Saturday, July 28, 2007

Leering old men

-- by Dave

Digby thinks the conservative movement, as its world crumbles about it in a crashing heap of bodies, is reverting to infantilism, becoming the Baby Party. But I beg to differ (a novelty, when it comes to Digby): I think it has a lot more to do with their creeping old age.

The current fetish with all things manly, masculine, and otherwise male is, like all right-wing talk, mostly meant to act as a cover for their private fears and inadequacies. These guys -- guys like Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck, and Lou Dobbs, and Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh -- like to talk a lot about manly stuff because for them, manliness is mostly about image. What they know about masculinity they got from John Wayne movies.

Besides, projecting maculinity onto their political beliefs is a convenient way of tossing out the more rational components of politics, and it makes a nice bellicose cover for their own fading personal virility. The 2006 election left many of them feeling demasculated, which is why the thought of Hillary Clinton -- whose popular image with the O'Reilly crowd is that of the classic ball-busting bitch -- winning the presidency sends them into a particularly nasty frenzy where anything will do as a target. Including, of course, Daily Kos.

These guys like to think of themselves as part of the Greatest Generation, but really, this is the Viagra Generation: growing more impotent each day and feeling like they can't really do anything about it. Naturally, they strike out in anger at perceived slights and threats -- thus the current O'Reilly attack on the left blogosphere.

The infantilism about all things sexual is all about trying to pretend that they're still virile and manly and all those kinds of things -- though all they really reveal is the confusion about their own sexual identities. I mean, did anyone read O'Reilly's thriller? Eeewwwww.

It comes out at odd moments, too. The P-I's D. Parvaz noted last week that O'Reilly's questioning of the Miss New Jersey who was blackmailed over some old MySpace photos had, well, a rather creepy quality when you separated the questions out:
Do you have clothes on?

There's no nudity in the pictures?

Are you drunk or anything?

It's just you and your friend cavorting?

Is it two women together?

Could it be in a provocative way?

Any sexual nature in the pictures?

Okay, it's not a negligee situation or anything like that?

It's just you?

There's nothing provocative in the pictures? (Dood, she said no the first time!)

Is this a fantasy picture thing? Were you dressed up in a certain way?... She could be dressed up as some kind of dominatrix thing or something like that.

Dood, indeed. There you have it: the face of Fox News, and the conservative media generally, is Bill O'Reilly, who increasingly comes off as an insecure, leering old fart intent on whipping up his fellow flatulents and catering to their insecurities. They know that playing on people's fears at a vulnerable age can be a lucrative thing, and there's gold in making believers out of them -- people like Rick Perlstein's grandmother.

It's kind of pathetic, really. But then, it's what we've come to expect from Fox News and Bill O'Reilly.

[Edited to clear up penultimate graf.]

Revenge on the Grandma-Snatchers

-- by Sara

The story of Rick Perlstein's poor Billowashed grandmother has struck a plangent chord with a lot of us who have been looking at our beloved elders and wondering: Who Ate Grandma's Brain?

Perlstein's article has prompted a flood of comments, here and elsewhere, from anguished progressives whose mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents once instilled them with their liberal values -- but are now estranged from their families and lost to the right-wing airwaves. It's as though, while we weren't looking, the body-snatchers snuck in through the pipe and made off with their votes, their brains, and (occasionally) their money.

As I wrote in the comments to Dave's post below, the sad fact is that this kind of media fearmongering that preys on American retirees has a long and tragic history. My mother's Aunt Muriel, who retired from Connersville, IN to Sun City, AZ in 1965, spent her last years mostly barricaded in her house because the local Phoenix news stations worked the "if it bleeds, it leads" style with a vengeance starting in the early '80s. Those last ten years, you could hardly get her to go downtown, because she was so convinced something awful would happen to her. She knew it was a bad and dangerous place: she'd seen it all on the news, every night -- without any positive information coming in to balance that view.

My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, fell into the grasping paws of televangelists. She'd have Pat and Jimmy and Jerry running at full Grandma volume 24/7. She even slept on the couch, so she'd have their company when she woke up in the middle of the night.

And one thing you can say for Billo: At least he doesn't ask for the old folks' money. Televangelists get ahold of these people and drain their life savings and pension accounts. Pat Robertson (no, wait, it was Jimmy Swaggart) was at one point touting a "retirement community" where you handed over all your assets to him in exchange for full housing, food, and care until you died. Grandma seriously considered going for this until Dad put his foot down (and a good thing it was, because when Heritage USA went down, Grandma's retirement money would have gone with it) but, as it was, her contributions to these guys totalled a hefty five figures over the years.

America's elderly have been frightened by media fearmongers for as long as there's been TV -- and possibly (for those familiar with Father Coughlin), for as long as there's been radio. This is a fine old tradition, the natural outcome when the elderly are left alone too many hours each day with only a box for company. But it's not inevitable. There are things we can do about it.

Obviously, we need to start by giving them something else to watch. This is an overlooked but critical reason why we need to keep working to expand the liberal presence on traditional media. If Grandma and Grandpa are going to listen to whatever's on while they're going about their daily business, we need to make sure they have better options that broaden their worldview and understanding, and give them the intellectual tools to resist the emotional lure of the hate talkers.

To the extent that we've already done this, it's already working. This came home to me sharply last week while I was visiting my mother in Southern California. On Wednesday morning, she and I drove from Ventura County down to San Diego for a funeral -- a three-hour freeway cruise. On the way, while searching for a traffic report, we came across Thom Hartmann on the LA Air America station. She'd never heard of him, and I think he surprised her. She finds most political talk these days -- especially radio talk -- too strident to bear; but Thom's mellow, even-handed style suited her nicely. We caught one of his frequent segments where he brings on conservative guests and treats them respectfully. Mom was really impressed by that.

