Sunday, December 25, 2016

Old Christmas (1819)

by Washington Irving

I can remember vividly when I was in grade school and Christmas time rolled around. One of the things I looked forward to the most is when my mother pulled out three books from the box of Christmas decorations to put on the coffee table. They were all books from the fifties that had poems and stories about the holiday season in them. One of them was all about Santa Claus, and it was interesting, but one in particular always captured my imagination. In that book the poems were printed on pages of snowy scenes from the East Coast and the Midwest. The suburban neighborhoods and rural meadows they depicted, the pathways through deciduous woods and evergreen forests were all blanketed with a thick layer of snow. It was magical to look at and captivated me in way that few other photographs have ever been able to do. The images were back and white and most were tinted blue or green or red. They were meant only as background to the text, but I can’t ever remember reading the text. Having grown up in the Northwest, we only had that kind of snow every eight or ten years, and then it was a nuisance rather than the fairytale world that I saw in those photos. But I imagine those photos were something like what Washington Irving remembered when he went back to England for an extended stay and published his thoughts of Old Christmas in 1819.

His first sketch is a wistful remembrance of Christmas gone by, brought back to memory after being in England. In thinking about the old customs and merrymaking that were even then receding into the past, his thoughts bring to mind my own in looking at that Christmas book as a child. “They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it.” He then compares the old celebrations he remembers to crumbling Gothic architecture. “Poetry, however, clings with cherishing fondness about the rural game and holiday revel, from which it has derived so many of its themes--as the ivy winds its rich foliage about the Gothic arch and mouldering tower . . . embalming them in verdure.” For Irving, the celebration of Christmas brought together a conviviality that was absent the rest of the year, a necessary coming together of people in the context of the celebration of “the beautiful story of the origin of our faith,” and the church choir and sermons were inexorably linked to his memories of happiness. But it was nature that brought about much of what was good about the season. While nature itself was cause for joy the rest of the year, “in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratification to . . . the charm of each other’s society.”

          It is a beautiful arrangement, also derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates
          the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together
          of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and
          pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose.

For Irving, however, much of this way of looking at the season had already passed by. He writes about the English customs of old, in medieval times when, “it brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness,” though not having lived in that time he may be overstating the case. Still, he could sense a subtle difference in the kind of celebrations that he observed even in his day. “One of the least pleasing effects of modern refinement is the havoc it has made among the hearty old holiday customs . . . Many of the games and ceremonials of Christmas have entirely disappeared.” That, however, is simply the outward sign of an inward problem. For Irving, the celebratory aspect of Christmas as he understood it had already begun to turn from a festival of good feeling into an excuse for excess. “The world has become more worldly. There is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment.” Irving remained enthralled by the holiday season, though, especially as he witnessed it in England and refused to let what he perceived as diminishment attenuate the excitement of the past that it evoked. “Shorn, however, as it is, of its ancient and festive honors, Christmas is still a period of delightful excitement in England . . . Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of the affections, which prevail at this period, what bosom can remain insensible?”

The second section of his sketches of the season concerns a lengthy stagecoach ride that he made on the day before Christmas. The people all seemed to be going to the home of some relation or another, bringing primarily food of all sorts from game to deserts. On one stretch of the journey, Irving says, “I had three fine rosy-cheeked schoolboys for my fellow passengers inside.” His description of them as they talk excitedly about the day to come is one of the joys of literature.

          It was delightful to hear the gigantic plans of pleasure of the little rogues, and the impracticable
          feats they were to perform during their six weeks’ emancipation from the abhorred thralldom of
          book, birch, and pedagogue. They were full of anticipations of the meeting with the family and
          household, down to the very cat and dog; and of the joy they were to give their little sisters by
          the presents with which their pockets were crammed.

Irving goes on to describe the coach driver in impressive detail, everything from his facial features to the clothing and boots that he wears, even going so far as to describe his general attitude. “The moment he arrives where the horses are to be changed, he throws down the reins with something of an air, and abandons the cattle to the care of the hostler; his duty being merely to drive from one stage to another.” When it is time for the boys to be dropped off at their home, they all tumble out and accost the old footman waiting there. Again, Irving is enchanted by their energy and excitement, and can’t help but reminisce about his own childhood at such a time. Driving away, he says, “I looked after them with a feeling in which I do not know whether pleasant or melancholy predominated; for I was reminded of those days when, like them, I had neither known care nor sorrow, and a holiday was the summit of earthly felicity.” Stopping at an inn where he was to spend the night, he has a chance encounter with a gentleman who he had travelled the continent with and is immediately invited to Christmas dinner. “He insisted that I should give him a day or two at his father’s country-seat, to which he was going to pass the holiday, and which lay at a few miles’ distance.” It’s an offer that Irving is happy to accept, and walking up to the house at the end of their ride, Irving makes this observation that put me in mind, yet again, of that Christmas book of old. “The lawn beyond was sheeted with a slight covering of snow, which here and there sparkled as the moonbeams caught a frosty crystal.”

“Christmas Eve” is the title of the next sketch. At the opening of each section, and sometimes in the middle, of Irving’s chapters, he writes a song or a poem that has a connection for him with the content of his reminiscences. This one is preceded by a Christmas prayer. Initially, this sketch seems to strain credulity, as though it was manufactured to justify the opening essay on Christmas past. As Irving and his friend head for his father’s country estate, he says,

          My father, you must know, is a bigoted devotee of the old school, and prides himself upon keeping
          up something of old English hospitality . . . He is a strenuous advocate for the revival of the old
          rural games and holiday observances . . . He was very particular that we should play the old English
          games according to their original form and consulted old books for precedent and authority for every
          ‘merrie disport;’ yet I assure you there never was pedantry so delightful.

But it soon becomes evident that the order was the other way around. It was no doubt this chance encounter and those two days among an English household that still honored tradition at Christmastime that prompted Irving to write his initial essay in the first place. And he was not disappointed. “There is an emanation from the heart in genuine hospitality which cannot be described, but is immediately felt, and puts the stranger at once at his ease. I had not been seated many minutes by the comfortable hearth of the worthy old cavalier, before I found myself as much at home as if I had been one of the family.” The dinner and entertainment and conversation, together with the full range of family members present from young and old and near and far, is exactly the kind of eighteenth-century charm that Irving had described in his opening.

“Christmas Day” begins in the morning, with “the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door.” These are the small children who were already in bed when Irving arrived the evening before. “I opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs.” A considerable amount of the rest of the chapter is given over to the church service. Prior to breakfast the family gathers every Sunday for Bible readings and prayers, and afterwards the service by the pastor at the vicarage. Amusingly, he won’t even go into the church because of the way it’s decorated.

          On reaching the porch, we found the parson rebuking the gray-headed sexton for having used
          mistletoe among the greens with which the church was decorated. It was, he observed, an un-
          holy plant . . . So tenacious was he on this point, that the poor sexton was obliged to strip down
          a great part of the humble trophies of his taste, before the parson would consent to enter upon
          the service of the day.

The rest of the service is equally humorous, as Irving describes the lengthy sermon dealing with the battle over Christmas in England, and a delightful musical number with a small orchestra and choir that is a disaster from start to finish. “All became discord and confusion; each shifted for himself, and got to the end as well, or rather as soon, as he could.” Once back to the house, however, the music from inside, as well as from the musicians walking through the estate, was very good. And while the diversions seem all that Christmas should be, even the Squire was able to go on at length about what had been lost of the old customs in the preceding decades.

The final section is “Christmas Dinner,” which was “served up in the great hall, where the Squire always held his Christmas banquet.” With the fireplace roaring, and a harp playing, a roasted pigs head was brought in to replicate the tradition of the boar’s head, and a pheasant pie was decorated with peacock feathers because the old man couldn’t bear to kill one of his pet birds that roamed the estate. “The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance, in this season of overflowing larders.” The Wassail Bowl was then passed around for all to drink from, accompanied by more singing, and after dinner the children left to play games while the men continued to drink, and soon Irving “found the tide of wine and wassail fast gaining on the dry land of sober judgment.” Later, the talk in the great hall turned, quite naturally to ghost stories, one concerning the subject of the painting that was hung over the mantle. “From these and other anecdotes that followed, the crusader appeared to be the favourite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.”

