Real Politics of Envy

Whose message is actually capitalizing on envy and resentment?


Tuesday, Politico reported the latest example of — this is happening so often we need to give it a name — Plutocrat Persecution Psychosis:

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Yes, Langone is echoing fellow PPP sufferer Tom Perkins, who recently warned in The Wall Street Journal that a “Progressive Kristallnact” against the 1% is on its way. (Apparently, only being allowed to vote once — in spite of all his money — chafes on Perkins. Those of us free from the burden of vast wealth can barely hope to imagine what other persecutions he suffers.)

I could sympathize if some terrorist group were burning down mansions, or assassinating “malefactors of great wealth” as Teddy Roosevelt used to call them. But no, this Nazi-like persecution seems to consist mainly of calls to raise our low taxes on the very wealthy (and their corporations), to insist that they pay their employees a somewhat higher minimum wage, and a few rhetorical flourishes that fall far short of having the President of the United States refer to you as a malefactor of great wealth (or, as Teddy’s cousin Franklin put it a few years later “unscrupulous money changers“).

But let’s ignore the over-the-top Hitler reference — many others have taken Langone to task for that — and focus on Langone’s underlying points:

  • There is a growing politics of envy in America.
  • Liberal rhetoric about inequality is based on that envy.
  • The primary push towards envy and resentment in our politics comes from the Left.

I figure this is the venom that is supposed to stay in the public’s bloodstream after the Hitler-barb is plucked out. That’s how these things work: If Langone had compared your moustache to Hitler’s, and you denied it without calling sufficient attention to the fact that you don’t have a moustache, what would stick in the public mind is the vague sense that your moustache is probably more like Stalin’s, or maybe Ming the Merciless’.

Before addressing any of that, let’s spiff up the terminology a little: envy here is actually short for envy-based resentment. By itself, envy is just wishing that some aspect of another person’s life could be part of my life, and it isn’t necessarily destructive. (If I envy a friend’s ability to speak French, maybe I’ll go take a class.) Consumer capitalism couldn’t function without this non-destructive kind of envy. If Americans looked at the neighbor’s fancy new car and just said, “Good for him!” the economy would probably collapse or something

Resentment, on the other hand, wishes others harm, and envy-based resentment means wishing people harm because they have some advantage I wish I had. (Somebody ought to give that fancy new car a dent or two.) So, for example, as a writer I envy Stephen King’s ability to fill a complicated plot with interesting characters. But that’s benign, because I don’t resent him — I don’t wish bad things would happen to him to even the score between us. (If good things would cause him to finish his next novel faster, I’m all for them.)

This distinction is important because of course the rest of us envy the rich. (Think of all the places I would have gone if traveling were as simple as telling my pilot to fire up the jet.) But whether we resent them, and whether that resentment motivates our politics, is another matter entirely.

It’s an article of faith among the very rich that liberal policies (like progressive taxation and regulations that sometimes block the most direct path towards amassing even greater fortunes) are primarily motivated by resentment: We lesser mortals want the government to even the score a little by inflicting some pain on the lords of wealth. Part of Mitt Romney’s core message (said in almost the same words in interviews here and 11 months later here) was: “If one’s priority is to punish highly-successful people, then vote for the Democrats.” And CPAC front-runner Rand Paul echoed that sentiment in his 2014 State of the Union response:

If we allow ourselves to succumb to the politics of envy, we miss the fact that money and jobs flow to where they are welcome. If you punish successful business men and women, their companies and the jobs these companies create will go overseas.

The idea that you might just want to raise revenue by getting it from the people who would miss it the least; or that even though you have nothing against the rich personally, you think that a vast and growing gap between rich and poor is unhealthy for society … that just doesn’t figure. The only conceivable reason you might support a policy the rich don’t like is because you are burning with resentment and want to see them punished for having more than you do.

Jonathan Chait examined this claim and could find no supporting evidence — not even in columns promoting it. (That’s why Langone had to specify “with different words”. You can’t defend his point if you restrict yourself to what people are actually saying.) Politicians, no matter how liberal, are not promising to wreak vengeance on the 1%.

In practice, the politics of class emerge from the context of budgetary choices, where Democrats have positioned themselves against low taxes for the rich for the sole reason that it would come at the expense of more important fiscal priorities. … Gore, Kerry, and Obama were all making the exact same point: Clinton-era tax rates for the rich needed to stay in place not because the rich needed to be punished, but because cutting those rates would create more painful alternatives, like higher structural deficits or cuts to necessary programs.

But does that mean that resentment isn’t a factor in politics or that no one is trying to fan that flame? No, it doesn’t, because resentment-stoking is a constant drumbeat from the Right. Consider, for example, this ad that the Club for Growth ran in Wisconsin in 2011 during Governor Scott Walker’s successful campaign to bust the state employees’ unions.

All across Wisconsin, people are making sacrifices to keep their jobs. Frozen wages. Pay cuts. And paying more for health care. But state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. … It’s not fair. … It’s time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us.

The ad doesn’t promise that anything good will happen to “the rest of us” if the unions are broken. You could imagine an argument similar to the Gore/Kerry/Obama point about taxes: “We’re sorry that we can’t fully fund the pensions of our hard-working teachers and other state employees, but something has to give and we’d rather keep taxes low and spend our limited resources on other priorities.” But instead, this ad is about punishing the state employees, because their unions have shielded them from the kind of employer aggression that has victimized private-sector workers; so let’s bust their union and make them suffer the way other working people suffer.

