Siding With the Oppressor

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

In this week's Sift:

  • Is Justice a Christian Value? Glenn Beck thinks not. Jim Wallis is trying to call him to account.
  • “Under God” Yet Again. Michael Newdow's first suit against the Pledge of Allegiance made it to the Supreme Court, where it got thrown out for procedural reasons. Now he's back.
  • Richistan. Do the rich really live in another country? Robert Frank and Paul Krugman show us the new Gilded Age from two different angles.
  • Short Notes. A corporation announces that it is running for Congress. What corporate personhood might do to human personhood. The Cheney government in exile. Two creative ideas for avoiding gender discrimination. Bye-bye James Dobson. Why don't Republican sex scandals stick? Plainfield, NH takes a plain stand on same-sex marriage. Bachman keeps calling for revolution. Lack of health insurance really does kill people. You still suck at Photoshop. And more.

Is Justice a Christian Value?
Glenn Beck and the don't-call-me-liberal evangelical leader Jim Wallis (author of God's Politics) are having a throw-down. It started with Beck urging his listeners to leave churches that preach “social justice” because those are codes words used by the Communists and Nazis.

Wallis responded with a blog post saying:

Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. I don’t know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show.

Jerry Falwell Jr. (president of Liberty University, which was founded by his father, the late Jerry Falwell) came in on Beck's side. In a great piece of anachronism, Falwell said that Jesus wasn't interested in politics:

Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor's hand and give it to the poor.

Of course, if Jesus had talked about elections, no one would have known what he was talking about, because King Herod and Pontius Pilate didn't hold elections. So it makes just as much sense to claim that Jesus did call for electing such a government, but the disciples were too confused to write it down.

Wallis wants to debate the issue on Beck's show. Using my amazing prophetic powers, I foresee that this is not going to happen.

In another week or two I'm going to review Jeff Sharlet's The Family, which highlights this very issue. Everybody agrees that Jesus preached obedience to certain ethical principles. But there are two different ways to view this. Jim Wallis' branch of Christianity pictures the virtue as lying in the ethical principles, while Glenn Beck's branch pictures the virtue as lying in the obedience.

The two conflict when you start to talk about re-making the social and economic order in accordance with Christian ethical principles, because in order to do that, you have to disobey the current Powers That Be.

Full disclosure: I've already taken a position on this issue. I think there is a fundamental injustice at the root of our property system, and that individual charity is not sufficient to fix it. What's more, Beck's hero Thomas Paine agrees with me — as I explained at Chapel Hill last fall in a sermon called Who Owns the World?

“Under God”, Yet Again
Michael Newdow is back with another suit against including under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. His previous suit reached the Supreme Court in 2002, only to be dismissed on procedural grounds that didn't touch the underlying issue of whether the current Pledge violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Friday, his new suit lost on the appellate level, after having won at the district level. Probably the whole thing is headed for the Supremes again.

I wasn't surprised that Newdow lost 2-1, but I was disappointed in the reasoning of the majority opinion

The Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded and for which we continue to strive: one Nation under God—the Founding Fathers’ belief that the people of this nation are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights

… The Pledge reflects many beliefs held by the Founding Fathers of this country—the same men who authored the Establishment Clause—including the belief that it is the people who should and do hold the power, not the government. They believed that the people derive their most important rights, not from the government, but from God:

“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.” The Declaration of Independence, 1 U.S.C. § XLIII (1776) (emphasis added).

The Founders did not see these two ideas— that individuals possessed certain God-given rights which no government can take away, and that we do not want our nation to establish a religion—as being in conflict.

The majority wants to consider the Pledge recitation as a whole, and not the specific phrase under God, which was added to the Pledge by Congress in 1954. (In God we trust became the national motto two years later, though it had appeared on money as early as the Civil War.) As a whole, the majority opinion sees the recitation as having a patriotic purpose, not a religious one. And they imply that finding for Newdow and removing under God from the Pledge would somehow infringe the rights of believers.

this case presents a familiar dilemma in our pluralistic society—how to balance conflicting interests when one group wants to do something for patriotic reasons that another groups finds offensive to its religious (or atheistic) beliefs.

I could imagine a reasonable defense of under God, but this isn't it. This is more of a Texas-Education-Commission position than something I would expect from an appellate court. The original Pledge, without under God, is just as patriotic as the current Pledge. So the majority is really claiming that Congress can insert bits of religious ritual into patriotic observances, as long as the overall character remains patriotic.

