Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Muskogee Manifesto and much much more

This American Prospect article was published just after the Dixie Chicks' Grammy sweep two weeks ago. The article traces the political history of the country music business: Nashville was New Deal populist before becoming Republican, and a key turning point was the release of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee." Haggard himself intended the song as a bit of a goof, but its popularity revealed, maybe for the first time, that there is a sizable market for cultural reactionaries out there, who want to stand up for patriotism and tradition against hippies and smart-alecks. I'm tickled by the idea, and even think it has some merit, that the conservative swing of the US in the last generation really started not with William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater, but with Merle Haggard.

"Okie from Muskogee" itself doesn't refer to religion, but country music boosters promoted it as an example of

how homages to the hard-working farmer, love-rich poor folk, patriotic
fighting men, and devoted Christians make the music "the voice
of [Nixon's] 'Silent Majority.'"

In Left Blogistan lately there's been a lot of talk about the privileged rhetorical position of "people of faith." Atrios complains that it begs the questions, Whose faith? Faith in what? My response is that for middle America, faith operates as political shorthand. It fits into a tableau: a candidate standing on a dais festooned with bunting, a flag lapel pin, the spouse smiling and waving, the fresh-faced children. The language of faith helps to signify cultural conservatism. That's the main thing. In fact, it does so in a potent and intimate way. Now you may well be a Democrat and not a cultural conservative, but there are a lot of cultural conservatives in this country, including African-Americans and Latinos who are key Democratic constituencies. You need those people. Democrats need an avenue of appeal to cultural conservatives, and faith is an important part of it.

(I happen to think cultural conservatism can be defined in a more democratic/populist way than we commonly think of it, but that's another post.)

Faith is not equivalent to religious doctrine. Loads of Americans are all hopped up on faith but give hardly a damn for theology or doctrine. Pundits debate whether Mitt Romney's Mormon background fatally harms his presidential ambitions. I say no. I find the LDS church to be doctrinally weird if not incoherent, but look: the Mormons stand for patriarchy, sobriety, the pioneer spirit--heck, the Mormons' long exodus in search of their eventual home in Utah has echoes of the Israelites and the Pilgrims, crossed with a John Wayne movie. Romney's Mormonism is awkward, but not crippling. Some leaders of the Religious Right disdain Mormonism, but the average religious conservative voter will not have a problem with it. (Romney's bigger problem is living down his socially moderate positions as governor of Massachusetts.)

Riffing on Romney in the Boston Globe, Paul Waldman commented:

Listen to candidates talk about religion and they seem to be following two
1) Profess that nothing is more important to you than your
2) Be as vague as possible about your religion.

Waldman's right; for instance, Romney wants credit for being a good church-going Christian but resists discussion of the details of Mormonism. But this is what politicians do on many fronts: aligning themselves with a popular theme (tough on crime, compassionate on health care, etc.), but skimping on the details. Organized religion just has a special power to get under the skin of liberal writers. If Romney had a vision for health care reform but as yet no detailed program, a pundit might cut him some slack for strategic reasons. No such benefit of the doubt with religion; Waldman wants to interrogate Mormon doctrine, right now.

The peerless East Coast smart-aleck HL Mencken once wrote: "We must accept the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." I'm not sure Mencken meant to be giving campaign advice with this quip, but that's a good attitude for Democrats to adopt. A pol declaring himself a "person of faith" is akin to trotting out the spouse and kids to demonstrate strong family values. It's pro forma political theatre.

It's regrettably true that one cannot be bluntly atheist and have presidential ambitions. One cannot speak in opposition to baseball or motherhood or golden retrievers either. There's a whole set of characterological requirements for political candidates that are silly or unfair, but that Americans haven't yet evolved beyond. C'est la vie, as Chuck Berry used to sing.

Well, this is a whole mess of thoughts, but at least let me pile them in this one place. A few more:

I still intend to say something about "Whistling Past Dixie," and here Pastor Dan of Street Prophets says something I agree with, that these are overlapping questions for Democrats, whether to court religious voters and whether to court the South. Southern Democrats are more acclimated to the language of faith, and they (we) tend to assume that "you don't break covenant with someone simply because you don't agree with them."