That’s pure resentment, a political movement very directly trying to “encourage and thrive on envy”. If someone knows of anything nearly that explicit coming from the Left, I’d like to see it.

Or recall the Right’s campaign against Sandra Fluke, when she had the audacity to defend ObamaCare’s contraception mandate. (Rush Limbaugh became the face of this campaign, but he was far from alone, as this timeline makes clear.) Limbaugh’s focus wasn’t that his listeners would benefit from cancelling the mandate. (That would be a hard case to make, since it’s possible that the prevented pregnancies save insurance companies more money than the contraception costs.) Instead, he pounded on the notion that Fluke is a slut: She’s having so much sex she can’t afford her contraception (as if the pill worked that way). He painted a picture in which Fluke has the kind of sex life Limbaugh’s older male listeners can only wish for, so they should want to screw that up for her.

Resentment.

Or consider the way the Right campaigns against the poor. Remember the “lucky duckies” who don’t have to pay income tax (because they’re too poor)? Or the way that Fox News made one lobster-eating surfer a symbol of all Food Stamp recipients? (Jon Stewart’s take-down of this whole campaign is priceless.) Somewhere, “America’s poor are actually living the good life” as a promo for Fox’s “Entitlement Nation” special put it — and all without working like you do. Don’t you wish you could get by without working? Don’t you want to screw the people who (you imagine) do? Take something away from them? Maybe harass them with drug tests that cost more than they save? Because the point isn’t to save money — or to do you any good at all — it’s to inflict harm on people who might be getting away with something you daydream about.

That’s the primary way the politics of resentment affects our economic debate. It’s not directed at the rich by the Left, but at the poor by the Right.

Across the board, one side is trying to encourage and thrive on envy and jealousy: It’s the Right, not the Left.

Subtext in the State of the Union (and its responses)

You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us.


Once upon a time, state of the union addresses contained major policy initiatives, like when President Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964. But nobody does that any more, especially not in a gridlocked era where nothing is going to get through Congress anyway. 21st-century state of the union speeches (and opposing-party responses) are about politics rather than policy. They’re about moving public opinion, not moving the country.

So you might ask, “Why watch?” And there’s an answer: You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us. When they try to scare us, they reveal what they think we’re afraid of. When they reassure us, they reveal what they think we’re insecure about. When they try to be likeable, they reveal what they think we like. They emphasize issues where they feel strong and avoid issues they have no answers for.

They have spent months polling and testing in front of focus groups. Each has carefully crafted the message it believes will best appeal to its part of the public. Listen hard, and you can tell what part of the public they see as their own.

President Obama. The best way to watch the SOTU is via the White House’s enhanced video. (Here’s their transcript.) You get the same video everyone else uses, plus elucidating slides.

President Obama focused on two themes: inequality (which I explore in “Occupying the State of the Union“) and the dysfunctionality of Congress. Clearly he thinks Congress’ unpopularity works to his advantage:

For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.

I know Ted Cruz comes from an alternate timeline in which Obama and Harry Reid shut down the government and provoked the debt-ceiling crisis, but here’s all you need to know about that: Democrats applauded the President at this point, while Republicans sat on their hands. They all knew who he was calling to account.

The two themes came together in Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, something he can do as federal CEO without congressional action. I hadn’t realized the full political import of this until Rachel Maddow pointed it out: Obama has put every executive in the country on the spot. Are governors going to raise the minimum wage for state contractors? Mayors for city contractors? (Yes in St. Louis.) I’ll bet the sound bite (at the 33-minute mark) tested really well:

No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.

Any time the words Obama and executive order appear in the same news story, Republicans start yelling “tyranny”, as if no previous president issued executive orders. (Sunday Paul Ryan described the Obama administration as “increasingly lawless“.)

Clearly, they have identified a set of voters ready to believe this. In reality, though, Obama has been relatively hesitant about executive orders, issuing fewer of them than other recent presidents. He also has put forward no new theories of executive power, such as President Bush’s sweeping notion of the unitary executive.

Republican response. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official Republican SOTU response (text & video).

I thought Rodgers’ put forward a likeable image. (The conservative American Spectator protested that her “real message” was “PLEASE LIKE ME”.)  She expressed admirable sympathies, but presented little of substance to back up her good intentions. She talked about working to “empower people … to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be”, but the policies behind those words implement the same old Republican wealth-trickles-down-from-the-rich ideas.

A larger question was: Why her? She’s not a major player in the Republican leadership. She’s not a rising star they’re grooming for bigger things. Nothing about her record in Congress picks her out as the ideal person to speak to these particular issues. But she’s a woman and Republicans want to put a token female face on camera to counter the war-on-women meme.

As Ian Haney Lopez says in Dog Whistle Politics:

The right slams affirmative action for making distinctions on the basis of race, even as it has developed its own perverse form of affirmative action, consciously selecting nonwhite faces to front its agenda.

Rodgers is the female version of Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio, but without the presidential speculation: Republicans can’t possibly be sexist. Look! They have a woman speaking for them.