I don't see how anyone can argue with Judge Stephen Reinhardt's dissent:

Were the majority to engage seriously with the history of the Pledge, it would be compelled to recognize beyond any doubt that the words “under God” were inserted with the explicit and deliberate intention of endorsing a particular religious belief, of compelling nonadherents to that belief to pronounce the belief publicly or be labeled un-American, and of instilling the particular religious view in America’s youth through daily indoctrination in the public schools.

Here's my question: Does under God serve any purpose other than rubbing atheists' and polytheists' noses in the dirt? Having mindlessly recited the Pledge many times while growing up, I doubt it changes any child's theology. And if you doubt that it does rub noses in the dirt, try saying the Pledge with other phases, like under the gods or under Goddess or under no God.

To take that thought experiment one step further, picture this: It's 100 A.D. and Christianity is just starting to take off. So the Emperor Trajan decrees that all children must start their day by reciting a pledge that Rome is “one Empire, under the gods”. If you're a Christian, do you let your children say it?

I recently finished the book Richistan by Robert Frank. Frank is the WSJ's reporter on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, who have become such a closed and cut-off society that Frank regards them as a country unto themselves (hence the title). The book is from 2007, so pre-crash and a little out of date. But it's a quick read and a lot of fun.

I bring it up because it makes a nice pair with Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, also from 2007. They report the same story from two different angles. The story is that vast American fortunes were built during the Gilded Age (late 19th century), but then the New Deal changed government policies in a way that discouraged the creation of new fortunes and diminished the ones that already existed. In the 60s and 70s, the rich were largely Old Money and demoralized — it wasn't cool to flaunt your wealth. But policies changed with Ronald Reagan, and a new Gilded Age started. Inequality grew, new fortunes were made, and the rich are now ascendent again — you can't be too rich or too ostentatious about flaunting it.

Krugman tells this story from a macro-economic view, with graphs and statistics. Frank gives you the ground-level view, interviewing rich people and showing how the culture of Richistan has changed in the last few decades. But it's the same story.

Short Notes
Yesterday I gave a talk about how and why I do the Sift, and I promised people a link to a text version. Preparing the text has turned out to take more time than I have, given that I'm putting out the Sift today, so that link will have to wait until next week.

In a great response to the Supreme Court's corporate-personhood decision in the Citizens United case, Murray Hill, Inc. has announced that it is running for Congress: “Now that democracy is truly for sale, Murray Hill is offering top dollar.”

I look at corporate personhood from a more spiritual perspective in my latest UU World column. I pull back and look at what the long-term increase in corporate power has been doing to us as people. I find it not quite infantilizing, but certainly toddlerizing:

As corporations’ power to shape our society increases, I expect to see my toddlerization increase as well. The portion of my life in which I am expected, encouraged, or even allowed to act like an adult will continue to shrink—slowly, perhaps even invisibly, on a day-to-day basis. But decade-to-decade, how will it change me? Generation-to-generation, how will it change the human race? 

The Texas Education Board marches on, approving new fundamentalist-conservative standards in social studies.

Tired of men staring at your chest instead of looking you in the eye? Try this.

Or, if you believe that being a woman is holding you back in your web-based business … just take a man's name. Who's going to know?

It's been a while since I've linked to an episode of You Suck at Photoshop. Donny explains the Vanishing Point tool, because we all need to vanish sometimes.

Every now and then David Brooks does more than repeat conservative talking points:

Obama is four clicks to my left on most issues. He is inadequate on the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade. He has misread the country, imagining a hunger for federal activism that doesn’t exist. But he is still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington.

New York magazine has a profile of “The Cheney Government in Exile” — including Liz Cheney's political prospects.

Polls are turning in the Democrats' direction on health care.

Tom Toles comments on passing health care reform by majority vote.

In the wake of Eric Massa's resignation, Matt Yglesias wonders why John Ensign is still in office.  And Steve Benen examines the larger point that Republican sex scandals don't stick.

