Thursday, December 21, 2006

All Over But the Shouting

Sara Robinson

2006 may go down in history as the year the Religious Right finally jumped the shark, going over the top so high at last (as every Great Awakening in history ever has) that even some of their own followers noticed that their utopian fantasies were, finally, unworkable. Unmoored at last from the real-world concerns of their own moderates, and convinced (as authoritarians usually are) that the only answer can ever be more intrusion, more patriarchy, and more control, they've given us some singularly gobstopping moments this year, as a stunned nation finally stood in shock and awe, taking in the fully revealed and spectacularly bizarre details of their version of a Christianized America.

We saw the reductio ad absurdum of the idea that life begins at fertilization, which brought us false tragedy of frozen "snowflake babies," and the real tragedy of Michael J. Fox's frozen features -- and, ultimately, the thawing awareness that if America turns its back on stem cell research, it is doing nothing short of opting out of the biggest revolution in medicine since the discovery of germs.

We saw the pro-choice activists -- who have been telling us for years that the real target wasn't Roe but Griswold -- proven catastrophically right, as South Dakota tried to ban all abortions and the National Right to Life Foundation openly put itself on record as opposing most forms of birth control. Many of us were quite surprised. And quite a few of us weren't, because we knew they'd never stopped saying this kind of thing to each other in private since the days of Margaret Sanger.

We finally saw the media take a good hard look at longstanding experiments in radical patriarchy like Quiverfull families and fundamentalist Mormonism. And we realized that among patriarchy's greatest perversions is the way it fetishizes women as children, and children as women; and that men who gravitate to these extreme forms too often have some very weird psychosexual shit going on that makes them unsafe around minor girls.

And if there was any doubt about that, we saw videos ricocheting around the Internet of earnest young women at "purity balls" publicly pledging their chastity to their daddies -- and daddies, in turn, publicly swearing to "cover" (a choice word that means one thing to fundies, and quite another to anyone who grew up where livestock were bred) their daughters by holding them to it. And we watched, and shuddered, and the only word that seemed to fit was creepy.

We heard from the anti-environmental extremists who are learning in church that global warming isn't an issue, because God will fix it. (Would this be the same God who once deliberately drowned his entire creation in a flood? Just asking.) And we realized that the right-wing War on Science is not only real; but that it has already been more deadly than the war in Iraq -- and we have yet to see the full magnitude of the disaster.

We finally faced up to the size of the conservative movement's walk-in closet, which is big enough for Mark Foley and Ted Haggard and Ken Mehlman and a whole lot of Congressional aides, and we wondered once again just what Jeff Gannon was doing during those nights at the White House.

Alongside this, we saw the deeply venal corruption of the most "Christian" members of Congress, who betrayed the futures of the poor and middle class -- both in America, and elsewhere -- on behalf of their wealthy friends, even as they attempted to tear up the Constitution and institute Government by Divine Fiat. And we learned -- bitterly -- that the bigger and brighter a public figure's faith or patriotism appears to be, the more likely it is that they have never actually paid much attention to what's really in either the Bible or the Constitution.

And, to cap This Year in Hypocrisy, we've got the Department of Health and Human Services telling Americans under 30 to just stop fooling around. At which point pretty much everybody in the country knew that we'd ascended to a whole new shark-jumping level of whackadoodlery, and stopped being gobstopped, and just started rolling their eyes and laughing. Our self-appointed moral scolds finally overplayed their hand. No need to hold it back any more -- it's OK now to giggle and point. In fact, we have a moral duty of our own to do so, loudly and long, whenever we're confronted with this sort of reactionary absurdity.

The recurring theme in all these stories is this: The Religious Right, overweening in its self-righteousness and drunk on hubris and power, is no longer making even the slightest effort any more to keep its crazies in the closet. Free at last from any accountability to reason, they're increasingly taking positions that are guaranteed to alienate ever-wider swaths of the American electorate.

Over 90% of American women will use contraception at some point in their lives (most of them, ostensibly, with the support of their male partners). A National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association study done last spring found that even 80% of anti-choice Americans support giving women access to contraception. Likewise, 70% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists; and 88% think global warming poses a serious future threat. Two-thirds of us think the government should support stem-cell research. The election showed that most of us had had about enough of the GOP's devotion to charity for the upper classes only. And now, this week, it's being reported that 95% of all Americans engage in premarital sex, and have been doing so rather robustly for several generations now.