But the war on women rages on, no matter who’s in front of the camera. The House Republican majority passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, whose purpose is to get private health insurance plans to drop abortion coverage. Last week I pointed to its draconian limitations on rape exceptions.

Rodgers’ talk was also noteworthy for invoking yet another bogus ObamaCare horror story. As Paul Krugman put it:

So was this the best story Ms. McMorris Rodgers could come up with? The answer, probably, is yes, since just about every tale of health reform horror the G.O.P. has tried to peddle has similarly fallen apart once the details were revealed.

Tea Party response. Mike Lee (text, video) did a good job countering the Tea Party’s image as the dangerous lunatics who almost pushed the United States into default last October. The over-arching metaphor of his talk was the journey from Boston (the Boston Tea Party in 1773) to Philadelphia (the Constitution in 1787).

Now, as in 1773, Americans have had it with our out-of-touch national government. But if all we do is protest, our Boston Tea Party moment will occupy little more than a footnote in our history. Hopefully our leaders, reformers and citizens will join the journey from Boston to Philadelphia – from protest to progress. Together we can march forward and take the road that leads to the kind of government we do want.

He mentioned several positive Tea Party proposals in Congress without detailing what they would do. But the mere possibility of “the kind of government we do want” is a significant shift in Tea Party rhetoric. I’ll be interested to see if it catches on inside the Tea Party, or if it’s just for export.

Rand Paul’s response. Rand Paul’s talk was mostly a collection of offensive stereotypes and right-wing fantasies. He used the story of black conservative columnist Star Parker to smear welfare recipients:

She was 23 when she quit her job at the L.A. Times so she could go on welfare. By collecting $465 a month, plus Food Stamps, and by getting a part-time that paid cash under the table, she could rent a nice apartment and earn far more money than working an honest 40-hour week. Later, she said, she had no trouble dropping her daughter off at a government-funded day-care center, selling some free medical vouchers to buy drugs, and hanging out at the beach all afternoon.

It’s Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen all over again, or Fox News’ lobster-loving Food Stamp surfer. Are those stories supposed to be typical of the people helped by government anti-poverty programs? Paul seems to think so. After putting a happy ending on Parker’s story — she could only get a real job and climb out of poverty after she gave up her “dependence” on government assistance — Paul says:

I want Star Parker’s story to be the rule, not the exception.

But how is that even possible unless her original situation is the rule? Unless welfare recipients in general are lying, cheating, drug-using, child-neglecting blacks who can get honest jobs whenever they want? I’m sure that’s exactly what Paul’s target audience wants to believe, but is it true? Like Reagan, Paul presents no evidence beyond the anecdote.

Another taffy-pull stretching of the truth was Paul’s claim that Obama has “spent more than a trillion dollars on make-work government jobs”. Actually, that number is somewhere close to zero. For example, a big chunk of the $800 billion stimulus was tax cuts. Some of the stimulus’ other big-ticket items sent money to the states so that revenue shortfalls wouldn’t force them to lay off teachers, and paid for repairs to roads and bridges.

So the next time you drop your kid off at public school or drive across an old bridge, remember that Rand Paul thinks teaching or keeping bridges from falling down are “make-work government jobs”.

Thuggery. The weirdest story of the night was New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm threatening to throw a reporter “off this fucking balcony” (i.e., the Capitol balcony) for asking a question he didn’t want to answer. “I’ll break you in half,” Grimm warned.

Rudeness to the President. Well, at least this year nobody yelled “You lie!” during the speech, as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009. However, Texas Congressman Randy Webber tweeted:

On floor of house waitin on “Kommandant-In-Chef”… the Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it “A-Lying?”

Another Texas congressman, Steve Stockman (who is Senator Cornyn’s Tea Party challenger in the upcoming primary) walked out of the speech.

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence how Southern Republican Congressmen lost their sense of decorum and their respect for the office of the presidency at the precise moment when a black man was sworn in? Did a memo go out, or did they just know what to do by intuition?

President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America

What made President Obama’s Second Inaugural the best speech of his presidency was its great theme: He told the story of America as progressives understand it, and connected it with the progressive mission today.

In recent years, liberals have let conservatives own the big-picture story of America. If you hear somebody talking about the Founders and the Constitution, probably it’s Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul or some other hero of the self-styled “patriots” of the Tea Party.

Liberals have been more comfortable talking about peace and justice in the here and now: How are we going to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan? What can we do about levels of inequality last seen in the Gilded Age? How are we going to stop gun violence? How can we make sure that the sick, the old, and the disabled get the care they need? Can we stop profit-privatizing/risk-socializing bankers from crashing the economy again? And so on.

Facts vs. visions. I believe liberals actively shy away from this big-picture mythologizing because of our disgust at how conservatives abuse it: They must talk about their grand vision, because when you get down to the nitty-gritty of facts, they are just plain wrong. Rape causes pregnancy. The globe is warming. The rich are getting all the money. The economy has a demand problem. Taxes are low, spending is not out of control, and the federal government can’t go bankrupt.

Let Glenn Beck spin stories about the last 5,000 years, we’d rather point to things that are actually happening and say, “Look! Look!”

And yet … “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Without some larger context, day-to-day political efforts can seem meaningless. Why waste your energy? Make a nice dinner for your family. See a movie. Get ready for that thing at work. The immediate benefits of those efforts are clear. Politics? Not so much.

