Saturday, August 08, 2009

Birthers, Teabaggers, Townhallers & Death Panels

First there were the Birthers, bent on proving that President Obama was not born on U.S. soil.

Then there was the group — this one, so low-profile (not to mention, just plain low) that it didn't even earn a nickname — that claimed Mr. Obama was a closet Muslim.

Then there were the Teabaggers, who twisted the message of the original Boston Tea Party participants from "no taxation without representation," to "no taxation," to prevent Mr. Obama from laying some of the burden for necessary health care reform on those most able to absorb its financial impact.

Now it's the Townhallers, who think that, by disrupting public meetings run by Democrats to push the health care reform legislation now before Congress and, thereby, preventing a reasonable discussion of the plan's merits and demerits, they somehow serve the interests of those whose medical burdens will continue to mount unless something is done.

It's no secret that an ever-more militant group of Republicans, not so sure that the Obama presidency will fail, are making it their business to ensure that failure. They openly desire his failure even if that failure means the country suffers a depression. Even though few regard the effort as anything more than a purely partisan effort to ensure that a Republican makes it to the White House next time around and that Republicans reclaim the Senate and House.

Unfortunately, this well-organized right-wing outfit, which was pretty laughable when it first surfaced as the "birthers," is now, inexplicably, proving quite successful. Mr. Obama's approval rating recently slid below the 50 percent mark. Part of the reason is that the militants have callously played on the fears of Americans economically devastated by a recession that was largely the product of Republican/centrist Democrat policy and that began with a Republican president in the White House. (Let me make clear, here, that I am no mere bystander in this regard. While I still possess a job, I have taken a near 30 percent cut in pay. I feel the ouch. I have experienced the fears. I'm looking over my shoulder, hoping I don't see the ax fall, just like every other Main Streeter).

In reaction, several liberal Democrats have gone so far as to characterize these folks as terrorists. Although its unwise to throw that kind of terminology around lightly, the truth is, a terrorist is one who seeks to inspire terror in another to accomplish a goal. The definition does not specify the use of a bomb or gun. It, therefore, could easily apply to these folks. (As I noted in my previous post, words are among the deadliest of weapons.)

Although this group would prefer to think of itself as a "truth squad," its current campaign centers on the completely fictitious accusation that the Obama health care initiative calls for "death panels" — government sponsored review boards that will decide who has the right to health care. (This term was coined, apparently, by now ex-Governor Sarah Palin, who really seems to believe that the government, under the Obama plan, will tell us when we have to die. Oh, Sarah, you seemed so promising when you first entered the national spotlight!) This isn't just a twist on the truth. Its an outright lie, of course. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to destroy Mr. Obama, truth is something this group of Republicans is all-to-willing to sacrifice.

Newt Gingrich, Senator Charles Grassley, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have encouraged this blatant falsehood. High-profile, right-wing pundits (the American Spectator, the New Republic, et. al.) regularly compare the Obama Administration's willingness to publicly fund access, on a purely voluntary basis, to "end-of-life" counseling to Nazi Germany's policy of forcible euthanasia for the physically and mentally infirm. The same tactic used by the same pundits discredited President Clinton's previous attempt to reform the health care system.

So ... why are they so successful? Well, let me first say that what I'm about to propose are unscientific observations. I have no poll data to present. No one gathers data on what Mr. Obama so rightly characterized as "what no one says in public but admits to in private." But they are observations I've made over a lifetime of involvement in the particular American subculture I'm about to indict. I know this crowd. I'm in it, and of it, but no longer, as you'll see, quite with it. And these observations are based, in part, on what I've heard folks in this subculture admit to, privately, combined with what are undeniably public facts.

Observation #1: The birthers/closet Muslimers, etc., have succeeded in large part because they have exploited a well-oiled rumor network that exists within conservative American Christianity. Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals and charismatics believe that human beings are sinful and in need of saving (and I'm with them on this). Unfortunately, that makes them all-to-ready to believe a bad report about someone, especially if that someone is not an adherent to their particular brand of American Christianity. If that report comes from another Christian of similar persuasion, well, then, it must be true! Christians are among the world's laziest citizens. They rarely check facts. Suspicious of the media's "liberal humanist" agenda, they reject any official accounts that differ from the rumors they've heard. If it sounds like the devil's work, it must be. The Glen Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world (both claim to be Christians), do check the facts, but then selectively present them, with plenty of innuendo and illogical giant leaps. Thus, our newest supreme court justice, Ms. Sotomayor, was branded a racist and a "judicial legislator" even after the facts, when they finally were brought to light, pointed to a something much closer to a centrist bent on hewing to precedent.

Observation #2: American Christianity (conservative and liberal) is still one of the most segregated segments of American society. Despite what the Bible has to say on the subject, American Christians are suspicious of differences and take refuge in sameness and uniformity. Although Jesus intended that his church would be a powerful, nonviolent army of fearless lovers of all humanity (as was he), Christianity, particularly the highly organized American conservative kind, has become a refuge for — and a vehicle for the exploitation of — those who seek to escape from a dangerous world. Skin color, accent, educational and/or economic status, gender identity, haircuts, clothing, musical preferences, are only a few of the huge number of items on an exceedingly long laundry list that American Christians use to determine the boundary markers and litmus tests for group membership. For many white American conservative Christians, an educated black, liberal Christian president of the United States is simply incomprehensible. Obama's rise and election raises truly primal fears (race wars, mass rape of white women, you name it, we white Christians can imagine it). No matter that these were the very fears that our Lord, if we had only let him, might have overcome. Right-wing pundits love to exploit these fears by publishing predictions that, by 2050, white Americans will be outnumbered by people of color. It's no secret that white conservative Christians think a top item on the U.S. national security agenda should be the closing of our southern border with Mexico (see Observation #4, below). Conservative Christians are primed to believe any rumor they hear (see observation #1) about "them" — that is, anyone who isn't "us."

