Monday, August 29

Epistemology Is The Last Refuge Of The Magical Thinker

Ross Douthat, "Just because Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are utter loons (and you didn't hear that from me) is no reason to assume their religious manias are not reasonable, nuanced, and flexible. After all, look at me. Besides, religious people don't actually mean what they say. I mean, c'mon". August 29

TWO old friends meet here: our USENET-vintage observation that sooner or later every internet discussion--including those between Ross Douthat and the imaginary liberals he vanquishes once a week--devolves into an Epistemology lecture for incoming freshman, generally conducted by a third-year sophomore, and the recognition, so familiar to anyone who's had Dick Lugar as his Senator for the last two lifetimes, that the only principles "moderate" Republicans are willing to stand up for are those held by the right-wing crackpots they vote with. Although on reflection this does not really distinguish them from moderate Democrats.

[Speaking of epistemology, most Mondays I wonder, briefly, about the vestigial organ that is "moderate" Republicanism. Does Douthat deserve the term, just because (in print) the terms of his inexplicable employment trump his own theocratic tendencies? Douthat's personal objections to gay marriage are religious; he won't say so in print, because it makes him look like a Bronze Age bigot, rather than the Hahvahd man the Times hired. His moderation is the artificial reasonableness of the man who hopes above all that you don't discover that fifth ace in his sock. He's no more moderate than Bill Fuhbuckley was, just perhaps a little less congenitally well-off. You could figure that David Brooks would not be too confounded by a newly-legal gay couple buying the condo one flight up. The best you can say about Douthat, on the other hand, is that you'd be surprised to learn he was the one who dropped their Yorkie down the trash chute.]

Fuck it, let's roll:
During George W. Bush’s presidency, many liberal and secular Americans came to regard religious conservatives not merely as their political opponents, but as a kind of existential threat.

Once again, History begins when Douthat took notice of it, or once he figured out its partisan political significance.
Rather, it was an essentially illiberal force, bent on gradually replacing our secular republic with what Kevin Phillips’s 2006 best seller dubbed an “American Theocracy.”

I can't speak for liberal and secular America, but as I recall Phillips' point wasn't that this was something new; rather that under George W. this faction had considerably increased its influence in Republican politics.

And Phillips, of course, is something of a special case, since he was a Republican insider, so his estimation of when this "takeover" began might differ from mine, or secular America's. At any rate, some liberal and secular Americans might point to Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, or Charlie Coughlin--hell, even Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to name a couple Douthat might have heard of and repressed--to suggest that the right-wing theocratic impulse isn't exactly new.
These anxieties dissipated once the Republican majority imploded. In the Obama era, debates over the economy and health care crowded out arguments about sex education and embryo destruction, and liberals found a new set of right-wing extremists to worry about: Tea Party activists, birth certificate obsessives, the Koch brothers.

The Reader is reminded here that this "Liberals do this, Liberals obsess over that" routine--all incognito beyond the title of a Kevin Phillips book--is at the service of Douthat's complaint that the Religious Right is unfairly treated as monolithic.
But with the rise of first Michele Bachmann and then Rick Perry in the presidential polls, and the belated liberal realization that many Tea Partiers are also evangelical Christians...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: talking to yourself does not noticeably improve argumentation. It's the Teabaggers who pretended to not be religious, or to have jettisoned the religious trappings to concentrate on the all-out effort to end Socialism. I can't name a single leftblogger who bought the story. I can't name any who forgot that Sarah Palin existed as of January 2009. Maybe Amy Sullivan. Believing your own hype is bad enough, Ross. When it leads to snake handling, drinking unfiltered Mississippi River water, or searching for some rhetorical sense in which Paul Revere did warn the British, you need professional help.
Beginning with Ryan Lizza’s profile of Bachmann in The New Yorker, a spate of recent articles have linked the Republican presidential candidates to scary-sounding political theologies like “Dominionism” and “Christian Reconstructionism,” and used these links to suggest that Christian extremism is once more on the march.

Again the Reader is reminded that this critique comes from the direction of the American "Conservative" movement, whose political capital comes from having trademarked Pinko™ in the 1940s, plus residuals from an uncounted number of successful spin-offs since, including Criminal Coddlers, My Mother the Limousine Liberal, The Real Racists of Blue State America, and The Baby Killers.