If conservatives offer their followers a role in the drama of History and we don’t, we will never match their intensity. Worse, by not offering a larger vision, we can seem to consent to the conservative narrative, in which “socialists” from FDR to LBJ to Obama have usurped the “libertarian” Republic of the Founders.

But progressives have their own story of America, and can offer a different role in the drama of History.

Progressive vs. fundamentalist mythology. In general, there are two main ways — fundamentalist and progressive — to turn history into a motivating myth. The generic Fundamentalist Myth begins with a Golden Age of divinely inspired prophets and larger-than-life heroes. From there, we devolved and corrupted their legacy. But deep inside our fallen shells glows the same spark that burned so brightly in them. So if we stoke fire of greatness and scour away the rust of corruption, we can recreate the world they meant for us to have.

a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night

The Progressive Myth reveres its past in a different way. Our legacy consists not of perfect past to which we should strive to return, but of a vision that has shone through the ages, always just out of reach, and of a journey towards that vision.

The Biblical motif is not the Garden of Eden, the Davidic Kingdom, or the Apostolic Church, but the Israelites wandering through the desert: We were slaves in Egypt when Moses gave us — not Freedom — but a vision of Freedom and the hope of a Promised Land. God is with us not as a once-and-future King, but as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, wordlessly marking the direction of our march. We move forward because the only permanent encampment behind us is Pharaoh’s.

It is not hard to see the Fundamentalist Myth in the Tea Party’s version of American history. The Founders are prophets, and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are scripture.

But the Progressive Myth can also apply to American history. And like so much liberal/conservative disagreement, the progressive version stays closer to the facts.

The Second Inaugural Address. President Obama began his speech with the holiest words in the American canon:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

But that was not the establishment of a Golden Age to which we must return. It was the start of a journey with no turning back.

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

That journey has had two pieces: Change that became necessary as circumstances changed, and change that became necessary as we reached a clearer vision of the meaning of our founding principles. And so our journey included the abolition of slavery

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

the construction of modern infrastructure from the Erie Canal to the interstate highways

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.

the trust-busting of Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the SEC and other modern regulatory bodies

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

and Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

These are not corruptions or usurpations of the Founders’ dream, but its continuing realization.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone.

And we are not done yet.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.

Looked at with clear eyes, American history is meaningful only as a place to be from, not a place to go back to. Where would you go? To the slave plantations? To Jim Crow? To the Trail of Tears? To the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory? To Love Canal? To marriages where wives own no property and have rights only through their husbands? To a time when old age and poverty were practically synonymous? Where?

As a nation, we can rightfully take pride in the challenges we have overcome, but not in where we have been. To go back, to give up all that progress, would betray our revolutionary heritage. Our forebears kept moving forward, and so will we.

“Don’t politicize tragedy” is itself partisan rhetoric

Some lines in our political dialog sound non-partisan, but they only come up in a one-sided way. Once the media habit gets established, those unwritten usage rules are very hard to change.

For years now, liberals have been trying to turn judicial activism back against conservatives. But no matter how many Citizens United or Bush v Gore decisions right-wing judges write, judicial activism only has glue on its left side; it won’t stick to the Right.

We shouldn’t politicize this tragedy is similarly one-sided. It is only said in two situations:

  1. To stop liberals from talking about gun control after a mass shooting.
  2. To stop liberals from talking about worker safety after a mine disaster, factory fire, or some other big industrial accident.

It never limits conservatives, who routinely score political points in the wake of tragedy without even a sense of hypocrisy. The possibility that don’t politicize tragedy could apply to them just doesn’t register.

So Fox News’ Megyn Kelly can guiltlessly respond to the Newtown School shooting by asking a security expert:

I have two kids. Now I suddenly want to see an armed police officer in the school. I mean, I never even thought of that prior to now, but what would that take, to have an armed police officer in every school?

Kelly reaching for a more-guns solution is fine, but imagining fewer guns — as Bob Costas did two weeks before — politicizes tragedy.

In any other situation, major loss of life leads to action. The Patriot Act was signed six weeks after 9-11. I don’t recall anyone saying we shouldn’t politicize the tragedy. And as Chris Hayes observed Saturday,

If yesterday we had found out that the shooter’s name was Abdulmutallab and that he had been attending a mosque in Connecticut, everything about the response would be different.

One difference: No one would be shutting down the Islamophobes for politicizing the tragedy.*

The most predictably outrageous politicization of tragedy always comes from the Religious Right. Who can forget Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9-11 on

the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America

Falwell is dead, but his blame-the-secularists game continues. Thursday, when a Fox News anchor suggested to Mike Huckabee that people might ask “How could God let this happen?”, Huckabee responded by denouncing separation of church and state:

We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability — that we’re not just going to have be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before, you know, a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t fear that.

So suggesting any limitation to Second Amendment rights politicizes the tragedy, but it’s fine for Huckabee to advocate against our First Amendment right to be free from an establishment of religion.

Huckabee was not alone. Bryan Fischer also started with “Where was God?”and went the same place with it:

Here’s the bottom line: God is not going to go where He’s not wanted. Now we have spent — since 1962, we’re 50 years into this now — we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost.

He then went through a litany First Amendment cases that limit Christian establishment before concluding:

We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us: “Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first.”

