Main

April 08, 2018

To All My Eastern Orthodox Friends: Christos Anesti!

Last week, I wished a Happy Passover and a Happy Western Easter to all my friends who celebrated the holidays. Tonight, as one who was baptized Greek Orthodox, let me wish "Christos Anesti" to all my Eastern Orthodox friends and family.

Enjoy the holiday!

April 01, 2018

Happy Passover and Happy Easter to Those Who Celebrate

Last night, an annual ABC-network ritual (the showing of "The Ten Commandments" in a 4 hour-40 minute+ time slot) reminded me to wish all my Jewish friends a Happy Passover and all my Western Christian friends a Happy Easter! Next Sunday, I'll join my family for the traditional Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration.

And for those who celebrate none of these holidays, you've got two others to revel in: Happy April Fools' Day and Happy Spring (despite the fact that we're expecting more snow tomorrow here in NYC!).

March 27, 2018

Ayn Rand and the World She Knew

The title of this blog entry is a take-off on Anne Heller's biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. The reason for this will become apparent.

I've been having a conversation with a few friends, and among the issues we were discussing was why it seemed that the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand set herself up against so many on the left and the right, and burned so many bridges to folks across the political spectrum, who might have been her allies.

It is as if Rand and her acolytes created a world, a "Galt's Gulch" of their own, which became hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. Even as Rand warned against the fallacy of "thinking in a square," too many of her devoted followers have been incapable of stepping out of that box and critically engaging with the wider intellectual world.

This is not just a debate between those who have advocated a "closed system" approach, which views Rand's thought as consisting only of whatever she wrote or endorsed in her lifetime, versus those who have argued that Rand's philosophy is an open system: that is, we can agree on the fundamentals she set forth in each of the major branches of her philosophy, but that with intellectual evolution over time, there will be many additional contributions that will fill in the many gaps that were left by Rand and consistent with her fundamentals.

On this point, I've always had one major question for those on either side of the divide: Where do we draw the line as to what is "essential" or "nonessential" or "fundamental" or "not fundamental" to Objectivism?

o Her views on why a woman should not be President?
o Her views on the "disgusting" character of homosexuality and on the sexual roles played by men and women?
o Her views on Native Americans?
o Her very specific tastes in painting, sculpture, film, literature, and music?

And the list goes on and on and on. I've never quite heard a satisfactory answer to these questions. It is ironic, too, that so many advocates of the "closed system" approach almost always find a way to bracket out of that closed system the very real contributions made by both Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden---when Rand herself argued that the work of these individuals, prior to her break with them in 1968, were among "the only authentic sources of information on Objectivism."

And regardless of whether one ascribes to a "closed" or "open" system approach, what is the ultimate goal of those who claim to be Rand's intellectual progeny? To be consistent with "Objectivism" or to be consistent with reality? In one sense, the work of anybody influenced by Rand may not be consistent with "Objectivism" but consistent with a "Randian" approach to philosophy and social theory, broadly understood. To this extent, "we are all Randians now."

One thing I think is fairly clear, however: Over her lifetime, Rand definitely became more and more insulated and isolated, unwilling to engage those on the left or the right. And even though she clearly had no problem with "purges" during the days of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, today, those associated with the Ayn Rand Institute have turned such "purges" into an art form.

But I think that at least with regard to Ayn Rand, too many people on either side of the "closed" or "open" system debate tend to be extremely ahistorical in their understanding of Rand's intellectual evolution, which sheds light on why she became more isolated and less ecumenical in her approach to her perceived opponents.

I have argued in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, that, despite her claim of challenging the ideas of 2,500 years of cultural and philosophic thought, neither she nor anyone could possibly extricate themselves from the culture in which they were embedded as they came to intellectual maturity. Every thinker---every person---is of a particular time and place.

On this point, it must be understood that there was always a genuine Russian streak in Rand insofar as she was both a novelist and a philosopher. Throughout the history of the Russian literary tradition, especially during the Silver Age, when Rand was born and came to intellectual maturity, writers were almost always considered both novelists and philosophers (or at the very least advocates of a certain set of intellectual ideas), and virtually all of these writers found themselves on the outskirts of power, using literature as a means to struggle against various kinds of social oppression. Dostoevsky comes to mind and Rand, of course, was a great admirer of Dostoevsky’s methods, especially his penchant for using various characters as expressions of certain ideas.

It therefore comes as no surprise that when asked whether she was a novelist or a philosopher, Rand answered: "Both." She is also on record as saying that virtually all novelists are philosophers whether they wish to be characterized as such or not; it is just a question of whether they choose to express their philosophical ideas or assumptions explicitly or implicitly. Most, of course, were writers of implicit "mixed" premises. For Rand, the realm of ideas was inescapable for novelists. She was a master of projecting philosophical ideas in the context of fiction---a very Russian project. And like all the Russian dissident writers before her, those ideas were almost always opposed to the status quo, seeking to alter it fundamentally. In the end, Rand may not have become a full-fledged technical philosopher, but she was a fully radical social theorist, much like her Russian forebears.

Rand did say that the goal of her writing was the projection of the ideal man (and whether she meant it or not, the ideal woman as well). She realized that she had achieved at least a certain aspect of that goal in her creation of Howard Roark, the triumphant architect in The Fountainhead. But she turned to the larger social questions in Atlas Shrugged because, as she has written, there could be no projection of ideal men or ideal women without also projecting the kinds of social relations that such individuals required in order to fully flourish, to bring forth their talents and creativity in a social environment. Sociality was inescapable. Don’t be fooled by all her comments about how “society” doesn’t exist, that only individuals exist. She stated many, many times that “society” must be treated as a unit of analysis, insofar as it constituted the various social relations among individuals. These relations were expressed in organizations, institutions, and throughout civil society. So the reason she became such an unbending advocate of capitalism “the unknown ideal” was because she recognized that the fullest flowering of ideal individuals could not occur under social conditions that were anything less than free. Even in her essays on the conflict of men’s interests, she says that in a less-than-free society, conflicts are a necessary part of the kinds of social relations that both reflect and perpetuate the various forms of statism that had so distorted the character of human social interaction.

Rand may never have wanted to become a technical philosopher, but she was writing nonfiction essays early in her career and the equivalent of philosophical tracts within every novel she authored. You can find these in Anthem, We the Living, The Fountainhead, and, of course, Atlas. Her first nonfiction book, For the New Intellectual, basically extracted all of the philosophical speeches from her works of fiction to show the kinds of ideas she was projecting, even if she had not yet reached the point of full integration. But it is there, right in her novels.

So many people from so many political persuasions were attracted to aspects of her thought. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama admitted to having gone through a "Rand" phase. But Rand would have had none of it. Over time, she had systematically demonized conservative, liberals, libertarians, and socialists. But she once stated that her appeal was ultimately to the nontraditional conservatives and the nontotalitarian liberals. I think that as she aged, she realized there were fewer and fewer representatives of those groups.

Among conservatives, she became increasingly frustrated by the ways in which they seemed to “water down” the defense of a free society: she watched as the conservative movement, so committed to the Old Right ideas of noninterventionism both at home and abroad, morphed into a group of rabid anticommunists, hell-bent on fighting a Cold War without end, endorsing everything from military conscription and the emergence of the National Security State to fighting in wars that she opposed (from World War II to Korea and Vietnam). And then there were those conservatives who embraced the Jim Crow laws of apartheid in the South as a means of perpetuating institutional racism, which utterly disgusted her. As the years went by, and her close relationships with those among the Old Right collapsed, she witnessed how conservatives increasingly embraced a religious defense of capitalism, while she was fighting for the idea that capitalism must be defended as the only rational and moral social system (an odd parallel with those atheistic, secular leftists who fought for "scientific socialism").