          Some talked of gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the spectre kept watch; there was
          a story current of a sexton in old times who endeavoured to break his way into the coffin at night;
          but just as he reached it, received a violent blow from the marble hand of the effigy, which stretch-
          ed him senseless on the pavement.

As the old parson was pontificating some time later the conversation was mercifully broken up by the children bursting into the room dressed in all of the old clothing they could scavange. “Like the clang of rude minstrelsy, with the uproar of many small voices and girlish laughter, the door suddenly flew open, and a train came trooping into the room, that might have been mistaken for the breaking up of the court of Fairy.” It’s a wonderful way to end Irving’s story of Christmas past, as it should, with the delight of children being children.

          For my part, I was in a continual excitement, from the varied scenes of whim and innocent gaiety
          passing before me. It was inspiring to see wild-eyed frolic and warm-hearted hospitality breaking
          out from among the chills an glooms of winter, and old age throwing off his apathy, and catching
          once more the freshness of youthful enjoyment.

Irving ends with his ultimate purpose: “If I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow . . . and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not these lines then have written entirely in vain.” Washington Irving’s Old Christmas is a true treasure in the way that it captures a kind of celebration that is long past, a first-person account that will hopefully continue to be read during the holiday season to remind us all of our own memories of Christmas past as well as his historical glimpse into the celebrations of old. Like my own tantalizing view of a wintertime beauty that I was never able to fully experience as a child, Irving’s view of what an old English Christmas must have been like are very similar. But at least we have Irving himself, as this generation’s poet, to help us “recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it.”

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Profile of King James I

This, with tremendous affection for Jeff Kacirk, from his Forgotten English. Please feel free to make your own modern parallel.

“In his History of England (1848-1861), historian Thomas Macaulay wrote disparagingly of King James I. ‘James was always boasting of his skill in what he called kingcraft, and yet it is hardly possible even to imagine a course more directly opposed to all the rules of kingcraft than that which he followed . . . He enraged and alarmed his parliament by constantly telling them that they held their privileges merely during his pleasure, and that they had no more business to inquire what he might lawfully do than what the Deity might lawfully do . . . His cowardice, his childishness, his pedantry, his ungainly person and manners, his provincial accent made him an object of derision . . . On the day of the accession of James I [March 24, 1603], our country descended from the rank which she had hitherto held, and began to be regarded as a power hardly of the second order.’”

And this, with the tiniest sliver of hope, from Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood from 1935.

          PETER BLOOD: A bad king is a bad king, and a worse one if he's James.

          LORD WILLOUGHBY: James? This commission is sent by King William.

          PETER BLOOD: You mean they’ve roused themselves at home and kicked out that pimple James?

          LORD WILLOUGHBY: Yes, and he’s fled to France and he’s in hiding there . . . The English people will go
                                            so far, and then they get up on their stubborn hind legs.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt

by Richard Hofstadter

A few years ago I read a fascinating essay by Joseph E. Green called "Reality and the Moving Image: The Paranoid Style in American Cinema." At the time I had no idea what the subtitle was referring to, but it was an interesting look at the kind of generalized propaganda that Hollywood uses in popular film to indoctrinate viewers toward a particular kind of conformity that suits government aims. But it wasn't unit after I began reading Susan Jacoby's work that I came across a reference to historian Richard Hofstadter and from their made my way to his collection of essays entitled, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. As I began reading that book, however, I didn't even make it through the introduction by Sean Wilentz because in it he mentioned that the beginnings of the title essay had originally appeared in another anthology called The Radical Right, by fellow historians Daniel Bell from Columbia and Seymour Lipset at the University of Chicago, that discussed the coopting of the Republican party by radical forces on the right. That essay was titled "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt." I immediately sought out that anthology and was utterly captivated by the ideas contained within.

Reading historian Richard Hofstadter is like taking the blue pill from Lawrence Fishburn and waking up in a world where things finally make sense. After reading and analyzing Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” I stopped using that word because of my realization about the inherent subjectivity of interpretations. In the same way, I cannot use the word “conservative” to define those on the right wing of American politics anymore, because it simply isn’t true. Hofstadter is able to explain so much that doesn’t make sense about our politics and never really has. Republicans are fond of calling liberals “radicals,” as if they are out destroy this country by trying to implement crazy ideas, but the truth is exactly the opposite. It is right-wing Republicans who are the real radicals in this country. They are the ones who hate America. They are the ones who are intent on destroying the kind of democracy the founders had always intended. And they are the ones who have cultivated a following of the kind of people who vote for a misogynistic, xenophobic, jingoistic, fascist, anti-intellectual like Donald J. Trump. What makes Hofstadter’s analysis so compelling is that he is an historian, and is therefore able to put these political trends into a context that exposes them for what they really are, rather than spin them the way political pundits do to misdirect the public today.

The whole thing begins during the Great Depression with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt after four years of failed, do-nothing policies by Herbert Hoover that only acerbated the financial crisis under which that the country was suffering. These existing right wing policies were ones that had benefited the rich almost since the death of Lincoln sixty years earlier. Hofstadter opens his essay with this declaration, saying about the implementation of FDR’s new policies, “The dynamic force in American political life came from the side of liberal dissent, from the impulse to reform the inequities of our economic and social system and to change our ways of doing things, to the end that the sufferings of the Great Depression would never be repeated.” Roosevelt’s New Deal was a major shift in political thinking that was only realized through the will of the people. Some, like Teddy Roosevelt, had certainly made inroads at the turn of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the economic crash of 1929 that the majority of the public turned to the federal government and demand it live up to its responsibility to protect the public that it served, rich and poor alike. But right-wing politics--and it was especially so after the war--are reactionary by nature, and because of a paranoid tendency inherent in the right from the very beginning they became radicalized and turned themselves into the very enemy that their own propaganda warned against.

The New Deal was such a monumental shift in U.S. politics, and the gains so immense, Roosevelt’s policies were able to spur the recovery to an even greater extent during the war years. Because of that, it isn’t really the Republican politics of the Eisenhower administration that define the fifties, but the legacy of FDR. In the early post-war period many of those who voted for Roosevelt’s policies “still keep the emotional commitments to the liberal dissent with which they grew up politically, but their social condition is one of solid comfort. Among them the dominant tone has become one of satisfaction, even of a kind of conservatism.” Thus it wasn’t Republican values that were being conserved by the middle class in the fifties, it was liberal ones. Hofstadter quotes the great Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to that effect and it is essentially the thesis of his essay:

          The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative
          party of this country--the party dedicated to preserving all that is best, and building solidly and
          safely on those foundations.

