Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Global extinction crisis looms, new study says

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer

A growing number of creatures could disappear from the earth, with one-fifth of all vertebrates and as many as a third of all sharks and rays now facing the threat of extinction, according to a new survey assessing nearly 26,000 species across the globe.

In addition, forces such as habitat destruction, over-exploitation and invasive competitors move 52 species a category closer to extinction each year, according to the research, published online Tuesday by the journal Science. At the same time, the findings demonstrate that these losses would be at least 20 percent higher without conservation efforts now underway.

"We know what we need to do," said Andrew Rosenberg, senior vice president for science and knowledge at the advocacy group Conservation International and one of the paper's co-authors. "We need to focus on protected areas, both terrestrial and marine."

The survey, conducted by 174 researchers from 38 countries, came as delegates from around the world are meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to debate conservation goals for the coming decade.

The researchers analyzed the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List" - a periodic accounting that classifies mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish along a spectrum depending on how imperiled they are.

While many industrialized countries have undertaken conservation efforts at home and helped fund this work overseas, "the reality is we're still exporting degradation across the world" by taking food and other resources from the developing world, according to co-author Nicholas K. Dulvy.

"We've transformed a third of the habitable land on earth for food production," said Dulvy, who co-chairs the IUCN's shark specialist group. "You can't just remove that habitat without consequences for biodiversity."
Southeast Asia's animals have experienced the most severe hit in recent years, stemming from a combination of agricultural expansion, logging and hunting. Species in parts of Central America, the tropical Andes of South America and Australia have also all suffered significant population declines, largely due to the chytrid fungus killing off amphibians. Forty-one percent of all amphibians are now threatened with extinction.

Norway's environmental minister, Erik Solheim, who is attending the talks in Nagoya, said in an interview that this sort of accelerating biodiversity loss, coupled with climate change, should compel nations to act boldly: "Very clearly, there's an increasing sense of urgency here," he said.

The grim study underscores the failure by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to fulfill a 1992 pledge to achieve "a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level" by this year. The convention's 193 signatories meeting this month in Japan will set a conservation target for 2020; a U.S. delegation is attending the two-week session even though the United States has not ratified the pact.

Environmental groups are pushing for a goal of protecting 25 percent of all land on earth and 15 percent of the sea by 2020. At the moment, roughly 14 percent of terrestrial areas and less than 1 percent of the ocean enjoy some degree of environmental safeguards.

The new study documents the impact of such policies - 64 vulnerable species have begun recovering due to concerted conservation efforts, the article says. It provides a snapshot of how the world's birds, mammals and amphibians has evolved over three decades.

Two American species that had become extinct in the wild, the California condor and the black-footed ferret, have both made gains after being reintroduced, while several island species have boosted their numbers after humans took steps to shrink populations of invasive predators that were targeting them. The global population of the Seychelles Magpie-robin, for example, rose from fewer than 15 birds to 180 between 1965 and 2006 after the island's brown rat numbers came under control.

In some cases, a disparate combination of policies have helped species regain a foothold: the Asian crested ibis went from critically endangered in 1994 to endangered in 2000 due to protection of its nesting trees, controls over chemicals used in nearby rice fields and a prohibition of firearms.

In some instances, policymakers and scientists are just beginning to grapple with the challenges faced by some species - such as sharks, skates and rays. Jack Musick, professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, helped oversee a global study that suggests roughly 33 percent of cartilaginous fishes are threatened.

Musick, who started studying sharks in the Atlantic a half-century ago and began a shark survey in the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia's coastal waters in 1973, said he started seeing declines in the 1980s.

While the United States has cut back on shark fishing off its coasts, Musick said, "I can't say the same for international management."

Researchers in the IUCN's shark specialist group made assumptions about the state of some shark species because data is lacking for nearly half of them; they extrapolated what they knew about well-studied species and applied the same ratio of threats to lesser-known ones.

Sonja Fordham, the group's deputy chair and founder of the D.C.-based Shark Advocates International, said that gaps in data should not hold the world back from protecting sharks. "Around the world, we see similar cases of boom and bust fisheries, and management that is too little, too late," she said.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Confounding Fathers - The Tea Party’s Cold War roots.

Glenn Beck’s view of American history stems from the paranoid politics of the fifties.

by Sean Wilentz

A few months ago, the cable-television and radio host Glenn Beck began his Fox News show with one of his favorite props: a pipe clenched between his teeth. “I’ve got my pipe,” he told his audience, his speech slightly muddled by the stem, “because we’re going to speak about schoolish kind of things.” The theme of the day was “Restoring History,” and Beck, looking professorial in a neat dark blazer and a pink button-down shirt, began the lesson by peering at a stack of history textbooks and pronouncing them full of falsehoods, produced by “malicious progressive intent.” Progressives, he explained—liberals, socialists, Communists, the entire spectrum of the left—“knew they had to separate us from our history to be able to separate us from our Constitution and God.” For the next hour, Beck earnestly explained some of the history that “is being stolen from us”: the depression of 1920, for example, or how conservative economics saved the nation from the “near-depression” of 1946—crises that progressives don’t want you to know about. “You’ve been taught one lie, I think, your whole life,” he said.

For the fractious Tea Party movement, Beck—a former drive-time radio jockey, a recovering alcoholic, and a Mormon convert—has emerged as both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide. One opinion poll, released in July by Democracy Corps, showed that he is “the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters,” seen not merely as an entertainer, like Rush Limbaugh, but as an “educator.” And in the past few months Beck has established his own institute of learning: the online, for-profit Beck University. Enrollees can take courses like Faith 102, which contends with “revisionists and secular progressives” about the separation of church and state; Hope 102, an attack on the activist federal government; and the combined Charity 101/102/103, a highly restrictive interpretation of rights, federalism, and the division of powers.

During the “Restoring History” episode, Beck twice encouraged viewers to join his Web seminars, where they can hear “lessons from the best and brightest historians and scholars that we could find.” The B.U. faculty consists of three members, including one bona-fide academic, James R. Stoner, Jr., the chair of the political-science department at Louisiana State University; the other two are the head of a management consulting firm and the founder of WallBuilders, which the Web site calls “a national pro-family organization.” Beck himself often acts as a professor, a slightly jocular one, on his Fox News program. Surrounded by charts and figures, he offers explanations of current politics and history lessons about the country’s long march to Obama-era totalitarianism. The decline, he says, began with the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, in particular with the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, when both the Federal Reserve System and the graduated federal income tax came into existence. “Wilson,” Beck told his radio audience in August, “just despised what America was.”

Beck’s claims have found an audience among Tea Party spokesmen and sympathizers. At the movement’s Freedom Summit in Washington last September, one activist told a reporter, “The election between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 was when it started going downhill.” And in April an angry member of the Tea Party Patriots group from Cape Fear, North Carolina, claimed on the group’s Web site that “the very things you see happening in this country today started with the Wilson Administration.”

At a Tax Day rally this past spring, the veteran conservative organizer Richard Viguerie described the Tea Party as “an unfettered new force of the middle class.” And, indeed, calling Obama a socialist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson is audacious enough to seem like the marker of a new movement—or, at least, a new twist in the nation’s long history of conspiracy-mongering. In fact, it marks a revival of ideas that circulated on the extremist right half a century ago, especially in the John Birch Society and among its admirers.