I’m sure the Amish parents of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania wonder how exactly they banished God from their schoolhouse before five of their daughters were gunned down in 2006. But apparently Fischer’s God** is subject to the same rule as vampires: Even if He wants to help, He’s stuck on the threshold until somebody invites Him in.

In short, liberals: Don’t be cowed by people who tell you not to politicize a mass shooting or a mine cave-in. The don’t-politicize rule applies only to you. Whenever conservatives can spin a tragedy to their advantage, they will, and the self-appointed umpires who criticize you now will be completely silent.


*The same people who blame Islam for any crime by a guy with a Arab name — they twisted themselves into pretzels denying Christianity’s responsibility for Anders Breivik’s mass murder of liberal children in Norway (even though Breivik styled himself as a defender of Christendom). “No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder,” Bill O’Reilly declared.

If you would laugh at a Muslim who said that about believers in Allah, you should laugh at O’Reilly too.


**In some ways conservative Christians preachers are a special case, because their flocks do ask “Where was God?” and the ministers have no answer. The question points to a hole in their theology: If the Universe were governed by the God they describe (all-powerful, loving, good, and personally involved), these things would not happen. It’s that simple. It’s not a paradox or a mystery, it’s just a contradiction.

They can’t admit that, so they have to deflect blame onto someone else.

Believe in America, Mitt

Now available on t-shirts. Click the image.

When Mitt Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination in April, I framed the next phase of the campaign in terms of four narratives: pro/anti-Obama and pro/anti-Romney. The anti-Romney narrative was:

You should vote against Romney because he’s not on your side. His policies favor the rich because he’s rich, he’s always been rich, and the rich are the only people he understands or cares about.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen Obama’s people establishing that narrative and Romney’s people floundering to counter it. The threads of that story are Romney killing American jobs while he was at Bain Capital and Romney maneuvering around taxes by running his money through Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland.

When this stuff came up in the Republican primaries, Romney toughed it out by saying his critics were jealous of his successhe did nothing illegal, and he wasn’t going to talk about it.

Those answers worked then for two reasons:

But Romney should fire whoever told him the same answers would work now. The Republican establishment may have whipped Gingrich and Perry into line, but they can’t make Obama back off. And general-election swing voters do see tax evasion as a moral issue. It’s not enough for Romney’s high-priced accountants to follow the letter of the law. When the rich wriggle out of taxes by using special dodges not available to working people, that’s not clever, it’s sleezy.

Plus, it undermines the pro-Romney narrative, which I phrased like this:

This country is going the wrong way and Romney is a smart executive who knows how to turn things around.

Sure, Romney is smart. But is he Steven Jobs smart or Bernie Madoff smart? Swiss bank accounts, Bermuda shell corporations, deals where Romney walks away with all the money and everybody else gets screwed … what does that sound like?

Once you get past first impressions, the argument over Bain turns technical, which is never good for a politician trying to dispel a bad odor. (That’s what Lee Atwater meant when he said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” — a line Romney misquoted and apparently doesn’t understand.) Romney’s defense against the job-exporter charge is that Bain outsourced to Mexico and China only after Romney left in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. That answer temporarily convinced New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who, in a remarkably balanced analysis, concluded that Obama’s attacks were false … until the next shoe dropped and he had to write an update.

The next shoe was the Boston Globe uncovering filings with the SEC in which Bain listed Romney as CEO up to 2002 and said he made a six-figure salary for what he now claims was a no-show job. Also, when Massachusetts Democrats challenged his residency prior to his 2002 run for governor (partly because Romney had been avoiding state taxes by listing his Utah home as his primary residence), Mitt claimed he was merely “on leave” from Boston-based Bain, making Massachusetts his real home.

So where Romney lives, who he works for, and the location of his money all vary depending on who’s asking and why.

Shifty. Sleezy. And in retrospect, maybe not as clever as he thought.

On Friday, Romney broke out of his bubble and let himself be interviewed by every major news network other than MSNBC. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t understand the playbook for such situations. Unlike, say, Barack Obama trying to settle the Jeremiah Wright controversy or the Clintons responding to Gennifer Flowers’ charges, Romney offered no deeper insight into himself and no broader frame for the story as a whole. Instead, he just put his own face behind the unconvincing denials his people had already offered.

Two media responses to the Romney interview blitz sum up how ineffective it was. Rachel Maddow (of the spurned MSNBC) laughed at the situation:

And Forbes’ T. J. Walker captured how little Romney had settled in 35 Questions Mitt Romney Must Answer About Bain Capital Before The Issue Can Go Away.

Meanwhile, there’s some evidence that the Bain story is moving the polls in swing states, where Obama is running ads like this one.

But at this stage, the main thing is the narrative, not the polls. Come November, both Romney and Obama will need a closing argument to convince those last few undecideds. That argument will have to build on the stories being established now. “I’m a smart executive” is not going to do the job.

What Happened in Wisconsin?

Short version: The long anticipated recall of Governor Scott Walker fizzled. Walker won the rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by almost exactly the same margin (53%-46%) as their 2010 race.

Longer version: Split decision. The Democrats appear to have won one of the four state senate recall elections. The Republican hasn’t conceded and a recount seems likely, but if the 779-vote margin holds up, Democrats will control the Wisconsin senate.