The next morning, back in LA, she invited me along to her weekly Thursday morning breakfast with eight or ten of her 70-something girlfriends. Over the best breakfast burrito I'd had this year, I mentioned that I'd introduced Mom to Thom Hartmann the day before. There was great approval around the table -- a chorus of cooing and happy noises. "Oh, yes! Isn't he great! I love Thom Hartmann!" Mom was genuinely surprised so many of her friends listened to him -- but really valued the strong affirmation from her clique that I'd turned her onto something good. That validation is the first step in turning her into a regular listener.

Mom and her friends are at the age where they're starting to rely far more heavily on the media to keep them in touch with a world that they're no longer as engaged with as they once were. They're still loyal voters and political contributors; however, though they do use e-mail, they don't grok blogs at all. Instead, they've had a lifetime of training that leads them to trust what they hear on the radio and see on TV; and they're going with what they know. (I'm constantly surprised at how popular Stewart and Colbert are with my mother's set; and how religiously they watch PBS' Friday night lineup of political shows as well. If you build it, they will come.) If we want to keep them with us, we need to be there with them.

My experience with Mom also highlights another point: the elders in my family, at least, are considerably more dependent on the opinion of their peers than they were during their working years. A lot of the old guys who spend their days with Savage and Beck spend their evenings down at the Legion Hall or the lodge, and their Sundays at church. Their wives are down at the senior center or the women's club. In all these places, they're surrounded by peers who listen to the same shows, and eagerly validate what they've been told by them. This echo chamber amplifies the messages; and there's not much in their lives (except their concerned children who, as Perlstein agonizes, look increasingly like The Enemy) to contradict them. Any strategy to get these senior voters back on our side of the line needs to address the ways in which their social networks reinforce their beliefs, and talk to these groups as groups.

It's not inevitable that old liberals become raving conservatives in their twilight years. However, shoving die-hard Billoheads back up into the reality-based world once they've fallen through into the all-spin zone is an uphill struggle. On the other hand, preventing our favorite retirees from getting sucked into that vortex in the first place may be easier. It's just a matter of catching them young (the first few years after they retire), and keeping them continually plied with better sources of information.

When my dad was alive, I kept his subscription to Jim Hightower's Hightower Lowdown current (Hightower's strong rural populist perspective and short, pithy writing style really appealed to Dad), and eventually got him a subscription to Mother Jones as well. And I kept him supplied with books that gave him ammo to use when his Rush-addled fishing buddies (mostly retired teachers who should have known better, but succumbed anyway because there was nothing else on the local radio) started spouting their noise. He appreciated that; and I appreciated being able to discuss this stuff with him whenever I came to visit. And (I like to think) as a direct result of this, he grew more liberal, not less, through the years. (Though he never gave up his NRA Life Membership, and I never would have asked him to.)

Finally, I think it's also important to remember that the youngest members of "The Greatest Generation" are now 80 years old; well over half that generation has already passed on. One of the strongest characteristics of the GI cohort was its extreme team-mindedness and conformity to common norms -- a trait that may have contributed to the extremist group-think Perlstein finds so unnerving. But those coming up behind -- those who are now in the 60-to-80 age range -- are members of the Silent Generation, which is (in general) far more inclined to seek balanced viewpoints, and to be turned off by extremism in any form. As group, they do nuance better than we do, and are deeply interested in justice (remember, this was the generation that brought us the civil rights movement). Their unique generational history and character endows them with some better angels that we can invoke and try to speak to as we try to keep them out of the right-wing hate media's clutches.

Most of us are very cautious and circumspect about leaving our children's developing minds to the tender mercies of the media. Those of us who care about the elders in our families might be equally vigilant about their media diets as well. We do not have to take the political hijacking of our seniors lying down, or assume that's just the way it is. We just have to do what we do with our kids: make sure they've got consistent access to appealing, age-appropriate media that gives them hope, confidence, and truly balanced ways of seeing the world.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The return of the 'New World Order'

As remarkable as it might be that a leading pundit for a major news organization like Glenn Beck of CNN can broadcast to the nation recycled far-right "New World Order" conspiracy theories, it's even more remarkable that he can do so without any consequence whatsoever.

Outside of the eyebrows raised in the blogosphere and at Media Matters, you won't find anyone -- least of all, any of his fellow members of the pundit class (Keith Olbermann notwithstanding) -- pointing out how his credulousness on these matters renders his journalistic credibility nothing but a negative. The silence has been deafening.

And of course, for people like Beck, it is a green light to ratchet it all up even farther rightward. Alex Koppelman at Salon notes that Beck has again topped himself by hosting a spokesman for the John Birch Society and portraying him as an enlightened thinker:
Beck himself referred to the group's reputation, introducing his guest, JBS spokesman Sam Antonio, by saying, "Sam, I have to tell you, when I was growing up, the John Birch Society, I thought they were a bunch of nuts." But Beck's views on that score seem to have changed -- "You guys are starting to make more and more sense to me," Beck told Antonio.

Naturally, Antonio -- who was there to talk about immigration issues and the controversial prosecution of two former Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed man, not to mention some conservatives' conspiracy theory that the prosecution is part of a breaking down of U.S. borders into a "North American Union" -- agreed.

"Yes, we at the John Birch Society are not nuts," Antonio said. "We are just exposing the truth that's been out there for many, many years."

Here's the transcript:
BECK: Congressman, thank you. I appreciate it. And keep up the good work. We'll continue to follow it.

I want to turn now to Sam Antonio. He's a national spokesperson on immigration for the John Birch Society.

Sam, I have to tell you, when I was growing up, the John Birch Society, I thought they were a bunch of nuts, however, you guys are starting to make more and more sense to me. There is something dirty in this -- in this whole thing. I happen to believe it's connected to the SPP.

Can you float some of the theories here by the American -- by the American public?

