Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

Just three days away . . .

Why Neil Annoys Me So Much

My previous post should make clear why the gobbledygook on display at Neil Simpson's blog is, quite literally, meaningless for me.

It is far too easy to take a Bible verse and say, "See? See? It's in the Bible!" Everything is in the Bible - infinite compassion and intrigue and murder; incest and sacrificial love; the demand for stringent ethical norms and the display of horrific amorality. One need not go far to find the affirmation of pretty much anything one wants to find.

The idea that this is the sum total of "belief" is nonsenical. The idea that what Neil thinks of as "logic" and "argument" has any force is ludicrous. It is obvious to anyone with any understanding of the centrality of grace - the Gospel message of God's presence incarnate in Jesus Christ as the embodiment of God's infinite love - that it is absent from Neil's earnest and wrongheaded attempts to set us liberals free from our error. As Alan has said repeatedly, for Neil, God is Santa Claus (and, I would add, a 19th-century school teacher who wants us to memorize various things because that is what "learning" is), and Neil wants to make sure his followers get a bunch of presents on Christmas morning.

I Get Preachy On Facebook And Expand On It Here

I wrote this yesterday, and posted a link to it on Facebook. A friend of mine was kind enough to write a well-thought-out, meta-critique, not of my position per se, but of the church as an institution and how its many dysfunctions are leading it down a path toward oblivion.

I responded as follows:
Well, on a general level, I'd say yes. There are pockets of hope. Not to brag too much but PGUMC grows every year, has a vigorous youth program, a very large portion of members are roughly from mid-20's to mid-50's - families all. Lisa and I, at 43 and 41, are about average, age-wise, maybe even a tad to the old side of the mean.
I agree with you that the Church is doing far too little far too late in many instances, and the kind of shallow garbage being peddled at Wesley Seminary at this conference is not a sign of vigorous life. At the same time, the issue itself is, I believe, a vital one - it speaks to the possibility of seeing grace quite literally everywhere, divorcing it from dogmatic formulas and the stale and sterile proclamations of too many dead white men, and gives it a living presence. When we no longer feel the need to create little enclaves of holiness, but see the Holy even in the horrific, not to mention the mundane; when we can teach others this isn't something special or weird, but a possibility of a faith that is open to the whole world - maybe, just maybe we might be taking a step away from the abyss. It isn't everything, and there are far too many ingrained bad habits in the church to believe that they can be shed overnight, or even in a relatively short period of time. Yet, I believe, the radical affirmation of life, of the world, of all of us in all the different ways we live and love and fear and rage and die is the first step toward true holiness of heart.

I realized after I wrote it that I had been standing on a bit of a soapbox. I also realized, somewhat shamefacedly, that the position I had spelled out was far more mystical than anything else. Rather than try to plumb the depths of various dogmatic statements or creedal formulas, I was offering a view of the Christian life that sees hope and possibility not in a retreat in to our ecclesial enclaves, but in the ecstatic, mundane, and even horrific events around us.

In a recent conversation with Feodor, he wrote:
you rarely take the moralist stance when it comes to systemic analysis, contra Lasch.

I had thought that we split because I seek the moralist (categorizing) line in analysis and you like to rub it out.

So when you say you "don't" consider yourself a moralist, that strikes true to me, at least in terms of systemic thinking.

That's why I quipped that it's odd that you would so take to Lasch.

I think that my view of a life of faith - one that sees God's grace suffusing all of life, explains why I am not a "moralist" in the traditional sense. Rather than make some kind of lengthy argument as to why this or that position is more ethical than another, I begin with the assumption that whether or not we can or do hold some kind of moral standard is beside the point. I assume that God's presence sets aside our petty concerns with "right" and "wrong"; God wants us to realize that the greatest elemental force in the Universe isn't gravity, but love. It's the glue that holds all the craziness together. It can be seen, if we open our eyes, everywhere.