I should acknowledge the sad news that Amanda and Shakes did not survive with the John Edwards campaign. The infuriating thing is that this Donahue character is treated as a Catholic spokesman; he's nothing but a far-right goon, Frank Nitti with rosary beads. A lot can be said and was said about blogs vs. the Establishment, but at the end of the day it was a power play. Bill Donahue had more of it than Shakes and Amanda did.

That said, while none of Amanda's supposedly objectionable posts pushed MY buttons, they were gratuitous and it's clear they pushed some people buttons. Ed Kilgore is consistently smart about religion and politics, and here he points out that one line you shouldn't cross is questioning the sincerity of someone's beliefs. For anti-woman, anti-gay Christian conservatives, which came first, the bigotry or the "faith"? Which has precedence, which follows from the other? Oftentimes, I believe, the bigotry comes first. (Look how many Episcopalians have switched denominations, to places where anti-gay sentiments are more at home.) But you can't say that in public political discourse; as a practical matter you just can't.

In tracking the Amanda-Shakes discussion, I discovered a blog I really like called Adventus. I'm predisposed to relate to the guy because he's a burned-out Episcopal priest. Anyway, he had an unstinting rebuke of Amanda:

If you want to engage in politics, truly engage in it rather than snipe at it
from the sidelines like the Washington pundits and talking heads and columnists
across the country and political spectrum, you have to take responsibility for
what you say. If you want to engage in public life at all, beyond shouting
opinions and spouting your preference and gathering to you people of like mind
who nod at your "sage" pronouncements, you have to take responsibility for what
you say. It doesn't mean "they" get a free pass for threatening your life or
simply your job; but it does mean they get to swing back, and you can't retreat
behind complaining about their "hurt feelings." If that's the best you've got,
the kitchen's gonna be too hot for you.

Unfogged had a really good comments thread about the Mormons and whether they should be considered Christians or not.

I found that Mencken quote in this Stuart Jeffries piece in the Guardian. Thanks once again, Ophelia!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Happy Mardi Gras

A friend just linked me to this: ParadeCam, St. Charles Avenue.

I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras once. I was 22. Huge crowds. A party, someone's house, some friend of a friend. Balcony perch, overlooking a gay parade down Bourbon Street. Leather queens. Should have anticipated this scene, but hadn't. Me yelling at a guy because I didn't like the way he looked at me. Me = 22-year-old asshole. Later: A gorgeous woman, topless except for body paint and glitter, stumbling through the French Quarter, blind drunk. Me worried about her. More crowds, parades, grabbing for beads and coins. Walking for miles, drunk, with my friend Alan, trying to find our car.

It was a bumpy ride of a day, actually. And yet I feel it would be nice to be in New Orleans today.

Here in the Bible Belt, 20 years later, I have two invitations to pre-Lenten celebrations, both of which are centered around eating pancakes. Sheesh. Protestants.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Spirit of Radio

WNEW, broadcasting from New York City at 102.7 on the FM dial, was in my life starting in 1979, the year I turned 15, a ripe age for first love, and for a couple of years after that.

Anglo-American rock music was important to me when I was a teenager; many of you can say the same. Lonely and awkward, parents don’t understand me, sexual longing, wish to be cool; verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade out. There are a dozen or so rock artists I could semi-plausibly name as my first love. You know them as well or better than I do. Instead, I would like to write about the radio station through which I heard them.

Of the thousands of late, mostly unlamented AOR stations, my WNEW had two big things to recommend it: the time and the place. The late 70s were a propitious time for FM radio, a time of thrilling disorder, when commerce and creativity seemed to be allies, not opponents. A land rush was on, an early rehearsal for the dot-com boom of the 90s. And New York was a propitious place, as a capital of the record industry as well as of the counterculture.

