Praying for other people’s souls

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

After I published an op-ed on intelligent design in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied “I can only pray for your soul.”

When people say they are praying for someone else’s soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is “I can’t wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you.” But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say “I will pray for your soul” instead.

Another thing that puzzles me is when you tell people that you are an atheist and they try to convince you that you are wrong using the Bible as evidence. What’s the point? The Bible can only be used to debate points between people who accept its central premise that it is the word of god. Using it to argue with an unbeliever makes as much sense as appealing to the Book of Mormon.

So here’s my advice to such religious people who do such things, in the unlikely event that they are reading this blog.

If someone says that they do not believe in god, quoting Biblical passages is not going to get you anywhere. Worse, that person will think that your belief has led you to lose your grip on the nature of rational argument. Competing philosophies cannot be resolved by using the tenets of one of the competitors, but must always appeal to common, mutually agreed upon principles.

Similarly, if someone annoys you because of their disbelief in your particular version of god, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don’t think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious but belongs to another sect, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a “holier than thou” attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT: John Edwards

Steven Zunes, a progressive rofessor of political science whose does careful analyses, looks the policies of John Edwards. He finds him to be progressive on domestic issues but with troubling positions on foreign affairs. He concludes:

[A] John Edwards administration would be a real improvement over the administration of George W. Bush in the foreign policy realm, but it would clearly not be as progressive as many of his supporters would hope for.

Since first entering politics less than a decade ago, Edwards has greatly deepened his understanding of important policy issues and has moved to the left on his domestic agenda. His learning curve on foreign policy matters has thus far not been as impressive, but could potentially improve as well if, and only if, Democrats at the grass roots demand it.

Zunes’ conclusions resonate with mine. His full article is well worth reading.

POST SCRIPT: Is John Edwards progressive?

Stephen Zunes, a progressive professor of political science whose does thoughtful analyses of many issues, looks the policies of John Edwards. He finds him to be progressive on domestic issues but with troubling positions on foreign affairs. He concludes:

[A] John Edwards administration would be a real improvement over the administration of George W. Bush in the foreign policy realm, but it would clearly not be as progressive as many of his supporters would hope for.

Since first entering politics less than a decade ago, Edwards has greatly deepened his understanding of important policy issues and has moved to the left on his domestic agenda. His learning curve on foreign policy matters has thus far not been as impressive, but could potentially improve as well if, and only if, Democrats at the grass roots demand it.

Zunes’ conclusions resonate with mine. His full article is well worth reading.

Should atheists “come out”? -2

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should “come out.” I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should ‘come out of the closet.’ The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one’s work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a ‘man of the Book,’ made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

In the comments to the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them “You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts.”

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT: Follow up by Austin Cline

Austin Cline picked up on the above original post that appeared on January 18, 2006 and added an interesting coda at his website About atheism. He said:

This is very similar to something George Smith wrote:

In Christianity doubt stands opposed not to certainty per se, but to faith. To have faith, in a religious context, is to have absolute confidence in God and to trust his revelations unconditionally. Thus, for the Christian to be uncertain of a divine revelation is bad enough, but to doubt that revelation is incomparably worse, because the latter implies a readiness to criticize that the former does not. … In short, for the Christian to doubt the truth of a purported revelation is potentially to challenge the authority of the infallible God in whom she believes. It is therefore religious doubt, not atheistic disbelief, that constitutes the greatest threat to orthodox beliefs, because doubt threatens to undermine a belief system from within.

I wonder if this is also one reason why so many Christians insist that atheism is a faith? If, as Singham writes, faith is less threatening than doubt, then “atheism as a faith” can be dismissed more readily than “atheism as a challenge, a question, and a doubt.” I don’t think it likely that many, if any, Christians actually think about the issue in these terms, but this doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t being made unconsciously.

Should atheists “come out”?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous posting, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that “More than 50 percent of Americans have a “negative” or “highly negative” view of people who do not believe in God.”

