Friday, March 05, 2004

The Sierra Club under siege

While the American right wing has for the most part been content to attack liberal organizations by challenging them politically and in the courts, as well as by undermining their ability to raise funds, there have been relatively few examples of any attempts to destroy those organizations from within.

That is no longer the case. The Sierra Club, the nation's leading environmental organization, is facing the very real prospect of being destroyed by a hostile takeover by right-wing operatives.

As I've reported previously, a trio of anti-immigrant candidates currently seeks election to the club's national board. None of the three is a club member, but all three are nationally prominent names with self-evident mainstream credentials. All three, however, are running under the banner of a faction calling itself "SUSPS," formerly Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, which is essentially a front organization for anti-immigrant groups with extensive ties to white nationalist and supremacist organizations and activities.

(Mary Ratcliff has also posted extensively on this at American Street and Pacific Views. And for a roundup of the nature of these anti-immigrant groups, see my previous post on immigration as a nexus in the overlap between the mainstream and extremist right.)

Yesterday, the Center for New Community -- a nondenominational faith-based group based in Chicago that monitors right-wing extremism -- released a thorough report on the issue, examining the backgrounds of the three candidates as well as that of the campaign itself:
Hostile Takeover: Race, Immigration and the Sierra Club [PDF format]

The report is largely evenhanded, but ultimately concludes that there is a deeply troubling agenda at work in this board election. Take, for example, its ultimate finding about Richard Lamm, the former Democratic governor of Colorado who in recent years has gone off the deep end on immigration:
Should a man of Richard Lamm's public stature be held accountable for the political views of the people who edit the journals where his writings are published? The question is symptomatic because it goes to the matter of a very special kind of "tolerance": the evident tolerance of the "population control" wing of the anti-immigration movement for the racism and bigotry of their colleagues in the nativist/white nationalist wing of the movement. The attitude would seem to be anything goes -- so long as they are against immigrants. The point here is not to say that Lamm would agree with Lutton's views on race. The point is rather that a man who is so narrowly focused on immigration and population issues that he is willing to maintain a strong and cordial professional relationship with editors whose views do not differ substantially from David Duke's on issues of race, may not be an ideal choice for Sierra Club board.

The report's final conclusion is worth reprinting in full:
Simply pointing at the SUSPS candidates and labeling them as front people is not nearly enough. What is at stake in this election is how an organization like the Sierra Club, already doing vital work on a dozen different fronts, is going to confront a crucial issue of social justice -- which may be a microcosm for how we will all confront it in the years to come. Both the United States and the world have ultimate resource limits that we will likely reach in the next few microblinks of geologic time. The question is not "should we be moving toward population stabilization as a country and as a species," for the obvious and uncontroversial answer is that we obviously should. The question is about the justice -- and even the practicality -- of attempting an America First-style immigration policy that seals off the borders and denies the increasing interconnectivity of the planet.

In other words, do campaigns and policy positions like those of the SUSPS people -- however well intended -- ultimately do anything more than inflame white nationalist passions and fuel the fires of divisiveness that they claim so hard to be against?

The Sierra Club cannot afford to elect leadership which is unexamined on this crucial if complex issue of human justice. If the SUSPS takeover attempt is successful, the influence, budget and resources of the Sierra Club will be diverted to an ideological cause that reflects neither environmental realities nor cherished democratic values. It will abruptly alter how the Sierra Club impacts the world -- for the worse.

Indeed, it could very well drive a stake through the heart of the Sierra Club.

I can tell you that I am one of the club's monthly donors and will be voting in the election. And if this faction wins election, not only will I withdraw my support for the club and cancel my membership, but I will do the best I can to urge everyone I know to do the same. Lending financial support to any club with leadership like this is simply something I can't condone.

And I'm fairly certain I won't be alone.

[For more information, check out the Groundswell Sierra site, where information on the takeover and what you can do about it is available.]

Scourging the schools

OK, OK, you say. Enough on The Passion of the Christ. It's only a movie, right?

Well, it is. And it isn't.

Obviously, Mel Gibson's religious revenge melodrama has become more than just a movie. It's now a cultural event -- a broad volley, as it were, in the raging Culture Wars. In that context, it's also become a kind of Rorschach test for the million-dollar question, Which Side Are You On?

And it is in that respect that the film has real significance -- not so much for what it actually says, but for what it symbolizes to the religious right: namely, a hard right hook thrown at the forces of "anti-Christian" secularism. A blow against the liberal empire, as it were.

The real role of The Passion is to serve as a propaganda victory in service of a larger cause -- namely, the multi-faceted offensive to remake America as a "Christian nation" by fundamentalist True Believers. By leaping to promote it, the right reinforces the idea of remaking of the Constitution -- and by extension, American society -- currently being promoted on a variety of fronts. These range from the "Constitution Restoration Act" to the rabid right's railing about Janet Jackson's exposed breast to the fight over gay marriage to the appearance of The Passion on the scene.

It may be tempting to view these cases in isolation. The religious right's legislation seems unlikely to pass. The issue of gay marriage seems like it is working its way through the courts. And on the outside, The Passion is just another movie.

But placed in their larger context, they collectively represent a serious surge in the power of the theocratic right to in fact enact their agenda. This is not merely an abstract problem, or Margaret Atwoodesque paranoia. It's manifesting itself right now in our everyday lives.

Consider, if you will, an event that took place last week in the small town of Darby in western Montana (and brought to our attention thanks to John McKay at archy).

On what should have been a normal school day, some 50 students -- nearly a third of the local high school's student population -- turned out on the little town's streets to protest the decision by the Darby School Board to institute a so-called "intelligent design" science curriculum. Such programs, of course, are Trojan horses, intended to bring creationist pseudo-science into the classrooms. And even the students in Darby, Montana, know it:
Objecting to 'origins': Darby student protest highlights concern over new policy

About one-third of the high school's 170 students Wednesday walked out of school 15 minutes before the bell rang and assembled between U.S. 93 and school property in protest of the school board's decisions to question evolution.

Carrying signs criticizing the newly adopted policy, students walked the sidewalk and drew honks and yells from passers-by hoping school officials and trustees would take heed.

"Students really care what's going on in the school," said senior Aaron Lebowitz, who organized the protest. "(The school board) has been on their own track and haven't really listened to us."

What spurred the protest was the board's "intelligent design" program, favored by such theocratic "think tanks" as the Discovery Institute, all of whom are financed by an amalgamation of "Christian reconstructionists" who object to teaching evolution in the public schools:
Trustees last month adopted a policy that calls for teachers to question evolution. The policy was brought to the board based on the idea to teach intelligent design theory -- a biological origins theory that assumes there is a designer of the biological world but stops short of saying who or what that designer is.

Critics claim the theory is a guise to introduce creation science in the classroom.

"Over the past few weeks, students have discussed the issue at length and formed opinions about intelligent design," Lebowitz said.

One sign read, "Creationism in a cheap tuxedo." And others called on people to go to church for creationism.

It must be pointed out that the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, where this took place, does not fit the stereotype of podunk Montana. The Rocky Mountain Laboratory is in the valley, as is a noted biotechnology firm. There's also been a significant influx of newcomers in the valley in recent years.

At the same time, it has been home to a broad array of right-wing activism over the past several decades as well. One of the more notorious Patriot claques in Montana, headed by tax protester named Calvin Greenup, continues to operate in the area. (Greenup engaged local law enforcement in an armed standoff for several months back in 1995, a case In God's Country covers in detail.) The religious right has maintained a steady presence in the region for some time, and has evidently taken charge of the Darby School Board.

This became painfully obvious when the board, in responding to the protests, sought legal assistance from a Christian fundamentalist support group called the Allied Defense Fund:
The board Tuesday voted to retain Lincoln attorney Bridgitt Erickson, whose fees will be paid by the Allied Defense Fund, an organization that traces its founding in part to the groups Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ.

Of course, this isn't only happening in Montana. "Intelligent design" programs are being quietly implemented in school districts around the nation, while state legislatures are busy considering passing laws to force them on other districts.