As for the libertarians, I think a lot of Rand's falling out with that group was due to her experiences with folks from the Circle Bastiat (Murray Rothbard chief among them). I think she was so appalled by the idea of anarcho-capitalism (as both ahistorical and acontextual) that she ended up branding all libertarians as anarchists, something she did not do in the late 1940s and early 1950s (when she even referred to Mises as a “libertarian” and was apt to consider herself a libertarian strictly in terms of her politics). But she lived during a time when, to her, "libertarianism" was as much of a mixed bag as conservatism. And when Rothbard became Mr. Libertarian, she became increasingly hostile to a group of fellow travelers in politics (most of them advocates of limited government rather than of anarcho-capitalism). She repudiated libertarians as "hippies of the right," who then turned around and attacked her with as much ferocity as the religious and traditional conservatives.

Finally, I should add that Jeff Riggenbach has made a persuasive case that Rand had a decisive impact on those among the New Left, those he termed the “disowned children of Ayn Rand," but who were, at various points in their lives, inspired by her call to individualism and to activism (and this included an impact on the emergence of individualist feminism and the gay liberation movement). But, of course, Rand was just as adamantly opposed to the New Left as she was to the conservatives and the libertarians.

So what are we left with? We’re left with a woman who wanted very much to reach the minds of people on all ends of the political spectrum, in the hopes that she could decisively alter the trajectory of American politics. And in the end, she had made so many enemies on the left and the right that it became almost impossible for her---or any of her acolytes---to truly engage their philosophical opponents. And those opponents became so hostile to Rand that they sought to remove her from the canon as a thinker worthy only of disdain and dismissal.

Rand's acolytes have only dug-in their heels in response to such attacks, clinging to a siege mentality that cultivated isolation from the wider world. Either you were for Rand in toto or opposed; either you were among the Chosen or the Damned.

For those of us who are so inclined, I think it is essential to address those on the left and the right in a spirit of critical but respectful engagement. That has been the strategy of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. This was a woman who fought the Welfare-Warfare state, who battled on the front lines against U.S. entry into World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and who understood the institutional workings of the warfare state---as much as she fought against the regulatory state that enriched certain business interests at the expense of others and a welfare bureaucracy that became inevitable.

Rand reminded us that those who fight in the future must live in it today. She fought for that future and advocated the kinds of ideas that she believed were essential to the fundamental social change that was possible---and necessary---to the survival of the human species.

March 09, 2018

Easter: Western versus Eastern Orthodox Christian Practices

With Easter fast approaching (though you'd never know it in New York City, given that Ol' Man Winter is still hanging around), I have contributed to a couple of Facebook threads with regard to the differences between the Western Christian versus Eastern Orthodox Christian dates for both Easter and Christmas. I decided to put this on my Notablog because it has sparked some discussion.

I was baptized Greek Orthodox. In fact, my grandfather, the Rev. Vasilios P. Michalopoulos, was the first pastor of one of the first Greek Orthodox churches in Brooklyn, the Three Hierarchs Church on Avenue P and East 18th Street. A monument to him can be found in this Google pic; it is the concrete monument in-between the two trees on the right side, outside the front of the church building.

I was asked on one Facebook thread about the significance of Midnight Mass on Christmas, and I remarked that I had never attended a midnight service in the Greek Orthodox church for Christmas, though I had attended a midnight "divine liturgy" for Easter Sunday. Midnight Mass is a practice that apparently began in the 400s.

There are certain differences with regard to the dates on which both Christmas and Easter are celebrated among the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches in the Western tradition versus the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy. First, with regard to Christmas, the Greek Orthodox celebrate the day on December 25th, along with Western Christianity. There is a difference in dates, however, between the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox celebrations of Christmas. The Greeks follow the revised Julian calendar (which corresponds exactly to the modern Gregorian calendar, adopted by Western Christians), while the Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas Day on January 7th, the date of the old Julian calendar.

Here's another piece of religious trivia: I was always puzzled, growing up, why the Greek Orthodox commemorated Christ's crucifixion on the evening of Holy Thursday, with the Twelve Gospel readings pertaining to the events that Western Christianity commemorates on Good Friday. On Friday afternoon, however, the Greek Orthodox commemorate the taking down of the body of Christ and its placement in the Epitophios (signifying Christ's tomb).

I later learned that the reason the Greeks begin their commemoration of the Passion on Thursday evening is that, following the Jewish tradition, the new day begins after sundown; so Thursday evening is treated as Good Friday, and the taking of Christ's body down from the cross takes place on Friday, before sundown (which would have been the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, a day on which the body could not have been removed from the cross).

Also, another important fact: the Orthodox Easter almost always follows the Jewish Passover, because tradition holds that Christ came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover; the Last Supper is treated like a traditional Passover Seder. Every so often, the Eastern Orthodox, Western churches and the Jewish Passover all fall together, but typically, you'll always find the Eastern Orthodox Easter following Passover. So, take this year as a perfect example: In 2018, the Jewish Passover takes place from Friday, March 30th to Saturday, April 7th. The Western churches, however, celebrate Easter on April 1st. But according to the Greeks, April 1st would have been Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus came into Jerusalem during the Jewish High Holy days of Passover. And he is resurrected on Sunday, April 8, after the conclusion of Passover (and the end of the Jewish Sabbath).

So if you treat Thursday evening as the beginning of Day 1 and Friday evening as the beginning of Day 2 (and the onset of the Jewish Sabbath), then Saturday evening is the beginning of Day 3. In some churches, the resurrection is celebrated at midnight, while in other churches, it is celebrated at dawn---but in each case, it is meant to signify the Third Day. Having attended the midnight liturgy in the Greek Orthodox church, I can attest to the moving symbolism of the service: It begins with the lighting of a single candle from the altar, signifying the light of the resurrection, and that light is passed from the priest to a member of the congregation, who then passes it to another and another, until the whole church is lit up with the candles of the faithful to celebrate the resurrection. And the congregation sings the hymn of "Christos Anesti" or "Christ is Risen." "Anesti" is "of the resurrection", which is why people who are named Anastasiya or Anastasia, celebrate their "name day" on Easter Sunday, the name being a derivative of the resurrection. Ironically, my mother was named Anastasiya; she passed away during the Greek Holy Week in 1995. At her funeral, the priest remarked that it was just like my mom to have passed away on the Greek Orthodox Good Friday so that she could be resurrected with Christ on Easter Sunday, her name day.

My name day is, of course, Christmas---my actual name is just Chris, but in Greek, it is pronounced "Christos", which is the "annointed one", the word from which Christ is derived.

I have always found these subtle but important differences in the cultural and religious traditions to be of historical interest.

Now I just have to finish up that essay I've been promising for a few years comparing the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur" to the 2016 version. Oy vey.

August 22, 2017

The Trouble with Trump and with "Antifa"

Recently, I have been deeply critical of President Trump, especially with regard to his tepid response to the mini-Nuremberg-like rallies of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in places like Charlottesville, Virginia (whether they have ACLU-approved permits or not). Trump, I have argued, is becoming more and more like a typical politician, rather than the "outsider" he claimed to be; it seems to me that he is not wanting to offend some of these groups, since they were among the constituencies that voted for him. And the first goal of all elected politicians is to be re-elected; a politician can't achieve the latter by alienating core groups that were supportive of his or her election in the first place.

When all the political pundits were predicting a Clinton victory, I was predicting a Trump victory back in July 2016. I saw that he was speaking to a large swath of American voters who felt disenfranchised and disillusioned, but I was especially critical of some of the proposals he was putting forth as solutions to the economic and political problems faced by the United States. His high-tariff, protectionist agenda was certainly in keeping with the nineteenth-century roots of the Republican party, with its "pro-business" neomercantilist policies and support of banks and infrastructure (back then, especially railroad) subsidies. But I warned that Trump's proposed anti-immigration policies, which threatened to round up 11 million undocumented individuals, had all the makings of a police state in terms of its enforcement. Fortunately, though he's taken a tougher stance on immigration, I suspect that his proposals for walls and such may fall by the wayside.

