A Parable

Most of us today know that the speech that propelled Barack Obama into the national spotlight was his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention.

But not many of us remember or learned that Ronald Reagan, the real father of what we know as the Tea Party (even though he’d have a hard time getting a tea bag to wear on his cap today) gave a similarly empowering speech in 1964—a speech that helped make him first governor of California and then president.

Many people refer to this televised address in support of Barry Goldwater simply as “The Speech,” but I call it the “Thousand Years of Darkness” speech because of the warning Reagan presented regarding the 1964 presidential election:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.

We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

Message: Elect Lyndon Johnson and expect ten centuries of pitch-black socialism. Yes, he really suggested that. Sort of makes Newt Gingrich sound reasonable, doesn’t it?

Here is another famous passage from that speech, which demonstrates how seriously the extremists in the Republican Party in those days took poverty in America:

Each year the need grows greater; the program grows greater. We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.

Now you know where Rush Limbaugh gets it.

In any case, Reagan’s reference, of course, was to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which was introduced that year and which helped reduce American abjection, but was attacked by right-wingers in those days the same way the welfare state is attacked by right-wingers these days.

But the passage in Reagan’s speech I want to focus on is this one:

Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who’d come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning 250 dollars a month. She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise. She’s eligible for 330 dollars a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who’d already done that very thing.

It wasn’t until the 1976 presidential campaign, when Reagan was a GOP primary candidate, that the term “welfare queen” became a code word on the fanatical right. He said of this strange being, as reported by The New York Times (quoted on Wikipedia):

She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.

Anyone, Democrat or Republican, would obviously get outraged over that example, which may have been based on a real case in Chicago. But other than pointing out that some folks are criminals, what does it really mean? For the right-wing, it was intended to convince the voting public that a goodly number of folks on welfare were and still are undeserving of help, and are abusing the system because the system itself breeds such abuse.

Well, a health care company once paid a $1.7 billion fine for committing Medicare and Medicaid fraud—and the guy who ran the company while the fraud was going on was fired and received millions of dollars in severance and over $300 million worth of stock. And to put political icing on his cake, the guy, teapartier and Republican Rick Scott, is now the governor of Florida. That $1.7 billion worth of fraud could purchase over 11,333 of Reagan’s welfare queens, but Republicans have yet to invent a code word for corporations that defraud the government.

In thinking about all this, a parable came into my mind:

A boat capsized near a small town and most of the people swam to shore, saving themselves. But several people remained in the water, huddled together, holding on to whatever they could find to stay afloat, a short and swimmable distance from shore. Presumably, these folks either couldn’t swim or could not swim well enough to let go and give it a try.

Now, in the community nearby where the boat capsized, it happened that a raging debate had been going on involving the town’s rescue budget. For years the town had funded rescue crews and purchased equipment due to the large number of boating accidents just off its shore. Many people had been saved because of the town’s diligence.

But new folks had moved into the community, rugged individualists who were responsible for themselves and expected everyone else to take care of themselves, too.  These folks stirred up anger at the high tax rates used to fund the rescue efforts and began running for and winning political office. They advocated for slashing the rescue budget, insisting that a lot of the folks rescued in the past were careless boaters, many of them merely out on the water partying and having a good time.

Why should we encourage their recklessness,” these good Americans would say. “Many of the people we have saved were on party boats!” some would shout at town hall meetings, “And if they know we will always be here to save them they will just take advantage of us.”

Some of the people at the meetings reminded the townsfolk that surely not all the people needing help were reckless or were taking advantage of the town’s unselfishness, and they argued that it is not easy to discern during a rescue mission just how deserving the folks in the water are.  And besides that, they would argue, “Are we just going to stand on shore and watch these people drown? Is that what kind of community we want to be?

Whether this election year will be “a rendezvous with destiny,” as Ronald Reagan said so long ago, is, I suppose, up to each voter. But certainly either way we choose to go will not be “to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” That silly rhetoric represents a rather diminished view of America’s ongoing potential.

But this election will be a snapshot of what kind of national community we are and what kind of obligations we believe we have to those folks clinging to their capsized boat or what is left of it.  Is there a majority among us who will walk away and leave them to sink or swim?


The New Negrophobes

Way back in March, I wrote about the “Tea Parties and The Southern Strategy,” mostly quoting from an article written by Bob Cesca.  To give you the flavor of that piece, here is a sample:


Discussing the use of the N Word, Cesca reminds us of Lee Atwater—the Republican political guru of the 1980s—and the once-infamous but now increasingly respectable Southern Strategy.  Atwater had told on himself in a 1981 interview reported by Bob Herbert of the New York Times:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

Cesca comments:

From the beginning, with their witch doctor imagery, watermelon agitprop and Curious George effigies, the wingnut right has been dying to blurt out, as Lee Atwater famously said, “nigger, nigger, nigger!”