So at WNEW you had guys like Scott Muni, a seasoned pro from Top 40 AM radio, coming together with people like Vin Scelsa and Pete Fornatale, who were products of the dynamic late-60s college radio scene. To the young rock-n-roll legions scattered across the tri-state area, WNEW’s disc jockeys were gurus. Not entertainers—this is an important point to make since the advent of shock jocks. WNEW’s DJs were never “outrageous,” they were rarely even funny. The secret of their allure was simple hospitality, plus a gentle didacticism. While not neglecting to spin the familiar favorites, they also considered it their mission to turn listeners on to new or neglected music. While respecting the audience’s tastes, they sought to inform and broaden those tastes. This generation of DJs were the original mix-tape obsessives; they paid close attention to the selection and sequence of tracks, testing the power of their medium to create a mood or explore a theme. They were collage artists, assembling musical bits and pieces into something new and sometimes surprising. Confident of themselves and trusting of their audience, they kept the focus on the music they were playing.

In Googling around for this article, I came across an online bio of Pete Townshend, which I commend to you if you’re interested in the subject; it’s a serious piece of work. An important primary source for the biographer was a 1978 interview Townshend did with Scott Muni on WNEW. I don’t believe it could happen today, for a commercial radio station to do an artist interview that will stand up as a scholarly resource in years to come. The DJs were journalists at WNEW; they educated us and supplied context about the music they were playing. They made room for kids to be geeks, not just trend followers.

What was the music they were playing? You already have a general idea: they played many of the white artists currently enshrined up in Cleveland, and they had most of the same blind spots and selection biases that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has. I don’t mean to make our tastes, WNEW’s or mine, out to be better than they were. I didn’t hear much punk music on WNEW; even today I’m still filling in those gaps. I did hear a fair amount of prog rock, though, a subgenre that is not much represented up on Lake Erie: bands like Yes, Rush, and Jethro Tull were big on the station. Prog pomposity was a less grievous sin than punk rebellion was. Also, apart from the arena rock dinosaurs I remember a category of mostly English artists, post-hippies but not-quite-punks: Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Squeeze, Rockpile, the Pretenders. They were smart and incisive, yet life-sized, and they got airplay on ‘NEW, and I like to think they were valuable to me, as I listened on the clock radio in my bedroom, and did the collage-artist work of cobbling together a public persona from bits and pieces.

The thing that cemented my bond to the station was its response to a senseless crime. A great many Metro New Yorkers vividly recall getting the news of John Lennon’s murder, minutes after it happened, from Vin Scelsa on WNEW. John and Yoko were familiar faces in the city and been particular friends of the station (John was tight with Scott Muni). The grief-stricken staff went to all-Beatles-and-Lennon programming for the next several days, sharing music and reminiscences and unfolding news. The culmination was a live broadcast of the Lennon memorial vigil held in Central Park the following Sunday.

I don’t remember the moment I got the news of the shooting, but I have a strong memory of sitting on the floor of my bedroom and listening to the Central Park broadcast. The focal point of the ceremony was a long moment of silence, ten minutes long. I kept silent too; I remember my mother coming into my room wanting to ask me something, and I turned my head and gave her a look, and she left me alone. She understood. Listening to a radio broadcast of near-total silence might seem odd; for that matter, my feeling grief for the death of a rock star I’d never met might seem odd. But I was 16, and a Beatles fan, and the circumstances were especially cruel at a moment when Lennon’s career and life seemed to be on an upswing. And the broadcast was haunting and affecting, like a needle stuck in a run-out groove. I felt present with the friends and family, with the thousands of mourners in Central Park and others keeping vigil around the world. It’s the most memorable funeral I’ve attended, and WNEW was uniquely situated to make my participation possible. Whether one reveres the Beatles or not is somewhat beside the point. It was a rare milestone in broadcasting history, and a remarkable coalescence of a virtual human community.

And some say Lennon’s death marked the apex of WNEW’s distinctiveness and influence. It was downhill from there. MTV arrived on the scene, and strict demographic formats encroached more and more. FM radio was being fenced in. It was just as well that I began to listen less avidly. My social life picked up; I found my flesh-and-blood first love. The next fall I left for college 500 miles away.