BurningBird recently posted about such an effort in Missouri:
This little uncomfortable writing of mine was inspired by a new Missouri House Bill, HB911, which is attempting to insert the teaching of creationism in our schools, through the concept known as Intelligent Design. The response to this bill from the educational community was compelling, intelligent, seemingly impossible to deny, and it does look as if the bill is not progressing at this point. The thing, though, is that it will appear again. And again. And again. And eventually, if we're not paying close enough attention, it will succeed at some time because our politics are influenced by the Political Christ, no matter how much we want to deny this.

Indeed, if you want to keep track of all the fronts on which "intelligent design" programs are being used to assault science education in our schools, check in at the National Center for Science Education Web site. The New York Times reported on the Darby case as well, and observed:
Partly because of the contentious dynamics of an election year, partly because of the coast-to-coast influence of the Discovery Institute, local disputes on the teaching of evolution are simmering in states from Alabama to Ohio to California. But with the help of the Internet, defenders like the group in Ravalli County are springing up all over the nation.

There is just one of the fronts on which the fundamentalist right is attacking public education. Another, of course, is the disastrous "No Child Left Behind" program that is gradually emerging as a recipe for leaving millions of children with third-rate educations; others from the religious right keep pounding away at "school voucher" proposals that would gut local funding for public schools.

Probably the real reason that public schools face such withering fire is that fundamentalists have come to what is almost certainly a correct conclusion: that their real enemy, in the battle for hearts and minds, is education. The fundamentalist approach to the world is built on faith; its thinkers begin with what the tenets of their faith as the core of what they believe, and then go about finding "facts" to support those beliefs. The educated approach -- especially the scientific approach -- is to gather facts first, with an open mind, and then to synthesize through logic a model that explains things. The two styles of thought are diametrically opposed and, ultimately, irreconcilable.

The religious right knows that the only way it will win this Culture War it has started is by relentlessly attacking, on a multitude of fronts. These range from cutting taxes so severely that social and education programs are gutted; rendering the issue of gay marriage a national cause celebre; attacking abortion rights at every step; restricting civil liberties and promoting the notion that church-state separation is a "myth"; and finally, engaging in a relentless propaganda war over the right-wing airwaves, both radio and television, that pounds tirelessly at the notion that liberalism is the cause of all the nation's problems, and that America's real identity is a "Christian" one. On one hand, they attack Janet Jackson's breast and Howard Stern's foul mouth as benchmarks of our supposed moral depravity, but simultaneously swoon over a sadomasochistic representation of the Crucifixion that is one of the most violent films ever made and assure us that such spectacles improve the nation's moral fiber.

Anna Quindlen remarked on the wide range of fronts in the Culture War, and their markedly increased ferocity, in a recent Newsweek column:
... [T]he other night I listened to Bill O'Reilly speak of "secularists" on Fox News, and as I tried to parse out who those secularists might be, I discovered to my surprise that they would be me. From same-sex marriage to Mel Gibson's gory cinematic take on the Crucifixion, the new wedge issue is religiosity, not to be confused with faith. ...

... Democratic politicians have had this problem, and the new conventional wisdom is that to overcome it they need to be doing a lot more public God talk. Forget that. Any time I hear a guy going on and on about how his road to the statehouse or the White House was paved with prayer (not to mention a good bit of soft money), I get the uncomfortable feeling he's doing what Mel Gibson has done with his movie: trading on God for personal gain. The modern version of 30 pieces of silver.

The connection between politics and religion for me lies in the motto of Cornelia Connelly, the Philadelphia wife and mother who founded the order of nuns by whom I was lucky enough to be educated. Actions, not words. Touch the sick, the poor, the children, the powerless, as Christ did, and never mind quoting Leviticus. For the record, I have never written the name of God without capitalizing the G. But that is the letter. What truly matters is the spirit.

What Quindlen overlooks, of course, is the fact that merely asserting the ability of faith and reason to co-exist is no longer enough. In today's environment, it means standing up for yourself -- and for all those who do not share the faith. Like those kids in Montana did last week.

Then, there can be no mistaking Which Side You Are On.

Thursday, March 04, 2004


Some updates on previous posts ...

After last week's pipe bombing of the Office of Diversity and Dialogue in Scottsdale, Arizona, FBI investigators are taking a hard look at white-supremacist activity in the area, notably some National Alliance fliers that were distributed on the other side of the valley, in the Gilbert area:
FBI watching supremacist fliers in Gilbert

The fliers from the National Alliance state that "it's open season on white women" and picture NBA player Kobe Bryant and former NFL star O.J. Simpson, saying the two "represent only the tip of the iceberg of black on white crime."

About 500 fliers have been distributed in Gilbert, said Jasa Slovjanski, a spokesman for the Phoenix-area chapter of the National Alliance.

He said about 2,500 to 3,000 fliers have been distributed monthly in the Phoenix metropolitan area since September.

The sttory came complete with the stock NA denials:
Slovjanski said the National Alliance had no role in last week's mail bomb attack at Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue that injured its director, Don Logan, who is black.

"The National Alliance does not operate in any illegal manner," he said.

Yeah. Right.

Meanwhile, back in Georgia, where voters just reached a verdict on the latest vote in the ongoing fight over the Confederate flag ... and the results were not exactly what the "flaggers" had in mind: by a three-to-one margin, voters decided to keep the current flag. The neo-Confederates are officially stewing:
Angered by 'rigged' Georgia flag vote, Southern heritage groups call for boycott

Southern heritage groups called for an economic boycott of Atlanta on Wednesday, a day after Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved a state flag without the divisive Confederate rebel "X."

About 50 people rallied outside the Capitol, saying tepid turnout for the flag referendum meant people thought it was phony. The ballot didn't allow voters to choose the 1956 version dominated by the Confederate cross of stars.

"The rigged referendum yesterday was an insult to the good dignity of every Georgian," said Steve Harris, vice chairman of the Southern Party of Georgia.

"Large segments of the Georgia General Assembly have more regard for the Yankee dollars... than they do for the wishes of their constituents," said Ray McBerry of the Georgia League of the South. "We encourage Southerners to cease doing business within the city-state of Atlanta."

Ah yes, that's it. It's the fault of those big-city folks.

Are the Gospels anti-Semitic?

Most defenders of The Passion of the Christ are prone to claiming that the film isn't any more anti-Semitic than the Gospels themselves, since it's supposedly taken directly from them.

Of course, as we've pointed out repeatedly, the film in fact deviates from the Gospels in many respects and adds material clearly not in the Gospels -- a fair portion of which is suggestively anti-Semitic.

More to the point, the Gospels can be anti-Semitic if you want them to be. Or they can blame the Romans. It all depends on which passages you select and how you use them.

Robert M. Jeffers made this point really quite cogently over at Atrios' comments:
Let me pick up on the point that the Gospels are "anti-Semitic."

An odd point, since they are (save for Luke's) written by Jews. Jews who, for the most part, were ostracized from a broken Jewish community (all were written after 70 A.D., the fall of Jerusalem that gave rise, eventually, to rabbinic Judaism, v. Temple Judaism). It's a time of turmoil, change, and people staking out their place.

The most "anti-semitic" gospel, actually, is John's, where the writer speaks openly (and disparagingly), of "the Jews."

But Luke doesn't do that. Matthew only does it at the Crucifixion. Mark doesn't do it. Luke, in fact, shows the way for Gentiles and Jews (and believers in Jesus as the Messiah would make themselves "non-Jews" almost immediately, in those days) to be joined. But that's laid out in the Book of Acts, so let's not broaden this too much.

But "the gospels are inherently anti-Semitic"? Balderdash. They've been used for that. They've also been used to justify war, violence, hatred, any number of things. That doesn't mean the gospels promote those uses. Simply that people will do what they want to do, and reach for any justification they can get their hands on.

But don't say the actors weren't responsible, that the "message" made 'em do it.


The Passion: Getting medieval

In all the words that have been spilled over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- including my own -- pitifully little has actually been said about whether the film is any good as a moviegoing experience.

The answer: Well, no, not really. In fact, it's kind of dull.

