Me the People

Don’t call me The American People.  Not unless you mean it.  And not unless I hear a compliment when I hear you say it instead of a subtle reference to “typical voters who share my narrow,  profit-mongering,  and religiously backward view of America.”

 Mitch McConnell. the turtlefaced Senate minority leader with a heart of mould, says The American People will not be fooled “this time around” by tax and spend Democrats. Eric Cantor says The American People want a balanced budget–just like they expect to have every month when they make decisions about eating out at restaurants or paying the mortgage (Odd equivalence that: eating at Denny’s once a month and health care for the poor).

     Michele Bachmann, the intelligent Christian’s Sarah Palin surrogate,  says the American people deserve to keep what they earn and that the Income Tax Amendment (that’s XVI if you’re counting) is unconstitutional. In fact, in an extraordinary moment last week, she said that The American People had decisively spoken in her favor at the Iowa caucus where she received 28% of 17,000 votes, a number comparable to a high school election for student council president. Sarah Palin, when she was interesting, said she was in touch with The American People and knew what they wanted–in language only a little reminiscent of what an employee of Shady Lady Ranch in Nye, Nevada,  might say.

The Democrats aren’t blameless, of course.  They use this fustian  all the time. Just like having to wear flag pins in their lapel and sing “God Bless America” on cue, they have to counter references to the American People with references to the American People. But I have to say that when they do, there seems to be at least a glimmer of  good intent to it–an evocation of “real people” who do their own laundry and have to check their bank balance before getting the car fixed, rather than people, like the Tea Party crowd, who actually enjoy wearing jackets and ties and going to church.  Alas, many people who do their own laundry and wear wife beaters on Sunday while they enjoy a football game on their 72 inch HDTV (fully paid up in 18 months)  actually think the well-pressed set on the links are the best ones to look out for their welfare.  The American People is a many-splintered thing,

$12.95, a small price to be an American

    

I think it boils down to this: when the Democrats use the phrase, they are actually referring to other people. When the Repblicans use it, they mean themselves and the like-minded individuals they play golf with. The American People need to wake up and smell the difference.

And why do they use it–or rather, why do the Republicans use the phrase to the point of making me want to burn a flag using campaign posters of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell as kindling?

Because they can’t say “God.”  Oh sure, certified evangelical nutters like Rick Perry can get away with talking about Christian America and what God has done for the country and how The American People are basically decent and good (implication: because they are Christian and know who to thank for that).

But a politician who spoke about God all the time would probably lose people’s attention after a while, even in this preternaturally religious country.  “I ask my colleagues to pass this Deregulation of Oil Companies bill without delay because it’s what God demands and what Jesus would do” sounds a little tetched after all.  Better to say, “What the American People want and the American People deserve.”  Say it often enough and the association will become natural: two wills happily joined in political wedlock, incarnate in We the People.  It all sounds pretty good until you look at the priesthood that presides over this “secular” sanctuary.  We the People are no more recognizable from their invocations than God is in the prayers of pedophile priests.

     

Can we do anything about this, or will we just have to put up with the cynical use of our collective name (and will) being taken in vain? After all, we put them there, and we permit the sacrilege to go on.

Maybe the fatal flaw in the argument for the wisdom of The American People is the tsunami called the 2010 Mid-term election.  Unlike God in the official theology, We the People are sometimes impatient, dumb, and prone to make mistakes that injure us.  It was fine when We the People were Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton speaking for acquiescent farmers and merchants.  Not so good when We are Perry, Romney, Boehner, and Bachmann framing ideas for suits, corporate thieves, the merely uninformed and NASCAR reactionaries.

But unlike the real God (or unreal god) who gets invoked all the time, I think the (real) American People, hapless and reckless beasts that we are,  deserve better.  Stop treating us like ancient deities who just need a little incense on the fire, a sheaf of burning wheat, a few prayers, and an occasional virgin-sacrifice to keep us happy. Stop thinking you know what We want–or worse, being so priestly in the discharge of your duties that you think that what you want and what we want is the same thing.  Clearly it isn’t, and just as clearly the polls say that The American People would like to round you up and  drive you out of town.  But because it’s expensive for us to keep the buildings open and pay the heating bill, we have to vote for more of you in 2012, just to keep the People’s House occupied. Taxes my axes.