In reality, those on the right who call themselves conservatives are not really conservative at all. They are radicals who want to destroy the basic tenants of the U.S. Government. This is true whether one is talking about Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” or Pat Robertson’s “Moral Majority” or the more fanatical movements like New Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the Tea Baggers, or Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The one thing Hofstadter points out that all of these groups have in common is, surprisingly, “a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways.” I say surprisingly, because the right-wing propaganda machine led by Fox News would have us believe that it is the left that hates America. The brutal truth is, the right has no idea what “America” actually is, and therefore their distorted view of this country has allowed their leaders to blind them to what truly makes America great. Hofstadter appropriated the term “pseudo-conservative” from social scientist Theodore W. Adorno in his work The Authoritarian Personality. In describing this phenomenon, Adorno states, “The pseudo-conservative is a [person] who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

In this context, the right wing is the true threat to the country, because while they profess the goal of preserving our recent past, and a desire to cling to the beliefs of a simpler time, the only period of North American history when their ideas held sway was during the Puritan colonization of New England, well before the U.S. became a country. The Puritan dominance of society in New England lasted less than a hundred years, from about 1630 to 1720, and they are the direct ancestors of the radical right today. They practiced a form of religious intolerance that mandated homogeneity of belief in order to protect the purity of their church from any outside influences. But in the late sixteen hundreds the British monarchy permitted outsiders to settle in New England and guaranteed their religious rights. Soon after, the original Puritan charter of Massachusetts was overthrown and it became a royal colony, which led to other problems that began a shift away from religious fanaticism and toward political fervor. It was the desire to be self-governing, separate from the political control of England that led to the formation of the United States . . . not religious freedom. In fact, had the founding fathers been more prescient, they would have seen that allowing complete religious freedom in their new country would have a devastating effect in centuries to come, especially in the way that it would allow religions of all stripes to confuse their own religious liberty with the political liberty the country was actually founded on. As Susan Jacoby--an admirer of Hofstadter--writes in her brilliant work, The Age of American Unreason:

          It is the greatest irony, and a stellar illustration of the law of unintended consequences, that
          the American experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of Americans to
          embrace antirational, anti-intellectual forms of faith . . . In America, the absence of a coercive
          state-established church meant that American citizens had no need to uproot existing religious
          institutions in order to change political institutions, and vice versa. Americans dissatisfied with
          their church simply founded another one and moved on . . . During the early nineteenth century,
          as the church became a pillar of slavery [in the South], devotion to freedom of conscience,
          exemplified by Madison and Jefferson, was replaced by adherence to ultra-conservative religion
          dedicated to upholding the social order.

Thus, to the present day, the religious right has clung to a false notion of the place of religion in America, whether it is their Puritan beginnings in New England that actually eroded long before the Revolution, or their fundamentalism that justified slavery in the South that was destroyed by the Civil War. Religion and ignorance have always gone hand in hand in this country, but it wasn’t until the fifties that they really infected politics. The most visible symbols of this pollution are the phrase “in God we trust” that violated the First Amendment separation of church and state when it was place on our money, and “one nation under God” that was injected into the Pledge of Allegiance, both of which occurred in the 1950s. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the ignorant religious right would believe that those two phrases were coined by the founders and use that to justify their erroneous belief that America is a “Christian nation.” Nothing, in reality, could be further from the truth. The right has no idea about the true nature of this country because they don’t want to know. But then the anti-intellectual component of the radical right is one of its most prominent features. Hofstadter puts it this way: “The pseudo-conservative can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less educated members of the middle class. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics.” A more accurate reading of the supporters of Donald Trump would be difficult to find.

The characterization that Hofstadter gives of the pseudo-conservative is incredibly accurate and describes to perfection the beliefs that the right wing in this country have held for the last sixty years.

          He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed,
          and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and out-
          rageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics
          [since the Depression] . . . He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about
          about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may
          experience must be attributed to its having been betrayed. He is the most bitter of all our citizens
          about our involvement in the wars of the past, but seems the least concerned about avoiding the
          next one. He would much rather concern himself with the domestic scene . . . He is likely to be
          antagonistic to most of the operations of our federal government except Congressional investiga-
          tions, and to almost all of its expenditures.

This is one of the most accurate portraits of the modern Republican party that has ever appeared in print, and explains much of their behavior in the recent presidential primary season.

The Republican right in this country has only one goal, to tear down the freedoms that this country was founded on and replace them with a fascist rule in which the only freedom is the freedom to believe as they do. The way they attempt to accomplish this is through the legal system. The freedoms guaranteed to American citizens in the Constitution--with the exception of the few that Republicans like, guns and religion for example--are what they want to get rid of. “A great deal of pseudo-conservative thinking takes the form of trying to devise means of absolute protection against that betrayal by our own officialdom which the pseudo-conservative feels is always imminent.” And to that end, “the pseudo-conservative revolt seems to specialize in Constitutional revision.” What Republicans really want to do is to convert the Constitution from a living, breathing document that allows ideas like Prohibition to come and go, into something etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. Rather than a document that tells citizens what they are allowed to do, the choices and freedoms they have as members of this country, the right wants a document that outlines what we can’t do. Again, this goes against the very principals our country was founded on, something the anti-intellectual supporters of the right will never understand. As a result it is true conservatives, in the form of liberal Democrats, who are fighting the good fight to save those protections we have earned and keep the freedoms we do have, from being destroyed by the radical right.

One of the interesting theories that Hofstadter posits, in looking for a root cause, is that because we have mythologized ourselves as a status-less society, nationalism has become intertwined with our self-image and assumed a greater part in self-identification than it rightfully should. “In this country a person’s status--that is, his relative place in the prestige hierarchy of his community--and his rudimentary sense of belonging to the community--that is, what we call his ‘Americanism’--have been intimately joined.” This can certainly be seen today in a shrinking middle class that feels it has increasingly less “prestige hierarchy” and therefore attempts to compensate for it by a proportional increase in their “Americanism.” Because of this phenomenon there have emerged two different types of politics, “interest politics,” and “status politics.” As stated earlier, the generally uneducated and politically incoherent state of the radical right does not allow them any kind of genuine understanding of interest politics, which can be seen as “future-oriented and forward-looking, in the sense that it looks to a time when the adoption of this or that program will materially alleviate or eliminate certain discontents.” Instead, the anti-intellectual nature of the right means that it is left only with status politics, which are “expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.” This also describes the state of Trump supporters, who have no interest in policy and gravitate to a cult of personality rather than anything concrete that would actually make a difference in their lives.

Another area where individual status and Americanism mingle is in the area of immigration, another right wing trope being fed to the anti-intellectual during this election cycle. “Old-family Americans, whose stocks were once far more unequivocally dominant in America than they are today, feel that their ancestors made and settled and fought for this country.” But, as Hofstadter points out, “immigrant groups have developed ample means, political and economic, of self-defense and . . . some of the old-family Americans have turned to find new objects for their resentment among liberals, left-wingers, intellectuals and the like.” This is less the case today, however, than it was in the late nineties through the first half of the Obama administration because of the lack of intelligence in the new Republican base. Again, the base’s inability to understand exactly how intellectuals are supposedly endangering them is part of their incoherency of political thought. Thus the turn back to immigrant bashing that we see in the Trump campaign today, which is championed by white supremacists like David Duke. For much of the old-moneyed Mayflower families are gone and their formerly “inherited sense of proprietorship” has now been co-opted by anyone who is white. It’s easy to foment anger among under-educated whites whose racist tendencies go barely checked by standards of civil conduct in society, and point to those who look different as the cause of their perceived misery. This is something racist groups like the KKK have been doing for decades. And Trump is loath to reject the endorsement of these groups because he needs their votes, votes that would otherwise go to libertarian or other right-wing fringe candidates. Author Jeremy Scahill, who recently published The Assassination Complex, had this to say about the subject on a recent episode of Bill Maher:

          Just focusing on Trump and what he says, misses a deeper more disturbing reality and that
          is that Trump has brought to the public the fact that we have a real strain of fascism in this
          country. I think that what Trump has done is to give a public voice to a sentiment that is held
          by a significant minority of the population where now someone is saying the things they felt
          they couldn’t say in public. So now they can openly be racists, bigots, and they have their
          candidate.

Hofstadter also looks at the psychological underpinnings of these groups who have typically been under educated. What he finds is that the desire to destroy America comes from a hatred of authority in general. “An enormous hostility to authority, which cannot be admitted to consciousness, calls forth a massive overcompensation which is manifest in the form of extravagant submissiveness to strong power.” In this way of thinking, the government represents the totalitarian force in the lives of the pseudo-conservative that, in their minds, has left them utterly helpless to combat.

          For pseudo-conservatism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized
          by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete
          domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated
          and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of in-
          terpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and his own leadership are engaged
          in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority
          only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.

