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Notes of a Left-Wing Cub Scout 08-12-03

 This is a picture of me standing outside my den mother's house in Topeka, circa 1972. That's a peace sign I'm giving, by the way, rather than any of that militaristic Baden-Powell symbolism. Click on the picture to get the full effect.

"Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago/
Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay/
Yeah, well maybe that wasn't exactly what they was thinkin'/
Version 6.0 of the American way."

--Steve Earle, from the CD Jerusalem

Pope Orrin's Bull 8/12/03 11am

There was a good column in the Post-Dispatch today by a former Clinton judicial nominee regarding the Republican claim that a  Democratic bias against Catholicism is behind the opposition to Bush's nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the federal bench. According to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, "Pryor’s opponents display 'a prejudice against traditional religious beliefs. But I’m not saying Democrats are anti-Catholic … there is a developing hostility to religious Catholic beliefs.”

Hatch's concern is rather amusing, coming as it does from the party that once flayed the Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." There would be no GOP if the anti-Catholic (and anti-immigrant) Know-Nothings had not come first, smashing the Whigs and forming a major component of the new northern party, the Republicans, that soon replaced the Whigs in the two-party system. Going back to the early stages of Irish Catholic immigration, the Democratic party has been the historic home of American Catholics. Of course, times can change. The Catholic-Democratic relationship has weakened in the face of abortion and other post-60s social issues, and modern Republican know-nothingism is considerably broader in scope than it was in the 1850s, extending as it does to science, economics, international law, and basic standards of honesty.  Yet I am guessing that it remains true that heavily Catholic areas are still pretty heavily Democratic, though not always as reliably so.

The Clinton nominee, who is Catholic, points out the major reasons why this might be so. The Catholic Church agrees with the modern, Southern WASP-dominated Republican party on very little except on sexual morality, and even if you don't agree, the Church's position on abortion is actually much better grounded than the Republican one. Here are some quotations from the column by Michael D. Schattman:

I was opposed by Republicans because my adherence to Catholic principles of social justice put me at odds with them and their values of social injustice.

I helped a police chief prevent a race riot. I believed in the 14th Amendment, equal rights under the law, and the dignity of every individual. I questioned the wisdom of the death penalty but not its constitutionality. I rejected war's morality but recognized its historic unavoidability.

They did not.

Why? It begins, I think, with Pope Leo XIII. In his 1891 encyclical "Rerum Novarum," he taught the dignity of work, the rights of the worker to a living wage and the justice of organized labor. Since then, the principles of Catholic social justice have matured under successive popes and the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to include:

  • An end to racial discrimination.
  • A minimum wage.
  • Equal employment opportunity.
  • Housing assistance.
  • A consistent respect for human life, encompassing opposition to abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, the death penalty, and war (with the current pope condemning the U.S. attack on Iraq).
  • More generous immigration and refugee policies.
  • An end to the embargo against Cuba.
  • Increased Medicaid eligibility.
  • National health insurance and a patient's bill of rights.

And the list goes on.

As the bishops (not Hatch) put it in the publication "Faithful Citizenship" before the 2000 election, America needs a kind of politics focused on "the needs of the poor . . . the pursuit of the common good" and a system designed "to pursue greater justice and peace."

Republican rhetoric aligns with Catholic teaching on abortion, but that is the only point of convergence.

Hatch's ploy reflects two major features of the current political and cultural landscape: the Christian conservative persecution complex, which impels many evangelical Protestants especially to seize the mantle of victimhood for themselves from those (the poor, racial minorities, political dissenters) they feel have unjustly stolen it; and the campaign to redefine such highly valued concepts as faith, tradition, family, and patriotism in the most narrowly Southern Baptist terms imaginable. So Orrin Hatch embraces Popery, and Tom DeLay thinks he's an Orthodox Jew. link

Minnesota Fathead (with apologies to my wife's home state) 08/06/03 early early AM

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has always set my teeth on edge, combining as he does my least favorite aspects of two cultures in which I spent some formative years. A native of Minneapolis, he's got the aw-shucks, self-satisfied over-optimism of the born upper Midwesterner AND the airy disregard for the people and institutions of the U.S. --- as anything but political counters or symbols --- that suffuses the national media. In his Sunday column, Friedman manages to invoke the need for "the Arab-Muslim world" to embrace "modernity" (meaning modern American culture) to "make it less angry and more at ease with the world" (like Mel Gibson and the Christian coalition, I suppose), while evincing a near total lack of concern for the damage that his darling Iraq War has done to the institutions that made political modernity possible in the U.S. and Great Britain. 

