29 June 2006

On being a calm alarmist

Do we need more evidence? As the G8 conference in Moscow draws nearer, the comments about Russian authoritarianism grow more frequent. (Example: "Lawmakers urge G7 to meet to rebuke Russia," a Reuters story in the Washington Post.) In a valuable, if a bit countercompensatory, essay in the Nation, "The New American Cold War," Stephen Cohen reveals how simplistic, inadequate, self-serving and actually dangerous this line is.

Right now, however, as we approach July 4, I am equally concerned about the danger of denial closer to home. In commenting on today's Supreme Court decision against the White House decrees on military tribunals for Guantánamo prisoners, columnist David Ignatius gives us a blunt summary of the situation:
We can now see that after Sept. 11 there was a grab for unlimited executive power, led by Vice President Cheney and his lawyer, David Addington. They intimidated or ignored critics within the White House and created a secret system unchecked by the other two branches of government.
I have no doubt that Ignatius and other commentators who've been sounding similar alarms are not exaggerating. The question that haunts me on the eve of our most patriotic holiday is: have we ourselves crossed that authoritarian line that so many charge Putin with crossing?

The test cannot be my personal comfort, or even my personal freedom to sound off in this weblog. As Chris Floyd says (thanks, John Redman), "It's a not a drive toward totalitarianism; they don't want or need to repress and control everything. They don't care if bloggers rant, or Harper's fulminates, or Michael Moore makes movies, or Noam Chomsky sells books (or even speaks at West Point). They are perfectly happy to allow isolated enclaves of dissent to float around out there somewhere--as long they remain isolated and, above all, ineffectual." But if a national-stature newspaper publishes articles on illegal wiretapping and bank data-mining, then the subject of government invasions of privacy is quickly and dramatically obscured by a blustery chorus of treason charges and venomous legal threats against the newspaper.

In fact, robust dissent certainly exists both here and in Russia. We are far from totalitarianism. But an important reality test for democracy, due process, and the rule of law is how it deals with exceptions. Most of us are protected most of the time by a combination of benign neglect, due deference to our affluence or our race, administrative incompetence, and the persistence of a cadre of old-school civil servants, judges, and politicians who really do care about the integrity of our government. But watch what happens to the exceptions: for example, the people who are put on the terrorism "no-fly" watch list. They may try for years to get off the list, suspecting that they have the same name as a more legitimate target, or simply were born in the wrong country or culture. Even government officials admit the serious flaws, but they don't take the obvious step of cleaning off the list and only putting individuals back on by some kind of, well, due process. Meanwhile, the rest of us, whose freedom to travel remains relatively unimpeded, barely notice the affected people's predicament at all.

But this situation fades into near-insignificance compared to the way our government has treated detainees in Guantánamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows where else. And we are always told that these are bad people who do not deserve normal, civilized legal protections. If the word "bad" has any useful content at all, then it is also true that many people in our jails are "bad" people, but we are not allowed to impose consequences on their badness until AFTER due process. All of these niceties are beside the point, anyway; what distresses me more than these legal tugs-of-war is the backstory: Cheney and Co. already decided that 9/11 justified taking the gloves off, and all of the rest is a series of secondary consequences. Put the gloves of democracy and due process back on, trust that our democratic tools are robust enough to serve both justice and humanity, and the other issues will fall into place. But have we already been so warped out of shape as a democracy that even the fall of the Bush dynasty will still see us springing only partially back?



How do Christians respond? Realistically, I'm not sure. Most Christians I know are conflict-avoidant, somewhat passive, inclined to trust those in authority, and dubious about prophetic theatrics. Any strategy based on radical exhortations way beyond their comfort zone is likely to go down without a bubble. I believe that those of us who have the curse of being wired politically (and still want to be disciples of the Prince of Peace) will have to slog away, day in and day out, at some less than revolutionary tasks:
  • Among those in church with us, find the energy and words to relate our concerns about due process and civil liberties to the plain language of the Bible and to the imperatives of discipleship. Lies must be exposed as lies, "For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret." (Ephesians 5:12.) "But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." (Matthew 5:22.) Always stand up for the "image of God" in every human being, and require politicians who act in our name to do the same.
  • Refuse to give in to fear. Greet every appeal to fear with a Gospel answer, raise awkward questions about the way we treat detainees, the false frames and stereotypes with which our enemies and allies alike are portrayed, and for that matter, challenge every identification of an enemy. Would our fire-breathing patriots greet a foreign invader who claimed to know what was good for us, any better than some Iraqis have greeted our forces?
  • Don't lose credibility by sentimentalizing Islamic anti-Americanism, especially the kind of fundamentalism that rejoices with every American death in Iraq. Any believer in the Gospel of grace has, or should have, serious theological issues with any version of Islam that I've ever heard of. But there is absolutely no reason that those differences could not be discussed with courtesy and love, at least insofar as it rests with us to do so.
  • Consider at least token tax resistance. Some forms of resistance are unwise, but where we can say a clear "no," we should do so, prepared to use every subsequent encounter with authority as an evangelistic opportunity.