I suggest a national The American People Won’t be Appeased, Bought, Cajoled or Lied To campaign before this election cycle renders the phrase meaningless.

I‘ll be happy to serve as president of this coalition.  I think the American People deserve that.   You can thank me later for my service.

Convictions are Killing Us

"One Nation, in Jesus' Name, with God's Justice for all."

The second Republican presidential debate confirmed all suspicions that we are confronted by intellectual pygmies vying for the chiefdom of the American tribes.

The promised entry of Rick Perry into the race, and if we’re lucky (and her van stops long enough for her to make further wowsers about American history) Sarah Grizzly-Mom Palin, won’t substantially raise the intellectual ante or the tone of discussion.

"The British are coming! Oh, you are British..."

What all of these aspirants have in common besides being emblematic of how easy it is to succeed  in American politics  is that all claim to have convictions. Lots of  ’em

We’ve all seen small candidates in our time.  We’ve even seen an amazingly stupid underachiever hold on to the office of president for eight interminable years, once presumably because he won the election. But we’ve never seen it this bad.

And the reason we’ve never seen it this bad is because three, at least, of the wannabes keep talking about their convictions–not ideas, but beliefs they hold doggedly and think other Americans, as Americans, should hold them too.

Some of these convictions are religious. Some are economic, and some are social.  But their classification doesn’t matter: there is no high falutin’ epistemology involved in having these core convictions, because,  according to this troop, convictions are what made America great and what keeps America going–one nation under God, in whom we trust.

In the Republican debate, when she wasn’t just venting gas about making Obama a One Term President, an idea overwhelming in its piscatorial crassness, Michele Bachmann said a number of times that she  has more convictions than any of her competitors.  “I have demonstrated leadership and the courage of my convictions to change Washington, stop wasteful spending, lower taxes, put Americans back to work and turn our economy around….”

She also has convictions about lightbulbs, fuel emissions, gays, the “unborn,” as she sepulchrally calls fetuses, the nature of marriage, and a dozen other things that flow from her weird teaology.

Michele Bachmann and some of her two dozen foster convictions

She’s doubly dangerous because like a lot of people with convictions, she can’t admit when she’s wrong: take the “Our founding fathers worked night and day to abolish slavery”- comment.  Not only historically outlandish but perverse in her attempt to defend her wrongness.  The “founding father” she tried to name (9 years old at independence and 19 when the Constitutional convention was convened) was the son of a real founding father whose views on God, religion and the Bible Michele Bachmann would find disturbing, if not incomprehensible.

On Saturday, the cast of this folies bizzare will be joined by an aging fraternity lout who is not only unimpressed by the concept of separation of church and state but frankly can’t bother to make the distinction.

That would be a scandalous posture if most Americans cared a farthing about the Constitution, but polls have repeatedly shown that if the document were up for grabs today it wouldn’t look much like the Enlightenment icon we possess, warty amendments, like the Eighteenth, and all.

No one really wants to contemplate what a President Perry would say if a committee of Pentecostal ministers suggested  amending “We the People” to “We the Christian People of the United States,” or putting a tasteful cameo of Jesus in the center of our currency to mark us out as a holy nation of God-fearers, beloved and protected by the Almighty.

Two of the contenders, Romney and Huntsman, are Mormons, a group so strange in its beliefs that the best that can be said about them is that they aren’t scientologists. The remainder, in  shades of ecclesial gray are simply losers, though “Rick” Santorum is also a religious nutcase and Catholic pro-life extremist who refuses to attend any Masses that aren’t in Latin.

