Faith Restored

Now we know that there is, apparently, more gold to be mined in the hills of homophobia and ignorance that A&E has leased from self-described rednecks from Louisiana, folks who shout their love for Jesus every chance they get, but more than likely will be much more careful in the future about just who they share their theological and historical and God-blessed insights with.

In any case, the thing is done. The corporate hoes at A&E think they have it figured out: disavow the family’s views (“they are not the views we hold,” the hoes said), then “launch a national public service campaign (PSA) promoting, unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people,” and then get back to money-making, especially now that the rednecks and fellow-traveling rednecks, including evangelical spiritual rednecks, are more eager than ever to show their approval by parting with more of their in-G0d-we-trust mammon to purchase “Hey! Get Merry” Duck Dynasty Christmas jars or “Redneck Approved” Duck Dynasty pint glasses. That latter offering comes with a side-view portrait of the patriarch saying, “Where I live, I am 911.” And I thought all this time that Jesus was the First Responder.

I found this headline on the Jesus-fearing, God-loving, Allah-hating website Breitbart:

christians rejoiceIf you, like me, were wondering exactly what it is that Christians are rejoicing over, it didn’t take long to find out. President of the ultra-Jeezussy Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, shared his hallelujahs with us:

Perkins said it is “good news for Christians who feel like they have to suppress their faith and their belief in the Bible.” According to Perkins, it shows that, if you stand up to these “cultural bullies,” eventually they have to back down. Perkins explained that there are people from red states that are “very deeply” concerned with moral truths. “They are Christians who want to live out their faith” so the cultural elite like A&E and GLADD are going to have to recognize they are not going to change what they believe in.

Translation: All you Bible thumpers and trumpeters out there, hold fast to your hate-the-sin homophobia, back it up with a little New Testament gibberish, and then watch the profit-makers melt in the face of your “moral truth$.”

Meanwhile, speaking of faith, my faith in corporate America has been restored. Hallelujah.

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Why We Should Keep Talking About Phil Robertson

A lot of people want to stop talking about this Duck Dynasty stuff. They want it to go away and don’t want to hear about it anymore. Enough already! they say. Well, not so fast.

We shouldn’t be so quick to forget what Phil Robertson represents in 21st-century America. We should force ourselves to come to terms with the fact that a lot of Americans are under the spell of, or hiding their bigotry behind, bigoted Christian fundamentalism. It is similar (but not identical) to the kind of fundamentalism we all—conservative Christians included—have little trouble condemning when the zealot’s name is not Phil but Mahmoud, when the place is not Louisiana but Kandahar, when the religion is not Christianity but Islam.

A commenter wrote in regarding my last piece on Duck Dynasty (“Muck Dynasty”) and told me how much his liberal wife “LIKES the show.” He said his wife “thinks it is funny.” That she,

sees a family that “came out of a swamp” and has joined society in a productive manner, promoting many “good values” based on faith, “iron age theology” as Duane calls it.

Here is my response to the commenter:

First, let me start with what you said at the end:

Based on listening to an intelligent woman, a liberal woman, a kind and caring woman that “likes the Ducks”, I sense there is far more to that family than presented above in another rant from Duane against people of faith.

It’s fine with me that your wife likes Duck Dynasty. Heck, reportedly President Obama likes it, too, a fact that may send the show’s ratings into the toilet when producers at Fox “News” find out Obama is a fan and begin producing segments about how A&E and Obama conspired to create Duck Dynasty in order to embarrass evangelical Christians, rid the country of Christmas, and usher in an Islamic caliphate.

But what I really want to address is that last thing you said, about me ranting “against people of faith.” Nonsense. I know that people who don’t track (or read) carefully all of my writings about fundamentalist religion (including both Christianity and Islam, by the way), think that I am at war with people of faith.  I am not. I would defy you, or anyone else, to find anything I’ve written that disparages people of faith for simply being people of faith. I don’t disparage such people. As far as you know, I may be one of them myself, even though I gave up evangelical fanaticism long ago. And for the record, there are plenty of liberal Democrats who call themselves people of faith. Some even call themselves evangelicals.

What I do disparage, and disparage very loudly, is the adoption of the I-am-certain-because-God-said-so bigotry and ignorance of ancient tribes of religious zealots (and their literal and spiritual descendants), or the use of I-am-certain-because-God-said-so religious zealotry as a cover for the bigotry and ignorance that certain people hold independently of their faith. In short, I am not opposed to religious faith, I am opposed to the kind of religious faith that embraces or protects, as a badge of honor, bigotry and ignorance.Behind the Scenes Photo

As for your defense of the Robertson patriarch and his family—you said that you sensed “there is far more to that family” than was presented in my piece—I’m afraid you didn’t quite get what I was getting at. The focus of my piece was not the moral status of the white-trash patriarch (again, he described himself that way; why?) or his family (described on their website as “redneck royalty”; again, why?). Neither you nor I know what kind of people they are in real life (that show is not their real life, by the way; in our real lives we don’t have TV cameras following us around like flies; at least I don’t). You said the patriarch “does not hate gays or blacks.” Who said he did? I certainly didn’t. What I did say was this:

I’m worried about this country. I’m worried about it not because Phil Robertson is a dangerous man. He isn’t. He’s just someone to be pitied, in terms of his social IQ. I’m worried about the country because it is still pregnant with the kind of bigotry and ignorance that Phil Robertson represents.

