February 5, 2014
Walter White — American entrepreneur

So as I have made clear in some other posts, I have been working my way through Breaking Bad. I am transfixed. It is an amazing show.

As I have been watching I have been thinking about why it “works.” Several reasons come to mind: it’s well-written. It’s well-filmed. It seems “true” — that Jesse can’t bring himself to call his high school chemistry teacher anything other than “Mr. White” seems very real to me. It is complex, showing real people in real families with real world problems — like paying for healthcare in contemporary America. And if it gets a little too trite or cogent sometimes, well, its other virtues allow us to excuse those flaws. (Really? Walter meets the father of the woman who has threatened to expose his operation immediately after watching the woman choke to death on her own vomit in a heroin coma? That happens within hours of her making the threat? And induces the father to fall apart at work, causing major problems and paralleling Walt’s own family collapse? Really? Deus ex machina much?)

But another one deserves a moment’s attention. Walter White is an entrepreneur. He is what the Republicans at their 2012 presidential convention hailed as a “maker, not a taker.” He identifies a market niche and provides a superior product in a cost-effective way. Admittedly, the product is meth, but hey: Coca Cola used to have coca in it. We didn’t ban LSD in this country until 1971. If tobacco and alcohol weren’t already legal but were invented today, we’d probably control or ban them, too. Like so many “great” Americans before him, Walt builds a business and a brand identity — and a darn successful one, too.

Think about it. Walt experiences lots of problems as he seeks to grow his business. He has personnel problems: his employees are often irresponsible, and he is an inexperienced manager with imperfect systems for assessing and controlling them. As he expands he runs into other competitors who defend their turf jealously. His expenses rise as he grows and he has to hire outside help to both negotiate the boundaries of turf and to manage the legal environment in which he operates. (Saul is awesome.) He also essentially avoids the employee problem by relying on others to manage his distribution operations…. he’s an outsourcer!

And like so many single-minded entrepreneurs before him, Walt’s intense focus on his work costs him his family. That his intent is to provide for his family only deepens the irony of his choices: in securing their financial future he alienates his wife and, of course, becomes a criminal.

I have often commented that if Michael Jordan or LeBron James (or Peyton Manning, for that matter) were drug dealers, they’d be really good ones: they’re smart, they’re driven, and they are so monomaniacally competitive that they just want to beat you — at everything. They, however, focused their pathologies on “socially acceptable” paths of insanity — paths that have made them rich and famous. Or, like Mr. Burns in “The Old Man and the Lisa," some people burn with an entrepreneurial spirit that lets them make and lose vast fortunes in the marketplace.

Others, like Walter White, choose different paths. But it’s the same story.

Which is one of the many, many reasons Breaking Bad is great. 

May 19, 2012
So Trayvon Martin had smoked marijuana …

So the freak what?

Here’s the thing: WE DON’T EXECUTE PEOPLE IN THE US FOR SMOKING MARIJUANA.

The STATE doesn’t do it. PRIVATE INDIVIDUALS don’t get to do it.

Smoking marijuana is not an executable offense.

FYI, you’re going to hear lots of leaks like these as the trial of George Zimmerman nears. You’re going to hear about Trayvon Martin’s size, and about his history, and a lot of other stuff. You’re going to hear it from Zimmerman’s family, and from the Sanford officials embarrassed at not arresting Zimmerman at the time.

What you need to remember is this: George Zimmerman created the confrontation that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. As the Sanford PD report said, had Zimmerman simply remained in his car and waited for law enforcement officers to arrive, no confrontation would have occurred. Instead, whatever else might have happened, Trayvon Martin would have been alive at the end of the night. And none of us would have ever known his name or George Zimmerman’s name.

Which is how it should be.

Don’t get lost in the trivia. Focus on what matters. And what matters is that George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin against law enforcement officials’ requests. That was his choice — and his responsibility.

May 11, 2012
On Mitt Romney and High School Cruelty

So it turns out Mitt Romney might have been an ass in high school — or, at least, that he might have been an ass some of the time in high school. For example, he engaged in an act of cruelty that led to a schoolmate’s hair being cut … perhaps because the student was gay (or was perceived to be gay). There are other “pranks” on record.

Much is being made of this out there in progressive-land, and I have a profound sense that much of what is being said is just dead wrong. It is emphasizing the wrong thing and missing the important thing.