Religion and American politics: It was interesting to read the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama's speech to the "Building a New Covenant for America" conference (example here), compared to the speech itself. Not at all confining himself to the strategic use of religion for political gain, however sympathetic the user, Obama seems to have put a lot of his own spirituality up front in the speech, and equally importantly, he connected the dots:
Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby - but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix.
In that last example, he touched on on one of the central reasons I oppose capital punishment in spite of the murder of my sister. Through all my anger at her murderer, I can see that there was a hole in his heart, and in mine, that government (executioner included) cannot fix.



Flag desecration as hate speech: At first I was very opposed to the proposed constitutional amendment against flag-burning. I tend to agree that it was politically motivated. In addition, I'm against investing patriotic symbols with an aura of holiness. And if flag desecration had been illegal when we carried out our social-exorcist flag-washing ceremony in front of the Federal Building, I suppose we would have been arrested.

However, there is another side of the issue. It is not true that prohibition of flag-burning would be the first restriction on free expression. Hate speech is more or less criminal behavior in many places because of its incendiary potential. Even where it is illegal, allegations of racial slurs have cost people their jobs. A few months ago I observed Christians urging secular newspapers not to publish reproductions of the offending Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, out of respect for a taboo they did not themselves share. If I could be charitable enough for a moment to put myself in the shoes of someone whose regard for the U.S. flag had similar weight, I might be less inclined to be so dismissive of the flag-desecretion amendment's advocates.



Righteous links: In the New York Times, I liked Lawrence Downes's refreshingly titled primer on immigration "reform," "The Terrible, Horrible, Urgent National Disaster that Immigration Isn't." An eloquent sample:
To militarize the border, to turn illegal immigrants into felons, means trying to reverse the polarity on the American magnet, to repel the people who have struggled, dreamed and died to get here.

It means turning this singular country into just another industrial power with a declining birthrate and a self-defeating antagonism to the foreign born. It means defining down what America stands for, no matter what the cost to the American economy, its traditions and values and moral standing.
Narnia and Right Sharing: Here's an interesting brief review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that touches on both "living generously" and the empowerment of children.

Brian McLaren makes some interesting comments on the fortunes of the emergent church movement during the past year. (Pssst, danger: some Christian leaders say that McLaren is dangerously unsound. He promotes ... *shudder* ... contemplation! More next week, if I dare.)

And Martin E. Marty observes bloggers influencing religious politics.

The Tangaroa continues its Kon-Tiki-repeating Pacific voyage, now logging sixty days at sea.

In the too-painful department this week: the Israeli collective punishment of Palestinians for the pathetic acts of a few. Righteous anger raised to an idolatrous level. Interestingly, Israelis are quite capable of a thoughtful discussion of their government's ruinous tactics. Over here, mostly silence.

2 comments:

zach said...

Johan, as always, a thought-provoking mix of topics. Two responses:

I'm a little skeptical of "token" tax resistance, if you mean (though perhaps this isn't what you meant) tax resistance that doesn't carry much real risk of consequences, e.g. refusing to pay the federal telephone tax. It seems too much like a feel-good practice for people who don't have the courage to fully rebel against the empire but can't admit this fact. I say this as someone who is just now entering the working world, forgot to pay his taxes this April, and is very conflicted over whether to pay late or take the risk of not paying at all.

On flag burning, I think you make a valid point that I hadn't thought of. But I still think (and I realize that you weren't necessarily giving full support to the ban in you comments) that there's a big difference between, say, anti-Muslim hate speech and the anti-American hate speech that a flag burning implies. For one thing, America isn't one of the place, as far as I know, where we ban hate speech against religions; the fact that it's banned in the UK (e.g.) isn't really grounds for banning flag burning here.

More importantly though, Muslims don't rule the country, deny college loans to people who don't register for its armies, extort money (taxes) under the ultimate threat of violence, etc. etc. as the thugs represented by the U.S. flag do. If all that were the case, descecrating a crescent flag might be an appropriate political statement in the right context.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for commenting, Zach. And I like the new look of your site. (Parenthetically, I noticed your tender handling of the FUM personnel issue, which I've been observing unfold since 1988 with varying degrees of involvement.)

Yes, I do mean all forms of tax refusal, even token. One person's cowardice is another person's prudence, and I'm not able to judge. Given that there's not complete unity on this issue in our family, I've had to exercise more "prudence" than I might otherwise have. But any form of tax refusal, mild or daring, puts a bit more drag into the system and creates new opportunities for dialogue. At least that's my fantasy.

Concerning flag desecration, I really am talking about emotional equivalance, not exact parallels. The outrage we feel in the face or religious or racial hate speech may be emotionally equivalent to the outrage that's felt by a person who has tied his or her psyche very close to the group identity provided by patriotism. We may not agree that the equivalence is legitimate, but if we're not willing to enter sympathetically (not condescendingly) into the position of people holding that identification, we will continue to be in an unproductive polarization that is likely to result in some kind of win-lose outcome.

Christians have a special responsibility to probe, lovingly, whether patriotism has taken a slot in the heart that ought to be reserved (at least among other Christians) for their faith. That kind of dialogue, which can be credibly held only by those who know the language of their conversation partners (as you point out in your blog's comments about biblical literacy), would address at least one vocal segment of the pro-amendment community. I guess those for whom patriotism takes the place of a spiritual anchor would require a different approach.