Look, Ross: the reason there are "suddenly" Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry articles is that they are "suddenly" at the top of the Republican leader board. The reason some of those articles are unflattering to the point of questioning either's sanity is that sometimes the truth does get printed.
But here are four points that journalists should always keep in mind when they ask and then write about religious beliefs that they themselves don’t share.

First, conservative Christianity is a large and complicated world, and like other such worlds — the realm of the secular intelligentsia very much included — it has various centers and various fringes, which overlap in complicated ways.

One can say the same about Capitalism, Crime, and Cornflakes (or the Journalists Who Write About Religious Beliefs They Don't Share, for that matter). It doesn't mean all generalizations are equally worthless, nor that one may only seek to vivisect Bachmann's crank worldview, or Perry's show-off piety, once the scalpel is infinitely sharp.
Second, journalists should avoid double standards. If you roll your eyes when conservatives trumpet Barack Obama’s links to Chicago socialists and academic radicals, you probably shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Bachmann’s more outré law school influences prove she’s a budding Torquemada.

It's easy to remember Kids: faux-fairness kicks in with the second incident, just as in professional sports, where the second guy to throw a punch is the one who usually gets ejected.

Although we should note that Douthat does not condone the corollary--or wouldn't, were it possible for him to be open on the Times pages, or honest about anything--that the solid week of teevee media time devoted to Jeremiah Wright means those who did preempt real stories in 2008 to run snippets of Wright's sermons are now honor bound to start nosing around Perry's theological connections or Bachmann's magical belief system.
Third, journalists should resist the temptation to apply the language of conspiracy to groups and causes that they find unfamiliar or extreme. Republican politicians are often accused of using religious “code words” and “dog whistles,” for instance, when all they’re doing is employing the everyday language of an America that’s more biblically literate than the national press corps.

There is No Fucking Way the national press corps is less biblically literate than America. The scale only goes to Zero.
Finally, journalists should remember that Republican politicians have usually been far more adept at mobilizing their religious constituents than those constituents have been at claiming any sort of political “dominion.”

I know it was before your time, Ross, but way back in the 80s--the 1980s--when the boom in cable television, following rapidly on the heels of the generalized acquisition of electricity in their neck of the woods, caused several backwoods preachers--the epithet refers to the origin of their garbled theology, not a presumed inability to Spot a Mark--to recognize just how much a low-watt station, satellite communications, and the good folks at the Federal Communications Commission could assist in spreading the Good News About Jesus. This just happened to occur almost simultaneously with the generalized move to the Republican party by former Yellow Dog Democrats, and the election of Ronald Wilson "Take All The Licenses You Need, Boys!" Reagan.

Yes, in the interim the Republican party harvested a ton of votes while hoping that Brother Pat and Cousin Jerry, et. al., proved more interested in short-term venality than Eternal growth, a supposition well-founded in the history of the breed, and mostly borne out: the Republican party has yet to seriously challenge reproductive rights, or amend the Constitution to permit school prayer and prohibit mosque construction. The Religious Right leadership has been fine with this for four decades. It accepted George H.M.S. Bush, then sat on its hands and clamped its jaws shut for Bob Dole. George W. was its accidental candidate; his Christianity dated to a need to excuse his drunken frat-boy past, then to cover up his incompetent Presidential present. Evangelicals loved him. This did not noticeably budge his competence factor.

In return, the FCC fined whatever network broadcast Janet Jackson's African breast armor, and the entire GOP establishment ran to DC on command to save Terri Schavo, which caused any number of Republicans suddenly to discover they were sharing a party with people who thought Adam, Eve, and John Wayne's great-great grandfather rode dinosaurs.

These people thought '08 was their year, but the Bush administration took the brand down with it, with the help of the usual number of sex and money scandals among the Elect. Sam Brownback went nowhere. Huckabee had a good run, but he was savvy enough to save the preachin' for the Flock, and, as it turned out, he had signed a bill that raised Arkansas' cigarette tax 2¢, and so was theologically suspect to begin with.

