Post-Apocalyptic Musings

I penned my ponderous essay, “Why I Won’t Be Voting,” last week, in hopes that, having lobbed it into cyberspace, I could then quietly retreat again from all things election-related.  Sure, I was planning to get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch election returns, but that was for mere entertainment value…like watching the Olympics, which also only comes around every four years. I had intended to strictly steer clear of Facebook on the day of and the day after the election, to avoid being swamped in hysteria.  Unfortunately, my family was out of town, and, feeling socially isolated, I couldn’t resist puttering about and listening in.  I beheld many strange and wonderful things, from the comical—people seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada (why only now, not in 2008? They’ve survived the last four years alright, haven’t they?  And how exactly do they expect to find Canada less “socialist” than Obamerica?)—to the disturbing—people suggesting that Obama supporters might warrant church discipline.  Mixed in, usually in linked articles rather than on Facebook itself, were a number of profound and thoughtful observations.

Having wallowed about for a day or two now in the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions to the reactions, I find myself, despite my best intentions, ready to weigh in with my own two cents.  The first cent is political, the second theological.

 

1. What took me the most by surprise about the election was the surprise at the result.  I mean, sure I knew that people on the Right seemed mostly optimistic, and unrealistically so.  But I had figured that it was the understandable brave face that everyone puts on when they go into battle, or when their team has a big game.  Everyone wants to think that their side has a legitimate shot even when outgunned, and even when they have their doubts, they don’t share them with others—that just dampens the team spirit.  But when defeat comes, you bow your head, say, “I knew it was an uphill battle,” shake hands, and move on.  Right?  Not the Right.  

The reactions witnessed on the blogosphere, the media, and in social media yesterday were those of stunned incomprehension.  It became clear that all the brash boasting had not been mere posturing, but sincere belief—sincere belief that despite the weakness, sliminess, and general dislikeableness of their candidate, that despite all the polls, the math, the expert predictions, their candidate was really going to win.  Indeed, not only win, but many believed, trounce.  In the end, it really wasn’t even that close, and it matched up almost perfectly to what the polls were predicting. Hard facts won.  Delusions lost.

 

This reaction disturbed me, because it confirmed the Right’s steady journey away from reality that we have witnessed over the past few years.  Somewhere along the way—I’m not sure when it happened—conservatives in America reached the conclusion that “the mainstream media” was not to be trusted.  It was hopelessly tainted by liberal bias.  Once this idea sunk in, the normal means of testing claims and forming judgments became useless.  Anything that any respectable source of information or opinion said could be automatically discounted; indeed, not only could we legitimately doubt these claims, but we could generally assume that the opposite was the case.  Around the same time, the Right reached the conclusion that scientists as a whole were gained by the same liberal bias.  They were probably part of some conspiracy seeking for one world government.  Anything they said could also be discounted, and indeed, the opposite assumed to be the case.  So engrained have these habits become that the Right has begun to think of these biases as accepted facts.  “Everyone knows” global warming is a hoax.  “Everyone knows” the media is biased.  These are just facts of life, right?  Now, once you have determined that both expert scientific opinion and nearly all respected forms of journalism are unreliable and even openly deceptive, what are you to conclude?  That truth is elusive and we can’t really know anything?  No, that truth is certain and unchangeable and is what you want it to be.  Personal impressions begin to trump all other considerations.  I recall a revealing moment a couple years ago when a Republican congressman ranted to Ben Bernanke about how inflation was spiraling out of control.  Bernanke calmly pointed out that according to all relevant data, the inflation rate was actually at its lowest in years, less than 2 percent.  The congressman responded that he and his constituents, given their impressions, would beg to differ.  The same attitude was manifest in the bizarrely exaggerated claims throughout the campaign about how bad the economy was, how Obama had wrecked America, and how he was the worst president ever.  Sure, there were things to complain about, but it was hard to see how a sober evaluation of the data bore out any of these conclusions.  And yet the odd thing was that they were presented not as opinions—”Well, from where we’re standing, Obama seems like the worst president we’ve ever had”—but as simple facts, which any rational person ought to accept.  

“Any rational person”—ay, there’s the rub.  Of course, in any partisan conflict, it is common for people to begin to think of their opponents as somehow stupid or irrational.  But the Right has made this way of thinking its trademark.  In the “War on Terror” this attitude allowed conservatives to convince themselves that Muslims were filled with an irrational and implacable hatred of America.  Any discussion with them was useless, because they were incapable of rational discourse or human sympathy…they were, in essence, sub-human.  Once such a conclusion had been reached, any argument they made, however reasonable, could be dismissed as a mere ploy. 

Tuesday night revealed that now, conservatives have reached the same conclusion about their fellow Americans who disagree with them.  Obama’s slap-in-the-face victory should have served as a wake-up call, a reminder that there was a real world out there beyond their fantasies, and ignoring it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.  It was time for conservatives to take a good hard look in the mirror and say, “Gosh, we’re not very attractive anymore.  I wonder why?”  It was time for them to recognize that the majority of the country felt differently than them about Obama and its policies, and if they wanted to continue to claim to love America, they’d better find a way to accept this fact, and recognize that living in a society means accepting policies you don’t always like.  Some, to their credit, have done so, and hopefully more will in the weeks and months ahead. For many leading conservatives however, confronted with the awful truth that they’ve been living in the Matrix, and there’s a real world out there to face up to, the response has been to retreat into the comfort of fantasy land, only now with a more militant edge.

 

The new rallying-cry of the Right is Romney’s appalling and much-maligned “Forty-seven percent” remarks.  Conservatives are preparing to raise that as their banner (even while having the gall to accuse Obama of inciting “class warfare”!), adjusting the number slightly upward to 51%.  It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible.  Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts.  It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters.  But that didn’t matter.  Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened.  The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win.  It was hopeless.  Why?  Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy.  They were bribed.  They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it.  Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus.  Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint.  Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%).  Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees.  Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?  

