It’s interesting reading this item (hat tip) after reading Chris Hedges’ book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.
A roomful of academics erupted in angry boos Tuesday morning after political analyst Michael Barone said journalists trashed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice presidential nominee, because “she did not abort her Down syndrome baby.”….
“The liberal media attacked Sarah Palin because she did not abort her Down syndrome baby,” Barone said, according to accounts by attendees. “They wanted her to kill that child. … I’m talking about my media colleagues with whom I’ve worked for 35 years.”
Because the one thing that Hedges hammers at over and over to his presumably liberal (and religious, but I’ll get back to that in a moment) audience is that the religious right is not interested in a dialogue, but only bent on destruction. Now, Barone is not religious, but for whatever reason, he’s hitching his wagon to Sarah Palin, a divisive figure that will, if all goes well, create a permanent rift between the religious right that thinks they own the Republican party and the elitists who don’t enjoy Bible-thumping and call themselves “fiscal conservatives”. (As Hedges points out, repeatedly, we outsiders are making a big mistake if we think the wealthy and the Bible-thumpers are mutually exclusive groups—the money flowing into think tanks and the organizations dedicated to movement conservatism are funded in no small part by millionaires and billionaires who are idiot savants that are good at making money, but not good at thoughtful religious and drawn to fundamentalism. You know, like the Palins, who are millionaires, despite their “hillbilly” reputation.) As such, Barone is on board with spreading lies that function only to make liberals look like absolute monsters. This “joke” is startling not just because of the content, but because it’s so forcefully untrue. Even Andrew Sullivan, who was obsessed with trying to prove that Palin’s 5 children indicates something funny about her,* didn’t—as far as I know—suggest that there is some mandate to abort pregnancies when you discover the fetus has Down’s syndrome.
No, the so-called liberal media didn’t have a problem with Palin’s choice. Nor, as far as I can tell, did the actual liberal media. In fact, I think the universal consensus what that she seems to have made the right choice for herself and her family, and that it’s good that Trig has a loving family with the means to support him. I’m sure wingnuts were waiting for someone to say something nasty, so they could pounce on it, but when that didn’t happen, they didn’t skip a beat and moved right in to pretending that it did. They aren’t constrained by reality like the rest of us. By any means necessary seems to be the credo. If Barone was really not someone to say stuff like this beforehand, as Steven Benen says, then that’s a chilling thought indeed.
What do people who are dedicated to an open society do when faced with an internal group that wants to shut down an open society because of their religious beliefs? That’s the question that Chris Hedges builds his examination of the religious right around. After researching the loose confederation of liberal-hating fundamentalists that constitute the religious right, Hedges concludes that the movement has basically built up an alarming following of people who are basically fascists in their thinking, and therefore are a real danger to our open society. It’s hard to argue with his point, especially when you see how non-religious advocates of complete corporate power ally themselves with people who are easily panicked about homosexuality, abortion, and who are belligerent about combining religion and government.
It’s a fascinating book, because Hedges is more interested in outlining why the average believer gets converted to the religious right cause (and it’s driven by conversion, since it’s a political movement, not a religious denomination) than anything else, though he does cover some leaders, to the degree that he shows how they’re power-and-money-hungry assholes who will make the most outrageous claims to keep eyes on them and dollars rolling in. His conclusion is that life in America is very bleak for a great deal of people, especially in the red states where the economic downturn has been decades in the making. In the South and the Midwest, the good jobs are gone (is it a coincidence that the Midwest got more socially conservative as it got poorer?), and people have to work extremely hard to get by. But the religious right is not a working class phenomenon exactly—people of all income levels fill the pews, and some recruit mostly in not-poor areas. I think Hedges’ point about Americans’ isolation is fascinating and gets into why megachurches seem to do just as well in stable, middle class neighborhoods. People get up early, drive to work alone as the sun is rising, get home after sun is setting, watch some TV and go to bed. They live in suburbs that are soulless and sidewalkless, where people live in houses that are designed to look cold and imposing. Our society and economy doesn’t do much for our social lives. The megachurches rush in and fill the gap, bringing an entire community with them that’s large enough that you can find your niche. That’s a powerful thing. They position themselves against the “culture of death”, and Hedges points out that the world around them does seem empty and soulless, like a culture of death.