This, obviously, does not erase the need to seek justice, to decry inhumanity, to comfort the afflicted with the promise that God seeks their full humanity. On the contrary, doing all this and more rests precisely on the realization that, as a God of love and life, we are to do these things and more with more urgency than ever. There isn't an argument one can make about this, though. Sitting around and discussing the hypostatic union, or the nature of the immanent versus economic Trinity is as meaningless as sitting around and discussing Platonic forms. Rather than sitting around and making a case as to why this particular belief in God as a God of infinite desire for creation, this understanding drives one to live it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Blame Wesley Seminary

See, I thought I'd recommend this, which was announced on Facebook yesterday. I was chided for it, and I have to agree, for the most part, with the criticism. I would take the criticism a step further. While I will be honest enough to admit that I have not read the books in question, I will also say (in my own defense) that I have seen most of them (the one on U2 not so much, but it's more recent), and I have pushed them aside as I searched the stacks for something worth reading.

This does not mean the issue is uninteresting or unimportant. On the contrary! It is part of what lies behind this blog! Yet, on the merits, the works offered by the guest speaker sound neither interesting nor of any substantive, intellectual, or theological depth.

Finding a spiritual core in the songs of U2 doesn't take a Ph.D., I know; expounding on them, however, and the opportunities they offer might require a bit more than, "Oh, by! Bono just sang about Jesus!"

For me, I can find hints of the Gospel message in just about anything; after all, God loved the world, you know. This world. The one we live in. This world full of laughter and new babies and genocide and racism and starvation and old couples walking hand-in-hand down the street and young couples snogging in parks and illegal wars and innocent people murdered by governments and first loves and flowers - all of it and more. God loves it as it is. God doesn't love it as it should be. He just loves it. He loves it enough to let everyone know what that love is like. It is a love that is willing to die for all of it rather than let it collapse into nothingness.

God is in every song ever song, every poem ever read, every painting ever put on canvas. God is in the worst moments of our collective lives, and those rare moments when we discover what "eternity" means when we first look in to the eyes of our newborn child. God is there, period. This isn't anything particularly radical, and it shouldn't be surprising. Sitting around and discussing the notion that there are religious themes in the music of U2 is probably enough to make most anyone yawn; sitting around and contemplating the Gospel in Judas Priest, say, or the abstractions of a Pollock or even Mondrian - that might be far more interesting, and it might even be a game changer (although, not necessarily in the case of Pollock; I mean, this is a guy who painted feelings, for crying out loud, and if God isn't in those paintings, then Jesus died for nothing, as far as I'm concerned).

So, yeah, the choice Wesley made in this instance isn't really all that noteworthy, at least as far as speakers go. The theme, though, is not only interesting, it is important. I just wish there were those who could articulate a far deeper vision of the penetration of the Spirit in our collective popular and high culture. Maybe, "The Gospel According the Black Sabbath"?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pointing And Laughing At FOXNews


It's easy and fun.

"Before the GOP finds a new leader, it will need a new vocabulary.": Sam Tannenhaus On The Crisis Of Conservatism

With a hat-tip to Frank on Facebook (no link in order to preserve his sanity), I see Sam Tannanhaus (whose biography of Whittaker Chambers is worthy of a chuckle or two) is saying now what I've been saying for the better part of three years.
This is the crisis now facing the right and principal reason I wrote this book. The movement has exhausted itself and depleted its resources.

While I think the role of "intellectuals" is far more peripheral than Tannenhaus would insist it should be, nevertheless his central point should have been clear to any observer of our national politics since 2005 or so.

Coming down squarely in a modern conservative tradition rooted in Buckley's attempt to wed a certain Catholic sensibility to an political philosophy largely foreign to the American experience, Tannenhaus forgot one of Buckley's other achievements. Far more than almost any other conservative leader in their years in the wilderness, Buckley rooted out anti-Semitism from post-WWII American anti-liberalism.

