Saturday, February 28, 2004

Ralph Nader: Extremist

Nearly everyone -- except Karl Rove, who has been too busy applauding -- has remarked how Ralph Nader has finally jumped off the deep end with his decision to run for president again in 2004.

Now, it seems, he really has jumped off politically, too. According to former supporter Doug Ireland, Nader has now formed an alliance with Fred Newman, the ex-Larouchite extremist who operates his semi-cult out of New York.
Ralph's Dark Side: Mr. Nader and the Newmanites

Nader has now jumped into bed with the ultrasectarian cult-racket formerly known as the New Alliance Party and its guru, Fred Newman: Ralph was the star attraction at a January conference of "independents" that was just a front for the Newmanite crazies. By rejecting the Greens' ballot line, Nader will have huge difficulties getting his name on the ballot. So he went shopping for help in ballot access from the Newmanites. The New York Times reported Nader says he'll "link up" with existing "independent" parties in New York and elsewhere -- which can only mean the Newmanites (who control New York's Independence Party and similar remnants of the Reform Party in many states).

This cult is the antithesis of every value Nader holds dear. A Maoist grouplet in the '70s, the Newmanites morphed into supporters of Pat Buchanan in the Hitler-coddling commentator's 2000 takeover of the Reform Party. Newman recruits and controls his followers through a brainwashing scheme baptized "social therapy," designed to create blind allegiance to Newman. He has frequently dipped his rhetoric in the poisonous blood-libel of anti-Semitism, denouncing Jews as "storm troopers of decadent capitalism." By French-kissing the cultists to get on the ballot, Nader has allowed himself to be used as bait to lure the unsuspecting into the Newmanite orbit, where they risk being sucked into the cult. That's a betrayal of the many young people to whom Nader is still a hero. And an acid commentary on Nader's judgment.

Chip Berlet and Political Research Associates have tracked Newman's activities for some time. Here are some reports worth stocking up on:
Clouds Blur the Rainbow: How Fred Newman & Lenora Fulani Use Totalitarian Deception to Manipulate Social and Political Activists

Fred Newman and the Historical Roots of the Newmanites

The Newmanites and Lenora Fulani

Lenora Fulani and the Politics of Opportunism

Buchanan, Fulani, Perot, & the Reform Party

Letter from a therapist about Newman and his followers

Anyone who votes for Nader isn't just voting for Bush. They're voting for a right-wing tool and a wacko in his own right.

Oklahoma City: Still with us

It's been nearly nine years, but the terrorist attack on Oklahoma City in 1995 has never really left us. Terry Nichols faces his second trial this week, with the possibility of fresh revelations emerging from it.

Regular readers may recall that a few years ago, I wrote an in-depth piece for Salon on the mystery of John Doe 2. I argued throughout it that, based on the evidence, it was very likely that there were more than just these two conspirators; there were almost certainly more people involved with the construction of the truck bomb in Kansas. The core of my conclusion -- written just before Tim McVeigh was executed -- ran thus:
"I think it's not a closed case," says Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence-gathering arm. "I think that certainly there's the possibility that there are two or three or perhaps more people out there still. I absolutely don't think that's certain. That said, I think there's no question there are unanswered questions."

Now, the best prospect for settling the mysteries of Oklahoma City no longer lies with the investigators at the FBI, or whatever secrets may emerge among the thousands of recently disclosed documents. And it appears it may very well not happen before McVeigh is executed. However, not all of McVeigh's secrets will die with him. Nichols will remain very much alive, pending the outcome of his state trial. And in that setting, there is at least a reasonable chance -- particularly if the sentencing judge replicates the offer Judge Matsch made to Nichols -- that the identity of John Doe No. 2, or whoever it was that helped him bomb Oklahoma City, could finally come to light.

Some startling revelations emerged this week that seem to confirm this suspicion -- though perhaps not. First, there was news from the Associated Press indicating, again, a link between McVeigh and Nichols and a gang of white-supremacist bank robbers called the Aryan Republican Army.

In the wake of this news, the FBI today announced it was reopening this aspect of the case.

It should be noted that the potential connection of the Aryan Republican Army to the Oklahoma City bombing was an early question that was at first discarded. (In God's Country discusses the ARA's brief career in the context of the Phineas Priesthood, which they promoted; I also reported on them for the Terror From Within report for MSNBC back in 1999.)

Most notably, it was the entire subject of Mark S. Hamm's book In Bad Company: America's Terrorist Underground, published in 2002. According to Hamm, four cells of the ARA were involved. In Hamm's report, the first cell comprised "the bomb builders" -- Steven Colbern, Dennis Malzac, and a third "phantom bomb builder" -- while McVeigh, Nichols, and Michael Fortier constituted the second cell, whose role was "to plan and develop a strategy for the bombing." A third cell for "information, training, weapons, and logistical support" was led by Andreas Strassmier. It also included Denis Mahon and a Elohim City resident, Michael Brescia, whom some have fingered as John Doe No. 2. The fourth and final cell was in charge of financing, which, like The Order in 1984, was largely the product of bank robberies. This was the public ARA, led by Peter Langan, and included Brescia, as well as four others: Richard Guthrie, Kevin McCarthy, Scott Stedeford, and a Posse Comitatus leader, Mark Thomas. All of these ARA participants are either dead (Guthrie committed suicide) or behind bars, except Brescia and Thomas, who both served time and are free now.

Hamm's thesis, however, suffered from real problems of both fact and logic. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a detailed analysis that concluded the story doesn't hold together:
Hamm takes the reader on a tour of virtually every major white supremacist player and group of the 1990s, finally locating the core of the supposed plot at Elohim City, a white supremacist compound in rural Oklahoma.

A few examples of Hamm's conclusions may give a sense of his credibility.

Quoting an unnamed J.D. Cash "informant," Hamm claims that Timothy McVeigh was seen on the Elohim City gun range. He backs this up with another claim from a mentally unstable former federal informant.

Similarly, Hamm claims that a German at the compound led groups of 25 to 50 men, mostly from the Aryan Nations, through "terrorist training" every 90 days.

He places McVeigh, Langan and Guthrie in Colorado, where he says they had a "secret ceremony" to join The Order -- a terrorist group destroyed in 1984.

He suggests at least one Ryder rental truck was used as a "decoy" and a minimum of four "John Doe 2s" aided McVeigh. By the end, the alleged plot seems to involve almost every racist activist in America.

The list goes on from there. Hamm rarely supports his claims with anything but the thinnest circumstantial evidence, and even when he does it is dubious.

For example, no real evidence is offered to back the remarkable claim of a still existing Order or a meeting of McVeigh, Langan and Guthrie. Hamm's principal informant, Langan, rejects Hamm's basic premise of a larger plot involving the ARA.