So the upshot is that the union-busting Walker has already done will stand for another two years, as will his education cuts and the voter suppression law (if it ultimately survives its court challenge). But Walker won’t get any new shenanigans through the legislature until at least 2013, if then. That’s a big improvement on the way things were when the demonstrations started in February, 2011. Then Walker had solid majorities in both houses and could do pretty much whatever he wanted.

What it means. Everybody has been working hard to spin the result. Republicans want it to be a vindication of Walker’s policies and a sign that Romney can win Wisconsin in the fall. Democrats want to read it either as a rejection of the recall process itself, with little meaning for President Obama or even for Walker’s re-election in 2014, or as a sign of the Citizens United apocalypse, in which massive contributions from the very wealthy can buy a result.

Exit polls. The big reason to doubt Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin is Tuesday’s exit poll: Obama over Romney 51%-44%.

Republicans spin this by claiming the poll had a Democratic bias:

Considering the exit polls the media relied on showed a razor-thin difference between Walker and his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the logic behind some huge lead for Obama, produced by the same exit polls, melts away. Walker defeated Barrett by a 7-point margin.

Apply that same analysis to Obama’s 7-point lead in the same exit polls and the race in Wisconsin is actually closer to being dead even.

This point is bogus. The early exit poll, reflecting only people who voted in the morning, showed a neck-and-neck race between Walker and Barrett. But Obama’s 7-point lead comes from the final exit poll, which shows Walker winning by about the right margin. (Atlantic’s Molly Ball describes how exit polls work.)

Doubting the process. Walker got 53% of the vote. But according to the exit poll, 70% of the voters were dubious about whether a recall was appropriate at all. Of the 10% who said a recall was “never” appropriate, 94% voted for Walker. 60% believe in recalls “only for official misconduct”; Walker got 68% of their votes.

I think the wording of the choices skewed this result a little. The only other option — that a recall is appropriate “for any reason” — is too loose.  The actual justification for the recall — that compared to Walker’s radical policies, his vaguely conservative 2010 campaign amounted to fraud — might have gotten more than 27% agreement.

Still, it does seem that many voters set Walker a lower bar than he’d face in a regular election. For them, the question wasn’t whether Walker or Barrett would be a better governor, but whether Walker had done anything so egregious that the 2010 election should be overturned.

A good comparison here was the Clinton impeachment. Many people who disliked Clinton’s policies and thought his sexual escapades were shameful nonetheless believed that impeachment was unwarranted.

Not like Ohio. Another instructive comparison is Ohio, where Governor Kasich’s similarly vague cut-spending/create-jobs 2010 campaign led to a similarly radical ALEC agenda after the election. As in Wisconsin, Kasich’s attack on workers’ rights led to a popular backlash.

But Ohio’s constitution allows the voters to go after laws directly. So last November Ohio repealed Kasich’s anti-union S.B. 5 in a referendum by a 61%-39% margin.

In Wisconsin, the voters’ only recourse was to recall the people it had just elected, and the recall couldn’t begin until the officials had served a year in office. As a result, Tuesday’s recall was the culmination of more than a year of political turmoil: Democratic senators escaping to Illinois to deny Walker a quorum, the April 2011 Supreme Court election, and the state senate recall elections of last summer.

So it’s not surprising that some fed-up voters would be angry the recall itself. As one questioner at Netroots Nation’s Wisconsin post-mortem panel commented Friday: “If Wisconsin had had the same mechanism as Ohio, if we’d been able to go directly after the law, we would have gotten the same result.” (I watched the session’s livestream and haven’t re-watched the tape, so my quotations are only approximate. The fuzzily-sourced quotes below are due to my sketchy notes.)

Madison was the first Occupation

The message disconnect. The massive demonstrations in Madison in 2011 were the prototype for Occupy Wall Street. The Wisconsin protests had the same grass-roots, horizontally organized structure and the same independence from parties and candidates. As Harry Waisbren put it at Netroots Nation:

This movement is not about electing Democrats, it’s about ending the corporate subversion of our democracy.

But that led to a problem: The Occupy-style grass-roots movement was great at collecting one million signatures for the recall-Walker petition. But as soon as that petition was filed, the focus of the process necessarily shifted to electing Democrats — precisely what the movement is not about. Election campaigns continue to be top-down political-consultant-driven operations.

Things got worse after the primary, which was won by the centrist Barrett rather than the activists’ favorite candidate, Kathleen Falk. So rather than a referendum to restore workers’ rights, public education, and environmental protections, the campaign became a generic do-over of the 2010 Walker/Barrett race. As one Netroots Nation panelist put it:

Barrett never really focused on the messages that were coming up from the grass roots.

Now, maybe Barrett looked at his polling and decided those issues were losers. Who knows? But as a result, the logic of the recall slipped away. “The narrative was lost,” Waisbren commented. That led directly to the sense of the recall’s illegitimacy that was expressed in the exit poll.

Walker’s money advantage. This was the most expensive campaign in Wisconsin history, and Walker had an overwhelming money advantage. Mother Jones provides this chart:

In addition to these millions, millions more were spent by outside groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity on “issue ads” that couldn’t directly say “Vote for Walker”, but left little doubt who you should support. All told, the Center for Public Integrity estimates that $63.5 million was spent. Walker’s ads started appearing back in November. As one Netroots Nation panelist said:

No one who lives in Wisconsin could doubt that Walker owned the airwaves.