It's not just scandals, it's family values in general: Rhetoric replaces behavior. It's hard to imagine, say, a Democrat with multiple divorces being discussed as a viable presidential candidate, as Newt Gingrich is and Rudi Giuliani was last time around. And you'll never convince Palin fans that she wasn't persecuted, but it's just unimaginable that an little-known Democratic VP candidate could have survived the revelation of an unmarried pregnant teen-age daughter.

It looks like we won't have James Dobson to kick around any more.

Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget by slowly throttling Medicare (while cutting rich people's taxes and raising everybody else's) may have one other problem: It doesn't balance the budget.

It's an article of faith among the anti-gay-marriage crowd that the New Hampshire legislature overstepped itself by allowing same-sex marriage in this state. They're sure the people don't want it, so they started a movement called “Let New Hampshire Vote” to get local town meetings to pass a warrant saying:

The citizens of New Hampshire should be allowed to vote on an amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution that defines “marriage”.

Well, that article came up in the small town of Plainfield, but it got amended so that instead Plainfield will write a letter to the governor and legislature

commending them for passing and signing into law legislation affirming marriage equality for all New Hampshire residents.

The commendation passed 185-40. The people of Plainfield have spoken.

Rep. Michele Bachman says that passing health care reform through the reconciliation process (which is already of mis-statement of the Democrats' plan, as I explained two weeks ago) is “illegitimate” and says “We don't have to follow a bill that isn't law.” Because, as we all know, government-mandated health care is the end of freedom in America. If we sit still for it, we'll become one of those communist dictatorships like Canada.

Speaking of Canada, Sarah Palin reveals that when she was a girl, her family used to cross the border to get health care in Canada. No wonder she's so opposed to “socialism”, having seen it close-up like that.

Johann Hari in the Nation writes a strong indictment of mainstream environmental groups. Quoting Christine MacDonald, author of Green, Inc.:

Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them.

 A recent article in Atlantic suggested that insuring the uninsured might not save lives. Harvard Professor J. Michael Williams looks at a more complete body of evidence and concludes this about the number of lives that universal health care could save each year:

A rigorous body of research tells us the answer is many, probably thousands if not tens of thousands.

Slate reviews Diane Ravitch's book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I get the impression of an author who would love to have an ax to grind, but can't find one that's convincing to her. (I may have to read this book.)

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  • Matthew Platte  On March 16, 2010 at 12:18 am

    In my web browser the following is one complete line of text:

    “while Glenn Beck's branch pictures the virtue as lying”

    …'nuff said.

  • Jordan & Margy  On March 19, 2010 at 8:08 am

    A thought about corporate “personhood” and “toddlerization”, since you chose to take the long view on this one:

    As corporations’ power to shape our society increases, I expect to see my toddlerization increase as well. The portion of my life in which I am expected, encouraged, or even allowed to act like an adult will continue to shrink—slowly, perhaps even invisibly, on a day-to-day basis. But decade-to-decade, how will it change me? Generation-to-generation, how will it change the human race?

    Back when Ogg and Ollie were blogging on their stone tablets, I don't find it too hard to imagine a conversation about agriculture that went kind of the same way.

    “Real adults” ran around with spears and slings and what not, killing their dinner and bringing it home. The amount of autonomy you have to give up to live in an agricultural society could seem “toddlerizing” to a hunter/gatherer.

    As that society becomes more organized and irrigation starts up, you have to give up not only autonomy, but submit to authority.

    As I sit here on the bus on the way to work, having given up my car (for the day), and thereby lost the autonomy to go where ever I want, when ever I want, have I become “toddlerized?”

    So much of what we accomplish as human beings is possible only because of our ability to combine into larger groupings, yet that combination inevitably requires some trade-off in autonomy. I am (hopefully) commuting to work in a more sustainable way by having given up my autonomy to drive, allowing this piece of our complex society to evolve in a way it couldn't if it became limited by our carbon footprint. OK, that may be kind of a stretch, but I think you get the point.

    I'm as big a skeptic of corporate personhood as the next guy – I'm the one with the “Corporations are not people” bumpersticker on the car (that I drive around town).

    But I wonder of much of human progress doesn't come from that blurring of the line between who “I” am and who “we” are.

    … Like I said, since you chose to pick the long view for this….


  • Doug Muder  On March 19, 2010 at 11:56 am

    But I wasn't talking about giving up autonomy, I was talking about giving up relationship. Precisely what I was pointing to was an increased “me” focus, where the process issues of who “we” are become invisible.

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