Beck’s version of American history relies on lessons from his own acknowledged inspiration, the late right-wing writer W. Cleon Skousen, and also restates charges made by the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch. The political universe is, of course, very different today from what it was during the Cold War. Yet the Birchers’ politics and their view of American history—which focussed more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist China—has proved remarkably persistent. The pressing historical question is how extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party have exploded anew—and why, this time, Party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them.

The early nineteen-sixties were a turbulent time in American politics, for the right wing in particular. In the South, racist violence against civil-rights workers was constant, deepening sectional splits in the Democratic Party that would in time deliver the once solidly Democratic South to the Republicans. Southern elected officials, in support of what they called “massive resistance” to civil-rights laws and judicial rulings, resurrected the ideas of nullification and interposition, which claimed that individual states could void federal laws within their own borders. Others focussed on what they considered a fearsome Communist menace inside the United States. General Edwin A. Walker caused an enormous stir when he resigned from the Army in 1961, after President John F. Kennedy’s Pentagon reprimanded him for spreading right-wing propaganda among his troops and accusing prominent American officials of Communist sympathies. Senator Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat from South Carolina, spoke for many on the far right when he declared that various modestly liberal domestic programs “fall clearly within the category of socialism.”

The John Birch Society was one of the decade’s most controversial right-wing organizations. Founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, a candy manufacturer from Massachusetts, the society took its name from a Baptist missionary and military-intelligence officer killed by Communist Chinese forces in 1945, whom Welch called the first American casualty of the Cold War. The group was founded at a propitious time. After Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fall, in 1954, many of McCarthy’s followers felt bereft of a voice, and Welch seemed to speak for them; by the mid-sixties, his society’s membership was estimated to be as high as a hundred thousand. Welch, exploiting fears of what McCarthy had called an “immense” domestic conspiracy, declared that the federal government had already fallen into the Communists’ clutches. In a tract titled “The Politician,” he attacked President Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” who had been serving the plot “all of his adult life.” Late in 1961, after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, he accused the Kennedy Administration of “helping the Communists everywhere in the world while pretending to do the opposite.”

Wherever he looked, Welch saw Communist forces manipulating American economic and foreign policy on behalf of totalitarianism. But within the United States, he believed, the subversion had actually begun years before the Bolshevik Revolution. Conflating modern liberalism and totalitarianism, Welch described government as “always and inevitably an enemy of individual freedom.” Consequently, he charged, the Progressive era, which expanded the federal government’s role in curbing social and economic ills, was a dire period in our history, and Woodrow Wilson “more than any other one man started this nation on its present road to totalitarianism.”

In the nineteen-sixties, Welch became convinced that even the Communist movement was but “a tool of the total conspiracy.” This master conspiracy, he said, had forerunners in ancient Sparta, and sprang fully to life in the eighteenth century, in the “uniformly Satanic creed and program” of the Bavarian Illuminati. Run by those he called “the Insiders,” the conspiracy resided chiefly in international families of financiers, such as the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, government agencies like the Federal Reserve System and the Internal Revenue Service, and nongovernmental organizations like the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. Since the early twentieth century, they had done a good deal of their evil work under the guise of humanitarian uplift. “One broad avenue down which these conspiratorial forces advance was known as progressive legislation,” Welch declared in 1966. “The very same collectivist theories and demagogic pretenses which had destroyed earlier civilizations were now paraded forth in the disguise of new and modern concepts.”

In the worst case, Welch believed, military action might be necessary to dislodge the totalitarians. But for the moment a nonviolent political revolution would suffice. Accordingly, he designed the Birch Society roughly, if not explicitly, on the Marxist-Leninist model of a vanguard revolutionary party: a series of small cells that would work in secret to agitate the populace and elect right-thinking candidates to office. “It isn’t numbers we have to worry about,” Welch wrote, “but the courage on the part of our followers to stick their necks out and play rough—the same as the Communists do.”

The “Founder” himself would dictate the society’s policies, advised by a council of about two dozen businessmen and professionals, and the local cells would be overseen by unyielding commanders. “It is the leadership that is most demanding, most exacting of its followers,” Welch observed, “that achieves really dedicated support.” Welch’s group became synonymous with right-wing extremism, earning satirical blasts from critics ranging from the cartoonist Walt Kelly to the musicians Bob Dylan and Dizzy Gillespie. The trumpeter, whose actual name was John Birks Gillespie, made a humorous run for the Presidency in 1964, organizing John Birks Societies in twenty-five states.

Still, the most outlandish of the era’s right-wing anti-Communists was not Welch but Willard Cleon Skousen. A transplanted Canadian who served as a Mormon missionary in his teens, Skousen was considered so radical in the early nineteen-sixties that even J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. watched him closely; one 1962 memo in his extensive F.B.I. file noted that “during the past year or so, Skousen has affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing ‘professional communists’ who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.” Skousen was himself employed by the F.B.I., from 1935 until 1951, much of that time as a special agent working chiefly in administration. These desk jobs, he claimed implausibly, gave him access to confidential domestic intelligence about Communism. Skousen also maintained that he had served as Hoover’s administrative assistant; Hoover informed inquirers that there was no such position.

Skousen taught for years in the speech and religion departments at Brigham Young University, interrupted by a stint, from 1956 to 1960, as the police chief of Salt Lake City. His time in office was contentious, and after he raided a friendly card game attended by the city’s right-wing mayor, J. Bracken Lee, he was promptly fired. Lee called Skousen “a master of half truths” and said that he ran the police department “like a Gestapo”; Skousen’s supporters placed burning crosses on the Mayor’s lawn.

After losing his police job, Skousen founded a group called the All-American Society, which Time described in 1961 as an exemplar of the far-right “ultras.” Although he did not join the Birch Society, Skousen worked with its American Opinion Speakers’ Bureau, and, in 1963, wrote a rousing tract titled “The Communist Attack on the John Birch Society,” which condemned the society’s critics for “promoting the official Communist Party line.” (This was a tic of Skousen’s; he later defended the Mormon policy of denying the priesthood to blacks with a pamphlet called “The Communist Attack on the Mormons.”)

All along, Skousen’s evolving thoughts ran in tandem with Welch’s. In “The Naked Communist,” a lengthy primer published in 1958, he enlivened a survey of the worldwide leftist threat with outlandish claims, writing that F.D.R.’s adviser Harry Hopkins had treasonously delivered to the Soviets a large supply of uranium, and that the Russians built the first Sputnik with plans stolen from the United States. A year before Richard Condon’s novel “The Manchurian Candidate” appeared, Skousen announced that the Communists were creating “a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters.” A later book, “The Naked Capitalist,” decried the Ivy League Establishment, who, through the Federal Reserve, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Rockefeller Foundation, formed “the world’s secret power structure.” The conspiracy had begun, Skousen wrote, when reformers like the wealthy banker Edward M. (Colonel) House, a close adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, helped put into place the Federal Reserve and the graduated income tax.