In the end, In Bad Company collapses like a house of cards. It is a shame, in part because the story of the ARA is an important one, and in part because there are many indications that "others unknown," in the phrase of the McVeigh indictment, were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.

This week's revelations, while interesting, are not necessarily earth-shaking. In a case like Oklahoma City, where tips and "leads" were thick like kudzu, it is probably not surprising that some evidence went relatively unexamined. The question is whether or not any real connection between McVeigh and Nichols and the ARA blasting caps and ID card can be made.

If one can, then the investigation should be reopened, and the case may finally be properly reexamined. But it probably shouldn't surprise anyone if there is no connection, either.

Friday, February 27, 2004

All bow to Mel

If the Catholic League had its way, we'd probably soon see a papal initiative to allow for canonization while a person is still living:
"Saint Mel"

Catholic League president William Donohue commented today on the reaction to "The Passion of the Christ": [link mine]

"We are at a cultural tipping point. Never has the division between the elites and the masses been more evident. Many good things are happening: the smack-in-the-face that the public awarded Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake; the public revulsion to the anti-marriage campaign; the firing of Howard Stern from many radio outlets; and, most of all, the public's embrace of 'The Passion of the Christ.'

See? That Super Bowl show has now become the Teat Offensive in the Culture Wars -- a talking-point staple for the conservative agenda -- while The Passion is quickly becoming the same, though with a different purpose. Call it the Mad Max Attack. Anyway, let's let Donohue tell it:
"Saint Mel. That's what he is in the eyes of millions of Americans. But for some, he's Satan. Leon Wieseltier, the big fan of the Catholic-bashing writer Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, labels the movie a 'sacred snuff film.' Ex-Catholics like Maureen Dowd not only mistake the sacred for the profane, they think the film engenders intolerance when, in fact, the intolerance has come almost exclusively from the movie's most vociferous critics.

"But this is good -- the pus has come to the surface. Now we can get on with the real debate: should the culture continue its celebration of self-indulgence or repair to a culture of restraint? If the latter is to be achieved, believing Christians, Jews and Muslims will have to join together to defeat those whose concept of liberty is pure libertinism.

Note, once again, the eliminationist rhetoric: the opposition is described as like a disease or infection. All this, of course, arrayed against the forces of goodness and light:
"Already, left-wing censors in Hollywood are out to get Mel. They think they can stop him. But it's too late for the blacklisters to win. Nothing can stop the public from rallying around Saint Mel."

Hooookayyy. Excuse me while I let Donohue stew in his juices all on his own. But then, this is the guy who was earlier semi-threatening Gibson's critics.

For some more temperate -- and hopefully informative -- reading on the matter of The Passion, check these out:
Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching, by Philip A. Cunningham

'Seeing through the other's eyes,' by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman

An Obscene Portrayal of Christ's Passion, by James Carroll

Nailed, [New Yorker review], by David Denby

Plus, of course, there's a page full of links to reviews at Salon, as well as Stephanie Zacharek's spot-on review.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Passion of Mad Max Beyond Braveheart

Mel Gibson has always had a flair for making action-driven revenge melodramas. Now, he's made the ultimate entry in the genre with The Passion of the Christ.

Mind you, this is the first time anyone has made a film about the life of Jesus that conceived of it primarily as an action flick. Most of the other previous films about Jesus have been, by comparison, boring and talky. The Passion does away with all that inconvenient and boring talk and gets right to the nitty-gritty of the exciting stuff, which is to say, the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, with all its beatings and floggings, culminating in a real gore-fest of a crucifixion.

So if we're going to get any insight into the meaning of Christ from this film, it's going to derive not from all those boring sermons he preached, but from the immense sacrifice he made for all mankind. And that meaning, in this telling, becomes very simple: Bad people brutalized Jesus beyond belief, and deserve to be punished for it.

It's a revenge melodrama -- without the satisfying catharsis of revenge.

Some people have said this film marks an odd career choice for Gibson. But it actually fits in rather neatly with his ouevre -- even from the very start.

Mad Max was the classic cheesy revenge melodrama. What made Max really mad, of course, was the cold-blooded murder of his wife and child, fleeing a pack of mad-dog motorcycle gangsters. Next thing you know, biker guts and eyeballs are strewn all over the highway, and another is given the choice between sawing his arm off or getting incinerated in a large explosion. He gets the latter. In The Road Warrior, (aka Mad Max II), which put Gibson on the cinematic map, Max has settled down to mere mercenary work, but he really goes off after the bad biker gang has beaten the holy crap out of him. This was, it appears, a mere warmup for The Passion.

Revenge melodramas have the certain appeal of a simple and clear storyline arc: First, the bad guys spend the first part of the story making life difficult, if not horrendous, for the protagonist. This finally culminates in some act of real horror. The protagonist then spends the rest of the story exacting a cathartic revenge upon the perpetrators.

Revenge has been an implicit and even explicit feature in the lion's share of Gibson's films. It pops up in the third Mad Max film, the Lethal Weapon films (especially the second, with that vivid shot of his drowned girlfriend), The River, Ransom, Payback and The Patriot, and probably significantly affected his decision to try his hand at Hamlet (which, as "serious" films go, has more than a passing resemblance to The Passion).

It seemed that Gibson reached a real apex in the revenge-melodrama genre with his Oscar-winning Braveheart, a depiction of the bloody and violent life of Scottish hero William Wallace. It featured not one but two revenge motifs: the first, Wallace's, after the cruel killing of his beloved bride Murron; and the second, the audience's, after Wallace's own brutal execution, played out in exquisite detail.

Indeed, The Passion feels like a two-hour version of the drawing-and-quartering sequence in Braveheart (which was long enough as it was, clocking in at about 20 minutes, as I recall). The only difference is that we are not given the satisfying conclusion, in which the Scots eventually overwhelm the British, and it is slyly suggested that the subsequent English royal line is descended from Wallace. In The Passion, the cathartic revenge is left unfulfilled -- but the need for it is quite clear.

And like Braveheart, Gibson's version of the Passion is unquestionably an action film. It opens with an ominous, thrumming score by John Debney that owes more than a minor debt to Peter Gabriel's amazing soundtrack for (ironically enough) Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. But that was one of those talky films; we know that this is an action film from the start. Nor does it relent for the next two hours -- though what really makes this film strange and, ultimately, creepy is that the entirety of the "action" is the gross physical punishment inflicted on Jesus.