Much is being made of “privileged Mitt” picking on a weaker, perhaps gay, fellow student. People are interpreting this as revelatory about all kinds of things about Mitt Romney: his sense of superiority, his attitude about gay people, etc.

But this, it seems to me, is the wrong thing. My guess is that you are not the same person you were in high school (unless, I guess, you are in high school as you are reading this). I certainly am not. I am not at all sure that one could have known me at 17 and understood that I would become the man I am now, 31 years later.

No, what matters is not who we were but who we become: how we mature; what uses we make of the mistakes we make.

I mean, let’s face it: pretty much everybody has something about high school that they regret. Pretty much everyone has memories of moments of cruelty — both that they suffered, and that they committed.

To use myself as an example, I certainly suffered more teasing and shunning and in some cases physical bullying than I committed. (This was particularly true in junior high school when I was very tall, very skinny and very socially isolated.) But even so, as is the way of things, I managed to make shit roll down hill and be mean to at least a few people even more vulnerable than I. And I had an acid tongue I wielded as a weapon of both defense and offense. I hope I remember rightly that I didn’t do really nasty things too often or too viciously, but those are the memories of the person committing the act, not the person receiving it. So how would I know?

Believe me: there are any number of places in my life I’d like to be able to rewind the tape to and choose a different way.

The thing is, I regret these acts. In some cases I am ashamed of them.

More, I’ve tried hard not to make these mistakes again. I’ve tried hard to try to see the world from other people’s points of view and to imagine how, under similar circumstances, I might have the beliefs they have or have done the things they have done. I’ve traveled and engaged and lost the sense that my way is the only right way even as I remain committed to the ideals and values I hold dear. I am, I hope, more humane. And more human.

Which brings me to what I think is the important thing in the Mitt Romney story: I don’t sense the same evolution in him. He dumped a gay adviser not because the guy was a poor adviser, but because the guy’s homosexuality was a political issue. He has told college students not to expect help paying off loans and has noted that the extremely poor in America aren’t to be worried about because they have a social safety net. His stands on contraception and privacy have alienated him from women … and he seems utterly baffled as to why, claiming that his wife is his adviser on women’s issues and that she says all women are concerned by is jobs, not birth control. He jokes with NASCAR fans about knowing team owners, not fans and drivers.

In other words, I don’t sense that Mitt Romney has made much effort in his life to understand or even empathize with people who aren’t like him. Which suggests that he remains the privileged high schooler who is casually indifferent to the feelings of weaker, vulnerable people. Which is not, it seems to me, a good thing in a President of the United States.

December 22, 2011
The Republicans’ Enlightenment Problem

Arguably the defining characteristic of so-called “Western” civilization (and don’t flame me for that one; I know the complications embedded in concept, so bear with me) is the Enlightenment: that period of history where reason and science and the notion of natural rights came to play significant—if imperfect—roles in how society operated. Disease, for example, went from being seen as the product of unbalanced bodily “humours” to being understood as the product of germs. Explanations of natural occurrences changed from abstract assertions of logic to empirically-grounded evidence derived from replicable science. Political authority came to be seen as derived from the consent of the governed, all of whom were endowed with inalienable rights, rather than as the beneficence of a divine being to a monarch.

Again, I really don’t want to overplay this: the same Founding Fathers who applied Enlightenment concepts to the creation of the new United States used their reason to rationalize slavery, and reason and science combined to make both Auschwitz and nuclear weapons. Our continuing struggle to recognize the core humanity of others is at the heart of the on-going fight for the recognition of gender, racial, ethnic and LGBT rights in our societies. The Enlightenment didn’t solve everything for everybody all at once—or even now.

On the other hand, whatever the flaws inherent in our realization of Enlightenment ideals in social life, the fact of the Enlightenment shapes the kind of evidence and arguments that we accept as meaningful in our daily lives. Few if any of us would accept “sacrifice a goat” as a cure for cancer; fewer still would likely accept the notion of fixed social classes with differing rights and freedoms as the foundation of a just political order. We are creatures of the Enlightenment, with all of the attendant flaws and opportunities that fact embodies.