Last night, the sainted Rachel Maddow, whose show is always packed full of information, ran a long segment on the new birth of the Southern Strategy. She began with the Southern political shift from Democratic to Republican loyalties, which we saw happening first in the 1964 presidential election between Goldwater and Johnson. 

Here is a series of maps showing that shift:


As you can see, the shift of conservative loyalty was fairly dramatic. Goldwater’s appeal to Southern white conservatives, of course, was based on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his failure to attract legions of black supporters and his “success” in attracting conservative whites sent a message to other Republicans, including Kevin Phillips, who was back then a Richard Nixon political strategist:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

Maddow connects this old Southern Strategy with the new Southern Strategy, which is not just confined to the South and not just confined to the dynamics of white versus black. And although Maddow didn’t explore this idea in much depth, this new strategy involves at least partly a view of restoring the dominance of white culture, a culture allegedly threatened by the ascendance of a black man named Obama and the “invasion” of illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Now, I’m not saying that all of the Tea Party anger, or all of the angst over the state of the country, is due to a this defensive tribal posture, so don’t even get on that horse and ride. As I have said many times, there are legitimate concerns over our national debt and the long-term stability of our fiscal health. There is legitimate unease over unemployment and the uncertainty of near-term improvement.

But the fact that there doesn’t appear to be much that can’t be said about President Obama or his wife, the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any price paid on the right for the outrageous charges spewing from the mouths of people like Limbaugh and Beck and Hannity—all remain comfortably popular and comfortably rich—and the fact that Republican politicians all over the country have had moments that would have doomed them in any other election year, indicates something beyond agitation over the state of the economy, at least for an uncomfortably large slice of the electorate.

Just as one example, Carl Paladino, a multimillionaire, Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for governor of New York, trounced Rick Lazio in the GOP primary last month, even though shortly after Paladino entered the primary, some very nasty e-mails were released that Paladino had forwarded to his “friends.”  Some of those e-mails were blatantly racist, including one that featured a video of African tribesmen doing a traditional tribal dance. The video was titled, “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal.” 

Another featured this photograph:

Now, most people interested in politics know all that stuff about Paladino.  But what we sometimes forget is that even after these things were known—after the obviously racist e-mails had been made public knowledge—Paladino still received an astonishing 62% of the Republican vote in the primary.  He got more than 273,000 votes.  In New York.

So, although there is a lot of angst and anger out there, much of it about the economy, there’s no denying that part of that angst and anger has to do with something akin to, but beyond, the Negrophobia that Kevin Phillips talked about so long ago. There are some white folks in the land who not only don’t care a whit about whether Paladino sends racist e-mails, but find the fact that he does culturally comforting. 

And although I know that Republicans and tea partiers don’t like to hear any accusations about condoning the kind of bigotry we see on display these days, until someone in the Republican Party—the home of tea partiers—stands up and renounces those among them who traffic in the supposedly “fringe” politics of subtle and not-so-subtle racism, then those of us on my side will wonder just how fringe this stuff is.

[Original maps courtesy of Wikipedia]

The Case Against Libertarianism, Against Fear

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

—1 Corintians 13:11

I have often chided libertarians and libertarian-ish conservatives for embracing a “childish” philosophy, one that worked well when we were cutting and shooting our way to the Pacific, living out our self-serving Manifest Destiny.

But it’s time we put away childish things.

America has matured; it has blossomed into the most powerful nation in the history of civilization.  And as it has developed and gained world prominence and dominance, its Constitution has remained the preeminent document guarding liberty and justice for all Americans, partly because courageous interpreters dared to understand it in terms conducive to life in the modern world.

For the moment, libertarians and social conservative zealots and haters of either our progressive or pigmented president—take your pick—are playing nice as they join together to rout the Democrats this November.  But as the conservative fanatic Richard Viguerie suggested the other day in the New York Times, after November 2, the Peace Train will collide head-on with the Soul Train—the fight will be on in earnest for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

But for now, let’s look briefly at libertarian philosophy through the eyes of one of its most famous national proponents, Barry Goldwater, whom George Will married to the Tea Party movement in today’s Joplin Globe:

In 1964, the slogan of the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, was “A choice, not an echo.” Forty-six years on, the tea party is a loud echo of his attempt to reconnect American politics with the tradition of limited government.

I have owned a copy of Goldwater’s, The Conscience of a Conservative, for more than 25 years. The book was first published in 1960, four years before Goldwater was overwhelmingly rejected in his run for the presidency.  The following is an excerpt from the book that sounds eerily similar to what one might hear today, as teapartiers temporarily coalesce around demands for a drastically smaller government, some even calling for an end to what libertarians love to call the Welfare State: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid:

The long range political consequences of Welfarism are plain enough: as we have seen, the State that is able to deal with its citizens as wards and dependents has gathered unto itself unlimited political and economic power and is thus able to rule as absolutely as any oriental despot.