SAM ANTONIO, NATIONAL SPOKESPERSON, JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY: Well, first and foremost, Glenn, it's great to be on your program. And yes, we at the John Birch Society are not nuts. We are just exposing the truth that's been out there for many, many years.

Now this news that just came from Congressman Rohrabacher has been very shocking, but at the same time is not shocking. And as you just mentioned in your segue, it is part of the bigger picture of the Security and Prosperity Partnership that was signed by the Bush administration in 2005.

What this all means to me, just taking in all this information, leads to me again, that it's the breakdown of our law enforcement, the breakdown of our men and women at the border, to prepare our country for an opening of our borders for Canada and Mexico and eventually all throughout the Americas.

BECK: OK. The SPP -- in case somebody doesn't know, you should go and look at this at It's a government web site and it's -- you have to read between the lines. And a lot of people say that you're a conspiracy freak if you believe any of this stuff.

But if you really think about it is the one answer that makes sense, that we want to share trade. We want to share workers. We want to have an open border. We want to have one border around Canada, Mexico and the United States. And we share everything including information.

You contend that the information that we're sharing has -- has allowed the Mexican government to get a hold on our enforcement of laws here in America. What do you mean by that?

ANTONIO: That is correct. Again, your viewers, if they go to the web site,, it talks about exchanges of information between our governments.

Now in this case with Ramos and Compean, it was the Mexican government that really drove this agenda to get these innocent Border Patrol agents convicted and sent to jail for these terms.

Now, since this exchange of information, under the Department of Homeland Security, we're going to see more and more and more of this. And what this is going to lead to, Glenn, is really a demoralization of our men and women on the Border Patrol. And it's happening now.

BECK: Right.

ANTONIO: I live here in San Diego, Glenn. I'm 15 minutes away from the border. I've spoken with Border Patrol agents, you know, active and retired, and I'm telling you, this case has really demoralized them.

BECK: I have to tell you, Sam, that you know, whether you want to believe in the black helicopters or not, America, you should look into this. And this is the warning to the Bush administration, by not releasing the documents. And this is the stuff they're holding back.

Well, the people want to know what was the communication between our government and the Mexican government? Give us those records. They will not release them. And by not releasing them, they further these conspiracy theories of black helicopters and all kinds of things.

Sam, thank you very much.

Think Progress has the video.

As Steve Benen at The Carpetbagger Report points out, the whole episode reflects the extent to which the national political center has shifted to the right. Tristero at Hullabaloo also notes that this has certainly been the Birchers' agenda all along.

Beck is hardly the only "New World Order" conspiracist out there making gains in recent months. GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul has similarly been improving his mainstream profile, though notably, he hasn't been pushing his old NWO theories to the fore, either.

We've primarily been hearing it, however, from the nativist anti-immigrant bloc, particularly the Minutemen -- which makes sense, considering that they are themselves directly descended from the militia movement. When they held a rally in Everett a couple of weeks ago, the North American Union theory was one of the prominent talking points, and Minuteman leader Jim Gilchrist in particular was promoting it, as Michael Hood at The Stranger reported:
"The Great Gringo awakens from siesta..." the event's promos read, but the number of gringos wasn't all that great -- about 100 newly awakened patriots were gathered while a dozen chanting protesters (whom Gilchrist called "anarchists") paraded outside on Rucker Avenue.

The destruction of our peace and civil order, according to Gilchrist, will be accomplished via the same lawless chaos and "soft immigration laws," that brought down the Roman Empire. He predicted the national U.S. language will be Spanish by 2030.

"What's the solution?" he shouted. "Deportation!" roared the crowd.

Disparate statistics were thrown around: Gilchrist alternately said 12 million and 20 million illegals are in the country, but at one point, he claimed there are "over 33 million" hiding in the shadows, propagating so-called "anchor babies," kids born in the U.S. of illegal parents who get automatic citizenship as granted by the 14th Amendment. (The Pew Hispanic Center estimates a current total of 11.5 million to 12 million illegal immigrants.)

A bipartisan Bush bill defeated last week would have called for a program to grant temporary-worker status to illegal immigrants already here. That was "shamnesty," to the Minutemen conferees. Gilchrist said he's baffled by Bush's role. "I think he wants to go down in history as the father of the North American Union, the George Washington of the United States of North America."

Gilchrist was referring to a conspiracy theory bouncing around on talk radio and right-wing websites that says Bush and globalists have secretly negotiated creation of the North American Union, a megastate created by erasing the borders between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Say goodbye to U.S. sovereignty, as well as the greenback currency soon to be replaced by the "Amero," modeled after the Euro, or so goes the theory.

Fortunately, Heidi Beirich at the Intelligence Report has the rundown for all this. As she explains, this is all simply a regurgitation of 1990s-style Patriot paranoia:
Since 2005, the dominant conspiracy theory animating the anti-immigration movement has been the so-called "North American Union," described as a plot to surrender American sovereignty in a planned merger with Canada and Mexico. The plotters are typically said to be various foreign leaders, President George W. Bush and his "neo-conservative" allies, and an array of leading American liberals.
If the John Birch Society (JBS) and others pushing this theory are to be believed, President Bush began ceding American sovereignty on March 23, 2005, at a meeting in Waco, Texas, with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Mexican President Vicente Fox. The meeting ended with the signing of what was called the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which set up a series of working groups to study cooperation in transportation, energy, aviation, the environment and more.

Most people familiar with the SPP understand that it is a benign and slow-moving attempt to coordinate trade and security policies in a bid to improve the lives of citizens in all three countries. But to the conspiracy theorists, it is a plot that will end with Mexico sending millions more of its citizens to the United States, international courts that overrule American justice, hate crime laws that will send anti-gay Christian preachers to prison, and more. The plotters are said to include the militia bogeyman of the Council of Foreign Relations and are supposedly directed by American University Professor Robert Pastor.