And while I've been critical of the fact that Trump's hirings and firings in the Oval Office or the West Wing appear like weekly installments of "The Apprentice," it is clear that despite Republican control of both Houses of Congress, 26 governorships, and 32 state legislatures, the GOP is so fractured that it is as much a demonstration of Madisonian "checks and balances" and frustrated ambitions, as if two or more parties were vying for power, as my old NYU politics professor, the late H. Mark Roelofs spoke about in his wonderful book, Ideology and Myth in American Politics: A Critique of a National Political Mind. As I have maintained, due to "this political fragmentation, the GOP can't seem to do one fundamental thing to alter the course that this country has been on for a hundred years or more... a 'road to serfdom' paved by both Democrats and me-too Republicans . . ."

I have never been comfortable with Trump's alliance with Steve Bannon, so his departure from the White House brings no tears to my eyes. And I am not fond of the so-called "alt-right", even though its stance---and Trump's original stance---against the neoconservative foreign policy that has dominated this country for too long was a breath of fresh air. Alas, now, even Trump's noninterventionist "instincts" against unending war are at odds with his newly declared policy shift in the Middle East. No timetable has been offered for 'strategic' reasons for the end of the longest war in American history, but at least Trump retains the view that the United States should not be attempting to "rebuild" other countries in its own image. Gone is the "nation-building" agenda put forth by the neocons who ran George W. Bush's foreign policy, of which Trump was deeply and justifiably critical. But how much longer this war lasts is anyone's guess. Judging by the longevity of Islamic terrorist memory, we could be looking forward to at least a century or two more of armed conflict before any armistice.

To be clear, however, my criticisms thus far of Donald Trump's policies are not an open endorsement of what has become known as "Antifa." It is supposed to be a short-form designation of a variety of groups that are "antifascist" in their agenda. Well, I'm as antifascist as any libertarian can be; I'm also an anticommunist, an antisocialist, or in libertarian parlance: an antistatist. I do not believe that augmenting the power of the state in any way, shape, or form benefits the "common good." As I pointed out in my post on "Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins," it was Hayek who noted in his Road to Serfdom that

. . . the more politics came to dominate social and economic life, the more political power became the only power worth having, which is why those most adept at using it were usually the most successful at attaining it. That's why, for Hayek, "the worst get on top." Well, I don't know if we have yet seen the worst, but one thing is clear. It is in the very nature of advancing government intervention that social fragmentation and group balkanization occurs; indeed, one might say that the rise of statism and the rise of group conflict are reciprocally related. Each depends organically on the other.

So, to be "antifascist" tells us nothing about what one is for. It is not sufficient to be "anti-" anything if one does not know what one is fighting for. When the Nazis and the Soviets signed a 1939 nonaggression pact, too many voices on the "antifa" left, who had formerly opposed Hitler, fell silent, as the Nazis and the Soviets carved up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. And when war finally came to the Soviet Union, those same voices were raised in concert for United States intervention in World War II on the side of the Soviets to defeat fascism in Europe. For the Old Right, the "America First-ers" of their time, fighting on the side of one mass murderer (Stalin) to defeat another mass murderer (Hitler) had no inherent value for the victory of human freedom. That debate was effectively ended in the wake of the events of December 7, 1941, which made it impossible to keep the United States out of a war that led to the deaths of over 60 million people and the birth of the nuclear age.

What my "instincts" tell me is this: adopting the thuggish behavior of the thugs one opposes, leads, almost inexorably, to the victory of thuggery, under whatever political guise. Perhaps those who oppose the policies of Donald Trump should study the works of Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution. He is one of the foremost theoreticians of nonviolent resistance. And make no mistake about it: whether it was practiced by Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, the nonviolent techniques that Sharp has articulated in his many works are fully in keeping with the strategy of resistance. But they do not duplicate the paradigm of force that is being practiced by those whom one opposes. Inevitably, the use of coercive force by opposition groups merely replaces one form of coercion with another. It has been argued, persuasively, that "[f]rom 1966 to 1999, nonviolent civic resistance played a critical role in 50 of 67 transitions from authoritarianism." So if "Antifa" wants to show its commitment to another, "revolutionary" form of politics, it should start by renouncing violence. And if "Antifa" wants to fight effectively against any perceived authoritarian threats from the Trump administration or its supporters, it needs to take pause, for among its ranks is a collection of groups, some of whom would replace America's "neofascism" with yet another form of statist tyranny.

For the record, I want to state that I am not very optimistic about the future of individual liberty in this country. I fear that the promise of genuine freedom and individual rights is becoming a distant dream. But if you oppose those elements of Trump's policies that will undermine liberty, you gain neither freedom nor rights if you happily join hands with folks who would slit your throat in a new battle for political power, in a system where political power is the only power worth having.

Postscript: My friend Irfan Khawaja had a nice retort to my post: "I don't know about this non-violence stuff. I mean, I'm not one to cast the first stone. But the second one has its attractions...."

I responded:

I know. I just think that there are a lot of strategies within civil disobedience that can be amazingly effective. Civil disobedience is not turning the other cheek, but being disruptive in ways that can put one on the moral high ground and bring down walls of power.
But I'm also from Brooklyn. And half-Sicilian to boot (no pun intended). And the second stone can sometimes stop power in its tracks too. There are contexts where I, myself, don't see how nonviolence is a universal prescription for resistance. How, for example, does one use nonviolence as one is being led by SS guards into a gas chamber? Bombing the trains that led into Auschwitz, and massively disruptive riots in the Warsaw Ghetto can be acts of heroism too, but the Holocaust still happened. And let it be noted that 13,000 Jews died in the Warsaw uprisings, in contrast to 300 Nazis, while the vast majority of the Ghetto residents (estimated to be around 300,000+) were to die in Treblinka.
It's a tough question to answer. But there's a wonderful story told about surviving terror by literally standing up, no matter how many times you are struck. It's in the [2015] film "Bridge of Spies," a story told by the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), to attorney James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), about "Standing Man."

Jim Farmelant raised a good point with which I agreed, in general, when he said: "Violence should never be one's first resort. But it is foolish to take it off the table completely." Chris Despoudis raised another good issue, stating:

Regarding Civil Disobedience, it reminds me of Slajov Zizek's comment that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler specifically because his civil disobedience aimed directly at disrupting the existing edifices of the system totally and without backing out. I think he's correct to some degree. Non-violence works when you're opponent cannot see you as an externalized other that needs to squashed, when those who are fighting aren't willing to do terrible things for their country instead of merely great things. The issue of Germany on 1939 was not an issue of non-violence. The issue was that Germany had to be destroyed completely in order for its system to be able to be changed.

I replied:

Very interesting points; but you know, some studies have been done of the concentration camp guards at the various death factories in Germany. And it was no coincidence that so many of those who threw the victims into the gas chambers were also habitual drinkers, as if they had to numb themselves from any feelings of concscience.
One of the kernels of truth of nonviolent resistance is that at some point, the people who are victimizing you start to realize that you are a human being, and for those who have any vestige of conscience, that reality eventually takes hold, and begins to erode their own capacity to victimize you. The key to the Nazi ideology, the Nazi "social psychology," therefore, was to create a culture that saw all non-Aryans as not human; this was fatal for the victims, but it was also essential to those who would be doing the victimizing, for if you are convinced that what you are killing is not human, you will exempt your conscience from human empathy.
Obviously, for some, this did not work; alcoholism and habitual substance abuse was a way of drowning out any thoughts that the Other was human. Interestingly, Leonard Peikoff has a good chapter on this in The Ominous Parallels but one can find good studies of this throughout the post-World War II literature. And let us not forget the famous "Milgram experiment", which illustrated just how far intelligent people would go in following the orders of a superior. It showed that even highly educated folks, when ordered to do so by an "authority figure" would be drawn to inflict more and more "pain" on folks who didn't answer questions correctly (the pain inflicted was only indicated on a scale, not actual; but this fact was not known to those who were being ordered to inflict greater and greater levels of pain intensity on the actors who were playing the part of students answering incorrectly).