You see? The point was not his personal morality, one way or the other, but his embrace and promotion of bigotry and ignorance. You asked in another comment why I used the term “social IQ” and what I meant when I said the man should be pitied because of his. Let me explain. Like the great Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist of great renown, I believe there is such a thing as “interpersonal intelligence.” Here is a handy definition:

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people: what motivates them, how they work, how to work cooperatively with them.

The kind of falsely-certain religious fundamentalism that Phil Robertson represents and celebrates, the kind that allows him to compare gay sex to bestiality, the kind that blinds him to the realities of African-American life in the Jim Crow South, is the dangerous thing, not Phil Robertson himself. Religious fundamentalism, whether it be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim (and there are additional examples) retards people’s ability to understand others and what motivates them. It makes it very hard to make any social progress, in terms of getting past “gays are sinners”—who are headed for hell—and past “blacks were happier”—before all that “welfare” stuff came around. Religious fundamentalism is an impediment to increasing one’s social IQ, an enemy of one’s ability to understand and thus to “work cooperatively” with others. It is an enemy, therefore, of social progress.

In a country with more than 317 million folks, in a world with more than 7 billion people, with gays, straights, and everything in between, with blacks, whites, and every shade in between, the last thing we can afford to do is embrace notions that make it not only more difficult to understand people who don’t act or look like us, but to make such folks pay a legal price for not acting or looking like us.

Because of such notions, we once kept black people as slaves. Because of such notions, we still regard homosexuals as second-class citizens (or worse) in so many ways. These ideas, and the fundamentalist nonsense that may spawn them or give them social cover, aren’t just silly notions in the head of one man who got rich making duck calls and who now entertains people with the not-so-real exploits of his Duck Commander family. These ideas represent something we need to address as a society, something that needs more discussion not less, something that ultimately needs to disappear, if we want to continue to advance as an inclusive and equitable civilization.

Muck Dynasty

It’s no surprise that white trash patriarch Phil Robertson (he calls himself white trash, people; don’t blame me), of A&E’s popular (reportedly 14 million bleeping people watch the show each week) Duck Dynasty family, has revealed himself to be breathtakingly ignorant about gays and about black history. After all, it’s not all that uncommon for religious zealots to hate the gay and to think blacks were as happy as larks picking cotton for The Man, uh, The White Man.

And it’s not a bit surprising that so many conservatives, like the cartoonish Sarah Palin, have openly rushed to his side to offer their support of his bigotry and ignorance. In fact, that kind of bigotry and ignorance thrives in the GOP. Bigotry and ignorance is the life blood of the party these days.

But I was surprised that someone I know (locally) to be a staunch Democrat rushed to the defense of the white trash patriarch (again, don’t blame me for phrasing it that way; I’m just honoring his own description). Why, you might ask, would a fiercely partisan Democrat be so eager to endorse the bigotry and ignorance of Mr. Robertson? Why would he be so eager to post this picture on Facebook:

I’ll let him tell you:

I love the way the man speaks openly about his love for Jesus.

Yep. It turns out that loving Jesus, or more accurately, saying publicly you love Jesus, covers a multitude of sins, including, presumably, the sin of bigotry and, in the case of Phil Robertson, the sin of ignorance—the man has a Master’s degree in (I’m gasping for air here) education, for Allah’s sake. There is no way you can go through that much schooling and not know at least a little science about sexuality and a little history about Jim Crow and the oppression of black people. And as many have pointed out, the man is old enough to have lived through some of the horrendous events in the South, when blacks were suffering and dying at the hands of white racists, but who, according to Phil Robertson, were “singing and happy” the whole time.

But forget Phil Robertson. Forget the forgettable Duck Dynasty. We have a real problem in this country when prominent members of a major political party essentially endorse bigotry and ignorance—yes, I’ve used those terms a lot and I ain’t finished—like they were endorsing apple pie and Chevrolet. And there is an even bigger problem when just because a man says publicly that he loves Jesus, all is forgiven, or, worse, accepted. We have, thankfully, got past the point where white Jesus-lovers can publicly persecute black Jesus-lovers in America. But we have a long way to go before Jesus-lovers of every color will stop persecuting Jesus-loving and non-Jesus-loving  gay people. And that is where I want to part ways with a person I think is one of the smartest guys, one of the most astute liberals, on television, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

On his Thursday show, discussing Phil Robertson’s bigotry and ignorance, Chris Hayes condemned Robertson’s remarks but said he agreed with those, like Sarah Palin, who object to A&E suspending the bigot from his popular cable TV show. Because Robertson represents a large segment of the population, the argument goes, he should be able to spout his nonsense with impunity because such nonsense is not considered nonsense among people who find the Robertsons’ entertaining and—yikes!—inspiring.

Bulldook. A&E certainly has the right to keep employing Mr. Robertson and his Republican-loving family and to keep producing their unreal reality show. No one disputes that. But apparently A&E believes it has at least some civic responsibility not to promote extremism, particularly extremism based on such atomic bigotry and ignorance. And the network is right not to do so. The A&E executives ought to be applauded, especially by liberals, for their action instead of condemned for it. There is no First Amendment case here. No one has an unfettered right to speak, whether it be foolishness or non-foolishness, on a TV network.