Well, action films are not known for being either reflective or accurate. The Passion of the Christ, true to form, is neither. Anyone claiming this film is "true to the Gospels" is only half-right. It does take a number of scenes and lines of dialogue from the Bible -- though selectively, in a way that exposes the underlying political agenda of the film. However, there is a great deal more that not only is historically inaccurate, it is not found anywhere in Scripture, neither in the technical sense nor the broader sense -- particularly the relentless brutality of it all.

Bill Cork at Ut Unum Sint has already helpfully -- and quite accurately -- catalogued much of the non-scriptural material in The Passion. As I watched it last night, some points stood out immediately:

-- Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane? Where does that come from? It's not in any of the Gospels. Anne Emmerich, perhaps?

-- Jewish soldiers? As far as I know, the Romans permitted no such thing. The Gospels, notably Matthew, Mark and Luke, largely describe a gang of men, some of them from the high priest's office, who arrest Jesus. John's account mentions soldiers, but the clear implication was that these were Roman soldiers supporting the arrest.

-- The excessive brutality begins a mere 15 minutes into the film, when the Jewish soldiers who arrest Jesus wrap him in chains and throw him over the side of a bridge. Again, this appears nowhere in the Gospels.

-- It continues throughout. Violence is committed upon Jesus in nearly every scene, with any number of beatings for which there is no scriptural account. The Gospels, for instance, only mention that Jesus is beaten at the end of his ordeal before the high priests; but Gibson has him beaten throughout.

-- At every possible point, Gibson ratchets up the level of violence to nearly pornographic levels. When Jesus is flogged by the Romans, they don't merely whip him with the traditional lash. They get out torture instruments that are designed to dig in and gouge out chunks of flesh, which they proceed to do. One particularly memorable shot shows the meat flying out of his ribs. Later we are treated to a view of the exposed rib bones and surrounding meat. Again, there is simply no Scriptural basis for any of this, nor really any sound historical basis for it either.

-- He depicts Pontius Pilate as vaguely sympathetic, a waffler who is ultimately mere putty in the hands of the Jewish priests. In reality, Pilate was ruthless, a notorious suppressor of uprisings who never flinched at inflicting "Roman mercy." In a more common reading of the Gospels, though, it is likely that his motives all along were cynical manipulation.

-- Satan appears -- conspicuously associated with the Jewish priests -- throughout the film, lurking in the background.

-- The film places the scourging of Jesus (to which we are given the full 20-minute treatment, a la Braveheart,) after his first appearance before Pilate, but before he has been condemned to be crucified. This is not the sequence given in any of the four Gospels.

[There are many other points at which this film diverges from both the Gospels and known historical fact, but this latter is an important one, because it neatly illustrates the way that The Passion almost certainly is misleading when it comes to what we know historically about crucifixion as a form of execution, especially as it was practiced by the Romans.

The reality is that crucifixion was quite a common phenomenon under the Romans. It was a terribly cruel death, largely because it took so long and was so unremittingly painful throughout. Men could hang on a cross for up to two days before dying, if they were given the full Roman treatment. The Romans were expert at this sort of thing and had many ways of prolonging one's time up on the cross.

Flogging, as such, was a form of mercy, because it shortened the length of time one was forced to hang on the cross before expiring. And indeed, Jesus appears to have had a merciful death, by Roman standards; he was up on the cross six hours before dying, according to the account in John. A more typical death on the cross lasted 12 hours. But there is simply no evidence that the scourging of Christ reached the mind-numbingly sadistic levels depicted in The Passion.]

-- After an agonizing death march, the brutality culminates on Golgotha, where the Romans not only pull Jesus's right arm out of its socket to make it fit the holes for nailing, but then flop the cross over on its face after he has been nailed on to bend the spikes down -- then, sickeningly, flop it back once again for the sheer sadism of it. Again, there is simply no basis for these additional layers of brutality other than Mel Gibson's fetid imagination.

There are many other problems, of course, but the cumulative effect of Gibson's "artistic license" is that it grotesquely distorts not just the crucifixion of Christ but its meaning. His sacrifice becomes not a gift of love but a loss in war, an act of brutality to feel guilt for, a death to be avenged.

Against whom? The Jews? Well, yes, there is that. The question has hovered over the film for nearly a year before its release.

Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? In a word: Yes. But not in any kind of obvious fashion, like what you might find in Jud Suss or The International Jew or "The Prioress's Tale" in Canterbury Tales. It's more pernicious than that.

Gibson clearly identifies the Jewish high priests with evil throughout the film -- from the use of ominous music to the Jewish soldiers' presence to the slithering of Satan among the robed set. And he does use ancient stereotypes to depict them -- their hook noses, their conniving manner, their sinister intentions.

What is striking is the narrative choices that Gibson makes throughout. The Gospels, of course, give conflicting accounts of Jesus' death, and Gibson's version borrows freely from each of them and then tosses in his own "details" and rearranged timeline for good measure. At each step, Gibson's choice shape the kind of narrative he tells.

The final shape that emerges is a narrative that places the blame heavily on the Jewish high priests as causing Jesus to be crucified and nearly exonerates Pontius Pilate -- though he, of course, proves to be easily manipulated by the scheming Jews. A more balanced narrative might have noted, for instance, that one of the reasons the Jews may have had to arrest Jesus was the Roman preoccupation with violently suppressing uprisings, and Jesus' teachings had created a revolutionary fervor likely to bring down the wrath of Pontius Pilate. The Romans, in other words, could just as easily have been the chief culprits; but Gibson chose the Jews.

However, the anti-Semitism seems incidental to the larger worldview at play here. And what becomes clear is that Gibson's Catholicism is not merely conservative -- it is positively medieval. In that context, the anti-Semitism is a noxious and fairly constant presence, but it is only a product of its larger thrust, which is a religious politic of domination, the rule by guilt and fear.

This medievalist kind of Catholicism really is Christianity at its most primitive. It harkens back to a Catholicism that wrought not just pogroms but inquisitions. Anyone who understands the dualism of that worldview understands that it is going to be in fairly obvious conflict with modern sensibilities.

The Jewish high priests are not so much symbols as Jews per se, but in the context of the times, as despoilers of the faith. Their modern counterparts are not necessarily just today's Jews (though there is that) but the modern church itself -- which, to people with this kind of worldview, is similarly led by power-gorged cynics more interested in their personal gain than promulgating the "true faith." Certainly, we know that Gibson's father views the Vatican as a nest of heretics; and it seems apparent from this film that Gibson himself likely does as well.

The blame does get spread around. There are the narcissistic, worldly Jews like Herod, who are portrayed as mirrors of today's cultural liberals and partygoing hedonists. Pilate ponders, "What is truth?", as though he were ruminating on what the meaning of "is" is.

