Thursday, March 03, 2005

Language, Religion, and Politics

Partisan alert! In this my true colors show through, with no effort to "be fair." In what follows, keep in mind that I do not consider myself a "liberal." I am progressive (after my maternal grandfather's example), with no party affiliation (contrary to his example). I think, however one characterizes herself or himself, that careful consideration of the language one employs and the tone of one's arguments make an enormous difference. I am Christian, a follower of The Word who became flesh -- and as such, I must take words seriously. And that's what this rant is about.
I have many friends and many people I admire who confuse me because, while they are able to get theology right, they come to the wrong conclusions (I think) on a goodly number of pressing social issues. For example, I have been involved in a dispute over public schools, co-ed education, and taxation. These are matters about which reasonable people can reasonably disagree, I guess ( :) ), but it often happens that in the middle of the conversation, one of my disputants will throw in a castigation of "liberals." "Liberals," it appears are responsible for all the social ills facing us -- bleeding heart acceptance of an educational system that is "unaccountable" (trust me: you don't want to get me started on that one!); liberals are responsible for high rates of taxation that breed a culture of entitlement (only let's overlook Enron and Tyco, et. al.; they are not emblematic of anything); and similar arguments. Throw out the "l" word (no: not "Lutheran") and you don't need to say anymore. This seems true not just of political discourse but of religious-ethical conversation, too.

Read First Things, Touchstone, and others among the theological journals and talk to the majority of neo-orthodox theologians of almost any stripe, and you get the same kind of lumping, easy-target language. Go into any chain bookstore and you'll see cover after cover detailing "how liberals hate America" and "how liberals have ruined America" and how liberals "can't think"and you can't "talk" to them. In the Church, liberals, it seems, have ruined the mass, denied it of reverence, traduced the Church's traditions, hate God -- or at least, the true God -- and left the cap off the toothpaste tube (oops, sorry, that's my own complaint) . Liberals control all media (that's one I really have trouble finding evidence for!), so it's desperately hard for the conservatives to get their message out. It's clear that such a "conservative" or "neo-conservative" or something movement is riding high. (I intend to read What's the Matter with Kansas? to help me understand how "they've" gotten there.)

And one of the darlings of the movement is Ann Coulter. She's a former newswoman, apparently. And she's got to be one of the fastest typists on the right. Yesterday in Barnes and Noble, I saw three hardcover works in one section, face out, bearing her name. She helps set the tone and the agenda, with a vitriol toward "liberals" that is almost indecent. In her mind "liberals" are traitors, have no right to participate in public discourse, and represent all that she personally (at least in print) deplores. (Shakespeare was so good with one-liners: "Methinks she doth protest too much" may apply here?)

Here's the latest from the doyenne of thoughtful prose. She was commenting on Jeff Gannon debacle. He's the prostitute, on the Texas GOP payroll, who for years was given a press pass to White House press conferences, planted to ask "softball" questions when the going got rough for President Bush or his pressman. He got that press pass under a false name and despite having no legitimate press credentials. But apparently no conservatives, who would have sought a special prosecutor had such a think happened six years ago, think it any big matter. (Apparently, either it was agreed that gay prostitutes in the press room are OK even if gay partners are not OK or it doesn't matter that the FBI screeners -- the same ones who will not clear Maureen Dowd of the New York Times for a pass -- were so incompetent.)

Well, of course, Ann Coulter couldn't restrain herself from commenting. Here's what she said, in dismissing Gannon-gate: "Press passes can't be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas to sit within yards of the president. " There's insight into conservative values and thoughtfulness for you.

Helen Thomas has been a journalist for 60 years. She has covered every president from Kennedy on. She has always been careful, respectful, rarely (but occasionally) confrontational, and highly respected and esteemed among professional journalists. Yet that "old Arab" is of lower quality than the Right's male escort, according to Ann Coulter. Racism, slander, shamelessness -- Coulter gets away with it.

And she gets away with it not just among her fellow-travelers, but in the population at large. Except for the American Progress Action Fund and the Minneapolis StarTribune (which reported the APAF's item detailing this outrage), no medium has covered it (at least as I've been able to discover). And that's a scary prospect.

Helen Thomas is Lebanese, I understand. By Coulter's shorthand, that makes her an "Arab" and, automatically, an incipient terrorist suspect. And we all know that -- and shrug. And we Christians -- and Jews -- shrug even though it is an egregious example of bearing false witness and killing (for it incites hatred, which can lead to murder) and probably coveting (because, apparently, Coulter couldn't make it in real journalism). And we Christians -- and Jews -- shrug even though represents exactly the kind of racial vilification that helped "keep Jews in their place" for centuries. (Imagine if someone were to refer to Norman Podhoretz as "that old Jew" or Daniel Pipes as "that cruel Jew"!) And we Christians shrug even though we claim that the Good News overcomes racial, ethnic, genetic, gender and all other divisions.

Words can kill. But words can also make alive. In the absence of an active "loyal opposition" to this "right-wing" cant, it may be incumbent on church people to confirm the right's worst characterization and to stand up for those who are vilified, to call racism where it appears, to discredit smarmy intendre (double or not).

I could discredit left-wing excesses (and probably just as easily as spotting those from the right). I don't condone them. But my sense is that the left has less influence in capturing language and, thereby, thought than has the right wing. For that reason, I jump in on their side.

Besides, it's simply utterly ugly form to slur a really decent, hard-working, capable little old lady. (And if that doesn't prove that I'm above being "politically correct," nothing will.)


Bag Lady said...

I remember my mother saying, somewheres in the early 1970s, that liberal was a dirty word. She was quite far to the right, and if she were still alive, probably would be a big fan of Coulter's.

Mom and I would certainly have had a number of words on this topic by now. If I were able to maintain principle, integrity, I'd be challenging her (or anybody else) to hold the discussion without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

And I'm guessing that I'd quickly become the object of further attacks.

I am studying a theory that explains a lot about all this, which makes it easier to avoid being sucked in emotionally (though it's not foolproof!--I am still human). I expect to be addressing it in my blog, I hope sooner rather than later.

Maurice Frontz said...

Do you have a written source for that quote? If it's true, it's terrible.
This from a self-described conservative (one of the only ones in the ELCA, I think? Sometimes I feel like a pariah.)

Bag Lady said...

I have no idea where the quote originated. I do remember repeating it in a conversation with a high school history teacher (of the liberal persuasion) and he absolutely agreed. I, of course, at that time, really was naive about the whole business -- it was all "us" and "them".

The result is that I now really hate labels. And I try to sneak an opinion in before anybody can label me. Yup, I know that's silly.

Dwight P. said...

The original is at the good commentator's own website. I think this link will take you to her February 23 column. (It's even worse for me, because 2/23 is my daughter's birthday!)

As I noted, I picked up the quote second-hand (and thereby probably violated the commandment against lying -- although under American law, truth is a defense against libel and slander).

Cheers -- I guess.

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