In 1971, Skousen organized another group, the Freemen Institute, which he later renamed the National Center for Constitutional Studies. According to an article published in the Review of Religious Research, the center’s targets included “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communication Commission’s fairness doctrine in editorial broadcasting, the federal government’s change of the gold standard in currency, all subsidies to farmers, all federal aid to education, all federal social welfare, foreign aid, social security, elimination of public school prayer and Bible reading, and (that familiar right-wing nemesis) the United Nations.”

Skousen’s pronouncements made him a pariah among most conservative activists, including some on the right-wing fringe. In 1962, the ultraconservative American Security Council threw him out, because members felt that he had “gone off the deep end.” In 1971, a review in the Mormon journal Dialogue accused Skousen of “inventing fantastic ideas and making inferences that go far beyond the bounds of honest commentary,” and advancing doctrines that came “perilously close” to Nazism. And in 1979, after Skousen called President Jimmy Carter a puppet of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller family, the president of the Mormon church issued a national order banning announcements about his organizations.

Skousen was undeterred. In 1981, he produced “The 5,000 Year Leap,” a treatise that assembles selective quotations and groundless assertions to claim that the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government. Either proposition would have astounded James Madison, often described as the guiding spirit behind the Constitution, who rejected state-established religions and, like Alexander Hamilton, proposed a central government so strong that it could veto state laws. “The 5,000 Year Leap” is not a fervid book. Instead, it is calmly, ingratiatingly misleading. Skousen quotes various eighteenth-century patriots on the evils of what Samuel Adams, in 1768, called “the Utopian schemes of leveling,” which Skousen equates with redistribution of wealth. But he does not mention the Founders’ endorsement of taxing the rich to support the general welfare. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote approvingly in 1811 of having federal taxes (then limited to tariffs) fall solely on the wealthy, which meant that “the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”

Skousen also challenges the separation of church and state, asserting that “the Founders were not indulging in any idle gesture when they adopted the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ ” In reality, the motto that came out of the Constitutional Convention was “E Pluribus Unum”: out of many, one. “In God We Trust” came much later; its use on coins was first permitted in 1864, and only in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, did Congress mandate that it appear on all currency. The following year, President Eisenhower—who Welch charged was a Communist agent—approved “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

In 1982, Skousen published a follow-up work, an ancestor-worshipping history text titled “The Making of America,” and prepared a study guide for nationwide seminars based on its contents. As Alexander Zaitchik reports in his informative study of Beck, “Common Nonsense,” the new book became an object of controversy in 1987, after the California Bicentennial Commission sold it as part of a fund-raising drive.

Among its offenses was an account of slavery drawn from long-disgraced work by the historian Fred A. Shannon, which characterized slave children as “pickaninnies” and suggested that the worst victims of slavery were the slaveholders themselves. The constitutional scholar Jack Rakove, of Stanford, inspected Skousen’s book and seminars and pronounced them “a joke that no self-respecting scholar would think is worth a warm pitcher of spit.”

By the time Skousen died, in 2006, he was little remembered outside the ranks of the furthest-right Mormons. Then, in 2009, Glenn Beck began touting his work: “The Naked Communist,” “The Naked Capitalist,” and, especially, “The 5,000 Year Leap,” which he called “essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did.” After Beck put the book in the first spot on his required-reading list—and wrote an enthusiastic new introduction for its reissue—it shot to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. In the first half of 2009, it sold more than two hundred and fifty thousand copies. Local branches of the Tea Party Patriots, the United American Tea Party, and other groups across the country have since organized study groups around it. “It is time we learn and follow the FREEDOM principles of our Founding Fathers,” a United American Tea Party video declares, referring to the principles expounded by Skousen’s book. If Beck is the movement’s teacher, “The 5,000 Year Leap” has become its primer, with “The Making of America” as a kind of 102-level text.

The popularity of Beck’s broadcasts, which now reach two million viewers each day, has brought neo-Birchite ideas to an audience beyond any that Welch or Skousen might have dreamed of. Several times a week, Beck informs his audience that socialists (whom he also sometimes calls Fascists or Communists) led by Obama have seized power, and that patriotic Americans must take their country back. His TV show for some time featured “Comrade Updates,” in which Beck described perfidy while the Soviet anthem played in the background. He attacks all the familiar bogeymen: the Federal Reserve System (which he asserts is a private conglomerate, unaccountable to the public); the Council on Foreign Relations (born of a “progressive idea” to manipulate the media in order to “let the masses know what should be done”); and a historical procession of evildoers, including Skousen’s old target Colonel House and Welch’s old target Woodrow Wilson. His sources on these matters, quite apart from Skousen’s books, can be unreliable. On September 22nd, amid a diatribe about House, Beck cited a passage from “Secrets of the Federal Reserve,” by Eustace Mullins. The book, commissioned in 1948 by Ezra Pound, is a startlingly anti-Semitic fantasy of how a Jewish-led conspiracy of all-powerful bankers established the Federal Reserve in service of their plot to dominate the world.

Part of Beck’s allure is the promise that he will reveal secret information. In one segment last year, he produced a drawing of fasces—which he described, anachronistically, as “the Roman symbol of Fascism”—and then a picture of an old Mercury dime, with fasces on the reverse side. “Who brought this dime in? It happened in 1916—Woodrow Wilson was the President,” he said. “We’ve been on the road to Fascism for a while.” Benito Mussolini, of course, didn’t adopt the ancient symbol of authority as the Fascist emblem until the nineteen-twenties; the designer of the coin, the sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, intended it to signify the nation’s military preparedness, and paired it with an olive branch to illustrate the desire for peace.

Beck’s readings of Progressive-era politics are nearly as bizarre. Whatever can be said about Theodore Roosevelt, he was not a crypto-radical. It was Roosevelt who coined the term “lunatic fringe” to describe the extreme leftists of his day, and his concept of New Nationalism—in which an activist government built a vibrant capitalism, partly by regulating big business—looked back to Alexander Hamilton, not Karl Marx. Nor was Wilson a Bolshevik; in fact, in 1917 he sent American troops to Russia to support the anti-Bolshevik White Army. At home, his reforms sought to break up monopolies in order to restore competition among small companies. “If America is not to have free enterprise,” Wilson declared, “then she can have no freedom of any sort whatever.”

In 2007, Beck, then the host of “Glenn Beck,” on CNN’s Headline News, brought to his show a John Birch Society spokesman named Sam Antonio, who warned of a government plot to abolish U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, “and eventually all throughout the Americas.” Beck told Antonio, “When I was growing up, the John Birch Society—I thought they were a bunch of nuts.” But now, he said, “you guys are starting to make more and more sense to me.” His guest beamed. “Yes, we at the John Birch Society are not nuts,” Antonio said. “We are just exposing the truth that’s been out there for many, many years.” Since then, the Birch Society’s Web site has run clips from Beck’s Fox broadcasts, proudly pointing out similarities with their own ideas. Last June, an essay on the site described a presentation by Beck on Communism in America as “the ultimate in complete agreement between the Beck and JBS presentations of American history.”