Which brings me to my topic: the fact that some significant percentage of the Republican Party seems to be anti-Enlightenment. That is, rather than appealing to reason or science or shared notions of natural rights to advance their cause, they are rejecting such notions out of hand. Take, for example, climate change: almost everyone thinks its happening, and most of the people who study it seriously are certain that it is in part the result of human activity. However, if this is true then it follows that humans ought to change their behaviors such that global climate change might be abated: it’s only reasonable. Of course, change is hard, and in particular the kinds of changes needed to alter the path of global climate change are both disruptive of a particular way of life (consumer capitalism resting on high use of relatively inexpensive fossil fuels) and expensive. So lots of people don’t want to do them. But rather than argue against global climate science in scientific terms—the usual language of “proof”—most Republican opponents of changing our behavior to reduce the negative effects of global climate change simply reject science as such. Rick Perry, for example, has asserted that the whole science of climate change is nothing more than a conspiracy by scientists to get government grants.

Think about that one for a second. Rather than assess the evidence, perhaps by reproducing the results of the experiments and other research done by climate scientists, Perry simply asserted the findings were corrupt. And not even scientifically corrupt—e.g., the result of faked data or bad research design. Nope: a vast, cross-national cabal of climate scientists has banded together in some kind of secret society to dupe governments into giving them money.

It’d be quite a trick … if it were even vaguely true.

Examples of anti-Enlightenment thinking abound within the Republican Party. (Not all Republicans, of course—but this election cycle the Enlightenment-rejectionists do seem particularly prominent). Evolution? Maybe it should be taught in science class, but only if the patently-unscientific “Creation Science” is taught along side it. Rights for LGBT persons? Of course not: they’re deviant, dangerous and wrong and should either be fixed or banished so they don’t infect the rest of us. Prayer in school? A must, for otherwise how else will we prove our love of God through the practice of one specific religion (ours) and thus prove our love of the Constitution that explicitly forbids the anointing of one religion as the official US religion?

As it happens, I believe that—eventually—reality will get in the way, and whatever some Republicans think about things like climate change, for example, the climate will change and we will have to adapt whether we wish to or not. The choice, then, is whether we prepare for the changes to come, or just react to them: change comes in either package. Likewise, I am comforted by the fact that there have been other eras in American history when we have been wrapped up in anti-Enlightenment fever, and we’ve managed to get through these periods as well. Accordingly, I think the Republicans are in long-term trouble: the rejection of reality can carry you for a short time, but eventually reality has a way of smacking you in the face.

The question is just how much damage the hit does to you.

January 17, 2011
A Culture of Violence

At least part of the reason that I have rejected the “right wing radical talk caused the shootings in Arizona” meme is that I think it lets the United States off the hook far too easily. The United States has used, valorized and enculcated a culture of violence that far transcends the specific context of any shooting in Arizona. Martin Luther King knew this, and pushed for peace as a radical alternative to violence.

There are, of course, far too many examples of the American acculturation of violence to cite in any source, but as a partial example let something I wrote in the second edition of Globalization and American Popular Culture stand in as a summary of my argument:

"What is true for movies is equally true for television programs and music. According to one report, the average American child sees eight thousand murders depicted on television before finishing grade school. Given how many hours of television American children watch, they may see an average of ten thousand rapes, assaults and murders each year. The popularity of police procedural television programs like Law and Order and CSI means that popular American television programming, especially the programming popular around the world, is awash in violence. Shows like CSI take as  much advantage of computer graphics in presenting violence as films do. Through computer animation, the audience sees bullets penetrate skin, shatter bones, and slice through arteries, leading to arcs of blood spurting across the screen and splattering across walls. Perhaps the most shocking example of such prurient use of violence happened in the opening scene of the debut episode of the 2005 television program Killer Instinct: a woman paralyzed by a spider bite is viciously raped and murdered before the first commercial break of its premiere episode. While it might be argued that the violence inherent in such crime shows humanizes the victims, that it is intended to make the audience feel the suffering and fear of innocent people, the effect is ultimately dehumanizing and pornographic. Audiences get to witness horrific acts of violence in a detached, clinical way. The appeal is to the prurient interest in order to grab and keep an audience—whether in the United States or elsewhere around the globe.”

But it’s not fair to lay the whole blame on popular culture. Americans live in a society that has become rich and powerful in part because of its extraordinary successes at war. We have used violence to both protect and expand our influence and authority. Indeed, Americans may be the most successful people in the history of war: killing more people at less loss of our own citizens’ lives than any other people—ever.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a pacifist. Some wars need to be fought. A lot don’t. But the practical fact is that Americans have been very successful in war, and part of the reason the country has become rich and powerful is its success at war.