Ultimately, however, even questions like these are washed away in the relentless, grotesquely detailed violence. In fact, it is so stomach-churning that I can't imagine this film being a recruitment tool for non-believers. Anyone who is not a committed Christian would be more likely repulsed by the gore than attracted to the faith. After all, it is the Sermon on the Mount, not the Crucifixion, that has drawn believers to his teachings for centuries. All the Crucifixion has been good for is holding those already committed in deeper thrall -- or even radicalizing their beliefs.

Everything you need to know about The Passion of the Christ is that in it, the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to a one-minute sound bite. Jesus' humanity is reduced to a handful of Hallmark-card-tinted flashbacks. It is all obliterated by squirting blood and ruthless sadism. This is not a film for converting new Christians.

It is, instead, a systematic two-hour program of calculated brutalization -- of the audience. It is clearly intended to shock, and shock, and shock viewers again. In this regard, it has more than a passing resemblance to the programs of humiliation and dislocation that are the hallmark of religious cults.

I've mentioned previously that Gibson's sectarian brand of Catholicism is not "traditionalist," it is radical in its rejection of the Vatican and Vatican II reforms. The shape and structure of The Passion of the Christ confirm that an agenda conforming with these beliefs deeply informs every aspect of the film. It is, in a sense, a recruitment film for this radically medievalist kind of Catholicism.

It is timed to be injected into a society still reeling from the 2001 terrorist attacks and the fear-mongering environment that has been fostered in the body politic since then. In such a milieu, rife with a host of personal and social dislocations, psychologists say, people are more prone to developing or harboring an extreme dualist worldview -- a stark, black-and-white division of everything into good vs. evil. This likewise makes them more susceptible to recruitment into extremist belief systems.

I've previously discussed the work of psychosociologists Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins in this area regarding the propensity of people on the right to become extreme dualists. (Much of their work is based on Erik Erikson's groundbreaking studies in the 1950s.) A piece of theirs titled "Conversion and 'Brainwashing' in New Religious Movements" explores this in further detail:
Lacking "inner wholeness," some persons who are predisposed to totalism develop a self-concept which is polarized between a good self and a bad self. Involvement in a totalistic group with an absolutist, Manichean worldview and a charismatic leader creates a basis for affirming the pure idealized self in terms of a strong identification with the noble virtues of the movement, its vital truth and its heroic leader, while incompatible or rejected feelings and weaknesses are projected onto demonized scapegoats, e.g., Jews, reds, homosexuals, bourgeoisie, non-believers, etc. Thus, through totalistic commitment an internally fragmented person may evade both identity confusion and an oppressive negative conscience.

The result is that certain kinds of extremist movements are particularly suited for recruiting people with this "totalist" mindset. From my earlier cite of Anthony and Robbins:
Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. ... [I]ndividuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group. Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.

The Passion of the Christ is, in other words, a film designed to virtually obliterate the memory of the love at the heart of Jesus' message, and replaces in its stead a sense of Christianity as a closed community devoted to nurturing other "true believers" and obtaining retribution against the "other side." It poses a sense of Christianity as a series of constant, unending challenges to the question: Can you live up to His sacrifice? And the suffering Jesus endures in this film makes it clear the answer must always be: No. You can't possibly. Only rigid adherence to the "true faith" gets you in the ballpark.

The theological dimensions of The Passion -- extremely limited as they are -- serve to reinforce this identification with an extraordinarily narrow view of what it means to be a Christian. Teleological questions about the nature of love and God are mere ephemera in this religious worldview; what matters is the subsumption of one's entire being to the responsibilities implied in Jesus' sacrifice.

Gibson, both in interviews and in the context of this film, clearly has little use for theological pondering and high-minded philosophizing. (Certain right-wing extremists, notably Christian Identity adherents, refer to this as the "feminization of Christianity.") The Passion, in fact, is a clear repudiation of that kind of Christianity. Gibson's faith is visceral, and The Passion intends to invoke that spirit in the rest of us.

I was reminded when watching The Passion of the work done by the religious scholars of the Jesus Seminar -- the very kind of scholars for whom Gibson has expressed deep scorn -- who in the 1970s and '80s used the tools of linguistics to "deconstruct" the Gospels, sorting out the layers of additional authorship that accrued to them over many generations to try to determine what the original gospels were like. The resulting scholarship produced a core text, called "Quelle" or "Q", that ostensibly represented the original texts.

It was essentially a collection of aphorisms and parables, the teachings of Jesus, with only a few biographical details. The Nativity, the Passion, and the Resurrection were all later additions. Yet pared down to this core, the "Q" text was astonishingly powerful, giving readers a fresh sense of the real Jesus and what was really central to his teachings. This work was neither, as the traditionalists argued, blasphemous nor degrading to the faith, but actually made Christianity a clearer, more vivid and more accessible thing, for those at least with the hearts to hear.

The Passion of the Christ is a kind of mirror-image negation of this sort of spiritual discovery: It too pares down the meaning of Christ to a narrow band of the Gospels, but does it by focusing on one of the more suspect "additions" to the original Gospel texts -- namely, the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion. (According to the linguists, these accounts were added as many as three generations after the events occurred.) And it too has a transformative effect -- but it makes Christianity less accessible, meaner spirited, and hardens the hearts of those already committed to the faith. Making the brutality of the Crucifixion into the core of Christian meaning is bound to do this. [Jeremy at fantastic planet has a similar assessment of the theology behind The Passion.]

But then, what should we expect from an action film? One of the film's only genuine moments of humanity comes when Mary, struggling to watch her son drag his cross to Golgotha, sees him fall with his burden and land on his knees, and she flashes back: To the moment when Jesus, as a small boy, falls on his face outside their home and lies there; Mary runs to him and picks him up, telling him she's there for him. And so she does the same now.

Any parent who has run to pick up their fallen child knows this feeling, and they know the dread of seeing their child die before them. Anyone with a glint of human feeling will be struck by this scene. Yet Gibson's Mary is amazingly two-dimensional, a vessel for motherly suffering and little else. And when the film is over, we do not so much feel for her as we identify with her; and identifying with her, we want justice for her. Revenge, if you will. The effect of this scene becomes embedded in the natural anger that the two hours of preceding barbarity are sure to inspire -- a shot that, in the end, is effectively the same as that shot of the little red ball bouncing down the road in Mad Max.

The ending of the film is strangest of all, because it is the culmination of all these preceding strands: We see the rock rolling away from the tomb, and bright lights seemingly emanating from within the tomb. Then we see Jesus' face in profile: Healed, healthy, and with a determined expression. He stands up and we see the holes in hands.