While the picture of Chambers Tannenhaus draws is more than a little generous - I cannot picture the bloated, alcoholic, former Communist who managed to slander Alger Hiss (and the entire American foreign policy establishment in the process) sitting around and reading French novels - his take on the very sorry state of contemporary conservatism is spot on. It is nice that some, at least, on the right are noticing this fact, even if there is little, at the moment to commend this view to the too-public voices of the American right.

He Sees White People

For some reason, Texas is discussing new history textbook standards. For some reason even more obscure and unknown, they invited the Rev. Peter Marshall to comment on the standards. If this is the same Rev. Peter Marshall whose published works polluted the shelves of the church library at my wife's last appointment, I can only plea, WHY?!?"
Asked by an African-American board member about his objection to the inclusion of Thurgood Marshall in the textbook standards -- Rev. Marshall called the jurist not "a strong enough example" -- Rev. Marshall responded: "He's known primarily for that one very important Supreme Court decision."

Which does nothing more than prove that Peter Marshall is an ignorant boob.

The gist of the whole meeting was quite simple, really. Peter Marshall doesn't like the fact that people of a dusky hue are included in a recounting of American history. Thurgood Marshall? Pah! Cesar Chavez? A non-entity. I wonder if Marshall, like a writer to either Dear Abby or Ann Landers years ago, objected to a discussion of the Tuskeegee Airmen (when a television movie that dramatized their struggle and various triumphs was aired, a writer to one of the twins said that, as a boy he followed the Second World War on the radio, and he has no memory of any stories about an Africa-American flying unit; he wondered, in fact, if it had been made up in a fit of political correctness).

It's quite simple really. Folks don't like history. It's ugly, morally equivocal, and cumbersome. Even when attempting to construct a narrative about it, it becomes necessary to point out that even the more important persons in our past had certain, how can I put this, less-than-attractive qualities and moments. If our children are going to learn about America, it might be far more nice to paint with broad brush, tell a story full of villains and the occasional hero riding out of the night to save our collective (white) skins, and ignore a significant portion of the population because for much of our history they were, officially, non-entities (one could make a similar case, were one a historian of the west coast, for the invisibility of the American Asian population, something Ronald Takaki has gone a long way to correct).

While the Rev. Marshall certainly has a right to his asinine opinion, what he does not have is the right to (ahem) white-wash the reality of our national history because all those folks whose skin-color doesn't match his did stuff that make him feel less than heroic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Progress And Its Discontents

In the early summer of 1991, a friend of mine told me of a new book coming out that I might enjoy. I had heard, but not read, The Culture of Narcissism, and the name Christopher Lasch was one I had heard without knowing too much about. Working at the seminary bookstore, I managed to order and get my hands on a copy of The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics and read it straight through. I can say without qualification that it, with a handful of other books, changed my mind about a great many things, and was formative for my own understanding of society, culture, and politics.

Lasch's masterwork is a tour de force, stretching back to Burke and Smith, through mid-19th century social critics in America such as de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson, the syndicalists, with long excurses on Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, all a long argument that really boils down to a simple thesis - the Enlightenment project of social improvement has degenerated in to a parody of the ancien regime it overthrew, an elitist cadre of self-appointed guardians of public morals and private virtue in the service of keeping itself in power. Rather than either a reactionary diatribe against liberal shallowness or a neo-conservative shifting of alliances, Lasch uses his combination of intellect, moral passion, and masterly writing style in the service of a far more radical critique of American society than most one hears, even from so-called progressives and liberals today.

"Progress", in its debased, Americanized form has come to mean nothing more than turning our democratic ways over to technocrats (a phenomenon already pointed out by French critic Jacques Ellul in his classic The Technological society). With its disdain for politics, its withering view of the fine art of compromise, and its scathing (and occasionally horrid) snobbery toward the lumpen of our society, progressive thought in its dotage is no different, in effect, than the aristocratic buffoonery one saw in the dying days of the French and Ottoman and Russian and Austrian monarchies.