But the American enculturation of violence goes beyond its effective use of violence. There is a moral component as well. Lincoln, for example, used the language of redemptive violence in his accounting for the horrors of the Civil War: the violence and suffering of the war was, Lincoln imagined, the price America had to pay for the sin of slavery. The emphasis many Christians pay to the necessity of Christ’s suffering on the cross to redeem humanity’s sins is a similar sensibility.

For length’s sake, I’ll stop there. But what must be understood from King’s message—and from Gandhi’s, for that matter—is that the sin of violence has to be purged from our own souls before we can imagine building a society that is not awash in violence. The fault that led to the shootings in Arizona—or any of the 800 or so gun murders that have happened in the United States since that horrible day—does not lie just in the rhetoric of hate coming from some parts of the American right. It’s in the nation’s culture. Changing it will require much, much more than getting Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin to shut up.

September 22, 2010
Competing for history

I argue that the last 30 years of American politics have been largely driven by a competition among forces, typically but not necessarily summarized with the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” that seek to control our collective memory about the 1960s. We are seeing another version of this long struggle with the rise of the tea party movement.

For “conservatives,” before the United States entered the turbulent 1960s it was a basically decent place. Families could be raised on one income, the Pledge of Allegiance could be said in school (with the “under God” part only recently added), crime was low and Americans recognized both the importance of the meaning of America and the need for Americans to defend its values in both war and politics. Most conservatives will admit that there were problems and tensions before the 60s—they are not blind to the realities of segregation, or the discrimination of women, or the ill-treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. But they do believe that, in time, the natural processes of American democratic politics and the natural cultural instincts of the American people would have overcome these abuses.

Then the 1960s happened. We went from Martin Luther King, Jr., to the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. From the Free Speech Movement to hippies, drugs, and bra burnings. From stable families to high divorce rates. From God to “spirituality,” From teaching “America is great” to teaching “Americans are racist imperialists.” From the “content of their characters” to affirmative action quotas. Whatever the impetus for such changes were, most conservatives think they just went too far.

Accordingly, the history of conservatism for the last 30 years has been one of victimization. “Our” America has been stolen by radicals and liberals and socialists. We have to restore America to save America. Things may not have been perfect in the 1950s, but they were better than they are now. “We” need to take “our” country back.

For liberals, this narrative is entirely wrong. It is false memory articulated through the rosy perspective of white, Protestant, middle class males who did not have to suffer the vicious realities of racism, and sexism, and poverty, and ethnic and religious bias. It ignores the domestic terror of the McCarthyite Red Scare and the nation’s long history of abusive treatment of workers and laborers. It put blinders on American eyes, making it impossible for the American people to see just how short of the Framers’ ideals the nation had fallen.

Accordingly, for liberals the traumas of the 1960s were both inevitable and necessary. Americans would simply not otherwise have owned up to their failure to live up to their ideals. Affirmative action, civil rights, women’s rights, the breaking up of the so-called “nuclear” family, and much, much more was entirely required to move the United States closer to its promise. There were, undoubtedly, excesses—the Weather Underground’s domestic terrorism is an easy example, as is the abuse of drugs and the abuse of returning soldiers coming home from Vietnam. But, in general, however painful these changes were, they were worth it in the end.

The narrative liberals have spun for the last 30 years, then, is one of loss of progress, of the threat of a “return” to the dark old days. Conservatives’ desire to “take back” America is thus a threat to return to back alley abortions and segregated lunch counters. To women not being able to press charges for domestic abuse and workers not having 40 hour work weeks with paid vacations. To the exclusion of non-Protestant, particularly evangelical, Christians from the public sphere. To ethnocentrism and nationalist jingoism.

The tea party movement is a further expression of this long-standing argument. Liberals, leftists, and socialists who are somehow fascists who prefer Islam to Christianity have decided to break the American spirit with social programs and massive deficits. Glenn Beck’s “Restore America” rally fits this narrative neatly, especially in his call for everyone to get right with God, whoever you think God is. It is another phase of a long fight.

So perhaps we shouldn’t ask, “are you liberal or conservative?,” or “are you a Republican or a Democrat?” Perhaps we should ask: the 1960s. Yes, or No?

September 15, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 3

I conclude this three part series with the issue of: is, or should, the US government founded on/expressing Christian principles?