All this is accompanied to an increasingly martial drum beat, as though we were seeing Jesus, marching off to war. With all those Christian soldiers right behind. And then, with a drum clap, black.

You see, there's a reason there's no cathartic revenge in this film: That is what the audience is supposed to bring to the table. That is their responsibility for this sacrifice.

Jesus is on the march, you see. He's kickin' butt and takin' names. And the question The Passion wants everyone to answer is simple: Whose side are you on? Mel's? Or the evil ones?

That is, after all, what the Culture Wars are all about. And The Passion of the Christ wants to be the loudest shot fired yet. The Birth of a Nation for the 21st century.

Standing up

Following up on the situation in Ann Arbor, where anti-abortion thugs went to work to prevent a former state legislator from giving a talk at a local Catholic Diocese ...

Steve Coffman writes in to update on Monday night's gathering, which was moved to a different location:
It went amazingly well! You might not read about it in the paper again because no protesters showed up (hence no more drama)! A talk like this normally gets between 20-40 people. We had about 50 people turn out despite a night with bad weather, while all the University students were off on spring break, for a rescheduled talk that didn't make it into the local event publications. The very actions of those who opposed the talk resulted in an increased turnout, by causing the publication of the article on the first page of the B section.

As a special bonus, the article also publicized the extremity of those that believe that abortion is of such importance that no other issues should be considered, and that any action in opposition to abortion is justified. There's a meeting of local Catholic clergy next week to talk about this experience. Hopefully, the Catholic clergy and lay community have begun a conversation about tolerance of dissent from official positions and appropriate limits of advocacy. About 50 percent of American Catholics are Pro-choice (according to Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, April 30-May 2, 1999), and the view that pro-choice Catholics should be harassed or excommunicated is not a popular one.

Neither I nor the press have yet been able to pry the tapes or transcripts of what exactly was miscommunicated over Tom Monahan's (former owner of Domino's pizza) radio network, but we're still trying. Regardless, the talk wasn't about abortion, or media ownership, and its message about voting reforms like Instant Runoff Voting was able to be
well communicated.

Steve also was subjected to a barrage of threats and hate mail, though none were specific or credible enough to pursue. Still, he wisely copied the mail in case anything were to happen.

Steve runs a blog called EdgeWise, where he posted the following thoughts on the experience:
... I feel that any real threat has disipated after the press shined a light on what was going on. I certainly stopped getting any more nasty or threatening email. I feel like I've helped preclude future violence or intimidation directed at others. The funny thing about one person making a difference, is that when you stand up, you find you're not standing alone.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Incidentally, Steve mentions the apparent involvement of Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza tycoon, behind the scenes in this kind of rabid anti-abortion thuggery (I won't smear activism by calling it that). Another Michigan reader, J.H., writes in with a little more background on this point:
There may be a little more to that story. Ave Maria Law School, from which the head bad guy came, is the brainchild of Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, ultra-conservative Catholic, Ann Arbor resident, and a bit of a mini-Richard Scaife. Since he sold his company a few years back, he's poured much of his time and money into trying to influence local (Ann Arbor area) politics, except that he likes to put others in the forefront while he quietly supplies the cash. He funded a drive to repeal an anti-gay-discrimination in an adjacent city; there was an attempt to make it look like the work of a large grass-roots movement, but it turned out to be just Tom. He also tried to secretly recruit and fund stealth candidates in an attempt to take over the local township board (which refuses to let him run amok with his various schemes, at the expense of other township residents who aren't billionaires). He might have been a money guy for the affirmative action lawsuit against the U of Michigan. There may be others of which I am not aware (it's been a couple years since I lived in AA and kept up with the news there). The connection in this story to Ave Maria makes me think that this may be another one of those attempts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The anti-Hutton Gibson

My favorite story of the day:
Will Eisner Draws a Rebuttal

I've always enjoyed Eisner's work a great deal, especially The Spirit (several copies of which are in my vault). If you read him much, you always knew he had a social conscience -- and you've gotta love how his fighting spirit is still raging at age 86.
This latest work, called "The Plot," tells the story behind the creation of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the infamous Russian forgery that purported to reveal a Jewish plan to rule the world. Mr. Eisner, the son of Jews who fled Europe, has reached into the past to say something about the present: a time, he says, when anti-Semitism is again on the rise.

"I was surfing the Web one day when I came across this site promoting 'The Protocols' to readers in the Mideast," said Mr. Eisner, 86. "I was amazed that there were people who still believed 'The Protocols' were real, and I was disturbed to learn later that this site was just one of many that promoted these lies in the Muslim world. I decided something had to be done."

Just in case you needed to read something to counter all of today's coverage of The Passion.

How to fight

If you want a textbook example of the right way to handle would-be intimidators, check out what went down this week in Ann Arbor, Michigan:
Foes of abortion and of Wheeler-Smith halt parish forum

A gang of thugs who call themselves fundamentalist Christians took it upon themselves to try to shut down the appearance of a former state legislator -- who happened to be pro-choice -- for a talk on election processes in a local Catholic diocese:
The topic had nothing to do with abortion, but that apparently didn't matter to the hundred or so people who fired off angry - and sometimes threatening - e-mails to the pastor at the Catholic parish at the University of Michigan.

The e-mailers were angry because the St. Mary Student Parish planned to have former state Sen. Alma Wheeler-Smith participate in a Feb. 9 forum about elections and getting people out to vote.

What caused the uproar? Smith, a Catholic, supports abortion rights.

Word of Smith's scheduled appearance, along with the pastor's e-mail address, was put out over Michigan Catholic Radio and spread on a statewide e-mail list from the U-M Students for Life, according to Steve Coffman, who organized the election discussion as part of St. Mary's Peace and Justice Ministry.

The deluge of negative e-mails threatened protests not only at the event, but also at confirmation services at the nearby St. Thomas The Apostle Catholic Church, ultimately pushing St. Mary's leaders to cancel.

The Ann Arbor Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice will now host the forum on Monday night at the Arbor Brewing Co. in downtown Ann Arbor.

The right-wing tactic of justifying this Naziesque kind of behavior by painting the opposing side as fascistic was in play, too:
Andrew Shirvell, a first-year student at the Ave Maria School of Law who organized the opposition's e-mail drive, said he and other members of the parish's newly founded Life Issues Task Force were angered by Smith's presence at a church event regardless of the topic.

"Would we allow a member of the Ku Klux Klan to talk here even if the event wasn't related to race? You have to look at the whole character when you bring someone in and she's a radical, pro-abortion Catholic," he said.

Just to be clear: Alma Wheeler-Smith is a nice, pleasant middle-aged lady who has never harmed a person in her life and whose pro-choice views are actually fairly moderate. Comparing her to a Klansman is not just over the top -- it's Doublethink.