Lately, the paranoia about the SPP process has become so intense that a proposed highway linking Canada, Mexico and the United States is seen as part of evil machinations that will end with the Mexican government seizing control of the key Missouri River port in Kansas City. Other conspiracy theorists fear that a new currency, the "Amero," will displace good, old-fashioned American dollars.

The leader in "educating" the public about the North American Union (NAU) plot has been the JBS, which says "politicians and internationalists" in America are "effectively destroying the United States." In fact, the long dormant group has been reanimated by the theory, assigning writer Mary Benoit to cover it relentlessly in the JBS magazine The New American. JBS has allied itself on this issue with Howard Phillips, leader of the anti-immigrant Constitution Party, and added nativist leader Chris Simcox of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to its speakers bureau.

And as Beirich notes, the theory is getting a lot of mainstream play, both from politicians and from ostensible journalists:
The theory has made its way into the mainstream. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has demanded an end to the SPP and insisted that the NAU theory is not limited to "right-wing kooks." Other congressional conservatives have joined a "Coalition to Block the NAU" headed by U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.). CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has devoted several segments to the issue, telling listeners that the NAU is a "shadow government" that should concern all Americans. Most remarkably, the theory has enjoyed widespread legislative endorsement. At press time, the houses of representatives of 18 states had passed resolutions opposing the alleged NAU plan. In Idaho and Montana, the state senates have added their voice, resulting in official legislative resolutions.

Be sure to also check out Heidi's careful debunking of numerous false "facts" that form the core of the nativists' positions. Not that they'll really help anyone dealing with the Glenn Becks of the world, because they have a gift for tuning out anything that contradicts their pet narratives.

And Beck is busy building a narrative that not only opens the Pandora's Box of mass public consumption of far-right conspiracism, it also portrays the most hateful and paranoid and poisonous bloc of American politics as credible and normative.

In the 1990s, the main reason that most "New World Order" theories gained little traction was that mainstream journalists understood that they were sheer crackpottery and refused to treat them seriously. Now, in the name of "pushing the envelope" and garnering ratings by courting controversy, we're witnessing mainstream pundits report them to the public as credible.

Evidently, this sort of thing not only doesn't hurt Glenn Beck's career, we've now entered the realm where it positively helps it. It's not only a journalistic travesty, it's a cultural one. Glenn Beck may gain, but the rest of us, within the next few years, will wind up paying the price.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The good stuff

-- by Dave

I've read a lot of responses to Bill O'Reilly's ongoing assault against the liberal blogosphere, but the one that made me want to stand up and cheer was Rick Perlstein's barn-burner over at .commonsense. What especially hit home was his description of how the kind of hate being peddled by the right for the past decade poisons personal relationships, embodied by the transformation he witnessed in his grandmother into a fearful, paranoid old woman:
I'd look out of her eighth floor picture window, down at the scene she saw every day, half expecting to find that nightmare landscape before me. Nope: same as always, the brightly colored sailboats on Lake Michigan, kids and their parents feeding the ducks (Grandma used to take me to feed the ducks), happy, strolling Milwaukee couples—paradise. Where was she getting these fantasies?

One evening's visit, all became clear. She gestured at the blaring TV set. The excruciating grandma-volume was even more excruciating than usual, because she was visiting with her best TV friend. She told me how much she adored Bill O'Reilly. My wife and I cringed. Watching our latter-day Joe McCarthy on TV every night, she had learned, late in life—for this development was entirely new—how to hate her fellow Americans. I almost cried, because one of the people she was learning how to hate was me.

Read the whole thing. And be sure to check out the video above (available also at Perlstein's post), which is a brilliantly edited piece showing how the rhetoric gradually ratchets higher and higher. It's a promotional piece for a Fox Attacks! campaign to organize people in a letter-writing drive targeting the advertisers on O'Reilly's program, which is a terrific idea. I've signed up.

Meanwhile, speaking of brilliant videos, be sure to check out the lastest from Max Blumenthal, on the "Christians United for Israel" tour led by none other than the Rev. John Hagee. You may remember Hagee; he's best known for wishing ardently for Armageddon in Israel. As you can see from watching Max's video, it hardly stops with Hagee; his followers are even more keyed up for the Big Bada Bang.

Some more recent brilliance from Max: Generation Chickenhawk: With the College Republicans, and Take Bake America: The Censored Video.

Harry Potter and the Last Crusade

-- by Sara

Dave's Harry Potter piece below led to a lively comments discussion on why fundamentalists are so bothered by myth-and-magic stories. There are several things going on all at once here -- but all of them, in the end, touch back to one thread at the deepest core of their theology.

The first thing to bear in mind about fundamentalists is that, in the darkest depths of their minds, almost all of them harbor deep, unspoken doubts about their belief system. In fact, for all their protestations about truth and certainty, doubt is perhaps the main wellspring of their zeal: only people who live in a perpetual state of guilty unbelief can be strung along for a lifetime in such a desperate, grasping quest for assurance that their faith is sufficient for a God who offers grace, but demands constant efforts at perfection in return.

My ex-fundie friends all acknowledge that they never felt good enough, pure enough, "saved" enough to be true Christians. Always, deep down, there was the feeling that if everybody really knew who they were, they'd be shunned by God and the church. Much of their passionate prayer and seeking was driven by this secret dread. Manipulative pastors foster these doubts deliberately, precisely to ignite that passion and keep their flock insecure, ever dependent on them for guidance and that elusive assurance of salvation.

So doubt is a standard feature of the fundamentalist package. And it's also why they're so defensive about their own mythos. We reality-based folk don't need to feel terribly defensive about our worldview. We can verify truth with our own eyes. If our beliefs are questioned, we'll debate the observable facts, and perhaps either change the other person's mind or our own accordingly (and, either way, feel richer for the exchange). Acknowledging reality can't shake our mythos, since we don't have a mythos to shake.

