Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dueling Hypocrisies

Charles M. Blow writes today:
I find it curious that many of the same people who object so strenuously to the Islamic cultural center proposed for Lower Manhattan, many on the grounds that it is inappropriate and disrespectful, are virtually silent on the impropriety and disrespect inherent in Beck’s giving a speech on the anniversary of King’s address.
He really doesn't find it curious. He's a smart guy, so he understands it completely. Reverse the polarities in his condemnation of hypocrisy -- challenge the Glenn Beck critics who aren't upset about the cultural center and mosque -- and you take in a category of liberal-minded people like Charles M. Blow and get yet another reminder of the persistent and sometimes exhausting divides over what's sacred in our civic life.

That's why the Constitution comes in so handy, preserving Beck's right to speak and Muslims' to worship where they choose. How upset people get about those freely exercised rights is a different question. I find I'm upset about neither. I'll add that I'm squishy on neither the threat of Muslim fundamentalist terrorism nor the saintly heroism of Dr. King.


MK said...

That Beck held his rally August 28 certainly was his choice to make but he totally blew what he might have done with it. All in all, I don’t get what the Beck rally was all about. The idea that America needs to have a rally to “restore honor” seems strange to me. Seriously? That’s what we need? I don’t think so. And who exactly took our honor away? Nobody taken mine away, that’s for sure, I and most of us don’t give away things like that. Honor is built with difficulty, step by step, by taking the high road and facing tough facts head on. Once attained, it can’t be snatched away. The country faces a lot of difficult challenges and intractactable problems and we’re all invited to a pep rally? For what? When I was in high school, I usually skipped the pep rallies and went to the library, instead. Sometimes your fundamental characteristics do show up in high school!

OK, want a rally, want to do something on the day of Martin Luther King’s speech? Then do something with it. Seize the moment, capture the essence of what I just wrote above about honor, urge people to do better. Beck blew it. Platitudes, meh. Beck and other speakers exhorted listeners to turn to God and to protect the traditional values that have made America exceptional. Beck told people to stop focusing on the scars in our history and to focus on what makes us great. The problem is, he and his ilk have been creating new scars, with relish.

Most of all, the cable and radio demagogues have hurt our character (and diminished the commandment not to lie) by saying things that are not true. And by offering people crutches instead of showing the way to walk bravely forward. Facts and data mean less and less, feelings and emotivism are taking over. Take Beck’s comment that Obama has a deep-seated hatred to white people and white culture. None of the books about Obama bear that out (Obama’s own book, Remnick’s The Bridge, Alter’s The Promise, Heilemann's and Halperin's Game Change, Andersen’s Barack and Michelle, etc. Why didn’t Beck apologize to the President for that today? Speaking on the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech would have been a great opportunity to walk back some of the trash Beck has said and to promise to do better.

One doesn’t have to be a person of faith (which I am) to do better. The 8th step of AA – I’m not a member but have attended some meetings with a friend – tells people to make a list of all persons one has harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. The rally may have seemed as if it had good intentions – I’m not disparaging the well- meaning people who attended – but improvement can only come when people confront their scars and understand what lies beneath them. Not from feeding them feel good words and giving them pats on the head. By chosing the latter instead of the former, Beck’s shallow words failed to point to a way forward that has a strong foundation. And his failure to apologize for the harm he has caused means it will be much harder to reach the goal he set for the rally. As they say in the federal environment, implementation is everything.

Fr. John said...

Beautifully said, as always -- taking the whole question beyond the fairly simplistic point I was making.

I have a confession to make: I don't know much about Glenn Beck. I don't watch his show or read his books. Sometimes I catch a bit on the radio or YouTube, and whenever I do, I think of one of RN's favorite expressions: Thin as piss on a rock. Maybe there's something in his thought that I'm missing, but at 55 I only have so much time left to read and watch everything worth reading and watching, and so far he hasn't tempted me.

The impression I have is that he really didn't remember that it was the anniversary of Dr. King's speech. (Before this controversy, I didn't know it, either; in fact, I'm ashamed to say I thought it was April 1963.) Once he'd booked the venue, as it were, he decided not to back down. I'd have been scared off not so much because civil rights leaders were offended (the Lincoln Memorial belongs to all of us, does it not?) but because astute observers would, as you have done, compare what I said to what Dr. King did -- content, delivery, the whole ball of wax -- and find me wanting.