Let me note up front that I will not be quoting any of the framers in making my case. I would be happy if we would call a moratorium on taking quotes out of context from the framers and then using them to “prove” our case. The plain fact is that the people who wrote the United States’ Constitution were politicians. They were skilled at saying things that would win them public praise even as they might hold quite differing views in private. Hence one can quote Jefferson praising the value of Christianity in public life AND quote Jefferson mocking that very notion in a private letter. It’s fruitless. Besides, the last time I checked, the framers had all died. We’re in charge now.

Instead, what is more productive is to look at the logic of the system they built. The framers were worried about two things when it came to the relationship between religion and the state: what would happen if one sect came to dominate political life, and what would happen if the state came to dominate the church.

It is helpful to remember that the United States was already a religiously diverse place when the Constitution was written. Calvinists, Deists, Quakers and Catholics lived in the US and had political power in different regions of the country. John Adams was familiar with the Koran, and actually owned a copy of the first Koran printed in America. Jefferson acquired one too.

Moreover, the framers knew their religious history. The slaughters of the European Wars of Religion and the English Civil War were current in their thinking. Indeed, much of the early US settlement came as English people (including my first relative in the US) were escaping England’s civil, religious-embedded war. The framers were, as a consequence, profoundly worried about religious sectarianism destroying the fragile unity of the new nation. They worried that some religious group would try to use the power of the state to imprint their religious doctrine into civil law. They actually didn’t care whether the sect in question was “Christian” because inter-Christian sectarianism was much more intense than it is today. Thus, for the framers ANY Christian group winning would likely cause society to collapse. It needed to be avoided.

This is the insight that conservative Christian activists miss today. They think, “ah, the framers were Christians, therefore the nation is Christian,” but do not recognize the diversity of “Christian” experience that worried the framers. Moreover, contemporary Christian activists always imagine their ideas on top—they always imagine winning, and of course imagine that their contemporary ideas express the framers’ “original” intent. The framers asked a different question. They asked: what if your faith loses? Will you remain loyal to the US then? It is a question activists might re-ask today as they think about imposing their Christian precepts on the nation: what if they lose? Suddenly, state neutrality might look a whole lot better,

Additionally, the framers were concerned about something Americans today seem never to consider. They worried as much about the state taking over the church as they did about the church taking over the state. After all, in Europe the churches were significantly creatures of the state. They taught the lessons the state wanted taught, not necessarily the lessons one’s private conscience led one to. It is the Church of England, after all, and the monarch of the UK is “Defender of the Faith,” the head of the church. No church in such a situation is going to promote ideals opposed to the interests of the state, no matter what the Bible actually says.

Americans tend not to worry about the power of the state to dominate the church. The US state is comparatively weak, and tea party rhetoric aside, most Americans do not worry about the state dominating every aspect of our lives. But the fairly universal experience of nations that have state religions is that the religion works for the state, not the other way around. The framers knew this, and perceived of the notion of the separation of church and state as a means to protect religious freedom from state interference, not just as a means to protect people of one set of religious values from being dominated by others holding different religious values.

Which is why the answer to the question, is the US government Christian, or should it be? is: no. The government of the United States is not and cannot be Christian. Were it to be Christian, the enforcement of one sect’s religious precepts against all others would likely rip the nation to shreds. In addition, the religious order that emerged from this chaos would be dominated by the state, not by religious principles.

Which is why anyone who loves religion should love the framers’ insight and love the separation of church and state. It is also why anyone who hates religion should love the framers’ insight and love the separation of church and state. If you want to keep both America and Christian, keep church and state apart.

September 14, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 2

Having established that the United States is at least culturally Christian, I want to turn to the question: whose Christianity? Which version of “Christian” is it?

This is no small question, and is pretty straight-forwardly intended to set up the next post, which will look at the question of American government and Christianity. But in order to get there we need to do a major foray into the nature of Christianity and assess what “Christian” means.

On its surface, the question “are you a Christian or not” has a fairly simple answer: if you believe that God sent his son to earth to redeem our sins, and you believe that Jesus Christ is your savior and that faith in him will bring you eternal salvation, then yes: you are a Christian. If you don’t believe that, you’re not.

But of course it’s not that simple in the real world. Whatever Christians claim about the common foundations of their faith, they have in fact developed a remarkable array of ways to practice their beliefs. Catholicism formed in the centuries after Jesus’ death to try to create and enforce a common doctrine in a context of small, isolated Christian communities spread across the Mediterranean, each practicing remarkably divergent versions of Christianity. (This is what the Epistles are about, for example.) Various “heretic” sects emerged over the ensuing century, and an entirely separate branch of Catholicism developed in the form of Orthodoxy.