Friedman claims to be taken aback by "the degree of European-style anti-Americanism and anti-Bushism" he finds in Britain, "which Mr. Blair's personal and overt pro-Americanism has disguised." Of course, this "disguise" was effective only to a mind inclined to equate nations with their elites and to place little value on demonstrable public opinion. An occasional glance at British press web sites supplemented by chats with, quite frankly, any random selection of actual British people would have prepared Friedman for the shocking discovery that many or most of them do not seem to approve of their prime minister's special relationship with Bush's posterior. 

Friedman rosins up the bow for Tony Blair, who wanted to join George's dragon-slaying mission but knew the British public was even less likely to buy it than the American public would have been without the Bush administration's fictionalization of Saddam Hussein as a supervillain on the brink of world domination. Had the case for immediate war on Iraq been made in terms that were even close to reality, I suspect a lot more Americans would have wondered whether Iraq was really something worth sidelining the economy, short-shrifting the actual war on terrorism, and scrapping age-old foreign policy traditions for. The real case would made the Iraq War seem optional as opposed to immediately imperative: "Listen there's this evil dictator who looked like he was going to be big back when he was our ally, but these days, after a crushing defeat and a decade of isolation, he's got only the most hypothetical ability to threaten neighboring countries, much less us. No, he didn't have anything to do with 9/11 and hates Islamic extremists even more than we do. He's just really, really evil, and it sucks that he is still around after we kicked his ass before. Whacking him now would be ever so much cooler than guarding airports and poking around mountains and deserts looking for terrorists, who are freakin' hard to find."  

In the time-dishonored fashion of the 20th-century foreign policy intellectuals and pundits, Friedman really couldn't care less how decisions are made or whether the citizens of a nation understand or support them, as long as they are the correct ones in some grand strategic or ideological sense, as determined by the great minds of foreign policy intellectuals and pundits. During the Cold War, the deceptions and secrets and bold strokes were a breeze to rationalize, what with the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation and all. What really bugs people of this mindset is how very hard it has become justify the grand strategy, imperial military forces, and superpower outlook they love in the absence of another superpower to compete with us.  

Friedman calls the Iraq War, "a war of choice" -- "but a good choice," he insists, as though fighting a war that Friedman now admits was not absolutely necessary could ever be a good choice. He defines the Bush-Blair lies as their solution to a p.r. problem; they needed to make Iraq seem like "a war of necessity," because "people in democracies don't like to fight wars of choice." What fuddy-duddies we are! 

I am not a pacifist, but it does seem to me that there are reasons that democratic republics have made war a special case --- not just another policy option, but an extremely serious collective decision that must controlled by law and avoided whenever possible. At a basic level, democracy and republicanism are rooted in a commitment to the supreme value and dignity of the individual human life, to the idea that people have rights, that they deserve some say in decisions that affect their lives. Respect for a person's life and for their wishes go together, it seems to me. Dictators and absolute monarchs are not required to regard the latter, and in practice have shown equally little concern for the former.  If there really is a democratic tendency to balk at merely optional violence, that is something to cherished and nurtured, not crushed with lies. link

The Real Thing 07/29/03 5pm

Apropos of my earlier remarks ("Vacation Bible School" below) on what a genuinely Christian politics might look like, it's nice to see that the Republican governor of Alabama has come to agree that it does not look much like the policies of George W. Bush. Gov. Bob Riley, a former member of Tom DeLay's House Republican legion who is evidently trying to make up for that experience as governor, has proposed a tax increase that defies national trends and typical Republican preferences by not only by raising new revenues but also by making the Alabama tax code more progressive rather than less: "'According to our Christian ethics, we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor,' he said. 'It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax.' " Riley wants to set the minimum income that would incur taxes at $17,000 while increasing taxes on businesses and the wealthy. The new money would be used to close budget gaps and improve the state's woeful educational system.

Most southern tax systems are highly regressive, relying heavily on sales taxes and fees that are most burdensome for the poor and lower middle class. This is perfectly consistent with the white South's long apparent preference for oligarchy, a social and and political system that naturally places the heaviest burdens on those with the least power and status. Under conservative rule, the rest of the nation (including the federal government) has been moving toward the regressive southern system, sometimes openly and sometimes covertly, as in the case of the widespread double-digit tuition increases at state universities.