First love is na├»ve by definition, and should not have to be explained or apologized for. WNEW cared about us, and we cared about it. The station stayed true to its mission: anchoring us in the familiar, but reaching out and restlessly searching for the new. WNEW formed my tastes, and even influenced my way of enlarging my tastes. I still have a proclivity for seeking gurus or guides to new stuff; newsreaders and weblogs are online updates of the hip-yet-reassuring DJ, helping separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe there’s a latent desire for authority in that habit. And yet, through WNEW I glimpsed the potential for electronic media to forge something like a community, out of people dispersed in space and maybe even in time, but united by shared interests.

My teenage daughter is an iPod listener. She has no use whatsoever for commercial broadcast radio. She would find it baffling that I have the slightest affection for a radio station; she would sooner have sentimental feelings about our neighborhood Target store. As terrestrial radio struggles to survive, it is designing formats that emulate iPod shuffle mode. The very existence of a human being in a studio, carefully shaping a music-listening experience, may be obsolete and endangered. From a certain point of view, freeform radio was an evolutionary glitch, a cultural and technological anomaly, a transitory eddy in the mighty stream of history.

Aren’t we all? Certainly, my brief encounter with WNEW was a lucky accident of geography, timing, and “term limitation.” But it worked. WNEW enjoyed a heyday as a great radio station, it and I shared a special time together, and it never let me down.

Critics of Religion

Atrios made a post Saturday, inspired by the Marcotte-McEwan controversy, where he lays out his views on commenting about religion. It’s a thoughtful statement that I respect and largely agree with.

He starts in a funny place, though:

To me, one of the biggest barriers to having any kind of honest discussion about religion generally and religion in politics specifically has been in the rise of ecumenical and interfaith alliances of all kinds. While these things were probably well-intentioned, they tend to first divide people into "faithful" and "faithless" camps, and work to obscure the wide differences in religious belief and practice among the "faithful."… The substitution of largely meaningless and undefinable words like "faith" and "spirituality," which merely point to an undefined belief in something, for the more concrete "religion," which connotes a specific set of beliefs, traditions, and practices, has prevented an honest examination and understanding of what religion actually is, in its many forms, in this country.

I’m not sure of the relevance of this to Marcotte-McEwan; maybe there is a connection in Atrios’s mind that he doesn’t make explicit. But I have a couple of objections. One, substituting “spirituality” for “religion” is a real problem for organized religion. It has to do with the ascendancy of individualism over institutionalism. (“Sheilaism” is one term for a belief system that is spiritual but not religious.) Atrios implies that it’s a plot, or deception, or other incursion by religious authorities into mainstream life. If anything, it’s an incursion of pop culture into religion. Two, the complaints about interfaith alliances and shifting terminology—I fail to see the point, other than it complicates the reality of lived religion and makes things harder for Atrios to understand. He takes a defensive attitude: Somebody’s obscuring things. A better attitude would be: This is complex, I might not see all the angles, maybe I ought to tread lightly, ask for clarification, etc. Duncan would probably never make a blunt value judgment about African-American or Latino culture, partly for fear of giving offense unintentionally. Well, the same potential exists when you comment on a religion that’s not your own.

The post of Amanda's that generated the most outrage was the one about Plan B, the Virgin Mary, and the “hot white sticky” Holy Spirit. That one didn’t make me mad when I first read it; didn’t push my buttons. On reflection, though, I think I see how it could have made other people sincerely angry. It was funny, and it made a legitimate debate point about Plan B contraception. It was also a big fat finger in the eye to Christians who care about the Virgin Mary and the Trinity. And those are central to the faith life of many if not most Christians. The Vatican's views on birth control are not nearly so central. (Here is another tentative observation: the Trinity and the Virgin Birth are among Christianity's most irrational or abstruse beliefs, and just as they appear the most ridiculous articles of faith to outsiders, they are particular sore spots for insiders--the hardest items of doctrine to sign on to, the biggest source of doubt or ambivalence. Best to steer clear of those if you can, Mr. or Ms. Politician.)

Maybe I'm guilty of pushing my pre-existing agenda, and probably I'm in the dreary albeit familiar position of stressing the tone of criticism over the content. But it's a fundamental political task, finding common ground between groups of overlapping but not identical priorities. Establishing trust and good will is a major part of that task. And when you attack religious differences recklessly,you risk destroying good will by treading on tenets or practices that are precious and intimate to many, many people.