Observation #3: Despite the Bible's declaration that followers of Christ should be the most generous, giving people on earth (the apostle Paul encouraged giving by declaring the "God loves a hilarious giver"), Christians are perceived as stingy, and have earned that reputation in the watching world. Christians are the world's worst tippers. Ask any waiter. Restaurant employees universally hate it when Christian groups come in. Conservative Christians form the base for most tax protest movements and are well represented among the group that refuse to pay taxes, despite the fact that their Bible encourages them to do so. Although Christians give a good deal of money to their own causes (conservatives outdo their liberal counterparts here), even that amounts only to 2.5 percent of gross income, one quarter of the tenth (tithe) a Jew was required to cough up. They contribute very little to causes that directly benefit nonChristians. (United Way, for example, was off-limits for many Christians because a tiny portion of its funds went to organizations that had connections to "family planning"). And despite the fact that America Christians are beneficiaries of the world's richest economy, Christians in poor nations regularly out-give American Christians, per capita, based on percentage of income. We American Christians, therefore, are only too happy to throw in with Teabaggers and Townhallers. Any plan that is going to take money out of our pockets should be voted down — even if it would mean poorer health care or underfunded public education for our neighbors' children.

Conversely, we are numbered among the greediest of the greedy. Generally, companies headed by conservative Christians pay their employees less for the same work than companies run by nonChristians. This is especially true if that organization is engaged in work classified as supporting Christian causes. And for every Bernie Madoff, there are a hundred so-called Christian organizations that fleece conservative Christians with get-rich-quick schemes, pyramid sales schemes (Amway, anyone?), investment programs based on "biblical" financial success "secrets," and day-trader seminars (God blesses gambling, too.). Millions fell — hook, line and sinker — for the so-called "Prosperity Gospel." American conservative Christians are preposterously gullible, especially when the carrot is cash.

Observation #4: Conservative American Christians are in the vanguard of the group that believes the poor are poor by choice. I saw a bumper sticker one time that really set me back on my heals. It said, "Jesus is coming again, and is he ever pissed." I have no idea what the person who printed that bumper sticker was thinking, but when I think of the "they're poor because they want to be" crowd, the image of that bumper sticker always comes to mind. Republicans have exploited this heinously unbiblical belief to oppose anything that smacks of "welfare." It is profoundly ironic that American Christians wouldn't have government "welfare" programs taking money out of their pockets if their churches were living in accord with Jesus teaching. Taking care of the homeless, the orphan, the widow, etc., was always supposed to be our job. American conservative Christians really believe that poor people are just lazy and unmotivated.

The facts, of course, absolutely destroy that illusion. Take the case of the Mexican national who saves, over years, a small pile of pesos earned from a back-breaking job as a laborer so he or she can buy passage across the border to Los Angeles to work two jobs and send money back to Mexico to provide for his/her family. You could call that illegal. You could call that dangerous or desperate. You could call that foolhardy. But you can't call it lazy. People from south of the border have risked (and lost) life and limb for a century to taste opportunities that we would see as miserable options, all to better themselves and their families. Fact: American employers polled for the reasons why they hired illegals overwhelmingly reported that they did so because the illegals work harder than American citizens.

Observation #5: Despite the teaching of much of the New Testament to the contrary, and although we at times talk a pretty good game, American conservative Christians are (with a few notable exceptions) closet bigots: We are protectionist ("Buy American"), fiercely nationalistic (we have a deadly fear of and would gladly disband the U.N.), xenophobic, homophobic and misogynistic. (On that last point, there is no place on earth where women have so much opportunity for fulfilling employment but are denied it so fiercely than in conservative Christian church circles. There are Islamic republics that put up fewer barriers to female employment than women confront in spoken and unspoken Christian prohibitions.)

We are the world's worst serial profilers: We prejudge others based on how they look or talk. We cross the street to avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable. We are driven by numberless fears and misconceptions. We see demonic plots everywhere. We demonize anyone whose terminology or temperament makes us uncomfortable. (It wasn't long ago, for example, that a segment of the charismatic end of the church saw married couples attempting to cast demons out of each other in situations where other folks would assume they were having a common, ordinary martial tiff.)

There is, in fact, no place quite like the American conservative Christian church for rigid, black-and-white, me-and-my-own-and-everyone-else-be-damned, sound-byte analysis of the complex issue we face. We really prefer rules. Our lists of "dos" and "donts" do away with uncertainty. We want someone (Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh , our pastor) to tell us what's good and what's bad, what's clean and unclean.

We Christians like things simple. We like leaders who make things simple. And we much prefer them to the One who challenged us to take off the religious blinders and, by faith, without certainty, see our fallen world through his loving eyes. The One who asked us to risk getting our hands dirty in the act of giving sacrificially of our "time, talent and treasure" to make the world His world.

If we American conservative Christians don't like what Mr. Obama has in mind, mindlessly following the lead of Birthers, Teabaggers and Townhallers is hardly the solution. Getting rid of Obama won't make our lives simpler, easier or less costly. The fact that so many of us reject Mr. Obama's call for some personal sacrifice in the interest of universal health care — something perfectly in keeping with a biblical faith — because he's black, a Democrat, and unfortunately isn't on the right side of the abortion issue, brands us publicly as the fools and hypocrites that we are.

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