Beck has also praised Ezra Taft Benson, one of Skousen’s close associates. Benson, the Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower and the thirteenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, gained notoriety for a speech in 1966 in which he denounced Democratic officeholders and intellectuals (including the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.) as socialists and Communist sympathizers, warned that “the Constitution will be endangered and hang, as it were, by a single thread,” and praised the John Birch Society as “the most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping socialism and Godless Communism.” Last June, Beck aired a clip from another Benson speech, intoning, “Ezra Taft Benson warned about what was coming.” The Birch Society’s Web site subsequently praised Beck for “getting progressively (sorry for the bad word choice) closer to presenting American history in the way that The John Birch Society has been doing it for over 50 years.”

Beck is no more the sole representative of today’s multifaceted Tea Party than Welch or Skousen was of the nineteen-sixties far right; he recently told the Times, a bit disingenuously, that he was “not involved with the Tea Party.” Why, then, have the politics of Skousen, Benson, and the John Birch Society had such a resurgence among conservative Republicans—not just through Beck but through Tea Party heroes like the Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle? (Last month, Angle gave a warm address to a “freedom conference” in Salt Lake City, co-sponsored by the John Birch Society and Skousen’s old group, the National Center for Constitutional Studies, praising her audience as “mainstream America” and patriots who had “heard the call.”) The columnist Frank Rich, among others, has suggested that the election of a black President sowed “fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country.” There are signs that this is so: Republicans’ singling out of Thurgood Marshall as an “activist Justice” during Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the warnings on Fox News about the terrible dangers posed by the minuscule New Black Panther Party. But “socialist” is not a racial slur. Jim Crow was not built out of fears of the Federal Reserve and the I.R.S. The Tea Party’s fulminations against cap-and-trade, federal-government bailouts, and big government generally play on very old themes that have nothing to do with the color of President Obama’s skin.

The current right-wing resurgence has more to do with the inner dynamics of American conservatism in the past half century. In the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, the far right was condemned by liberals, as might be expected; in November, 1961, President Kennedy devoted part of a speech in Los Angeles to denouncing those “discordant voices of extremism” that “equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, and socialism with Communism.” But the Bircher right also provoked deep anxiety among conservatives, who feared being perceived as paranoids and conspiracy-mongers.

The leading intellectual spokesman and organizer of the anti-Bircher conservatives was William F. Buckley, Jr., the editor of National Review. Buckley was by no means moderate in his conservatism. He was a lifelong defender of Joseph McCarthy and a foe of New Deal liberalism. But he drew the line at claiming that the course of American government was set by a socialist conspiracy, and he feared that the ravings of the extreme right would cost more balanced, practical conservatives their chance at national power. “By 1961,” his biographer John B. Judis writes, “Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism National Review had promoted.” In the next two decades, with Buckley’s support and counsel, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan completed a conservative revolution that succeeded by keeping extremist elements far from the centers of power.

As confidant and adviser to leading conservative politicians, Buckley had far more political influence than might be expected from the editor of a weekly journal. Yet in the early nineteen-sixties he found fighting the Birchers and their fellow-travellers extremely difficult. Even though some of Buckley’s colleagues at National Review thought that the Birch Society went too far, they would not attack the society publicly, for fear of alienating both the Birchers and the conservatives who sympathized with their views. When Buckley wrote an editorial in 1962 that accused Welch of “distorting reality” and failing to make “the crucial moral and political distinction” between Communists and liberals, the magazine immediately lost subscriptions and financial support.

By 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater, of Arizona, was emerging as the great political hope of conservative Republicans, and he consulted closely with Buckley. At a meeting at the Breakers hotel, in Palm Beach, in January, 1962, Buckley urged Goldwater to repudiate the Birch Society. Goldwater demurred; though he conceded that some embarrassing “kooks” lurked among the Birchers, he insisted to Buckley that there were also some “nice guys,” and that it would be injudicious to attack the group in public. The Birchers’ support helped gain Goldwater the Republican Presidential nomination in 1964, and he winked at them in his acceptance speech with his famous line: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In the general election, though, Goldwater suffered a crushing loss to Lyndon Johnson, partly because Democrats succeeded in making him look like a captive of the loony right. (To the Goldwater slogan “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,” the Democrats shot back, “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.”) Buckley’s fears had been confirmed. But he was undeterred in his efforts to build a respectable and viable conservative movement. In 1967, he favored Richard Nixon among a field of Republican aspirants. He liked Ronald Reagan’s politics, but considered Reagan, who had only recently been elected the governor of California, too new to national politics. George Romney, the governor of Michigan, a wishy-washy moderate, was obviously unsuitable, to say nothing of the Republican archliberal Nelson Rockefeller, of New York. Nixon was a hard-nosed Republican with strong conservative views, especially on Communism and the Cold War; he had established himself as a Communist-hunter in the nineteen-forties by pressing the charge that Alger Hiss, a former official at the State Department, had spied for the Soviets. And, promisingly, Nixon was the front-runner. “It seems to me that we ought to have a real chance of winning this year,” Buckley wrote to Goldwater around the time of the Republican National Convention. He served the campaign as an adviser, and by aiding his friend Frank Shakespeare, who had taken charge of Nixon’s media operations.

But Buckley’s candidate had a reputation for shiftiness that made him unpopular across the political spectrum. Some of the editors of National Review, recalling that Nixon had cut a deal with Rockefeller in order to secure the G.O.P. nomination in 1960, didn’t sufficiently trust him. And the Birch Society had nothing but contempt for the figure whom Welch had called one of “the slipperiest politicians that ever showed up on the American scene.” As President, in 1969, Nixon began to open diplomatic relations with Communist China, and the right wing placed him on its list of perfidious appeasers. When he visited Beijing in 1972, even Buckley was deeply offended. But when the general election took place later that year, with the antiwar Democratic candidate, George McGovern, voicing the country’s anxieties over Vietnam, Buckley and the mainstream of what he called “responsible conservatism” returned to Nixon. The purist conservatives were left to back the third-party candidacy of John Schmitz, a Republican congressman and a member of the John Birch Society.

Nixon won in a landslide, and the next year he appointed Buckley the American delegate to the United Nations. The conservative pragmatists had found the way to real power. And, despite the embarrassment of Watergate, in Nixon’s second term, their strategy proved effective over time. Nixon’s campaign against McGovern sharpened the Democrats’ internal divisions over civil rights and Vietnam, and, Buckley wrote, revealed that the Democrats had “an indifference toward national independence and a hostility toward national freedom.” Meanwhile, the Buckley mainstream, having read the Birchers out of the conservative movement, established itself as a permanent and growing force in the Republican Party and in national politics.

In 1976, Buckley and National Review supported Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge to Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford. After two terms as governor, Reagan had matured into what Buckley considered a nearly ideal conservative politician: a shrewd leader as well as a man of principle. Reagan nearly succeeded in wresting the nomination from Ford, demonstrating how formidable a national figure he had become. The Bircher right had flourished in his political bastion of Orange County, and Reagan was adept at winning extremists’ allegiance while he pursued realistic strategies. His pragmatic side showed immediately after he finally secured the Republican nomination in 1980, when he chose the relatively moderate George H. W. Bush, his bitter foe during the primaries, as his running mate. Though the decision dismayed right-wing ideologues, it had two practical benefits: it instantly healed the divisions between Republican moderates and conservatives, and it helped dampen charges from the Democrats that Reagan was a reckless right-winger. Nobody was more pleased by Bush’s selection than his fellow Skull and Bones man William F. Buckley, who understood the political logic as clearly as Reagan had.