Then, once Protestantism took root, Christian sectarianism blossomed. A key principle of Protestantism, after all, is that one’s relationship with God is private, not mediated through some central church that seeks to link all believers in common practice. Accordingly, your faith is yours, and no one can say it is “heretic.” A profusion of religions and religious practices was inevitable in such a world. Thus we have Protestant faiths in which men and women can’t sit in the same part of the church, and we have Protestant churches, like Robert Schiller’s mega-church Chrystal Cathedral, in which families can sit together in their cars inside the church for services. We have churches whose members speak in tongues and churches whose members seem to pride themselves on their moderateness. And, of course, there’s Mormonism, which is certainly of the Protestant tradition, but with an extra book of the Bible.

Of course, there is potentially no doctrinal problem here: so long as everyone believes in Jesus as lord and savior, it is possible that all these traditions can recognize each other was Christian. It doesn’t always happen, of course—Joseph Smith got lynched in Illinois before the locals drove the remnants of his early Mormon church out of the state, for example. (Brigham Young would, of course, lead them to Utah.) Europe slaughtered a third of its population during the Wars of Religion on the question of being Catholic or Protestant. Still, if co-traditionalists can recognize the Jesus-based theology at the heart of all these religions, it is possible for them to recognize each other as Christians.

The social and political problem of all this religious diversity, of course, lies in the divergent political and social agendas that these alleged coreligionists derive from their faiths. Is polygamy okay? Does the Sermon on the Mount compel us to give to the poor, or are we responsible for our own lives? If we are given dominion of all the beasts and land, does this mean we can use them as we will, or does it require we be conservationists, treading lightly? Should we take Jesus seriously when he says that to follow him we should shun our families and our possessions, or does he mean that traditional families should be central to our lives? Does “turn the other cheek” mean passive resistance, or it is okay to turn the cheek because we’re turning to pull out our nuclear weapons?

There are Christians who offer different answers to all these questions, and many more. One version, Christian conservatism, has been ascendant in the US for the last 30 years, but it is not the only Christian tradition in America. Much less the only religious tradition in America. Which makes linking the “Christian” nature of the United States with particular political proposals a very difficult thing to do.

As we shall discuss tomorrow!

September 13, 2010
Is America Christian? Part 1

As we have mosque protests, and concerns about an impending Islamization of American society echo across cyberspace, a more fundamental question is at play: is America Christian? And should it be?

Like any serious question, the answer to this conundrum is: yes, no, and it depends. So I am off into a multi-part foray into this contentious ground. Don’t be upset if I haven’t seemed to have gotten to everything in this post: I assure you, I haven’t. But hopefully you’ll see where I am going a few posts from now.

First, for the “yes.” America is undoubtedly culturally Christian. As a matter of description, it is quite clear that some version of what some people took to be “Christianity” has been central to the life of Americans and America since its earliest European settling. (NOTE: I believe that while one can have endless debates about whether what various people believe is truly “Christian,” I find such discussions unproductive. The people at the time believed it to be Christian, and to the degree they dominated the politics of their era, their version of Christian principles shaped the foundation of the United States.)

For example, the nation was founded by Christian sectarians who had managed to get themselves thrown out of every country in Europe, including exceptionally tolerant Holland. They sought to create a land not of religious tolerance in the sense you and I were taught to understand—e.g., everyone getting along—but rather of religious dogma in which their ideology ruled. And while they were fairly rapidly pushed aside by the commercial interests that dominated colonial life from 1650 to 1760 or so, they left us a legacy of religious uniqueness, of a sense of American exceptionalism, that resurfaces every time a contemporary politician uses Jonathan Winthrop’s notion that America would be a model to others, a shining city set upon a hill.

In addition, ever since its religious founding, the United States has been swept by great periods of Christian revivalism. Religious passions have emerged as national phenomena at least four times in American history—in the early middle 1700s, in the Great Awakening of the 1830s and 40s, in the late 1800s and again with the rise of the Christian conservative movement in the late 1970s through today. No other religion has such a prominent cultural position, and so at least some version of Christian thinking has been central to American life across its history. (I should note for historical accuracy that the movements of the 1800s were significantly anti-Catholic, which movement leaders saw as a heretic religion in a way contemporary Christians (usually) do not.)

