Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Parallel Reality

Echidne (blessed be her holy name) steered me to this frightening interview with Michelle Goldberg, a fine writer who's spent a good deal of time researching the Christian Right. It's well worth reading in full, but a couple of things leap out at me.

The anxieties people are dealing with, and that people like James Dobson speak to, are very valid. A lot of people are in despair. Our culture is crass and vulgar and nihilistic. Families are falling apart -- especially in the most right-wing states, where divorce rates tend to be highest.
Absolutely right. I wrote a long piece on our "crass and vulgar and nihilistic" culture here, so I won't revisit the topic now. Instead, I'd like to point out how much easier diagnosis is than cure:
I'm still a first amendment absolutist, but I've come to think that, although I don't want to see Democrats move right on social issues, they need to make it clear that they are not the party of libertinism, and that they understand peoples' desire for wholesomeness and familial security.
Sounds great. The problem is, Democrats have very little choice in the matter. First off, I don't think it's possible for them to make enough concessions to be seen as "wholesome" by people whose lives are more or less defined by sexual hysteria. Second, they don't control their own representation; what Democrats and liberals say is filtered first through a generally hostile media, and second through an opportunistic, amoral pseudo-religious establishment.

Ms. Goldberg understands this, of course, as is clear from her account of the fundamentalist representation of the Terri Schiavo case:
You have to remember that, for people existing in the parallel reality of the Christian nationalist movement, Schiavo wasn't in a persistent vegetative state. In my book, I write about a speech that David Gibbs, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, gave to a banquet of leading Christian nationalists. He described her sobbing in her mother's arms after the courts condemned her to death. "Terri Schiavo was as alive as any person sitting here," he said. "Anything you saw on the videos, multiply times two hundred. I mean completely animated, completely responsive, desperately trying to talk." People in the audience were crying as he spoke.
Obviously, when you're talking about people who inhabit a "parallel reality" that has this sort of emotional appeal, it makes no sense to imagine the Democrats being able to make anything clear. Basically, they can either follow the fundamentalist rank-and-file through the looking-glass, and try to make the most of the third-class moral status they'd gain - possibly - from this compromise, or can they continue to be "the party of libertinism" (or worse) in the eyes of the Religious Right and its sympathizers. Terri Schiavo either sobbed in her mother's arms, or she didn't; there's absolutely no room here for compromise, or agreeing to disagree.

The progressive mindset, like other mindsets, is projective; we often find it hard to grasp that the everyday virtue of "finding common ground" is not attractive on any level to people who define themselves specifically in terms of their distance from us. If anything, Ms. Goldberg's wistful hope that Democrats will demonstrate "that they understand peoples' desire for wholesomeness and familial security" underscores this distance; note how easily one could read this as a condescending plea for tolerance, rather than for morality. The impression here is that when it comes to "wholesomeness," liberals are on the outside looking in.

Ms. Goldberg believes these people are dangerous - as do I - so it's natural that she'd look for some way of mitigating the danger. But again, I think we could move in these people's ideological direction a good deal farther than most of us would find comfortable, without appreciably reducing their rage or anomie. To Christian nationalists, suggestions like Ms. Goldberg's are likely to come across as an olive branch extended by an outnumbered enemy whose annihilation is both just and inevitable. Why on earth would they bargain with an enemy whose defeat is the climax of God's plan for humankind?

I can't imagine how progressives might address this problem, let alone solve it; almost every suggestion I've seen relies on the sort of rationalist arguments that amount to throwing gasoline on a bonfire. I do know that the media are playing an extremely dangerous game by mainstreaming the Religious Right, and ought to be held accountable for it (I'll pencil it in at the bottom of my "to-do" list).

Interestingly, Robert M. Jeffers argues that militant fundamentalism is running out of steam. For once, I don't find his argument particularly convincing. And even if it were accurate, I'm not positive it would lessen the political usefulness of catering to sexual and racial bigotry. That said, RMJ's opinions tend to be much better informed than mine, so I can't simply dismiss them out of hand.


Rmj said...

The energy required to maintain substantial fear of an enemy is impossible to maintain for long.

Even in WWII, people were getting heartily sick of the war by the end. We are already seeing the failure of the GWOT to mobilize public sentiment. This will undoubtedly carry over to voting, in November.

The number of people who buy LaHaye's books on Armageddon are not equivalent to the number of people who will act, no matter what, on their belief that the world is ending soon, and all who disagree are damned apostates and heathens who deserve their fate. The latter are a significantly smaller number and, while they have wielded inordinate influence under Karl Rove's attentions, that influence is waning fast.

I grew up among these people. I attended public school with them. In short, I've seen this movie, and I know how it comes out. Already, they're losing interest in politics and the world and, like most Americans, they are ready to retire back to their everyday lives. Even if they continue to vote, their power to overwhelm the rest of us (which was never more than a measure of voter apathy, anyway) is ended.

IMHO, at least.

Phila said...

I grew up among these people. I attended public school with them. In short, I've seen this movie, and I know how it comes out. Already, they're losing interest in politics and the world and, like most Americans, they are ready to retire back to their everyday lives.

I know that you know a lot more about this than I could hope to, and if you say it I can't help but take it seriously. Also, your point about voter apathy is an excellent one.

I hope you're right. Stuff like that bit about Schiavo's lawyer knocks me for a loop.'s so totally amoral. And even if their influence truly is waning, I have to confess that I'm worried about increasingly desperate/dishonest political efforts to reverse that process.

But then, worrying is what I do best. I know you're speaking from experience, so I'll just have to hope the mood you're describing is broad and deep enough to defuse things.