Here's what I'm left with, however -- and I ultimately left this off my post because I wanted to flesh it out more. Since Beck and the tea party folk aren't about the social issues, what we have going on in the U.S. is an old-fashioned (which is to say pre-1980) debate between liberals and conservatives about the role of the federal government -- and that's an appropriate and important debate. While I'm sure conservatives would rather have WFB Jr. than GB holding up their end, the point is that hundreds of thousands of people turned out. It was platitudes, sure. But they turned out.

Thanks for your comment!

MK said...

Yeah, I agree, they turned out. Which means they're looking for something. Too bad they got such thin gruel. To some extent, some of them, although most of them seem to be on the right rather than the left, may even have been motivated by some of the same things that motivated some voters to vote for Obama. The thing is, our political system totally punishes those who might talk straight with them, regardless of party.

No, Beck isn't going to offer solutions. No explanations as to what to do about Social Security and Medicare. What does "take our country back" mean, anyway? Reducing the role of government to national defense and foreign policy activities, only? Going back to the days when seniors depended on their children and grandchildren to house them and help with their medical bills? And family's dire financial circumstances acted as de facto "death panels?" If Beck's fans want that, they can work for that. If they don't, they need to look for other ways to resolve the demographic pressures and the revenue and outlay imbalance. I've yet to hear Beck offer sensible solutions! Nor, I have to say, any of his fans that I see commenting on the Interwebs. I credit some of them with good intentions but few resources (or the backbone) to do more than applaud easy cheer lines.

What about unemployment? Can the GOP or the Democrats do much about it? Not when the reason companies aren't hiring is because more Americans are holding tightly on to their wallets than they did during the last 25 years. Our economy depended far too much on consumption and debt for the last 3 decades. David Brooks has written beautifully about "economic immaturity" and how too many people ran up too much debt, personally and in how they voted, since 1980.

Are voters taking responsibility for how they over consumed and how they voted? Not many that I've heard so far. Yet another reason I dismiss the platitudes about turning to old, traditional values. The ones I value most -- don't lie, and face up to what you've done -- are likely continue to be ignored, as long people turn out for Beck and his ilk. Beck sets the bar too low while reaching for rhetoric he himself undermines, along with the Limbaughs. Unlike Dr. King's, his rally can't move the country forward. Beck never will pen a poignant Letter from Birmingham Jail or speak of real suffering, no matter how much he reaches for the victim card so beloved by many on the right. (And no, I'm not a fan of the Oblermans and the Michael Moores on the other side, either).

So glad you're blogging again, gives me some good stuff to read!

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. Could it be -- I'm just thinking out loud here, jacked up on Border's coffee and procrastinating on finishing the book I'm using for a Sunday morning class -- that we've actually lost the capacity to have these debates without speaking in code?

For instance, Paul Krugman has been arguing for months for another stimulus. Will it work? Dunno. The British are doing austerity and got about a 1.5% growth rate last quarter. We spent a trillion we don't have and achieved about the same thing.

I think (just guessing) that Krugman actually thinks it's better when government does more things all the time. So he argues that we need more stimulus or else. There's a world view lurking behind the policy recommendation.

Same with the Beck/TP crowd, but the other way around. As you probably know, the current "New Yorker" has an article by Jane Mayer about how the Koch brothers' money is behind many of these supposedly grassroots manifestations. Nearly pure libertarians (though they take their share of federal largesse), they want drastic reductions in the size, scope, and size of government. So there's a whole policy system lurking (literally -- the Kochs aren't just below the radar, Mayer says; they're underground) behind Beck's sermons about God and country.

From what I've read of the British press, they're better than we in striping away the posturing and talking about economic policy as such.

MK said...

Yes, interesting about the financial support, isn’t it? Frank Rich devotes a column to it today (“The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party”).

Rich says that in the past, when past presidents faced such activities as the Koch brothers now support, they fought back fiercely. As Rich suggests, that may be related to temperament, certainly. But it also is important to keep in mind that that was when it still was possible to appeal to a pretty big group of people by saying, “do the right thing.” As the rewarded style of public discourse has worsened, the ability reach people by arguing for a moral compass has diminished over the last 15-20 years.

