Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Evangelical Critique of Rove-Cheneyism as Practiced by the President

I've said bits and pieces of this before, but let me clear, and concise if I can, about the miserable political situation I see in our country. Jim Wallis has done this better, in "God's Politics: Why the Right Is Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It." But shy of reading that, here's this. Now, once I start, the end will seem predictable. I don't think it is; I am more nuanced than my initial comments might indicate: indeed, I feel heartsick and conflicted about so much of this. I will respond to comments, but otherwise hope to leave this subject alone for quite a while. It's important, but not very edifying. But if you have the stomach for this sort of thing at all, listen in as I think my way through this in one go.

The big picture is that at the peak of its power and world influence, America has been led primarily by mediocrities. Particularly in foreign affairs, since Truman, only Kennedy has shown some glimmer of real vision for a world led by America in a new and better direction, and only he had to deal with a real threat to the US (the Cuban missile standoff with Russia); Reagan just happened to be president when Communism and apartheid were collapsing of their own accord. (H.W. got to host the end-of-an-era party.) Eisenhower, Ford, Carter, H.W. (Bush the First, who at least had the virtue of thinking of himself as a president, not a king), and Clinton were Okay on this, bad on that, mostly middling. They couldn't do too awfully, because they were running the most powerful ship on the seas, but they hardly maximized what we could have done for good (and our good) in the world. The exceptions were Johnson and W. (Bush II, whose handlers like to position him as king, but who thinks of himself as a fraternity president), both Texans, for whom the overriding approach to relations with strangers was to engage in Operation Manhood. Both embroiled us hopelessly, for purely their own psychological reasons, in pointless bloodletting which ruined our reputation as a beacon of democracy and fairness, wasted our mostly earnest and well-meaning military, was doomed from the start strategically, and which, while a major war in the lives and region of the soldiers and of the places we were fighting (Vietnam, Iraq), were not really wars for us at all, but diversions. Nixon, finally, was a would-be autocrat, a real threat to the constitution while he was coherent, Caligula-like in his delusions at the end if Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig are to be believed.

Which brings us to the big picture right now. Generationally speaking, the boomers who were the fighters in Vietnam are now the policymakers in Washington. The divisions in our country right now are boomer divisions. And this administration is driven by those who were young conservatives in the 1960s and early 70s and their proteges, who are very intentionally replaying the Nixon administration, trying to reverse all its lessons. Cheney and Rumsfeld, Gingrich and DeLay, on down the list. It goes something like this.

1. Nixon was only impeached for political advantage for the Democrats, not because he routinely and explicitly instructed White House staff to violate the law, used the FBI for personal political revenge, had a completely unAmerican concept called "executive privilege" which supposedly made his doings above the law, and did not want to abide by constitutional restrictions on his power in general. So, solution: impeach Clinton only for political advantage.

2. We lost Vietnam because we weren't savage enough and didn't frankly take over the country, nineteenth-century-imperial-power-style. Solution: take over Iraq, and do it as savagely (Abu Graib) as it takes.

3. It was unpatriotic for people to differ with the government (mainly here meaning Nixon, not Johnson) over Vietnam--read: those of us who went to Vietnam earnestly believing that we were doing the right thing were not wrong to trust our government, and we were not bad people for being good soldiers. (Of course, all of the principals in our current political debacle are *not* veterans, having, like W., gotten out of it at the time; the actual veterans, like Murtha and Kerry and McCain, have very different views from both the simple proIraq and antiIraq people.) It is hard not to be sympathetic with this driving dynamic. I agree with Jonson and Wilde that patriotism is both the last and the first refuge, rhetorically speaking, of scoundrels trying to distract the public from paying attention to how wrong they (the scoundrels) are. More importantly, though, I think patriotism at the *national* level is passe; we need a global patriotism instead, now. But I certainly respect young men and women who served without irony in Vietnam; it is not to be expected that young adults would have all the issues sorted out that their elders are dealing with, and followers have to follow leaders sometime or other with a minimum of fuss, or nothing ever gets done. All I'm saying is don't underplay the "good kid" syndrome: those who were proud of what they (they would say "we") did in Vietnam, and resent how the war and its participants have been treated ever since, are motivated participants in this administration's attempt to rewrite history.