Duncan B. recognizes a crucial distinction, between the “many paths to God” viewpoint and the proselytizing, judgmental, one-path-only viewpoint. The latter approach is the one that most often merits criticism, precisely because it involves imposing Tom’s beliefs on Dick and Harry. I don’t think Duncan sees, though, that the “many paths to God” posture is the one that leads to interfaith alliances. There are reasons not to hold out much hope for interfaith dialogue, but I think it should be encouraged.

Incidentally, Butterflies & Wheels pointed me to this opinion piece by a Mark C. Taylor, who teaches religious studies at Williams College. (As usual, I take a slightly different point from the piece than B&W does.) Taylor is troubled by the increasing resistance to a comparative-religions approach among undergraduates, and argues that critical and comparative study of religions is a key to meeting the challenges of the next century.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, the vestige of an earlier stage of development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. It is now clear that religion is not going to disappear. Indeed, the twenty-first century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable a few short years ago. These conflicts will be less struggles between belief and unbelief than they will be clashes between believers who have the faith to doubt and those who lack it. The warning signals are clear: unless we establish a critical dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts some people welcome and others fear will surely become even more deadly.

Friday, February 09, 2007

One more on the Edwards bloggers

Well, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan still have their jobs, which is good. They had to humble themselves a little, but in a way it’s nice to see progressives using the “non-apology apology” that right-wingers so often turn to.

Via Ezra Klein, I see this piece at quoting a couple of religious Democratic “leaders” (neither of whom I’ve heard of before) who feel Edwards should have dumped the two bloggers.

Democrats -- and Edwards in particular -- have embraced the language of faith and the imperative of competing with Republicans for the support of religious voters. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, even sits on the board of the leading organization of the religious left, Call to Renewal. But in private conversations and careful public statements today, religious Democrats said they felt sidelined by Edwards' decision to stand by his aides.

"We have gone so far to rebuild that coalition [between Democrats and religious Christians] and something like this sets it back," said Brian O'Dwyer, a New York lawyer and Irish-American leader who chairs the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, a Democratic Party group. O'Dwyer said Edwards should have fired the bloggers. "It's not only wrong morally – it's stupid politically."

O'Dwyer e-mailed a statement to reporters saying: "Senator Edwards is condoning bigotry by keeping the two bloggers on his staff. Playing to the cheap seats with anti-Catholic bigotry has no place in the Democratic Party."

“Stupid politically”—hmm. I disagree, given the circumstances. It would’ve looked terrible for Edwards to knuckle under to Michelle Malkin and William Donahue. Here, though, are some tougher hypothetical questions. What if Mr. O’Dwyer had publicly called for Amanda to be fired? What then would be the politically smart move for Edwards to make? Who is a more important constituency, religious liberals or the blogosphere?

Personally, I identify with both constituencies, but that overlap is perhaps small. The question points to a more fundamental one in politics: reach for the center or energize the base? One could quibble, but most people would place open-minded religious believers in the center, and the readership of Pandagon on the left.

It pains me to pose the question this way. I find that trying to occupy the slot of “religious liberal” is exhausting; there are roadblocks, misunderstandings, frustrations every direction you turn. Being a resident of the blogosphere is more energizing. Correspondingly (I don’t know what the causal relationship is, it’s a chicken-egg thing) the religious left is weak in getting things done. The blogosphere—it sounds funny to say it, but it does have a shaggy kind of organization and is growing in influence. If I do the math, I come out in favor of the blogosphere.

Marcotte “playing to the cheap seats?” I guess he means crude reflexive atheists, and/or people who like a good jizm joke no matter what. Marcotte and McEwan also play to smart people--young, smart, passionate people out here in Flyover Country.