November 26, 2015

Song of the Day #1279

Song of the Day: The House I Live In features the music of Earl Robinson, and the lyrics of Abel Meeropol (under the pen name of Lewis Allan), both of whom were later identified as members of the Communist Party during the McCarthy era. In 1953, Meeropol actually adopted Michael and Robert, the orphans of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for their acts of espionage in passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Robinson-Meeropol song is heard in a 1945 short film, directed by Albert Maltz, who would go on to be one of the Hollywood Ten. Being associated with some of these individuals kept the pressure on Sinatra, who was herded before investigators to answer questions with regard to his involvement with associations that had alleged "red" or "pink" connections. Seeking to travel to Korea to entertain the troops with the USO, Sinatra was offended that these investigators were impugning his patriotism; in the HBO documentary, "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," he relates his answer to those who questioned his love for America: "they could take the Korean War and shove it up their asses." With this, he walked out of the investigation room.

It's a tad ironic, perhaps, that, in 1962, Sinatra ended up starring in one of the most controversial Cold War thrillers of the day, based on a favorite novel of JFK's, written by Richard Condon, which was filled to the brim with tense international communist conspiratorial intrigue, an emergent by-product of the Korean War: "The Manchurian Candidate," directed by John Frankenheimer. Sinatra's film performance is surely a highlight of his acting career. In any event, Sinatra's involvement with "The House I Live In" was primarily due to his view that the song celebrated an America without bigotry or prejudice. He had heard the epithets spewed against Italian Americans throughout his whole life; he was a greaseball, a wop, a guinea bastard, a mobster, simply by virtue of his ethnicity. His hatred of ethnic prejudice extended to a principled stance against all forms of racism and bigotry. At the conclusion of World War II, the world had to confront the ugly reality of anti-Semitism, which had propelled many regimes throughout history toward discrimination and violence against Jews. But the Nazis fell to a level of human savagery that cashed-in on long-held cultural biases to justify the mass extermination of Jews (Nazi racial "cleansing" of the Third Reich targeted others as well, including many "inferior" ethnic, religious, and political groups, and even sexual "deviants" of the "pink triangle").

In any event, this song was actually first heard in the musical revue, "Let Freedom Sing." In the film, there's a small plot set-up; Sinatra walks out of a studio, where he's just completed a recording, and he sees a bunch of kids fighting over this one kid who is different from them; he's Jewish. They are taunting this one kid, and Sinatra asks the gang if they're Nazis. They object; some of the kids say that their dads went to fight the Nazis. And Sinatra asks them that if their dads got hurt in battle, did they get blood transfusions? Well, sure. He asks the Jewish kid if anyone in his family were blood donors, and the kid says that both his mom and dad were donors. He asks the kids, would their dads have rather died in battle than receive blood from people of another religion? He tells them to think, or he could have simply said, "Check your premises," because we're all human beings with human blood. He says he's Italian, and some others may be Irish, French, or Russian, but we are all Americans. He then tells them a story about the first airstrike by Americans against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. It was successful due to the skill of Meyer Levin (by the way, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and a member of its Hall of Fame [a BTHS .pdf file]), whose bomb hit and sunk the Haruna, a Japanese battleship.

For all its controversy as a short-film, with its "commie" messages like, uh, "freedom of religion," the film moves into song, as Sinatra asks the opening question "What is America to Me?" He provides a lyrical celebration of American freedom and democracy, of "the right to speak my mind out," a paean to the American people of "all races and religions," and their values. This certainly didn't strike me as a piece of red propaganda, but I can understand the ways in which the material can be interpreted as "pinko," given its historical context and the people who were involved in its making. In the end, however, a special Honorary Oscar and Golden Globe were awarded to the short film, which can be seen on YouTube.

Right now, I count my blessings that I am eating a Thanksgiving meal in America, in the same Brooklyn, New York of Meyer Levin, in the "house I live in." A Happy Thanksgiving to all!

June 30, 2008

George Carlin, RIP

Last week's passing of George Carlin has led many to reminisce about his gift for comedic social commentary. Check out Jerry Seinfeld's discussion .

Growing up, I remember Carlin's capacity for irreverence. When discussing the nature of both organized religion and organized politics, he remarked: "I'm completely in favor of the separation of church and state. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."

November 01, 2006

Mid-Term Elections, 2006

I've received a bit of email from people who were wondering why it is I have not commented on the upcoming mid-term elections. "Sciabarra, you're a political scientist, for Chrissake! What do you think?"

Well, let's leave aside the question of how much science goes into politics: It's always nice to know that some people find value in what I say. But with all due respect: There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I have not changed my views of this two-party, two-pronged attack on individual freedom by one iota: A Pox on Both Their Houses! In truth, however, the modern Democratic Party has always been honest about its Big Government agenda. But the "small-government" GOP has long embraced the politics of Big Government. As the majority party, they are a total, unmitigated disaster for individual liberty, whether they are religious rightists or so-called "progressive conservatives"—who are actually much truer to the GOP's 19th-century interventionist roots than so-called "Goldwater" or "Reagan" Republicans (those who embraced the rhetoric of limited government, while still paving the way for a growth in the scope of government intervention). You have to chuckle when even Hillary Clinton sees the hypocrisy: "The people who promised less government," she said, "have instead given us the largest and least competent government we have ever had."

Still, I must admit that my political perversity would like very much to see the Bush administration get a royal slap across the face, such that the Democrats take the House of Representatives and, at the very least, close the gap in the GOP-controlled Senate. This is purely a strategic desire: Party divisions can have utility in frustrating the power-lust on both ends. In any event, I think it's probably true that the GOP will suffer a setback, and I have been saying so for over a year.

Please understand, however: THIS WILL DO NOTHING TO CHANGE THE CURRENT DOMESTIC OR FOREIGN POLICY DISASTERS. I don't mean to shout, but with regard to foreign policy alone: The Democrats handed this administration the current foreign policy debacle on a silver platter. They will not challenge one inch of the Bush administration's Iraq policy or its ideological rationalizations for that policy: that "democracy" can be imposed on societies that have little or no appreciation of the complex cultural roots of human freedom.

Either way, I'll be watching the results of politics-as-bloodsport on Tuesday, November 7th.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted at L&P.

April 08, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

I have watched with some fascination over the last few days, various stories�on "ABC World News Tonight," "Good Morning America," and "Nightline," and today, I read this Elaine Pagels article�all on the subject of the so-called "Gospel of Judas." Once thought lost, the ancient papyrus made its way to the National Geographic, which airs a special on the book tomorrow night.

I am not a theologian, but I have always been a "student" of religion, an interest that goes far beyond my political stance on the separation of church and state, and on the corrupting influences of various forms of fundamentalism on cultural life. Perhaps some of this comes from the fact that I am the grandson of a man who was the founder of the first Greek Orthodox church in Brooklyn, New York. (His name was Vasilios P. Michalopoulos, but he died 7 years before I was born.) The Greek Orthodox certainly know how to put on a ceremony; many of their services are ripe with symbolism and aesthetic beauty. That family upbringing certainly fueled my own interests in grappling with many of these issues.

I have read the Old and New Testaments from cover to cover, and many of the so-called "heretical" Christian gospels of which Pagels speaks in her article. As I said, this hardly makes me an expert in Judeo-Christian religious matters, but the story of Judas Iscariot is one that has always puzzled me.