What money can do. A lot of people are skeptical that it’s possible to buy an election. History is full of well-financed candidates who went nowhere, like Rudy Giuliani in 2008 or Phil Gramm in 1996. As Giulani now says:

Campaign spending doesn’t mean anything because you can spend it incorrectly.

Similarly, Rudy could say that being seven feet tall doesn’t mean anything in basketball, because you might be clumsy. But what if you’re not? What can you do with a cash advantage like Walker’s if you spend it correctly?

Obviously, nobody’s going to vote for Walker just because they’ve heard “Vote for Walker” 100 times and “Vote for Barrett” only 10-15 times. Where Walker-level money comes into play isn’t just in repetition, it’s in re-defining reality.

The jobs issue was a key example. The slogan of Walker’s controversial 2011 budget was “Wisconsin is Open for Business“. His agenda’s whole point was that industry would create jobs if the state cut corporate taxes, broke unions, and stopped protecting workers and the environment.

It hasn’t worked. The Wisconsin Budget Project looked at statistics from the Federal Reserve and concluded:

If we use December 2010 as our baseline for analysis, the newly released data indicate that only one other state (Alaska) has experienced slower growth than Wisconsin.

And Bloomberg News — hardly a left-wing outfit — reported:

Wisconsin was ranked last among states and the District of Columbia in economic health in 2011, the first year of Walker’s tenure, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.

Walker didn’t like those numbers, so he made up his own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wisconsin had lost 33,900 jobs. But Walker’s re-analysis said that Wisconsin had gained 23,321 jobs. And then he blanketed the airwaves with this ad:

As Netroots Nation panelist Emily Mills pointed out, any state could adjust its numbers in the same way:

Whatever metric you use on jobs, if you apply the same metric to every state, Wisconsin is still dead last.

But nobody had millions of dollars to spread that message across the state, so Walker’s message stood.

That’s Wisconsin’s lesson for the post-Citizens-United era: The best use of money in politics is to define reality. Don’t just tell citizens to vote for you, create a virtual world in which voting for you makes sense.

What it means for November. Mitt Romney has a lot of disadvantages: He’s not very likeable. He’s a bad campaigner who has a habit of saying things like “I like to be able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He’s a wooden debater who has yet to appear outside the conservative bubble. He has taken a lot of radical right-wing positions that he’ll have a hard time running away from. And he’s the poster boy for income inequality and financiers run amok.

But you have to give Romney this: He knows how to raise vast amounts of money and bury his opponents with it. And he has no scruples about redefining reality.

Limitless amounts of money are going to be spent in the fall. And while Obama is no slouch as a fund-raiser, he’s going to be outspent by a wide margin, especially if you count the corporate-funded outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads, whose ads I’ve already seen repeatedly during the NBA playoffs.

The bulk of that money isn’t going to be spent saying “Vote for Romney”. It’s going to be used to redefine reality. Millions already believe (falsely) that Obama raised their taxes, that he cut defense, that he isn’t really an American citizen, that he’s secretly Muslim, that the stimulus didn’t create jobs, and on and on and on. By November, millions more will believe other false things that make it logical to support Romney over Obama.

In Wisconsin, Obama currently benefits a little from Walker’s redefinition of reality: If the Wisconsin economy is getting better, maybe Obama isn’t so bad.

But now that Walker is safe until 2014, the up-is-down campaign will reverse itself. Wisconsinites can expect to start hearing that they’re in a depression, that things were never this bad under President Bush, and so on. It will make a difference.

A 7% difference? Too soon to tell.

Challenging the Inquisition

In April I linked to a Religious News Service article about the Vatican’s attempt to rein in American nuns. Boiled down, Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or, as it was called in its glory days, the Inquisition) complained that the nuns were thinking for themselves rather than letting the bishops think for them, and letting human suffering distract them from fighting the culture wars.

Rome’s solution was to put a man in charge of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious*, which represents 45,000 American nuns. Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, will (in his own words) “review, guide and approve, where necessary, the work of the L.C.W.R.”

Picking up the gauntlet. Apparently, LCWR will not take this meekly. After a three-day meeting, LCWR’s board released a statement saying (more or less) that the Inquisitors don’t know what the Hell they’re talking about:

[LCWR] board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared. Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.

Unsubstantiated accusations, lack of transparency, and a flawed process, leading to disproportionate sanctions that cause scandal and pain … who would expect this from the Inquisition, given its sterling historical reputation?

LCWR’s president and executive director plan to go to Rome on June 12 to “raise and discuss the board’s concerns” with Sartain and his boss, Prefect (or, as the office used to be called, Grand Inquisitor) Cardinal William Levada.

Even after meeting the Grand Inquisitor face-to-face, the LCWR does not promise to obey, but only to “gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response”.

Conscience vs. obedience. So far, the Inquisition show no signs of being worried about the nuns’ response. Sartain’s recent article in the Catholic weekly America reads like the kind of flattery you shower on subordinates you expect to have no trouble with. (“That’s a good girl. Daddy’s proud of you.”**) He refers only obliquely and abstractly to his new role and mission, while effusively praising the obedient nuns of the past.