It's all conditional, of course, depending on what the moviegoer brings to the film. If one is a devout Catholic or fundamentalist Christian, there is considerable likelihood you'll actually be moved, because you don't need to make the usual kind of emotional connection to Jesus that a regular moviegoer might need to find the story at all compelling.

On the other hand, there is a grim monotony to the violence that even practicing Christians will find somewhat stupefying, if not simply overdone to the point of fetishism. Gibson goes over the top so many times in demonstrating to us -- in scenes and shots that simply have no scriptural foundation -- that Jesus suffered worse than any other of the millions of victims of crucifixion, Roman style, in this era, that the story ceases to be credible as an attempt at realism, which it otherwise appears to be.

More to the point, the storyline arc, beyond being merely predictable, is strangely flat. It is, as I mentioned in the previous review, a revenge melodrama minus the revenge. It's all about the horrific brutalization of an innocent man, but there's no expiative payback.

Neither is there anything satisfying in the way of character enrichment. All of the roles, in fact, are as flat as the plotline, and the participants -- Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene, the disciples, the Jewish high priests, Herod, Pilate, even Satan -- are all two-dimensional, mere vessels for the Manichean symbology at play here.

Most of all, Gibson's rather ham-handed manipulativeness makes painfully obvious the point of the film and its propagandistic agenda. Watching an Oliver Stone film was always like getting hit over the head with a hammer within five minutes of the opening, and then being hit repeatedly for the next two hours (or longer). Watching a Mel Gibson film, in contrast, has become rather like being disemboweled for two hours -- and told to like it.

In truth, I was disappointed. I happen to have liked a number of Gibson's films, including some of his cheesy revenge melodramas (The Road Warrior is one of the great action films). But the revenge genre is the most openly manipulative of the audience's emotions of any genre besides romance (it is, in fact, the male counterpart to the romance), and Gibson as an auteur has clearly never outgrown that simple-minded kind of narrative. The Passion is, well, painfully manipulative.

Taking on the meaning of Christ's life and sacrifice especially calls for a thoughtful and theologically meaningful approach -- but Gibson has eschewed all that for a primitive bloodbath that is a direct reflection of the origins of Passion dramas: namely, medieval Europe.

And that, more than anything, may be why the film fails as a convincing drama. At its heart, its worldview is medieval, and so are its dramatic principles. Neither makes for convincing a modern audience, practicing Christian or not.

Indeed, this same medievalism is the source of the controversy about the film's alleged anti-Semitism, which as I've observed previously in fact reflects the film's radically reactionary Catholicism.

Leon Wieseltier recently addressed this in his incisive attack on The Passion in The New Republic:
The Passion of the Christ is the expression of certain theological and artistic preferences. It is, more specifically, a noisy contemporary instance of a tradition of interpretation that came into its own in the late medieval centuries, when (in the words of a distinguished historian of Christian art) "the Passion became the chief concern of the Christian soul." In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as a consequence of persecution and war and pestilence, the image of Christ hovering over the world in gilded majesty was replaced by the image of Jesus nailed in the world to the cross. Passion plays were devised for Holy Week. The lacerated Jesus became a commonplace of religious art, in which the Man of Sorrows plaintively displayed his wounds, which were venerated. This Jesus came to be drawn with a brutal realism, which climaxed in the grisly masterpieces of Grunwald.

So the kindest thing that may be said of Gibson is that he is an extremely late medieval. He contemplates the details of pain ecstatically. But this is still too kind, because the morbidity of the Man of Sorrows, even in its most popular versions, was rarely as crude as what Gibson presents. Does Christian dolorousness, a serious reflection upon the fate of Jesus, really require these special effects, this moral and aesthetic barbarity? The Passion of the Christ is the work of a religious sensibility of remarkable coarseness. It is by turns grossly physical and grossly magical, childishly literalist, gladly credulous, comically masculine. Gibson's faith is finally pre-theological, the kind of conviction that abhors thought, superstitiously fascinated by Satan and "the other realm," a manic variety of Christian folk religion.

One of the real cornerstones of medieval theology, in fact, was the view of the Crucifixion that is rendered perfectly crystalline in Gibson's film -- that is, one in which the suffering itself (and not the resurrection) is the wellspring of mankind's redemption. In the medieval worldview, the Crucifixion itself, by virtue of its manifest brutality and unjustness, became a kind of magical act that enabled Jesus to take on the sins of all mankind. Both the teachings of Jesus and the resurrection fade in significance by comparison to this magical act -- and so, in Gibson's film, are they given only fleeting mention.

Modern theologians, and most mainstream religions, place Christ's sacrifice and redemptiveness in a much broader context. The Crucifixion's meaning can't be separated from the love and forgiveness of Jesus' teachings, neither can its import be separated from the Resurrection -- the latter of which is most often seen as the heart of mankind's redemption. For most, the greatest meaning of the Crucifixion is in the example Jesus set by submitting himself to God's will, come what may. This is not an act of magic but something that has meaning to our everyday lives.

But the older, and narrower, meaning of the Passion has never really died out, and through the succeeding centuries has seen various levels of revival.

James Shapiro described this in his recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, "There's Never Been a 'Passion' for the Truth" [link is now defunct]:
In reality, this image of Jesus on the cross comes from the detailed Passion treatises of the 12th through 15th centuries, written to help the pious visualize the events at Calvary. It's hard to underestimate the effect these books had on the paintings, sculpture and dramatic renderings of the Passion in the centuries that followed. What their writers imagined, we now imagine. These stories were compiled at a time when Jews were regularly accused of poisoning wells and committing ritual murder, so it's no surprise they demonized Jews. But the Passion plays that the stories inspired didn't at first make Jews Jesus' main antagonist. Through the late medieval and Renaissance periods, and as late as the 18th century, Satan was the enemy. But by the 19th century, with the rise of realism (and the Catholic Church's growing displeasure with seeing ribald devils onstage), bloodthirsty and money-grubbing Jews took over in the role, with Pontius Pilate, in this streamlined version, becoming something of a hero.

The script now had to follow Mark and Matthew, in which the chief Jewish priests mock Jesus, rather than Luke and John, in which they don't. But then it had to veer back to Luke and John for Pilate to insist that Jesus had committed no crime, something Mark and Matthew never claim. A line that only appears in Matthew -- the famous blood curse, where the Jews, in accepting responsibility for the death of Jesus, cry out, "His blood upon us and upon our children" -- became the centerpiece of 19th century interpretations.

But even when edited selectively, the Gospels didn't go quite far enough in providing a relentless and incriminating story of Jewish perfidy. So 19th century directors turned to ideas offered by the likes of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), whose ecstatic visions offered damning and dramatically satisfying details nowhere mentioned in Scripture, such as the notion that the Jewish high priests passed out bribes and that the cross was built in the Temple. (Emmerich's influence on Gibson was at first acknowledged, then hastily denied.)

Indeed, Emmerich's material -- from her work The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ -- clearly forms the core of the non-scriptural material that appears in Gibson's film: the appearance of Satan in Gethsemane and his verbal sparring with Jesus, the details of which are drawn almost word for word from Emmerich; the subsequent appearance of Satan throughout the ordeal, most often associated with the Jewish high priests; the presentation by Veronica, Pilate's wife, of a gift of cloth to Mary; and the excruciating levels of punishment given to Jesus.

Moreover, Gibson's focus on the Passion as the real transformative event of Christianity is especially clear in a scene in the film specifically drawn from Emmerich -- namely, the sequence in which she catches up to Jesus as he carries the cross and he falls. When she speaks and tells him she is there for him, he replies -- in a line neither from the Gospels nor Emmerich, but rather, from Revelations -- "See, mother, how I make all things new!" Delivered gaspingly through blood-caked lips, at one of the lowest moments in the ordeal, the line has a peculiar effect -- namely, of emphasizing the magical regenerative purpose of his suffering.

