Sunday, August 29, 2010

Populist movement, popular puppets, or a spiritual rebirth?

Frank Rich has echoed and articulated very clearly what others have been saying as of late: people are being duped. While the populist rhetoric is soaring, the reality on the ground is something quite different. Rich clearly captures this

ANOTHER weekend, another grass-roots demonstration starring Real Americans who are mad as hell and want to take back their country from you-know-who. Last Sunday the site was Lower Manhattan, where they jeered the “ground zero mosque.” This weekend, the scene shifted to Washington, where the avatars of oppressed white Tea Party America, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, were slated to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (Beck’s words) on the same spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream exactly 47 years earlier.
Vive la révolution!
There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.

Thanks Frank. 

Yesterday's gathering in Washington, D.C. of the loose band of tea partiers and the like led by the pseudo-prophetic Beck have expressed strong anger at the current administration and have cloaked their frustration in the "federal government is meddling in my life and is on my back" kind of phrases. I have many issues with folks who want to rid their lives of the evil government while simultaneously enjoying the aspects of a federal government (I, at least, enjoy using roads.) However, there's another issue that emerged yesterday unlike much of the rhetoric and language being used by those on the extreme right. 

Yesterday, for Beck at least (and seemingly many others numbering somewhere shy of 100,000), his take on all of this was quite religious. And not in a subtle way, either. Nearly everyone who spoke invoked religious language and expressed a sentiment that the United States needs a renewal, a rebirth of sorts, from the wayward ways. This is maybe where it gets confusing because it seems like it would be difficult to say a country need a spiritual rebirth only since the last presidential election. Other prominent figures have noted this is the end times. So what's going on here?

Interestingly absent from the show on the steps yesterday was mention of Beck's own religion: Mormonism. I guess it would have just been a little too difficult to work that in when the narrative being told is that of the faith of the founders of this country (although they were more of a ragtag group of deists and such). Beck said, "Something that is beyond man is happening" and "America today begins to turn back to God." While trying to become a figure for the civil rights movements in a radically altered and confused way, there are serious issues raised by what Beck and others say. Speaking as someone who spent six years formally studying theology, I not only get frustrated by what Glenn Beck says, but also what it means when one begins to unpack and problematize the theological issues at hand. For Beck, God incarnate is someone quite different from the Jesus in the New Testament writings of old as well as the writings of liberation theologians. 

James Martin, S.J., has a very good essay on this issue of liberation theology and the great discomfort the words of Jesus as expressed in the writings of the New Testament mean for those whole profess a Christian faith. Social justice hasn't sat well with Beck for quite a while (do a quick YouTube search and you'll see). There's something really difficult for those who want to espouse Christian faith while also saying that government doesn't have role to play and you sure as hell better not think about any type of redistribution. Making Jesus a free-market capitalist is quite a stretch when you read the New Testament. Critically reading such texts, for many Christians, would force an internal conflict that is often unwanted.  Folks like Francis of Assisi and others took seriously the life of Jesus and what that meant for them. I'm not saying everyone needs to become a mendicant, but there is an orientation in one's life that must challenge many of the destructive institutions in our lives. When I write "institutions," I'm not thinking about the evil government, but rather the ways in which our society is driven by capitalism. I just doesn't jive with much of what Jesus lived and died for. There is much that could be written about the distortion of Christianity from shortly after the earliest Christians to its acceptance and adoption by the Roman Empire and in every subsequent generation, but hat is not the point. The point is that making an anti-government and lower taxes rally fit with Christianity doesn't work. It really doesn't work when you're also claiming to be leading a new civil rights movement. Courtland Milloy of the  Washington Post raises the ever important but absent question in all of this: when do we want to return to in history? At what point was it "right"?

No matter; people weren't gathered to hear too many facts. Rather, they were there to be rallied, to reclaim America from some (straw man?) socialist federal government taking over peoples lives. If that's the case, why would Paul Krugman's piece a few weeks ago be so spot on? As he reminds us, the U.S. is failing desperately, not because of a lack of religion but because of a lack of understanding how a society actually functions as a society and not a collection of individual islands functioning autonomously. E. J. Dionne Jr. asks us to think about all of this, to move beyond a politics of stupidity. I'll close with a few paragraphs from Krugman:

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.
The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.
So the end result of the long campaign against government is that we’ve taken a disastrously wrong turn. America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere.

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