This whole stupid thing with McEwan and Marcotte pushes several of my buttons. I realize it’s a tempest in a teapot and ought to die a quick death as a news story. Yet I'm flashing back to a summer when I was in my 20s, between jobs, hanging out with friends in Dupont Circle, having vague thoughts about trying to get work in Washington, then discovering to my disillusionment that these people were unprincipled, or if they had principles they were invisible under layers of intrigue. They thought about their careers 24/7 and I was unlikely to ever get on their wavelength. It wasn’t that these people flat-out rejected me—I’d let it slip out that I might be job-hunting and they were trying to be helpful. But they turned me off with obnoxious networking behavior, pressing business cards on me when I was standing in line to get a beer. I was lacking in ambition, sure, but they were lacking in perspective.

There needs to be more room in politics for people who are smart and passionate, yet sometimes irreverent and not laser-like in their focus. People with a sense of humor. People who get context (which was the first casualty when people were ripping sentences out of Pandagon for scrutiny). Room for regular people, in other words.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Myers: visionary genius. But Briggs? No-talent hack.

I went on a staff retreat (so-called, but training class would describe it better) this week built on the Myers-Briggs inventory. We all filled the thing out, got our results, and discussed the various types, their implications, their interactions.

While some of my co-workers seem to find Myers-Briggs to be a key to self-understanding, I’m skeptical. To tell the truth I was a little bothered by some of my results (I am too compassionate! Sometimes, a little! And I don’t fear intimacy that much!). Yet the seminar concluded with some exercises that seemed to hold promise for handling certain work-related situations better. If I’m an introvert and my boss is an extrovert, that suggests some strategies for relating to him better. It’s something to grab onto, as if any paradigm for figuring out relationships is better than no paradigm.

My college had all incoming freshmen take the Myers-Briggs; the housing office claimed that it used the test to match us up with roommates. This method seemed to work okay; most people got along pretty well with their assigned roommates. One pair of guys was a particularly bad match—one roommate bullied the other mercilessly—but I came to learn that the bully guy had blown off the Myers-Briggs, he had his little brother fill it out for him. So that certainly looked like the exception that proves the rule. I had some problems with my roommate (a gung-ho ROTC kid, currently a career Army officer) but I figured maybe we were just at the tail end of the matching process; we thrown together more potluck style than others. I used to console myself that although ROTC Kid bugged me sometimes, it was a plus that we were the same height and build, so at least we could borrow each other’s clothes on occasion. Then when I looked around at other people in the dorm, I noticed that a LOT of sets of roommates were about the same size. So maybe height and weight were the key traits and the college was just shining us on about the MBTI.

One doubt about the Myers-Briggs test that I can never shake is that its theoretical pedigree is dubious. It’s based on Jungian psychology, which nobody in academic psychology thinks much of. Yet lots of organizations use it, and I can’t help but think that the MBTI works in certain practical applications.

A lot of people nowadays bash Freud, and with a lot of good reasons, but while I wouldn’t go for treatment to a Freudian analyst, I would never try to deny that Freud was major. He had some fundamental insights: People behave irrationally. Childhood experiences imprint us and stay with us forever. Sex is a powerful force in our lives, and hard to control. Somewhat similarly, I could quibble with the Myers-Briggs test all day, but if nothing else it highlights some simple but useful truths: People are different from one another. You should take different tacks in approaching different people. A group or organization (especially a large one with complex goals) benefits from involving diverse people with diverse perspectives.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Edwards campaign bloggers

Man, I hope this isn’t true. I’ve been reading Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon since she arrived there. I have occasionally been annoyed by Amanda's posts about religion. But man, it never dawned on me that it was the slightest bit relevant to her employment with the Edwards campaign. She seems to be hard-working, adept at blogging, down with the Edwards agenda, etc. (The Edwards agenda includes support for women's rights and freedom of religion -- it may not highlight those issues but it encompasses them, I believe.)

Those are the relevant qualifications. I can't fathom her being fired due to exercise of her free speech rights as a private citizen prior to being hired by Edwards 08. Particularly with the impetus of an organized right-wing oppo campaign.

If Edwards is firing people, he ought to look at Jennifer Palmieri, if she really said to the New York Times that Edwards is “weighing the fate” of Marcotte & McEwan.