I know there are many conflicting and contradictory passages in the Bible, and my interest here is not in debating the pros or the cons of theism or atheism or any other -ism. What interests me is how this new "Gospel of Judas" is providing another look at a scorned character in the Christian corpus. Dante placed him on the ninth circle of hell, with Lucifer. It appears that the new gospel projects a Judas who was Jesus's best friend, one who was asked by Jesus to betray him so that the scripture could be fulfilled, so that the Son of Man might be delivered to those who would crucify him, leading to his death, and subsequent Resurrection.

But I don't think this message is entirely lost in the four main Gospels. At the Last Supper, Jesus certainly seems to know that Judas is going to betray him, even if we are left with very little information regarding Judas's motivations, beyond the "thirty pieces of silver." So I've often asked myself: If Judas is needed to tell the story of the Passion, and if his betrayal is predetermined by a divine plan, why on earth, or heaven, should he be condemned to the ninth circle of hell? Without him, there is no betrayal, no crucifixion, no resurrection. He is an essential part of the story, fulfilling a role that is necessary�dare I say, "internally related"�to the whole Christian drama.

In the past, I've asked some theologians why Judas should be condemned for doing what he was "supposed to do." In my own book of ethics, of course, there are no predetermined plans. There is only human choice�contextualized choice, for sure, but choice nonetheless. Some of my religious friends have claimed that Judas suffers that eternal damnation for committing suicide. But surely Jesus would have known that a guilty conscience would have driven his once beloved apostle to hang himself. When he said, from the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," he didn't add the proviso: "Except for Judas..."

I know, I know, this must all be a Trickster postmodernist plot to invert heroes and villains, taking us "beyond good and evil."

But I'm truly fascinated by all of this, and I'll be watching the National Geographic special, or at least recording it�while I watch a key episode of "The West Wing," marking the passing of beloved actor John Spencer, who played the character Leo McGarry, and who, last we saw, was awaiting the results of Election Day in the great Santos-Vinick Presidential race. (For those who don't know: McGarry is the Vice Presidential candidate on the Democratic Santos ticket.)

And for those of you who are also interested in religious films, this week offers lots of old and new treats, including a new two-part miniseries of "The Ten Commandments" airing on Monday and Tuesday, and the re-airing of DeMille's classic 1956 version on Saturday, April 10th. Check your local ABC listings.

Comments welcome.

February 01, 2006

Gay Films Breaking America's Back!

It appears that a lot of people are very upset because this year's crop of "Best Picture" and other Oscar nominees are too blue for Red State America. Admittedly, I have only seen two of the "Best Picture" nominated films so far�"Crash" and "Brokeback Mountain," which has inspired this ongoing lengthy thread at Notablog. As for "Crash": I thought it was a very provocative film in its examination of the dynamics of racial prejudice, and, unless we are going to start defining "bigotry" as an American value, I am at a bit of a loss as to why anyone would view it as "un-American."

This evening, however, I learned more about fundamentalist objections to the Oscars while watching "ABC World News Tonight."

Christian conservatives are telling us again that Hollywood is "out of touch" with mainstream America. Blah. Blah. Blah. But with "Brokeback Mountain" now nominated for eight Oscars, and "Capote" nominated for five Oscars, and "Transamerica" nominated for two Oscars, it appears Sexual Perverts Are Taking Over!!! Beware the Effects on Impressionable Youths!

Ironically, many Christian conservatives have written glowing reviews of "Brokeback Mountain"�some saying that the film is a finely crafted piece of celluloid, "brilliant" and "moving," in many ways. But that is what makes the film so dangerous. It's precisely the kind of effective tool that will corrupt the morals of this Christian nation! It cannot be tolerated because it is so obviously a part of the "Gay Agenda."

Mind you, it's not exactly as if "gay" themes have never been portrayed in Hollywood films (see this "Gays in Movies" timeline at ABC). It's just that some of today's celluloid queers are ... RANCH HANDS!!! Of all the nerve!!!

Well, people "in Peoria" are just fed up! And they are voting with their wallets; "the summer comedy 'Wedding Crashers'," it has been noted, "has done more box-office business" than all five of the "Best Picture" nominees combined.

Halleluah!

Still, as the ABC report notes: "There seem to be dueling impulses in Hollywood right now. More gay-themed movies than ever were nominated for Oscars. But the movie studios have increasingly been courting Christians with films such as 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and 'The Passion of the Christ.'" Yeah. How about that?

I am, quite frankly, so sick and tired of hearing about all this crap. If Christian conservatives are pissed off because a couple of "gay-themed" films "broke" through into the mainstream marketplace, clearly nobody is compelling them at gun point to go see those films. And, likewise, nobody is compelling gays to go see the newest film installment of the "Left Behind" series.

Indeed, I'm amused that some Christian conservatives are screaming bloody hell over the use of "propaganda" in film. Pot. Kettle. Black. For a survey of how well the new crop of Christian fundamentalists have used various media for their own ideological purposes, see my article "Caught Up in the Rapture."

And I don't want to hear that I just have a prejudice against "Christian-themed" films. Hogwash. My favorite film is still "Ben-Hur," but that never stopped me from having an eclectic cinematic palette.

Comments welcome.

November 15, 2005

Religious Marketing 101

For many years, I've been railing against the rise of the religious right as a political and cultural force in this country. Yes, of course: In many ways, that rise has been the effect of a cultural boomerang, a response to the "relativists" on the left. But this does not make fundamentalism any less of a threat.

The fact that the Bush administration has derived so much of its political power from an evangelical base is something that should give pause to all advocates of individual freedom. Quite frankly, it has greatly irritated me that so many people jumped onto the Bush bandwagon, in praise of its "War on Terror," while sweeping aside virtually all considerations of the administration's ties to the religious right.

As I wrote in my article, "Caught Up in the Rapture":

The Bush administration has thus become a focal point for the constellation of two crucial impulses in American politics that seek to remake the world: pietism and neoconservatism. The neocons, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, trace their intellectual lineage to social democrats and Trotskyites, those who adopted the "God-builder" belief, prevalent in Russian Marxist and Silver Age millennial thought, that a perfect (socialist) society could be constructed as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The neocons may have repudiated Trotsky�s socialism, but they have simply adopted his constructivism to the project of building democratic nation-states among other groups of warring fundamentalists�in the Middle East.
Bush clearly believes that it is his role as President to change not only American culture but the tribalist cultures of nations abroad in the direction of democratic values. ... For a man who once campaigned against the Clintonistas� penchant for nation-building, Bush seems to have made the building of nations and the building of cultures a full-fledged state enterprise. Bush�s maxim�that "[t]he role of government is to help foster cultural change as well as to protect institutions in our society that are an important part of the culture"�is an attempt to use politics as a cultural and religious tool.

The rise of religion has both political and cultural ramifications. Indeed, pop culture is an interesting barometer by which to measure the growing influence of religion on American life.

Today, "Good Morning America" featured an interview with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the immensely successful Left Behind series (which I discuss in my Rapture essay). They stopped in to promote their newest book: The Regime: The Rise of the Antichrist, which is the second of three "prequel" novels to the 12-volume Left Behind collection. These books have sold in excess of 60 million copies over the last decade. This new book comes on the heels of the third film release in the series, "Left Behind: World at War," starring Kirk Cameron. (I liked him better on "Growing Pains.")

The GMA segment focused on the question: "Is the End of the World Coming?" (ABC also publishes an excerpt from The Regime here.)

With a lot of natural disasters in the news, such as tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, and many human disasters as well, like war and terrorism, everybody, it seems, is worried that the End of Days is near. (If you ask me, I'd tell you to worry more about those human disasters.)