But the purpose of the narrative was not to describe facts.  It was to help make sense of what otherwise seemed inexplicable.  For so thoroughly had the Right equated their vision of the world with truth that the revelation that most did not share their vision could only be explained by positing that these voters were evil or irrational.  Even better, such an explanation provided an excuse.  Republicans need not blame themselves for their failures, when scapegoats were so near at hand.  If 52% of the population were lazy and greedy and cared nothing about the direction of the country, then there was nothing the Right could’ve done.  

A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society.  I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society.  But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens.  Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.  By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people.  And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.  

 

We are at a crossroads, with three paths before us.  1) Conservatives can accept that they are a minority, and retreat, yielding the field of American public policy to the victors, and go into hiding as the prophesied doom approaches. 2) Conservatives can turn militant, harden their platform into one of racial and class warfare and hope their chance comes to impose it upon an unwilling majority.  3) Conservatives can recognize that they live in a divided country, with different values, different understandings of the good, and different views about how to reach it, and then try to figure out how to negotiate these differences, sticking to their principles while accepting the need to make compromises in practice, as the price of continued life together.   

I hope and pray there are enough now willing to take the third option, and if so, I would try and console them with the thought that the divisions are not half so great as they imagine.  Obama is not a raving socialist, nor are American liberals particularly liberal.  They are a tad to the left on a political spectrum that is, by global and historical standards, quite narrow indeed.  If we cannot figure out how to talk to people who share, in fact, most of our basic cultural and political assumptions, then we have lost the power of speech altogether.  Such a call to learn to live life together is not a call to compromise with evil.  First of all, I do not think it self-evidently obvious that the 51% who voted for Obama are evil—they had many good reasons, not least of which was the atrociously insincere candidate the Republicans put forward.  But even if they were (and to be sure, some elements of the Democratic agenda, particularly among the most fervent pro-choice advocates, are evil), we mustn’t forget that we can only combat evil if we attempt to understand it. Just as we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why a Muslim suicide bomber would want to kill American civilians, we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why many Americans would want four more years of Obama.  Comforting ourselves with the fairy tale that they just want Santa Claus will not get us anywhere. 

 

 

2. Now, some theology. 

I was troubled yesterday by the inundation of my Facebook feed with Christian brothers and sisters seeking solace and comfort in God in a time of trial.  Let’s remember, they said, that God will never leave us nor forsake us.  Let’s remember that Jesus is the King, and no earthly election can change that.  Let’s remember that God is in control, and he is working his purposes out, mysterious though they may seem.  

Why should this trouble me?  Why would I be bothered at such fine and Scriptural sentiments?  Well, two reasons.  First is the “methinks the lady doth protest too much” consideration.  To clasp your hands to your chest, hyperventilate, and repeat over and over, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I know it’s all going to be all right.  It’s going to be all right” is generally a sign that you are not fine, and you don’t really think it’s going to be all right.  Many folks yesterday seemed to speak as if they’d just lost a close relative and needed to find comfort in God in a time of such bewilderment and distress.  I would rather them seek comfort in God than elsewhere, but if such comfort was needed, it suggests that many had a rather mixed up set of priorities (not to mention a tenuous grip on reality, since, as I said above, an Obama victory was almost a foregone conclusion).  Second, and related, was the fact that only a Romney loss seemed to call for meditation on the discontinuity between God’s kingdom and our politics.  In the lead up to the election, we heard little enough from Christians on the right about the need to keep things in perspective and remember that the result of the election is a fairly small thing in God’s eyes, and will not obstruct the progress of his kingdom.  On the contrary, we were repeatedly told how much hinged upon it.  A Romney victory, it seems, would have been taken as visible proof that God was at work—here was God’s grace and his government made manifest.  Only a Romney defeat called for the sentiment that God moves in mysterious ways—his hand was now hidden, and we must simply trust.  

Again, I’m glad that many Christians came to that conclusion, but I would ask them to remember that God’s hand is always more or less hidden, that he always moves in mysterious ways, and that whichever of these two candidates had won, it would not have been the visible manifestation of his gracious rule.  If it takes a Democratic victory to keep Christians from immanentizing the eschaton, and remind them that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then let’s have a few more such victories.  

 

Perhaps more troubling, though, was the determination of some to persist nonetheless in discerning God’s hand of eschatological judgment made visible in the election.  For these, Obama’s victory was not to be met with a humble acknowledgment “God moves in mysterious ways, and we’ll trust him, although we don’t know what he’s up to.”  They did know what he was up to—judgment.  Doug Wilson, after offering the standard reassurances that Jesus was Lord, and was in control even if we didn’t know why, immediately contradicted this agnosticism, declaring, “Given the wickedness of key elements in Obama’s agenda . . . we know that whatever the Lord is doing, it is for judgment and not for blessing.”  We can know the will of the Lord in this case, and it was his will to judge this nation.  Of course, Scripture gives us conflicting guidance when it comes to such attempts at prophetic discernment.  We have cases like Job and the Tower of Siloam where we are taught clearly that we must not attempt to divine the Lord’s will in the vicissitudes of history—in particularly, we must not equate particular tragedies with acts of divine wrath and judgment.  On the other hand, in the prophets, we find countless examples of just such equations—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, the whole lot of them, have little hesitation in saying, “This Assyrian invasion is the Lord’s punishment.  This pestilence is the Lord’s punishment.”  How do we reconcile this?  I would tentatively suggest that the reconciliation is found in the fact that these are precisely prophets doing this.  The ability to discern God’s hand in history is the definition of the gift of prophecy, and it is a gift that has, I would argue, ceased (although we can certainly debate that).  This doesn’t mean we can make no attempts at discernment, but they must usually be highly tentative (there are times, of course, when discernment is important and possible—e.g., Germany in 1933—but they are rare), and they do not carry prescriptive weight. 

