08 June 2007

Friday PS: 'Who makes you hear the dog whistle?'

Yesterday I was marveling at the disparate reactions to the death of Jerry Falwell. And today, through a series of rabbit trails that began with Street Corner Society, I read Joshua Micah Marshall's reflections on our visceral reactions to particular presidents and candidates. (The immediate occasion was his own revulsion to candidate Mitt Romney's perceived phoniness.)

Marshall's example from recent history is worth quoting: "Setting aside all the GOP noise machine blizzard against Bill Clinton, there was clearly a certain kind of person who couldn't hear Bill Clinton's voice without thinking he was a two-faced, lying, phoney, say-anything whatever. A lot of that was people who hated him for his politics. A lot of it was because of propaganda for the right. But not all of it. There's a cultural-political tuning fork out there." Or more than one tuning fork, each with a resonant crowd already tuned to dislike person A, and perhaps therefore receive person Anti-A uncritically.

I can't help thinking: let's get back to basics. We all belong to the same species, we're all mixtures of confidence and uncertainty, we all calibrate our non-negotiable core values and our tolerance for compromise, albeit no two of us probably have the same settings. I don't want to base my political choices on shared political tuning forks; I want to know what specific ways my candidate is going to strengthen our community, reduce vulnerabilities, defend genuine freedom, uphold civil discourse, and increase transparency.

And I want to stay alert enough that the millions of dollars the candidates will spend on "perception management" will be wasted. I want a president with both competence and a genuine ethical center, not a beautiful story of redemption. Time and time again, our redeemed current president has coasted on that beautiful story of redemption, and the credibility it earned him with those who were desperate for the soap of sanctified rectitude to wash away the memories of Clinton's Oval Office escapades. How else do you explain evangelical Christians not raising bloody hell over
  • a war begun with a carefully planned, deceitful marketing plan, and conducted with corruption and lethal incompetence at the cost of thousands of lives and the displacement of huge populations
  • a "take off the gloves" attitude toward the Geneva Conventions and other fragile, hard-won principles of international law and collective security, not to mention bedrock democratic values such as due process (today, the Italian judiciary, in trying CIA agents in absentia for kidnapping and "extraordinary rendition," is defending principles that we seem to have abandoned)
  • simpering cultivation of tyrants who are of perceived strategic use to us, even if their countries threaten to execute Christian converts or forbid evangelism, while we practice arrogance to the rest of the world...?
What spell has Bush cast over these believers, and are they in the process of waking up? Poll numbers do give me some hope.

That tuning fork Marshall refers to cannot be fooled by fakes. I'm convinced that George Bush is the believer he says he is, and that this is an important part of his resonance. Personally, I'd rather have a principled atheist as president than a warmhearted Christian whose actual practice, as it turns out, is astoundingly amoral. But who says those are the only choices? Many of the people who want to believe in Bush are genuinely concerned that the Democratic party, for example, is wickedly and corrosively anti-spiritual, has no roots in traditional values, is wholly at the beck and call of affluent dilettantes, and is not invested in the lives of ordinary people. I know thoughtful Quakers who actually believe this. Clinton's playing fast and loose with personal gratification on company time seemed to prove their point; and no amount of earnest policy-pushing by Hillary can probably change that association. Those who believed in Bush, even the disillusioned ones, won't be persuaded by glamor. But, as always, the problem is the problem: Are tuning forks and dog whistles going to decide our elections, or are people going to ask about the specific ways the candidates will strengthen our national and international community, and whether their claims are believably centered in ethical commitment?

Our mass media won't help. Observers of Russia continue to bemoan the death of the free press in Russia, comparing Russia's complicated reality unfavorably with American ideals, while American reality is a press that is astoundingly uncritical of our own administration. Astoundingly! Even National Public Radio, which at least has a sober tone to its broadcasts, thinks that its job is basically to read White House statements, and the statements of other leaders, without doing any reality testing. The vilification of Iran is a great example: when was the last time any mainstream news broadcast actually looked at the actual country of Iran rather than repeating the snarly assessments of American officialdom?

And today's The World, via our local NPR station, reported on the bipartisan consensus that it would be irresponsible not to plan for the possibility of Iranian ballistic missiles. End of story. Doesn't anyone question why we should not be building similar bases everywhere in the world--filling the whole world with such anti-missile defenses? After all, in the span of a generation, the minimum it would seem to require for Iran to build such missiles, another country might well replace it in the US-designated Axis of Evil. A lot can happen in that length of time! It would be irresponsible to assume that such technologically advanced countries as Pakistan or Brazil might not be the next designee, or that Iran might figure out how to launch its missiles from some other location. Trying to fend off the whole world sounds like a fast path to imperial unsustainability, but who's asking?

If you get these posts through a blog feed service such as bloglines, you may notice that old posts sometimes get sent out as though they were new. When that happens, it means I've updated an old post, usually because of a dead link. I don't know how to do those revisions without having them become reissued that way.

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