LaHaye argues that this is probably the "stage setting" for the end. But since the Rapture has yet to take place, we're not quite there yet. LaHaye, who is 79, thinks he might live to see it, however.

Jenkins was a bit more conservative in his estimate. He confessed that only God knows when the end will come, and it's "folly" to set a date. "It seems like we're heading toward something," however.

I'll give this much credit to Jenkins: He recognizes that in a pluralistic society, this Rapture thing can be a "divisive" and "offensive" message. Jenkins does not wish to be "condescending or spiteful or hateful" toward those of other faiths, though he does celebrate the fact that Christian fundamentalists are not like the "fundamentalists of other religions [who] become terrorists. You won't see evangelicals ... becoming terrorists because the whole point is people have the right to choose, they have free will, and if they decide to disagree, we still love them and care about them. We just worry."

Well, I can deal with Jenkins's worry. Bottle up your message of pluralism and disagreement, Brother Jenkins, and send it to the jihadists in the Middle East, if you please.

Despite the fact that our homegrown fundamentalists are a lot less lethal than the ones abroad, I have no doubt that I would not wish to live in a society dominated by them politically or culturally. Right now, however, religion is not merely a rising political or cultural force; it is a rising force in marketing and economics as well.

From the TV show "Revelations" to the new writings of Anne Rice, who, as Jason Dixon reminds us, has Left Behind the Vampire Lestat to embrace "Christ the Lord" ... "it seems like we're heading toward something, indeed.

That ol' time religion has even affected the "Material Girl," Madonna, who found Kaballah some time ago. Even Madonna is starting to sound like the preachers of fire and brimstone. As Rush and Molloy report in the New York Daily News:

Once, she told papa not to preach. But now, at 47, Madonna has come down from the mount with a message for you sinners. People "are going to go to hell, if they don't turn from their wicked behavior," the singer proclaims in her new film, "I'm Going to Tell You a Secret." Despite her many homes, the former Material Girl says she has renounced "the material world. The physical world. The world of illusion, that we think is real. We live for it, we're enslaved by it. And it will ultimately be our undoing."

I can't wait for her to start unloading her earthly riches! I can think of a few dialectical projects that need funding.

Rush and Molloy continue:

Reading from Scripture at one point in the film, the mother of two�who won't let her children watch TV or eat ice cream�says, "I refer to an entity called 'The Beast.' I feel I am describing the world that we live in right now." All this seems to have come from her embracing the mystical Jewish teachings of the Kaballah. But it might seem strange to those who remember that the Catholic girl, confirmed as Madonna Louise Ciccone, used to go out of her way to shred the envelope with nose-cone bras and three-way "Sex" shots. Catholic League President William Donohue likes Madonna's new morality: "For her to have this sudden wakeup call�that the kind of behavior for which she is infamous is not salutary for young people�is refreshing."
But he doesn't like her proclamation, also made in the documentary about her 2004 Re-Invention tour, that "most priests are gay." Donohue adds, "We're glad to see she is no longer with us. Jews will have to make up their own mind about whether they're going to welcome her. Lots of them don't want to." But Madonna is clearly beloved at the Kaballah Center in L.A.

Well, okay, the Catholics don't want her, the Jews are ambivalent. What's a No-Longer-Material-Girl to do?

Release a new album, that's what! Today, in fact! And I like the lead single too!

In the end, you see, much of this can be filed under "Religious Marketing 101." Whether we fear being Left Behind or we just want to Shake Our Behinds on the Dance Floor ... the marketplace is meeting an ever-growing demand for this "product."

And God help us.

Comments welcome.

October 31, 2005

John Leo on Dems and Rothbard

I got a little surprise today reading John Leo's NY Daily News column, "It's '72 All Over Again for Dems." Leo focuses on what he believes are the parallels between the failure of welfare liberalism, circa 1972, and the failure of liberalism in the post-9/11 era. He cites Austrian economist and libertarian social theorist Murray Rothbard at one point:

"The McGovernite movement," wrote Murray Rothbard, a prominent libertarian, "is, in its very nature, a kick in the gut to Middle America."

Leo argues, in essence, that it was the McGovernite movement that created the current-day phenomenon, the "modern split between red-state and blue-state America." He adds:

Many members of disfavored groups�Catholics, Southerners and much of the white working class and lower middle class�decamped for the Republican Party, while the Democrats emerged more clearly visible as the party of well-off liberals, the poor, identity and grievance groups, secularists and the cultural elite."

Leo is correct in one sense that the extreme swing toward identity politics in the late '60s and early '70s did create a cultural backlash of sorts. But that backlash has been as inspired by interventionist liberalism as the identity politics it views as anathema. As I have argued here and elsewhere, so-called "religious right" groups are just as enamored of statist intervention on their behalf as the so-called "left-wing" groups they oppose.

Much has, of course, changed since the 1960s, ideologically speaking. Some of these changes Leo ignores completely, like, for example, the emergence of neoconservatism as a political ideology, which integrates some of the worst left-wing and right-wing impulses.

In any event, it's an interesting read.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to the Mises Economics Blog.

September 06, 2005

Santorum and Big Government Conservatism

For several years now, I have been going on and on about the continuing growth of the religious right in conservative circles. My antipathy to theocratic conservatism had been at fever pitch long before I wrote my essay, "Caught Up in the Rapture," which, with its sister essay, "Bush Wins!," predicted a Bush victory a good six months prior to the 2004 election.

In this context, a recent Jonathan Rauch essay, "America's Anti-Reagan isn't Hilary Clinton. It's Rick Santorum," has been making the rounds all over the blogosphere; it's a dissection of Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's anti-libertarian philosophy. The fact that Santorum is a Roman Catholic only adds weight to my own long-time contention that a growing coalition of Catholic and Evangelical ideological blocs poses a threat to individual liberty in this country.

What one will not find in Rauch's essay, however, are two words: "Bush" and "Iraq." In my view, Santorum's new book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, is only the newest manifestation of a religious conservative movement, whose titular head is George W. Bush. Whereas the religious conservatives wish to remake the culture and politics of this country, the neoconservatives wish to remake the culture and politics of the Middle East. Together, these tendencies make for one very potent anti-libertarian, anti-individualist politics. As I wrote in my "Rapture" essay:

The Bush administration has thus become a focal point for the constellation of two crucial impulses in American politics that seek to remake the world: pietism and neoconservatism. The neocons, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, trace their intellectual lineage to social democrats and Trotskyites, those who adopted the "God-builder" belief, prevalent in Russian Marxist and Silver Age millennial thought, that a perfect (socialist) society could be constructed as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The neocons may have repudiated Trotsky�s socialism, but they have simply adopted his constructivism to the project of building democratic nation-states among other groups of warring fundamentalists�in the Middle East.
Bush clearly believes that it is his role as President to change not only American culture but the tribalist cultures of nations abroad in the direction of democratic values. In an interview with Christianity Today, he asserts that "the job of a president is to help cultures change. ... I can be a voice of cultural change." This "cultural change," according to Bush, must begin "with promoting�taking care of your bodies to the point where we can promote a culture of life." It is from this essential principle that he derives his "position on abortion," and his advocacy of "the faith-based initiative," which "recognizes the rightful relationship between hearts and souls and government" (emphasis added).
Got that? For Bush, the role of government is to help construct "a culture of life" that protects the rights of fetuses and politically-funded religious social organizations. Whatever happened to the principle that the singular role of government is the protection of an actual human being�s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness?
For a man who once campaigned against the Clintonistas� penchant for nation-building, Bush seems to have made the building of nations and the building of cultures a full-fledged state enterprise. Bush�s maxim�that "[t]he role of government is to help foster cultural change as well as to protect institutions in our society that are an important part of the culture"�is an attempt to use politics as a cultural and religious tool. ...
It is quite revealing that, during his tenure, Bush has drawn lessons from the most activist Presidents in history: Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, Bush asserts, "gave his soul for the process" of taking America out of the Depression and into a world war against authoritarian tyranny.