But in spite of having all the institutional power on its side, perhaps the Inquisition should be worried. A responding America article from Fordham University ethics professor Christine Firer Hines (not a nun) paints a more challenging picture:

Catholics sometimes compare the church to a corporation or a military organization, with clergy, religious, and laity answerable to bishops and pope as their top executives and CEO. From this (ecclesiologically dubious) vantagepoint, “wayward” behavior of L.C.W.R. members or their affiliates endangers the church’s discipline, and requires firm correction …

As Vatican II affirms, the episcopal office uniquely serves the revealed truth of the gospel. But that truth resides in and with the whole church. Beholden to military or business organizational models, pundits who deride L.C.W.R. sisters for posturing falsely as a “magisterium of nuns” disrespect the authentic authority not only of religious communities, but of the laity in their various charisms and vocations. Because the official magisterium does not have a monopoly on gospel truth, office-holders must constantly listen for that truth in the whole church …

From this point of view, the Vatican intervention, intended to “assist the L.C.W.R. in implementing necessary reforms” to bring it more fully in line with “an ecclesiology of communion,” cannot be properly understood as a one-way street. The very meaning of “communion” forbids this. … If bridges toward communion are to be strengthened in this process, what John Paul II calls the “dialogue that leads to repentance” must work in both directions.

In addition to implying that Rome’s treatment of women might have left it with something to repent, Hines’ implicit framing (“the magisterium” vs. “the whole church”) invites lay Catholics to interpret the hierarchy’s disrespect for the nuns as disrespect for them as well: Only the conscience of a bishop is valid; all others must simply get in line.

On the blog Catholic Moral Theology, St. John’s University theology professor Christopher Vogt uses similar framing:

It seems to me that one of the questions at the heart of this controversy is whether acting in conscience is primarily about being obedient to authority or about conscientious discernment.

He quotes the Inquisition’s assessment of LCWR:

Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office.  But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a ‘legitimate’ theological intuition of some of the faithful.

The assessment denies that possibility, leading Vogt to comment:

According to this framework, there is no possibility for the bishops ever to learn anything from the laity.  The bishops are never wrong; they don’t need any help.  Such a view collapses the tension we find in the [Second Vatican] Council documents which try to balance an affirmation of the importance and legitimacy of magisterial authority with the recognition that sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks authentically to the faithful in a manner that doesn’t pass through Rome – in the depths of their hearts.

It’s not just lay Catholic intellectuals who have taken up the nuns cause. The NYT reports:

Catholics in more than 50 cities held vigils and more than 52,000 have signed a petition in support of the sisters, organized by the Nun Justice Project, a coalition of liberal Catholic groups. The project is telling Catholics to withhold their donations to Peter’s Pence, a special collection sent to the Vatican, and give the money instead to local nuns’ groups.

Whose religious freedom? This argument comes at a time when the hierarchy is invoking “religious freedom” against the contraception provisions of Obamacare. But they defend an odd kind of religious freedom that America’s Founders would barely recognize: the freedom of religious institutions, a right virtually unrelated to (and sometimes at odds with) the consciences of individuals who are not bishops.

Meanwhile, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association — a consortium of organizations more directly affected by the contraception mandate — was happy with the compromise the Obama administration offered:

We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.

Commonweal, a left-leaning Catholic political journal, described the bishops’ argument as “hyperbolic” and warned:

If defending religious freedom becomes a partisan issue or, worse, an electoral ploy, it will engender enormous cynicism in an electorate in which a significant majority of voters already think religion is too politicized. … In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors.

Catholic Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne commented: “Many bishops seem to want this fight.” And on the NYT Opinionator blog, Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting first dissects the bishops’ arguments, then says:

their often demagogic reaction suggests political rather than religious concerns. There is, first, the internal politics of the Church, where the bishops find themselves, especially on matters of sexuality, increasingly isolated from most Church members; they seem desperate to rally at least a fervid core of supporters around their fading authority. But the timing of their outbursts also suggests a grasp for secular political power.

The wider issue. The Commonweal editorial quotes research from sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam showing that the politicization of churches is causing young adults to disengage from organized religion, a message similar to the one David Kinnaman (president of the evangelical Protestant research organization the Barna Group) put forward in the 2007 book unChristian

A similar message based on personal experience was in the blog post “How to win a culture war and lose a generation” I linked to two weeks ago, in which Rachel Held Evans described her 20-something generation as “ready to stop waging war and start washing feet”.

This is an issue that crosses denominational lines. In one sense, it is Christianity’s perennial doctrinal purity vs. good works conflict. But it seems to be striking this generation with particular force. More and more young adults want to know not which religion is winning or even which religion is right, but whether any religion does any good.

Through their lives of service, the nuns are showing one way to answer that question. The bishops seem deaf to it.***


* Translation from the Catholic: religious in this context comes from the Latin religata, meaning bound. In other words, these are not just women who have “got religion”, but women bound by their vows to the Church; i.e., nuns.

** Not a direct quote.

*** Probably you’ve already run into the story of Cardinal Dolan’s threat that Catholic organizations will halt their charitable work rather than comply with the contraception mandate. I’m not linking to that claim because I still haven’t found an unedited tape or transcript of enough of Dolan’s remarks to convince me he wasn’t taken out of context.

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