Given this way of thinking, support for Trump actually makes a lot of sense. He is a figure who is out to dominate, whether it be women, minorities, in business or in politics. This is the only thing that the new Republican base understands anymore, which is another reason that his complete obviation of the code of civil conduct earns him so many supporters. He is their surrogate, a man with power, who will go for them into the corrupt and conspiratorial government and destroy it from the inside.

But the idea of racism is also intertwined with the idea of nationalism and self-identity. Hofstadter makes another fascinating point when he discusses the idea of the United States as an immigrant country--from the very start. Everyone who came to this country came from somewhere else, and he finds a lingering, subconscious distrust amongst ourselves to be the end result. First he establishes the prejudicial nature of the Republican right by pointing out the obvious. “I believe that the typical prejudiced person and the typical pseudo-conservative dissenter are usually the same person, that the mechanisms at work in both complexes are quite the same.” The reason for this is the subconscious distrust for each other among a nation of people who have abandoned their country of origin, even if it was many generations earlier. And the way that mechanism functions is that they are “so desperately eager for reassurance of their fundamental Americanism,” that they “can conveniently converge on liberals, critics, and non-conformists of various sorts.” The non-conformists in this election cycle happen to be trans-gender people, but the radical right is not picky and they’ll go after anyone. In Hofstadter’s words, “in true pseudo-conservative fashion they relish weak victims and shrink from asserting themselves against the strong.”

One of the aspects of pseudo-conservatism that is generally misunderstood as actual conservatism is the desire for conformity by those on the right. This is one of the more difficult arguments that Hofstadter takes on as he attempts to tie the idea to the “status aspirations” of all on the radical right. But while it’s complex, it does makes sense. Uneducated, white Americans resent the erosion of the tacit superiority they have always claimed in this country, which for the most part has been subliminally reinforced in everything from entertainment and advertising, to minorities being ghettoized geographically and marginalized in the workplace. What, then, does that say about a country that seems to be going out of its way enforce equality for minorities of all kinds? Rather than look on it as step forward for the kind of inclusionary policies that this country has been moving toward since its founding, the radical right’s demand for conformity is instead an excuse for stripping the rights that minorities have already been granted. And so, in looking at what appears to be non-conformity by those on the right, “Naturally it is resented, and the demand for conformity in public becomes at once an expression of such resentment and a means of displaying one’s own soundness.” Again, it all comes back to the radical right being compelled to tear down the government in order to prove their own self worth, a phenomenon no different than religious cults that instill in their members a sense of specialness that can only be achieved by denigrating others.

Finally, there is no escaping the very real threats that this country faces from abroad, and the distinct ways that the two political parties have attempted to deal with those threats of terrorism from the Middle East. As Hofstadter points out, “We do live in a disordered world, threatened by a powerful ideology. It is a world of enormous potential violence, that has already shown us the ugliest capacities of the human spirit.” While the left makes efforts to understand the enemy, to use our intellect to find solutions to the conflicts that face us, the right wants only to destroy. In fact, in the absence of genuine intelligence, it is the only weapon they have against their own irrational fears. Hofstadter reminds us, “There is just enough reality at most points along the line to give a touch of credibility to the melodramatics of the pseudo-conservative imagination.” Add to this the role of the media which has, to cite Hofstadter, “brought politics closer to the people than ever before and has made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved.” This has been and extremely destructive part of our current election cycle because recent trends in direct democracy in internet voting for innocuous things like reality TV personalities and contestants, have transformed into an unrealistic expectation for voters, especially in the Sanders campaign. Reactionary responses to those expectations have resulted in votes for Trump as well as the undermining of the Clinton campaign by Sanders supporters.

One of the surprising things about Hofstadter’s essay is his optimism in the face of the radical right’s commitment to the destruction of the Constitution and the American experiment. “I do not share the widespread foreboding among liberals that this form of dissent will grow until it overwhelms our liberties altogether and plunges us into a totalitarian nightmare.” The reason for his optimism? Hofstadter wrote this essay in 1955. That’s right. This essay, which could have been written yesterday, and describes the Republican base as accurately as anyone could today, is over sixty years old. What was a subtle and insightful description of a growing movement in Republican politics in 1955, has now become so overt as to make his work seem painfully obvious today. But in the middle of the Eisenhower presidency, it certainly wasn’t. In fact, Hofstadter didn’t even live to see Watergate, Reganomics, or the devastation of the W. debacle, and yet in hindsight all of the things he did see in the mid-fifties, were gaining momentum until they came to fruition in the ascension of Donald Trump to the Republican candidacy for U.S. President. In some respects, I share Hofstadter’s belief in the American system of government. To even imagine the destruction of America that Trump represents for so many on the conservative left, “is to my mind a false conception, based on the failure to read American developments in terms of our peculiar American constellation of political realities.” After all, if the country could survive--and I do mean survive--eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, there is no reason to think it can’t endure four years of Donald Trump.

Still, despite his optimism, and as a warning from the past, Richard Hofstadter refuses to diminish the threat from an ideology that the Republicans have been cultivating since his death. As such, I leave the last words to him, just the way he ended his essay in 1955, in the hopes that those who read it will realize its very real description of the political landscape today, and do the right thing in November to reverse the tide of pseudo-conservative insurgency that threatens the very foundation of what it means to be Americans.

          However, in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and
          moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for
          private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed
          minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety
          would become impossible.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

George Bush and JFK

Ever since I woke up on the morning of Wednesday, November 8, 2000 to discover that George W. Bush had illegally stolen the presidential election from Al Gore, I have hated the Bush’s. But I didn’t know how much I hated them until the exposure of the participation of George H.W. Bush in the C.I.A. organized assassination of John F. Kennedy was made clear in the film Dark Legacy: George Bush and the Murder of John Kennedy (Anyone who still thinks Lee Harvey Oswald had anything to do with the assassination of JFK is delusional, and anyone who doesn’t know the C.I.A was calling the shots has been lobotomized.) But in order to take a more in-depth look at the evidence I felt it necessary to examine the documented evidence available in print form. To that end, I purchased Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years by Russ Baker. Baker puts not only Bush junior’s more visible crimes on display, but delves into the evil world of Bush senior and his extensive clandestine career prior to becoming president. Baker strikes just the right tone from the start when he has this to say about the worst president in history by recounting “George W. Bush’s most damaging polices--

          The rush to war in Iraq, officially sanctioned torture, CIA destruction of evidence, spying on
          Americans with the collusion of private corporations, head-in-the-sand dismissal of climate
          change, the subprime mortgage disaster, skyrocketing oil prices. None of these developments
          looks so surprising when one considers the untold story of what came before. This book is
          about that secret history, and the people and institutions that created it . . . Bush’s mistakes--
          and his biggest was surely was the delusion that he could successfully lead the nation as its
          president--were only the most recent chapters in a story that goes back to his father and even
          his grandfather.

The story itself begins with the famous 1963 memo by J. Edgar Hoover in the aftermath of the JFK assassination stating that William Edwards of the Defense Intelligence Agency was briefed about the possibility of anti-Castro forces using the event to make another attempt to invade Cuba. The other person briefed: Mr. George W. Bush of the CIA. Of course Bush denied working for CIA in any capacity prior to heading the agency under Gerald Ford. Why wouldn’t he? But it wasn’t until 2006 that another document came to light showing Bush had been in the CIA as early as 1953. Before there was a CIA, the government used industrial spies to conduct much of their overseas investigations, through shell companies like the ones that Prescott Bush was running in South America that had turned those countries into little more than colonies for powerful U.S. business interests. The trend continued with confessed CIA agent Thomas Devine setting up George H.W. Bush in a shell oil company as a cover for his CIA work. But Bush’s espionage activities had actually begun earlier with his participation in Naval intelligence gathering during the Second World War.