Emmerich's work is clearly anti-Semitic, but it is in many regards an attempt to revitalize that medieval Catholicism. And so it is probably unsurprising that her work played a prominent role in the reactionary pietism of 19th-century Catholicism. This manifested itself in a number of ways, particularly in the revival of Marianism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in a flood of visions of the Virgin Mary that brought out some of the most primitive impulses in the Catholic laity. This pietism also was responsible for the appearance of the principle of papal infallibility.

It was also, of course, a significant factor in the revival of European anti-Semitism in the 19th century, a revival based on conspiratorial scapegoating that had its final fruition in the Holocaust. As James Carroll described it in his book Constantine's Sword:
The explosion of Jew hatred in France essentially ended the great turn in history that was the post-Revolution emancipation of Jews in Europe. Despite the witness of the exceptions cited above, that explosion was ignited and fueled by Roman Catholicism. Later, the strategic use of overt anti-Semitism as a way to restore Catholicism was rejected by Leo XIII, but the French Church, for a crucial time, rallied around just such a policy. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Catholic priests -- . . . attended antisemitic congresses, gave Jew-baiting speeches, and, in their sermons, inflamed Catholic congregations all over France. The usual stereotypes were invoked; the Jew as revolutionary, as financier, as traitor, as the killer of Christ, as the ritual murderer or Christian children. These priests were never chastised or reined in by their bishops, who themselves never raised a protest, as one injustice followed another in l'affaire Dreyfus. Catholic bishops in other countries, like Bishop John Ireland of the United States, spoke up for Dreyfus, but not in the country in which the scandal unfolded: "No authorized voice was raised in the Church of France against their judicial monstrosities," ... "The universal silence of the French episcopate appeared as a crime. . . The great moral authority which the Church represents was dumb. . .it did not protest, it did not wax indignant, when forgery, collusion and perjury combined in broad daylight to mislead the conscience of Christians."

Many observers, of course, have weighed in on the nature of the film's Catholicism. One of the more insightful pieces was the review by religious-studies scholar James D. Tabor, who is an expert on contemporaneous history of the Gospel period, and he points out how Gibson's film overthrows history for the sake of dogma:
Time and time again I saw the film as an unabashed attempt to present a Roman Catholic version of the story. Throughout the film Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, were presented in both dress and pose as Catholic nuns, their costumes coming about as close to the traditional Catholic habit as I have ever seen in a Jesus film. Mary especially, in almost every scene, was scripted to look fully the part of The Blessed Virgin Mother of Catholic tradition. The brothers and sisters were not included of course, even at the death, because Mary could not be presented as a normal Jewish woman with a large family of five boys and at least two girls, given the dogma of the "perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of God." The Catholic tradition of Veronica and her cloth were included. Jesus carried this unbelievably huge full cross, just like in all the traditional paintings, and at times that part of the film bordered on the ridiculous. This portrait, however appealing to tradition, is unsupported in either the Gospels (Greek word stauros means stake) or what we know of Roman history. It is worth noting that the two "thieves," crucified with Jesus, as this film portrayed things, had only to carry the "cross beam" to which the arms would be tied or nailed, not the entire cross. This would be in keeping with Roman practice, so why have Jesus bend and break for nearly 30 minutes of the film, carrying a "cross" that surely would have weighed over 100 lbs. Here, as in other places, presumably Gibson read his English Bible where the term "cross" is used, and guided by Sister Emmerich's visions and Church tradition, decided that this was the way things were. Gibson also had Jesus' nailed to the cross in the hands and feet, rather than through the wrists and the heel bones, as we know was actually the case. Thanks to an amazing accidental archaeological discovery made in 1968 -- the skeleton of a crucified man contemporary with Jesus found in Jerusalem (see the informative article by anthropologist Joe Zias), we are now quite certain about what Roman crucifixion at the time involved and how it was carried out. These might be seen as irrelevant details, but their overall effect I think was an important one, in terms of reflecting Christian tradition. The Romans, contrary to the portrayal in this film, would have considered the heavy loss of blood, a botched job. The trick was to nail the victim to the wood, but draw very little blood; otherwise one would go unconscious quickly from loss of blood and not suffer for more than a few minutes. Crucifixions, according to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, were intended to last for several days. The victims eventually died from trauma, dehydration, and shock -- not from blood pouring out of severed blood vessels in the hands and feet.

Tabor identifies five specific cases where he found "the portrayal in the film to be seriously misleading, historically unfounded, and theologically loaded," including this one:
Finally, at the end of the film, when Jesus has died, there is an earthquake and one sees the inner rooms of the Temple in shambles with everything destroyed. The priests are groveling like fools on the floor, heirs of this now defunct faith. I saw this as a rather blatant attempt of Gibson's to signal -- Judaism is dead; it died with Christ, and now the new faith of the Christians has replaced it. In interviews a week before the film was released Gibson said as much. He said he was not anti-Semitic, that he loved the Jews, and wished every one of them could be written in the Lamb's book of life -- clearly expressing his view, contrary even to Vatican II, that Jews without faith in the Christian Jesus are hell-bound. His hope is that his film will convert the Jews and all the rest of humanity, to Christianity.

My friend Jean Rosenfeld, a Senior Research Associate at UCLA's Center
for the Study of Religion, observes in an e-mail that Gibson's radical brand of Catholicism also does violence to the reality of the close histories of Christianity and Judaism:
I find myself, personally, in a peculiar spot. While I am Catholic, I realize that Catholicism au fond is a spinoff from proto-Rabbinic Judaism. About 1700 years of developing in a European milieu affected this Levantine "mystery religion" (I believe this is Tacitus' phrase for Christianity) and seemingly separated it from its Jewish-"God-fearer" (Greeks who were attracted to Judaism, but did not undergo circumcision) roots in the first-century Jewish diaspora. Because Catholicism developed a strong monastic and separate identity in Ireland, Italy, France, and Germany, we mistakenly assume that Catholicsm and Judaism are antithetical, when they are actually parent/child religions. One sees their continuities in liturgy and ritual. Actually, their seeming separateness is more one of culture and ethnic identities, than of religion. Much of what Christianity emphasized comes from the tradition of the Isaiah prophecies.

It is especially the late pietism of 19th-century Catholicism (part of the monarchical/ authoritarian reaction to the early 19th century Napoleonic era) that has reasserted itself lately in the Pius X movement and our current "Christ with a Sword" Christian state militancy, appears highly antithetical to the roots of Christianity. The disturbing thing is that Gibson is ignorantly asserting, through his narrow focus on the late European crucifixion midrash, all that is antithetical to Judaism in the long accretive history of Christianity and virtually nothing that is continuous and cognate with it.

There is a reason The Passion of the Christ is so violent and Manichean -- because its worldview is rooted in an epoch of authoritarian brutality when dualism was the dominant mindset. Harkening us back to those halcyon days may seem like a good idea, religiously speaking, to Gibson and a host of other right-wing religionists.

But they probably should not be shocked if, in the long run, most Christians decide it doesn't make for a very good expression of the meaning of their faith. After all, it doesn't even make for much of a good movie.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The devil down in Georgia

If it isn't clear by now, then this story in today's Orlando Sentinel should make it quite obvious that far-right neo-Confederates are taking a leading role in Tuesday's vote in Georgia on a referendum for the state flag:
Their stated mission is to restore Confederate symbols to prominence on the Georgia state flag and to remove from office Perdue and any other "scalawags" that oppose them. But some fear the flaggers and their sympathizers across the South have racist and anti-government agendas.

Georgia business and political leaders are concerned that the determined group might create a national spectacle by raising the specter of slavery and racism when state voters go to the polls Tuesday.

"The flaggers talk about preserving their Southern heritage, but that is mostly for Yankee consumption. Nobody around here believes that. The underlying theme is race," Georgia political columnist Bill Shipp said. "They are a 21st-century manifestation of the Klan, but they also symbolize disenchantment and alienation with government."

As it happens, though, the classic 'rebel X' flag isn't among the choices from which they get to choose. And they're not happy about it:
The two flags offered are the Barnes banner and the current state flag selected last year by the Georgia Legislature and Perdue. That design was actually drawn from the "Stars and Bars" of the First National Flag of the Confederacy, but flaggers are not impressed with its lineage because it lacks the rebel cross.