What hope does a religiously based conservative administration have to inspire secular, liberal democracies in the Middle East when it is at war with both secularism and liberalism at home?

A recent NY Times article by Michael Ignatieff makes some of this clearer by reference to "Iranian Lessons." While the fundamentalist Shiite elements within Iranian society have embraced a "death cult," a younger generation of more liberal Iranians now longs "for 'a wall of separation' between religion and government, as Thomas Jefferson called it." These Iranians "found it puzzling, even disappointing, that religion and politics are not actually separate in the United States." Surprise, surprise. Ignatieff writes:

Democracy in Iran also means working free of what one student called ''the culture of dictatorship,'' a floating web of patriarchal controls over private life. All of the young people I talked to were under 30, invariably were living at home till marriage and were chafing under restrictions on their personal lives. For young women, living free means the right to choose whom you marry and how much hair to display around your hijab; it means leaving to get an M.B.A. in Australia and then coming back and running a business. For one young man, struggling to find how he might buy his way out of compulsory military service, it means the freedom, he confessed in a whisper, to be gay. Homosexuality is a crime in Iran, and seemingly the only time when conversations do become furtive, with anxious looks over shoulders, is when homosexuality is the topic.
The hostility toward homosexuality is not just a reflex of a deeply traditional family culture. The Shiite regime has waged a 26-year war on pleasures both homosexual and heterosexual. In Persian culture, however, the taste for pleasure runs deep. Just think of the music-making, dancing and the costumed beauty of the men and women in classical Persian miniatures. During the revolution, many of these Persian treasures were hacked off the walls of mosques and palaces by Shiite zealots.
Thankfully, Persian pleasure remains stubbornly alive. When I flew south from Tehran to Isfahan, the astounding capital of the Safavid shahs of the 17th century, I spent one night wandering along the exquisitely lighted vaulted bridges, watching men, not necessarily gay, stroll hand in hand, singing to each other and dancing beneath the arches, while families picnicked on the grass by the banks of the river and men and women passed a water pipe around. Though it cannot be much comfort to those who have to live, here and now, under public and private tyrannies, I came away from a night in Isfahan believing that Persian pleasure, in the long run, would outlast Shiite puritanism.

Give Santorum and his ilk a few years of unchecked political growth, and they'll start enacting laws that would make a Shiite fundamentalist proud. Ultimately, however, their battle is not primarily political; it is cultural. Make no mistake about it: The fundamentalists at home and abroad are at war with individualist culture.

Of course, the bout between secularism and religion is not specific to Iran or to America. It is a bout that is on grand display also within Iraq, that country which was "liberated" by the United States so that it might be free to pursue a majoritarian theocracy. With Shariah being bandied about as the governing code for women and marriage in the new Shiite-dominated government, it is no wonder that so many feel as if the US is "Off Course in Iraq." Yes, as Stephen J. Hadley and Frances Fragos Townsend put it here, "we face an enemy determined to destroy our way of life and substitute for it a fanatical vision of dictatorial and theocratic rule. At its root, the struggle is an ideological contest, a war of ideas that engages all of us, public servant and private citizen, regardless of nationality." But there is no way to "win" this war, ideologically or otherwise, when "our" side is so committed to compromising the very secular, liberal ideals necessary to victory. With mounting American casualties and mounting taxpayer-funded war expenditures, with growing rifts among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, even some of the administration's former cheerleaders are fast abandoning any belief in the success of Iraqi "democracy." Frances Fukuyama, for example, who told us that we'd reached "the end of history" with the close of the Cold War, and who still fears premature US withdrawal from Iraq, had this to say:

The United States can control the situation militarily as long as it chooses to remain there in force, but our willingness to maintain the personnel levels necessary to stay the course is limited. The all-volunteer Army was never intended to fight a prolonged insurgency, and both the Army and Marine Corps face manpower and morale problems. While public support for staying in Iraq remains stable, powerful operational reasons are likely to drive the administration to lower force levels within the next year.
With the failure to secure Sunni support for the constitution and splits within the Shiite community, it seems increasingly unlikely that a strong and cohesive Iraqi government will be in place anytime soon. Indeed, the problem now will be to prevent Iraq's constituent groups from looking to their own militias rather than to the government for protection. ...
We do not know what outcome we will face in Iraq. We do know that four years after 9/11, our whole foreign policy seems destined to rise or fall on the outcome of a war only marginally related to the source of what befell us on that day. There was nothing inevitable about this. There is everything to be regretted about it.

But Fukuyama, who turned on the Bush administration prior to the last election, is still one of the neo-Hegelian founding fathers of today's neoconservatism, and it is this Republican administration's ideological marriage of neoconservative and religious conservative thought that is at the forefront of the very "Big Government Conservatism" at war with individual freedom.

There is only one remaining myth that must be put to rest. This "Big Government Conservatism" is not a fundamentally new development. As I wrote in this L&P post, "Brooks and the 'Progressive Conservative' Project," the GOP was never a "limited government" party to begin with. Yes, it has had its share of post-New Deal interventionist foes, and its Goldwater-Reagan libertarian rhetorical flashes, but in its inception, in its practice, in its essence, it has always been a party of Big Government. That some of today's conservatives are boldly embracing these "Big Government" roots, with a theocratic twist, is simply a return to the Republican Essence. As I put it back in August 2004:

... it is only in war that Bush has begun to solidify the "progressive conservative tradition," rooted in the neomercantilist politics of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. This is the politics that forged government-sponsored "internal improvements" (today, we'd call it "building infrastructure"), the government socialization of risk, government subsidies for business, government land grants for railroads, and national bank cartelization and centralization.

Radical thinking is about integration; it is about connecting the dots dialectically, with an understanding of the full context within which each dot presupposes every other dot. And like the dots that make up a TV screen, it is only by viewing the whole that we can begin to grasp the reality before us.

It is only when we connect the dots between statist and religious barbarism that a genuine ideological revolution will begin to take shape, one that challenges fundamentally the zealots both at home and abroad.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted excerpt at L&P.

May 04, 2005

The Evangelical Crusade Marches On

ABC World News Tonight (in conjunction with BeliefNet.Com) is running a series called "Under God," and it is a revealing look at the cultural impact of evangelical Christianity on contemporary America. In the first report (aired on Monday, 2 May 2005), correspondent Erin Hayes told us about the growth of specifically Christian cheerleading camps. Founded in reaction to the "sexually suggestive" forms of cheerleading that are in vogue, Christian cheerleaders incorporate the "Holy Spirit" into their spirited routines. This means "no lewd dance moves, no bare midriffs and no routines that would embarrass parents." And it's becoming popular: 25,000 students attend Christian cheerleading camps each year. They are taught routines that demand gymnastic prowess, but they are also taught to honor the Lord. "We represent not only our selves, but the Lord," says one cheerleader.

In 1983, there were only 59 Christian camps and clinics in the country. Today, there are more than 500, and the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders has also started camps and clinics in the Czech Republic and Russia. And the smaller Christian Cheerleaders of America is watching its attendance grow by about 25 percent a year.

The growth in Christian camps, like the growth in Christian literature, Christian music, and Christian radio, is viewed as a "faith-based alternative" to the "spiritual limitations" of a "coarsening," "secular," "popular culture." The aim is to help young people to understand that "God is not just one aspect or compartment of my life; He is my life."

The second segment of the ABC series focused on "tough-love parenting." Polls tell us that 65% of American adults approve of spanking to punish children; certain evangelicals have taken that practice to a higher, "spiritual" level, arguing that "Scripture clearly endorses, even encourages, the practice." Out of "faith and love," these evangelicals "regard corporal punishment as a religious and parental duty." The Old Testament book of Proverbs declares: "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly." As one parent puts it: "The bottom line is: people who do not think it is OK to paddle their children do not believe God's word."