Imagine if Phil Robertson, thought, and said so out loud, that during WWII, as far as he knew, Jews were really happy and never sang the blues. “Holocuast? I never saw no stinkin’ Holocaust!”  Imagine if one of the Duck Dynasty cast members thought, and said so out loud, that homosexuality will lead to human beings banging beasts! Wait! We don’t have to imagine it. Ol’ Phil actually said it:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.

I’m worried about this country. I’m worried about it not because Phil Robertson is a dangerous man. He isn’t. He’s just someone to be pitied, in terms of his social IQ. I’m worried about the country because it is still pregnant with the kind of bigotry and ignorance that Phil Robertson represents. And as we get deeper into the 21st-century, we can’t afford to indulge, or entertain ourselves with, such nonsense. Religion is one thing. Bigotry and ignorance (last time) is another. And it is about time people learn the difference, even if it means there may be no more Duck Dynasty.

It’s Official: American Conservatives Have Fallen In Love With A Russian Thug

Giving the finger to the homophobic president of Russia, President Obama is sending a couple of openly gay delegates to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow will be among those who will greet Vladimir Putin, who signed laws this past summer that prohibit gay couples from adopting Russian-born kids and that prohibit “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.” In other words, the Russians, whose past leaders have killed millions upon millions of their own countrymen, think gay people represent considerable danger to the kiddies.

But the public homophobia of Putin and Russian legislators is positively mild compared to what The Hollywood Reporter discovered:

Popular Russian actor Ivan Okhlobystin, known for his intention to run for president two years ago, made scathing homophobic statements at a “spiritual talk” that he gave in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Addressing the audience, he said that homosexuals should be burned alive, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
I would put all the gays alive into an oven,” Okhlobystin, formerly an Orthodox priest, was quoted as saying. “This is Sodom and Gomorrah! As a religious person, I cannot be indifferent about it because it is a real threat to my children!”

He also compared homosexuality with fascism and added obscenities to his comments.

“I would put all the gays alive into an oven,” the former priest and current “religious person” said. Wow. How awful. At least we Americans have evolved on the issue of homosexuality, right? Well, not quite.

If you want to know what white conservative Christians in America are thinking about almost any subject, all you need to do is go see Pat Buchanan. He is the whitest, the most conservative, the most Christian Christian we have. Yesterday, in a column that can only be described as mind-blowing, he actually embraced Vladimir Putin as a “paleoconservative” in the mold of, well, Pat Buchanan. “In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?” Buchanan asks his readers about Putin. Yes, he did. He actually asked that question. And he answered it, too. He wants American conservatives to identify themselves with the thuggish, homophobic, anti-democratic, authoritarian president of Russia, a former officer in the KGB.

But Buchanan doesn’t like Putin in spite of his homophobia, or in spite of his authoritarian impulses. He likes him because of those attributes. Buchanan, like many conservatives these days, admires the unyielding absolutists and dogmatists among us, especially if they are willing to impose their unassailable dogmatism on everyone else. Buchanan writes:

With America clearly in mind, Putin declared, “In many countries today, moral and ethical norms are being reconsidered.”

“They’re now requiring not only the proper acknowledgment of freedom of conscience, political views and private life, but also the mandatory acknowledgment of the equality of good and evil.”

Translation: While privacy and freedom of thought, religion and speech are cherished rights, to equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil.

No moral confusion here, this is moral clarity, agree or disagree.

Well, David Frum, a conservative without a dominant reptilian brain, disagrees. Frum commented on Buchanan’s insane column:

Putin is a killer, a despot, and a thief on a world-historical scale, but the important thing is that he hates gays!

Yes, Putin hates gays and therefore represents everything that the right, as we know it today, loves. From Sean Hannity to Matt Drudge and now to Pat Buchanan, the right seems to have fallen in love with someone they can respect, as opposed to their own president, who happens to represent everything they fear: a pigmented Democrat whose complexion represents the future, a man with a scandal-less personal life who believes that women ought to decide for themselves when to bring children into the world, who doesn’t love war, and who doesn’t hate homosexuals.

And speaking of President Obama, without a doubt the most reprehensible part of Buchanan’s mega-reprehensible column is this:

President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire “the focus of evil in the modern world.” President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.

Nor is he without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.

Here we have Pat Buchanan, speaking for an old-time conservatism that the Tea Party has embraced, essentially endorsing the claim that our country is “the focus of evil in the modern world.” It is beyond outrageous. It is sick. The man is sick in his theologically and ideologically poisoned mind. This is more than the usual “decadent west” column that conservatives like Buchanan feel they have to write now and then in order to remind their followers that this ain’t your white granddaddy’s America anymore (he says: “Our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live,” without mentioning that African-American grandparents wouldn’t recognize a Jim Crow-less America either.) This is a call for Christian America (“We are two countries now,” Buchanan says) to embrace a Russian thug because that Russian thug embraces the Culture War that white conservative Christians have been fighting, and losing, at least since Bill Buckley squirmed out of his mother’s belly.

But as a former fanatical follower of Bill Buckley, I just can’t imagine that if he were still among the living he would side with Buchanan in his absolute loathing of “Barack Obama’s America” or endorse his weird attraction to a former Russian KGB Lieutenant Colonel. But he might. We live in unbelievably strange times. Conservatism has rotted from the inside because of the ancient hate it refuses to relinquish. It has fallen so far that some conservatives even hate their own country and are erect with pride as they jump into bed with a sleazy Russian reactionary, who happens to hate many of the same things they have always hated.