The powerful Georgia State Chamber of Commerce last month issued a bulletin to its members urging them to vote for the Perdue flag design. They fear flaggers will turn out for the Barnes flag with its tiny Confederate emblem to keep the issue alive.

"Our state does not need another round of bad publicity over this issue and the negative effect it would have on our economic development efforts," the chamber's advisory said.

Some strategy-minded flagger factions have advocated voting for the "Barnes rag" flag design but only "while holding our noses." Others have called for turning in blank ballots or simply skipping the election, said Davis and Coleman, who claimed to know of no flagger plans to disrupt the primary with demonstrations.

There is at least one advantage to this vote taking place now: It makes it less likely that it will be a motivating issue in this fall's presidential election, as it was in last fall's gubernatorial race in Mississippi. That's probably a good thing.

As Mark Potok observes, the "flag issue" played a big get-out-the-vote role in unseating at least two governors: Mississippi's Ronnie Musgrove, and South Carolina's David Beasley.
"It's debatable whether the flaggers were the sole cause, but there is no question they played the same role in all of those elections," said Potok, whose organization tracks hate groups nationwide.

Many who pose as Confederate-heritage preservationists are actually "pushing an entire revision of the history of the Civil War in the service of present-day racists," Potok said. "They are trying to cleanse the Confederate flag and the Civil War itself of any association with racism or slavery."

The problem, of course, is that this particular wellspring for empowering the extremist right never seems to run dry. The flaggers, it's important to note, fully intend to target "scalawags" who oppose their attempts to resurrect the old banner of the Confederacy in the coming election. You can bet that just about includes anyone on the Democratic ticket.

And don't be surprised to see a Republican or two follow Haley Barbour's lead in Mississippi and openly embrace the flag -- and then demagogue their opponent on it.

Meaning as a mirror

Debi Riggs Shaw drops a line in response to my review of The Passion:
A Feb. 25 story in the New York Times reported a discussion of the movie amongst clergy of Jewish and Christian denominations. The last sentences of the piece highlight the crucial difference between Christians' apprehensions of the meaning of their religion:

(Father Kantzavelos) and the other Christian clergy members agreed that the movie was based on a "theology of atonement" familiar to evangelicals, one that emphasizes Jesus' suffering and sacrifice over his resurrection. They noted that the movie had opened with a passage from Isaiah: "With his stripes we are healed."

Mr. Blackwell, the Methodist pastor said: "If your theology is blood, and you're washed clean in the blood, then the more blood and suffering the better because the more salvation there is in it. If that's your theology, the more stripes, the more you are healed.

"For me the question is: Is unrelenting violence redemptive?" Mr. Blackwell said. "What happened to the revelatory preaching of Jesus and his love?"

Whether one focuses on a deity of exclusion, violence, rule-making/enforcement, and vengeance, or one of peace, healing, forgiveness, and inclusion depends entirely on the worldview one brings to the religion in the first place. Some types of personalities are drawn to rigid lawmaking, the Old Testament, and to Paul. Other types are drawn to the more thoughtful, peaceful teachings and aspects. And this can be seen not only in Christianity, but in all religions and the interpretations of them that evolve over centuries.

Religions and the gods at their centers say more about the people professing them than any objective truth about the universe.

I'll have a little more to say on the film's theology soon.

40 thoughts on The Passion

The ironically initialed J.C. sends me the following missive:
After watching a 9:50 p.m. showing of The Passion of The Christ last night, I wanted to get my thoughts on paper and spread them to my friends. Hopefully, you will take them in the vein in which they were intended.

1) Bring tissue, lots of tissue. Some will use this to wipe their eyes, I found it useful for wiping up the pools of blood and gore that dripped off of the screen.

2) The film is only anti-Semitic if you consider it anti-Semitic to portray Jews as an unruly crowd of evil, hook-nosed Christ killers.

3) The main miracle in the life of Jesus is apparently the miraculous amount of blood that his body contains.

4) Seriously, the only anti-Semitic part is the constant throng of Jews that torture, torment and scream for the death of Jesus. Once you get past that mindless mob of evil, giggling, mocking Jews, it could hardly be considered anti-Semitic at all.

5) Jesus wears really heavy sandals. Because every time he puts his foot down, it is like Godzilla walking through Tokyo. Boom, Boom, Boom. They must weigh like a ton.

6) And besides, it can't be anti-Semitic because there were a few good Jews in there too. And don't forget that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish too, although they don't actually LOOK Jewish on the screen. I mean, the people that looked stereotypically Jewish were evil, sure. But we all know that Jesus and the disciples were special Jews.

7) Don't be fooled by the "R" rating. It is a great movie for kids to see. Especially at 10 p.m. showings. Although, it would be helpful if the theater handed out those little gizmos from "A Clockwork Orange," y'know, to pry their tired little eyes open. Because those little sinners otherwise would probably want to turn away during the beatings, scourging and crucifiying scenes. Or maybe go to sleep.

8) It might be time to change the meaning of anti-Semitic. Because, apparently the only way to be anti-Semitic in some people's eyes is to portray the Jews as people with the word "Evil" tatooed on their forehead. Because portraying Jews as an unruly mob, slobbering for the death and torture of an icon of peace and love apparently isn't a negative portrayal under our current definition.

9) Keeping children away from the ultra-violence and subversive messages of films such as Harry Potter and Saturday morning cartoons is a good thing. Exposing them to the long, slow, bloody, torturous death of the Savior of all mankind is also a good thing. Go figure.

10) Christians are really generous. Willing to give you a free ticket to this ground-breaking, moving work of film. Paradoxically, they really aren't all that interested in scooting closer together so that you can see the film from a seat that isn't directly underneath the screen.

11) Jesus talks a good game about forgiveness and eternal Paradise, sure. But talk back and he will have a crow pluck out your eyes. Don't mess with the Messiah.

12) Resurrection heals all wounds. Except for puncture wounds to the hands. Those are apparently harder to get rid of.

13) Satan wears a toupee. And he really, really needs a tissue.

14) A little known fact: Jesus must have been a hemophiliac. Because near as I can tell, his blood never coagulates.

15) It makes little sense to pay $7 for a ticket and then spend half a movie blubbering or hiding your eyes. You paid for the show, watch the show. That goes for little kids too.

16) Jesus talked a lot about peace, and love and forgiving your enemies. This has no parallels in today's world.

17) Jesus talked about loving your brother. This DEFINITELY has no parallels in today's world.

18) A little known fact about Peter. He was a kung fu master. That is probably why he guards the gates of heaven, 'cause if you don't belong, he can boot your ass straight to hell.

19) There is something noble, clean and pure about military powers occupying unruly Middle Eastern countries, judging and imprisoning their citizens and handing out death penalties. This definitely has parallels in today's world.

20) Soap wasn't invented until sometime after the death of Jesus. People back then really liked to wash their hands, but without soap it was very difficult to clean the dirt or blood off of them.

21) Black clothing has many uses, but it is especially good for hiding bloodstains. Seriously, you can kneel in puddles and pools of blood and it won't show.

22) When Jesus died on the cross, he proved his divinity by causing a massive earthquake that destroyed the Jewish temple. So, even the unbelieving Jews must know the truth of Jesus. Acting like they don't is just evil. This cannot be interpreted as anti-Semitic under the current definition.

23) Jesus has a lot of in common with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Merely a flesh wound, indeed.

24) This film is good for children of all ages. Even those too young to read. Because they will get the gist of it, trust me. Blood and torture don't really require a third-grade reading level to catch onto.

25) Filming the movie with the dialogue in ancient, dead languages may at first seem pretentious. But it helps convey the documentary-nature of the film the best. And you can have a crowd of Jews chant about Jesus' death being on the heads of them and their children forever without having to actually put the words up on the screen. That isn't anti-Semitic either.

26) The bloopers reel that plays over the credits is really a great piece of work. There was this one scene where Jim fell down when he was supposed to be carrying the cross through the streets, and he just kept tripping over his feet. Falling down again and again. Ha! Oh wait, I think that made it into the final cut.