John, here’s what to say: “I don’t take advice on personnel matters from Mr. Donahue. In any case, they’re just words, ideas, opinions. Mr. Donahue shouldn’t be afraid of them.”

"Constitutionally incapable"

Another Rick Perlstein gem in the New Republic. Hat tip to Yglesias.

Perlstein is praising the blogosphere for doing a better job than the establishment press in a couple of recent instances. What Firedoglake is doing with its wall-to-wall blogging of the Scooter Libby trial is really quite remarkable.

"We've been beating them," Wheeler notes of The Last Hurrah's coverage of the CIA leak scandal. "The New York Times can't cover the story. They're constitutionally incapable."

She puts it even more bluntly in her book: "[T]he CIA leak case is a story about how our elected representatives exploited the weakness of our media." Part of that weakness was their overweening self-regard. At first, in the eighteenth century, when an anonymous writer launched charges against "gentlemen"--quite often in the rudest language imaginable--it was a scandal "in a social order of deference," Warner writes in Letters of the Republic. But, by striking down deference, pseudonyms forced arguments to be stronger; Warner even argues that the anonymous culture of print is what made republican consciousness possible. Like "jjcomet," "dmbeaster," and "Newton Minnow," our Founding Fathers only had only their words to rely on for their authority. Every day, I find faceless netroots citizens reprising their wisdom, as against gentlemen and gentleladies of the press who sometimes seem more interested saving face than doing sound work.

And the account of Jay Carney being spanked by blog commenters--well, this kind of thing is a familiar story by now. Ezra Klein and Oliver Willis laid a drubbing on David Broder yesterday for his account of Wesley Clark speaking at the recent DNC meeting. I was taken slightly aback at Willis calling Broder a liar, I wouldn't go quite so far, but Broder is just so damn insistent to have things fit into his preconceived narrative. Jay Carney, the same thing. Like Orwell wrote, it takes a lot of effort just to state accurately what is in front of your face.

Friday, February 02, 2007


I wanted to blog briefly about a talk I just heard by Alan Wolfe, whom I admire and have commented about in this space a time or two. His title today was "Who's Afraid of American Religion?" Wolfe began by remarking on the recent run of new books that are critical if not hostile toward American religion: the Richard Dawkins school of wanting to overthrow religion per se; the David Kuo / Damon Linker strain of religious conservatives who became disenchanted at the crossroads of religion and politics; and the Michelle Goldberg / Kevin Phillips school warning of creeping right-wing Christian theocracy in American politics. Wolfe has a three-part argument why he deosn't fear a right-wing American theocracy.

  1. The separation of church and state is a well-established tradition in this country. When push comes to shove, even evangelicals may come to remember how they have relied historically on the protections of the First Amendment. (Dr. Wolfe discussed John Leland, a Baptist preacher and contemporary of Madison and Jefferson, who influenced Madison to insist on the First Amendment in the Constitution.)
  2. If we were to establish a religion in this country, which one would it be? The largest single religious category in the U.S. is Catholic, but that only represents 20% of the populace. (Interesting tangent / fun fact: 5 out of 9 current Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and there is much more rigorous political and legal writing coming from the Richard John Neuhaus crowd than from anybody in the Protestant camp. So maybe it would be a Catholic theocracy, based on the principle of the smartest group winning out. Yeah, that's often been the case in American history.)
  3. America is a religious nation but not a theological nation, which would be a barrier to installing any religious-based political program.

A good discussion ensued, especially about the third point. Another way of putting it is, religious labels are less important than they were, say, in the 1960 JFK campaign. Nowadays pro-life Catholics and pro-life Baptists accentuate their common ground rather than their differences. One audience member commented, with some justification, that this argues against Points 1 and 2.

Wolfe made a personal reflection -- The AJC controversy that Matthew Yglesias and Jonah Goldberg and other bloggers have been involved in, has swept up Alan Wolfe as well. Basically, he's been tarred as an anti-Semite for criticizing the Israeli government, despite being a Jew himself. He finds it interesting that one's views of US foreign policy seem to be the measure of how good a Jew one is -- by that measure Condoleeza Rice is a heckuva good Jew.