It’s funny, because a few weeks ago I commented on the podcast about how much of anti-choice religious rhetoric presumes that you’re lonely and will feel the pain of it. Some big time anti-choice broadcaster was talking about mourning the lost friends, siblings, sons and daughters, etc. that were lost….to abortion. (And next: contraception.) At the time, I suspected that it was a ploy to get lonely people to blame their problems on reproductive rights.
Is this really a powerful argument for anti-choicers? That there’s all these people that would have liked them and totally been their friends if it wasn’t for reproductive rights? Are they that lonely that they think the only cure is to increase the number of people by force so that maybe someone can be their friend? I’d hate to think so, but then why is he using that argument?
But reading Hedges’ book, I get it. If you’re succumbing to depression because of the sterile, lonely world you live in, rhetoric that promises, “Join us and your world will be teeming with life,” starts to sound good, no matter how illogical it is. I think most of us can sympathize with this problem. It also goes a long way to explaining how easy it is to freak out members of the religious right with sexual fantasies about all the crazy shit other people are supposedly doing. If you feel isolated from others, it’s much easier to imagine that their behavior is strange and inhuman. Merely knowing some gay people and seeing they don’t have fangs or scales goes a long way towards calming fears stoked by the religious right.
Hedges also talks about the alarming flip side of this, which are the apocalyptic fantasies that are nurtured by right wingers. Again, if the world around you doesn’t do much for you, but feels empty and meaningless, then it’s easy to get you on board with the idea of wiping it all out and starting over. He finds this tendency to be the most fearsome one of all.
So, what do we do about it? Hedges has some suggestions—read the book to find out more, it’s really worth it—but the one thing I found most interesting was that he strongly suggests that people interested in an open society give up the idea that we can have some sort of discourse with people on the religious right. I don’t know why, but that struck me as a profound insight. He’s right—most people can, if they put their minds to it, have a dialogue with someone who thinks differently. For instance, Hedges doesn’t try to hide that he’s presuming that most of his audience will be liberal believers of some sort, and he contrasts real faith with this fascist mindset of the right over and over. Now, I’m an atheist and have some disagreements with that, but I didn’t shut down and was not only able but happy to engage his worldview and learn something from it. And I’ve no doubt that he’d be able to return the favor. Which isn’t to say that people in this country don’t often have harsh and ugly disagreements, but very rarely does it slip into genuine eliminationism. But eliminationism is built into the religious right’s worldview, not just in their apocalyptic fantasies, but in their general desire to force everyone who is different from them to live by their rules.
So, what do we do if dialoguing with the religious right is counterproductive? Well, what we’re doing already: Mocking them, exposing their pundits who try to conceal their agendas when they go on TV, and highlighting the substantial differences. For instance, the anti-choice movement puts a lot of work into trying to get the public to think that “pro-life” and pro-choice are just two groups of extremists locking horns. (Thus the term “pro-abort”.) Our job is to point out that the real crux of the argument is between those who want to control you and those who want you to be free to do what you want, and that includes free to choose to have a baby, even under circumstances where that’s a hard choice. Obama did a good job of that during the final debate, and it put McCain in a spot where he made fun of women who want to not die from ectopic pregnancies or strokes. So it’s an effective strategy. And now Michael Barone has given people a great opportunity to highlight how far he’s slipped from reason, and it’s only because pro-choicers live up to the word “choice”.
*My working theory about his weird obsession is that he didn’t realize women could get pregnant in their 40s without massive interventions from expensive fertility doctors, and instead of readjusting his beliefs in the face of this new information, he decided to go on the attack on Palin’s last pregnancy. But that’s pure speculation. Make up your own theories! Pursue them with the painful and embarrassing doggedness that Sullivan pursued Trig Palin’s birth certificate.