Unlimited political and economic power“?  “Oriental despot“?  Keep in mind that was in 1960, and Medicare and Medicaid were still liberal dreams, not to come until 1965.  One would think that after 50 years of even greater “Welfarism” than Goldwater could imagine in 1960, today we would all be bowing to our oriental despot, given a 50-year reign with “unlimited political and economic power.”  

But there just isn’t any oriental despot around, and as our elected President Obama struggles to use the federal government to lift us out of our economic doldrums, one can hardly say the feds have “unlimited” anything, especially “political and economic power.”

Such extremist talk was silly in 1960 and its just as silly today coming from platforms at Tea Party rallies or from 30-second television spots.  In fact, it is embarrassingly immature talk, and fortunately we have half a century of evidence that such fears are cynical and baseless.  Despite an increase in the role of government in overseeing our social well-being, our government is not tyrannical and we still enjoy our liberties.

In 1960, not only was there no Medicare and Medicaid, but the top marginal tax rate was a whopping 91%. Today’s top marginal rate is 35%. Hardly a sign that we are slouching toward oriental despotism.

As far as Social Security, always an object of libertarian and conservative angst, in 1960 the government only taxed the first $4,800 of income at a rate of 3%.  Today, the tax rate is more than twice that and it applies to all earnings up to $106,800. Yet despite that increase, which would have terrified the 1960 Goldwater, there still is no oriental despot on the horizon. 

In fact, Social Security is wildly successful—USA Today reported that the program “kept 14 million seniors above the poverty level” last year. Yet, despite that success, anti-government sentiment is as thick today as when Goldwater wrote in 1960:

Let welfare be a private concern. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose.

You hear this argument a lot from libertarians and conservatives.  In fact, it is one of their core beliefs that taxing citizens to pay for social programs is illegitimate, amounting to “theft.” The idea that taxation is stealing is creeping into the minds of otherwise sober Americans, who have begun buying into the notion that the government has no business in promoting the general welfare by establishing government social programs. 

Yet what we don’t hear from liber-cons is, what happens if we leave to private concerns all the needs of the needy and those private concerns aren’t all that concerned?  Before Social Security—when private concerns were free to promote the welfare of the poor—seniors were likely to die in poverty. The estimated poverty rate for the elderly was between 70 and 90%.  By 2008, it had dropped to less than 10%.

And whether one thinks that improvement was because of or in spite of Social Security and other “entitlement” programs—programs that are now threatened by Tea Party hysteria—there is simply no denying that the fears that have always accompanied an increased federal role in promoting the general welfare—that promotion rooted in the Constitution itself—are never realized.  Never.

We are not ruled by a despotic federal government, oriental or otherwise.  Goldwater’s State does not have “unlimited political and economic power.”

And contrary to libertarian assumptions, federal involvement in the well-being of the less fortunate, in the well-being of the elderly, has not led to less freedom, but to more.

Because thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” today than at any time in our history.

Glenn Beck’s Spirit Present At Joplin Tea Party

I thought I would see and hear some references to Glenn Beck at Thursday’s Tea Party here in Joplin, since many of the ideas tossed around at such gatherings seem to first originate in his strange and lucre-loving mind.

But that didn’t happen.

Then, I realized that the spirit of Glenn Beck was there all around me: in the form of a book.

That book, The 5000 Year Leap, by W. Cleon Skousen, was available for free (courtesy of the Jasper County Republican Party), with copies spread along the table holding the “scroll of grievances.” 

John Putnam said the book, which he “found” in 1984, had “inspired” him.

Beck has endlessly and energetically promoted the book, which, according to Alexander Zaitchik, has become “the bible of the 9/12 movement,” “the civic initiative he pulled together…to restore America to the sense of purpose and unity it had felt the day after the towers fell.”

The popular Fox broadcaster has even claimed the book is “divinely inspired,” although Beck doesn’t specify what divine being inspired it. Presumably, it was the God of Mormonism.

So, since our local Republican Party subsidized the distribution of the book, and since our local Joplin Tea Partiers were urged to read the book—and I saw many folks walking around with fresh copies in hand—I thought I would find out more about the author, especially since the Tea Party movement is heavily influenced by Beck-like thinkers. 

Who was W. Cleon Skousen?

Perusing Alexander Zaitchik’s essay on Salon.com, I discovered that Skousen shared Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith, and that he was ostensibly a “historian.” But as Zaitchik described him,

 …Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of “The 5,000 Year Leap.”