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are “coming out” more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also “come out”, so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don’t “come out” because they don’t give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that “coming out” in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so “coming out” in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have realized that I was an atheist for about twenty years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. I used to feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other, although nowadays I feel that atheists should be more vocal in their opposition to the increasing encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

“Coming out” might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible and will result in them being isolated.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: “As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.”

It’s time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim “scholars”, people who believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.
. . .
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations.
. . .
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.

And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has “some cosmic, all-embracing libretto”, the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. The only one I know of is House. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT: Review of Expelled

In my series on evolution and law From Scopes to Dover, I mentioned the documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that implies that scientists are conspiring to deny intelligent design ideas a fair hearing.

Dan Whipple of Colorado Confidential attended a preview of the film and has written a review.

Should scientists try to accommodate religion?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally “shafars”. (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).
[Read more...]

Reason’s Greetings!

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have mossed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I hope all this blog’s readers have a pleasant and safe holiday season. For today’s holiday, here are three of my favorite seasonally appropriate Rowan Atkinson video clips.

On Jesus’ miracles:

On The General Synod’s Life of Christ:

On hell:

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited if necessary. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.

Meanwhile, I would like to wish all this blog’s readers Reason’s Greetings (with thanks to Norm for that coinage). Thank you for reading.)

As it is for most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as any of Dave Letterman’s top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn’t that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the few items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on “Christian” principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, securing a breach in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. This is similar to the “Wedge strategy” using so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC). IDC advocates see its inclusion in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo, argues that although she also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, she thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. She gives excellent counter-arguments to those of Yglesias and Drum and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally I am sympathetic to Yglesias’s and Drum’s aversion to these kinds of conflicts, I think Digby clearly wins the debate.

The idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don’t enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.

POST SCRIPT: Huckabee and the Villagers

Although “Huckabee and the Villagers” sounds like the name of a music group, the title actually reflects the fact that the thesis of my last two posts on why the Villagers dislike people like Mike Huckabee has now received support from Huckabee himself, who says:

There is a level of elitism that has existed, the chattering class if you will who lives in that corridor between Washington and Wall Street and they sort of live in their protected world, and frankly for a number of years many of them thought of people like me – whether it was because we were evangelicals or because maybe we were out from the middle of America. They were polite to us. They were more than happy for us to come to the rallies and stand in lines for hours to cheer on the candidates, appreciated us putting up the yard signs, going out and putting out the cards on peoples doors and making phone calls to the phone banks and – really appreciated all of our votes. But when they got elected, behind closed doors, they would laugh at us and speak with scorn and derision that we were, as one article I think once said “the easily led.” So there’s been almost this sort of, it’s okay if you guys get a seat on the bus, but don’t ever think about telling us where the bus is going to go.
. . .
But you know what’s happening, my campaign is now, a person has bubbled up – not from the chattering class. I’ve never been their favorite. I wasn’t their pick. I wasn’t the one they early on said “Well he has the money, and he has the name and the ancestry.” What we have in this country is this growing sense of tension where there are people would just as soon, guys like me, just continue to support candidates and make sure they get elected. But we don’t really want to have to hear from guys like me after elections – and now that we’re actually, potentially going to be the nominee – it’s making some folks uncomfortable ’cause they don’t know what we’re going to do.

(Thanks to Kevin Drum.)

Is this the start of open warfare between the Villagers and the people who have been pandered and condescended to by them all these years?

Meet the Villagers-2: The current elections

In the current race for the presidency, it has become clear that among the candidates who might be suitable, the Villagers are supporting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side and Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain on the Republican side. All of them have made the proper obeisance to the Village gods.

The Villagers do not like any real suspense in elections (uncertainty is always bad for business) so the sooner the race settles down to two people out of that list of suitable candidates, the better they will like it. Then they can sit back and enjoy the show that is put on for the rest of us, in which the Villager-approved Democratic nominee takes on the Villager-approved Republican nominee, with the media treating it as a major conflict between very different ideologies, when all it actually boils down to are differences on issues (abortion, gay rights, the Ten Commandments, immigration, and the like) that the Villagers want people to talk about but not really do anything. All the hype is just meant to get us non-Villagers excited and think that we are really involved in making a momentous decision. Again, a parallel can be found with what magicians like Penn and Teller do. In many tricks, by the time the audience member makes what seems like a free choice of a card or whatever, the trick is already over and the outcome determined and the audience member does not realize that he or she has been conned.