As President, Reagan flattered the extremists—he even delivered some admiring words about Skousen’s Freemen Institute—but he saved his political capital for his real goals: undoing the fiscal underpinnings of New Deal-style government, and redirecting U.S. foreign policy by battling the Soviet Union and its proxies around the world. He appointed moderates to positions of importance, as when he made James Baker III, Bush’s close associate, his first chief of staff, rather than the far more ideological Edwin Meese III, his former chief of staff from California. (As a top policy adviser, Meese helped Reagan stack the federal bench with conservatives, but he was otherwise eclipsed by Baker and Baker’s deputy, the pragmatic Reaganite Michael Deaver, and his crusade, as Attorney General, to roll back civil-rights legislation largely failed.) When zealots in the Administration were exposed, as in the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan skillfully evaded responsibility and replaced them with more centrist Republicans. And, when he recognized in Mikhail Gorbachev a Soviet leader with whom he could undertake genuine efforts to reduce the nuclear threat, Reagan pushed forward, ignoring the complaints that he had become, in the hard-liner Howard Phillips’s phrase, “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

Whatever misgivings may have arisen about him on the right, Reagan achieved a dramatic conservative overhaul of the federal tax code, a profound reconfiguring of the judiciary, and a near-victory for the West in the Cold War. From the standpoint of the mainstream right, the only problem with his legacy was that no other Republican could come close to matching his public appeal and political savvy. For the party of Reagan, his departure was the beginning of a long decline, and it is the absence of a similarly totemic figure, during the past twenty years, that has allowed the current resurgence of extremism. George H. W. Bush repelled right-wingers with his moderate tendencies—not least when, in the face of fiscal calamity, he broke his campaign pledge not to raise taxes.

Bill Clinton inspired them to an almost ecstatic series of attacks, and though there remained enough of an older conservative establishment, personified by Senator Bob Dole, to check some of the wildest charges, the new Republican House majority after 1994, pushed by such ideologues as Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, had little interest in maintaining the center. They harassed Clinton, forcing an impeachment even though polls showed that more than sixty per cent of the American people disapproved.

George W. Bush seemed at first to have a bit of Reagan’s conservative charisma, but the right wing turned against him for failing to win the war in Iraq, for his moderate position on immigration, and for spending hundreds of millions of federal dollars to combat the financial collapse in 2008. When William F. Buckley died, during the 2008 primary season, it seemed to symbolize the end of a conservative era. David Klinghoffer, a former literary editor at National Review, lamented that “urbane visionaries and builders of institutions” such as Buckley have been replaced by media figures “who make their money by stirring fears and resentments.” Conservatism, Klinghoffer added, “has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism,” and is now ruled by those he called “the crazy-cons.”

Some Republicans have tried to extend the Buckley tradition, but to little effect. The commentator David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, lost his job at the American Enterprise Institute after he complained about the Republicans’ obstruction of health-care reform and called the right-wing surge a threat to conservatism. In June, the congressman Bob Inglis, of South Carolina, a tough conservative who nonetheless backed Bush’s financial bailout, lost a vicious primary fight with a right-wing insurgent named Trey Gowdy. To his amazement, Inglis was confronted on the campaign trail by voters who were convinced that numbers on their Social Security cards indicated that a secret bank had bought them at birth. “And then, of course,” he recalls, “it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff.” Not even Karl Rove can afford open dissent with the Tea Partiers.

Appearing on Fox News the night of the recent primaries, he described the Tea Party-backed Senate candidate in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, as probably unelectable and said that some of her statements were “nutty.” Instantly, criticism came from Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing Republicans. Within days, he was back on Fox, proclaiming himself “a huge Tea Party fan,” endorsing O’Donnell, and affirming that the National Republican Senatorial Committee would give her its full backing.

So far, Rove, an unlikely dissident, is the only prominent Republican leader to so much as gesture at stepping forward, as Buckley and his allies did. Even strong conservatives like Inglis have been pushed aside, as have such former G.O.P. stalwarts as Charlie Crist, in Florida, and Mike Castle, in Delaware, both beaten in the primaries by Tea Party candidates; Crist is now running a long-shot campaign as an Independent. Desperate for gains in the midterm elections, the Republicans are neglecting the struggle it took to make politics safe for Reagan.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy deplored the far right’s “counsels of fear and suspicion.” Today, Obama’s White House is still struggling to make sense of its enemies. In the absence of forthright leadership, on both the right and the left, the job of standing up to extremists appears to have been left to the electorate. Candidates like O’Donnell may prove too eccentric to prevail, or voters may simply become disillusioned by politicians who campaign on their hatred of government.

After the election, mainstream conservatives may well engage in what Richard Viguerie has forecast as “a massive, almost historic battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” (Already, Rove and some leading Bush political operatives, including the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, have been quietly supplanting the battered G.O.P. establishment in the effort to raise funds for this year’s candidates.) But, according to a recent poll, more than seventy per cent of Republicans support the Tea Party, and it seems almost certain that a Republican Party that has unstintingly appeased the far right will enjoy a strong and perhaps smashing victory in the coming midterm elections.

In 1906, early in the Progressive era, the humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional barroom sage, Mr. Dooley, put the social and political tumult of the day into perspective. “Th’ noise ye hear is not th’ first gun iv a revolution,” Dooley remarked. “It’s on’y th’ people iv th’ United States batin’ a carpet.” A century from now, or even a year from now, Americans may say the same about the Tea Party. For the moment, though, it appears that the extreme right wing is on the verge of securing a degree of power over Congress and the Republican Party that is unprecedented in modern American history. For defenders of national cohesion and tempered adversity in our politics, it is an alarming state of affairs.

Friday, October 15, 2010

How Radical Christian Conservatives May Succeed in Destroying Democracy

By Chris Hedges, Truthdig

The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes spent his life battling the assault on democracy by tyrants. It is disheartening to be reminded that he lost. But he understood that the hardest struggle for humankind is often stating and understanding the obvious. Aristophanes, who had the temerity to portray the ruling Greek tyrant, Cleon, as a dog, is the perfect playwright to turn to in trying to grasp the danger posed to us by movements from the tea party to militias to the Christian right, as well as the bankrupt and corrupt power elite that no longer concerns itself with the needs of its citizens. He saw the same corruption 2,400 years ago. He feared correctly that it would extinguish Athenian democracy. And he struggled in vain to rouse Athenians from their slumber.

There is a yearning by tens of millions of Americans, lumped into a diffuse and fractious movement, to destroy the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment. They seek out of ignorance and desperation to create a utopian society based on “biblical law.” They want to transform America’s secular state into a tyrannical theocracy. These radicals, rather than the terrorists who oppose us, are the gravest threat to our open society. They have, with the backing of hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate money, gained tremendous power. They peddle pseudoscience such as “Intelligent Design” in our schools. They keep us locked into endless and futile wars of imperialism. They mount bigoted crusades against gays, immigrants, liberals and Muslims. They turn our judiciary, in the name of conservative values, over to corporations. They have transformed our liberal class into hand puppets for corporate power. And we remain meek and supine.