In the service of a call to reconsider small-"d" democratic values rooted in local communities, a sense of historical attachment and continuity, and a sense of place and possibility and hope, Lasch spells out in detail the way alternatives to the growing senescence of the Enlightenment has come to disregard these very values. In the process, of course, it has betrayed the democratic revolution it originally sought to support, intellectually.

I do not agree with everything Lasch has to say, by any means. In his detailed discussion of the Boston busing fight, he marginalizes the role of racism, which lay at the heart of the controversy. While I appreciate his argument that much of the feminist pro-choice movement's rhetoric is both racist and shallow, he does not turn it around and offer a serious argument in favor of legalized choice, which leads me to believe he was not in favor of it. For all that his view of the family has much to commend it, it also is far more idealized than the reality, past or present.

Even with these caveats, I can quite easily say that, along with James Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, Richard Rubenstein's After Auschwitz and The Age of Triage, and Gary Dorrien's three-volume The Making of American Liberal Theology, Lasch's work continues to inform the way I think, view the world, and is one of the lenses through which I read much social, cultural, and political commentary.

Politics Of Meaning

I commend this single sentence to your attention:
Seeking a certain kind of emotional fulfillment from the political process can be a very dangerous thing.

I have always believed that, while enthusiasm for politics is commendable, there are fewer things more dangerous than enthusiasm in politics.

I think this lies at the root of progressive and left-wing disappointment with Barack Obama and health-care reform. There was much to welcome in candidate Obama's approach - all that hopey-changey stuff. When he praised Ronald Reagan during the campaign (getting all sorts of flak from liberal bloggers in the process) he was doing nothing more than noting that Reagan showed, by example, what it takes to win a national election, and keep the public's attention. Clinton, too, did the same thing, which in my view is why he managed to win two elections; the American electorate appreciates appeals to the better angels of their nature. Reagan, Clinton, Obama all did this. While the warnings of various dire consequences in following certain policies offered by Reagan's, H. W.'s, and W.'s opponents were certainly warranted, even on target, in the main Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry lost not because they were right or wrong on the merits, but because they came off (correctly or not) as far too negative. Clinton and Obama married an enthusiasm for policy detail with a rhetorical flourish that showed they knew, as the cliche goes, America's best days are in front of us still.

Young Americans in particular responded to Obama's message with a vengeance; ignoring the humdrum reality that he was not exactly a flaming liberal. Obama is far more interested in the nitty-gritty of governance, knows the price it is sometimes necessary to pay to do something, and that, as a country both geographically large and humanly diverse, compromise even with those we would rather ignore is sometimes necessary. Many treat our elections like those in a parliamentary democracy. In Britain, for example, parties are elected on specific programmatic platforms, and when they reach the majority, are offered the opportunity to enact those policies. Should they fail, the voters turn them out.

Our system is a bit more unwieldy, yet far preferable (to my mind) for all that, precisely because it takes the diversity of the country in to account.

When ideologues of any stripe criticize our politics as unresponsive to popular opinion, I usually hear underneath these complaints the position that politics should be cleansed of its diversity and nastiness. The pursuit of certain social goods through the political process, however, always entails not just compromise, but the understanding that one will never, ever, get all that one wants. The best negotiators manage to get far more than the worst - which is why Clinton managed to mitigate much conservative harm from a right-wing Congress during the last six years of his Presidency - yet we should always remember that even those pieces of legislation we consider landmarks bit of law are the product of negotiation, debate, compromise, and (usually at the time) devastating complaints from partisans who wished the laws did more than they seemed to suggest as passed.