The Villagers like the outcome determined so well in advance that even candidates who might be acceptable to them are marginalized early. This is what likely happened to people like Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson (for the Democrats) and Fred Thompson (for the Republicans). The Villagers also tend to not want people who might be suitable on the issues they really care about but seem to be too passionately and genuinely devoted to causes that are not on the pro-business or pro-war agenda. Such candidates, in their zeal, may inadvertently do things that upset the core agenda of the Villagers. This may be why they have also marginalized Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, whose harsh xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric must also grate on the cosmopolitans who make up the Village, who like having abundant and cheap labor because it drives down wages in general and increases profits for businesses. It also doesn’t hurt to have cheap labor to take care of their lawns and mansions. (Tom Tancredo has apparently decided to drop out of the race, surprising many people who had not known he was even in the race. Oh, Tom, we hardly knew ye!)

Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and Ron Paul are definitely disliked by the Villagers, which is why they are sometimes not even invited to appear in the media-sponsored debates, since the big media outlets have their antennae tuned to pick up the Villagers’ cues. Kucinich has a long history of going against the interests of big business and his call for a single-payer health care system that would eliminate the huge health insurance industry and reduce the vast profits of the drug industry is more than enough to disqualify him. The Villagers absolutely detest Ron Paul for his paleo-conservative/libertarian stances opposing the war and torture and a host of other Village-approved policies, and because of his constant references to the importance of liberties enshrined in that dangerously subversive document, the US Constitution. Another big problem with Paul is that he actually takes seriously the idea of making government smaller. The Villagers attitude is to just talk about making government smaller as a rhetorical ploy but actually use it to serve their particular needs even if that means making it bigger. They would like to see Paul ignored and disappear but this is proving to be difficult to achieve because he keeps getting loud applause at the Republican debates and good internet coverage, and is thus able to raise remarkable sums of money. But Kucinich and Paul have not caused any panic (yet) because their poll numbers are low. If their numbers start to rise precipitously (which is more likely to happen with Paul than Kucinich), watch for the knives to come out.

Currently it is Mike Huckabee that is freaking out the Villagers for reasons I discussed in an earlier post. His beliefs are not acceptable to the urbane sophisticates. He seems to actually believe in some of the crazy things that the Bible teaches, and is not just paying lip-service to them, which is the Villager-approved approach. David Corn over at Mother Jones lists all the bizarre and hateful things that Huckabee has said in the recent past. His sudden leap into the lead in polls is causing consternation amongst the Villagers and we see almost a panic mode in the attempts to bring him down.

Huckabee and his supporters don’t seem to realize that the Villagers weren’t really serious about putting god back into schools or hating gays or keeping women in the kitchen or completely banning abortions or expelling all immigrants. You were supposed to play “dog-whistle politics”: to hint with a straight face at such things using code-words so that those who really care about such things would pick up the cues on their carefully tuned dog-whistle frequency. These issues were just supposed to be bones thrown to the yokels to keep them loyal and happy and vote for your side. But Huckabee seems to actually believe them. Even worse, his positions on some economic issues (based on vague notions of Christian charity) go against Village interests.

James Walcott brutally captured the contempt with which Villagers like op-ed writer Charles Krauthammer hold the actual voters who they depend upon. I too discussed a similar example that showed how the Village media manipulates election coverage to get the finalists they want by deciding what things are worth reporting on and, more importantly, to repeatedly dwell on. As Jonathan Schwarz says: “If you’re not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you’re stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can’t be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you’d go nuts and break America.”