This last point is key.  If we know exactly what God is doing in particular events in history, then we can know exactly whose side we should be on.  We can know what actions are for cursing and which are for blessing.  And we can, on this basis, tell Christians exactly how they should respond to these circumstances.  We are no longer left with the murky compass of prudence, but should be able to perceive all things clearly in the light of God’s judgment.  The implication of remarks like Wilson’s, it would seem, is that we can know that those who voted for Obama were helping call down God’s curse upon us.  

And in fact, Wilson draws precisely this conclusion—”Professing Christians who voted for Obama were either confusedly or rebelliously heaping up judgment for all of us.”  Every “principled vote,” he says, offered in faith before the Lord, should be respected, “even if the vote cast differed from our own.”  But he apparently has in mind votes for a third party vs. votes for Romney, since he goes on to classify all votes for Obama under the heading of unprincipled votes.  Now, if I can know that a professing Christian is heaping up judgment for the rest of us, how should I be expected to treat that Christian?  Will I want to live together with him in love and seek to understand him, or will I try to distance myself from him?  It is hard to see how this kind of rhetoric can square with the doctrine of Christian liberty, or how it can be expected to have any effect other than intensifying divisions among Christians and rendering mutual understanding increasingly impossible.  It is the theological equivalent of what the commentators at Fox News are doing—consigning all Obama voters to the realm of wickedness and irrationality, instead of trying to understand them.   

Many Christians are clearly of the opinion that if pastors were doing their job right (including a more vigorous use of church discipline), there would not be many Obama supporters in the church.  One friend wrote

“we need to be serious about our Christianity.  It’s not hard to see why President Obama was reelected.  He won 43% of the Protestant vote, and 50% of the Catholic vote.  I’ve got to ask – how can you be a Christian and vote for a blood-thirsty, baby-killing, free sex-loving agenda?  How can you?  I’ll tell you how – because our pastors and our churches have failed.  They’ve not only failed to boldly proclaim the Gospel (which condemns both murder and free sex, as well as a host of other immoralities), but because they’ve failed to hold their congregations accountable.  This is where a free and open membership has destroyed the church.  Pastors must be serious about their obligation to Christ and His Church.  What are the keys for, after all?  If your members are in sin and are unwilling to repent, then they must be excommunicated. I’m not saying our churches can’t be full of sinners.  They are, they must be, and they always will be.  But our churches should be full of repentant sinners. 

Faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom, this suggests, requires a particular affiliation in the earthly kingdom, and this needs to be policed by the ministers of Christ’s kingdom.  You couldn’t find a much better example of why Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine is necessary.  

 

Now, my beef with this is of course not that faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom never has anything to do with worldly politics.  Obviously, I think it has a great deal to do with it, and there are times when a Christian’s duties should be clear.  But even when they are clear (e.g., end the slave trade, protect the needy, resist abortion), the means to those ends are not always clear.  In the present case, we have not been given a candidate who makes any plausible claim to stand for Christian principles.  What we are left with is a prudential decision between two candidates who are likely to do a good deal of harm, in which we try to decide which will do the least harm.  We should not consider it remotely obvious, in this circumstance, that one was the Christian choice, and that everyone who voted otherwise was a servant of wickedness or incapable of discernment.  After all, as Steve Holmes has pointed out in a helpful essay, the large majority of Christians outside the US hoped for an Obama victory.  Is that because all of them, too, are waiting for Santa Claus, or are heaping up God’s judgment on us?  Really?  It’s time for us to stop hiding in the ghetto, man up, and face the arduous task of persuasion and debate in a world where our own perspective is not the only plausible one, where we will meet disagreement at every turn, and no doubt find ourselves surprised to discover that it is, from time to time, intelligent disagreement.

 

(In addition to Holmes’s essay just linked, I recommend, for further reading, Matthew Tuininga’s reflectionsa piece published by the Atlantic yesterday, and Peter Leithart’s butt-kicking prognosis at First Things.)

(UPDATE: See also this astonishingly trenchant analysis by Alastair Roberts of the differences between the way British Christians and American Christians approach politics, which resonates with a great deal of my own observations after more than three years here in the UK.)


Like a Madman Who Throws Firebrands

Over the past few days, the good Lord decided to play a cruel trick on the GOP for the second straight election cycle, aiming a hurricane directly at New Orleans just as the Republican Party was rolling out the red carpet and striking up the fanfare for its National Convention, at which it would formally introduce to the world a candidate with whom we have long since become familiar to the point of contempt, and would rally its troops with battle cries, “Down with the socialist!” 

A major hurricane aiming for any stretch of the US coast threatens to upset the spirit of such an occasion, calling for unity when division and partisanship are at their highest pitch, calling for sobriety when self-congratulatory effusion is the order of the day.  But a hurricane headed for New Orleans, as Gustav was during the 2008 RNC and Isaac was this year, is the worst scenario imaginable, summoning up the haunting memories of those dark days in late August and early September 2005, when Katrina dealt the US its deadliest blow in more than 75 years and drowned one of its great cities.  In 2008, several key attendees at the Convention were forced to stay at home, some of the proceedings were abbreviated, and the tone was greatly sobered.  Thankfully, Gustav spared New Orleans—just—while dealing much of the rest of SE Louisiana a punishing blow. This year, the same scenario was being replayed, but made even worse by two additional factors.  First, some genius bigwig in the Republican Party, undeterred by the experience of Gustav, had the bright idea of scheduling this year’s convention in Tampa, FL, on the US Gulf Coast at the height of hurricane season.  Isaac duly made its lumbering way toward Tampa at first, frightening the organizers into canceling the first day’s events.  Then, having opted to spare Tampa, Isaac set his sights for New Orleans and timed his arrival to coincide exactly with the seventh anniversary of the Katrina catastrophe.  A distraction like this was almost worse than the Convention being cancelled.

