Thursday, October 21, 2010

This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Pt. 2: Send In the Clowns

Citing President Eisenhower’s famous farewell warning about the emerging power of the military-industrial complex, I noted yesterday, Andrew Bacevich writes about the threat that imperial power poses for American democracy.
Citing the same passage, Quaker activist Chuck Fager, in his booklet Study War Some More, pays special attention to President Eisenhower’s specific inclusion of the spiritual influence of the vast permanent armaments industry among the “grave implications” of the “unwarranted influence” of “the military-industrial complex.”
Fager writes:
[M]uch of American religion, especially Christianity, has adopted the conviction that the United States is God’s chosen instrument to exercise the role of the planetary “sword-bearing” magistrate, charged to “rid the world of evil-doers,” as [President Bush] declared in 2001. Thus these churches, some of the largest in the country, not only support but actively advocate for the projection of American military might around the world, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure, to Americans, but especially to foreigners. This is, they are sure, God’s work.

Such was surely the tenor of the Glen Beck rally in August. Beck famously wanted a military jet flyover to begin his rally, but got instead, a “miracle flyover” of Canadian geese. The military refused his request because the Lincoln Memorial sits under restricted airspace, so, Beck said, God provided the flyover, presumably to help restore honor to America.
In the opening invocation, the Rev. Paul Jehles employed John Winthrop’s city on a hill imagery in inviting God to forgive America and restore the honor lost to her for, among other things, the sin of same-gender marriage. Theologically speaking, it went downhill from there.
Immediately following Pastor Jehles’ prayer, Mr. Beck asked the gathered congregation, “what is it that today America truly believes in?” The answer, offered up to a resounding ovation: the military.
Although the One Nation’s rally was a decidedly more secular affair, the honor of the nation’s military was still front and center from the opening rendition of the Star Spangled Banner to the inclusion of numerous veterans on the program and a classic form of American civil religion was on display. While there was some safe criticism of the war in Iraq and more guarded critique of Afghanistan, no one raised any significant concerns about militarism itself, much less about the empire that depends upon it.
The old guard of African-American Christian civil rights leadership, in the persons of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, was present, and the Rev. Sharpton provided the Old Testament lesson for the day as he lifted up the story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones.
Ezekiel, he said, began the restoration in the valley by connecting the bones together. “If we can get connected,” the Rev. Sharpton said, “blacks connected to whites, Latinos connected to Asians, straights connected to gays, immigrants and all of us who are naturally born here – if we can connect these bones we can make America breathe and make America live as one nation under God.”
As spirited as the aging African-American religious leaders remain, there is a tiredness about the near 70-year-old Jackson these days, and while Sharpton is more than a dozen years younger he is hardly a fresh voice. The theology implicit in the language of Beck’s rally is classic imperial theology, asking, quite literally, for God to bless America. Such theology goes back at least to Constantine. There is nothing new in it at all. At the same time, it is difficult to listen to the Revs. Sharpton and Jackson and imagine that God is doing a new thing there either. Neither spoke out passionately against empire itself.
Sending in the clowns may be the best bet we have even when it comes to what might pass for a contemporary American theological imagination – at least as it’s being articulated in this particular political season.
Indeed, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart just might be rising to the level of prophets in our midst. In an interview with Sojourners several years ago Jim Wallis likened Stewart to the Hebrew prophets who used “humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across.”
While Stewart rejected the comparison, saying he has a lot more in common with Borscht Belt social directors than with the prophets, I would say his most Biblical spiritual practice can be found in the hospitality he practices each evening on The Daily Show. Down to his regular gesture of waiting for his guest to be seated before him, Stewart offers a simple generosity of spirit that contrasts sharply with most of the serious talking heads on TV these days. More pointedly, Stewart rarely interrupts or talks over his guests and never engages In shouting matches with them. He offers conversational space even to those with whom he clearly disagrees. While he calls himself a non-observant Jew, I’d argue that he practices the foundational Jewish commitment to hospitality and welcome of strangers on a national platform every night.
Colbert, on the other hand, is an observant Roman Catholic. Both the blowhard conservative character he plays on his show and the man behind the character claim their faith. While the character goes on at hysterical length about the evils of big government, Colbert manages to bring the social justice ethic of Catholic social teaching to the fore in very public forums.
His resent congressional testimony, offered mostly in character, provides a classic case study. After mostly mocking himself and the members of congress holding the hearings on migrant farm laborers, Colbert breaks character to explain his presence before the committee: “I like talking about people who don't have any power...I feel the need to speak for those who can't speak for themselves....We ask them to come and work, and then we ask them to leave again. They suffer, and have no rights."
In the midst of this explanation he quotes Matthew 25, saying: “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of my brothers.”
Some voices from Capitol Hill and the mainstream media decried Colbert’s testimony. On the other hand, prior to his appearance before the House committee it would take a dedicated news hound to find news stories about the conditions of migrant workers in America. The least of these simply don’t merit much attention from the press.
From the perspective of Matthew 25 that constitutes a spiritual crisis in the land.
Which brings us back ‘round to President Eisenhower. Most peace activists know well both the phrase, “military-industrial complex” and its source in President Eisenhower’s farewell speech. Many of us are also familiar with his observation that,
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