In an odd way, Pat Buchanan has done us a favor by writing his Putin-loving column. He has shown us that the heart of 21st-century American conservatism is very cold, unquestionably dark, and, sadly, unpatriotic.

The Inflation Monster Is A Pussycat…Now, How About A Jobs Strategy?

The Wall Street Journal published a short article that should be read by every policy maker in the country. In fact, a simple glance at the accompanying graph should be enough to settle any debate about what it is that policy makers in the federal government and in the various state governments should be focusing on in 2014: jobs, jobs, jobs. Just look:

inflation graphAs you can see, inflation has been trending downward and there has been very little of it this year. Thus, the loose monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, which have helped keep the economy afloat, have not done what conservatives, for many years now, have warned us they would do: create crippling inflation. (Exactly how many times can right-wingers be wrong before media types stop paying attention to them?) Without those loose monetary policies I’d hate to think what shape this economy would be in. But obviously what the Federal Reserve has been doing isn’t enough, even though it should keep doing it. Without the fear of inflation (oh, I know there are those who fear it no matter what the actual numbers say) the Fed should continue stimulating the economy by keeping interest rates low (they’re essentially at zero right now) and by continuing to purchase bonds (known as “quantitative easing”).

But more important is what the fiscal policy makers in Washington should be doing, you know, those legislators who are supposed to be doing things that help job growth, not hurt it. It is past time for them to get off the laps of their donors and get to work at getting more Americans back to work. It is past time for Democrats to express public outrage—real disgust and outrage—at the refusal of Republicans to do anything that might contribute to reducing the amount of unemployment in the country.

And the expression of that public outrage should begin with President Obama.

Edward Snowden Is Cold

It’s official. Edward Snowden, holed up in an authoritarian Russian paradise, is happy that an American federal judge has ruled against phone surveillance programs operated by the NSA. Yippee. I can sleep much better now knowing that the man who is spilling the nation’s secrets, or in some cases trying to trade them for a better place to live, has a legal victory under his potentially treacherous belt.

Through his sometimes shady representative in the civilized world, Glenn Greenwald, Mr. Snowden sent this message to Americans:

I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts. Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.

Well, it may or may not be the first of many, but we do know that for all his talk of how “the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts,” what Snowden doesn’t want to talk about is why he won’t give those same courts a chance to determine whether or not he has committed high crimes against what used to be his country, a country that was paying him and thus expecting him to keep our secrets from our enemies.

I’ve discussed this before, but what bothers me most of all about the Snowden fiasco is how eager liberals have been to get in bed with him and, in this most recent federal judge’s ruling, also side with the man who brought the so-far successful lawsuit against the NSA. That man, Larry Klayman, is a Tea Party nut job. Just two months ago The Huffington Post reported on a rally in Washington that sort of made him famous:

Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group, said the country is “ruled by a president who bows down to Allah,” and “is not a president of ‘we the people.'”

“I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come up with his hands out,” he said.

That, my friends, is the man who many, if not most, liberals are in a rhetorical and legal foxhole with, at least in terms of the latest war against the NSA. There has been an ongoing fight against government surveillance programs for years, but Klayman, as he now characterizes it, “hit the mother lode” with a victory in his latest case.  And he hit that mother lode because of Edward Snowden, who apparently finds Russian winters too damn cold and is trying to trade away what’s left of his dignity for warmer climes:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden, now several weeks into the Moscow winter, has published an open letter to “the people of Brazil” offering to help the country resist U.S. spying efforts in exchange for political asylum. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been highly critical of NSA operations in her country; Brazil also just happens to be where Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who is Snowden’s closest ally, is based.

By now it ought to be clear to all that Snowden isn’t some kind of “global champion of libertarian ideals and a hero of the struggle for personal freedom against U.S. abuses of power.” If he were, he would come back home and make his case and bring even more attention to it, instead of having people like Larry Klayman do the work for him. Yes, he would be risking jail time. Yes, he might be risking a lot of jail time.snowden But the kind of heroes I studied in history didn’t worry about themselves as much as they worried about the cause they were fighting for or the tyranny they were fighting against. Right now, Snowden seems to be worried about getting warm in Brazil and continuing to do damage to the country he is supposedly trying to save. That’s some champion. That’s some hero.

Well, we’ve seen that kind of behavior before. We’ve seen that kind of blow-up-America-in-order-to-save-it nonsense many times lately. We’ve seen it in the Larry Klaymans and the Ted Cruzes and all the wingnuts on the right who shutdown the government and who are even now plotting on how to use the debt ceiling once again as a way to extract concessions from Democrats, who are trying to keep enough fiscal gas in the nation’s car to keep it running so people can get to work, or at least get to the grocery store to spend their unemployment checks or their tiny ration of food stamps.

I will say this openly to my liberal friends: Yes, there needs to be greater oversight on what the NSA and other national security-related agencies are doing. Yes, there has been some overreach by those agencies. Yes, we can do better in terms of protecting the privacy of Americans. And, yes, let’s run the NSA’s “mass surveillance” practices through the constitutional wringer and see if they come out clean. But I implore all of you not to make Edward Snowden a hero. As Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney—one of our guys, by the way—reminded us yesterday about Snowden:

He has been charged and accused of leaking classified information.  He faces felony charges here.  He ought to be returned to the United States — again, where he will face full due process and protection under our system of justice that we hope he will avail himself of…

That’s what a real American hero, if he turns out to be a hero, would do. Not go to the Chinese and the Russians and now, after finding out that Moscow is not Rio de Janeiro, try to deal his way to a better place. So, if we must fight to find out whether the NSA is doing the country more harm than good, let us at least fight knowing that Edward Snowden does not now deserve our praise or our admiration, at least until he faces American justice for what he has done and proves he deserves our thanks, as opposed to our condemnation.