Unlike Katrina, then, Isaac didn’t even have to make landfall yet before igniting a political firestorm, as both parties jostled to make whatever hay they could out of this sensational turn of events.  Understandably, the Republicans were in much the more difficult position, and so their fiercest champion strode forth, wielding the vorpal sword of his untamed tongue with a rare ferocity, and all but suggesting that the Democrats were steering Isaac via a remote control hidden deep in the dark fortress of Democratic Party headquarters.  I am speaking, of course, of Rush Limbaugh.  

 

Of course, he didn’t really say that about the remote control, so far as I’m aware, but his actual claims and insinuations were scarcely less ridiculous.  Indeed, so much so that may people will say that it’s a silly waste of time even engaging them, or that I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill because he was so clearly joking.  Jon Stewart, they say, makes outlandish, clearly false statements and no one bats an eye, because it’s a joke.  Let’s give Rush the same benefit of the doubt, they say.  Well, was he joking?  In some remarks perhaps; in others, it certainly seems not.  It is, at any rate, far from clear—unlike Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a laugh-track studio audience, and doesn’t burst into a silly grin at his own jokes (not that we can see, at any rate), to clue us in.  This lack of clarity means that he bears a greater responsibility for the reliability of his remarks, and how they might be taken, than a mere satirist (and even a satirist isn’t off the hook entirely, as we shall discuss below).  Moreover, for millions of Americans, Rush is their chief source of political news and opinion, their source for facts.  Limbaugh has been called “The Number One voice for conservatism in our Country,” and has received the William F. Buckley, Jr. Award for Media Excellence and a “Defender of the Constitution Award” from CPAC; in a 2009 Zogby poll, he was rated “the most trusted news personality in America,” garnering 12.5% of responses.  That being the case, he has to be taken seriously, whether we want to or not, and his remarks have a great capacity to do harm.

 

So what were these remarks?  Well, there were a great number, over several broadcasts. But among the most controversial were the following (see also here and here):

“The media is now out there saying that Hurricane Katrina is hanging like a pall over the Republican convention in Tampa. So this whole thing has been politicized, as the Democrats politicize everything, and that’s why we are talking about it. Now, I want to remind you: All last week… And, no, at no time here am I alleging a conspiracy. At no time. With none of this am I alleging conspiracy. All last week what was the target? Tampa. What was going on in Tampa this week? 

The Republican National Convention. A pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet. And I noticed that the hurricane center’s track is — and I’m not alleging conspiracies here. The hurricane center is the regime; the hurricane center is the Commerce Department.

It’s the government.

It’s Obama.

And I’m noticing that that track stayed zeroed in on Tampa day after day after day. And the Republicans reacted to it accordingly over the weekend, canceling the first day of the convention. What could be better for the Democrats than the Republicans to cancel a day of this?

And at eight p.m. Saturday night I see one of the biggest, one of the largest shifts in model forecast I have seen since 1997 when I moved down here and started caring about this stuff and started studying it….This was a beeline. This is gonna follow the coast of Cuba right up to New Orleans, in every model.  Again, I’m alleging no conspiracy. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m going somewhere with this. I’m just telling you what happened.

I’m sharing with you my thought process, ’cause I know full well that if you give these people the slightest chance and they’re gonna turn this into Katrina and they’re gonna scare the hell out of New Orleans and they’re gonna revive, “Bush doesn’t care about people” and revive all of it. They’re gonna politicize everything ’cause they do it. And now they had the model runs allowing them to do it.

Now they had these model runs allowing them to start scaring the hell out of people in New Orleans and make political connections to Bush.

It was all there.” 

There are a great many points to pick up on here, but let’s first deal with the obvious issue: his non-conspiracy theorist conspiracy allegation.  Repeatedly in the broadcast, he hints that there must be some conspiracy, for there is just so much coincidence that it’s “unbelievable,” but repeatedly states that he is alleging no conspiracy.  This is of course the oldest game in politics—”Hey, I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…”  He suggests that there’s something very fishy and unsavory going on, but makes sure he can protest innocence of having actually accused government officials of criminal breaches of the public trust—although in this particular quote, he comes very close to it.  I expect that Limbaugh is too smart to actually think that the NHC deliberately distorted the forecast.  To this extent, people who have defended him to me on the basis that he was deliberately making an outlandish claim just to enrage the liberal media are probably right.  But neither was it a mere joke, an isolated outlandish claim.  On the contrary, the entire broadcast was dedicated to a meticulous (though in fact highly distorted and inaccurate) point-by-point narrative of the timeline of various forecasts regarding the hurricane, suggesting various things that didn’t add up, that were too odd to be coincidence.   

Of course, his dark hints didn’t seem to add up with one another.  On the one hand, he notes that the computer models shifted the forecast track suddenly away from Tampa and toward New Orleans immediately after the Republicans decided to cancel the first day of the Convention, suggesting that the forecast toward Tampa was merely an attempt to disrupt the convention, and once that mission was accomplished, the convention could then be best further disrupted by forecasting a hit on New Orleans.  Both the original forecast toward Tampa and the later forecast towards New Orleans were, on this view, politically motivated.  But what about the fact that the hurricane did in fact make a bullseye hit on New Orleans, just as the later forecast called for?  Does that not vindicate the new forecast?  Did the NHC just get lucky?  On the other hand, Limbaugh elsewhere in the broadcast chides the NHC for not acting immediately on these new model runs (which they had apparently conjured for political ends), and staunchly maintaining its near-Tampa forecast well beyond when it was justified based on the computer models.  Clearly, these two sets of accusations don’t fit together.  If the NHC made up the model runs (which, in any case, is impossible, as they are generated by a whole slew of different agencies and research institutions around the world, many of which are not under US gov’t control) to cause a panic about New Orleans, then why would they hold off on actually updating their forecast track accordingly?  Or if the accusation is that the NHC was foolishly disregarding its reliable models, then what was the point of casting doubt on the trustworthiness of the models?  If the problem is that the forecast is all just politically motivated, then how was it so amazingly accurate in the end (once the NHC figured out that New Orleans was under the gun, it nailed the forecast track, missing by only 25 miles with its 48-hour forecast, compared to an average error of 80 miles over that time frame).  The fact that the various dark hints don’t even add up with one another, much less with the real world lends credence to the suggestion that a lot of this was just an act.  But to what end, we must ask? 