I confess to not knowing the source of that second quote. Until tracking it down on the internet recently I had assumed it came in the farewell speech because it sounds as if it would be at home in the company of his warnings about the military-industrial complex that came in his the president’s last official remarks. Not only was I wrong about that, but I was off by two full presidential terms. President Eisenhower actually made his remarks about theft from the hungry and naked – echoing Matthew 25 – in his first official remarks to the nation as president, April 16, 1953, in a speech called “The Chance for Peace.”
I’m not sure what Glenn Beck would make of such remarks coming from the president of the United States. The cynic in me would say, “well, if such remarks came from a president named Obama then Beck would call him a socialist who wants to bring about the downfall of the nation.” Alas, the realist in me knows that Mr. Beck can rest easy: the president named Obama is not about to utter any of the words that came from either end of President Eisenhower’s time in the White House.
It’s time to send in the clowns.
(Hm, the links don't seem to be working in this post. My apologies for some technical glitches.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This Is What Democracy Looks Like?

Two wars. The Great Recession. Mid-term elections. The Tea Party. The Obama presidency. It is the perfect storm, and, if nothing else, it pumps money into the local economy as march and rally season descends upon DC as surely as Ringling Brothers brings the elephants to Capitol Hill each spring.
We got a jump start this year with Glen Beck’s “God-bless-America” gathering in August. I’ll confess to skipping that one when discretion proved the better part of avoiding the crowds on yet another in a record-breaking steamy string of 90-plus degree summer afternoons. I gave some thought to going down to the Mall that day, but the crowd of mostly middle-aged and older white folks teaming at the Metro stop dissuaded me.
On the one hand, the left one I suppose, I did make it down to the One Nation rally earlier this month. One could analyze the political content of the spoken messages and of the various messengers, but a few pictures are worth thousands of words. The pictures show the wildly diverse crowd that simply looks more like America than crowd Mr. Beck attracted in August.
Maybe it was the weather. Liberals are known to be wimpy. Just ask any conservative.
On the other hand, speaking out for the rights of immigrants, gays and lesbians, working class folks and union members seems more likely to draw a diverse crowd than does “taking back our country” – which too often seems like code for taking it back from immigrants, gays and lesbians, working class folks and union members.
It will be interesting to see what kind of crowd shows up for Jon Stewart and the Comedy Central crew in a couple of weeks. My guess is that gathering will be much less diverse than the One Nation rally, which would underscore the fact that while we are one nation we remain many peoples.
That simple truth is why the rhythmic chant, “this is what democracy looks like” remains my favorite rally staple. Yet these days, even that song sounds more like a lament for something lost than a declaration of something hoped for.
I just finished J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, a novel that calls every notion of authority into question, including, notably, the authority of democracy itself. One of the novel’s narrative voices offers multiple “strong opinions,” including this little gem:
We do not choose our rulers by the toss of a coin – tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling – but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if rulers had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?

At about the same time Coetzee was writing those words, Cornel West offered these in Democracy Matters: “Let us not be deceived: the great dramatic battle of the twenty-first century is the dismantling of empire and the deepening of democracy.”
If so, the battle has not yet been joined in any significant way in the United States, that is to say, in the empire itself. And the hour is growing late.
As Andrew Bacevich persuasively argues in Washington Rules, the huge and expanding national security state the props up and projects the American empire around the world fundamentally threatens democracy at home. Citing President Eisenhower’s famous farewell warning about the emerging power of the military-industrial complex, Bacevich writes,
Initiatives undertaken to ensure national security had given rise to new institutions and habits deeply antithetical to traditional American values.
These new forces had yielded unwelcome consequences that Eisenhower himself, whether as general or as president, had neither intended nor anticipated, threatening American democracy.
Bacevich traces the continuing rise of those institutions and habits that reached their logical limits in the preemptive war in Iraq and the entire construct of the global war on terror that continues to be played out in Afghanistan, the border regions of Pakistan, and Iraq today with new fronts being hinted at in Yemen and elsewhere.

The truly curious thing about what passes for democracy in America right now is how widespread the opposition to this is among the vox populi. I would guess that if you could do exit polling from Glen Beck’s rally, the One Nation event, and the Comedy Central court jester-fest, you would find strong sentiment across the board for getting U.S. troops out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. As of last month, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, more than half of Americans think we should not be in Afghanistan at this point, and more than 70 percent believe that Iraq was not worth the cost in lives and dollars.
A coin toss for leadership would give us at least a 50-50 chance of getting out, whereas our purportedly democratic elections provide no chance at ending the ongoing tragedy no matter which party prevails. Getting out now is, as they say, off the table.
Of course, the deep divisions that do exist within the American public touch on far more than just so-called national security concerns. But the fundamental problem, the rot at the core of American democracy, stands firmly in the way of finding real solutions to any pressing issues whether they be hot-button social concerns or widespread economic suffering.
Until we get at the decaying center, all of our rallies – of the right, the left, or the comedic center – will be no more meaningful than when the circus comes to town.