The huge amount of taxpayer money doled out to Wall Street, investment banks, the oil and natural gas industry and the defense industry, along with the dismantling of our manufacturing sector, is why we are impoverished. It is why our houses are being foreclosed on. It is why some 45 million Americans are denied medical care. It is why our infrastructure, from public schools to bridges, is rotting. It is why many of us cannot find jobs. We are being fleeced. The flagrant theft of public funds and rise of an obscenely rich oligarchic class is masked by the tough talk of demagogues, themselves millionaires, who use fear and bombast to keep us afraid, confused and enslaved.

Aristophanes saw the same psychological and political manipulation undermine the democratic state in ancient Athens. He repeatedly warned Athenians in plays such as “The Clouds,” “The Wasps,” “The Birds,” “The Frogs” and “Lysistrata” that permitting political leaders who shout “I shall never betray the Athenian!” or “I shall keep up the fight in defense of the people forever!” to get their hands on state funds and power would end with the citizens enslaved.

“The truth is, they want you, you see, to be poor,” Aristophanes wrote in his play “The Wasps.” “If you don’t know the reason, I’ll tell you. It’s to train you to know who your tamer is. Then, whenever he gives you a whistle and sets you against an opponent of his, you jump out and tear them to pieces.”

Our democracy, through years of war, theft and corruption, is also being diminished. But the example Aristophanes offers is not a hopeful one. He held up the same corruption to his fellow Greeks. He repeatedly chided them for not rising up and fighting back. He warned, ominously, that by the time most citizens awoke it would be too late. And he was right. The appearance of normality lulls us into a false hope and submission.

Those who shout most loudly in defense of the ideals of the founding fathers, the sacredness of Constitution and the values of the Christian religion are those who most actively seek to subvert the principles they claim to champion. They hold up the icons and language of traditional patriotism, the rule of law and Christian charity to demolish the belief systems that give them cultural and political legitimacy. And those who should defend these beliefs are cowed and silent. 

“For a considerable length of time the normality of the normal world is the most efficient protection against disclosure of totalitarian mass crimes,” Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” “Normal men don’t know that everything is possible, refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstrous. ... The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far toward realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside non-totalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity. ...”

All ideological, theological and political debates with the representatives of the corporate state, including the feckless and weak Barack Obama, are useless. They cannot be reached. They do not want a dialogue. They care nothing for real reform or participatory democracy. They use the tricks and mirages of public relations to mask a steadily growing assault on our civil liberties, our inability to make a living and the loss of basic services from education to health care. Our gutless liberal class placates the enemies of democracy, hoping desperately to remain part of the ruling elite, rather than resist. And, in many ways, liberals, because they serve as a cover for these corporate extremists, are our greatest traitors.

Aristophanes too lived in a time of endless war. He knew that war always empowered anti-democratic forces. He saw how war ate away at the insides of a democratic state until it was hollowed out. His play “Lysistrata,” written after Athens had spent 21 years consumed by the Peloponnesian War, is a satire in which the young women refuse to have sex with their men until the war ends and the older women seize the Acropolis, where the funds for war are stored. The play called on Athenians to consider radical acts of civil disobedience to halt a war that was ravaging the state. The play’s heroine, Lysistrata, whose name means “Disbander of Armies,” was the playwright’s mouthpiece for the folly and self-destructiveness of war. But Athens, which would lose the war, did not listen.

The tragedy is that liberals and secularists, like Obama, are not viewed as competitors by the corporate forces that hold power, but as contaminates that must be eliminated. They have sought to work with forces that will never be placated. They have abandoned the most basic values of the liberal class to play a game that in the end will mean their political and cultural extinction. There will be no swastikas this time but seas of red, white and blue flags and Christian crosses. There will be no stiff-armed salutes, but recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. There will be no brown shirts but nocturnal visits from Homeland Security.

The fear, rage and hatred of our dispossessed and confused working class are being channeled into currents that are undermining the last vestiges of the democratic state. These dangerous emotions, directed against a liberal class that as in ancient Athens betrayed the population, have a strong appeal. And unless we adopt the radicalism held by Aristophanes, unless we begin to hinder the functioning of the corporate state through acts of civil disobedience, we are finished.

Let us not stand at the open gates of the city meekly waiting for the barbarians. They are coming. They are slouching towards Bethlehem. Let us, if nothing else, like Aristophanes, begin to call our tyranny by its name.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

The Family: Secretive Christian Group of Conservative Lawmakers Building a 'God-Led' Government

The Family, also known as the Fellowship, is a cohort of powerful lawmakers seeking to create a "God-led government" at home and abroad. Chief among the journalists who brought the Family to light is Jeff Sharlet, author of the new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (The title of the book refers to the Washington townhouse that serves as the gathering place and sometime residence of Family members.)

While Sharlet has been digging into the secretive Family for years, it wasn’t until last year’s trio of sex scandals that a glaring spotlight was cast on the group. The adulterous affairs of Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Mississippi, revealed their common membership in the secretive group.

The Family was founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, who believed that Christianity made a 2,000-year-old mistake by focusing on the poor. Vereide believed God told him to minister to the powerful; the modern-day "kings" chosen to enact divine will. Since then, these “key men” -- powerful politicians, well-placed executives and influential global leaders -- meet for Bible studies and "prayer cells." Members of the family try to cultivate powerful leaders around the world -- many of them despots -- to enact their Christian agenda globally.

The Family has always operated in secret; for more than 70 years, the group has influenced policy and business deals in the U.S. and abroad almost entirely without the public’s notice.

Family members have advocated for the violently anti-gay legislation currently before Uganda’s legislature; David Bahati, MP who introduced the bill to Uganda’s parliament, has been a longtime darling of the Family and a guest at the group’s only public event, the National Prayer Breakfast. Their involvement in the Uganda anti-gay bill isn’t an outlier: in the past, the Family has done business favors and supported dictatorships in Indonesia, Somalia and Haiti, among other nations under authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, Family forces connected to the U.S. military seek to spread fundamentalist Christianity. An organization of 15,000 officers is dedicated to what is described as “reclaiming territory for Christ in the military.”

While elected leaders in the U.S. ostensibly represent a democracy, with ideals of transparency and the separation of church and state, the Family urges its members to choose secrecy and consolidated power. Journalist Jeff Sharlet has managed to break through the Family's secrecy, writing two books that dig deep inside the shady organization. AlterNet spoke to him by phone.

Anna Clark: Do you believe members of the Family sincerely believe they are doing God's work, or is that language consciously used by them as a cover?

Jeff Sharlet: Not all of them, but most of them do sincerely believe it. One guy—whose name I can't put on record, but who was very intimately involved—I went to sit down with him because he wanted to know what I was working on. I told him that I'm not attacking religion at all. He told me ‘I don't care. It's about money.' There are a lot of people there just using it, definitely.