Many political and social movements have drawn life from Christian principles and have had profound effects in both our public and our private lives. Abolition, temperance (anti-drinking) and the civil rights movement were all led by religious leaders seeking to infuse their understanding of Christian principles into the nation’s life, for example. The American labor and anti-war movements were likewise shaped by some leaders’ understanding of Christian values. They had and have the shape and flavor they had because the people who led them integrated their understanding of Christianity into their political and social work.

But there are more casual effects. We get Christmas off, not Halloween (despite the fact that both began life as pagan rituals). Movies and books often come in trilogies; when coming up with descriptive phrases for nouns we default to three adjectives: it was a warm, hot and soggy day … ;-).  We appeal for support and indicate our sense of victimhood by standing with our feet together and our arms held wide, all while looking up to the heavens. And political and social leaders regularly make their appeals for support claiming a Biblical foundation for their preferred policy path. These are all deeply Christian images, and are deeply embedded in the nation’s culture.

So is America Christian? Culturally, the empirical fact is, yes, at least in the sense that particular Christian-derived ideas and practices advocated by particular social and political groups have become embedded in American society. But as we shall see in subsequent posts, culture is not everything. And cultures change. Indeed, American “Christian” culture today would be largely unrecognizable to Jonathan Winthrop … or even, perhaps, Martln Luther King, Jr.

August 27, 2010
Glenn Beck and “the white culture”

As the date of Glenn Beck’s event to allegedly recapture the Civil Rights Movement to its true purposes nears, I am reminded of one of his early comments about Barack Obama: Obama, Beck said, “has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.”

Aside from the obvious stupidity of the comment—Obama has made his way in white-dominated America remarkably well for someone who hates it—I was immediately struck by the notion of “white culture.” Being me, I wondered, what, exactly, is “white culture”?

I think I know what Beck meant by it: WASPs. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The people who settled the American colonies and created American government and set in motion those forces like religiosity, capitalism, an at least rhetorical focus on individual values and rights, and sense of self-governance, both political and personal, that constitutes the stereotypical story of America. The story most of us of sufficient age learned before “60s radicals” had the temerity to point out that those colonists abused Native Americans while many held slaves; that America incarcerated people like the Japanese in WWII for very little reason; that class and opportunity are far more tightly linked than the mythology of the American dream wishes to admit. I think he probably wants Americans to acknowledge the remarkable and good things about our history, not just focus on the bad.

And, frankly, he has a BIT of a point. (Bet you never thought I’d write that!) I regularly ask my students questions about history and politics—it’s sort of my job, after all—and I am quite struck at how easily they find it to articulate the critique of American policies and histories without understanding the context: even in they were immoral and wrong, why did slaveholders think it was proper? Why did McCarthyism make sense to lots of Americans who, in fact, were not coerced or frightened into compliance. Without understanding the context, critique, however much I might agree with it, is essentially empty.

But: white culture? Hmm. For much of American history, Catholics were discriminated against in employment and immigration—as of course, were Jews. Race and religion were intertwined; there is, for example, substantial research on the question of how Irish Catholics became “white” in America. Prohibition was in part a reaction on the part of WASPs, who drank little alcohol, to the mass immigration of central Europeans, especially beer-drinking (and brewing) Germans, to the US in late 1800s. (You know: Busch, Pabst, Anheuser … ). Much of the legacy of white people in America has not been just their savage treatment of African and Native Americans—it has been their savage treatment of other white people.

In more modern terms: is “white culture” Sarah Palin’s or Bill Maher’s? Is it hunting wolves from helicopters or hunting prescriptions for medical marijuana? Most Americans live in suburbs and never go out into the country—much less go hunting. Yet most Americans have this sense that somehow, someday they will take to the roads and become Jack Kerouac … who probably wouldn’t like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. (He might not like Bill Maher either, for all I know.)

Beck’s attempt to restore the Civil Rights Movement to its “true” roots is, in the end, an act of nostalgia. And, like all acts of nostalgia, it’s based on a fantasy of “how things used to be.” And, like all acts of nostalgia, it is self-limiting: one has to buy into the fantasy for the act to make sense. For everyone else, it’s quaint.

So let me conclude with a piece of advice for those who find Beck’s event this weekend, on the date and spot of Martin Luther King,  Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech: smile like you do when you see “The Olde Curiosity Shoppe.” It’s an attempt to evoke something that never was, and never will be. If you just walk by, it will fade into memory. Until someone decides it was a remarkable moment in time and offers another fantasy of nostalgia for followers to get wrapped up in!