Some will say, “Just to make the liberals mad.  To make them freak out and actually believe that he meant it, and waste their energies attacking him.”  So his defenders will say.  Even if this is true, it is a weak defense indeed, since I’m not sure when saying something offensive just to make your opponents mad became a legitimate purpose of public speech.  (We will return to this later.)  But I think clearly there is a further motivation—which is to undermine public trust in the government, and encourage conservatives in a sense that everyone is out to get them, and perhaps in league against them.  These inchoate convictions rarely operate quite at the level of propositional logic, but are more like gut emotions.  Therefore, Limbaugh does not have to make actual hard and fast accusations; he merely has to create an atmosphere of suspicion, a sense of unease, a sense that there are dark dealings afoot, and that the one entity you can never trust is “the regime, the government.”  

This notion of Limbaugh’s that the National Hurricane Center is “the regime.  It’s the government.  It’s Obama” is sufficiently striking as to call for us to pause and comment.  Rarely has the right’s totalitarian pathology been more neatly showcased.  The right has in recent years forgotten entirely what “the government” is—namely, a widely-dispersed collection of agencies, bodies, and leaders, each with different defined spheres of authority, representing different sections of the body politic and serving it in a wide variety of ways.  We have this nifty thing called separation of powers in the US, and also a division of levels between federal, state, and local, so that there is no unitary abstraction that one can simply peg as “the government,” much less “the regime,” but really just a bunch of people doing their jobs, some badly, some well (and needless to say, they aren’t all under the direct control of Herr Obama).  For this good old American constitutional perspective, modern conservatism has substituted a baldly totalitarian conception, in which we find ourselves faced with a united Leviathan, subsuming all authorities and directed by a single baleful will, which it has pitted against the American people using all its resources.

Now, conservatives may respond that this is not what they want, but what the liberals have created.  The Constitutional separation of powers has broken down.  State and local functions have been devoured by the federal government.  Well yes, to some extent.  But not so completely as folks like Limbaugh pretend.  And the terrible thing is that with this sort of rhetoric, conservatives are accelerating the process.  We must not underestimate the power of the imagination when it comes to politics—this is one of the best lessons I learned from the work of William Cavanaugh.  Political realities can only proceed so far, unless empowered by the collective imagination.  If oppressive regimes capture the imaginations of the people, making them yield to fear, then they become as powerful as feared.  If the people see through the pretensions of the regime, and see themselves as free, then they become so.  If we make a Leviathan of the government in our imagination, then it becomes a Leviathan.  If we see it as just a collection of fallible representatives and often petty bureaucrats, then that is what it becomes.  If we see it as an enemy standing over against us and trying to quash our freedoms, we will find liberty and authority in inescapable conflict; but if we see it as a guardian of our liberties, or still better, as a representative apparatus through which we can exercise our corporate agency, then we may be surprised to find that freedom and authority begin to work in harmony.   All that is merely an aside, but an important one.  Limbaugh wants his listeners to see the National Hurricane Center, and every branch of government, as part of “the regime,” part of “Obama,” part of the enemy.  This, combined with his conspiratorial suggestions, has the clearly-intended effect of undermining public trust in the NHC.  

 

It is not hard to see why this is a big deal, but I will dwell on it, because it is a pet peeve of mine.  There are few agencies of the federal government that do finer work than the National Hurricane Center, few that more obviously fulfill the purpose of good government—identifying threats to its citizenry, and working to disseminate information to the citizenry to warn them of dangers, and to the authorities to help them coordinate a response.  The NHC is in fact one of the US gov’t agencies with a substantial altruistic component, as it supplies data to other governments in the Caribbean and Mexico to help them warn and prepare their citizens as well.  It is no exaggeration to say that many thousands, indeed tens of thousands of lives, have been saved in recent years by the NHC’s work.  In terms of its forecasting competence, the NHC far outstrips its international counterparts, such as the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, and it is always improving the accuracy of its forecasts.  It is admirably unflappable when beset both with bewildering storms that seem downright unforecastable (as Isaac seemed at times), and the political tempests in which it regularly finds itself.  For the NHC’s is a terribly thankless job.  For all its advances, the science is still far too poorly-understood for forecasts to be as precise as we would like.  The NHC must therefore always walk a fine line between excessive paranoia, with devastating economic consequences as unnecessary evacuations are ordered, and complacency, with devastating human consequences as people are not adequately warned, and death tolls mount.  In either case, it faces severe public backlash and pressure from public officials and the media.  Indeed, usually in any given major storm, it manages to receive both accusations simultaneously.  Such has been the case with Isaac, as some in SE Louisiana, like the President of Plaquemines parish, have chided the NHC for under-forecasting the danger from Isaac, and from classing it as a Category 1 when they think it clearly deserves a Category 2 or 3 designation, from the level of devastation.  As a matter of fact, the very serious storm surge risks posed by Isaac were clearly emphasized in every forecast the NHC put out for the last 48 hours before landfall—with a maximum surge of 12-15 feet predicted, which may have been just slightly surpassed in one or two communities that reported 16 feet.  Likewise, the NHC thoroughly evaluated all the evidence regarding intensity, and there was none to suggest that Isaac was in fact a Cat. 2, but the NHC did emphasize that because of Isaac’s size, Cat. 2 and 3-level effects would be felt.  On the other side, many, including Limbaugh, accused the NHC of over-hyping the danger.  “It’s just a Category 1, for goodness’ sake!”  The same accusation was leveled after Hurricane Irene last year (which became the fifth most damaging storm in history), and this is a dangerous accusation to be bandying about.  If the public gets it into its head that the NHC is over-hyping the danger, or has tended to over-hype the danger in the past, then the public is inclined not to take warnings so seriously, at present or in the future, and not to act on these warnings.  Evacuations that are ordered do not take place, lives that should have been saved are lost.