27) Speaking of the cross, it is interesting that the thieves who were crucified with Jesus both only had to carry the cross-beams of their cross. Jesus had to carry the whole thing. Somebody didn't get the memo about new cross construction techniques.

28) Scourging is a fine tool of torture, sure. But I'm just saying it is only effective to a certain extent. Once you have flayed away the layers of skin that actually contain nerves, there isn't a whole lot more that scourging can do. It is too bad that the cattle prod had yet to be invented. That would have kept the proceedings moving along nicely.

29) The best place to go after watching a moving, sensitive portrayal of the execution of the Savior is a restaurant that serves lasagna with lots of marinara sauce. Lots. A side of ribs also sounds sort of appealing.

30) Roman soldiers weren't too good about following orders. "Torture him but don't kill him" can come dangerously close to "Torture him and kill him."

31) Little known fact: The murderer Barabbas released by Pontius Pilate? He went on to a career in stand-up comedy and eventually was elected to the Roman Congress, where he served four terms. He then retired to a nice country home. After his release, he managed to keep his killing sprees down to only a few people a year.

32) The Romans apparently keep crowns of thorns just lying around. I guess just in case, a king of the Jews needed crucifying or something. Handy.

33) King Herod refused to judge Jesus, so at first glance he might seem to be a good guy. But luckily Mel pointed out that he also kind of, well, gay. Just so you would know that he was really evil. Because you can love your brother and you can love your neighbor, but that only applies to the manly kind of slap-you-on-the-butt and watch football together kind of love. Not like, actual, icky LOVE love.

34) Mary, Jesus' mother, was really sad about her son getting executed. Dad was a little upset too, but he was able to hide it better. He only shed one tear. It's a guy thing.

35) We were able see Jesus rescue Mary Magdalane from the mob that wanted to stone her to death. Unfortunately we didn't get to hear his classic line about "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." While a good parable and a fine sentiment, it doesn't really apply to today's world. Because, unless a televangelist or good Christian just happened to be passing by, you'd never get to stone anybody.

36) Watching blood geyser into the air and splatter over everything in Kill Bill was too much gore. Watching blood geyser into the air and splatter over everything in The Passion of The Christ was just right. Coincidentally, almost the exact same amount of fake blood was used in the filming of both movies.

37) Getting struck by lightning while starring in a film about the death of Jesus should not in any way be considered a sign from God. Although he used to use signs, omens and portents to get his message across, he has taken to talking directly to his followers like Mel Gibson and Pat Robertson in recent years.

38) Really, anti-Semitism is in the eyes of the beholder. You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to. You say potato, I say po-tat-o. You say balanced portrayal of religious facts, I say calculated portrayal of the Jewish people as evil. It's all in your perspective.

39) There really can be no greater recruiting tool for Christianity than a two-plus-hour movie that buries the inconvenient message of peace, love and brotherhood under a spray of blood and ultra violence. Sex and violence are what put asses in the seats.

40) Writing a 40-point list of the things I learned from watching The Passion of the Christ could be considered by some to be blasphemy. The movie is a holy work after all and we wouldn't want to mock a holy work.

A little more on Mel's work soon.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Terrorism? What terrorism?

It's starting to become clear that, to the Bush administration -- and their corporate and media cohorts -- the definition of a "terrorist" is "someone we don't like."

All in the past week, we were treated to the following spectacles:

-- An administration official -- the education secretary, no less -- declaring the National Education Association a "terrorist organization."

-- The chairman of American International Group referred to lawyers who are opposed to Republican plans for tort reform as "bar terrorists."

-- CNN's Judy Woodruff, in an interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, chiding the Haitian leader that the armed thugs rampaging through the island nation were not "terrorists" but rather "political opponents."

But in the meantime, a mail bomber in Arizona can set off an explosion in a government office -- one aimed at promoting racial diversity -- and hardly anyone hears a peep about it. Certainly, no one has begun referring to the attack as terrorism, even though that is quite clearly what it is.

It happened Thursday in Scottsdale:
Bomb in mail injures 3 at Scottsdale city office

Don Logan, director of Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue, suffered serious burns on his hands and arms in the 1 p.m. explosion at the Human Resources Building near Scottsdale City Hall. A mailroom employee delivered the letter-size package to Logan, to whom it was addressed, in his cubicle.

Logan's secretary, Renita Linyard, and a co-worker, Jacque Bell, suffered minor injuries.

When the package exploded, it shot shrapnel into the walls, carpet and ceiling and burned a 3 1/2-inch-wide hole in Logan's desk. About 25 people were evacuated from the building.

Of course, since this is only the local government office most likely to be targeted by white supremacists, and it was indeed headed by a black man, local police officials and the federal postal inspectors promptly declined to consider this an act of terrorism, emphasizing instead that they were looking into whether someone had personal reasons for sending the bomb:
City officials were unaware of any grievances, threats or orders of protection against Logan or others in the Office of Diversity and Dialogue. They say they have no reason to believe race or Logan's position provided a motive for the bombing. Logan is Black.

Well, it's obvious that investigators should be looking at personal motives for the attack. At the same time, the very fact that the office that was bombed operated a racially sensitive program and is a likely target for hate groups should have alerted investigators to the presumably equal likelihood this was a case of domestic terrorism. Evidently, it did not.

The same "see no evil" approach to the investigation seems to be the mode of operation for federal postal inspectors. In the next day's story there was this explanation:
"We are looking at all motives as a possibility," said Bob Maes, spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service. He said Logan's professional and personal lives are being investigated, with a focus on someone who might hold a grudge against him.

Fortunately, not everyone is buying this:
City leaders throughout the Valley questioned racism's role in the bombing.

Logan's colleagues said his position made him a natural target.

Logan, who is Black, grew up in south Phoenix and became one of the Valley's leading voices for diversity.

"His mere being and his work (were) a threat to someone, and that's unfortunate and that's sad," said Rory Gilbert, who heads up Phoenix's Human Relations Commission.

Logan, a 24-year Scottsdale employee, created Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue in 1998, after allegations of racism in the city's Police Department. He's responsible for community outreach, employee training and dealing with grievances filed by citizens or employees.

Gilbert believes the attack against Logan could be tied to a hate group.

"We know there has been a lot more activity from hate groups as of late," Gilbert said. Leaflets that targeted Blacks were distributed in Glendale near 54th Avenue and Greenway Road on Wednesday. "We can't allow this to be the normative and just shrug it off."

Unfortunately, as we saw all too recently with the ricin attack on U.S. Senate offices, fairly clear-cut cases of domestic terrorism are being treated as ordinary crimes -- or "isolated incidents."

This is true not merely of law enforcement, but the media as well. Perhaps the Arizona mail bomber is, in Woodruff's formula, just a "political opponent" of the diversity office.

One can only imagine, of course, what the official and media reaction would have been if this were, say, the local Arizona immigration offices of Homeland Security that had been bombed instead. Consider what the response would have been had the target been a prominent anti-terrorism leader. Just as with the Texas cyanide bomb case, it seems fairly certain that this would have been lead news had the chief suspects been Muslims or left-wing "ecoterrorists."

Warbaby at World in Conflict put it this way, in the context of the ricin attack:
This is a big problem. Terrorism is political or social violence with effects that extend far beyond the immediate target. Crime is limited in its effects and directed towards limited personal gain. The two are fundamentally different and must be addressed by different methods and policies. The recent ricin incidents are terrorism. Period.

And until that sinks into the numb skulls at Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the other denizens of government, law enforcement and the military, we're not facing up to the problem.

There is an institutional element to this. The FBI has traditionally been slow to recognize certain crimes as terrorism. For instance, for years they declined to treat abortion-clinic bombings as acts of domestic terrorism; that was, however, before Eric Rudolph's rampage made irrevocably clear that this was indeed their real nature. And if you examine FBI statistics on domestic terrorism and compare them to records of real crimes, you'll discover that a substantial body of fairly clear domestic-terror cases that fully meet the FBI's own definition of terrorism have been omitted from the FBI's consideration.