But once you've rejected the reality-based world in favor of a mythic worldview, you are -- by definition -- building your life on an epistemology that has no verifiable support structure. Which means there are always going to be moments when faith dissipates just long enough to admit a quiet, nagging doubt about the foundations of your reality. It also means that you're going to regard any and all competing myth systems -- no matter how fantastic -- as a serious existential threat that stands in direct competition to your own (equally fantastic) myth system. They have to be treated as equivalent, because they're all made of the same flimsy stuff.

In this no-reality-allowed zone, no rational exchange of ideas is possible, and logic and reasoned debate have no power to cool the resulting conflicts. The battle can only be won by stirring up people's emotions until they're high, hot, and loud enough to drown out those nagging fears -- at least for a while. And, like an addict, you need frequent and increasing doses of that emotional juice to keep the doubts at bay, because they're never really gone for good.

Voltaire concisely summarized the potential dangers that lurk in this willful and escalating abandonment of reason when he said: "Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Left to run, the endless rush to quench doubt does end up, often enough, in atrocity.

The second thing (which several commenters touched on) is the observation that fundamentalists reject almost anything that takes people's mindshare off God, bible, and church. They're not fond of popular culture in any of its forms; and many live in carefully-constructed personal bubble zones within which everything they read, hear, see, touch, buy, and use is Christian-oriented. Anything secular is "of the Devil," and therefor unfit for someone seeking to live a godly life. It was easy enough to predict that they'd reject Harry Potter on these grounds alone.

But that, on its own, doesn't explain the extreme hysteria we see in the video Dave linked to. Harry Potter, like Dungeons & Dragons (disclaimer: Mr. R worked on several D&D games as an employee of the game's original publisher), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, Magic: The Gathering, Kiki's Delivery Service (which also got its share of this) or Pokemon pushes some extra buttons that can't be rationalized by a mere desire to avoid all things secular. So, what's that about?

The common thread that runs through all of these is magic. And that, I think, is the real burr that gets under fundamentalist saddles. In fundieland, magic is the most frightening and legitimate of all the competing myth systems -- the Devil's own preferred alternative to prayer and submission. Other belief systems (Buddhism, Hinduism, the Greek myths) are viewed as sad and rather pathetically delusional; but anything that smacks of magic is feared as actively Satanic.

Why is magic such a hot button? The reasons go to the heart of fundamentalist theology. At their core, fundamentalists believe that humans are wretched creatures who aren't really even human unless touched by God's grace. (And, yes, this does mean that those of us who are unsaved can rightly be considered subhuman.) We cannot do anything right; we do not deserve to have control over our own affairs; and any notion that we have intrinsic power to achieve good in the world (or even the authority to define "good" or "bad" on our own terms) is a diabolical delusion. Left to our own devices, we will not only screw it up for ourselves; we will ultimately ensure the Devil his victory over the world -- including them -- as well.

Implicit in this is the idea that all authority is necessarily, rightfully external. The fate of the entire world depends on how completely we can give up our desire to control our destinies, and submit to God and his appointed earthly overseers. This obsession with the need for external authority is, in a nutshell, is why fundamentalism is a form of religious authoritarianism.

Stories about magic openly defy this whole belief system. Magic-using characters like Harry usurp the supernatural power and prerogatives of God -- a sufficient heresy in its own right. But it's worse than that: they're also exercising their own internal authority, and acting out of their own agency. And that's the last thing fundamentalists want their children -- or anyone else -- learning how to do.

That's why we're hearing all the shrieking hysterics from the fundie side. Stories and games like Buffy and Harry and D&D put us in the shoes of heroes who take charge of their power and use it to shape their own realities -- and worse, to defy overweening, intrusive authority. They contain messages that undermine the power of external leaders, and encourage people to believe in their own limitless power to create change. They show us protagonists who overcome doubt, take risks, and gain confidence; and who make their world better without waiting around for God to act.

If everyone thought that way, where would we be then? We wouldn't follow our leaders. We'd try to rule ourselves. We might get the idea that our destinies were in our own hands. We might even entertain the delusion that we're somehow "free" people who don't have to answer to anyone but ourselves. And then where would God's designated regents -- the would-be dictators, oligarchs, and theocrats -- be?

Dave has promised his thoughts on the deeper implications of Harry Potter's final volume. My point here is that the fundamentalist panic over these books is not something we can just laugh off as more deranged weirdness from people who don't understand the world they live in. They do understand, perhaps better than we do, that the stories we tell ourselves ultimately create the reality we'll be living in at some point in the future. And they also know that stories like these have the power to raise our awareness, focus our intention, and steel our resistance against the unholy authoritarian plans they have laid for our obedient "salvation."

Add this to your blogroll

-- by Dave

The folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center have been busy these days: their latest Intelligence Report is chock full of excellent work, some of which I'll be commenting on soon (particularly the report on the San Diego Minutemen and Heidi Beirich's superlative deconstruction of the latest round of conspiracy theories from the far right).

But you all need to check out the new SPLC blog, Hatewatch. It kicked off this week with an excellent brief history of how a certain video -- which you can view at the top of this post -- played a role in bringing down William Pierce's neo-Nazi organization, the National Alliance. It follows up today with news of two new lawsuits filed in an effort to bring a halt to Ku Klux Klan activity.

Check 'em out, add 'em to your favorites. The journalists at the Intelligence Report do phenomenonal work.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

That executive order

-- by Dave

Sara's post on Bush's recent executive order regarding seizure of property in the "war on terror" has stirred quite a bit of commentary around parts of the blogosphere, as well as a long comment thread.