This is particularly difficult for the NHC because it relies so much on the media to get its message out that the public often identifies or confuses the two.  The NHC’s sober, carefully-worded forecast is mediated through breathless and hyperbolic reporters, and when they prove unreliable, the blame frequently falls upon the NHC.  The problem here, of course, is that the media, through which the message reaches the public, has a rather different agenda than the NHC, an ulterior motive.  And it is not, as Rush Limbaugh is convinced, that the media is hell-bent on undermining the Republican party.  If that were the case, why would they bother to report on the convention at all?  Why not just give it the silent treatment?  Conservative claims of a conspiracy in the “liberal media” are as old as the hills, and they aren’t getting one bit more convincing with age.  To the extent that we can speak of the media as a whole (and it’s worth pointing out that the reified abstraction “the media” is every bit as much an imaginary bogeyman as “the government”), its primary objective, far more important than any political preferences among newscasters, is to make money.  And they make money by increasing ratings.  And they increase ratings by generating hysteria or controversy.  This weekend gave them an immense opportunity for both.  If the media over-hyped the risk to the GOP convention (as I have little doubt they did), it was not because they were trying to sabotage it, but because they knew it would keep viewers glued to their screens.  (There is certainly no reason to blame the forecasters here—on the contrary, they were always very modest in the claims they made of the potential threat to Tampa.  Hurricane expert Jeff Masters, for instance, put out regular updates on the odds that the storm would force an evacuation in Tampa.  They never climbed above 2 or 3%.)  If they then over-hyped the risk to New Orleans (and, though I wasn’t watching them, I’m not sure that they did—for Isaac posed a very grave risk indeed), it was for the same reason: money.

 

This leads to consideration of another of Limbaugh’s startling claims in this broadcast—that there is no reason why an imminent deadly threat to New Orleans should affect the convention at all:

“Last night on NBC Nightly News, the anchor Lester Holt is speaking with the chief White House correspondent F. Chuck Todd about Tropical Storm Isaac and the Republican convention.  And Lester Holt said, ‘You have this storm churning offshore. It may not make a big deal in Tampa, but is there some concern about the tone of the convention if we are seeing communities along the Gulf Coast suffering some heavy damage?’  Now, why would that have anything to do with the Republican convention?  In the real world, why would a hurricane striking anywhere in the Gulf have anything to do with the Republican convention?  With the tone of the Republican convention?”  

Rush elaborates on this in follow-up broadcasts—how dare “the liberal media” act like the potential crisis in New Orleans should distract in any way from the important proceedings in Tampa?  This is not merely the Republican National Convention, he tells us. It’s “a pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet.”  Indeed.  That is the one tragedy of this election cycle, isn’t it?  That we’ve heard so little about Mr. Romney.  For the past 18 months, Americans have been desperately flipping channels, hoping to learn something about this person, but they’ve scarcely had the chance to see his face.  All kidding aside, Limbaugh displays here a frightfully distorted sense of what politics is about.  For him, politics is a war, a fight to the death which “we” (the conservatives) must win, and which “they” (the liberals) must lose.  But that’s not what politics is supposed to be about.  Politics is the business of serving and protecting the people of our country, caring about and pursuing their well-being.  If the Republicans are genuinely interested in that, then it should be deeply relevant to them that the lives of thousands are in danger.  It may not be feasible to call off the convention, but it must clearly affect its tone, and any responsible Republican should be more than happy for the convention’s proceedings to take a backseat to the unfolding crisis.  

Hurricanes and natural disasters are one of God’s chief ways of keeping us humble.  All of our plans and preparations can be suddenly brought to naught by immense powers beyond our control.  Political maneuvering that once seemed so important is suddenly put into perspective, and recognized for the relative pettiness it really is, while life-and-death decisions take center stage.  One mustn’t be hasty to read divine intentions into particular weather events, but ultimately, it was God—not the liberal media, not the National Hurricane Center, that was interfering with the Republican National Convention, taking it out of the limelight, humbling its pretensions.  Limbaugh’s bizarre accusations against everyone from Lester Holt to Obama to the National Hurricane Center to computer models run by the “European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts” the National Hurricane Center are the result of his refusal to accept this humbling.