In any event, the organizers of the event regrouped and rescheduled -- and made the smart strategic move of publicizing the threats and intimidation. There's nothing these cowards like less than having their ugliness exposed for all the world to see.

I'm guessing that Monday night's forum went off without a hitch, since there was no news about it today. I'll update if I learn anything further.

Attention David Horowitz: Are you sure it's conservatives who are being subjected to threats and initimidation on today's college campuses?

Monday, February 23, 2004

Family ties

Atrios mentions the just-announced criminal fraud investigation into Halliburton by none other than the Pentagon Inspector General's office.

Yes, that Pentagon Inspector General's office.

Regular readers will know that I've been trying to look into the activities of the Pentagon IG ever since it emerged last September that the office's new chief of staff was none other than L. Jean Lewis. Believe it or not, I'm still rooting around, a job not made easy by the need to do everything by phone; mostly, I've been trying to obtain more details about the case of the "Arlington Three," the trio of IG staffers purged in a classic Jean Lewis-style perversion of the whistleblowing system. As I noted later, Lewis in fact had a direct connection to that case.

There are other avenues worth exploring in the case of the Pentagon IG's office and how it's being operated. As I've mentioned, the "reforms" instituted by the IG since 2001 may well be a source of concern, since there is the potential for diminishing the independence of the office's auditors.

But while doing all this digging, I happened upon a little nugget of information that was, well ... striking. Not particularly meaningful, but certainly very interesting.

It has to do with the Inspector General himself, Joseph E. Schmitz.

By all accounts, Schmitz is a standup guy and a straight shooter. The Lewis hiring calls his probity into question, but other than that there has never been a hint of anything inappropriate in his career, which as you can see from his bio is fairly distinguished.

But his family history, you'll note, is fairly abbreviated in his official bio. That may be because Schmitz's family is very ... interesting.

You see, Joseph E. Schmitz is the son of John G. Schmitz, the former ultraconservative California congressman and onetime Independent Party presidential candidate, back in 1972. He was running, of course, because Nixon was "too liberal."

I actually met John Schmitz a couple of times, because he had an enthusiastic reception and nice voter base in southeastern Idaho (it was the Bircher connection), and he liked to fly into the airport where my dad worked, so I would mosey down and shake hands with the candidates who came in. (I also got to shake Gene McCarthy's hand once doing this.)

Schmitz was, in the parlance, a real piece of work. A complete maverick, he managed to even make Idaho's George Hansen look sane by comparison. As this gossipy but largely accurate piece about the career of Schmitz describes:
Schmitz found he had a great talent for garnering controversy merely by opening his mouth. He called the Watts riots a year later "a communist operation." In 1968 he said California Governor Ronald Reagan was unsuitable for President because Reagan had abandoned conservative principles. He said, "Jews are like everybody else, only more so." Schmitz was anti-immigrant, anti-women's lib, anti-communist, anti-black, anti-homo. He named his dog Kaiser and thought that giving a Hitler salute was a good joke.

Schmitz's national career was relatively short-lived, but he managed to win election to the California Senate in 1978 and continued to hold office until 1982, when his career melted down in a blaze of classic conservative hypocrisy:
[T]he man who saw conspiracies everywhere, who was an equal opportunity bigot, and who decried America's moral decrepitude, had, himself, a skeleton in the closet. It came to light in a curious way. An Orange County child abuse case in 1982 concerned a thirteen-month-old infant who was discovered with hair so tightly wound around his penis that the organ had nearly been severed. The baby was placed in protective custody, and the court demanded that the father step forward. It turned out to be none other than John G. Schmitz, now again a state Senator, paterfamilias of five children and, er, two others with his German mistress, once his student at Santa Ana. It marked the end of Schmitz's political career (although he did attempt to run for Congress once more). The charges against the mother were eventually dropped and the infant restored to her care. But it was never explained what was going on with the hair-wound penis. One historian has suggested that it was a "mysterious sex -- or probably anti-sex ritual -- as if a chastity device." Schmitz, feisty as ever, remarked, "I ought to get the Right to Life man-of-the-year award for this."

Schmitz was mostly identified with the John Birch style of ultraconservatism that eschewed anti-Semitism, but he nonetheless cultivated associations with far-right extremists. After he died, for instance, among those paying tribute were the Holocaust-denial organ Institute for Historical Review.

As you can see from the obituary for John Schmitz (who died in 2001), among his survivors is none other than his son, then-Capt. Joseph E. Schmitz. And if you read it carefully enough, you'll see that also among the survivors is his daughter, Mary Kay Letourneau.

Yes, that Mary Kay Letourneau.

Not that any of this proves, or really even suggests, much of anything about Joseph E. Schmitz and the operation of the Pentagon IG's office. Much has been written, in the wake of the Letourneau case, of the Schmitz family home environment. Yet many people have emerged from difficult early home life to become quite healthy and sane adults, and much to their credit. There's no reason to believe Joseph Schmitz hasn't done so, despite his sister's travails.

But it is, well, interesting. There's something not right about what's going on in the Pentagon IG's office, and you can't help but feel that it's all going to come out someday, unpleasantly. For me at least, this bit of information just adds to that queasy feeling.

White riot?

Just what "civil unrest" does Arnold Schwarzenegger believe will be unleashed if San Francisco does not stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?
"All of a sudden, we see riots, we see protests, we see people clashing. The next thing we know, there is injured or there is dead people. We don't want it to get to that extent,'' the Republican said in his first appearance as governor on a Sunday talk show.

Well, so far, there haven't been any riots or even any serious disturbances. Couples have been getting married apace, though as the story notes, there have been some attempts to disrupt the ceremonies. And they have been handled simply and without incident so far.

As Hallye Jordan, a spokesperson for the attorney general's office, put it:
"We are not aware of any riots or any threat to public safety in San Francisco," Jordan said. "As we have said, if there is violence, we would step in. At this point we see peaceful acts of civil disobedience on both sides. We are unclear as to what the governor is referencing in terms of riots. We urge a toning down of the political rhetoric. This is a complex issue, and we will be dealing with it in the courts."

One has to wonder why Schwarzenegger could speak so irresponsibly. Why is he so fearful of something that has only been hinted at so far? Unless, of course, he's saying he expects to see the disruptions turn violent in what has so far been a classically nonviolent exercise in civil disobedience. Even if this is not a subtle signal to call out the dogs, these kinds of remarks can easily be interpreted that way by the sort of people whose political consciences have mostly been acquired from multiple viewings of Conan the Destroyer.

We'll see if actual violence does break out now. And when it does, will anyone bother to ask Schwarzenegger why he suggested it?