But the more disturbing thing is that move you get with someone like Sen. Inhofe. He travels the world and talks to these oil-rich dictators, telling them he loves them, they melt his heart, their brothers in Christ. He becomes their champion back in America. Well, the oil industry likes that, they like that he's speaking out on sanctions on the industry in Nigeria. Inhofe gets a lifetime achievement award from the petroleum industry, and the industry donates heavily to his re-election campaign. Inhofe doesn't experience that as cynicism or corruption. He experiences it as that he's doing God's work.

[Members of the Family] are in it for the cash, but they're in it for God too. Are they cynical or sincere? The answer is: yes. Both. Simultaneously.

AC: Does the Family have any other counterparts in U.S. politics – groups of people that, religiously based or not, are contracting the scope of democracy?

JS: Yes, absolutely. I'm not saying that these guys are the secret puppet-masters that control the world. All I'm doing with this story is adding one more power base to our pantheon.

But the real key thing about the Family is the secrecy. Now, I disagree with Pat Robinson and James Dobson completely, 100 percent. I know they do secret things, but they are out there in the public square. They engage in democracy. Sure, it's for an undemocratic vision, but that's legitimate. But [the Family's] unusual and uncommon influence is that for so long they denied their own existence. That's starting to change, though, because of all this publicity.

AC: It's amazing that the strategy really works. The founder articulated that it would be more powerful and efficient if the Family denied its own existence, and he was right!

JS: Ronald Reagan once said at the National Prayer Breakfast, the Family's only public event, he said to the journalists in the room about the Family: ‘I could tell you more about it, but I can't. It's working precisely because it's private.' And then he said this: “I've had my moments with the press, but I have to commend them for their discretion.”

You're a journalist, you know that any time a politician compliments you on your discretion, it's a problem! But a lot of these journalists see that as a sign that they're in, they're in the inner circle. They say they're "cultivating sources." No, you're not, you hack! You're auditioning for a talking heads spot, that's what you're doing. … A lot of these journalists practice knee-jerk centrism. This idea that the center must hold – not that it will hold, but that it must hold. It's when journalists see themselves as guardians of that balance that you get in a very dangerous place.

AC: While the Family came most forcefully into the public consciousness in the wake of last year's scandals of three of its members, you write in C Street of the importance of resisting the urge to gloat about moral hypocrisy. Can you talk about why such finger-pointing is a flawed response?

JS: Because that liberal glee at right-wingers acting on desire comes from the same prudish, small, little, hard-hearted place. It's the same counting of sins that right-wingers themselves do. Maybe it's a bait-and-switch – people think they will buy this book and hear about all the naughty things Republicans do. And they will—but those things are about money and violence overseas.

Look at the story of [South Carolina Gov.] Mark Sanford in particular. He's something of a tragic figure, right? He's in this terrible, terrible marriage. Here was this guy evidently late in life going through this important stage where he realized that we love who we love and we desire who we desire, and that these things aren't based on status or calculation.

So for Sanford, the awfulness wasn't that he went to Argentina; the awfulness was that he came back. And C Street brought him back. C Street said "you must work on your marriage as an obedience to God."
When these Republicans have their sex scandals, we should all say "great." Here is an opportunity for these conservative politicians to realize that love and lust and desire are complex, that they are not about obedience. Which is not to say that you should go cheat on your wife or your husband – just that we want these guys to reach their emotional maturity. When liberals gloat over it, they just play the same game, and round and round we go. It's the same kind of erasure of desire.

AC: Given what the real stakes are, why do you think the public is inclined to slip into the superficial criticisms of C Street?

JS: Well, let me clarify, I don't think talking about sex is superficial. Here is where I differ from a lot of people. There are people who are gloating about [the scandals], and then there are people saying, why are we talking about sex when we should be talking about serious things? I think sex is a pretty serious thing. We need to understand that when people talk about sex, they're talking about many things.

When my first book came out, I got a fair amount of press, but reporters didn't really get it, and people weren't really interested in it. The secrecy was really complex. But then the sex scandals and affairs come up, that's a kind of secrecy the public understands. Suddenly the sex and secrets become a metaphor. The public can easily see that politicians may be keeping things from us. They may not have our best interests at heart. People understand it because most of us have done, or have had done to us, something like it. That's what makes it a great news story. You're a journalist, you know that people don't want a new story; they want stories they know. And I'm not making fun of people – people want a story they already know because they're thinking about things, working it out in their own mind.

So I don't think it's superficial to talk about sex. You begin the conversation with sex … and I suppose if you're very lucky, you end it with sex. But in between, we must move on to serious things. We must see that the same justification that C Street uses to cover up the sex scandals of Ensign and Sanford and [Rep. Chip] Pickering is the exact same move for what their doing with their involvement in Uganda, and Nigeria, before that, Papa Doc in Haiti. It's the same erasure of desire.

 AC: You write that the threat of the Family isn't theocracy, but 'the conflation of democracy with authoritarianism.' Logically, how does the Family reconcile these two seemingly oppositional ideas?

JS: They do it through the soft sell. They do it through the appeal to unity. Unity and harmony sound good. The subtitle I originally wanted for my book was "The Fundamentalist Abduction of Democracy." That idea, that conflation of democracy and authoritarianism, is very learned. Authoritarianism is kind of a bad word. But then you take one step over to paternalism. Well, that's still a bad word, but now you're talking about fathers. You get into the evangelical expressions of Father-God, and now you're talking about love, and love as an expression of authority.

People love hearing powerful white men telling them they're just a nobody, they didn't do anything, instead of telling them, ‘I'm a leader, I like being in charge. I have ideas about what we can do. I have what Martin Luther King called the drum major instinct.

That's where leaders come from. Leaders engage the prophetic voice. How does the Family conflate democracy with authoritarianism? They basically take Christianity and strip it of its prophetic voice. Cornel West writes a lot about this is in his theological work. The prophetic voice is a kind of democratic speech; it's about speaking truth to power. It's asserting that things as they are, are not as they should be. The prophetic voice means conflict, it means argument. It means we have different ideas. People don't like conflict, and that's where authoritarianism comes in – it's called harmony. The Family in its early days thought that after World War II, we would become a one-party state and they thought that was a great idea. Democracy is sharp edges, but that's how they reconcile it – that's their word, "reconciliation." It's cutting off the sharp edges and saying, "come over here where there's common ground and we all agree."

AC: It seems like the same people who would chafe at hearing a politician advocate authoritarianism don't recognize it when it doesn't show up in words, but in actions.

JS: Yeah, exactly. If it doesn't come articulated, people don't get it. [Members of the Family] do tend to be nice people, and I'm not just saying that. Most of them are very charitable on a personal level. It's the bigger picture they miss.

The fundamentalist abduction of democracy is the way they've abused the word reconciliation. It's the way of valuing common ground at all costs, even if some people will be left out, or erased, or forgotten, because they can't be reconciled to that story.

The reality is both this book and the last book is about fundamentalism, but in a way, it's speaking to and against liberalism as well. Liberalism bears a lot of responsibility for loving this myth of harmony more than they love democracy.

AC: Your book makes it clear that this fundamentalism conflated with politics isn't going to be vanquished by simply not electing one or another legislator; it's too pervasive for that. What, then, is the impact you hope this book will have on the November election?

