Driving around town has been a little dispiriting lately. The reason sounds a little silly: it’s those signs. You know, the red yard signs that proclaim TAKE BACK OUR COUNTRY IN NOVEMBER.
These signs are clearly linked to Republicans—they’re invariably planted next to signs for Romney/Ryan, Justin Amash, and other conservative candidates—although I’m not sure if they’re part of any specific candidate’s campaign. But I do know that they seem to be everywhere. I pass several of them every day in the last half-mile of my drive home from work, and every day it makes me feel just a little bit tired and sad.
I find the message behind these signs depressing. “Take back our country”? Do the people who plant these signs really think they’re living in a country occupied by some enemy force? Apparently, the president wasn’t elected by fellow Americans in the usual democratic process; he (and those who voted for him) “took over.” Obama and his supporters aren’t human beings to argue with or campaign against; they’re enemies to be purged.
Who is this sign even talking to? Certainly not to Obama voters—they aren’t to be reasoned with; they’re to be overthrown by the “real” Americans.
And then there’s the obvious, uncomfortable racist undercurrent of this message, especially when it’s planted proudly on lawns in a predominately white city.
It makes me depressed just driving by these things.
Every election cycle, Americans seem to agree on at least one thing: politics is too nasty, too divisive, too graceless, too mean-spirited. Well, here’s one very simple, concrete way you can tone down the vitriol of this election cycle: step outside. Walk out to your yard. It’s fine to leave that Romney/Ryan sign up, or the Justin Amash one, or the Pete Hoekstra one.
But take down the one that says I HATE YOU.
Came across an interesting essay tracing the rise and fall of Samuel Francis. Francis was a conservative thinker and writer whose early writing was marked by a certain abrasive insight. But as time went on, he drifted out toward the fringe and sailed right over the border into Crazytown. The article describes a highly intelligent but… odd man who had a tendency to take good political points and taint them with bizarre, sometimes racist ideas.
When the conservative establishment started distancing itself from him, he just took his alienation as confirmation that his theories (and his sense of victimhood) were correct. By the time he died, the weirdness and racism of his waning years understandably clouded out any positive contributions his writings might have made:
Sam Francis came to Washington as one of the bright young minds of the New Right in the late 1970s….
But Francis was not a good soldier in the conservative movement. His personality and evolving ideological interests led him into direct conflict with the very movement that had nurtured his early career. He became the house intellectual of the Buchanan breakaway campaigns and the theoretician of the anti-Bob Dole, anti-George Bush paleoconservative movement. And, as he became estranged from mainstream conservatism, he veered into the “racial creepiness” racialism of journals like The Occidental Quarterly.
This was my first exposure to Francis’ story; perhaps some of you are more familiar with him. Francis’ life story is a reminder that even smart people can get obsessed with crazy ideas—and furthermore, a smart person’s belief in crazy ideas doesn’t make him or her less smart; it just means that his or her good ideas are now hopelessly bound up with the crazy ones. And it illustrates some of the weird appeal of the fringe right, which for all its creepiness seems to attract some genuinely smart people.
I stumbled across this via a Ross Douthat post about the Ron Paul racist newsletter controversy. Douthat observes that once you’ve waded out into the political fringe and taken up common cause—willingly or not—with the crazies you find out there, it’s awfully hard to ever return to the mainstream again.
I am sure that those of you who follow politics have heard about Mitt Romney’s incredibly significant and newsworthy gaffe. When asked to name his favorite book, he cited Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.
Cue a whole lot of snickering and mocking overanalysis by every blogger and pundit in the universe–all of whom no doubt curl up each night in their favorite cozy chair to read from a dog-eared copy of Crime and Punishment. A presidential candidate who likes a book about (snicker) aliens? A candidate who appreciates a nice pulp sci-fi story? God forbid a candidate respond to that question with a title that falls outside our vaguely-remembered high school Intro to World Literature syllabus. Thank goodness the pretentiati is on hand to assure us that anyone who would read, let alone enjoy, such a novel is, obviously, unfit for any sort of serious position in government. Can’t have our betters and those Europeans snickering at a U.S. President, can we?
Fortunately, Romney was quick to recant, assuring a worried public that his favorite novel is really Huckleberry Finn. Clearly, that’s an answer straight from his heart, and isn’t just a book title deemed by his political consultants as the Book Most Likely to Evoke a Positive Response from the Most Potential American Voters. (Let me guess: other Romney favorites include apple pie, the Bible, the soulful poetry of Maya Angelou, and freedom; and his heroes include Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.) Good save, Romney, good save. For a minute there I was worried that I’d spotted a glimmer of an actual interesting personality beneath the soulless political mask, an honest-to-goodness quirk that hadn’t yet been sanded down into inoffensiveness by focus groups and asinine political cliches.
I exaggerate a little; Romney has not completely renounced his enjoyment of pulpy sci-fi. And a few brave defenders are standing up to the literary snobs. But this shocking scandal has got me on the defensive, as I enjoyed Battlefield Earth as a teenager and did not grow up to be Scientologist or an illiterate. Whether or not you think that presidential candidates should be reading B-grade sci-fi, mark my words: Romney’s Battlefield Earth answer was the most honest thing you’re going to hear from any candidate for the next 18 months; and it was us who, at the first sign of deviation from the predicable norm, mocked him into repenting (so we could then mock him for flip-flopping). Xenu help us–it’s going to be a long and stupid campaign season.
The controversy over Guantanamo Bay, prisoner abuse, and the torture of captured terrorist suspects makes me angry.
It makes me angry when some conservative writers and websites not only defend the torture of prisoners, but make light of it, as if this is some sort of hilarious joke that we should wink at and laugh about.