False Symmetry, Again

An excited conservative commenter called my attention to a column published in my local paper. The column was written by two long-time Washington insiders, Cokie and Steve Roberts.

Cokie, currently an analyst and commentator for, respectively, NPR and ABC News (and lately appearing now and then on MSNBC), is the daughter of a Democratic congressman (who was once Majority Leader in the House and who died in a 1972 plane crash) and of a Democratic congresswoman (who was elected to replace her husband and who served from 1973 to 1991). Both of Cokie’s parents served the good folks who live in and around New Orleans. Steve Roberts, a magna cum laude Harvard graduate, has worked as a journalist for The New York Times and The Washington Post and for U.S. News and World Report. He also plays the analyst and commentator role on both radio and television.

You get it by now. These two are the very definition of “Beltway insiders.”

The column that so excited my conservative commenter, titled in most papers as ‘The rise of liberal self-delusion,” began this way:

The civil war ripping through the Republican Party is familiar by now. But a similar battle inside the Democratic Party is just starting to emerge. Orthodox liberals are trying to mimic the tea party and impose political correctness on moderate apostates.

Ahh, I thought to myself.  It was only a matter of time. It was only a matter of time before some prominent Democratic commentators joined the anti-liberal Third Way crowd by comparing what recently energized  liberals are doing to what Tea Party nuts like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have been doing for some time now. There apparently is a law of symmetry in the physics of polite political punditry that occasionally requires the obligatory “both sides are guilty” column or TV rant, and the Roberts duo did not disappoint.

They unbelievably and absurdly compared the nomination of Tea Party freaks like Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donell and Sharron “Second Amendment remedies” Angle and Todd “legitimate rape” Akin to Elizabeth Warren and New York’s Bill de Blasio. They took the hopeful, if unrealistic, words of a very liberal and very excitable guy, Adam Green (who co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that dares to help liberals run political campaigns as liberals and, much to the chagrin of Wall Streeters, sometimes win as liberals), and turned those words into “nonsense” and “self delusion.” It’s as if the anti-liberals of the Third Way, that group of mostly wealthy quasi-Democrats who work and play in Manhattan’s Financial District, had dictated this column from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

It’s not that there isn’t a point to be made about ideological “purists” who think that their brand of politics is a perfect fit in every nook and cranny of the country.  Of course it is ridiculous, at this point in time, for liberals and progressives to think that a bona fide left-winger could win in a bona fide backwater state like Arkansas (the example the two pundits used was former Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln, who was challenged in the 2010 primary in Arkansas by “a left-wing primary opponent”). I have criticized some liberal Democrats myself (including Adam Green) for not recognizing the sobering reality that in places like where I live, here in Petticoat Joplin, running on in-your-face orthodox liberalism is not a winning strategy for knocking Republican Ozark Billy Long off his taxpayer-subsidized D.C. bar stool. So, it’s not bad advice to warn Democrats that ideological purity can be harmful to the overall cause.

But for two prominent Democratic columnists to say that well-meaning liberal Democrats “want to impose their orthodoxies on everyone else”—just like what they call the ‘Ted Cruz Wing” of the Republican Party wants to do—is beyond absurd. The extremism of Ted Cruz and other teapartiers is real extremism, representing reactionary, roll-back-the-clock danger to the country. Does Cokie and Steve Roberts think that trans-vaginal probes are the moral and political equivalent of, say, tougher banking laws? Huh? Liberals are not authoritarians seeking to force Americans to bow their knees to Iron Age biblical morality or to the politics derived from selective readings, or from convenient interpretations, of the Old and New Testaments. They are mostly people who think that the wealthiest country in the history of the world ought not to have so many working class folks struggling to survive in the midst of all that wealth, and that an appeal to common sense and decency should be sufficient to make the point.

The Roberts’ column, as an apparent tribute to Beltway blindness, puts Elizabeth Warren, as sober and sane a thinker as you will find in politics, in the category of “the loony left.” As if economic populism is on a par with kill-the-New-Deal conservatism. As if fighting for reproductive and gay and voting rights is equally as extreme as shutting down Planned Parenthood and promoting Bible-inspired homophobia and making it harder for minorities to vote. As if believing in science is the same as, well, not believing in science.

“This is a moderate, pragmatic country. Any party that ignores that truth is doomed to defeat,” the D.C. pundit power couple say with Third Party conviction. Yeah, well, moderation and pragmatism are not the same things. Political moderation is a product of compromise between competing visions, even if the competing visions themselves are often fierce and intense and far from moderate. Pragmatism in politics is the idea that compromise is sometimes necessary to solve problems. In other words, pragmatism leads to compromise, which leads to moderation. The salient point is that one can be a left- or right-winger, committed to one’s principles, committed to fighting for them, but still be a pragmatist who settles for some middle-of-the-road compromise to get things done, if that is truly the only way to get things done.

And when you see it that way, when you see it in the sense of getting things done, of making the government work, you can clearly see that there is no comparison between enthusiastic but ultimately pragmatic liberals and authoritarian Tea Party conservatives, folks who won’t compromise with anyone and who would shut the entire government down or ruin our national credit worthiness, hurting millions of people and costing billions of dollars, merely to make an ultimately fleeting political point.