If the Religious Right has been less than omnipotent over the last three decades of public gridlock, it's not for lack of trying.
Perry knows how to stroke the egos of Texas preachers, but he was listening to pharmaceutical lobbyists, not religious conservatives, when he signed an executive order mandating S.T.D. vaccinations for Texas teenagers.

Which he now repudiates. Fer chrissakes, the fact that these morons sometimes listen to an even higher power--Mammon (that's a Biblical reference, so your colleagues won't get it)--proves nothing. Let me know when the "I'm Rick Perry, and I'm Slippery Enough to be Your Next President" Tour reaches the Bible Belt.

However, I would like to nominate "listening to pharmaceutical lobbyists", with its suggestion that Evil Profits drive the argument for HPV vaccinations, for a Pulitzer in the Respecting the Nuance of Opposing Arguments the Way He Was Demanding of His Opponents 250 Words Earlier category.
This last point suggests the crucial error that the religious right’s liberal critics tend to make. They look at Christian conservatism and see a host of legitimately problematic tendencies: Manichaean rhetoric, grandiose ambitions, apocalyptic enthusiasms. But they don’t recognize these tendencies for what they often are: not signs of religious conservatism’s growing strength and looming triumph, but evidence of its persistent disappointments and defeats.

And which, of course, the Religious Right--somehow it's now convenient for Douthat to treat it as a monolith--has internalized as indicative of our pluralistic society, and vows to approach reasonably and rationally from here on out.



ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Although we should note that Douthat does not condone the corollary--or wouldn't, were it possible for him to be open on the Times pages, or honest about anything--that the solid week of teevee media time devoted to Jeremiah Wright means those who did preempt real stories in 2008 to run snippets of Wright's sermons are now honor bound to start nosing around Perry's theological connections or Bachmann's magical belief system.

Exhibit A.

The distinction here, for the umpteenth time, is that Wright isn't just Obama's supporter; he's his pastor, his friend, and his spiritual mentor, which makes him exactly the kind of person whose views ought to be of interest to a public that's considering electing Barack Obama President of the United States.

charles pierce said...

OK, young padawan columnist, let's try a thought experiment. Get 100 people together. Ask them who Jeremiah Wright is. Then, ask them who John Eidsmoe is, or RJ Rushdoony.

I'll spot you five points.

Anonymous said...

I read Ryan Lizza's piece. He was very polite and he couldn't cover up that she's a loon. As for Perry, I didn't realize that he like Bachmann had been a Democrat. What makes these guys change? I'm pretty much where I was as a teenager and no, I wasn't an extremist at that time but rather very middle of the road. You know, where NORMAL people are.

Keith said...

It's really fun to watch Douthat et. al get all nuanced when it comes to the varied and multiform theology of US Christianity and then turn around and talk about all Muslims as if they were clones of Bin Laden sharing a single brain.

Anonymous said...

What's funny is that Catholics are hated almost as Muslims by many an American fundie (Mormons come in third, just ask Mitt Romney's floundering campaign).

Nice friends you've got their Ross.

Deggjr said...

Bible Literacy? Dream on. From Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians:

"Few Surprising Findings about Fundamentalists. Since fundamentalists insist
the Bible is the revealed word of God and without error, you would think they’d have
read it. But you’d often be wrong. I gave a listing of the sixty-six books in the King
James Bible to a large sample of parents and asked them, “How many of these have
you read, from beginning to end? (Example, if you have read parts of the Book of
Genesis, but not all of it, that does not count.)” Nineteen percent of the Christian High
fundamentalists said they had never read any of the books from beginning to end,
which was neatly counterbalanced by twenty percent (but only twenty percent) who
said they had read all sixty-six."

Listening to Dominionists, or their apologists, is like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard.

heydave said...

Ross' "Holier Than Wow" attitude, behavior, motif, whatever the fuck it is makes me want to steal his lunch money again.

Anonymous said...

Every single post from Douthat confirms my suspicion that he is a second-rate thinker (that may be a charitable ranking) and that the NY Times long ago gave up its reputation as "The Newspaper of Record." The news section is still a bit better than the Op-Ed page, but not by much. Thanks for reading Dolthat's spew, so I didn't have to.