This is, incidentally, all too reminiscent of the "civil unrest" the fear of which, according to defenders of the Bush v. Gore ruling, was supposed to be the chief motivator for the Supreme Court justices who voted to call an abrupt end to the Florida vote count. In both events, the only "civil unrest" that might loom constituted, essentially, pure thuggery on the part of right-wing hooligans. And in both cases, it's more convenient -- for Republicans, anyway -- to capitulate to it than to confront it.

UPDATE: Here's the "Meet the Press" transcript.

Transmitting extremism

We've known for some time that the Washington Times not only has betrayed Americans and concretely harmed the war on terrorism, all for the sake of partisan gain, but it is also a significant media transmitter of right-wing extremism.

Today it continued in that fine tradition.

Monday's edition of the Times contains the following report from Assistant National Editor Robert Stacy McCain:
Washington's name seen as sullied

On first glance, the story seems somewhat innocuous -- until you get to this part:
Applying a politically correct standard to history "eliminates nearly every white man from our pantheon of heroes" and is "part of an effort to deconstruct Western civilization," Mr. McGrath told the American Renaissance (AR) conference.

This is, in fact, a report on the biannual conference of a so-called "academic" white-supremacist organization that publishes a variety of anti-immigrant and white-supremacist screeds in the guise of serious research. Unlike previous Times stories about the annual conference, though, this one included some noteworthy background information:
The weekend gathering at the Dulles Hyatt was the sixth biennial conference organized by AR, a monthly journal about race issues that has been included in "hate group" listings by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a self-designated civil-rights "watchdog" group.

AR publisher Jared Taylor, a Yale graduate and international business consultant, is the author of the 1992 book "Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has included Mr. Taylor on its "Extremism in America" list, accusing him of promoting "pseudoscientific ... studies to validate the superiority of whites."

Indeed, here's the complete ADL file on Taylor and American Renaissance.

The Times report at least has the advantage of including this not-insignificant background. This is a distinct improvement over the two appearances by Taylor on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, where the national audience was presented the expertise of Mr. Taylor as though he were a respected expert from the mainstream, instead of the extremist crackpot that he is.

However, the tone of the reportage is largely approving. And it's important to understand what guys like Jared Taylor excel at -- namely, lending a respectable sheen to old-fashioned bigotry through a combination of pseudo-social science and pseudo-logical obfuscation. They constitute the self-proclaimed "academic wing" of the white-supremacist movement. Nothing in the report tries to examine the conference material critically, or discuss the real credentials of the speakers.

This shouldn't come as any great surprise, considering who the reporter is, either. Robert Stacy McCain has been the subject of several discussions at Eschaton and an excellent report by Michelangelo Signorile, not to mention several reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, including this devastating piece that examined both the Times' predilection for spreading extremist ideas and McCain's significant role in that, notably his warm coverage of American Renaissance:
Defending Dixie

Of particular note was this passage from the second page of the report:
With the arrival of Assistant National Editor Robert Stacy McCain in 1997, the Times' disassociation from the racism of American Renaissance became a distant memory. McCain, who wrote the story about Democrats and Dixie, has covered the group's biannual conferences in 1998, 2000 and 2002, making the Times the only major American newspaper to devote news stories to American Renaissance. Since 1999, the Times has also reprinted at least six excerpts from American Renaissance in its page-2 culture section, never acknowledging the highly controversial nature of the source.

"Activist warns of border war," blared the headline for McCain's latest American Renaissance story on Feb. 25, 2002. McCain was covering an American Renaissance conference on immigration, and his opening paragraph was almost as sensational as the headline: "A border war between the United States and Mexico 'could happen any day,' a California activist warned at a weekend conference in Virginia."

All 572 words of the story either paraphrased or quoted this same "activist," Glenn Spencer, who runs the anti-immigration group, Voice of Citizens Together, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League officials have described as a hate group. Without questioning their factuality, McCain's story reported Spencer's assertions that Mexican leaders were conducting an "invasion" of the United States and that "I love Osama bin Laden" T-shirts were all the rage south of the border after 9/11. No opposing viewpoint was offered or even referenced.

"Sending a reporter to this conference was like sending a reporter to a Ku Klux Klan rally," a flabbergasted reader wrote to the Times. Though the paper printed his letter, the reader's objections appear unlikely to be heeded. McCain has made no bones about being a fan of American Renaissance, writing a letter of "warm congratulations" to the magazine in 1997. ...

There's a great deal more about McCain's activities, including his membership in the secessionist League of the South.

The theocrats' stealth attack on the courts

What do the Ten Commandments, gay marriage and Janet Jackson all have in common?

All three are symbols, for the religious right, of "everything that is wrong with America." The fact that a judge was prevented from having the Ten Commandments placed in an Alabama courthouse; that a Massachusetts court legalized gay marriage, followed by the civil-disobedience action by San Francisco authorities in similarly recognizing such unions; and that Jackson was able to "shock" Super Bowl audiences long ago jaded by half-naked cheerleaders and beer commercials by briefly baring her breast -- all these, according to the folks who want to remake America as a "Christian nation," are clear signs that the nation's moral depravity has gone too far.

And as a troika, they are playing a central role in the campaign by this same faction of the right to radically recast the nation's political landscape, primarily by attacking the power of the courts to shape public policy. They are the noisy cover, as it were, for a stealth attack on the judiciary.

All three symbols were in play recently in a strange speech by Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who is for all real purposes a staunch Republican. Miller stood up to denounce America's social downfall as embodied by the Super Bowl show, citing an Old Testament prophet's warning about decadence, and then launching forth in an attack on the political left, which somehow was responsible for the show:
The culture of far left America was displayed in a startling way during the Super Bowl's now infamous half-time show. A show brought to us courtesy of Value-Les Moonves and the pagan temple of Viacom-Babylon.

I asked the question yesterday, how many of you have ever run over a skunk with your car? I have many times and I can tell you, the stink stays around for a long time. You can take the car through a car wash and it's still there. So the scent of this event will long linger in the nostrils of America.

But Miller's real purpose was to announce what he and other cultural conservatives intend to do about it. And what they intend to do, apparently, is breach the constitutional separation of powers and begin putting severe limitations on the behavior of the nation's judiciary:
The desire and will of this Congress to meaningfully do anything about any of these so-called social issues is nonexistent and embarrassingly disgraceful. The American people are waiting and growing impatient with us. They want something done.

I am pleased to be a co-sponsor of S.J. Res. 26 along with Sen. Allard and others, proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relating to marriage. And S.1558, the Liberties Restoration Act, which declares religious liberty rights in several ways, including the pledge of allegiance and the display of the Ten Commandments. And today I join Sen. Shelby and others with the Constitution Restoration Act of 2004 that limits the jurisdiction of federal courts in certain ways.