Short-sighted business lobbyists and other neo-monarchists love this trend, especially when it seems to be so easy to convince many of the voters harmed by such policies to regard them as a great boon. Naturally, many of the governor's Republican supporters now "see Riley as a Judas" and have turned on him viciously for developing a sudden case of political honesty and courage. The outraged interest groups include the state's self-styled Christian Coalition, who sling some mendacious Shrubbian rhetoric about all families deserving "tax relief," even those who actually don't deserve it in the sense of needing it or having done anything to earn it, that did not come from any bible I know about besides Karl Rove's campaign bible.  link

The Blog is Back 7/28/03  11pm

We're finally done with most of our major summer travels, and having received lots of praise from colleagues at the SHEAR (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) last week for this poor languishing blog, it seems time to get it back up and running again. There are so many things that need blogging about, I don't know where to start.

Let me begin by recommending an article in the Washington Monthly on the Bush administration's hostility to science. It has many specifics on something I have commented on before, the conservative aversion to engaging with many of the facts of modern life (and not only where "the facts of life" are concerned). Actually, it's less of an aversion these days than a commitment to the aggressive contradiction of scientific, economic, and sociological facts that threaten the beliefs and interests of the Christian and corporate right or might in any way be construed as casting doubt on the lifestyles and values of McMansion-dwelling, SUV-driving, Shrub-loving white suburban voters. Driven by basically political imperatives, these policies of denial and contradiction are buttressed by the simulated research of a growing conservative counter-intelligentsia eager to provide know-nothing conservative politicians with excuses for acting as though evolution, global warming, pollution, racism, etc., were all merely unproven theories on which "the jury is still out," if not actual "liberal claptrap." Conservatives like to pretend that they are actually pondering these questions seriously, but squirming underneath it all is good old-fashioned reactionary anti-intellectualism. The article reports Karl Rove's answer when asked to define a Democrat: "Bush's chief political strategist replied, 'Somebody with a doctorate.' "

The Washington Monthly article focuses on hard science issues, especially in biology, but the pattern it describes of favoring information and experts politically cooked to order, even or perhaps especially in cases where the favored view contradicts the vast majority of other research on a subject, clearly applies in just about every area, from economics to constitutional law to foreign policy. As the Washington Monthly points out, Condoleeza Rice is one the relatively few Ph.D.s in the current White House, but it's clear that she was in the habit, along with much of the rest of the administration, of giving weight to only the most alarmist evidence regarding the alleged Iraqi threat, even evidence that was widely regarded as baseless or purely speculative. It's all so sad. It's one thing for conservatives to sell tax cuts with cooked economic information, and quite inexcusably different to take the same cynical approach to war. link

Pasley's Familiar Excuses 07/02/03 11AM

I have been avoiding the blogosphere for a while, trying to catch up on many previously-mentioned overdue commitments, which now include the assembly of a massively complex "play structure" -- please don't call it a swing set -- my wife got a closeout price on. The boys are being as patient as can be expected about it, which is not so much. In the meantime, they (or Isaac, the older one, anyway), are looking forward to the grand patriotic Midwestern tradition of blowing a lot of stuff up this Friday. Missourians are great believers in our constitutional freedoms, including the right to drink beer in the car and an equally relaxed approach to fireworks. Auditorally speaking, the closest thing in America to downtown Baghdad during a Bus presidency is a small town in Missouri on the 4th of July.

Pasley's Familiar Quotations 06/05/03 way too early

Sorry for the sporadic nature of my blogging here of late. Having finally gotten the recent semester and the SHEAR program out of the way, I have been working through my very large stack of mostly overdue book reviews and other minor pieces. In a putting together several encyclopedia articles over the last few days, for an interesting project called The Encyclopedia of American Conspiracy Theories, I ran across a couple of familiar quotations that seemed to speak to modern times:

"Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress." -- Andrew Jackson, "Bank Veto Message"

Say what you want about Jackson, his sanity (or lack of same), his sincerity (or lack of same), his brutality toward the Indians -- most of it would be true. Yet I also think that no truer sentence than the above has ever been written about American legislative politics than that, especially if you mentally add "or the state legislature." The desire of rich men (and now women) to make politicians help them get richer is just one of the overwhelming facts of life in every capital in this land, generating immense pressures (through the medium of the lobbyists, lobby law firms, and associations that line the streets of places like Tallahassee and Jefferson City) that require incredible vigilance and willpower to resist.