Sadly, Cokie and Steve Roberts, guardians of the mythical “center” in American politics, can’t, or won’t, see the difference.

Budget Deal: Norquist’s Nuts, And Other Core Principles Of Conservatism

The budget deal (deftly summarized here by Ezra Klein) announced on Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray represents just how much of the playing field, in terms of fiscal policy, now belongs to drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub conservatives.

Oh, I understand that given the political realities of a divided Congress, given the economic need to restore at least some governing stability, that the deal is better than nothing. But so much of this un-grand bargain is tailored to sell to non- or semi-Tea Party Republicans in the House and Senate (the hard-core teapartiers will nevva evva buy into it, of course).

Take, for instance, the fact that the long-term unemployed are essentially told to go to hell, or to the soup line, whichever seems more appealing.  In just a few weeks, the benefits provided by the federal government to 1.3 million former workers will expire. These unfortunate folks are mostly the victims of the Great Bush Recession, an economic calamity so Great that now, more than four years after the thing supposedly ended, people are still suffering.

But helping to alleviate the suffering of these and other folks in need is not one of what House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan called the “core principles” of conservatives. That’s right, during the announcement of the deal on Tuesday, Ryan went out of his way to assure right-wingers that those principles have been preserved:

I expect we’re going to have a healthy vote in the House Republican Caucus. We are keeping our principles. The key here is nobody had to sacrifice their core principles. Our principles are don’t raise taxes, reduce the deficit.

Now, think about that for a minute. Paul Ryan could have said that “jobs” was a core principle of conservatives. He could have said “health care” was a core principle. He could have said “national defense.” Hell, he could have told the truth and said that “keeping Grover Norquist’s nuts warm” was a core principle. But he didn’t. The first thing that popped into his pickled pumpkin was, “Our principles are don’t raise taxes, reduce the deficit.” That’s it. Now that Barack Obama is president, that’s all that matters to these guys. Long-term unemployed? F’em!

Meanwhile, our side, because the economy is still limping along in so many ways, because we believe in governing, felt we had to make a pact that included abandoning those who, for a variety of reasons, can’t find a decent job. But is this the best deal possible? Could Democrats have insisted on continuing long-term unemployment benefits and called the implied Republican bluff to once again shut down the government?

Of course they could have. But it’s just not in the nature of those who value government to risk wrecking it again and injuring even more people. Our side could have told Paul Ryan that unless he included an extension of unemployment benefits, there would be no deal. And, given the dynamics involved, Ryan would have, eventually, had to take it. Why? Because there is no way in hell that Republicans, basking in the media-aided glow of the failure of the ObamaCare roll out, want to shift journalists’ attention away from all the “I got screwed” ObamaCare news stories to “Republicans did it again” stories about the harmful effects of yet another closure of government.

Thus there is one important reason why Republicans would have given up more than they did in this deal and why they would not have shut down the government again: They believe with all their hearts that keeping the focus on ObamaCare is their path to power. They believe, as Jim DeMint famously said before the Affordable Care Act was even passed, that “this health care issue is D-Day for freedom in America,” and,

If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.

And, you see, breaking Obama, breaking his black and Democratic back, is what this is mostly about, what it has always been mostly about. They despise this man. They hate what they deliberately misapprehend as his radical politics. They’ve never wanted him to succeed, domestically or diplomatically. If Obama wants a health reform law inspired by Republicans, they want to break him and call him a socialist. If Obama wants a jobs bill, they demand a deficit-reduction bill. If Obama suggests war, they want peace.If Obama wants peace, they suggest war. It’s been that way from the beginning of his presidency.

Alas, this deal will pass. It will become reality. And Democrats say that they will try to pursue extending long-term jobless benefits via separate legislation. Good for them. But it is hard to see how that will happen, now that the pressure is off, now that Republicans don’t have to worry about the backlash of a government shut down, now that they can go, full pelt, into an all-out assault on ObamaCare in their quest to break the law’s champion.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl of politics continues to be played on the right side of the field. Meanwhile, the peopleless principles of the Republican Party—no new revenues and slashing government—continue to dominate the game.

Meanwhile, many of the victims of the Great Bush Recession are on their own.

[photo: J. Scott Applewhite]

Claire McCaskill’s “Third Way” Chair And What She Should Do With It

“Well, Senator McCaskill, which side are you on? People who rely on Social Security to get by, or Wall Street movers and shakers?”

—Michael Bersin, Show Me Progress

My only useful United States Senator is, of course, Claire McCaskill. As a liberal, I have defended her many, many times, despite the fact that she does not subscribe to all of my liberal views. And I have defended her despite the fact that she would never, not in a thousand light years, refer to herself as a liberal. But I respect the political reality here in mixed-up Missouri. This isn’t New Jersey. Wait a minute. New Jersey isn’t New Jersey anymore.

In any case, Senator McCaskill, who often—too often for my tastes—brags about being a centrist, is an honorary co-chair of a public policy group called “Third Way,” a group that is causing third way logoquite a negative stir among activist Democrats.

I want to direct you to the group’s own definition of what it is about, which begins this way:

Third Way represents Americans in the “vital center” — those who believe in pragmatic solutions and principled compromise, but who too often are ignored in Washington.

