Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week
In the lead article for this week's New Republic, Rick Perlstein has a very good sentence: "Rove knows that the pleasure of watching liberals' heads explode is the best way to keep his team rowing together." It reminds me that I've never been able to figure out completely the breakdown of responsibility between those who commit evil and those who elicit it. I'm clear that the former have a heavier responsibility. But, how much heavier? The overweening vice of those who see themselves as liberals is indignation. They love to be indignant. It's the reason that, though I sometimes take positions that are seen as liberal, I've never been able to think of myself as being a liberal. I don't have the requisite indignation. It's a bad trade-off to indulge one's indignation to the point that it gives right-wingers an advantage with the general public. But that's what liberals have been doing for the past thirty years. One thing people ought to get straight in their heads is that just because they support sensible political positions, it doesn't, necessarily, make them good people. There are lots of faults in this world other than political faults. Helping Karl Rove and other right-wing manipulators win elections by responding indignantly to their taunting is not virtue. It would be more fun to cause right-wing heads to explode, and more virtuous too.
Back when I was in graduate school, Willis Robertson, Pat's daddy, was widely spoken of as the dumbest man in the Senate. Remembering that got me to wondering who deserves the accolade today. I can't be perfectly sure, of course, but if I were forced to put forward a candidate, I think I would name Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida. With respect to the upcoming vote in the Senate over whether to push a constitutional amendment making it a crime to burn a flag, here's what Martinez said: "People place great importance in symbols of national unity." I don't know what national unity is, or why we should be making laws about it. But, surely, if there's widespread burning of flags, then there is no national unity, however it's defined. Does Mr. Martinez think that if we throw people in jail who are so fed up with the government's policies they will burn flags to show their disgust, that, somehow, national unity will emerge? Logic would suggest just the opposite. But I guess we have to be sympathetic to people like Martinez. There is no conceivable moral argument for justifying legal punishment for burning a piece of cloth. So if a person wants such a law, he's pretty well limited to making nonsensical statements.We can be pretty sure, by the way, that if the Senate puts the amendment forward there will be lots more flag-burning than if they, atypically, turned attention to the nation's problems. Could that be their secret goal? Might Mel Martinez be a closeted flag pyromaniac?
In Slate, Russell Cobb says there no reason, at the moment, to fear a theocratic ascendancy because the right-wing usurpers of Christianity have taken to fighting among themselves. For example, James Dobson of Focus on the Family said recently that the campaign by the National Association of Evangelicals to reduce greenhouse gases reflects "an underlying hatred for America." It's always good to see loony people oppose one another but I don't think we have to rely on the internal fusses of fundamentalists to escape being panicked by them. The religious stance of these groups is not what threatens democratic health. Rather, it's the educational condition of their members, an orientation that makes them highly manipulable by smarmy politicians. If they were better-read and more thoughtful, they would see that the doctrines preached by their leaders are generally anti-Christian and are driven by little more than a small-minded tribal nationalism. Liberals need to learn there's nothing to fear from Christians who are actually Christian and, therefore, to engage them respectfully about Christian morality. The more that's done, the less the influence of puffed up public relations men who go on TV and spout off about their own goodness and the need for Americans to kill all the bad people in the world.
In American political culture we have had always bizarre and unbalanced characters. But there is reason to suspect now that we have more than the past has ever offered. There are numerous voices calling on the attorney general of the United States to seek indictments for treason against the managers and journalists of the New York Times. Is this merely overheated rhetoric or do men like Jim Bunning and Peter King actual mean what they say? Do they understand that treason is an offense that can be committed only in time of war and that though there is much loose talk about the nation being at war, no war has been declared through a constitutional process? Do they imagine what would happen if the editors of the New York Times were brought into court and charged with treason? Can they believe that national security would be enhanced by the fervid protests that would break out over acts that would have to be perceived as rank tyranny? We can hope they are merely grumpy guys making silly talk. But sometimes talk this silly can lead to actions even more ridiculous, and to projection into a descending spiral even steeper than the one the nation has already entered.
There appear to be increasing doubts about the American belief that we can kill our way to national paradise. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said recently "that it's clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force." Furthermore, evidence continues to emerge that the American way of killing is astoundingly expensive. Last week, military spokesmen testified to Congress that merely maintaining the vehicles we have transported to Iraq and Afghanistan will cost nearly twenty billion dollars each year. It may be, gradually, penetrating the mind of the American public, that trying to have our way by guns and bombs is costing more than any possible returns we can receive. And it cannot have failed to occur to our enemies that the best way to bring down the United States is to goad it into launching military assaults. It could be time to try other methods. But where the courage to insist on them will come from isn't yet apparent. Congress, at the moment, doesn't seem up to the task.
ABC's The Note yesterday laid out the main features of the upcoming Republican campaign. It can best be described as the Yahoo strategy, that is, it is designed to appeal to the most poorly educated, most bigoted elements of the population. It presents the Democrats with a huge problem because conventional political wisdom says that no politician can ever, ever admit that this country has a Yahoo element. Therefore, Democrats can't strike at the genuine nature of the Republican campaign. The problem is deepened by the press's infatuation with what works, independent of its truth or its long-term effects on the nation. This is the reason Karl Rove is consistently lauded as a genius. That he's also a slime ball is in the eyes of the press no drawback. The Democrats' best strategy probably is to drive a wedge between the two elements of the Republicans by continuing to point out that most rich people and in particular rich Republicans care nothing for the well-being of people who are barely scraping by. That message may be beginning to have some effect. A study recently found that Wal-Mart women -- you can figure out who they are -- 85 % of whom voted for Bush in 2004, are beginning to turn against him because they see that his policies aren't helping them take care of their families. We can hope that kind of eye-opening continues, because without the Wal-Mart women, Bush and his cronies are nowhere.
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