Neither law nor politics will make our country better in the end. We the people, in our homely, everyday existence must do that. Politics is a nasty business, amoral to the core, even when pursuing desirable ends (civil rights for minorities, regulation of dangerous business practices). Those who claim to have voted for a candidate based on matters related to his or her personal character, or because of that candidate has claimed to detest "politics as usual" (as if there were any other kind of politics) are always disappointed. Some of our best politicians are morally compromised individuals; those who have a far more exemplary character are, usually, poor politicians, or at the very least equivocal in their leadership skills. A certain amount of amorality, even ruthlessness, is necessary.

Understanding this is the first step toward appreciating the political skills of a Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. While all these men have their limitations, they also are among the most skilled political operatives to serve as President. Much liberal hand-wringing over all three men lies, in part I believe, in the desire for all three to be far more ethically pure (which usually coincides with a desire for ideological purity) in their approach to politics.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Unavoidable Hiatus

I hate computers, for the moment. My home laptop is fizzling fast, and so I am currently shopping for something new. Please no recommendations - I need a PC not a MAC in order for our various computers to talk to one another; I also know what I want, need, like, and can afford - although I know they are meant well.

So, until I have something new sitting in my home office, I am limited in what I can do.

Don't miss me too much.

Monday, September 14, 2009

For Feodor, Offered Without Comment

From The Minimal Self, near the beginning of a chapter entitled "The Minimalist Aesthetic: Art and Literature in an Age of Extremity", pp. 131-132:
Contemporary art is an art of extremity not because it takes extreme situations as its subject - though much of it does that too - but because the experience of extremity threaten to undermine the very possibility of an imaginative interpretation of reality.

The only art that seems appropriate to such an age, to judge from the recent history of artistic experimentation, is an anti-art or minimal art, where minimalism refers not just to a particular style in an endless succession of styles but to a widespread conviction that art can survive only by a drastic restriction of its field of vision: the radical "restriction of perspective" recommended by authorities on the subject as the survival strategy par excellence. Even the kind of embattled self-assertion envision by [Philip] Roth as a typical artistic defense against an "unreal environment" has proved impossible to sustain.

Thoughts? Opinions?

Revising And Extending On The Cold War

I ran across an article on Margaret Thatcher's offer of an alliance with the Soviet Union to prevent the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany, and wrote the following in a fit of anger and disgust:
What should be a source of disgust, and even outrage, is the very public discovery of what many of us believed all along - that the entire Cold War was bullshit from start to finish. Far too many human beings, whole countries in fact, were decimated by leaders who pledged adherence to a political ideology and practical policies they not only didn't believe in, but sought to undermine just as the goal of those policies was about to bear fruit.[italics added]

The beginnings of the Cold War were not, in fact, bs. While it may have taken a while for American policy-makers to realize the danger posed by the enraged Soviet Union, some of the leaders should have known that Stalin was hardly, as Truman called him during the Potsdam Conference, "Good Old Joe". At Potsdam, Stalin insisted on the execution of pretty much the entirety of the remaining German governmental and military upper echelons, the permanent dismemberment of Germany, with the resulting bits going (for the most part) to newly acquired territory to the east, although the industrial Ruhr Valley would be occupied by the victorious Allied powers sans France (Stalin never quite got over French surrender). They had to settle for the Nuremberg Show Trials, the destruction of the former kingdom of Prussia as a German province, and the multiple industrial spoils of war they carted back to replace their own decimated infrastructure.

Yet, Soviet adventurism did threaten France, Italy, and Austria (my uncle has still not forgiven Eisenhower for allowing the Red Army to take Vienna). By the time of the twin crises that led to the Berlin airlift and the Greek Civil War, it was clear the communist threat to southern and western Europe was far greater than had previously been understood (although the Greek communists were actually cut loose by Stalin, because he perceived that the western powers would fight for a democratic Greece). With the fall of Republican China to Mao's armies in 1948 and the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950, it was even more clear that at least some communists meant business.