Oh, how dare you ask that question! … My publishers want me to say that this is a rallying call. But the thing is, C Streeters aren't in danger. Jim DeMint in South Carolina is facing Alvin Greene – I think he'll do just fine. There are very few competitive races right now.

But on the other hand, I am going down to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Rep. Joe Pitts has been part of this organization since 1980. He keeps saying he doesn't have a connection to the Family, but that's not true; there's a long paper trail. So he's a dishonest man. Now, this is a conservative area and he's been around for a long time. Based on his votes, they aren't going to throw him out [of office]. He could've supported all his issues and been supported. But the reason the race is this close for the first time in a long time is because he was shady about it. I'm going down to talk at the Democratic banquet there for Lois Herr. I wouldn't normally do that, but this guy has got to go. He doesn't understand the Constitution, he never read the First Amendment, he lied to his constituents, and most dangerously, he's involved in overseas work.

The real danger of fundamentalism, to be honest, is the long shadow of the right wing overseas. That's why I spend so much time on the Uganda chapter [of C Street]. The real danger of C Street is not here, but there. Toufic Agha, who I write about in the Lebanon chapter of the book, he's been getting death threats for talking to, quote, “that Jew Jeff Sharlet.” That's the danger.

In the end, though, I didn't write this book as a campaign book. I wrote it because there's a story. If you restrict all your conflict and all your debate on this electoral ritual, you'll sacrifice the real conversations about authority and where it comes from – top up or top down.

Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader, Hobart, and Writers' Journal, among other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice Web site, Isak.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Politics of Rationalization

By Matt Osborne

Joe Miller of Alaska thinks the election he's running in should not be held, government spending needs to be cut except for his farm subsidy, and unemployment compensation is unconstitutional except when his wife gets it. Like virtually all tea party Republicans, Miller is a study in cognitive dissonance.

It's a big, fifty-cent word, I know. But cognitive dissonance is the reason you find a sign calling Obama a "long-legged mack daddy" just fifteen feet in front of a woman telling a tea party crowd to keep their eye out for saboteurs pretending to be racist tea partiers. It causes three hundred people to yell about federal spending underneath a mock-up of the Space Shuttle on federal property. It is the primary characteristic of Town Hall Zombie Syndrome.

Wikipedia calls it "an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously." Prolonged exposure can produce terminal irony deficiency. Much more after the jump and a video...

Note: I'm well-aware that Cleon Skousen was not a "member" of the John Birch Society. He just gave the organization a thin veneer of scholarship after it was publicly repudiated by the dean of conservative ideology and spread its message through his books. Other than that, the man had no relationship to the John Birch Society of precious-bodily-fluids fame, I know, so it's incorrect of me to call him a "founding" part of that organization's history.

Rand Paul would like to raise medicare reimbursement rates. Half of his patients are Medicare recipients, after all, and physicians (he says) should be "allowed to make a comfortable living." Which is what Paul actually means when promising to apply "real free market principles" to fix our broken health care system. To wit:
If you argue that healthcare providers alone are not expected to pay for everyone's health care, then whom? The taxpayers? But who are the taxpayers? They are your neighbors. If you maintain a right to healthcare or housing, you must argue that your belief, which you call a "right," is sufficient to send armed tax collectors to your neighbors house to expropriate that "right."

See, taxing Americans for health care is wrong until it benefits Rand Paul. Since Kentucky Medicaid probably doesn't pay for adults to visit his office, it's no wonder he calls the program "intergenerational warfare." The senior citizens patronizing his libertarian opthalmology practice don't benefit from a program that keeps 18 million American children healthy, either; no wonder we've seen grandma telling Obama to keep his hands off her Medicare.

After all, Medicaid is for the deservedly poor (i.e., Wal-Mart employees). So what if they're children? They're not your grandchildren, why should you pay taxes to keep American children alive? As religious conservatives march into the tea party, a new cognitive dissonance forms with the decidedly non-Christian ethos of resentment. The "right to life," it seems, ends at birth; and this has nothing to do with race except that it does. Matt Taibbi described the pattern in his fantastic Rolling Stone piece about tea parties, whose participants get
furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill "cracker babies," support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama's birth certificate.
Taibbi also notes the dissonance over the tea party's main issue:
At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them. In fact, their lack of embarrassment when it comes to collecting government largesse is key to understanding what this movement is all about... (Emphasis mine)
Matt Taibbi made three trips to Kentucky for his article, but I might have saved him the travel. The video above was shot on federal property in a town where government activity is the largest employer. Huntsville lies at the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority -- a "public option" of electricity and flood control -- at the top of a state that receives $1.69 from Uncle Sam (.PDF) for every dollar it sends to Washington in taxes. Huntsville is a two-hour drive from Birmingham and four hours from Kentucky, but I know how a big ball of nontroversy and ugly feelings gets presented as "proof" that Teh Global Socialisms™ are being installed under our very noses by a vast conspiracy.

I saw it all coming in Birmingham last November: the role played by FOX News, the relative small number of idiots required to draw attention, and the cults of Beck and Palin. Taibbi noted the way every conversation with a teabagger winds up being about immigration; I saw that too:

It's worth noting that hypocrisy is a conscious act, i.e. overcoming the dissonance to save the ego requires a sublimated, but not subconscious, mental activity called rationalization. It was the subject of a 2008 study by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo of Northeastern University:
To test the role of cognition in hypocrisy, DeSteno had volunteers again assign themselves an easy task and a stranger an onerous one. But before judging the fairness of their actions, they had to memorize seven numbers. This ploy keeps the brain's thinking regions too tied up to think much about anything else, and it worked: hypocrisy vanished. People judged their own (selfish) behavior as harshly as they did others', strong evidence that moral hypocrisy requires a high-order cognitive process. When the thinking part of the brain is otherwise engaged, we're left with gut-level reactions, and we intuitively and equally condemn bad behavior by ourselves as well as others.
Tea party activism largely represents a reaction from whites of the "me" generation to the changing demographics of America. Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois did a study of hypocrisy and power in 2009, finding that power actually does corrupt, therefore a perceived loss of power hits hard. But there was also this:
"In contrast, a further experiment demonstrated that people who don't feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon we call 'hypercrisy'.
"Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality.
"The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while disregarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don't feel the same entitlement."
Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance." Reporting on Galinsky's study, TIME noted Festinger's finding that
people will go to great lengths to reduce dissonance. In one well-known experiment, those who had been asked to falsely claim that a boring task--placing spools on a tray, for instance--was fun were later found to have persuaded themselves that the task really was fun. They had crossed over from hypocrisy to something more pathetic: self-deception. (Emphasis mine)
Indeed, there are deceivers and deceived in the tea party movement. George Orwell famously described this sort of hierarchical group exercise in cognitive dissonance when he divided his dystopian Ingsoc into Inner and Outer Parties. Orwell even described rationalization in the Newspeak word crimestop, which
means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest of arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which might lead in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. (Boldface mine)
The shape of the tea party is a pyramid. Stupid flows down; money and admiration flow up. A phenomenon that began with libertarians excited about Ron Paul has been transformed into a new home for religious movement conservatism -- and its long, sad tradition of hucksters living off suckers. I saw it in Nashville, Tennessee, just a two hour drive up I-65 from Huntsville: