Friday, December 24, 2004

Notes from a Red State

Whenever I'm at my parents' house in northern Idaho, I love to read the local papers. This morning I came across two items that hint at how a progressive political movement could sustain itself even in one of the reddest of red states. The spectrum of American political beliefs is more of a circle than a line, and northern Idaho and western Montana are places where the extreme ends of the spectrum literally and figuratively share common ground.

The only truly local daily paper in Sandpoint is the Bonner County Daily Bee, one of a string of local papers owned by Duane Haggadone, a mining-turned-tourism magnate who has almost managed to turn at least one Idaho city--Coeur d'Alene--into a company town. This morning's Bee featured a typical mix of news on its front page: in the right margin two stories of drunken mayhem among the region's un- and under-employed, and a large center feature with color photo about caring for orphan buffalos during the holidays. A story about Christine Gregoire coming out ahead in the Washington vote recount is on page 6; more fighting in Fallujah, page 7.

Better news coverage comes from the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington daily owned by the Cowles family, perhaps as rich in land and influence in Spokane as Haggadone is in Coeur d'Alene. The Spokesman-Review is trying to become a regional paper by publishing a 'Handle' section in its northern Idaho editions, and opening an office in Coeur d'Alene. This morning the Handle section published a letter to the editor from one Aaron Kin of Moscow, Idaho, titled "Apologies for being me":

It occurred to me, being a white conservative guy living in Idaho, that there is probably a lot of things that I am guilty of that I am totally unaware of. ... I'm sorry I voted for Bush. I really should have voted for the opportunist and gun-control liberal from Massachusetts, because nobody knows what's good for you like someone who will give all your rights to the government. ...I have a lot of apologies to make. That happens when you are politically incorrect and offend every liberal in town, which I do a decent job of. Thank you, and God bless.

What struck me about this letter was not its less-than-coherent recitation of backlash cant, but two other things: First, it amazed me that a conservative in Idaho could somehow muster the feeling of political alienation required to write such a letter. I suppose there are liberals to offend in Moscow--it being a university town, perhaps Mr. Kin doesn't have to look that hard for them. But Kin's letter shows the strength of the backlash, even deep in red country. I also noticed the apparent glee Mr. Kin took in believing he was offending people. This is something I've noticed from encounters with other male Republicans--that it wasn't enough for them to hold Republican political beliefs, they had to go out of their way to offend liberals. They liked being offensive, they liked feeling like they were sticking it to someone.

Part of the appeal of the backlash is that it gives its believers ready access to a rudimentary, bullying form of masculinity. While I do not believe this form of masculinity should be co-opted, to have a broad appeal a progressive message must incorporate some concept of manliness--not in the sense of traditional patriarchy, or juvenile swagger, but rather in the old artisan or cowboy sense of moral, independent, and self-sufficient manliness. The 'Metro v. Retro' politics is exactly the opposite of what's needed, because its version of manliness is centered on consumption and snobbishness.

A small regional weekly, The River Journal, features a column on politics by Montana state senator Jim Elliott in its December 8-17 issue. Under the headline 'Corporations and Democracy,' Elliott gives a capsule history of corporations from the 1600s to the present, emphasizing the historical novelty of the 'personhood' of the corporation, and the departure from their traditional role of fulfilling a public good that neither government nor individuals could easily provide. His concluding message speaks well to both conservatives and progressives:

Today we have a world governed not by nations, but by
international trade agreements drafted by international
corporations, governed by international corporations, with
international trade disputes adjudicated by international
corporations. None of these corporations, by the way, was
voted into power by you or me. Our elected representatives
have ceded control of our lives and livelihoods in the name
of 'world trade.' I believe it is time that elected governments
resumed control of our destinies. At least you can fire them
if you don't like what they do.

These themes of responsibility, accountability and a muscular democratic nationalism are vitally important to progressives and true conservatives alike. A political movement that made them its centerpiece could draw on support from both the left and the right.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

America's Most Immediate Moral Crisis

As we get closer to Christmas, the celebration of Jesus's birth brings those of who profess Christianity not only the hope of Christ's joy, love, and peace, but also the necessity of confronting the stark reality of a world so heart-breakingly estranged from Christ's moral teachings. One could identify any number of pressing moral issues today--poverty, inequality, health care access, preemptive war, materialism, greed, etc. But for me, the moral issue that most immediately pains me as a Christian and citizen of the United States is torture and prisoner abuse being carried out in our name. And over the past few days, we have learned more and more shocking details about these atrocities. (You can read about these degrading, disgusting, and perverted--not to mention physically and emotionally destructive--acts here, here, here, and here.) While these new revelations are not getting as much attention as they deserve, they are out there and sometimes get reported (Thank God for the ACLU, though they might not want me to say it that way...)

Sadly, there are some in our country, too many of them Christians, who seek to minimize or even justify these atrocities as a necessary evil in the war against terrorism. (Never mind that experienced interrogators in the FBI and elsewhere doubt the value of intelligence obtained through torture...) Have we sunk so low in our morality in this society that murky ends somehow justify brutal means? It is time for people of faith to join secular humanists in rising up against this immoral outrage. If we do not hold political leaders and military operatives responsible for these atrocities, then aren't we complicit in them? What can we do to bring more attention to this issue? WWJD? (It is interesting to remember that Jesus himself suffered from prisoner abuse and, ultimately, brutal execution.) Any ideas?

Still, I realize that in the larger picture we are inflicting greater harm on even more people through the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and we need to condemn that as a moral outrage as well. However, something about the whole idea of prisoners totally under our control being subjected to horrific abuse seems like such a morally clear place to start. If we can't stand up for principles and values on this issue, what sinful activity couldn't we rationalize?

Monday, December 13, 2004

Boot licking: alumni magazines kowtow to power

In the past couple of years the academy has come under fire as a cesspool of liberal back-patting that leaves no room for political disagreement (though the fact that the American government has become an echo chamber for radical conservatives does not seem to rouse similar concerns). Personally, I think there may be some merit to such critiques, but that is a topic for another post.

Here, I would like to highlight the great service that the liberal media wing of the liberal academy-- otherwise known as alumni magazines-- has been performing for the corporate and administrative status quo lately.

First of all, I was appalled to read in the PAW (Princeton Alumni Weekly), less than a month ahead of the general elections, a hagiographic article on Donald Rumsfeld '54 (you will have to click on "Print archives" on the left sidebar, and then select the Oct. 6 issue and click on "Features" to get to the article). Fortunately, many of my fellow alums registered their dismay on the letters page in subsequent issues: Jeff Wells '84 writes, "I had no idea Rummy was such a great guy. This certainly changes my view of him as the arrogant architect of a failed war strategy and violator of the Geneva Convention."

And now the CAM (Cambridge Alumni Magazine) runs a profile of alum John Browne (click on "Profile 1"), the CEO of British Petroleum, that cannot be described as anything other than fawning. The article acknowledges that BP has been "a natural target for protesters," and even runs a couple of colorful photos of protesters, but the author has not bothered to find out what the protests are about or whether they are likely to be well-founded. He did not interview a single protester. But boy, do they make pretty illustrations with their rainbow-colored umbrellas and their Tibetan flags!

Instead, the author allows his interviewee to airily dismiss the possibility that a large corporation could be corrupt: "There are rules and regulations," Browne assures us, and "there are witnesses around," in the form of the company's staff, to preclude any malfeasance. Um, tell that to all the Americans who lost their life savings in the Enron collapse. We've got rules and regulations, too, and Enron had ample staff, some of whom have since come under federal indictment. And-- call me a radical-- I believe that just because something's legal doesn't mean it's ethical.

Anyway, I'm no journalist, but something tells me that simply talking to the CEO and searching the company website is not the way to form a reasoned judgment about a controversial figure or a controversial company.

Shame on you, alumni magazines! I recognize that you're supposed to be boosters, but it's horrible to watch you prostitute yourselves to powerful men.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Response to Recent United Methodist Church Trial

I doubt they will print this (UPDATE, 12/13/04: I AM PLEASED TO REPORT THAT THEY *ARE* PLANNING TO PRINT MY LETTER, SOMETIME BEFORE THE END OF THE MONTH!), but here is the Letter to the Editor I just submitted to the United Methodist Reporter, a national newspaper delivered to churchgoers around the country:

To the Editor:

The United Methodist Church is sick. Our public face is the shameful defrocking of the very able Rev. Beth Stroud of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia ("Church court revokes lesbian pastor's ministerial credentials" by Linda Green & Linda Bloom, 12/08/04)
for no other reason than her honesty about living in a long-term, faithful covenant relationship with a person she loves.