  

Now, what about the “satire” defense—the idea that Limbaugh was so obviously making outlandishly exaggerated claims that he did not really intend anyone to believe them, and so they are to be excused?  As I have argued above, I find this a very unconvincing reading of the broadcasts in question.  Many of his claims he did intend to be believed, and others, while not necessarily intended to be taken at face value, were clearly intended to encourage in his hearers a deep-seated suspicion of authority—well, every authority but himself, at any rate.  Even if this were not the case, and he meant for such remarks to be taken in jest, this does not give him a free pass.  Even comedians can cross the line and say something so offensive as to merit condemnation, and even a comedian cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.  When there are lives on the line, as there certainly when someone questions the trustworthiness of the NHC during a dangerous hurricane, the standards are necessarily much higher.  And the “satire” defense can really only work when the speaker’s joking intention is manifestly obvious, as it clearly was not in this case.  When I asked one faithful Limbaugh listener for clarification, he told me, “You can’t listen to the man in sound bites to see from where he comes. You have to listen for three hours a day five days a week for about six weeks to begin to understand something of the man’s thought process.”  Unfortunately, many people are not willing to listen to Mr. Limbaugh for three hours a day five days a week six weeks in a row, and the nature of radio in today’s era is that it comes in sound bites.   If Limbaugh knew that his insiders, his faithful following, would have recognized that it was all just one big joke (which still seems implausible), he must surely have known that many others would hear his remarks and take them seriously—either (for the conspiratorially inclined) as a serious indictment of the NHC and Obama, or (for the rest of us) as serious evidence of his derangement.  In either case, Proverbs 26:18-19 is strikingly apropos: “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘I was only joking!'”

Limbaugh’s remarks, in short, are an excellent example of the danger to society that comes when “free speech” becomes a free-floating subjective right, a liberty whose exercise never needs any justification beyond the whims of the speaker, instead of being firmly anchored, as it once was, within a nexus of objective public duties that it was to serve.  Public speech comes with an obligation to contribute to the public good, an obligation to speak the truth, and a legal guarantee of free speech is intended as a bar to oppressive censorship that would prevent such healthy truth-telling in public debate.  Such a guarantee only works when the citizenry still understands that they are bound by a moral duty to use this freedom responsibly; otherwise, it becomes a mere license to abuse, offend, deceive, distort, incite, and enrage, a license whose effects often prove far more harmful than the evils of censorship.  When such speech proceeds to the point of insinuating to citizens that their leaders are willing to gamble away their lives for the sake of immediate political gain, it qualifies as what would have once been recognized and prosecuted as sedition.  If we continue to feel that it is safer to leave sedition unprosecuted than to give the government power over speech that it might abuse, then the burden that falls on us as citizens is correspondingly greater.  If the authorities are to remain passive in the face of madmen who throw firebrands, then we as citizens must be active, active in speaking out against liars and allowing them no place of influence, boycotting them and refusing to give them our advertising dollars.

 

Some will complain that it is unfair to single out Limbaugh—there are a host of talking heads on the right and the left that are just as bad.  That may be so, and to the extend that it is, this applies to them as well.  Rather than continuing to accept the proliferation of absurd and untrue speech on both sides of the political divide, Christians need to embrace their responsibility to be guardians of the truth and haters of falsehood wherever it may appear.  


My Bleeding Country

As most everyone now knows, last Saturday a deranged youth in Arizona gunned down a Democrat congresswoman, together with a crowd of staffers and citizens.  6 were killed, another 18 wounded; congressman Gifford miraculously survived a point-blank shot to the head.  But the spray of literal bullets unleashed was scarcely sadder than the rhetorical firefight that soon filled the country’s political media–which in this day and age, seems to be all its media.  Some wondered aloud whether a shooting like this wasn’t the logical result of years of violent political rhetoric and demonizing of the opposition, and names like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh surfaced, as indeed they were sure to do in any discussion about polarizing politics.  Some went further, singling out Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map of politicians to take down.  Rather than having the restraint to leave the more pointed and overstated accusations unanswered, and looking beyond them to the very important discussion about political rhetoric, both Palin and Limbaugh took the opportunity to step back into the limelight, climb on their soapboxes, and fire a heated counterblast to legions of imagined opponents.  The irony is as sad as it is unsurprising–in the midst of expressing concern about polarized politics on the one hand, and denying its existence on the other hand, the two “sides” have managed to give us Exhibit A in a showcase of polarized, slanderous politics.  

Let’s try to step back, sort through this mess, and make space for confession.

Did Sarah Palin incite Jared Loughner to violence?  No, that would clearly be an absurd accusation; and indeed, so far as I know, no one has made it in its baldest form.  Did violent political rhetoric (which right now is mostly the weapon of conservatives) incite him?  Again, no, this would be an overstatement.  But is it a relevant part of the discussion?  Those seeking to deny that it is have laid stress on the fact that Loughner was mentally disturbed, confused, and irrational; ergo, they say, he could not have been politically motivated.  But this, I think, is to miss the point of the concerns that have been raised.  The point is that, whatever the psychiatric pathology that set Loughner awry, he decided to take out his angst on an elected official, a congresswoman.  These aren’t exactly lurking on every street corner–there were thousands of other people he might have decided to shoot, but he decided on her as his target.  Why?  Because he’d convinced himself than an undesirable politician was the cause of all his problems, and the problems in the world, and was a suitable object for his violence.  It’s not unreasonable to ask the question, “Why?”  Why single out a congresswoman in this way?  Indeed, the fact that many think it a needless question to ask simply underlines how dangerously accustomed we have become to pinning all our problems on politicians, and singling them out as enemies.  This has become part of the air we breathe, not least the toxic air of talk radio.

Richard Hooker put his finger on the problem more than 400 years ago:

“First in the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpnes of reproofe; which being oftentimes done begetteth a good opinion of integritie, zeale and holines, to such constant reproovers of sinne, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evill, unlesse themselves were singularly good.  The next thinge hereunto is to impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth, unto the kind of Ecclesiastical governement established.  Wherein, as before by reproving faults, they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be vertuous; so by finding out this kinde of cause they obtaine to be judged wise above others….” 

The only difference now is that we are not so pious as to blame the faults of the world on the ecclesiastical government, but the civil.  