It’s a convoluted story, and there’s a lot of conjecture, as there must be with anyone associated with an agency as secretive as the CIA. But they can’t hide everything, and a mountain of connections combined with an incoherence in the official stories he does tell lead fairly clearly to the conclusion that Baker makes. It begins with Precott Bush’s banking connections and his influence in the government through his work in the Senate as well as his close relationship to the Dulles brothers. After Eisenhower’s successful presidential bit in 1952, “the Dulles brothers obtained effective control of foreign policy: John Foster Dulles became Ike’s secretary of state, and Allen the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The rest of the administration was filled with Bush allies . . .” Like Reagan thirty years later, Eisenhower had little interest in the minutia of governance and let his subordinates run daily operations. And since the CIA had no mandate to carry out their work, they allied themselves with U.S. business interests who had international concerns and would be able to provide cover for operations that would benefit their bottom line in the long run. Thus, “agents created a host of entities to serve as middlemen to support rebels in countries targeted for regime change.” The key area of the Bush’s assignment would be oil, considering how vital it had been in winning World War Two.

          Harold Ickes had warned in 1943, "If there should be a World War III it would have to be
          fought with someone else’s petroleum, because the United States wouldn’t have it . . . We
          should have available oil in different parts of the world . . . The time to get going is now."
          Ickes’ eye was then on Saudi Arabia, the only place in the Middle East that had huge
          untapped oil pools under the control of an American oil company, the Rockefellers’ Standard
          Oil of California.

George H.W. Bush was then given a loan by his father’s friends on Wall Street in order to start Zapata Offshore oil company, which could provide the CIA with a host of services. It would give operatives access to oil producing countries around the world, excuses for their international travel, money laundering capabilities, and the company’s offshore sites could providing training facilities for covert military operations against Cuba. “Though Zapata had only a handful of rigs, [Bush] set up operations for Zapata Offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the Persian Gulf, Trinidad, Borneo, and Medellin, Columbia.” It was all part of the CIA partnership with big business “creating plausible deniability as it began what would be a series of efforts to topple ‘unfriendly’ regimes around the world.” Unfriendly, that is, to U.S. businesses. As always, these operations have absolutely no connection to the actual safety of the U.S. or its citizens, the effects of regime change on the people in those countries or our own, and worst of all no thoughts of long-term ramifications. This is the exact same thing son George W. Bush is guilty of, the way that his administration destabilized the entire Middle East for economic gains by his corporate partners like Halliburton, resulting in the worldwide chaos and climate change crises we’re suffering today.

After the CIA had successfully toppled the democratically elected prime minister in Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953 because, “Mossadegh began nationalizing Anglo-American oil concessions,” they set their sights on Cuba a few years later for the same reason. “Fidel Castro began to expropriate the massive properties of large foreign (chiefly American) companies.” Thus, Bush’s offshore oilrig was then moved to Cay Sal Bank, “just fifty-four miles north of Isabela, Cuba.” Zapata Offshore would become the base for Caribbean operations in the plot to overthrow Castro, just one aspect of which was the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that John F. Kennedy had been pressured into green-lighting by his military-industrial complex connected advisors. As any good operative would do, Bush was able to cover his tracks. Investigations into this time period uncovered the fact that, “Zapata filings” with the Securities and Exchange Commission “from 1960 to 1966 had been ‘inadvertently destroyed’ several months after Bush became vice president.” The connection between Cuba and the assassination of JFK is a simple one. The CIA’s financiers wanted Castro out so that they could reclaim their confiscated property and their lucrative business interests on the island. Kennedy, on the other hand, was moving toward reconciliation with Cuba, a move that would irrevocably end U.S. corporate control in the country. As James Douglass reports in one of the best books on the subject, JFK and the Unspeakable, “In 1963 John Kennedy began pursuing an alternative script on Cuba: a secret dialogue toward an actual rapprochement with Castro.”

But there is nothing more suspicious than Bush senior’s claim that he can’t remember where he was in Texas when he heard the news of the assassination. Then again, this also makes perfect sense. The problem with making up a lie about that particular day is that everyone knows where they were that day, and if he had attempted to fabricate something the lie would inevitably have been exposed. The year before the assassination Bush had moved full-time into politics, eventually deciding to run for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas. Yet he was still frequently traveling internationally under he guise of working for Zapata, and also busy setting up a campaign office in Dallas. Documents unearthed in 1993, however, show that Bush actually called the FBI office in Dallas on November 22, 1963 in order to implicate a man named James Parrott in the plot. Corroborating testimony has Bush delivering a speech to the local Kiwanis Club at the Blackstone Hotel in Tyler, Texas when he was told about the shooting. He apparently ended his speech by delivering the news to the crowd and then sitting down, calm and unflustered, as Baker points out, “not unlike his own son’s composure in another moment of crisis . . . after being told about the 9/11 attacks.” So if he was in Tyler, why the caginess? Baker suggests the call may have been a way of establishing with the authorities that he was in Tyler, and not actually in Dallas. The fact is, Bush had been in Dallas delivering another speech to oil contractors the night before the assassination, and Baker further speculates that he didn’t fly to Tyler until the next morning.

One of Bush senior’s friends in Dallas was George de Mohrenschildt, a Russian √©migr√© who also happened to be a close, personal associate of one Lee Harvey Oswald. Just prior to the assassination de Mohrenschildt had not only met with CIA agents in Washington but with Thomas Devine from Zapata who also worked for the CIA. In the 1950s, before they met, his future wife Jeanne worked in fashion with Abraham Zapruder, who took the most famous film of the assassination, while de Mohrenschildt himself was leasing oil-drilling rights in Cuba. In fact, he was working for a holding company “with a focus on ‘stability’ in Latin American countries, which could reasonably be assumed to refer to creating conditions of political stability favorable to the exploration activities.” After Castro began taking back the island from U.S. corporate interests, however, a Cuban Task Force was created and “Vice President Richard Nixon . . . was the administration’s Cuba ‘case officer.’” Nixon met with Texas businessmen at the time to raise funds for the task force, a group that was apparently headed by Bush himself. In 1976, while Bush was head of the CIA, George de Mohrenschildt began writing letters that alluded to new information about Oswald. Naturally, he was hounded by the FBI and CIA, and so he wrote a letter to his old friend to ask if he could help. Bush wrote a memo declaring he barely knew the man, and six months later de Mohrenschildt was executed and the scene staged to look like a suicide.

After the Bay of Pigs Kennedy fired Allen Dulles--a close friend of the Bushes--which infuriated Prescott Bush. Baker calls this, “a declaration of independence from the Wall Street intelligence nexus that pretty much had its way in the previous administration.” But Kennedy’s antagonism toward the money men was also more direct, “when he interfered with their oil and mineral development plans in Brazil’s vast Amazon basin.” Add to that Kennedy’s push to move toward nuclear disarmament, and its attendant undermining of the uranium production industry--primarily based in Texas--that had grown rapidly after the war, and it’s little wonder that JFK’s policies were seen as nothing short of an all out assault on American financial interests both domestic and abroad. For wealthy capitalists the outlook was grim. Not only was JFK sure to win another term in the White House, there was also the fact that both Jack and his brother Bobby were incredibly young and that, along with their younger brother Ted, they might dominate the political landscape in Washington for decades to come. “The Kennedy administration struck at the heart of the Southern establishment’s growing wealth and power . . . Yet in the space of five years, Jack and Bobby Kennedy were dead, and the prospect of a Kennedy political dynasty had been snuffed out.

          The leaders of these same institutions have frequently seen nothing wrong with assassinating
          leaders in other countries, even democratically elected ones . . . Is it that difficult to believe
          that those who viewed assassination as a policy tool would use it at home, where the sense
          of grievance and the threat to their interests was even greater?