In doing so, I stand shoulder to shoulder not only with my Senate co-sponsors and Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama but, more importantly, with our Founding Fathers in the conception of religious liberty and the terribly wrong direction our modern judiciary has taken us in.

Just in case there was any misapprehension about the purposes and underlying intent of this legislation, Miller went on to denounce notions of church-state separation, harking to theories promulgated by Christian Reconstructionists that there is no such thing because the words don't appear in the Constitution. [Miller ignores, of course, the frequent appearance of the term in the writings of such founding fathers as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whose famous "Letter to the Danbury Baptists" is credited in court rulings as the clearest example of the founders' intent on this matter.]

And indeed, a good look at the legislation reveals a decidedly Reconstructionist agenda at work. The proposal to pass an amendment outlawing gay marriage has already been well remarked, of course -- indeed, it has drawn the lion's share of debate so far in this campaign. The second piece, the "Religious Liberties Restoration Act," would legalize public display of the Ten Commandments and the use of "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The third piece -- the Constitution Restoration Act of 2004 -- is the real centerpiece of the program, and is one of the most invidious pieces of legislation to come down the pike in decades.

Here's the core of the would-be law:
Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, the Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an element of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official personal capacity), by reason of that element's or officer's acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.

In other words, the law would forbid any court to review cases involving the invocation of God in the courtroom, or the placement therein of the Ten Commandments.

But, like a set of Ginsu knives, that's not all! As this piece from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram explains:
That's sweeping enough, but it doesn't stop there. The bill would declare that federal judges interpreting the Constitution may not rely on anything besides "English constitutional and common law."

Judges, even those on the Supreme Court, could not look to other court rulings, administrative rules, executive orders -- and no foreign law, dadgummit -- though the bill says nothing about reliance on divine inspiration.

Any judge who entertains a legal claim based on a public official's "acknowledgement of God" would be committing an impeachable offense.

Zell Miller, incidentally, is indeed one of the principal sponsors of this bill, but the remainder of the drivers on it are Republican: Alabama's Richard Shelby, Wayne Allard of Colorado, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Bringing the courts to heel has long been a pipe dream of the religious right, ever since the days of Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. For years, they have complained that "activist courts" have taken over the law of the land and become too involved in shaping public policy --something, they contend, that is strictly the purview of the Congress. At various times, proposals have been floated to pass laws limiting the courts' jurisdictions (one example that springs to mind was the plan by a right-wing Washington legislator in the early 1990s to give the state Legislature the power to overturn court rulings and place severe limits on the courts' purview). Now, it appears they're driving hard to make it a reality.

At least one commentator on the right -- Craige McMillan of the extremist WorldNetDaily -- has recognized the legislation for what it is:
A stealth stake through the Left's heart

McMillan's description makes clear the punitive, even vengeful nature of the legislation. Broaching the separation-of-powers clause is no problem when the courts have gotten too big for their britches:
On its surface, Sens. Shelby and Miller's bill would merely forbid the federal courts from reviewing state court decisions that end up allowing a public acknowledgment of God. How is that possible? Read Article III of the Constitution -- it describes exactly what authority the federal courts have. As my excerpt shows, their area of responsibility is to be regulated and controlled by Congress. Since the federal courts now seem to think they're God, clearly some trimming of their responsibility is in order.

… The beauty of Shelby and Miller's bill is that it exposes any judge who ignores it to impeachment. As the Constitution says, federal judges -- including those on the Supreme Court -- hold their office only during "good behavior." Raping and pillaging America by substituting "international law" for the Constitution, and ignoring congressional limits that have placed certain matters "beyond judicial review" is not good behavior.

The Constitution provides a remedy. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to watching my first judicial impeachment (one of my New Year's predictions).

Show trials, anyone?

What's important to remember is just who is driving this agenda: It is not just the typical "religious right" faction of the Republican Party -- the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells -- but the Christian Reconstructionists, or Theocratic Dominionists, as they are sometimes called. (Robertson, it should be noted, is in fact a Dominionist himself.) These are the folks who believe there should be no church-state separation, and who want to see America ruled by "Christian laws." I described them awhile back:
Perhaps the most significant sector of these fundamentalists are the Christian Reconstructionists, whose agenda is openly theocratic. Their stated purpose is to install a "Christian" government that draws its legal foundations from Scripture, not the Constitution. Their radical agenda, however, is endorsed by a broad array of conservative politicians, notably by the powerful Council for National Policy, which boasts a membership from across a range of mainstream conservatism, but which in fact was co-founded by R.J. Rushdoony, one of the leading lights of Reconstructionism.

This sector is gaining increasing significance as a meeting-ground for mainstream conservatism and right-wing extremism precisely because of the emphasis being placed on his own fundamentalist beliefs by President Bush. …

Katherine Yurica has been doing solid work tracking the trail of the Reconstructionists as they have assembled this campaign. An earlier report described Robertson's agenda for attacking the judiciary:
In fact, Robertson went further: he denied that the judiciary is a co-equal branch of the government. Instead, he saw the judiciary as a department of the legislative branch, which he believed was the dominant center of power in the nation. His reasoning went like this: Since Congress has complete authority to establish the lower federal courts and to establish “the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court,” the court system is necessarily subordinate to the legislative. Robertson’s idea was that congress could control the court by using its power to intimidate. For example, he said, “Congress could say ‘There’s a whole class of cases you can’t hear’ and there’s nobody can do anything about it!”

His political plan included two concepts that revamp our government:

First, Americans must be ruled by “godly” men in the legislative branch—not by laws.

Secondly, Congress should limit the power of the courts.

Yurica also has a thorough examination of the Constitution Restoration Act of 2004. And I strongly recommend her piece about George W. Bush's role in the Reconstructionists' game plan, which happens to dovetail neatly into my own concerns about Bush's manipulation of the fundamentalist mindset vis a vis the role of fundamentalist Christianity in any American manifestation of fascism.

[Another terrific resource on this subject is Frederick Clarkson's Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence.]

It's an open question whether the Constitution Restoration Act of 2004 -- an up-is-down, Doublethink title if ever there was one -- will succeed. Because of its radical nature, Democrats should pull out all the stops to ensure it fails, including filibustering it -- if anyone can get their attention. Not only is this a stealth campaign, it has powerful backing, and Republicans control the mechanisms that can bring it to a vote. In an election year, arm-twisting has a special edge, and the GOP leadership may well be able to force it through. It would almost certainly be signed into law by George W. Bush.

Did I happen to mention that this is an important election?

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]