Yet, by the time Kennedy took office, had a more deft hand been at the tiller, the US and the Soviet Union might just have managed some fake crises with a bit more finesse. While Kruschev made a show of walking out on Eisenhower because of the capture of a U2 pilot shot down over their territory, and the raising of the Berlin Wall were certainly fodder for American anti-communists to make much hay, cooler heads may have been able to move through the bluster and keep the lines open. The cowboy attitude on display during the Bay of Pigs fiasco - which resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later - was almost entirely the fault of the Kennedy Administration allowing their weakness to hang out for the Russians to see.

The renewal of the Cold War under Reagan, at least during his first term, was wholly avoidable, the product of rabid anti-communism run amok. It should be noted, though, that it really began toward the end of Carter's Presidency, with the overreaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Carter's willingness to go along with Defense Secretary Harold Brown's recommendations to deploy the MX Missile and build the B-1B bomber, both huge boondoggles.

With the publication of PM Thatcher's unguarded offer and blatant honesty to Gorbachev - that the anti-communism was pretty much for domestic consumption; the goal of stability of the post-war status quo being far more important than freedom for the captive peoples of Central Europe - we may at least be honest enough to admit that much of the fear and bluster, posturing and nonsense from 1981 until the collapse of the Iron Curtain was so much nonsense. Had Thatcher, Reagan, and Bush been as honest with their publics as they were with Gorbachev, history might be a bit different.

I'm still pissed, though, that it took 20 years for this to come to light.

Music For Your Monday

Yesterday, as is my habit, I posted a sacred music video to Facebook. Rather than a piece of classical, baroque, or contemporary orchestral sacred music, I posted a song by the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group that, for a time, featured future soul pioneer Sam Cooke on lead vocals. What I didn't know, as I searched for a song, was that the Soul Stirrers continued on after Cooke left to cross over to pop music. Since I have not done enough on gospel music, and would like to try and correct that, here are some offerings from them, from older to more recent.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The trouble is . . . that words fail in the face of evil on such a scale [the Nazi attack on European Jewish existence]. As many survivors have argued, silence is the only fitting tribute to the three and a half millions who died in concentration camps and death camps, to the two million exterminated nuy mobile killing unites on the eastern front, and the the half million more who died in the ghettos of eastern Europe of hunger, disease, terror, and Nazi reprisals. Words fail, but it is nevertheless necessary to speak. Who can remain silent, having witnessed such events? But a language of extremity, the only language appropriate to extreme situations, soon loses its force through repetition and inflation. It facilitates what it seeks to prevent, the normalization of atrocity.

Christopher Lasch

The Minimal Self
p. 101

The second and third chapters of Lasch's follow up to The Culture of Narcissism examine the way so much of our public discourse and cultural understandings in the late-20th century began to rely more and more on "survival" as a theme. Whether it was popular manuals on business success, or serious works on feminism, race relations, and even history, more and more commentators began to proclaim the goal of life should be survival.

This is the bulk of chapter 2; chapter 3 examines, as a way of highlighting and clarifying this issue, the way the Nazi extermination program (and Lasch is wise enough to include Stalin's various exercises in mass death as well) has been mined far too frequently as a guide to understanding our own, contemporary social, political, and cultural situation. With the appearance of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, the plethora of right-wing commentators and politicians insisting that Barack Obama is leading the US toward a kind of Nazi-like authoritarian state, I think it more than relevant to consider whether or not this mainstreaming of extremist understandings has not only reached a kind of logical conclusion, but also if this might not also be an opportunity to place the Nazi and Stalinst horrors back in their proper, historical, perspective.

Lasch is never explicit, but he certainly attempts to make clear the historical ambiguity of attempting to understand unique historical events - the Holocaust, the various Stalinst crimes - while also seeking to draw from them lessons for the rest of humanity. This is always the tension in historical understanding. History is the record of unique events, never repeatable (therefore non-scientific) yet nevertheless events capable of understanding, and therefore, should we delve deep enough, meaning. Yet, as he also points out in the epigraph above, faced with the inhuman ferocity of mass death, words fail even as the dead cry out for words as their final plea for some kind of justice. Lasch seems to straddle a fine line between insisting on the qualitative uniqueness of 20th century experiences of mass death, and our own attempt at understanding robbing them of their character as a break with the past.