3. We were right in Vietnam, not wrong. This is a natural but unhelpful feeling. It dates back originally to when there was a huge reaction against Carter's willingness to say that we were wrong, that we needed to repent and do things differently, etc. Reagan partly rode to power in 1980 on the anger of people tired of apologizing. Since 1994, the Repubs have used this gut sense as a powerful appeal, using it to eliminate nuanced consideration of issues. We are doing the right thing here, because we are the ones who do right things, because we are right, because we are the good guys, because we, after all, are us. Of course, as I said yesterday, in a fallen world, sometimes the good guys are wrong, badly wrong--there are African Americans named Thames in eastern Mississippi, and I don't think it's because ex-slaves moved there and admired us so much. But it is a hard lesson to absorb.

4. Nixon was right, not wrong. Presidents are good guys, we are not fools for trusting them, we should do what they say, and you should shut up. Clinton slyly--for he did much of what he did slyly--brought back the concept of executive privilege, a royalist doctrine that intentionally confuses the secrecy of spy work and the confidentiality of routine personnel matters with the desire of imperialistic presidents to operate without any review or transparency, because they do not want to be accountable to anyone.
Why would anyone besides the president himself be in favor of this? My guess is this: in Chesterton's fantastic novel, "The Man Who Was Thursday," an anarchist explains to a naive police investigator why big business ceo's would bankroll anarchists. He says, don't you understand? The poor object to being governed badly; the rich object to being governed at all. And I think maybe that's it here; in the era when major businesses have had government oversight reduced or eliminated, when taxes on the middle class have gone up and taxes on the rich have gone down, when corporate leaders' pay has risen from 20-40 times as much as the average employee to 300-400 times as much as the average employee, the rich and the aspiring rich want a role model of someone who, because they are "us," doesn't have to follow any of the rules. The factory worker or service shlub will gripe about taxes and appreciate a holiday from governance every so often--in the middle ages, that's where april fool's day came from, when the followers got to lead--but they *want* someone steering the ship, keeping them from hurting each other, but mostly keeping the rich from exploiting them without recourse.
But for the already privileged we have Alberto Gonzalez and Cheney's legal team. We suspend habeas corpus, we define certain classes of people out of the protection of the laws, we say that government or presidential or CIA activities are immune to review by congress or the courts. Do you *hear* this? This is how an American dictatorship would start. We wouldn't all suddenly vote to be communist or fascist. An American loss of freedom would have to come incrementally via someone talking us into giving up our freedoms voluntarily, in ways that "made sense" to us. Hence the Karl Rove fear card, the completely spurious "we're at war, so all rules are off" "argument," the kangaroo courts that should embarrass the military officers told to serve on them; hence Guantanamo and CIA prisons in eastern Europe and *Syria*(!) and 'you elected me to lead'. All said, if you listen closely, with a serpent's hiss.
Hello, people? Magna Carta and all that? This comes out in Bush's well, they can cut funding for the war but I'm still going to do whatever I want. Guys, that's where the English parliament came from, where democracy came from: the people getting together to keep the king from bankrupting the country by going out and waging wars of interest to no one but him personally.

And why do we think this administration likes war so much? Because in theory, at least, the army has to do what you tell it to without any discussion. These people profoundly do not believe in democracy, let alone freedom. Because democracy involves endless conversations and decisions that don't quite fully please anyone; necessarily this is so, because *good*, informed, responsible people do *not* all agree. When congress was utterly supine, the administration didn't mind telling it what to do. But there is no interest in talking substantively with anyone who does not immediately say yessuh massuh. So that rules out any meaningful domestic politics. It also rules out any meaningful or constructive foreign policy. Because the only lesson we are teaching people around the world in Iraq is, damnit when we get a bunch of really nasty military hardware, we'll make our guys go blow someone else up, and we won't explain or apologize or have to have any good reasons--just like the Americans; and, hey, no need to discuss or agree with anyone, just posture and bluff, like Bush did. It is Bush who has taught Ahmadinejad and Chavez how to behave--and, most frighteningly, has given Putin permission to act overtly like the ex-KGB man he is. There were no "weapons of mass destruction," nor did Cheney et al. care whether there were. Nation-building? Bush could not care less whether Iraq is a democracy or not, since he doesn't like democracy all that much here; and God help us, the most recent excuse, Iran's got to be resisted, is the last playing card from the boomer's experience of the 70s: let's replay and undo the Iran hostage crisis. If they take us to war there, then we really could end up in a *war*. It will take years to recover from the debacles they've talked us into already.