When you set the opinions of the vast majority of Americans against the extremist views the religious right staked out this year, you have to wonder: What are they thinking? Surely, they can't believe that staking out such extreme positions is the way to recover their political clout, and win back hearts and minds?

Actually: Yes. It is quite possible that this is exactly what they believe.

Remember that while the soft core authoritarian right was drawn to the movement for reasons of security in a time of fear (and is equally susceptible to being drawn away if their own perception of threat changes, as it is now), the smaller and more enduring hardcore has a different agenda. These people are lifelong right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) because they believe that a world without strong authority enforcing black-and-white rules is a world in which chaos must reign. To them, the only authorities worth following are those that place the most stringent demands from their followers. Rigidity and extremism are a sign that their leaders care enough to set high standards; punishment is a sign that they are noticed and loved.

Because of these beliefs, the first authoritarian response to any failure -- a lost election, dropping ratings, or a stymied legislative agenda -- is to demand that ever-stronger authority step in to enforce even more draconian standards. At this late hour, when their three-decade-long party is finally showing signs of breaking up, the hardcore RWAs are increasingly the only ones left. Drunk on the hard stuff, this is how they think: The more they lose, the more obstreperously they will insist on doing more of whatever it was they were doing before, back in the days when they were succeeding.

Opposing abortion was a 30-year winner. If we're losing support now, it's because we got too soft; so let's regain the moral high ground by opposing contraception and stem cell research, too. If opposing environmentalism made us powerful friends in the past, then opposing global warming should attract quite a few more. If our emphasis on family purity and patriarchy attracted millions of members, then making a public spectacle out of our oversized families and our prepubescent daughters' virginity oughta really wow the crowd.

Stay tuned. It's only going to get weirder for a while. We're probably going to see even more Fundie Follies in 2008, as the realization dawns that their social and political clout are fading. The more acutely they feel the loss, the more outrageous their attempts to push old favorite themes to new extremes will become. Which will, of course, only speed the continued loss of clout and followers, and turn up the volume on the general derision level. Which will, in turn, lead to even stranger pronouncements and more aggressive attempts to ship us all back to the 19th century, the shuddering machinery throwing off bolts and sparks and passengers with every accelerating and doomed orbit.

The good news is this: The stranger it gets, the closer we are to done. This is how Great Awakenings end in America -- with the last handful of remaining True Believers yelling ever-crazier things on street corners, while the sane and sober citizens sidestep them on their way to doing the real work of the country.

Update: Old Hickory's Weblog puts the above post (which focuses on the Christian Right specifically) into a larger context with the secular authoritarians of the Bush administration, who are of course caught in pretty much exactly the same authoritarian logic trap. If you are following the God-ordained One Right True and Only Way, then deviating from that way is simply not an option. Faith demands that you stay the course, even if that course is leading you directly into Hell. And if what you're doing isn't working, the only acceptable option is to do it bigger, deeper, louder, and harder until the superiority of your position is made clear to all those recalcitrant unbelievers. To admit that your mission is in error is to deny the very truth of God -- or, in Bush's case, his Divine Right as king. Victory is inevitable. Failure is impossible. Turning back is unthinkable.

Hickory points out that things at the White House are likely to get weirder this coming year as well, for precisely the same reasons. That grinding, ripping sound you hear is the wings coming off as fantasy descends to ground level, approaching its final brutal encounter with the reality down here. The only good news (if we survive the impact) is that the longer their denial holds out, the crazier their corrective maneuvers become, and the more memorable the final explosion turns out to be, the longer and more thoroughly the whole conservative enterprise will stand discredited. With a big enough boom, the right will not be able to rise again until the last person old enough to remember this disaster has left the scene, heels first, sometime very late in the century -- longer if we don't forget to warn the grandkids.

It could go other ways, of course. The future is never knowable. But the pattern's a familiar one, so consider this the trendline -- the most expectable future out of many that could occur.

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