It makes me angry when certain people who since 2000 have been regularly referring to evangelical Christians as bigots, idiots, mindless sheep, and Taliban-like zealots wonder disdainfully why evangelicals aren’t standing at their side to criticize our president’s missteps.
It makes me angry that when the question of torture first came up, President Bush could not (and stunningly, unbelievably, still cannot) make a clear, unambiguous, plain-language, strongly-enforced condemnation of any type of torture.
It makes me angry that if President Bush had made that clear, unambiguous statement, that his critics would not praise him for it, but would drop the torture issue and immediately begin the search for another scandal/political vulnerability with which to take down the President they hate so much.
It makes me angry that in our polarized political world, I have to choose between supporting Bush’s general policies and tacitly condoning torture, or refusing to compromise on the torture issue and risking the political collapse of a foreign policy that is, after decades of appeasement and looking the other way, bringing the hope of democracy to a tyrant-infested corner of the world.
It makes me angry that some major conservative bloggers, many of whom I respect greatly, spend post after post focusing on inane political tidbits but manage to somehow never post about the constantly-in-the-news issue of torture.
It makes me angry that some of the people shouting loudest against torture also fought tooth and nail to keep the U.S. from taking down a dictator who liked to feed his enemies through an industrial shredder.
It makes me angry that some people in the military and intelligence agencies–far, far too many people–made the decision to treat prisoners without humanity, then shrugged and hid behind the shield of “vague policies from on high,” as if unclear memos prevented them from recognizing that torture is wrong.
It makes me angry that many people who would tell me I’m a hypocrite for being a Christian and not speaking out loudly against torture, would also tell me that I’m a crazed idiot for wanting to stop what I see as the butchering of thousands and thousands of unwanted, unborn babies each year in this country.
It makes me angry that the government stalls, obstructs, and ignores attempts to expose misbehavior, instead of throwing open the doors and welcoming the public to see exactly what is going on.
It makes me angry that certain Christian spokemen react immediately and forcefully to even the faintest hint of “pro-homosexual” legislation, but look at the current world situation and, impossibly, see nothing in our treatment of prisoners and the torture controversy that contradicts God’s law.
It makes me angry that some torture critics cannot and will never acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, addressing the scandal of prisoner torture is not as critical as ensuring that democracy survives and grows in Iraq.
It makes me angry that the honor and integrity of my country has been stained because of the actions of a few reprehensible individuals and a bureaucracy that can’t seem to fashion basic, binding moral guidelines on important issues like this.
Most of all, it makes me angry that after years of this, I still don’t know what to think, and I don’t know what I, a Christian citizen of the U.S., should be doing about it.
Christianity Today has an excellent analysis of media coverage of the Bush commencement and accompanying protests at Calvin, my alma mater. Although I’ve followed this whole chain of events closely, I wanted to wait until the commencement had come and gone before commenting on it. Now that it’s over, I have two observations.
First, while I disagreed with their views, I was deeply impressed by the attitude of the protesters as evidenced by the much-publicized ad they took out in the local paper:
We, the undersigned, respect your office, and we join the college in welcoming you to our campus. Like you, we recognize the importance of religious commitment in American political life. We seek open and honest dialogue about the Christian faith and how it is best expressed in the political sphere. While recognizing God as sovereign over individuals and institutions alike, we understand that no single political position should be identified with God’s will, and we are conscious that this applies to our own views as well as those of others. At the same time we see conflicts between our understanding of what Christians are called to do and many of the policies of your administration.
This is, in my opinion, a rare thing of beauty in our world of nasty politics: an expression of both genuine respect and serious disagreement. I almost want to print out this historic document and frame it as a model for reasoned political discourse. To the crafters of this ad: I salute you, and am glad you’re a part of the Calvin community.
My second observation is a bit harsher: at least one Calvin professor’s public statements during this event were rude and inappropriate. This is Ken Pomykala, chair of Calvin’s Department of Religion, quoted in the Washington Post:
Calvin is confessionally Reformed/Presbyterian (in other words, Calvinistic — no surprise there, I guess), with a much more positive view of the intellect and participation in the broader culture than is characteristic of American evangelicalism, much of which is anti-intellectual (e.g. ‘creation science’) and escapist (e.g. the Left Behind series), not to mention morally barbaric (e.g. opposition to stem cell research; anti-gay)…. As a faculty member, I’m required to attend commencement, but I plan on reading a book during the president’s speech — probably My Pet Goat.
This is the most vicious, elitist, and insulting partisan comment to emerge from the entire affair. (While you’re at it, read Bush’s commencement address and then re-read Pomykala’s comments above, and ask yourself: who is really guilty of using the commencement event as a platform for making partisan political statements?)
I have several extremely serious questions in the wake of Pomykala’s statements. First, why is the chair of Calvin’s religion department publically voicing such open disdain for a large swath of his brothers and sisters in Christ? Wouldn’t the position of Religion department chair place upon its holder an extra responsibility to be tactful, discerning, and respectful of other beliefs, especially other Christian beliefs? Are conservative-leaning students in Mr. Pomykala’s classes taught that it is “morally barbaric” to disagree with his views on ethically difficult issues like stem cell research?
Calvin is an amazing Christian institution of learning precisely because of its strong roots in and support from the evangelical community, conservative and liberal and everything in between. It is not an excellent institution because its “enlightened” views on political and theological issues have somehow elevated it above the huddled masses of evangelical Christendom.
It is true that politics brings out the worst in people. I’m glad that those disagreeing with Bush’s presence at the commencement did so honorably and in a Christian manner. I am sorry that Calvin’s religion department is chaired by somebody who holds me and millions of other evangelicals in contempt.