In additon to the six children Santorum holds up as proof of his commitment to the Gospel of Life, his wife Karen in 1996 gave birth to a son (Gabriel Michael) when she was twenty weeks pregnant. The dead fetus (born with a closed posterior urethral valve) was brought home and “introduced” to the other children as their brother.  The couple slept with the fetus overnight before returning it to the hospital the next day.  The story is told in lurid detail by Michael Sokolove in his 2005 New York Times Magazine feature “The Believer.”  In the same piece, Santorum is quoted as saying that in his view George W. Bush was the first “Catholic president of the United States,” and that John F. Kennedy “shed his Catholicism.”  Convictions.

The Republican race for the nomination is not about choosing the most qualified candidate but about trying to determine who’s the least crazy.

Unfortunately, the American people have a huge appetite for crazy–prime time Jersey Shore and Biggest Loser crazy. Their political focus on winners and losers, American idol-style, is so far removed from the debates, the ideas, the burning issues that formed the republic that history is only considered a distraction, and a boring one at that.  I can easily imagine viewers who wondered if, at the end of the debate, the participants would be called over in small groups by Tyra Banks.  In my mind, she’s wearing something silky in red, white and blue, with dangly silver star earrings:  “Jon, you’ve got a lot of talent. I really expected you to shine out there tonight.  But you just didn’t come through. Your sentences were too long and I just felt you were holding back.” —Or maybe that wouldn’t be a worse process than the one we have.

We liked your number--we really did--but you just didn't, you know...

As it is, in the discounted political process we’re stuck with, convictions matter more than facts and looking decisive carries more weight than being right. The media calls it optics.  Winners and losers are determined by how tenaciously wrong opinions and worthless convictions can be defended.  Who cares when John Quincy Adams lived?  It’s my conviction that my contempt for pro-choice Americans is the real American value: end of story. The optics of conviction-holding may be the most serious threat democracy has ever faced.

There are certainly things that disappoint me about Barack Obama. But I sense that he wouldn’t lie to me about history, or claim to know something for certain that he doesn’t know.  Maybe that comes from his being a college lecturer, or just a nice guy, since truth-telling and history were not his predecessor’s strong suit.

But unless history proves me wrong (and not his slanderers) Obama is as close as we’re likely to get in the twenty-first century to a politician still in touch with the spirit of the founders, still interested in the American experiment as an experiment and a work in progress.  As a matter of experience he understands that America isn’t finished.  As a matter of dogma, his opponents believe that America reached its pinnacle of perfection in some golden age, whose mythical history they have substituted for the far messier but real story of America’s past.

That “scholarly,” tentative view of democracy as an idea in need of exploration and improvement is a dangerous one in Rick Perry’s done-deal Exceptional America, where God is king, presidents are his stewards, and only men with strong religious convictions are entitled to serve.

The political free fall in which we find ourselves is frightening enough without the supernatural maps being offered by the Republican horde.  This is too far down the road from John Kennedy’s most famous dictum about religion for any of us to feel complacent: ”I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” Where did we make that wrong turn? And where did these guides come from?

What Arab Spring?

I’ve just read a WSJ interview by James Taranto with (who else)  Paul Wolfowitz–“Wolfie” to his friends. That’s right, the guy who had the distinction of working under two Bush’s and two US defense secretaries–Dick Cheney (under George I) and Donald Rumsfeld (under George II) is now looking for a spotlight and a microphone.

Presumably his two disastrous stints in government, the ones that brought us au cours  the beginnings of the Iraq conflict under H.W. and everything else under W. (including a strategy for “finishing what we started”) gives him the right to be quoted.  That’s why Cheney and his elves are making the talk show rounds, trying to find enough crumbs of recognition to make a real piece of pie before the Democrats take it all.

In the interview, Wolfowitz claims that Obama missed the clear signals of the Arab spring. If you missed it too, this is the period that lasted for 28 days in March and April of 2011 before turning into just another sandstorm.

Unable to lecture on the “War of Terror” in the light of last week’s killing of Osama bin Laden, Wolfowitz thinks this is credible change of topic, a technique he perfected in  his attempts to convince a sleepy and perpetually dumb American electorate that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were really co-conspirators in 9-11, maybe even the same “tearist.”