Skousen died in 2006 at the age of 92, the author of more than dozen books; a 15-year veteran of the FBI (in administration);  a law school grad; a teacher at Brigham Young University;  Chief of Police in Salt Lake City (where, according to Zaitchik, “he gained a reputation for cutting crime and ruthlessly enforcing Mormon morals” and, according to a 1961 article in Time, the conservative Mayor of the city said Skousen, “operated the police department like a Gestapo“);  and most important for our purposes, a virulent anti-communist conspiracist,  who earned a good living giving speeches to far-right gatherings.

As an anti-Communist, Skousen was affiliated with the John Birch Society, whose elaborate communist conspiracies proved too much for men of the right like William F. Buckley, who sought to sever the Birchers from “legitimate” conservatives. In those days, there were adults in the conservative movement, and when Skousen and the Birchers grew more and more extreme—accusing WW II hero Dwight Eisenhower of being a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy“—most responsible conservative groups dumped him.  Buckley said such accusations were “paranoid and idiotic libels.”* Russell Kirk, an eminent conservative philosopher, viewed such people as being “disconnected from reality.”  Barry Goldwater concurred.

Wrote Zaitchik:

By 1963, Skousen’s extremism was costing him. No conservative organization with any mainstream credibility wanted anything to do with him. Members of the ultraconservative American Security Council kicked him out because they felt he had “gone off the deep end.” One ASC member who shared this opinion was William C. Mott, the judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy. Mott found Skousen “money mad … totally unqualified and interested solely in furthering his own personal ends.”

Damn. That sounds a lot like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing conspiracists these days.

Zaitchik also wrote something about Skousen’s increasing popularity that again sounds eerily like our own Glenn Beck, whose “enemy” is not so much communism, but progressivism:

When Skousen’s books started popping up in the nation’s high-school classrooms, panicked school board officials wrote the FBI asking if Skousen was reliable. The Bureau’s answer was an exasperated and resounding “no.” One 1962 FBI memo notes, “During the past year or so, Skousen has affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing ‘professional communists’ who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.”

By 1970, Zaitchik reports that Skousen had discovered that “liberal internationalist groups” like the Council on Foreign Relations were pushing U.S. foreign policy “toward the establishment of a world-wide collectivist society,” which would later become the New World Order, a “super-conspiracy” involving the Rockefellers and the Rothchilds and other very “powerful” people.

Eventually, the Mormon Church cut its ties with Skousen, which was just in time for his invitation to become part of the “Reagan Revolution.”  Zaitchik wrote:

In 1980, Skousen was appointed to the newly founded Council for National Policy, a think tank that brought together leading religious conservatives and served as the unofficial brain trust of the new administration. At the Council, Skousen distinguished himself by becoming an early proponent of privatizing Social Security.

It was around this time that Skousen published the book that changed the life of Glenn Beck, The 5,000 Year Leap,  which Zaitchik described this way:

…a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined.

So, learning all of that, I realized that Glenn Beck was in fact a part of the Joplin Tea Party, through the vehicle of W. Cleon Skousen’s book.  And I realized what attracted John Putnam, the chairman of the Jasper County Republican Central Committee, to Skousen’s interpretation of American history.

Putnam is a conservative Christian, who when I first encountered him, was an elder at Christ’s Church of Joplin, and who was a believer in the Bible as the “inspired” and inerrant Word of God.  

He said at the Tea Party on Thursday:

I see a real similarity between the days we live in and the founding days of this country. I realized at least in 1978 that America was on an unsustainable path.  We have continued to spend more than we take in, we have continued to turn our back—to become more interested in commercialism and entertainment and luxury than we have the spiritual values that made this country great. And my family’s tired of listening to me say we can’t go on this way, but in the last year there is a whole lot of other people who have seen that the pace is accelerating and it is up to the people to restore the country…

I suspect that many in the crowd Thursday hold views similar to those of Mr. Putnam.  Indeed, Jay St. Clair, the minister who uttered a rambling four-minute plea to the Almighty, began his remarks this way:

Welcome to the Tea Party!  Well, this isn’t a religious gathering but I will tell you that everything about our country was founded on the faith of God and the principles that are found in his Word…

Such folks don’t want to admit that our secular country—the United States of America—was not founded on the Bible, but on Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that was responsible for taming the excesses of fundamentalist Christianity, and a philosophy that is under attack, either consciously or unconsciously, by some members of the Tea Party movement.

If these people were to get what they wanted—a return to “God-directed” governance—then the Tea Partiers would no longer be mere objects of liberal scorn.

They would be forces to fear.


*In 1962, Buckley published “a 5,000-word excoriation” of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, which included the following:
How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. . . . The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.
Few conservatives today are willing to say about Glenn Beck and other conspiracists that their views are “so far removed from common sense.”
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