Nonetheless, it is clear that this tendency has, since Sept. 11, become the pro forma policy of federal law enforcement. I've described previously how the Bush administration's emphasis on the "war on terror" bears all the earmarks of a political marketing campaign, precisely because it exclusively focuses on Arab nations as the source of terrorism, and when dealing with its domestic aspect, is only concerned about Muslim extremists operating clandestinely here. The existence of far-right, white-supremacist domestic terrorism as a dual threat undercuts such a strategy.

As Robert Jensen observed in an interview on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! program dealing with the Texas cyanide bomb case:
I think the reason for that, if I were to speculate -- not being in the brain of John Ashcroft -- is that cases like this -- of domestic terrorism, especially when they involve white supremacist and conservative Christian groups, don't have any political value for an administration, especially this particular administration. Therefore, why -- if one were going to be crass and cynical, why would they highlight this?

On the other hand, foreign terrorism and things connected to Arab, South Asian and Muslim groups, well those have value because they can be used to whip up support for military interventions, which this administration is very keen on.

So I think the politics are very clear here. Prosecutors' offices are always political. I mean, I have covered even small town prosecutors' offices and there's always a political element to them. But some are more political than others.

I think what we have to acknowledge here is that probably since the Nixon administration, we have never seen a Justice Department so completely and thoroughly politicized as this one.

Make no mistake: Domestic terrorists are at least an equal threat. They may not have mounted a body count to match Al Qaeda's 2001 attacks, but since 1995, the drumbeat of right-wing extremist violence has been regular and substantial -- much more so than anything committed by overseas terrorists. Oklahoma City alone should stand as a stark reminder of both the damage only a few of these terrorists can cause and the fact that they are motivated and quite capable of carrying them out.

As I've observed numerous times, it is important to keep in mind that the same folks who brought us Oklahoma City are still out there, still looking for opportunities to strike. And they have explicitly recognized that the post-Sept. 11 environment is ripe for taking action that benefits them.

After all, their agenda is to create as much social chaos as possible -- to so disrupt society, and divide it, and create as much terror and fear as possible, that eventually people come to believe (as they do) that democracy is a failure, that it cannot keep them secure; and so, they believe, eventually the white populace will swarm to their authoritarian agenda when that becomes clear. That has been their agenda for some time, and was the driving purpose of Oklahoma City. They clearly see the chance now to piggyback off the Al Qaeda and anthrax attacks as prime opportunities for creating serious chaos.

Making the public aware of the threat from domestic terrorists, especially as part of a real war on terrorism, would require getting the public to confront the reality that the "axis of evil" comprises not merely brown-skinned people with turbans and fanatical gleams but also that surly white guy next door with the pipe-bomb arsenal in his basement.

Robert Wright, in a terrific Slate piece titled "A Real War on Terrorism," astutely stipulated these principles as major factors in any such war:
For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people. They won't have to claim that they speak on behalf of a whole religion. They'll just have to be reasonably intelligent, modestly well-funded, and really pissed off. It may be hard to imagine a few radical environmentalists, or Montana militiamen, or French anti-globalization activists, or Basque separatists, or Unabomber-style Luddites, killing 100,000 people. Yet what makes this plausible is exactly what makes radical Islam such a formidable long-term threat: two enduring aspects of the evolution of technology.

... Again, the point isn't to minimize radical Islam, which is probably the biggest single threat to American security of the next decade, if not longer. But as we address that threat on its own terms, we should be building a policy framework that will apply to the larger, more generic threat as well. This is especially true in light of the fact that the current phase of rapid change -- info revolution, globalization, etc. -- is hardly over, and periods of rapid change tend to spawn intensely aggrieved groups. ... The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change.

The political problem, for the current administration, is that confronting this means throwing into stark relief the ineffectiveness of the Bush Doctrine -- particularly as it has played out in the invasion of Iraq. It makes all too clear that the current conflict is not only a grotesquely ineffective response to the unique challenges posed by terrorism, it is likely to worsen the problem exponentially.

It should be clear that Bush's "war on terror" is not only making us less safe abroad, its mishandling of domestic terrorism in the course of that "war" makes us substantially less safe at home.

Somehow, one suspects that if Bush's political opponents were to raise this point, they would wind up being called "terrorists" themselves.

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Roy Moore and the militiamen

The Rev. Roy Moore -- you remember him: the fellow who created a national hullabaloo over the Ten Commandments in Alabama -- is supposedly considering a run for the presidency on a third-party ticket. But the party he's considering signing up with -- the Constitution Party -- is a very telling choice.

According to WorldNetDaily -- not a reliable news source, but pretty accurate in terms of activities on the fringe right, of which it is part -- Moore is making appearances not just with "mainstream" groups like the Christian Coalition, but with the Constitution Party as well:
One week prior to that event, Moore spoke at a dinner in Lancaster, Pa., sponsored by the Constitution Party, which has the third-largest number of registered voters in the U.S. The party's presidential candidate, Howard Phillips, was on 41 state ballots in 2000, Fund noted.

Richard Winger, an authority on independent candidates, told Fund he believes Moore could rally enough support to sustain a presidential candidacy.

"If he can get on talk shows and stir up conservative voters he could easily get significantly more than the usual third-party vote totals," said Winger, editor of Ballot Access News.

Winger points out the Constitution Party has 320,000 registered voters nationwide and guaranteed ballot access in large states such as California and Pennsylvania.

What none of these accounts mention is that the Constitution Party is in fact the home party of the Patriot movement and its attendant "constitutionalists" -- people whose far-right interpretations of the Constitution lead them to form militias and "common law courts."

Founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party, its leading light for years has been Howard Phillips, the former Republican strategist who peeled away from the party in the early '90s. Phillips was its presidential candidate in the 1996 and 2000 elections. The Constitution Party is explicitly antitax, antigovernment, anti-abortion, and seeks to abolish the IRS, close down the Department of Education and terminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, AIDS education, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Under its USTP moniker, the party openly supported the formation of citizen militias -- in fact, a manual on forming militias was available through the party -- and a number of Patriot militiamen spoke before party functions and openly affiliated themselves with it.

(One of the USTP's most notorious moments came in 1995, when a militia promoter named Matthew Trewhella appeared at its national convention. Trewhella, a notorious anti-choice activist, said: "This Christmas I want you to do the most loving thing and I want you to buy each of your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition." Trewhella also signed a declaration saying that murdering abortion providers is "justifiable homicide.")

The Montana Human Rights Network carried the following report on Phillips' presidential campaign appearance in Montana:
Howard Phillips, the party's presidential candidate, spoke numerous times throughout the convention. His campaign received very little mainstream media attention, but was closely covered by right-wing periodicals like The Spotlight and Media Bypass. At the Montana convention, Phillips spent most of his time discussing all the federal agencies and programs he would eliminate if elected. These included: the income tax, Federal Reserve, FEMA, EPA, ATF, and the Department of Education. He also claimed that both Democrats and Republicans had adopted the Socialist Party's platform of 30 years ago. He continually stressed Republicans were more dangerous than Democrats, because "They fly a false flag."

It's becoming clearer that Moore is planning to run under the CP banner in 2004. He recently made an appearance in Great Falls under the auspices of the party:
He insisted Friday he could not do his job without acknowledging God since his official oath of office was sworn to God and the Alabama Constitution invokes "the favor and guidance of Almighty God" in establishing justice.

Furthermore, he contended that the federal judge violated the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in making the order, which he said reserves the right to the states, not the federal government, to make religious decisions.

"I'm accused of disobeying a federal judge's order, but that judge can't make the law," Moore said.

The Alabama review committee criticized him for not showing contrition, Moore said, "and they're right, I didn't."

Crowd members gleefully yelled, "Wahoo," "Right on" and "Amen."

It wasn't long, of course, before the core agenda floated to the surface:
The phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, he said, and wasn't interpreted so restrictively until 1961 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since then, the court in effect has created laws to take prayers from public schools and Nativity scenes from public places, Moore said.

"Are we headed for the ditch?" he asked.

"Shall we forsake the Lord God of our fathers?"