As I noted in the comments, I remain somewhat skeptical of the gravity of this order. Some of this is reflexive; when I covered the militia movement in the 1990s, a virtual cottage sub-industry among the Patriots emerged that revolved around the claim that various of Bill Clinton's executive orders constituted a nefarious plot to enslave America under the auspices of the New World Order. Seeing similar claims arise regarding George W. Bush raises immediate red flags for me.

That said, I think the bulk of Sara's post was reasonable conjecture, even if the concern over this particular executive order fails to pan out. We won't always agree, but I think she's right to stir the pot in this case anyway. Heaven knows the Bush administration has not given us anything but cause for concern when it comes to the limitations of their lust for power.

Still, not being legally trained, I'll leave it up to actual legal minds to hash out the ramifications of this order. To that end, I'd like to pass along an e-mail from one of our regulars, Den Valdron, who knows a bit more about this than I do. To wit:
I was very interested in Sara Robinson's piece on the recent Executive Order of July 17, 2007.

I was quite concerned to read the comments of 'Rusty Shackleford' suggesting that it wasn't so bad... "I think you're overstating the outrageousness just a bit... I just don't think it helps your argument if you fail to mention the "violence" requirement. You have correctly identified the weasel words - "significant risk." With respect to bloggers, commenters, organizers, and letter-writers, I simply don't think this raises as much of a red flag as you do. The "significant risk" must be of committing an act of violence, not merely inciting it (which itself would be hard to prove)."

With all due respect to Rusty, maybe he does house transactions or something, or he's a wills and estates man, but he's absolutely dead wrong on the subject.

I was also disappointed to read your own comments:

"Actually, I agree with Rusty and Fiat on this. I saw a lot of fearmongering around executive orders by the far right during the '90s and refuse to fall prey to similar fears a decade later. As near as I can tell, this EO doesn't constitute a fascist policy, largely because **any action by authorities is closely tied to acts of violence.**"

In point of fact, it is not closely tied to acts of violence.

I don't normally pull rank, but I am a lawyer, and I believe that both Rusty Shackleford and yourself, David, might be a little too sanguine about the limiter on this one. Both seem to take comfort in this governing clause:

"to have committed, or to pose a significant risk of committing, an act or acts of violence that have the purpose or effect of:"

On statutory interpretation there is room here that you could drive trucks through. Let's break it down:

"to have committed.... acts of violence that have the purpose or effect of."

Okay, that's one thing, there's a clear threshold that 'acts of violence' must be committed. If that was the end of it, we might be very concerned. But we might take some comfort.

But look at this:

"to pose a significant risk of committing... an act or acts of violence that have the purpose or effect"

Excuse me? What the hell does 'significant risk of' mean? This is an anticipatory clause. No act of violence needs to be committed. No act of violence needs to be imminent. No act of violence needs to be planned or conceived.

All that is required is an assessment that a person 'poses a significant risk of committing' an act of violence, and bob's your uncle.

Think about that. How does law enforcement rate and register threats and risk potential?

a) Personality profiling... remember what happened to Richard Jewell? A great deal of money is being sunk into statistical profiling models. Profiling, for better or worse, is a recognized investigative tool which is used to narrow or zero in on suspects. I believe that there may be cases where profiling has been accepted as probative evidence in criminal or civil courts in the United States.

b) Association directly or indirectly with persons known or suspected to have committed acts of violence... a potentially very broad net that encompasses not only family, neighbors and people at the workplace, but also potentially the charities you donate to, and the people who are writing in to your blog.

c) Certain political activities. For instance, suppose you intend to attend an anti-globalization demonstration. Those things have gotten a reputation for being unruly, windows get broken, jerks throw rocks, etc. The intention to attend a political rally where there may be an expectation on the part of the authorities of violence may be sufficient to trigger the pre-emptive power. This net can be cast very, very widely. Remember that it is documented that the police have conducted surveillance on and even infiltrated all sorts of peace groups, environmental groups, civil rights groups etc. Agents provocateurs are also occasionally documented and much rumoured. The anticipatory nature of this clause creates a situation where it becomes de facto risky to attend or participate in any event or process sponsored by these groups, even in a casual manner. I could anticipate a chilling effect on social activism of any sort.

Ultimately, the anticipatory nature of "significant risk of committing..." is terrifying in its scope.

Significant risk explicitly does not speak to a specific act planned or anticipated. Rather, 'significant risk' speaks to an assessment of potential.

Potential. Think about it.

Who makes the determination of significant risk?

Reading the Executive Order, this risk appears to be assessed by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with state and defense. None of these departments have jurisdiction or interest in law enforcement or domestic peace, they are not qualified to assess what laws are being broken or who is breaking them. State's mandate is foreign affairs, Defence's mandate is foreign aggression, either defending from it or inflicting it.

In short, you've got a terrifying level of discretion being vested in a sector of government which has no particular foundation in assessing or quantifying "a significant risk of committing acts of violence." Think about that.

There is no explicit provision for civil judicial review here. There is nothing in this Order that suggests that you could go to any court and have them set aside the Secretary of Treasury's finding that you pose a significant risk of committing an act of violence.

Assuming that you could argue an inherent or implicit right to civil judicial review (which in fact appears to be the current case, and which has existed or been exercised in the past), there are a couple of problems.

First, this right, even if it exists now, is potentially in danger of being taken away by fiat or legislative action. The termination of this right could be so disconnected from any apparent consequences that only the people victimized by it would ever know what had been done to them.

Secondly, the right to civil judicial review requires financial resources to contest... How are you going to contest when all your resources are seized? Better yet, how are you going to contest when anyone willing to help you may be putting their own resources at risk? Remember, association is potentially one test of "significant risk of committing acts of violence." If you've been found to be of significant risk through persons supporting or associating with you, then by the simple act of association or support other persons may also be deemed to be 'significant risks.'

A little farfetched? Maybe. Maybe not.

Why am I focusing on civil judicial review? Because here's an interesting thing. This Order is divorced from any issue of criminality -- i.e., you do not have to be charged with any criminal offense in order to come under the purview of this order.

It's likely that a criminal conviction would be de facto proof, as far as the secretary of treasury is concerned, either of acts of violence or of significant risk. A criminal charge alone, either in advance of conviction or even with an acquittal, would probably be satisfactory to treasury though. Being a suspect in a criminal investigation, but not charged, might get you nicked by treasury. Or even having a criminal record would be sufficient to justify a finding of 'significant risk.'

Indeed, act or acts of violence in no way connects to any inference of criminal wrongdoing. Conceivably one might destroy one's own property, like burning a flag on your own land as a gesture, and this would be an act of violence.

If we look to civil law, assault is usually a direct physical attack. However, assault also encompasses the verbal threat of a physical attack, or even acting in a manner that leads the victim to believe that a physical attack is imminent. Think about that.

Would graffiti be an 'act of violence'? Given that it could be construed as vandalism or trespass on public or private property without consent with the intention of employing physical action to deface or alter said property... yes it would be.

What about postering? What about unfurling a banner at the campaign rally of an opposing politician?

Expressing or advocating or promoting unacceptable political views in anything but strictly limited channels might potentially be construed as violence or acts of violence...or as evidence of "posing a significant risk of acts of violence" of undefined and unproven nature which might potentially occur at some indefinite point in the future.

Prohibited or unacceptable speech in blogs might be considered to be violence rather than incitement to violence. On a civil basis, there may not be a distinction drawn between incitement and the actual act... or again, writings from blogs may be taken as demonstrating a 'significant risk of acts of violence.' Since the risk may be nothing more than potential.

Violence can be like obscenity. Everyone knows it when they see it. But sometimes the definition can become a bit squishy. And here, it isn't defined at all, except to the extent that the language clearly implies that violence includes but is not limited to criminal activity.

Chew on that.

Now, let's turn to the last part...

"an act or acts of violence that have the purpose or effect of:"

"Purpose *or* Effect of."

That means that there's a twofold test there. Obviously "purpose of" implies that there's a nexus of intention between the act or risk of an act. Your act, or your risk, has to be directed at a specific goal "threatening... the Iraqi government" or
"undermining efforts..."

Okay, that's not so bad. But consider the second test:

"Effect of"?

So your act or significant risk of committing an act has the 'effect of' 'threatening... the iraqi government' or 'undermining efforts...'

This is dangerous. This has the effect of eliminating any element of intention or mens rea from this executive order.

Mens rea, or criminal intention is a vital part of the criminal law. It essentially deals with the issue of choice and decision. For many crimes, to be guilty, you have to actually have intended to commit that crime. You had to have known the law, known that your actions were against that law, and then gone ahead. Volition, while diminished, is still a key element of civil law.

Not necessary here.

It is no longer necessary for you to want to hassle the Iraqi government or undermine efforts. It is not necessary for you to even know that your efforts have this result. It is not necessary for you to be aware of any line that you must not cross. In fact, your state of mind, your intentions, your beliefs, your own interpretations of your actions are utterly unnecessary.

It is only necessary that someone decide that such is the result of your efforts. And who makes that decision? Secretary of the treasury.

Finally, I given my previous comments with respect to 'guilt by association', allow me to refer you to excerpts of the two latter provisions:

"(ii) to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, logistical, or technical support for, or goods or services in support of .... any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order; or

(iii) .... to have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order."

Item (ii) is frightening. The wording that I deleted for effect of course refers to committing acts of violence. However, it is followed by an "or". What this means is that the "materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, logistical, or technical support for, or goods or services" punishment comes about in one of two alternative instances -- you're either assisting the acts of violence, or you have provided it to the person without any connection to the acts of violence.

Essentially, this is 'cooties' law. Once a person is designated under this executive order, any person who has any substantive dealings with them for any reason may also be liable to be designated under this executive order.

This 'cooties' law is reinforced later on at section 4 (abridged):

"Sec. 4. I hereby determine that the making of donations of the type specified in section 203(b)(2) of IEEPA (50 U.S.C. 1702(b)(2)) by, to, or for the benefit of, any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order ....I hereby prohibit such donations as provided by section 1 of this order."

And what about notice, another key part of due process? I would also point out section 5, which I reproduce, abridged (for clarity and impact):

"Sec. 5. For those persons whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order ... there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 1(a) of this order."

In other words, the first you might hear of this, is after they've done it to you.

Essentially, in this Executive Order the President is assuming unbelievably vast powers to simply sidestep normal criminal or civil procedure, and to operate quite explicitly on the basis of guilt by anticipation, guilt by pre-emption, guilt by association and guilt for any reason in the mind of the decider. There is literally no limitation on authority, except that the person's actual physical being is unaffected.

However, a person so designated by this Order could be rendered into a non-person literally instantaneously. They could be stripped of every asset, have every financial or commercial opportunity denied to them. Worse, this literally creates a power to shun. Anyone who employs this person, who hires them, who pays them for work, lends them money to tide them over, who rents them an apartment, or allows them to sleep on the couch, who drops them a few coins as they panhandle would be liable to becoming subject to this order. The only protection would be to fire this person, to not hire them, to not pay them, to not lend them money, evict them from your apartment, kick them off the couch, and look away if you see them begging on the street.

If the potential implications of this make you think of Jews in Nazi Germany, think again. The Jews pre-war had it good compared to the potential of this.

The most disturbing thing is that this Executive Order need not be actually used.

Consider it as a weapon of intimidation. Most Americans are not rich. Most people live in apartments, they may have a house that the bank owns, they may have a car they're making payments on, they struggle with credit card debt, live paycheque to paycheque. We all live in these little islands of stability that can be so easy to disrupt.

So imagine that you are a dedicated, committed, politically active person. You're donating to the Green Party, perhaps active in local politics, going to demonstrations...

Then one day, a person from the treasury department comes to visit. He shows you this executive order, and he tells you that you have been identified by your actions and associations as being a 'significant risk to commit acts of violence.' He says that by their lights, you may already be deemed to have committed acts of violence. He tells you that it has been concluded that these acts of violence undermine the Iraqi government and the reconstruction campaign...

You protest of course. He says it doesn't matter, these are the findings of the Secretary of the Treasury under the executive order. You challenge him to prove what act of violence they think you are about to commit. He replies that there's no particular act, only that you're a 'significant risk.'

Then he tells you, in very clear terms, what they can do. That they can and will take your house. That they can and will take your car and your bank account. That you will be fired from your job. That you will find it impossible to get another job, or find another place to live. That anyone who helps you will be similarly punished, so no one will help you. He tells you that if this isn't enough, they are prepared to take the same tactic against your parents, your children, your girlfriend, your friends, based on their association with you making them a 'significant risk of committing violence' or of 'providing support to you.'

He asks you if you are prepared to see your life erased? Are you really that brave? Do you really want to lose your job, your home, your nest, your savings, your income, your retirement...

And if you are that brave, are you really prepared to see this done to your girlfriend, your parents, whoever is close to you...

You could take it to court and fight it, of course. All you need is a lawyer that will work for free, because you won't be able to pay him. And he'll have to be a lawyer willing to risk winding up in the same situation you'll be in. He's sure there's lots of those around.

They have lots of lawyers, he notes, all sorts, and very highly paid, with big budgets and expense accounts, for fighting just these sorts of cases.

Fighting it will take two or three years. That's a long time to spend eating out of dumpsters and sleeping on heating grates. It's possible of course, that you'll win and be vindicated. Or you could lose.

Are you feeling lucky?

So most people in that situation, what would they do? They'll just shut their mouths, stop making waves, they'll do their jobs, collect their paycheques and mind their own business. They'll stay out of trouble.

But sometimes, when they see the Sheriff driving down the street to evict someone, when there's a hiccup in their credit card, when they get a call from the bank, or a call into their boss's office... well, they'll get a cold sweat running down their backs, and their stomach will flutter, and they'll search their memories for anything that they might have done wrong, maybe said the wrong thing to the wrong person, had the wrong friend, went to the wrong place... And of course, most times, it'll turn out to be nothing. They'll recover from the scare, their life will go on. But the fear will remain somewhere, and the cold sweat, and the only choice they have will be to be good little citizens.

As a final thought, my compliments to Spice300 who correctly noted that near identical provisions were struck down on Judicial review, but that it took five years to do so. Clearly, there is an agenda and a strategy at work.

I'll only add this: I'm not thoroughly persuaded, if only because I'd like to see some legal minds involved in civil-liberties law take a look at this order and get their opinions. I'll be writing to a couple of folks I know, but in the meantime, if anyone else wants to advance this conversation, I'm more than happy to play the host.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Cauldron of Thumpers

-- by Dave

I've been settling into my couch and reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows and rather enjoying it. I'm something of a Potter admirer; the only bumper sticker on my car reads "Republicans for Voldemort". Of course, I don't come close to Mrs. Orcinus, who finished the book within the first day and who reread all six in the series just before the release of No. 7.

In any event, my enjoyment of the books is enhanced by the knowledge that it also drives the fundamentalist right nuts. Ever since the books gained great popularity, they've been on the warpath against Harry Potter, as you can see from the excerpt from Jesus Camp above, in which we see the head of the camp telling children that Potter should be put to death. (Talk about Republicans for Voldemort!)

It's worth remembering just how deep that animus runs, as CLS at Classically Liberal explains in painstaking detail:
[I]t seems that when someone is campaigning against the book or the films, the leader of the campaign is invariably a fundamentalist Christian. For instance, fundamentalist Laura Mallory, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, tried to ban the Potter books from the public school library. She says the books have “evil themes” because they speak of witchcraft and spells. And the Bible clearly teaches such things are immoral. One child who opposed her efforts saw things more clearly. He said, “never at any time did I think the books are true.” But fundamentalists do think that there is truth in these books. Unlike most rational people, they do believe that witches and spells exist. They have no choice since the Bible condemns such things. To say they don’t exist questions the infallibility of Scripture. Most people are not offended by the theme of the Potter series because they don’t believe the “dark forces” actually exist.

It should be noted that Mallory was not alone. Numerous fundamentalists joined her campaign in an attempt to ban the book from the library.

In Cedarville, Arkansas, the school board restricted access to the Harry Potter books unless a student could produce a signed permission slip from their parents. The board passed the rule because fundamentalist parents complained after “hearing a series of anti-Potter sermons in 2001 by Mark Hodges, pastor of the Uniontown Assembly of God Church and a member of the Cedarville School Board.”

And Christianity Today, certainly a main journal on the Religious Right, reported on a parent who wanted the book banned from school and reported that “She is among Christian parents nationwide arguing that classrooms are no place for Harry Potter...”

... Baptist youth ministries leader Jennifer Zebel said in Baptist Press, “I cannot believe that any secular book, character or movie advocating witchcraft of any kind could be this wildly successful without Satan having an agenda for it. The bottom line is that we know the right choice is to steer clear of these books and movies, but we don’t want to make the sacrifice. Satan is a wonderful writer and movie producer.” To be clear, Baptist Press is an arm of the largest fundamentalist sect in the United States-- the Southern Baptist Convention.

The post goes on to describe a number of other Harry-bashing preachers, notably our old fave, Jack Chick:

I happen to think there is a larger right-wing antipathy to the Potter books, and it's for a specific reason that I intend to explore in a little more depth soon. Let me finish the book first, and then we'll talk some more.