“Egypt we just bungled completely,” he adds. “I mean, our position was always three days behind whatever was actually going on.” As for Syria, “we’ve failed under both [the Bush and Obama] administrations to recognize how hostile [Bashar] Assad is to everything we want to accomplish in that region,” even when Assad backed foreign fighters killing American soldiers in Iraq. “Now he’s clearly declared himself as an enemy of his own people. At the very least, symbolism matters, and the symbolism of leaving an American ambassador in Damascus. . . . He should have been out a long time ago.  Then there’s Libya…”

Here’s a radical thought.  The reason the United States has not reacted decisively to the Arab Spring is because there isn’t one.  There are only disaggregated movements that can’t be put together into any coherent pattern.     There is instability.  There is agitation. There is unrest and dissatisfaction.  But Peter Cottontail and American style democracy are not waiting to hop on stage.

No one knows what the Egyptians are after beyond wanting–having wanted–regime change (which btw Wolfowitz and his bosses were notoriously poor in providing once the dust of invasions had settled). We now know that even during the headiest moments of the “pro-democracy” gatherings in Tahrir Square, 300 demonstrators were hand raping an American reporter in full view of the crowds.  It just doesn’t have that Lexington and Concord feel, does it?

The latest news out of Egypt suggests that before elections are held, the army will act like any army and rule with its boots when areas of conflict threaten public peace.  When they don’t want to intervene, they won’t.

That’s what’s happening right now with Coptic Christians and Muslims, over what might have been a minor incident under Mubarak. The violence started with rumours that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim had been abducted and was being held in a Coptic church. Crowds of Muslims marched to the church and hundreds of Christians gathered to defend it. So far, six people on each side have been killed.

Protective of its numbers, the Copts are hated by the conservative Salafi movement who as recently as last month paraded through sections of Cairo waving placards of Osama bin Laden. (This despite Mr Wolfowitz’s express statement:  “I don’t know of a single instance of these Arab freedom fighters holding up pictures of bin Laden. I know many instances of them displaying American flags in Benghazi or painting ‘Facebook’ on their foreheads in Cairo.”  It is good that Mr Wolfowitz’s current remit doesn’t require him to review events on the ground.

On the ground reports are grim, and almost all agree that  300,000 protesters plus one swallow doesn’t make a spring:

“…Increasing hostility toward Egypt’s Coptic Christians over the past few months has met with little interference from the country’s military rulers…. Salafis have been blamed for other recent attacks on Christians and others they don’t approve of. In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman suspected of involvement in prostitution.”

Looking at the total situatiion, Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gind says that “Egypt has already become a nation in danger.”  What would Wolfie have done that wasn’t done? Invade Tunisia?

Putting Wolfowitz’s Egypt to one side, has spring really arrived in Libya? Or would it be fairer to say that no one knows what the end game is, what the prize is, who the rebels are, or why the United States, France and NATO decided on this as a cause célèbre. Has Obama’s circumspection (France taking the lead in a military operation, Printemps en effet!) been just another case of the “tone deafness” his critics accused him of, until April 30th.  Or is it an expression of something more rare? Brains, for example.

Sure, Muammar Gaddafi is despicable.  But he has been despicable for forty plus years (he came to power in 1969).  He was despicable when he acquiesced in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.  When he ordered the assassination of his enemies abroad. When he bombed discotheques in Berlin.

As to the rebels, the story used to be that what began as peaceful protests erupted into violence when Gaddafi got tough.  The rebels had no choice but to fight back.  The reality is that there has been a steady stream of Muslims from Somalia and other African states into Benghazi (filling a vacuum created by the removal of all government offices to Tripoli) and that the fastest growing sect in the region (known more familiarly as “the rebel stronghold”) is Salafism, which is at the root of conflict in Somalia as well as in Cairo.