Jackson was applying one of what I consider one of the truisms of all socio-political history: that those with wealth and power always want more of both, will use one to get the other, and always implicitly aim for a state of things in which they own or control everything and in which all the wealth comes to them and nothing goes out except what they voluntarily give up. (I speak economically -- this is what aim for an abstract sense, not what they actually achieve.) Somewhere back in collective memory of our modern aristocrats is a lovely dream of the way the old aristocrats had it: they owned the land, the peasants did the work, and it was the peasants who had to pay the taxes, just because that's the way it was, no need for pet economists to gin up trickle down or supply-side theories. Suweeeeet!

(I don't see the foregoing as Marxist or a conspiracy theory. Really it's sort of a natural principle that's unlikely to change and not worth crying too much over, AS LONG AS THEY ARE OPPOSING FORCES TO KEEP THINGS IN BALANCE. This last thing is what we seem to lack today.)

Jackson's words hearken back to a time -- which lasted long after Jackson -- when it was conceivable for an American leader to say some so straightforwardly true if unpleasant about the way the world works, and not be drowned out or howled down. Not only that, it hearkens back to one of the periods when the American people themselves seemed to understand it was no safer to let the rich or business have absolute, unaccountable power than it is to do the same for politicians.-- that nothing was going to trickle down for them unless they cut some holes in the ceiling. (Wow, if that had only rhymed I would have sounded like Jesse Jackson.)

This brings me to the other familiar quotation:

"The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead." -- William Lloyd Garrison

The Garrison line follows a more familiar passage that I wish more of our Democratic politicians and pundits would take to heart next time they are pondering whether they dare say "boo" out there in the Bushes:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.

Vacation Bible School 05/26/03 7am

No particular news peg on this one, but the second reading in church yesterday morning was one of passages I am always trying to think of when expatiating on one of my more frequent themes, the fact that today's so-called Christian Right is neither truly Christian nor generally right in its political choices. Yes, talk-radio listeners, many liberals do attend church, and do not even get burnt by the crosses. Many liberals even find a lot of support in the actual teachings of Christianity for cherished liberal values (often lampooned in the conservative media) such as peace, mercy, altruism and tolerance. 

Anyway, remember the following, from 1 John 4, the next time a communiqué from John Ashcroft or or Jerry Falwell or the Southern Baptist Convention or some front group with "Family" in the title hits the media, urging faithful Americans to hate or fear or punish some person or group with beliefs or a lifestyle that they don't like. Certainly think about this passage when Shrub next intimates that God is guiding his ongoing national agenda of deceit, cupidity, bluster and (mostly) misdirected violence. I have bolded some of the better parts:

7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son[2] into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for[3] our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19We love because he first loved us. 20If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.21And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. link

Homilist for Hire 5/23/03 1pm

David McCullough's run of fawning press coverage appears to be over. The Voice of America's latest prestigious honor is the NEH Jefferson Lecture, an ironic or perhaps just inappropriate selection considering the way McCullough used Jefferson in John Adams (as a foil to make the Duke of Braintree look better). While others have used the lecture to make grand, original statements appropriate to the occasion, McCullough seems to have treated the occasion as another homily-for-hire paycheck. The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott more or less trashes his performance on the front page of the today's Style section, emphasizing the recycled nature of the material:

Much of what he said has been said before, and by McCullough himself. He quoted a charming line from John Adams to his son John Quincy Adams: "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket." It got a chuckle, though readers of the Adams biography will remember it from Page 260.

Good stuff, and of course historians repeat themselves, but none of it was enlivened by substantial rethinking of the meaning, context or importance. What ideas there were were mostly paraphrased from McCullough's earlier work. Early in the speech he noted that history is not really about the past because, "if you think about it, no one ever lived in the past." Our past was their present. True enough, and you can read it all from an earlier interview, with Bruce Cole, posted on the endowment's Web site.

Of course, McCullough's biggest applause line was a swipe at us nasty academic historians for being such friggin' brainiacs and writing books that journalists and popular authors don't get: "He harped on a familiar theme, the necessity of history being entertaining and pleasurable, and he delivered one line that got particular applause: 'No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read.'" ( It's so true, if I had a dollar for every time I said to myself, "Uh oh, self, someone might want to read that paragraph -- better cut it." That's just the way we academical types are.) 

 Kennicott's goes on to make some surprisingly on-point remarks criticizing the McCullough style and explaining the origins of its current high regard:

There is a considerable effort, in this country, to