Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sara's Sunday Rant: The Ultimate Betrayal

by Sara Robinson

Less than two months ago, during my first week here at Orcinus, I wrote the second segment of my series, Cracks In The Wall (which Dave swears he's gonna put all the links to in the margin any day now, really). In that post, I combined John Dean's observations in his book Conservatives Without Conscience with my personal knowledge of the fundamentalist terrain, and listed some of the more common triggering events that inspire individual fundamentalists to start seeking alternatives to authoritarian religion.

The very first item I listed -- in no small part because, in my experience, it's the most important and common one of the bunch -- was Betrayal By Authority. Here's what I said about it:

Dean notes that authoritarian followers voluntarily choose their leaders, usually on the basis of how strongly those leaders support the follower's belief system. Cultural or political leaders who don't support the belief system (for example, federal court judges, scientists, progressive celebrities) are seen as illegitimate authorities, and become targets of followers' aggression.

We've all come up against these people, and have been totally confounded with their "my leader can do no wrong" attitude. They believe outrageous lies, and forgive all manner of sins. Democratic strategists keep trying to run campaigns that will reach these people on the basis of evidence and fact -- and are perplexed to find their attempts at education totally rebuffed. George Bush may have lied us into a war, wrecked our economy, saddled our great-grandchildren with debt, savaged the poor, and alienated the entire world; but he is Our Leader, and we will always take his word over anyone else's. We do not accept you as a legitimate authority. We don't care what you have to say, because you have no standing at all in our little world.

Mere political or cultural betrayal, no matter how destructive, does not cut through this piece of the wall. The guilt-evaporation process applies to both followers and leaders: you must forgive all wrongs committed by someone inside the fold. Our leader didn't lie; he was misunderstood, his words distorted by our enemies. Besides, he would never lie to us. Besides, he is just following orders -- or God's will, which is beyond our understanding. Besides, our own forgiveness depends on our ability to forgive, and so we will -- never mind the contradictions.

And yet, even so: There is one -- and only one -- sin so heinous that it cannot be rationalized away by the authoritarian thought process. It is this: the leader's main job is to protect his abused and terrified horde from personal harm (or, for that matter, any sudden negative change to their immediate status quo). A leader who wantonly allows one of his followers to intimately experience such harm breaks that contract. It is in that moment of betrayal that some followers come to their senses, and start looking for a reckoning.

It's important to note: the betrayal must be an intensely personal breach that has a deep, immediate, life-changing impact on the individual follower. Fundies don't think in abstracts. Big national debts, epic political prevarications, and other people's suffering (even on a global scale) do not impress them. But there are plenty of authoritarian parents across the country who proudly sent a son or daughter off to war -- and later received that precious child home under cover of darkness, in a wooden box, with minimal explanation. That's the kind of personal and profound loss I'm talking about. For many of these patriotic parents, it was also the searing moment of deep betrayal that broke the spell and shoved them off in the direction of the Wall.

Among fundies, the most common perpetrators of these betrayals are parents -- particularly fathers -- and pastors. As the most intimate authorities in their followers' lives, they're at close enough range to inflict the kind of high-impact personal damage that's necessary to create the first crack. Many of the ex-fundies I know made their break in the aftermath of sexual abuse, ruinous financial treachery, public humiliation, or power grabs that threatened their marriages or children. They saw, in devastatingly vivid color, what their leaders were capable of. Their endless loyalty was shattered, because they realized it was not being returned in kind.

Such betrayals break through because they offend several of the follower characteristics Dean lists. The betrayed follower is no longer bound to submit to or give loyalty to an unworthy authority. Nor are they bound by the rules, because the authority charged with enforcing them has broken them. (While this was forgiveable in the abstract, in this case the consequences are too personal and acute to ignore.) They are brought face-to-face with the contradictions and hypocrisies in a shocking and unforgiveable way. Having felt the sting of the leader's aggression, they may realize the true cost of aggressively defending that leader -- and thus become more acutely sensitized to intolerance, bullying, and mean-spiritedness.

Perhaps most importantly: having their own boundaries so heinously violated makes them suddenly aware (as most authoritarian followers are not) that they have their own legitimate emotional, physical, and social needs; and that they deserve to have those needs respected and met. Once that self-awareness is awakened, the soon-to-be-ex fundie can be seen making a beeline for the Wall.

Two months ago, I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that the Ultimate Betrayal would arrive so quickly. I doubt any of us could have. But that's exactly what we're seeing this week in the aftermath of the Hastert/Reynolds/Shimkus debacle.

As my theory predicted, the perpetrator was a conservative male in a position of authority, and the issue was sexual abuse. The Foley affair touches maybe a few hundred familes of pages and former pages, and a handful of members of Congress. Even so, it fits the above picture closely, because it's the kind of betrayal that every parent, no matter what their political persuasion, feels absolutely viscerally. We know, in our bones, that most of us would commit bodily mayhem on someone who attempted to molest our kids. It violates our most primal instincts, and awakens our will to righteous violence like few other threats in the human experience.

It may be even more acute for women -- and most especially, women in the red states. Blue-state women tend to be more worldly and educated, more aware of their rights, and thus more skilled in dealing with the world's ample supply of creeps. They also spend most of their time dealing with blue state men, who tend to be a bit more egalitarian in their habits (though, as anyone who watched Dateline last night knows, are apparently no less prone to move in on a 13-year-old if they think they can get away with it).