On the Democratic side, the potentially disturbing candidate for the Villagers is John Edwards, for different reasons than for Huckabee. On the surface, he might seem to be suitable to become a Villager. He is an urban sophisticate, rich and well-educated, a former US Senator and even a vice-presidential candidate. But while his background may have been acceptable initially (and his policies are not really all that radical) his recent strong rhetorical attacks on the business (and especially health care) lobby and his constant reference to the injustice of having ‘two Americas’ divided into rich and poor, are too frightening for the Villagers, who may worry that he is not be as reliably acquiescent as a Clinton or an Obama. They probably fear that he might be another Gary Hart, a smart man with a populist bent and a streak of independence, without the mistress weakness that can be used against him. He might or might not be dangerous to Village interests but the Villagers never take risks and they will try and make sure he does not win. Clinton and Obama are the ‘safe’ choices, as far the Villagers are concerned.

This is how politics in the US currently works. It is not a pretty sight. It has very little to do with democracy of the kind we might romanticize about and is idealized in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. What we really have is an oligarchy wrapped up in the trappings of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

It is not hard to guess into which category the Villagers fall.

The two parties identified by Jefferson are the ones that we should focus on, not Democrats-Republicans or liberal-conservative or left-right. The real political battles we should be fighting are those devoted to wresting power away from the first party and giving it to the second.

Otherwise we will have in perpetuity the current state of American democracy: Government of the Villagers, by the Villagers, and for the Villagers.

POST SCRIPT: Meet the Christianisty candidate

If the Villagers manage to successfully torpedo the Huckabee insurgency, religious voters can always turn to an even more god-loving candidate in ’08: Jackie Broyles.

Meet the Villagers-1: How the American political system really works

It is hard to understand American politics without having a clear idea about the nature of how power is controlled and the important decisions made.

The first step to understanding is to not take seriously divisions along the lines of Democrat-Republican or liberal-conservative or left-right. While such terms may be useful in limited contexts, they are mostly used to distract people from seeing the real action, similar to the way that magicians Penn and Teller distract you without you even realizing it so that you do not see how the trick is really done. A good example of issues that are meant to distract was the infamous Terri Schiavo affair. (This is why I always say that it is not the things that politicians strongly disagree about to which we should pay close attention but the things that they agree on.)

The next step in understanding American politics is to realize that it is essentially a one-party political system consisting of the Big Business and War Party that is split up into two factions that differ on some social issues that do not really affect the profits of big companies or the wealth of the elites. These two factions are fluid, depending on the issue, and are the ones that are usually identified with the conventional dividing labels listed above.

But it is another division that is most important. This consists of those who belong to a group of insiders who really run the country and decide who they will allow to run for the highest offices. At its core, this group consists of the heads of major corporations and their boards and other wealthy elites. This group roughly corresponds to what President Eisenhower spoke about when he warned people about the dangers posed by the power of what he labeled the ‘military-industrial complex’. The decline of the industrial manufacturing base in the US and the rise in importance of new centers of wealth means that this group is now more appropriately labeled the ‘military-finance-health’ complex.

This core group’s agenda is transmitted and implemented by a secondary group which consist of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Tim Russert, Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people socialize amongst themselves and thus informally arrive at a rough consensus of who they feel are “worthy” of being elected to high office.

It is hard to give a collective name for this group but one that has been floated recently is the “Villagers”. (I think the name was invented by Atrios who has a flair for this kind of thing, having already coined the term the ‘Friedman Unit‘.) Although this group consists of wealthy elites, not the types one normally associates with actual village people, this is an apt name nonetheless because it captures accurately the key mentality of this group: they are tightly knit, clannish, want to keep all resources to themselves, view everyone outside their charmed circle as inferior, and are determined to keep the status quo intact. You can get a good idea of who belongs in the Village by those who are asked to comment on important issues so that they can frame the debate, and the people who appear on the political talk shows and get invited to contribute op-eds.

It is important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily exposed. The secret of the Villagers’ success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared interests and business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles and thus able to pick up the subtle cues that help them decide who should be in and who should be out. If you look at the network of marriages and other personal relationships alone, you will immediately see how such consensus views could seemingly arise “spontaneously.” For example, key Democratic political strategist James Carville and key Republican strategist Mary Matalin are married, as are Alan Greenspan and journalist Andrea Mitchell. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. You and I might wonder how they can keep their political differences out of their personal relationships but that is because we are naïve. They have no real differences. They all serve the same Village interests.

To be considered a “serious” candidate for things like the presidency or any other major elected office, you must get the approval of the Villagers and the way you do that is by giving them the cues that tell them that you know and will abide by the rules that they set. Otherwise you will be marginalized and ridiculed and driven out of the race. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer obtained their present influential positions because they are, or were willing to become, Villagers, which is why it is futile to expect more from them other than some symbolic act from time to time to give the illusion that they are independent agents listening to the will of those who voted them in. The higher people rise in the ranks of elected office, the more likely they are to be Villagers.

Grass-roots political activists sometimes ask in frustration why Reid or Pelosi (both Democrats) don’t show more backbone and challenge President Bush on key issues such as the Iraq war or torture or the FISA bill or the budget or other things, even though Bush’s ratings are at rock bottom levels, he has no political capital, and is easily headed towards being the worst US president in history. They accuse them of being weak-willed or stupid or outmaneuvered by a clever foe. But such views show that these activists have fallen into the trap of giving these party labels more significance than they deserve. They have not grasped the essential reality that Pelosi and Reid don’t challenge Bush on most issues because they don’t really disagree with him, even though they might pretend to. They are all serving the Village agenda. They will only do the right thing under severe pressure from the grass roots.

When it comes to elections, the Villagers will only give their stamp of approval to someone who they can definitely rely on to play by the rules that they have created. This means that any serious populist challenge to the interests of big business or the war machine faces huge obstacles to success. The weeding out process to get rid of unsuitable people takes place fairly early in the election process. People who are subordinate to the Villagers, like local newspapers and politicians around the country, take their cues from the Villagers and drum the message of who is worthy of consideration repeatedly into us so that we non-Villagers end up feeling that a vote for an unapproved candidate, even if it is someone we strongly support, is a wasted vote. By the time ordinary citizens like us actually go to the polls to vote in a primary or general election, we have been beaten down to think that we are faced with effectively just one or two “reasonable” candidates. The rest have been deemed “unelectable” or “fringe” by the Village.

The only time in recent history where a probable non-Villager approved candidate went on to win the presidential nomination of a major party was Democrat George McGovern in 1972. But that was because of special circumstances. That election immediately followed the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago where riots erupted and violent clashes occurred between the party bosses and those (especially those opposed to the Vietnam war) who wanted a radical break with the existing insider-controlled system. This resulted in major reforms in the nomination process with the introduction of the primary system to give voters a bigger say in selecting their party candidates. In 1972 the open primary system was too new for the Villagers to figure out how to control it to achieve the results they wanted. Fortunately for the Villagers, McGovern lost the presidential election.

The Villagers quickly learned their lesson and took control of the primary process soon after, to ensure that no one not approved by them even has a chance. They did this by making it necessary for candidates to raise huge sums of money to have a realistic chance of success. The way this is done is by avoiding at all costs mandating that candidates be given free airtime on TV, the way that some other democracies do, even though the TV stations are given access to our public airwaves free of charge on the condition that they serve the public interest. And since getting media exposure is the way to raise money, having the media marginalize a candidate early-on was the surest way to get rid of insurgent campaigns by creating a vicious cycle where negative or no initial media coverage meant low fund-raising which meant less ability to buy coverage. By making candidates have to pay exorbitant amounts for TV advertising, the Village media ensure that only those with strong Villager support have a chance because they can get positive free media coverage to kick start their campaigns.

After the McGovern scare, the next serious challenge to the Villagers’ control was Gary Hart in 1988, who also happened to be McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972. The Villagers quickly decided that Hart was too risky a bet for them, too unreliable because he had a sharp intelligence coupled with a populist bent and a streak of independence, all of which are signs of someone who might wander off the Village reservation. The media hounds were quickly set on him to make sure that he was drummed out of the race. It is true that Hart did have a sexual skeleton in his closet that was the ostensible cause of his destruction, but if you are a Villager-approved candidate, those things can be overcome, as we saw with Bill Clinton in 1992 (with Gennifer Flowers) and Rudy Giuliani this year (with too many scandals to count). Bill Clinton received the Villager seal of approval via the well-connected Washington socialite, the late Pamela Harriman, who ‘interviewed’ him early in the process and signaled to her fellow Villagers that Clinton understood how the Village game was to be played. Once in office, Clinton behaved exactly as the Village expected from him, pursuing all the policies that were important to them.

Next: The Village and the current election

POST SCRIPT: Burning the flag in the White House

Penn and Teller appear on The West Wing and show what the Bill of Rights means.

The Republican hysteria over Huckabee

As the interminable political primary season drags on, I have to say that the Republican race has proved to be far more interesting than the Democratic one. We have the drama of Mitt Romney trying to fend off unease over the issue of his Mormon religion and worrying about how his switching of positions to pander to the Christianists in the party will play out, serial philanderer Rudy Giuliani having to deal with one sex and money and corruption scandal after another, Ron Paul irritating the rest of them and the media with his constitution-based attacks on war mongering producing a remarkable response for someone considered a nobody, the once great hope Fred Thompson sleepwalking through the primaries, media darling John McCain looking more and more like a has-been, and those lovable scamps Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter (can anyone tell them apart?) falling over themselves in seeing who can hate immigrants the most. As if that was not enough fun, for the last debate they brought in surprise contestant Alan Keyes (yes, Alan Keyes!), an egomaniac of such giant proportions compared to whom even the insufferable Giuliani comes across as modest and self-effacing.

But the latest development is the sudden vaulting into the top tier-ranks of Mike Huckabee. In many ways, he was always a natural to lead the pack because he had, on the surface, few of the negatives associated with the others and all the positives. He was a southerner, a former governor, a Baptist preacher, and has long held the kinds of views that the religious right wants its leaders to have on issues like abortion and gays. He may not have been as hard line as they might have wished on issues like not raising taxes or hating immigrants, or as enthusiastic about supporting the Bush wars and torture that the crazies in his party would like. But these drawbacks were merely matters of degree and one would have thought that given the strong negatives of the other choices that Republican primary voters had, he would have been the one they liked most. So the surprise for me is not his rise in the polls but why it took so long.

But what is really interesting is the reaction to his rise from the power brokers of the Republican Party. They have responded with alarm and brought out the long knives, trying to cut Huckabee down. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum piles on, essentially calling him a moron and even obliquely suggesting Huckabee of being a kindred spirit of Scientologists.

So why all this angst about this southern Bible thumper, who seems to be very similar in background and views to George W. Bush, the president the Washington insiders love, even if he will go down as the worst president in US history and whose current approval ratings are in the sewer?

Kevin Drum at the blog has the best explanation that I have seen so far for this Huckabee hate fest among leading conservatives:

There are a variety of ostensible reasons for this: lack of foreign policy bona fides, too compassionate for their taste, too willing to consider spending money, etc. But I think the real reason is simpler: as with blogosphere conservatives, mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They’re happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn’t care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal. The only difference is that usually they keep their shivering to themselves because they want to keep everyone in the big tent happy.

But then along comes Huckabee, and guess what? He’s the real deal. Not a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan, who talks a soothing game to the snake handlers but then turns around and spends his actual political capital on tax cuts, foreign wars, and deregulating big corporations. Huckabee, it turns out, isn’t just giving lip service to evangelicals, he actually believes all that stuff. Among other things, he believes in creationism (really believes), once proposed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, appears to share the traditional evangelical view that Mormonism is a cult, and says (in public!) that homosexuality is sinful. And that’s without seeing the text of any of his old sermons, which he (probably wisely) refuses to let the press lay eyes on.