A word more on the other reason the administration likes war. It creates a "special situation" where regular rules don't apply. This is for domestic political purposes, mainly, not so we can win a foreign fight. We're supposed to unite behind the president, and trust him, since he knows more about the situation than we do--which is convenient, since the intense belief in secrecy and nonaccountability guarantees that no one else will have an informed opinion. It makes traitors out of people who disagree or "help the enemy"--and the Bushite official who criticized lawyers for agreeing to represent al-Qaeda and Iraqi prisoners is precisely on message for this administration. Differing from me is treason, we don't have to follow the laws, we're good guys and they're bad guys, so *we* can do anything to *them* we want, and no one can know about or ask anything or say anything about it. Guys, this is horrific: this is totalitarianism in the womb. And even if I ought to give you the benefit of the doubt on foreign affairs, it's no reason at all for me to agree with you to renew or make permanent yet another round of tax breaks for the rich or regarding excusing corporations from environmental regulations. Those have nothing to do with your war.

4. Besides, it's all just a game to them. This is the Tom DeLay / W. / Trent Lott / Karl Rove approach. Gerrymander electoral districts in the offseason, espouse racism in safe quarters, never admit you were wrong or sincerely utter an apology, lie big and repeatedly with a straight face. And when called on all this, say, hey, it's just a game, it's not that big a deal, I'm going back to a cushy private life as a wealthy person anyway, it's just politics, that's how it's played, it was fun for a while, government is just a game and doesn't really matter.

Words should fail me at this attitude of extremely cavalier privilege. So just one point. These guys are really cavalier in their attitude. How cavalier are they?

The "war on terror" is not a war. It is a nasty police action, so nasty that it requires spies and military units. But it is not a war. Osama was not trying to overthrow the US, although he wouldn't shed any tears for us. He was trying to overthrow the House of Saud. Saddam wasn't in league with bin Laden; those two hate each other. We did Osama a favor by overthrowing and killing Saddam. The war on terror is a minor outrigger of a giant four way civil war in the Muslim world between Shia and Sunni and between modernizers and medievalizers. Destroying the Taliban was reasonable as a response to 9-11, and no one, even in the muslim world, has criticized us much for that. As for the rest, it's not our deal. We have no dog in that fight. We probably should prefer the modernizers win; but we have no particular reason to prefer Shia to Sunni or vice-versa. The British and French had the good sense, in worldly terms, to watch our civil war from the sidelines, talking to both sides and financing and arming both sides. If we'd sort out nuclear energy, or spend Exxon's trillions in profit on developing hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars, or build a real transit system, we wouldn't care squat about oil, and that cynical argument about our foreign policy would just fall away. Don't tell me we can't replace oil. It's a matter of will.
But why mention our prior experience or our actual self-interest as a nation? This administration thinks that history begins with them, and that their self-interest equates to the national self-interest.

The main thing here is that the war in Iraq is not a war, not for us. For them it is, but not for us. Here's some ways to tell.
No draft.
No impact on consumer spending or availability of consumer products.
Young men are still around in the States.
World War II was a war: 10% of the US population was in the military--we'd have 30 million people in the military if that were true right now. There were no 17-34 year old men in the US for those five years. Production of civilian cars, tires, and other products was stopped. Food supplies were regulated, so that you were issued coupons for things like sugar. Women's dresses were shortened in order to save fabric (or so they said; maybe that one wasn't entirely driven by war materiel needs) and pantyhose eliminated. Americans today will only even consider supporting a war if it is one that the administration can guarantee will have no impacts on them whatsoever. It is a boutique war, like the Spanish Civil War was a dry run for World War II; a place that doesn't bother or interest us, that no sizable number of us is from, that can't possibly threaten our national security (even though that's our official rationale), where we can try out tactics and technology without having to care about outcomes very much. Something we can do with one arm tied behind our back, our attention elsewhere, and the other arm on a videogame joystick.

So it's a war with "no costs" to us, an exercise, something to do. But why do that?

War is the term used, and Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld and Bush got us in a war that would last indefinitely because they wanted an indefinite excuse for rule by secrecy and fiat, uncontested and where they could plausibly always accuse their opponents of being unpatriotic. It's more nuanced than that, I think, but not much.

Now, having said all this and been, I think, pretty clear about where I stand, here's the surprising part.