What Rich overlooks is that nowadays there is a machine (the opinion side of Fox News, right wing radio opinionators and bloggers) that thrives on victimology. (The left uses other tactics, including righteousness; it isn't as heavily into victimology.) Instead of hanging one’s head in shame when called out on questionable actions, the target screams, “they’re racist!” or “they’re trying to suppress my First Amendment rights” or “they hate America!” Instead of pushing back and saying, "wait a minute, the ends don't justify the means," many listeners applaud and cheer.

Implicit in Beck’s call for a return to God and traditional values yesterday was an image of America where values have corroded. But it’s the move away from fact-based reasoning, rejection of "The Golden Rule," and the dogged refusal to be shamed by one’s own actions that worries me more about American politics than what speakers at Beck's rally seem to see as moral decay.

Curiously, one of the factors that led me to start worrying that “do the right thing” no longer has the resonance that it once did was my inability to get anyone at The New Nixon to debate ethical issues with me after you left. (As you know very well, I did not assume that old Nixonites were incapable of that. More than anyone else, I've argued against cartoonish stereotypes, even of RN, and for outreach and engagement.)

Before I gave up altogether on Rev. Stokes and his fellow bloggers at the TNN site this past May, I tried under various essays by different writers to draw them into discussions about ethics and values. Those issues interest me because everyone has to face them to some degree in their workplace or family life. See
comments under Stokes's Nixon blog essay about Christopher Cox No one ever responded, except for the author of a book about the Vietnam War (he and I had a good chat under a blog essay someone else had put up at TNN. The TNN blogger who put up the essay never joined in).

In the end, I came to feel I might just as well be on another planet as in an America that I'm still convinced the TNN bloggers and Beck's followers and people such as I love equally well. That I couldn't get the post-Taylor TNN bloggers to "talk" to me at the blog taught me a lot about the enormity of the gulf that divides many citizens in this nation. It's really too bad, because most of us do love America. But there just seem to be so many barriers to looking at each other as fellow Americans regardless of whether we're on the right, left, or, as I am, in the center. Too many people are vested in an approach in which ideology is conflated with character and morality, in a way that actually weakens national character.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. So as Nixon discovered in the corrosive politics of his time, and as you've persuasively argued about ours, it's lonely at the center!

Looking back, the decision to create a conservative cable channel disguised as a news channel was a pretty big move. Whether it signaled a greater polarization or caused it, I'm not sure. I actually think the latter. I do think the center will become fashionable again. It did after 1994, though nobody quite called it that; and it may again after the next midterm.

Another big factor is President Obama's big-government moves, some of which, I understand, were thrust on him. I never thought he had a liberal-progressive mandate, but then again, I'm an incrementalist by nature, and nobody ever got onto Mt. Rushmore by being an incrementalist.

This isn't the place for me to comment on the Nixon foundation. I created TNN (which no longer exists as such) to be a watering hole about all things Nixonian and hoped there would be plenty of lively, friendly give and take. I probably did 2,000 entries when I was there and am glad you think I entered into the spirit of the thing.

MK said...

Thanks so much! Yes, the center can be lonely. I totally understand why you can't comment on the Nixon Foundation. Just as I can't comment on some things the government does. I do think you entered into the spirit of things very well, as regards your blogging at TNN. Indeed, I've cited your efforts to others as exemplary, both in the thought you put into your postings, the honorable way you posted corrections (you never deleted corrective suggestions), and the friendly way you engaged with readers.

Yes, I know the TNN site no longer exists. The version of the Nixon blog now at the Foundation's site seems to be designed to discourage engagement. The essays are hard to read (too much is buried under the jump and it's impossible to tell from the top page if any comments were posted. Actually, although comments were accepted earlier this summer, for some time, essays have been posted at the site now with "comments closed." I rarely read any of the essays and have never commented, even when comments were being accepted. I have cited some of the essays to archiviss to show how things look to some of the people associated with former presidents' foundations. I've moved on from trying to engage with the folks who still blog there, they can go their way, I'll go mine! The Episonixonian is a much better fit for me.