We also know that in recent months the rebels have been studying western media, jotting down buzz-words that European leaders like to see in press releases–words like, freedom, equality, democracy, peaceful change–those sorts of words.  Rather than being caught in a doomed situation, where anti-American and anti-Western extremists are certainly among the fighters the allies have now promised to protect, Obama played the steady hand of minimizing US involvement.  It’s just what he should have done.  But it is intriguing to wonder, What would Wolfie do?

Inspirational sermon by Salafi Muslim, Zarqa (Jordan), April 15

Gaddafi has been able to get by with murder by paying his way back to respectability to the tune of a 3 billion-dollar compensation package to be used to compensate relatives of the Lockerbie bombing victims and assorted other casualties of attacks on American citizens.  Who approved it? Who was the broker? Paul Wolfowitz’s boss. George W. Bush, in tribute,  signed an Executive Order (13477) restoring the Libyan government’s immunity from terror-related lawsuits and dismissing all of the pending compensation cases. The man who said he would “get” bin Laden dead or alive and then immediately lost track of him, was all about forgive and forget when oil was involved.

Does this mean that if only bin Laden had had the sense to negotiate, his sins could have been forgiven for a cool trillion?  We will never know because George W. Bush was no longer dealing, and Wolfie had moved on to the American Enterprise Institute to defend his failed ideas for a safer, stronger all-American world.

After praising Morocco (where spring supposedly began, and not typical of anything that has happened since) Wolfowitz says that Obama “bungled” the stirrings of democratic rebellion in Iran and has been slow to capitalize on what’s unfolding in Syria: “Now [Assad’s] clearly declared himself as an enemy of his own people. At the very least, symbolism matters, and the symbolism of leaving an American ambassador in Damascus. . . . He should have been out a long time ago.”

Perhaps he should have been out when he presided over the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and a liberal-reformer by Lebanese standards, during the presidency of George W. Bush in 2005.  The assistant defense secretary who looked on in astonishment and without recourse to any plan when Hariri was blown to bits outside the St George’s Hotel in Beirut was Paul Wolfowitz.

Two years earlier, in 2003, Wolfowitz’s superior, Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Why shouldn’t we go against Iraq, not just al-Qaeda?” According to reports, Wolfowitz claimed that Iraq was a “brittle, oppressive regime that might break easily—it was doable.”  While Wolfowitz states his skepticism about interventions in the WSJ article, his reputation belies any such caution:  In the famous Seymour Hersh exposé (“Donald Rumsfeld Has His Own Special Sources. Are they reliable?” The New Yorker, May 12, 2003) Wolfowitz is depicted as being the cowboy who viewed Afghanistan as swamp and Iraq as the way to get public attention off the losing campaign to find bin Laden. “There’s no way to go too fast. Faster is better.”

According to Hersh, “little effort to provide the military and economic resources” necessary for reconstruction was made.”  What Wolfie cared about was making the case for weapons of mass destruction and convincing the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States that that America was committed to the defense of Israel at all costs–whatever unraveled as a consequence of imprudent action.

Barack Obama was famous before he became famous as the fastest gun in Abbottobad for calling Paul Wolfowitz an ideologue. Some insults just can’t be forgiven. Now that the surgical strike that should have happened ten years ago has happened, the lean and hungry Republicans are circling, growling that torture works, sneering that we were right to go into Iraq (Q: “Who would argue that the world isn’t better off without Saddam Hussein?”A: “Many of the mothers who lost children–4000 before Mission Accomplished and about the same number, under Bush, since.”) and that no matter what people think of Obama today, he’ll be proved a bungler tomorrow.  This is the message of hope being preached by survivors of the last administration.

And it’s got to be true: Just look at how he’s missing all these clues about springtime in Arabia.

Arrest This Man

And his little Dove, too. With predictable ghoulish clarity, the American media is goading the Reverend Terry Jones to follow through with his Koran bonfire on September 11th, while politicians (both kinds) and religious leaders of all stripes are urging him not to do it.