One of the many interesting things to come out of the film Dark Legacy, written and directed by John Hankey, is that not only was Bush in Dallas on November 22nd but so was Richard Nixon, the former Cuba “case officer,” as well as E. Howard Hunt, whom Hankey credits with running the assassination operation on the ground at Dealey Plaza. What’s fascinating is that not only Bush, but apparently Nixon and Hunt as well were unable to remember exactly how they heard of the president’s death. Evidence from other sources suggests that Bush’s promotion to the head of the CIA by Warren Commission member Gerald Ford was done specifically to thwart further incursion into CIA files by a select committee on political assassinations and to keep the true nature of the agency’s involvement in the assassination a secret. But Bush had already been in Washington as part of Nixon’s White House team as ambassador to the United Nations, no doubt as a favor to Prescott Bush for financing his political career. Evidence further suggests that the Watergate cover-up was really an attempt to keep Howard Hunt quiet about Nixon’s involvement with the JFK assassination, and things come full circle when Gerald Ford issues a blanket pardon for all of Nixon’s crimes.

The two works diverge somewhat on how they specifically tie Bush to the Kennedy assassination. Dark Legacy emphasizes the relationship of Prescott Bush to Nixon, and then ties to that Nixon’s relationship to Howard Hunt and Bush’s oversight of the anti-Castro Cubans in the Caribbean. Baker, on the other hand, makes his central argument the relationship of Bush to George de Mohrenschildt and the free pass he received from the Warren Commission. Far more compelling, however, is Bush’s close relationship to Jack Crichton. Crichton not only would openly admit later to working for the CIA, but was also heading a military intelligence unit at the time of the assassination, as well as running for governor at the same time Bush was seeking his senate seat. “Crichton was so plugged into the Dallas power structure that one of his company directors was . . . D. Harold Byrd, owner of the Texas School Book Depository building.” In addition, Crichton worked as part of the Dallas Civil Defense program, setting up their communications system, and was in the pilot car of the motorcade.

          Thus, in November 1963, Bush and Crichton were essentially working in tandem. Given that
          alliance, Poppy would need to explain not only where he was on November 22 and why he
          tried so hard to hide that, but also what he knew about Crichton’s activities that day and about
          Crichton’s Intelligence colleagues in the pilot car of the motorcade.

Of course neither Dark Legacy, nor Family of Secrets goes so far as to implicate George Bush Sr. directly in the assassination of Kennedy. But they both raise important questions to consider when looking at what many writers call the “Deep State,” the actual control of the government by the military-industrial complex. The CIA is only the most visible of the forces that make the real decisions in American politics. One of the most cogent explanations of this hybrid government operating within the machinery of Washington D.C. was written by Mike Lofgren two years ago in an essay titled “Anatomy of the Deep State.”

          The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security
          and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the
          Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Depart-
          ment. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial
          flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street . . .
          [But] the Deep State does not consist only of government agencies. What is euphemistically
          called “private enterprise” is an integral part of its operations . . . There are now 854,000
          contract personnel with top-secret clearances--a number greater than that of top-secret-
          cleared civilian employees of the government.

Attempts to question Bush Sr. about his time as a CIA operative have all been met with flat denials, because one of the primary functions of clandestine agencies is to maintain secrecy. Was George H.W. Bush a member of the CIA in 1953 or even earlier? Almost certainly, and the evidence of his association with admitted CIA employees at the time, as well as J. Edgar Hoover’s memo in 1963 attest to the fact. Bush’s work with Zapata Offshore gave him access to oil producing governments and excuses for international travel at the behest of corporate interests that were controlling the military in Washington, and one of their primary concerns was the loss of property and manufacturing facilities in Cuba after Castro had confiscated them. Kennedy’s decision to opt out of the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba would mean that American business interests on the island would be irrevocably lost. Add to that the fact that the CIA had routinely toppled or killed leaders in other countries to benefit their corporate benefactors, and it would make sense that they simply would have extended its use to the domestic front. But it strains credulity to believe that Bush would not have known about the operation to assassinate Kennedy in his home state of Texas. And his thinly-veiled attempts to create documentation for his not being in Dallas, as well as his obvious lies about not remembering where he was when he heard the news, clearly indicate complicity at some level. What that is will probably never be known, especially after he was put in charge of the CIA in 1976.

If Bush managed to expunge the records of Zapata Offshore from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s files, it’s pretty clear that any evidence of his work with the CIA prior to 1976 is gone as well. His appointment by Warren Commission participant Gerald Ford to the top spot in the agency saw to that, and would also have given Bush the ability to destroy any evidence of Richard Nixon’s participation in Dallas as well. This is an aspect of the story that became apparent in 1988 in The Nation, after the Hoover memo first came to light in the article “The Man Who Wasn't There, ‘George Bush,’ C.I.A. Operative” by Joseph McBride.

          Asked recently about Bush’s early C.I.A. connections, (former Texas Democratic Senator Ralph)
          Yarborough said, “I never heard anything about it. It doesn't surprise me. What surprised me was
          that they picked him for Director of Central Intelligence--how in hell he was appointed head of
          the C.I.A. without any experience or knowledge.” Hoover's memo “explains something to me that
          I’ve wondered about. It does make sense to have a trained C.I.A. man, with experience, appointed
          to the job.”

As far as the substance of the memo is concerned, Hankey’s Dark Legacy attempts to use this as his strongest link to the assassination. Hoover states that the Miami FBI office had been advised by the State Department that “some misguided anti-Castro group might capitalize on the present situation and undertake an unauthorized raid against Cuba,” but Hoover assures the department that this is not the case. Hankey implies that this “misguided anti-Castro group” refers to the agents in Bush’s Zapata group--which it almost certainly does--but then further implies that this must have been the group that carried out the assassination--which doesn’t really make much sense at all. What seems far more likely is that the memo is an attempt to reassure the military that Bush’s Zapata group is not going to carry out any unauthorized actions on the heels of the assassination. Bush, in essence, is being told in the meeting to control his people, and the function of the memo is to assure those reading it in Washington that he will follow his orders.

Baker, in Family of Secrets, has a tough time making any direct connection between Bush Sr. and the actual shooting of the president and doesn’t really try. He does provide convincing evidence, however, of his CIA and corporate connections and his oil company’s work in Cuba. If there’s a flaw in the book it’s that he spends too much space in that section dealing with peripheral assassination information because he has only a small, finite amount of actual material on Bush’s CIA career prior to 1976. This isn’t a flaw at all, however, if the reader is generally unfamiliar with the inner workings of the assassination plot. But for anyone who has read more than a couple of books on the subject, much of Baker’s work is redundant. Still, there are plenty of books on the assassination that don’t mention Bush at all, so it is valuable to have Baker weave that story into the rest of the tapestry and makes the reader wish that many more threads could be woven into the story as well, especially where the office of the President of the United States is concerned.

In drawing conclusions from both sources it seems more than likely that Bush knew about the assassination attempt, and that the specific details of his complicity were something that he felt the necessity to cover up, if only to protect his future political career. Going forward, however, what seems like a thoroughly fascinating angle to explore in terms of the assassination as a whole, is determining the exact nature of the participation of four eventual U.S. presidents in the death of John F. Kennedy. Certainly Lyndon Johnson benefited immediately from JFK’s death and proceeded to reward his military-industrial directors with the Vietnam War, a situation that forced him to effectively resign in 1968 rather than continue to give them what they wanted. Richard Nixon, also in Dallas on the day of the assassination, was a case officer for Cuba while vice-president and had no such compunctions. He took the baton from Johnson willingly and continued to prosecute the war for his financiers after JFK’s brother Robert was eliminated from the running. Nixon’s choice of Gerald Ford from the Warren Commission to succeed him allowed for his eventual pardon, while former CIA operative and Ford appointee to the top spot in the CIA, George Herbert Walker Bush, used his position to clean up any loose ends and eventually make his way to the White House himself. Now that would be an incredible book to read.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Why Bible Literacy Matters (and Why it Shouldn’t)

One of the things that Lionel Trilling always argued for was to look carefully at arguments that go against what we believe. Once we become too certain in our stance, our ability to learn and change diminishes. Good advice, but not easy to do. Recently I’ve been exploring the idea of anti-intellectualism in America, primarily found in the religious right and conservative politics. So, in deference to Professor Trilling, I picked up a copy of The State of the American Mind, an anthology of essays by right-wing intellectuals, in order to gauge my stance on the subject as accurately as possible. The first essay that I wanted to take a look at is by Daniel L Dreisbach, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington D.C. The title is “Biblical Literacy Matters,” something that I believe in very strongly, but not for the reasons Dreisbach lays out in his piece.