And this is the highly relevant and highly important question raised by the Arizona shootings–did a country of demagogues who try to persuade their citizens that the political opposition is the cause of “all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth” have some effect on persuading a deranged man that his local congressman was a suitable target on which to vent his wrath?  In one article I read, a leading psychologist made this balanced statement: “Political rhetoric provided some of the context for his thinking, the pretext for his actions, but the core reasons for his actions were his psychosis.”  That sounds fair enough.  And as a context and pretext, it certainly bears some discussing.  If an intoxicated sports fan decided to bust in to the visiting team’s locker and smash the shins of the players, and if this happened on a campus already criticized for fostering very bad sportsmanship, wouldn’t it be legitimate to raise questions about the ethos of that campus?  Even if it turned out that there was no causal connection whatsoever between Loughner’s actions and the political ethos of the country (which seems unlikely, given how even the most maniacal of us are deeply shaped by our environment), this tragedy nevertheless serves as a reasonable occasion to raise concerns about that ethos, concerns that desperately need raising.  

This, it seems to me, is the legitimate role of pointing out, for instance, Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map.  The point is not–or should not be–that Loughner saw this map and said, “Oh, I guess I’d better go shoot Congressman Gifford–that’ll make Sarah Palin happy.”  The point is that we should say, “Dang.  That sure doesn’t look too good in retrospect.  I wonder if it’s really a good idea to mark out your political opposition with gun crosshairs.  A metaphor only, perhaps, but surely the wrong metaphor.”  The blame, of course, should not fall only on conservatives, even if it is true that they have recently been the chief offenders.  The behavior of the right over the past couple years has been truly puerile and reprehensible, but we shouldn’t be too quick to forget the shrill (literally–remember Howard Dean) rhetoric of the left during the final years of the Bush administration.  

The fact that many in our nation have been unable to grasp this, to grasp the difference between a direct cause and a relevant context, and unwilling to take this opportunity for serious self-examination, using it instead for more political grandstanding and demonizing of the ambiguous “left” and “right,” seems to prove more than anything how right some were to raise the questions, how desperately our country needs to grow up.  I mean, seriously.  The kid on the playground at recess feels like every perceived insult has to be matched with a heavier counterinsult, or even a well-placed punch, to preserve his honor.  But hopefully once you grow up, you learn the wisdom of the proverb “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”  Or, to quote Hooker again, “Wee are still perswaded that a bare deniall is answer sufficient to thinges which meere phancie objecteth; and that the best apologie to wordes of scorne and petulancie is Isackes apologie to his brother Ismael, thapologie which patience and silence maketh.  Our answer therefore to their reasons [arguments] is No; to their scoffes nothing.”  Would that Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh could have been so persuaded.  Few enough in the media were seeking to directly implicate them as causes of the shooting, and those who were could be safely ignored as hypocrites and fools.  To the broader concerns that had been voiced, a response might be in order, and hopefully a balanced, patient, and self-critical response.  But no, what do we get? 

Sarah Palin accuses the media of engaging in “blood libel” and Rush Limbaugh says “They are accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder,” boasting that he now represents “a majority of Americans.”  This latter claim is patently absurd–the hard, vitriolic right represented by such as Palin and Limbaugh cannot represent more than a quarter of the electorate at most.  Of course, it may be true that a majority of Americans now engage in vitriolic political rhetoric and demonizing the opposition.  If so, then a majority of Americans should be confessing their sins in the wake of these shootings, recognizing the responsibility we all bear.  But, of course, Sarah Palin will have none of that.  Quoting Ronald Reagan’s “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” she went on to say, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle.”  Each individual, and each individual only, bears guilt for the crime he commits.  Understood in one sense, this is a truism.  But understood in a fuller sense, this is simply not in accord with Christian teaching, or with reason.  Corporate guilt is a basic reality in Scripture–all Israel bears responsibility for the evils of some Israelites, and even righteous men like Daniel beg forgiveness for the sins of the wicked.  Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says this powerfully in the Brothers Karamazov–we must learn to ask forgiveness of every creature in the world for the wrong that is done to it, a wrong that we share in due to our sin.  Even aside from theologizing, it is not hard to recognize that the actions of a society influence the actions of its members, and when one of those members commits a monstrous deed, all of society should examine its conscience.  Nuanced moral judgment, of course, will make a distinction between those who are direct causal agents of a crime, and those who are part of the context that facilitated it, and will apportion a legal guilt on the former that does not rest on the latter; but the latter cannot therefore absolve itself of any need for penitence.  

Such inability to engage in nuanced moral judgment–evidenced by Limbaugh’s wildly off-the-mark claim that most of America was being accused of being “accomplices to murder” has become a distinctive of American politics, it seems, right and left.  As has, of course, hypocrisy.  Palin and Limbaugh both deplored the fact that some would use this tragedy as a pretext to score political points against the opposition, and simultaneously, they both sought to do so: “‘They will use anyone,’ Limbaugh said of the left. ‘They will use any event. They will take what is a genuine tragedy and without any evidence whatsoever attempt to massage it for their own political benefit. And they can’t do it by touting their ideas. They can’t do it by explaining the virtue of their beliefs. So what do they have to do? They have to impugn, destroy get rid of, regulate out of business, their political opponent in media if they have a chance.’”  Can you tell me, Limbaugh, in good conscience, that you aren’t massaging these accusations for your political benefit, using it as another opportunity to demonize the left?

Sarah Palin is right to say at least that we shouldn’t be using this tragedy to point fingers at one another; no, we should be using it to point fingers at ourselves, at all of us who encourage crimes like this by publicly hating, rather than loving our brothers.  It’s no surprise, I suppose, that a nation that so habitually demonizes and kills its enemies, real and imaginary, outside its borders, should soon find this hate spilling over into how we treat those within.  Those who don’t learn to love their enemies will soon find it difficult to love even their friends.  When we see these public actions being mimicked by private citizens, the only adequate response is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

 

Some articles:

Limbaugh’s reaction

Reaction to Palin’s reaction

Another reaction to Palin 

Contrasting Obama and Palin

Full text of Palin’s message