Joey Salvati of New Kingston, Pennsylvania is one "carpenter who makes paddles and gives them away online," along with instructions as to how many swats each offense merits�as long as the swatting is never done in "anger."

Some Methodists and Catholics have responded negatively to this growing evangelical "spanking" crusade; they seem to draw different lessons from the son of another carpenter. "Jesus, for instance, said children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," says one dissenter. "And you don't treat people like that, like they're circus animals."

Ultimately, it's all a struggle over Biblical interpretation and the very "direction of Christianity itself." Al Crowell, director of the San-Francisco based advocacy group Christians for Nonviolent Parenting, asks: "Why don't we also keep slaves now? Stoning our daughters who may be gotten pregnant before marriage? All that is in the Bible [Old Testament] too."

This is not just about the direction of Christianity, of course; there may be a deeper issue at work: There is this portion of the evangelical movement that revels in the imagery of violence. It may even explain the fetishization of violence in such films as "The Passion of the Christ," which attracted both evangelicals and conservative Catholics in droves. As I wrote in my article, "Caught Up in The Rapture":

A blockbuster film such as "The Passion of the Christ"��which was condemned initially as "anti-Semitic" by some critics��has now grossed nearly $400 million. That figure does not include director Mel Gibson�s cross-promotional merchandising efforts�sales on such items as metal replica crucifixion nails and thorn-adorned necklaces and bracelets. The extremely violent content of the film seems to have inspired some churches to more realistically dramatize the redemption through most precious blood. Some of these dramatizations express forcefully a wrath for the secular "pagan" symbols of the Easter holiday. As the Associated Press reports, in one instance, at an Easter show in Glassport, Pennsylvania, children were traumatized as the actors whipped the Easter bunny and crushed Easter eggs on stage. Performers declared: "There is no Easter Bunny." One 4-year old child cried hysterically, asking his mother "why the bunny was being whipped." "It was very disturbing," said another parent. The youth minister at Glassport Assembly of God said that they were only trying "to convey that Easter is not just about the Easter Bunny. It is about Jesus Christ."

The key here is this: We are dealing not only with a political problem (one which Jason Pappas summarizes well here, where I have left a comment as well). We are dealing primarily with a cultural problem. And it is one that goes far beyond the growth of cheerleading camps or the use of corporal punishment.

Many religious people are, no doubt, reacting against what they perceive as the triumph of subjectivism, relativism, and nihilism in various aspects of popular culture. But in celebrating their own isolation from that culture, they make possible the further alienation of young people from a world that demands their rational engagement. Worse: the embracing of instrinsicism, which inculcates a faith-based adherence to moral "absolutes" regardless of context, is no genuine alternative. Humane values are passed on to children and young people by appealing to their growing, yet delicate, rational faculties. Reason is the only legitimate alternative to faith and force. And teaching children to use their minds is the surest way to raise healthy and happy adults.

P.S.: Be sure to check out Arthur Silber's post, "Why You Should Protest the Torture and Abuse of Children." He offers some provocative thoughts about the long-term psychological (and, in some cases, physical) damage done to children by some of the child-rearing practices at issue here.

Comments welcome.

April 25, 2005

Democracy and Saudi Arabia

I've had a lot to say about Saudi Arabia, and about the Bush administration's Adventures in Mideast Democracy.

Well, in Episode #2,345 of this Quixotic Political Saga, the Saudi royal family, which has been a trusted US "ally," "has been under pressure from Washington to engage in political reform at a time of social tension and a two-year campaign against the state by militants associated with al-Qaeda." Today, the news tells us:

Candidates on an alleged "golden list" backed by religious clerics have swept the final round of Saudi Arabia's first nationwide municipal elections. Islamist candidates won all the municipal council seats contested in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They also fared well in northern towns as well as the comparatively liberal port of Jeddah, according to results released on Saturday. Women were barred from the polls, which were presented as a step towards more popular participation in public life.

Of course, the regime itself will pick "roughly half" of 1,200 councillors, which might "dilute" the power of Islamicists. Not that the Saudi regime is all that liberal by comparison. After all, this election news comes on the heels of another news story that the Saudis had detained 40 Pakistani Christians who were caught "attending a service in Riyadh" in a private home. The police also found (horrors!!) "Christian tapes and books." Since one cannot practice any religion other than Islam in Saudi Arabia, this is a crime, in case you were wondering.

I get exhausted pointing out the obvious. This is a regime that is allegedly a "friend" of the United States government. Let's put aside the prospects for democracy among "unfriendly" regimes. Of what use is procedural "democracy" when a "friendly" regime schools its citizens in a fanatical ideology of intolerance, when it marginalizes and criminalizes women, non-Muslims, and freedom itself? Of what use is "democracy" when the dominant culture would bring about a political condition that might make the current Saudi regime appear "moderate" by comparison?

Comments welcome, or readers may comment at L&P, where this has been cross-posted here.

Update: In addition to L&P comments on this post here and here, readers should check out Matthew Barganier's antiwar.com blog entry, "Saudi Democracy: A Little Realism, Please." Matthew makes some excellent points in that post. I agree that the US presence in Saudi Arabia might have made that country a tad less illiberal, and I also agree that the US-House of Sa'ud relationship has been a focal attack point for fanatical Islamic fundamentalists. In many respects, however, the US presence has been a model of neocorporatist intervention, a symbol of everything that is wrong with US foreign policy, as I point out here, for example.

April 09, 2005

The Apocalypse Will Be Broadcast

I've been writing about the rise of the religious right for quite a while now, most recently in connection with the re-election of George W. Bush. Starting with my essay, "Caught Up in the Rapture," I have argued that the political impact of the religious right is second only to its cultural and economic impact, which is growing significantly:

Continue reading "The Apocalypse Will Be Broadcast" »

April 02, 2005

Pope John Paul II Dies

My condolences to those mourning the passing of Pope John Paul II. Whatever one's thoughts on organized religion, Catholicism, or the Pope's applications of Catholic doctrine, I think it can be said that this was a gentle man with guts, one who lent his support to such movements as Solidarity during an historical period that saw the collapse of Communism.

R.I.P.

Update: At SOLO HQ, I reflected on the Pope's passing, and in reply to Lindsay Perigo's own homily, "The Pope, Objectivism ... and 'The Best Within'." I reproduce those comments below for readers of Notablog. Also note SOLO HQ follow-up here, here, here, and here.

Comments welcome, though you might also wish to join the discussion at SOLO HQ.

Continue reading "Pope John Paul II Dies" »

March 10, 2005

Islam and Pluralism

There is a thought-provoking article by Reza Aslan in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. Entitled "From Islam, Pluralist Democracies Will Surely Grow," the article asserts that "it is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy," that "Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism," and that democratic change is therefore not as unreachable a goal as some might think.

Continue reading "Islam and Pluralism" »

October 18, 2004

Suskind, Bush, and More

In his L&P post, "Empire and Imperialism," William Marina comments on my L&P post from yesterday. I return the favor, commenting, along with David Beito, on the need for an awareness of system in libertarian foreign policy analysis.

I also add my voice to a discussion that features Aeon Skoble and Charles Johnson, reflecting on Steven Horwitz's L&P post, "Faith-based Presidents and Reality-based Communities." In discussing Ron Suskind's NY Times essay on the political implications of Bush's religious convictions, I remind readers of my own essay on this theme: "Caught Up in the Rapture."

Update: "Caught Up in the Rapture" (originally published in The Free Radical) continues to make the rounds; The Revealer recommends it to readers: "Ayn Rand v. W." I also have additional thoughts at L&P on the libertarian applications of "Systems Theory."