Dreisbach begins his essay with the inauguration address by George W. Bush, which he describes as “rich with Biblical language and allusions.” Unfortunately, the fact that Bush was arguably the dumbest individual to ever hold the office tends to undercut his argument from the outset. It’s widely known that Bush allowed his religious zeal to subsume what minimal intellect he possessed, and so the fact that his speechwriters made references to Biblical passages should not have been a surprise to anyone. But in saying that in one of those allusions Bush pledged “a national commitment to serve those in poverty” is laughable, especially after his financial policies resulted in the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. Perhaps what he meant was that Bush was committed to putting the nation itself into poverty and serving us then, because he nearly succeeded in that. The fact that a CBS analyst “didn’t get” some of the allusions isn’t surprising either, considering the impoverished nature of our public education system. And that’s just the first paragraph.

Next Dreisbach spends some time trashing Democrats who made gaffs because of their unfamiliarity with the Bible. So what? Apparently in their eagerness to demonstrate that they are as “religious friendly as the Republicans” they couldn’t help but display their ignorance. But what, exactly, does “religious friendly” mean? The implication that Democrats aren’t friendly to religion is patently false. There’s a distinct difference between respecting someone’s religion and aiding and abetting their efforts to foist their religious beliefs on a secular country by enacting laws to coerce the rest of the citizens into behaviors they find acceptable and punish them for ones they don’t. But perhaps I’m quibbling. Nevertheless, there is a distinct undertone of righteous superiority in Dreisbach’s argument, though at this point it’s not clear exactly what his argument even is. He seems to want to spend an awful lot of time hammering home the fact that previous presidents frequently alluded to or mentioned biblical passages. And again, it’s unclear what that’s supposed to imply. This is one of the problems I see with conservative writing in general, an assumed moral superiority that is somehow supposed to translate into unquestioned veracity. In a sense, they always seem to be preaching to the choir, and that’s no way to win converts.

Moving on he states that, “Americans, apparently, have long been more biblically literate than their European contemporaries,” and demonstrates this with an anecdote from Ben Franklin who felt he had to annotate a sermon that he wanted to reprint in England because Britons wouldn’t understand the biblical references. But why “apparently?” The fact is, Europe has obviously had a much longer Christian tradition than America, by a couple of millennia. The Puritans who first came to this country were from Europe, bible-obsessed fanatics who left because England wasn’t fundamentalist enough for them, so naturally American writing is going to be imbued with more religious sentiment. Again, what’s the point? Finally, he gets to something we can all agree with: “That Americans from the colonial era to the twentieth century were biblically literate is no surprise because they lived in an overwhelmingly Protestant culture. Protestant theology reveres the Bible as the revealed word of God and emphasizes its role as authority in all matters of faith and practice . . . One would expect the Bible to occupy a place of prominence in such a culture.”

From here Dreisbach launches into a history lesson about the influence of biblical thinking on New England law and government and then finally gets to his thesis:

          Because of the Bible’s role in shaping people’s thoughts and speech during the forming of
          our nation, it matters deeply that Americans today know so little about the Bible and its
          influence on their culture . . . The Bible has informed diverse aspects of the culture, and the
          Bible continues to influence culture in innumerable ways. To understand themselves and
          where they come from, Americans must know something about the Bible.

While this initially sounds like a credible argument, it’s actually completely wrong. What is important in understanding American history is the influence of the people on our culture, not a book. Early Americans were informed and motivated by their religious beliefs, and yes, those beliefs were associated with the Bible, but so were dozens of other Protestant religions as well as Catholics and Anglicans. When looked at from that perspective, it is the specific Calvinist beliefs of early Americans that are vital to understanding where we came from and why we still behave the way we do. But you can’t get that from looking at the Bible.

Dreisbach cites sociologist Robert N. Bellah who states, “The Bible was the one book that literate Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries could be expected to know well.” Of course, which is why presidents like Washington and Lincoln, and political figures like Patrick Henry and William Jennings Bryan would have used that knowledge in their speeches. What the Bible gives us today is a key to unlocking the biblical language that was used in the past, in order to understand the points that authors were making. In that sense, the Bible is like a translation guide that allows us greater insight into those works. But it’s not an end in itself, and it certainly doesn’t inform us about the motives behind the actions of historical figures as much as their religious dogma does. Washington, as well as many of the men who helped to found this country during the revolutionary period, were Deists. They allowed that there was a god, but in no way attributed to the deity direct intervention in human affairs. In the words of English professors Barbara and George Perkins, “For the confirmed Deist, God was the first cause, but the hand of God was more evident in the mechanism of nature than in scriptural revelation; the Puritan belief in miraculous intervention and supernatural manifestations was regarded as blasphemy against the divine Creator of the immutable harmony and perfection of all things.” So, while both Puritans and Deists used the same Bible, their motivations and actions were very different and the Bible itself isn’t going to tell us that.

Nevertheless, Bible literacy holds immeasurable benefits as an analytical tool to help understand what authors meant when they were making biblical references. In the last thousand years Euro-American thought has been directly tied to Christianity, and the ability to make sense of biblical allusions is crucial to a analyzing much of the literature coming out of American and Europe during that time period. As an example, just such an allusion appears in the poem “White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling. It was written during the Spanish-American war to encourage Americans to participate in the same kind of colonial imperialism in the Philippines that the British had been engaged in for centuries. Toward the end of the poem Kipling uses sarcasm to express why our “new-caught, sullen peoples” might resent being controlled by a foreign power.

          The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
          “Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”

The light, in this instance, is the enlightenment of Western Civilization being foisted upon a people who were getting along just fine without it for thousands of years. The fact that they are dragging their heels “(Ah, slowly!)” should not at all be surprising. Then, using quotation marks, Kipling puts words in their mouths, to the effect that they prefer the bondage of their “loved Egyptian night” to the obviously superior civilizing influence of the West.

The biblical reference here is to the Jews being enslaved in Egypt. What Kipling is saying is that the Filipinos have the opportunity to be brought into the enlightening embrace of Christianity in the same way that the Jews were liberated from the bondage of their Egyptian masters by trusting god. Kipling’s attempt at sarcasm comes from the assumption that by throwing off their Spanish overlords the Americans are assuming the role of Moses and leading them to the promised land of Western thought and culture. But I use this example on purpose, because Kipling’s narrator doesn’t realize the irony inherent in the fact that colonialism by any other name is still bondage. Despite greater economic freedoms they might have obtained, to the Filipinos the Americans were no different than the Spanish, and the imposition of Western culture upon them was no less a cultural bondage than a physical one. In essence, it’s the same kind of cultural bondage that fundamentalist Christians want to impose on the rest of this country. Knowledge of the Bible, in this case, not only helps us understand Kipling’s meaning, but also shows his unconscious bias and allows us to get a complete picture of this work in a way that we couldn’t otherwise. And this, I’m guessing, is not exactly what Dreisbach had in mind.

He continues his argument with the dominance of The New-England Primer in early American education. Again, the underlying assumption is that because children of the past “learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and civics through the lens of the biblical text,” somehow their education was better, or that our children are suffering from the lack of that lens today. An example he uses from the book to support his argument, “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all,” could not be more poorly chosen. The doctrine of original sin is one of the unfortunate vestiges of our Puritan past. Dreisbach claims that this instilled in the early settlers a “view of human nature and the necessity for imposing restraints on civil magistrates through a variety of checks and balances.” Wrong again. Christian distrust of government came from their experience in being controlled by a monarchy in their civil lives and Rome in their religious. What New Englanders were after is participation in their own government, taking their cue from Martin Luther, who said, “Neither Pope or Bishop nor any other man, has a right to impose a single syllable of law upon a Christian man without his consent.” The assumption in this statement is that Christians are going to behave morally as a result of their belief system, and therefore do not need guidance from outside. If laws are going to be made, they must be with the consent of the people. Now that is important in understanding our beginnings, not the Bible.