That is, in fact, who Claire McCaskill says she is. She has many times talked about her pragmatism and her middle-of-the-road credentials. She even campaigned on them in 2012. And while I agree that compromise is often part of a healthy political process, some folks who fashion themselves as moderates think the compromise should happen at the beginning of the process, not at the end. This is an incredibly important point. Moderation in politics ought to be defined as what is left over after a vigorous fight between visions, not the vision itself. Here’s more from the group’s website:

Our mission is to advance moderate policy and political ideas.

What? No one can “advance” a moderate policy or political ideas. Why? Because if that is where you start, if you start in the middle, the compromise will always be toward the reactionaries because change has a tendency to scare people. These Third Way guys have to know that. As with similar efforts in the past, “moderate” means allowing conservatives to frame the economic issues in terms of debt and deficits, and not in terms of people and empowerment. Thus, the apparent purpose of Third Way (which has been around since 2005) is to shoot the liberal lions in the Democratic Party, or, to put it more kindly, to capture them and put them in zoos so they can do no harm to the interests of those, mostly moneyed Wall Streeters, who fund so-called centrist groups like Third Way.

As you have no doubt heard by now, last week a couple of Third Wayers, the group-think tank’s president and its senior vice president for policy, published a piece (Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats”) in, yep, The Wall Street Journal. The piece might be considered the loudest shot so far heard in what the self-described centrists apparently want to be an all-out war for the soul of the Democratic Party.

The authors, sounding like any right-wing talk radio host you know, attacked Bill de Blasio, an unashamed liberal who will soon become the next mayor of New York, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has become a hero among liberals and progressives and anyone who can see the difference between people and corporations. The reason for the attack on these two liberals was because of what the authors called their “populist political and economic fantasy.” When you get away from the Limbaugh-like description, what the shoot-the-lions, Wall Street-friendly folks at Third Way are attacking is the idea, advanced by Senator Warren and others, that we should increase Social Security benefits, not look for ways to slash them.

She told Mother Jones, in response to the Third Way article attacking her, that,

We should stop having a conversation about cutting Social Security a little bit or a lot.

Yes. Democrats, including President Obama, should stop agreeing with Republicans about cutting the most effective government social program in history. And Senator McCaskill should relinquish her “honorary” chair title at Third Way. Why? Because McCaskill, running against teapartier Todd Akin in 2012, essentially ran as something of an economic populist herself.

Six weeks before the election, the St Louis Beacon reported on McCaskill’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s nutty remarks “disparaging Americans who don’t pay income taxes”:

“Congressman Akin has made similar type statements,” McCaskill said, “talking about the ‘velvet chains’ of government dependency…”

Such comments by Akin and Romney, she continued, “just show they are out of touch with so many Missourians who have worked hard all their lives, who have retired, and who believed that Social Security would be there for them, and believe that Medicare would be there for them.”

McCaskill’s point during the conference call was to paint Akin as an “extremist” on such issues, citing his campaign statements criticizing both programs.

“He wants to privatize, voucherize” Medicare, she said, and also privatize Social Security.

McCaskill said that the financial problem facing Social Security could be fixed simply by increasing the cap. Now, any income over roughly $110,000 is not subject to the Social Security tax.

“Simply changing the cap,” she said, “secures (Social Security) for 75 years.”

As for Medicare, a program that the Third Way moneyed elites ostensibly want to save by making a “grand bargain” with Republicans, McCaskill also played the economic populist card:

Jim Hagan, a retired teacher and coach in his 70s from Springfield, Mo., recounted the numerous health problems that he and his wife recently have encountered. “We’d be totally bankrupt if we had to pay” for all the surgeries and medical bills, he said. Medicare, said Hagan, “saves lives, including mine.”

McCaskill contends that the GOP approach, as proposed by now-Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, is to allocate a certain annual amount to the elderly and then tell them “now it’s your problem” to find insurance coverage.

Hagan said that most elderly, including himself, wouldn’t be able to obtain insurance because of pre-existing conditions.

McCaskill’s campaign has focused heavily on Medicare, Social Security and government-backed student loans.

Now, if that isn’t the same kind of economic populism that Third Way honchos attacked in The Wall Street Journal, please tell me what it is. And tell me why Claire McCaskill would continue to be an “honorary” co-chair—co-chair!—of a group so adamantly opposed to what she ran on just a year ago?

Not only that, as The Nation reported, in order to raise funds, Third Way hired one of the top corporate lobbying firms in Washington—a firm whose “largest client is the US Chamber of Commerce.” The same Chamber of Commerce that hammered Claire McCaskill in 2012! Something is wrong with that picture.

The Nation also noted how “several Third Way trustees gave campaign money to Mitt Romney.” Huh? Remember the gist of that Romney campaign? Most of us are moochers and President Obama was some kind of left-winger who was going to turn the country into a European socialist state quotefull of even more moochers. How can Senator McCaskill co-chair a group that has as trustees people who invested in Mittens?

Now we have HuffPo reporting that one of the writers of the Third Way piece in last week’s WSJ admits that Elizabeth Warren’s liberalism was beginning to gain traction and the money-men had to move fast. Jim Kessler, Third Way’s senior vice president for policy who co-authored the infamous op-ed, said:

The impetus was really — we saw after the most recently, this push that okay, it’s time to really move the national Democratic Party to a much more liberal agenda, in this case, Senator Warren was the standard bearer — she’s on the cover of a lot of magazines. We were a bit alarmed by that…

That Social Security plan was the final moment for us. That Social Security plan had been out there but really languishing — because Senator Warren has such a powerful compelling voice, she started talking about it, and it suddenly it became much more talked about and viable alternative.