Since the late-1960's, at least in the United States, we have lived far too long with the rhetoric of extremism. The radicals of the time far too often compared our country then to a fascist state. That the early-70's saw an attempt at extra-legal Executive power on a scale previously not seen only seemed to intensify the idea in the minds of many leftists that there is an inherent authoritarianism to conservative rule that, if unchecked, could lead us down a dangerous path.

This line of thought intensified, three decades later, during the Bush Administration. It was given impetus by the right-wing acceptance of massive intrusions on constitutional liberties in the name of national security, apologias for torture and indefinite detention without trial, or even accusation of wrong-doing, and domestic espionage on a scale unheard of even during the Nixon Administration. While these illegal acts are certainly troubling, just as troubling was the regular cries one heard of "Fascist!" and "Nazi!" on the left (that I, too, did some of this is a source of remorse; one should be far more careful with this kind of thing).

When Jonah Goldberg published Liberal Fascism, it was greeted with a mixture of humor and scorn for its lazy lack-of-research, its poor reasoning, and perhaps its biggest flaw - the idea that a political ideology based on extending human freedom, both individual and social, and extending the benefits of society to as many heretofore excluded persons and groups as possible could somehow be equated with the irrational desire to make war on one's neighbors, all the while exterminating vast numbers of one's own population. This isn't just bad logic or scholarship; it is deeply offensive to anyone who understands the historical realities bound up with those horribly-coupled words in the title.

Thanks to the popularizing of Goldberg's work, however, we now have far too many on the right equating Pres. Obama's Presidency and many of his policy initiatives compared to fascism and Nazism. Placards at protests paint a Hitler-mustache on Pres. Obama. The attempt to extend health care to underserved groups is seen as an attempt to steal our Constitutional freedoms and rights. It has reached such a ridiculous pitch that, as often noted, many of those protesting health care reform are recipients of a kind of socialized health insurance in the form of Medicare, and this is too often passed over in silence.

While all this Nazi-talk does indeed rob the words of any substantive meaning, an attempt to address it head-on might present an opportunity to place the historical referents back in their proper place; it might also be an opportunity to ratchet back the reliance on "extreme" rhetoric and place it back where it belongs - out of the public discussion of routine, and mostly beneficial, policy discussions. I realize this kind of thing - Holocaust comparisons, the cry of "Fascist!" - will always be around, sad to say. There is no reason to take it seriously, or include such nonsense as part of any serious discussion.

Not-Quite-Random Thoughts

When I started blogging back in 2006, I was amazed at the vibrancy and activism on the left. I was not aware of how much work had been done to counter the takeover of the web by a shallow libertarianism and scary extremism (both are still there, of course, but hardly a huge presence). As summer turned to fall, as it became clear (to me, at any rate) that the Republican Party was headed for a disastrous mid-term election result, I got the sense that liberals and progressives knew there was blood in the water. Networks for fund-raising, hooking up volunteers with campaigns, get-out-the-vote drives, and all the other necessary work for winning elections seemed to be all favoring the Democrats. The liberal blogs and websites were putting out information that was hitting hard at a variety of politicians; the best known, I think, was the whole "Macaca" business that ended George Allen's Senate career in Virginia. The Act Blue network, or whatever it was called then (Blue America, maybe?) was giving money to a variety of candidates around the country.

The '06 elections were landmark not only because of the huge turn-around in Congress, or the huge turnout for a mid-term election. They were landmark because of the fantastic network of people around the country, connecting, coordinating, doing the grunt work of knocking on doors, making phone calls, pooling resources in GOTV efforts, publicizing information in order to achieve the outcome they wanted. It really was democracy in action.