"No," the crowd roared.

Note that Moore also made a pitch for the Constitution Restoration Act. (Someone needs to ask Zell Miller if he still "stands shoulder to shoulder" with Moore.)

What is missing from this report, however, is a point raised in the Great Falls Tribune the previous day: namely, the Constitution Party got help from the Militia of Montana in turning out a crowd for Moore's talk:
The [Montana Human Rights] network, a private Helena-based group that monitors and reports activities by conservative groups, charged that the Constitution Party enlisted the Militia of Montana to drum up ticket sales for Moore's talk and to help gather petition signatures to place the party on Montana's election ballot.

"It's disheartening enough to have Roy Moore, the poster child for the religious right's attack on religious tolerance and separation of church and state, speaking in Great Falls," said the human rights group's Travis McAdam. "Now the Constitution Party is asking a paramilitary group to help fill the Civic Center. It's discouraging when even a fringe party asks anti-government groups for help."

McAdam pointed to copies of two e-mails his group obtained that were sent out by Militia of Montana, or MOM.

In response, Martin, a Great Falls businessman, said he sent the first release to the press and several conservative groups, including Montana Family Coalition, Eagle Forum and Montana Right to Life. The militia group later requested a copy and he sent it to them, Martin said.

"I don't know a lot about the Militia of Montana, but am not opposed to it and agree with some of their ideas," he said.

[Just for the record: Contrary to the Tribune report, MHRN does not monitor "conservative" groups. It strictly monitors extremist groups, many of whom are on the far right.]

We've already observed that Moore's Alabama brouhaha attracted considerable support from the extremist right. Moore's potential candidacy is intriguing, since it is likely to draw off more votes from the far right than did Pat Buchanan's campaign. More importantly, it has the potential of drawing the extremists back out of the GOP -- though obviously, Bush's endorsement of a federal anti-gay marriage amendment will blunt much of that appeal, as it was intended to do.

On the other hand, as this recent Montana appearance suggests, Moore's candidacy could become a dangerous thing if it gains any traction at all. It'll be well worth keeping an eye on.

On John Edwards

John Burns, who lives in North Carolina and previously contributed in a substantial way to my work here, wrote in recently to ask if I'd consider throwing support to John Edwards.

I replied that I'm officially staying out of the primary battles -- though I admittedly leaned to Dean -- but asked him why I would want to commit to Edwards, whom he described as representing a "real change in Washington." I asked him: "From my vantage point, either Kerry or Edwards represents a fundamental change from the current regime. Moreover, Kerry strikes me as significantly more liberal than, say, Bill Clinton, so I'd expect even a change for the better in terms of policy were he elected in any event. Or are you talking about the balance of Establishment power in D.C.? I guess I need to know why Edwards would be significantly better than Kerry."

Here's John's answer:
Nice question on the "real change" issue. It is, of course, what any non-establishment candidate says he will do, but this time, I feel it is different. For one, Edwards hasn't been there long enough to owe anyone. He doesn't owe the power structure in Washington. If anyone, he owes Al Gore, for considering him for VP four years ago. Simply put -- he has essentially willed himself to get where he is today. Do not underestimate that will.

I do not think conservatives are the only ones a little frightened by his candidacy. He is simply not a machine politician. Because he owes so little to the machine, he will not be scared of taking it on. Case in point, during one speech, I heard him say that he will actively promote full public financing and mandated airtime for federal candidates. When someone asked him how he would get the people behind such a drastic change and get it through Congress when it never appears as a priority in polls, he said:

"It's because no one talks about it. You let the President of the United States hold a press conference in the Rose Garden every Monday, telling the American people 'Here is what your system of campaign financing cost you last week: it cost you prescription drugs, it cost you fair housing, it cost you this or it cost you that,' Every week. I think you'll see those poll numbers change."

Can you imagine?

Part of my enthusiasm rests in the fact that I knew John Edwards, not well, but I knew him, before he ever ran for office. Moreover, I do know people who know him very well, and who have known him for decades. Other than a very few people he has defeated in court, you will not hear a negative word spoken about him personally. Many Republicans here attack him quite viciously, but for the most part, those who know him think very highly of him. Most of his opponents think very highly of him as an honest and tough competitor.

His heart is in the right place. I honestly believe, although he would never say this, that his reason for running is to make his son Wade, who died in 1996 at 16, proud. What a nice change, after three terms of Presidents out to please their fathers. Psychologically, I think that's a huge difference.

I feel like I am spouting platitudes, but it becomes difficult to express in concrete terms something that I feel quite viscerally -- this is the man to lead this country at this time. He is open. He listens. He does not fight dirty (although he knows how to fight tough -- a distinction which is important). I really believe the tone will be changed in Washington should he and his family inhabit the White House. He is just different. Optimism will return under his leadership. Any White House with Jack and Mary Claire Edwards running around in it would have to be an optimistic, sunny place.

Furthermore, he will thrash George W. Bush thoroughly, and will have coattails in the South and West. We stand a chance of winning back the Congress with Edwards at the head of the ticket. He has a cross-party appeal unlike any I've seen in a long time. It's like Perotism with a brain. It's a common-sense, up by his bootstraps appeal that will draw moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters in droves. People are tired of partisanship for its own sake and they want to be led away from the divide.

Watershed elections are about change, and Edwards presents an opportunity for change. I shudder to think what a loss would mean for the Democratic Party and for this country.

Kerry, while an admirable public servant and, I think, a very good man, is "of" Washington. The partisan divides will continue. Even if he were to beat George Bush, which I think he could do, I think he would leave Tom Delay and Orrin Hatch firmly in charge of the Congress. Things would not change, and this country would just descend further into division and disunion.

Edwards changes the ballgame.

A nice, passionate letter. Thanks, John.

Now, if the Kerry supporters out there want to have a hand at making their pitch, I'm willing to run that, too.

Memory and forgetting

It's Sunday mailbag time ...

A reader named mycateatsfood dropped me a line about the Hutton Gibson interview, and enclosed with it these thoughts:
And, here I was, innocently thinking that Hutton Gibson was some kind of run-of-the-mill 'traditional Catholic' who is a little 'skeptical' about the Holocaust. When I read the interview, I saw that there's obviously more to it than that. For a supposedly religious person, he has little respect for the most basic of the Ten Commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill, considering his comment about our Fed chairman.

I'm afraid that over the years we're losing our population of World War II vets and people who remember newsreels from 1933-1945. We're losing our immunity to what was rightfully denoted as enemy propaganda back in 1939. Fortunately for me, my parents were rather old when I was born (40) and both were involved in a minor way in WWII. My parents were acquainted with refugee scientists from Europe.

I'm a centrist politically, and although people like Patrick Buchanan don't really bother me (I'm more conservative than you are), I am quite concerned about what I'm seeing with the current administration and with people like Hutton Gibson making extremist statements like this in public ahead of his son's now-major movie release.

The world would be very different if the people in power were the descendants of various WWII generals, rather than the descendents of enemy collaborators (George Herbert Walker and Prescott Sheldon Bush). I'm running into too many well-known public figures who have Nazi fathers (Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite his contributions to the ADL) and Mel Gibson, whose father's interview tips his hand. And, I'm not running into enough public figures whose fathers and grandfathers have a record of honorable leadership and service in WWII. And, there are many such people in the U.S.

I can tell that 'something is going on' when so many of these families have faded into obscurity while the families of collaborationists are in the elite.

I can see the 75+ -year old historical connections between the old elite that was militating against entry into WWII during 1938-1941 and the present-day elite. From the financial ties with Germany during the buildup to WWII, it's obvious that there was a little more than just isolationism happening then. Among present day elites active during the early 1940s, Henry Ford and IBM (ref.) were heavily tied into Germany and the Bushes were loaning Thyssen money. Now I can see why Roosevelt aged so much during the 7 years from 1938-1945 -- he faced tremendous enemy sympathies from the elite in this country.

Of course, I agree wholly with his assessment. For more on this facet of history, see "Bush, the Nazis and America" and my post on the America First Committee.