As I said, the “Social Security plan” that scared the Democrat out of those wealthy “Democrats” at Third Way is very closely related, if not identical, to what Senator McCaskill told Missourians she supported, when she was seeking our votes in 2012. And if Senator McCaskill meant what she said about Social Security last year, if she truly meant it, then she should not only give Third Way its honorary chair back, she should give it back by publicly pounding its pooh-bahs over the heads with it.

senator mccaskill and third way

Nelson Mandela, R.I.P.

What’s it like to be on the wrong side of history? Ask me. I know.

By now, if you care anything about history and how it is made, you have seen or read plenty of stirring tributes to the incredible man known to us as Nelson Mandela, son of a Xhosa chief, who was baptized a Methodist, given his familiar English first name, then began his long journey to destroy the fascism of apartheid, what President Obama called “one of history’s foulest evils,” and what President Reagan labeled “a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals.” By doing so, by radically changing South Africa, this amazing freedom fighter, who remained on young mandelaour government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, did indeed, as President Clinton said, make the entire world a better place.

When I was in college in 1986, there was quite a debate raging about what our policy should be toward South Africa, toward apartheid. President Reagan and many conservatives opposed strong sanctions against the white fascist government, Reagan calling those sanctions “economic warfare.” I was among those conservatives who opposed tough sanctions, who opposed what became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. As I have written elsewhere, in the fall of 1986 I debated a college teacher over the issue of sanctions. I defended what was then called “constructive engagement,” an incremental approach that sought not to isolate and punish the white government in South Africa, but to softly encourage it to end the apartheid regime. In my debate, I even borrowed the term “economic warfare” to describe the sanctions proposed by mostly Democrats.

Like other conservatives, I was less concerned about the evil of apartheid than I was about South Africa falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was a useful excuse for right-wingers like me to essentially ignore the awful and ongoing brutality of state-sponsored terrorism, executed by white fascists in Pretoria against the country’s pigmented majority. I criticized “Western moralizing” and tried to make the case that South Africa was valuable to our national security interests because it held large reserves of strategic minerals. I quoted a retired Chief of Air Force Intelligence who warned,

within the next five years, it will be necessary for the United States to place several divisions into South Africa to recapture access to and to prevent Soviet-Marxist control of, the strategic materials that now come from that country. We’re going to have to secure and take by force of arms. That’s how serious the South Africa matter is.

I also said during that debate that,

even if blacks should prevail and come to power, it would be because of Soviet-supplied weaponry; and it is a good bet that a Soviet-backed, Marxist government would be established, leaving the United States in the unenviable position of having to deal with our enemies to obtain vital strategic materials…

It turned out that the emergence of a Soviet-backed, Marxist government was not a good bet. It turned out the bet should have been on Nelson Mandela. And thus it turned out that I, and so many conservatives, were on the wrong side of history, even if some of them, like Dick Cheney, have had a hard time admitting it. Ronald Reagan vetoed that sanctions law in 1986 and his veto was promptly, and historically, overridden. By then, enough congressional Republicans could see that history would not be kind to those who ostensibly sided with the oppressors.

And it should be noted here that the push for sanctions, the push from the outside against the fascism of apartheid, was largely a push made by those on the left, both here and abroad, those whose vision was not darkened by images of potential Soviet aggression or clouded by pleas to go slow until the fascists came to their senses.

The left was right about sanctions. The left was right to aggressively oppose what was going on in South Africa both before and during Nelson Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment. But I don’t believe anyone could have anticipated the greatness inside the man so honored today, a man who had once endorsed violence against the fascists but, after he became the first democratically-elected president in the country’s history, turned to peace and reconciliation and thus avoided the civil war that so many had predicted.

Finally, I will leave you with a lengthy excerpt from a book I read in 2003, after I had left conservatism and while I was still struggling with leaving evangelical Christianity. The book, Rumors of Another World, was written by the famous evangelical author, Philip Yancey. No matter what your religious beliefs are, no matter if like me you have consciously left the confines of a confining evangelicalism, I would ask you to read the following as a way of paying your respects to Nelson Mandela, whose strong Christian faith no doubt greatly shaped his amazing life, a life that we both mourn and celebrate today:

Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust, and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance. “Amazing Grace,” a rare hymn that in recent times climbed the charts of popular music, holds out the promise that God judges people not for what they have been but what they could be, not by their past but by their future. John Newton, a gruff and bawdy slave trader, “a wretch like me,” wrote that hymn after being transformed by the power of amazing grace.

When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent. Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace when, after emerging from prison after twenty-seven years and being elected president of South Africa, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform. He then appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe took control from another.

For the next two-and-a-half years, South Africans listened to reports of atrocities coming out of the TRC hearings. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the obvious injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.

At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.

The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded agreement.

Then she added a further request. “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.”

Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.

Justice was not done in South Africa that day, nor in the entire country during months of agonizing procedures by the TRC. Something beyond justice took place. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” said Paul. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu understood that when evil is done, one response alone can overcome the evil. Revenge perpetuates the evil. Justice punishes it. Evil is overcome by good only if the injured party absorbs it, refusing to allow it to go any further. And that is the pattern of otherworldly grace that Jesus showed in his life and death.

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