Of course, there is no story if he doesn’t do it–and media hate that. And if it’s called off he will be called a coward for capitulating to the “supporters” of a religion he has t-shirted as “of the Devil.” Jones has stated that if Jesus was alive he would light the first match. And he has said, as all cultic leaders do, that a gunfight with the police wouldn’t faze him and his followers: “We’re prepared to die for what we believe in.” Echoes of another Jones, another catastrophe.

Mr Jones is all the usual cultic suspects rolled into one. He is a gay-basher, a hate-monger, and a crusader for the old time religious value of intolerance.

He founded the Dove World Outreach Center as a front for his hate-inducing sermons and grandstanding.

He is a Christian Triumphalist with a clear millennial vision, which he saw previewed on Septmber 11, 2001: the first fiery signs that the Antichrist was entering the world. He considers the pastors and priests organizing “prayer” and loaves of bread protests around him “lily livered Christians” for failing to stand up to the the threat of Islam. –Although it is not clear why, if Islam betokens the end-time, Mr Jones would want to oppose it: in his theology anyway, it’s the last act in a very big plan wrought by God himself.

And what do Gainesville officials do? Besides praying and dissuading, they have denied Mr Jones a burn permit. Perhaps the next recourse might have been for him to order a hundred porta-potties to the parking lot of the Church?

But no, Jones says the burning will go ahead as planned. There’s something, as every Klansman knows, about a fire.

Meanwhile, we are all missing the point and the President of the United States is missing an opportunity. The same president who personally intervened in a squabble between a fumbling Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop when the former locked himself out of his house is staying away from this one.

Despite the fact that the country is in wars with Muslims all over ther world, both hot and cold, and that the burning of Korans is likely to be seen as the most vicious symbolic attack on the Islamic faith since Urban II called the First Crusade.

There will be riots, there will be murders and bombings, there will be dead Americans and others. All because one undereducated self-ordained cowpoke took refuge in the First Amendment’s free expression clause.

Loaves of bread, prayer marches and picket signs–“good religion” vigorously expressed–are not going to have an effect on this donkey of a man so deeply out of touch with modern religion that he may as well be Osama bin Laden’s cavemate.

Mr President: You are a lawyer. You know the Constitution. You know the difference between hate speech and incitement. You know the line is thin, but that once it is crossed the damage cannot be undone.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes. During my time in Pakistan, in 2009, the mere rumour that some Christians had “desecrated” pages of the Koran led to disaster.

Four women, a man and a child died as Muslim militants set fire to Christian houses in the town of Gojra. Two men died later of gunshot wounds. Houses were burned and streets strewn with debris as people fired at each other from rooftops. There were bloody riots throughout the country. Then it was “revealed” that the rumours which led to the unrest were false and probably started by some children.

But Mr Jones is real. He will use real matches and real (if doubtless inexpensive) copies of the Koran. This very dangerous man has publically announced his intention to flout the law and to cause riots, even gunfights. He has already cried fire–real fire–in the crowded theater of global religious tension.

Mr President: Arrest this man. Do not turn this discussion over to political theorists, Constitutional talking-heads and interfaith tweeps.

If the dignity of Henry Louis Gates was important to you and the chance to be seen defusing a “racial situation,” this is infinitely greater and a thousand times potentially more harmful.

Arrest him without delay. Deploy the National Guard. Surround the Church. Be seen to be doing something courageous in this instance.

Your top general, not known for emotionalism, has already announced the consequences on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. But it will spread–you should pardon the expresion–like wildfire. You will have let it happen.

You will be criticized, but your critics won’t prevail in this argument: you are trying to prevent loss of life. You are not trying to save Korans.

If you do not arrest this man, Christians in Pakistan, Lebanon, and corners of the Islamic world will be in jeopardy. Some will be killed; churches will be torched.

If you do not do this, American-Muslim relations, already lying in the dust will suffer an unimaginable blow. And Muslim Americans will consider you weak and treacherous.

Please, Mr President: show us this man in handcuffs and a U.S. marshall doing his sworn duty before Saturday.

Thank you.