John Cole, a conservative who has watched with dismay the Republican Party pandering to the religious extremists, also lists some of the nasty things that are being said about Huckabee and enjoys a moment of schadenfreude:

I simply can not tell you how much I am enjoying this. The GOP has been pandering to these stupid bastards for years, and every time I pointed it out I was called “anti-Christian” or something or other. Those of us who saw what the party was becoming were told to shut up, that it was good politics.

Enjoy your new GOP, folks. And here is something else to think about – are the evangelicals going to support Romney or Giuliani if you do manage to trash Huckabee enough to secure the nomination for them? Will the eye for an eye crowd learn to forgive and forget? Have fun!

Next: Meet the Villagers: The real political divide in America

POST SCRIPT: Torture

One of the most depressing phenomena of recent times is how so many people who should know better are willing to defend the use of torture, using legalistic quibbling to justify barbaric practices that would have been unhesitatingly condemned if the identities of the torturers and the tortured were switched.

Tom Tomorrow as usual says it most concisely.

Collateral damage from the war to defend Christmas

The absurdity of ‘defending Christmas’ in the US of all places reached a new low when the US House of Representatives actually passed a bill on December 11, 2007 “Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith”. (Thanks to Ross for alerting me to this.)

The text of the bill starts by listing all the reasons why Christianity is so wonderful (“contributed greatly to the development of western civilization”, yadda, yadda, yadda) and then goes on:

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.”

The vote on the bill was 372 in favor, 9 against, 10 voting ‘present’, and 40 not voting.

Christians around the world can sleep better tonight knowing that the US Congress is working feverishly to respect them as deeply as it is humanly possible.

I do not for a minute think that Bill O’Reilly or the other hypervintilators fear that there is a genuine war on Christmas. It would not surprise me in the least if they themselves were not very religious at all but simply going through the motions. I think the whole issue of claiming that Christianity is under siege is cynically drummed up by urban sophisticates like them because they think that riling up the yahoos and hicks on some emotional hot button issue will keep them in the public eye and makes for good ratings, which is the only thing they really care about.

(Actually Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the sponsor of the above bill, might really believe all this stuff. He is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you catch my drift.)

But the tragedy is that the people who get riled up don’t realize that this is just a game for O’Reilly and his fellow travelers who laugh all the way to the bank even as they exploit this petty issue. They think that this is real. Witness what happened on a New York subway on December 7.

On Friday, Four Jewish subway riders who wished other people Happy Hanukkah were pelted with anti-Semitic remarks before being beaten, New York police and prosecutors said.
. . .
The four were on a train in Manhattan on Friday night, during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, when they were approached by a group of 10 people who offered holiday greetings. The victims responded, Happy Hanukkah and were assaulted by the larger group, police said Tuesday.

Another report gives more details of what happened:

The altercation erupted when Adler and his friends said “Happy Chanukah” to a group yelling “Merry Christmas” on the Brooklyn-bound train.

Adler told the New York Post that one of his attackers rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of Jesus Christ.

“Happy Chanukah. That’s when the Jews killed Jesus,” the attacker told Adler.

The assaulting group consisted of ten people aged 19 and 20, with a long career fighting for Christ ahead of them. The only redeeming feature of this story is that a Muslim student on the train sprang to the aid of the Jewish students, although he ended up being beaten too.

Yes, fighting to save Christmas is great fun (and profitable) for those who exploit it as long as people realize that it is not to be taken seriously. But of course, O’Reilly, Gibson, and their ilk cannot be blamed for those morons who don’t realize that it is all a big joke can they?

POST SCRIPT: Impeaching Cheney

Congressman Robert Wexler and two other members of the House Judiciary Committee are calling for impeachment hearings on Vice President Cheney. They received over 80,000 signatures on their petition in just four days and are looking for more.

To read about it, go here and to sign the petition go here.

It is this kind of action that is necessary these days to signal support for politicians who are willing to go beyond platitudes so please take the time to check this out and sign if possible.