Barack Obama, a seasoned community activist who had spent his adult life in and around Chicago politics, built on his own understanding of how to coordinate a campaign as well as the internet infrastructure in place from the '06 elections, and built huge momentum through the primaries, and then left this structure in place for the general election. While, in my own mind, the results of the election were only in doubt for about five days in September of last year (Sarah Palin was receiving far too much press attention that seemed to ignore all sorts of questions that needed to be asked and answered), Barack Obama never let up, and the numbers kept growing and growing - and he won not only overwhelmingly, but with the drive continuing to rise.

For some reason, I think many of those same activists believed that electing a Democratic Congress, and then a Democratic President, would be all that was needed in order to get an agenda favorable to liberals and progressives through Congress. Far too many people sat back and waited for Pres. Obama, Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid, Majority Leader Hoyer, and other senior Democrats not only set the agenda, but make the case for that agenda. When it became clear, relatively quickly, that it wasn't going to happen this way, far too many on the left - bloggers, commenters, ordinary citizens - started to whine about how "the system is broken", "it's all the media's fault", "Obama's no better than Bush" (this last is a horrible, and fallacious, thought) - rather than continuing to work for the change they want. While there is still quite a bit of that spirit around - the Act Blue network is still fund-raising for candidates; some major liberal bloggers continue to get information out, including contact information for members of Congress on issues on import - there is too much hand-wringing, too much complaint that Obama isn't progressive enough (I thought we knew that going in to the election), that senior Democrats are in thrall to various corporate interests who pay large sums of money to keep them in office.

Apparently, while able to organize a couple major election cycles around negative ideas - get rid of the Republicans in Congress (first) and the White House (second) - it seems to be more difficult to organize citizen action on positive ideas. Poll after poll continues to show the popularity of the public option in health care reform, yet without any organization, without some serious threats backed up by both numbers and money, these poll numbers are meaningless. Poll after poll continues to show the popularity of holding senior members of the Bush White Hous, including former VP Dick Cheney, accountable for any alleged crimes they may have committed while in office, yet without an organized effort for a systematic investigation that would include the possibility of legal sanctions if criminal activity is discovered and proved in a court of law, those polls mean nothing.

I guess the point of this little rant is quite simple. While there is certainly enough evidence to blame the media for their role in liberal frustrations, and the way money is influencing votes of members of Congress, or that Pres. Obama isn't as liberal as me, let alone Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, we need to accept some responsibility for failing to continue the pressure. While I wrote not long ago that I'm not in favor, for a variety of reasons, at wholesale primary contests against sitting members of Congress if this or that piece of legislation doesn't pass, I would certainly think that a campaign of targeted primaries, if well-funded and with enough organization to provide a serious threat to an incumbent, would certainly be a wonderful idea. We need to do more organizing on health care reform, more phone calls, more letters, more face-to-face visits with members of Congress and their staffs. We need to keep the pressure up, let them know that our pet issues are not just our pet issues, but America's issues; policies to make our country better.

If health care reform, or cap-and-trade, or a legal inquiry in to the Bush Administration, or a repeal of DOMA fail, we the citizens who elected this Congress and President, will be as much at fault as the larger institutions of our civil society that are fighting against them. Democratic citizenship is not just about winning elections, but getting things done. All of us share that responsibility, and all of us share the blame when it fails.

An Odd Thought

When 60,000 to 70,000 people show up with signs comparing Obama to Hitler, and the whole array of anti-Obama weirdness, it is something to consider and ponder.

When hundreds of thousands march through the streets of cities all over the country to protest the United States starting an illegal war, the reasons for which are fabricated, and for which our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines continue to pay too high a price they are all a bunch of anti-American leftist hippie wannabes whom both the media and our politicians can ignore with impunity.

Our system is truly odd.

Virtual Tin Cup

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