Meanwhile, the working poor in the U.S. and impoverished people around the world languish in neglect despite the Gospel call to help the poor and powerless. Shouldn't we instead try to make headlines by giving our bold and uncompromising public support to a living wage, universal health care, protecting social security, more equitable trade relations, and global efforts to combat terrible diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria? The world so badly needs the prophetic voices of the followers of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, our nation’s President claims to be a United Methodist yet severely violates our moral teachings. He invades and bombs a country that posed no immediate threat to us, killing as many as 100,000 innocent civilians already, and in clear violation of international law. He presided over the barbaric treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq as well as abuses deemed by the Red Cross as “tantamount to torture” at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Our Church’s hands are so bloody with sin, yet instead of owning up to our larger moral responsibilities, we harshly judge one of God’s humble and dedicated servants in local church ministry. And we have the arrogance to throw her out in the name of “morality.” The United Methodist Church has become truly depraved.

God help us.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

election oddities roundup

I said a few days ago that I would supply a list of some of the more interesting oddities from the U.S. 2004 election. Well, here they are:

A nice review of the whole fraud issue.

A fascinating study of North Carolina oddities, which has received far less attention than I think it deserves.

A formal list of queries on abnormalities in Ohio.

Most recently, a sworn affidavit from a computer programmer claiming he was hired to write vote rigging software for a Florida Republican.

And, finally, a skeptical opinion from a leading progressive magazine, which at least takes the claims somewhat seriously rather than just ignoring or mocking them as many media reports have done.

I'm still 50/50 on vote fraud, keeping an open mind. I think it is certainly worth looking into, and the evidence so far is at least suggestive of some fishy things going on. Whether it will all amount to large-scale fraud that changed election outcomes remains to be seen, but that's just the point: it remains to be seen. Shouldn't every American citizen want to see this whole thing investigated more thoroughly?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Pirates of the world, unite!

I would like to provide a comprehensive list of important books to read, like christian_left did, but my reading is neither so broad nor so organized. I would, however, like to recommend from my recent reading Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Beacon Press, 2004). I will attempt to make a case for its political and cultural relevance.

Rediker describes seamen as a maritime proletariat, and the ships they worked on as the factories of the 18th century world--the machines through which large amounts of capital were accumulated. Turning pirate--or choosing to go 'on the account,' in 18th century terms--was as much a labor action as an attempt to get rich. Of use for us today, I think, is the description of the communal and democratic nature of pirate society. The ship was held to be common property, and important decisions (such as who would be captain) were voted on by the crew. Any wealth generated by the operation of the ship was distributed in shares to the entire crew in accordance with compacts (usually written) agreed upon beforehand by the entire crew.

This form of communal self-organization in opposition to the state and to capital is an important precedent for those seeking to resist the current near-hegemony of free market corporate capitalism. Keeping even the idea of such forms of society alive in an age increasingly dominated by obsequience to hierarchy, profit and blind self-interest helps preserve the hope for viable alternative movements. And, although I tend not to believe in national characters, the figure of the rebel against authority and privilege is vitally important to the American mythos. A political movement that incorporated a revival of purposeful rebelliousness could tap into cultural currents very powerful to American society.

Rediker may have an overly romantic view of pirates and pirate society, but his scholarship seems quite sound. For a more in-depth survey of the world of the 18th century seaman, Rediker's earlier, more scholarly book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seaman, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge UP, 1987) is also quite good, though longer and less entertaining.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Recent Items of Interest

Given the sorry state of politico-religious discourse in our society, it seems ironic that the major TV networks would reject an ad from the United Church of Christ advocating inclusivity and tolerance, but they have. I guess any non-right-wing version of Christianity is too controversial for the public airwaves.

On a totally different subject, I have been addicted to following the underground debates over possible evidence of fraud in the 2004 U.S. election vote. There are many people, left and right, who have quickly dismissed all such speculation...but I find myself keeping an open mind, at least for now. When you start digging into it, there's a lot going on that's hard to explain. At some point, perhaps I'll present a review of what I see as the most puzzling and suggestive bits of evidence. For now, here is a nice recent review of the subject. Perhaps all of this will come to nothing in the end, but I have a hard time dismissing it out of hand--especially given the blatant hypocrisy of what the U.S. is advocating right now in the Ukraine--and given how the whole issue cuts to the heart of our democratic system itself.