I'm happy about a few things. Bush's hegemony has broken the more aggressive and unpleasant factions in the culture wars. Now, more helpfully, it is marriage, about which a legitimate discussion is possible, not some general right to unrestricted sex with whomever whenever, which is being debated now, a different tone than during Clinton's era. Abortion rights are being restricted without, so far as I can tell, being really threatened. And Christians can out themselves in business, entertainment, and public affairs (although not yet in science) without immediately destroying their careers. These are, to me, generally positive moves that might well have occurred in healthier ways, but did, let me grant, occur under the Bush umbrella. I'm not sorry that I can voice my views without ducking.

Even there, though, this adminstration is a huge problem. For, by its blatantly and obviously Machiavellian use of religion (I can think of no significant policy evangelical Christians are in favor of that has been passed at the federal level or even seriously been considered), and the equation that has been firmly fixed in educated nonchristians' minds between Bushism and real Christianity, that I fear that nothing has so set evangelism back in decades as these people. To be associated with Christ is to be associated with them: with ugly, rude mean-spirited conflict; with an utter lack of interest in conversation, discussion, persuasion, finding common ground, or genuine appeals; and with a gloating, hardline chanting of a party line. This is horrible, and devastating to meaningful witness. Of all the numerous domestic and foreign disasters which we will finally attribute to this administration, the utter loss of credibility for Christ among nonbelievers will be one of the worst.

And yet, and yet...all is not lost, not by a long shot. My complaints, like Cheney's and Rove's machinations, are only possible because of the spoiled situation in which we find ourselves. It is such a wealthy and powerful and free and well-regulated country that it will take many an ar-Pharazon the Golden--er, Bush--to thoroughly wreck it. Americans are 60 times wealthier than Chinese, to give some perspective. Also, there are millions of believers here, some of them thoughtful and many of them caring. They cannot be led wrong forever--think Lincoln's can't fool all the people all the time. The strong and definite stands of this unnuanced administration at least give us clear examples of what to do or not do. The globalization of the world means that no one country can either fix or ruin everything. And none of this takes grace and the work of the Spirit into account. So I leave you with what came to me as I was wondering whether to even share these thoughts aloud: as Galadriel said of Samwise, Hope still lives, while the Company is true--not thoughtlessly obedient, not open-minded, not tough on crime, not unwilling to judge others: while it is *true*.


Blogger some chick said...

well, that helps partly answer the "why are so many christians assholes" question I have.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

well, yes. I didn't care for the cavalier attitude toward so many social developments in the 90s under the Clintons, but the Bushies raising a generation of unthinking automatons set on "attack" is, if possible, worse. It does remind me of two things, a truism and a command: that the church is like the ark: if it weren't for what's outside, no one could stand what's inside; and, it is really important for us to pray for *all* in power, the creeps and the statesmen, the role models and the walking disasters.

9:04 AM  
Blogger some chick said...

so i'm going to a conference at southwestern in february, and I'm staying in their conference center. when I was making the reservation, the girl asked me "are you a southern baptist?" there was this pregnant pause, and I asked "how do you define southern baptist?" and she said, "well, if you have to ask, you're probably not."

see, I don't know. I think once you're a southern baptist, they won't delete you from their rolls unless you die. the only reason I paused was because I was wondering if I answered "yes," (a) would that be truthful, and (b) would I get a discount on my room?

12:40 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

what's the conference? questions like 'are you an X?' will hopefully die off naturally.'i'm a great commission christian' was a helpful answer in the 90s, but probably not now. 'i'm a texas baptist' would probably heard as 'i hate you.' 'a baptist, but not currently a southern baptist,' might be true enough for the purpose. so what's the conference?

3:51 PM  
Blogger some chick said...

southwestern photojournalism conference. sponsored by: southwestern baptist theological seminary, southern baptist photojournalists, and christians in photojournalism. i missed it last year because we moved that weekend.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Did you see today's "Bizarro"? God or St. Peter is talking to this guy at the gates of heaven, saying, "You were a believer, yes. But you skipped the not-being-a-jerk-about-it part." Well said, regardless of the theological niceties.

10:01 AM  
Blogger John Berryhill said...


I miss reading your stuff and wait expectantly for the day you are finally published. It feels like the whole Bush enterprise is slowly caving in-partly due to strain from the war and partly to the cultic control that he strives to hold over the entire admninistration-not that I fault him necessarily-but it doesn't seem to be about dialoguing for the best options and really analyzing what has gone on and what will work best.

But as a great man once told me, leaders need to have kevlar balls!

Keep up the good thinking,

1:52 PM  

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