Dreisbach goes out of his way, however, not to call this early schooling public education, because from the beginning the federal government refused to fund religious education, leaving it up to the states and local districts to finance schools that promoted religion. In point of fact, it was Christians themselves who were responsible for the secularization of public schools in the early eighteen hundreds. This is something Susan Jacoby points out in her book, The Age of American Unreason.

          [Conservatives] frequently suggest that religion in public schools was taken for granted in
          the early decades of the republic, when the population was overwhelmingly Protestant. In
          fact, the secularization of common schools was initially a response to growing religious
          pluralism among Protestants . . . With Baptists and Congregationalists and Unitarians
          sending their children to the same schools, it began to seem imprudently divisive to favor
          any one religion.

From here Dreisbach recounts the liberating influence of the Bible in Protestant religions in freeing themselves from Catholicism and mandatory church hierarchies, especially when it came to reading and interpreting the Bible. He also cites the ability of most individuals in the colonial period to read because of the importance of the book in their religion. True enough, but it’s unclear how this relates to current public education woes that revolve around the lack of higher level thinking skills. Teaching the Bible doesn’t seem to be the answer. Then he brings in the idea of “civic virtue” as a driving force in a functioning democracy, that “the founders believed that religion must play a vital role in the polity, either for genuinely spiritual or utilitarian reasons.” And though he quotes such luminaries as John Adams and John Dickinson and their enthusiasm for the Bible, he presents no evidence to demonstrate that a secular state is any less moral than a religious one. Given the West’s struggle with Middle Eastern theocracies in the twenty-first century, it’s pretty clear there isn’t any. But on we go.

“Biblical literacy still matters because the Bible not only offers insights on and enriches an understanding of American history and culture but also provides a shared cultural vocabulary that facilitates broad social engagement and conversations on a wide array of religious and civic concerns.” Now we’re getting somewhere. While the study of the Bible has already been shown to be negligible in terms of understanding American history, the phrase “shared cultural vocabulary” is one that has much more relevance. Unfortunately, Dreisbach lapses back into Old Testament justifications for America’s independence from Britain, one that would be more persuasive if American’s themselves had not enslaved Blacks and attempted to persecute the Native American population into extinction. And as was also demonstrated earlier, the Bible itself is not the culprit here, it is the interpretation of the Bible manifested in the deeds of its believers that offer far more genuine insight into history. When Dreisbach claims, “From the Pilgrim Fathers to the Founding Fathers, and even to the present day, Americans have seen themselves reliving the exodus story,” his argument implodes. Which Americans would those be? Black Americans still attempting to overcome four hundred years of state sanctioned hatred against them? The few Native American tribes that still cling to a decimated way of life, herded onto reservations that were originally designed with the express intent of killing them off with diseases like small pox to eventually get the land back? Mexican immigrants that Christians want to send back across the border to “Egypt?”

Or could it be that Dreisbach is speaking of white Christians, who have used the Bible to justify a persecution complex that came over to this country on the Mayflower, and can be directly linked to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, groups that can only be called Christian terrorist organizations. Yes, the understanding of biblical metaphors is instructive, but the underlying assumption of Dreisbach’s argument where he takes for granted the Bible’s moral importance for today is not only false, but belied by the amoral behaviors of many people professing themselves as Christians and no doubt indoctrinated through a devout study of the very Bible he is advocating for. Dreisbach goes on to cite research done into the frequency of biblical references in the works of American authors over references to secular authors. Again, this is not news. Bible literacy is actually vital in understanding those writings, as was demonstrated by the analysis of Kipling earlier. Beyond that, however, its relevance for today is minimal. The author’s insistence on American exceptionalism and continued biblical justification for “manifest destiny” and “global missionary outreach” is actually insulting to those who, like Kipling’s “new-caught, sullen peoples,” don’t want Christianity bullying its way into their lives. And it should be equally insulting to the rest of us who grant religious freedom to Christians in this country, only to have them attempt to deny our freedoms and try to shove their beliefs down our throats.

In the most ironic statement of the entire essay, Dreisbach claims that “In America, the biblical presence has run so deep that the deterioration of biblical literacy amounts to a deterioration of civic discussion, a cognitive failure on all parties to communicate.” In reality, it is the deep-seated biblical obsession itself that accounts for the failure of believers to understand that this is not a Christian nation, and it has never been. Christians claim that the rest of us need an understanding of the Bible in order to get along with them, but what they really want is conversion to their particular cult so that they can have everything the way they want it. Where are the calls for Christians to read the Koran so that they too can participate in the elimination of the “failure on all parties to communicate?” Many Christians in this country don’t want Muslims here, and even the coopting of the Old Testament from the Jewish faith for their own purposes hasn’t stopped anti-Semitism by Christians. And the list goes on. “Every educated mind in the United States--Jews, Christians, other religious believers, even atheists--must be acquainted with the basic stories, themes, claims, and symbols of Christianity and its sacred text, the Bible.” A more hypocritical statement it would be difficult to find. The only thing that the Bible has produced in the last fifty years is a fully justified and rationalized hatred of anyone else who doesn’t believe as Christians do. I wonder what Jesus would have to say about that?

The practical, literary uses of the Bible are all that really matter in the end, and I agree that many Americans are left in the dark if they don’t understand them. When Dreisbach states that, “Familiar idioms, figures of speech, symbols, and proper names in Western cultures have biblical origins. Without knowledge of the Bible, it is difficult to appreciate the works of the greatest artists, writers, and composers in western history,” it is the most cogent argument in the entire essay. Without a working knowledge of the Bible it would be impossible to make sense of much of the great art, literature, and music that has been produced in the last millennium and our lives will all be the poorer for it. But Dreisbach can’t leave well enough alone, and returns to his insidious insistence on Bible education as a substitute for education itself. “Declining biblical literacy rates in the twentieth- and twenty-first century America have accompanied the increasing secularization of culture and a general decline in educational standards.” It certainly has, but to imply a causal relationship between the two is disingenuous at the very least.

Early on in his essay, Dreisbach quotes Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, and intellectual leader in the free black community of the North after hearing President Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “After hearing the president’s brief speech in which he mentioned God fourteen times, quoted the Bible four times, and referenced prayer three times, Douglass famously quipped that Lincoln’s ‘address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.’” But if one is going to use an oppressed minority to make an argument about the moral implications of Bible literacy, one must be prepared to hear the whole story. Douglass, of all people, recognized the inherent hypocrisy of the metaphors of slavery used by the Founding Fathers when at the same time they allowed slavery to flourish in the country they created. In a speech on the Fourth of July, 1852, nine years before Lincoln’s first election, he had this to say about the complicity of the church in maintaining slavery in the South.


          Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name
          of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the
          constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question
          and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate
          slavery--the great sin and shame of America! . . . The American church is guilty, when viewed
          in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed
          in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission
          as well as of commission.

Clearly a thorough knowledge of the Bible did nothing to prevent its being used to bolster the claims by slave owners that slavery was not a sin, just one of many crimes performed in the name of Christianity throughout the centuries. The interpretation of the Bible, not the Bible itself, is the key to understanding American history and all its imperfections. The Bible as myth, however, is tremendously important for understanding the great works of the second millennium, just as the knowledge of Greek mythology is crucial for understanding the Iliad and the Odyssey. But let’s not kid ourselves that this study should be anything more than cultural anthropology. Once the intent of Bible literacy becomes an entry point for proselytizing and conversion, or even moral guidance, it has ceased to be meaningful. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the problems of today are ones that cannot be solved by religion, Christian or otherwise, and anyone who believes differently has bought into an even bigger fairy tale than the Bible.