Red-state women are the ones who have to deal most intimately with overentitled authoritarian men who regard women as their property. They get to call cops who will decline to take reports or refer for prosecution; face down bosses who think that sexual access comes with the paycheck; and live their lives in the company of men -- even those in their own families who should know better -- who will do whatever it takes to convince themselves that "I know him -- he'd never do that" and besides, "she had it coming."

In this hostile environment, the only defense a woman has is bind herself to the contract that defines the conservative view of male-female relationships. She gives a man her devotion and submission. In return, he promises to provide for and protect her and her children -- even at the cost of his own life. That's the honor code "traditional families" live by, and the only safety women in authoritarian systems have.

These guys broke that contract. Conservative women put their trust in guys like Hastert. They gave him their devotion and support. According to the code, these guys were honor-bound to put themselves on the line for the women and children under their protective care. But when the bad guys came to town -- the very same bad guys they'd been specifically hollering about for decades as the number one reason that we all absolutely must submit to their protection -- our chicken-livered heroes were nowhere to be found.

For both male and female authoritarians followers, this is a profound moment of reckoning. We can make fun of the GOP's frantic attempts to evaporate guilt -- like I did in the post below -- because we know that this time, they've finally committed the offense that transcends any attempts at evaporation. There is nothing anyone can say to make this go away. There is no forgiveness possible. If you've spent 25 years insisting your first priority in the world was to protect people's kids from evil, and then you wantonly refused to stand up and act when evil appeared and the fate of children was directly in your hands, then you have deprived your followers of the shelter they thought they'd found in submitting to you. You have failed to deliver; and those who trusted you will rightly turn on you without mercy. That's why the faithful are experiencing this loss as a personal one. "They saw, in devastatingly vivid color, what their leaders were capable of. Their endless loyalty was shattered, because they realized it was not being returned in kind."

This week, the wall is going to come tumbling down for a great many soft-core authoritarian followers. They have, in my words, "been brought face-to-face with the contradictions and hypocrisies of their leadership in a shocking and unforgiveable way." According to their own values system, the GOP has proven itself to be an unworthy authority -- which means that they are no longer bound to give it their loyalty, submission, or support.

Now is the time for us to step forward and make a clear case that these are the consequences of supporting such people. More than a few of soon-to-be-former Republicans are going to be ready to hear what we have to say, and we need to be prepared to have those conversations.

A lot of the talk is likely to center on the strict sexual moral code of the "moral values" promoters. While the hard core followers will never let go of the belief that all gays are pedophiles, the more thoughtful soft core are going to be entertaining some disturbing realizations. Repression does not stop evil. Denial does not protect children. Whatever else happens, the right-wing's impossible ideological fantasies about power, sex, morality, and authority have been thrown open to re-examination.

If we're going to be ready to discuss this, there are a few things it's good to be clear on ourselves.

1. It was his own episode of sexual abuse, plus forty years in the closet, that warped Mark Foley. (Odds are that his abuser was warped for life in much the same way, as was his abuser, and on back into antiquity.) His secret devastated scores of families, his supporters, and the most powerful political party in the world. All this pain, all this damage, is precisely why the sexual abuse of children is such a heinous crime.

2. Studies done by the Commonwealth Fund and Guttmacher in the 90s found that, in America, 12% of boys and 25% of girls are sexually abused by the time they turn 18. Most of these kids, in one way or another, will never be the same.

3. It's not unusual for them to lose confidence in themselves, launching a lifelong pattern of underachievement that undercuts their ability to realize their talents and make their full contribution to our common enterprise.

4. Many of them struggle with sexual dysfunctions and emotional problems that will complicate marriage and parenthood in the years ahead, adding to our divorce and family woes.

5. They may lose track of their sense of personal boundaries, and thus are more likely to become sexually promiscuous or physically aggressive adults.

6. Later in life, they are more susceptible to chronic disease (the correlations between childhood abuse and the development of common autoimmune diseases like lupus, MS, or myalgic encephalomyelitis in later life among women are particularly staggering), which creates tremendous health care bills and deprives us of their productivity.

7. As I noted in an earlier post, many of them are drawn into authoritarian belief systems in an effort to control their unresolved pain -- which has important implications here for the continued health of our entire democracy.

8. And, of course, some percentage of those abused kids -- the vast majority of them boys -- will go on to become abusers themselves, thus perpetuating the damage for another generation.

None of this is trivial stuff. How can it be, when 18% of us -- over 50 million Americans -- are walking wounded? There's not a family in the country, red or blue, that's not been touched by the shadow of this crime. Every predator we stop now, and every kid we manage to protect, is an incremental step toward a much healthier society down the road. It's an investment in the future we can't NOT afford to make.

Creeps like Foley are a nasty little secret we can no longer afford to dismiss, ignore, shrug off, or shift the blame on. The equally dangerous creeps who did just that are no longer worthy to hold positions of power and authority in this country, either. And the everyday Americans who put those creeps in power in the first place should be forced to reckon with the fact that it was their own blind and misplaced support of that leadership that betrayed the pages and their families. The only silver lining is that those same choices betrayed 25 years of right-wing ambition as well.

Updated for corrections

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