Thursday, December 16, 2004

Frankly Rich

I'm starting to think that with all the free publicity I'm giving Frank Rich, he owes me a portion of his royalty checks. Or maybe it's the other way around, I should send him a little token of my appreciation for the dose of reality he affords me with his weekly column in the New York Times. While Frank and I are settling our financial matters, let's take a look at his latest effort. Rich's muse du jour is the tempest in a teapot brewing over the snubbing of Mel Gibson's ultra-violent homage to the death of Jesus known as The Passion at this year's Oscars. In specific, Rich quotes from a tirade on Joe Scarborough's eponymous Scarborough Country program on MSNBC, which was being guest hosted by the inimitable Pat Buchanan.

"Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, explained in a colloquy on the subject recently convened by Pat Buchanan on MSNBC. "It's not a secret, O.K.?" Mr. Donohue continued. "And I'm not afraid to say it. That's why they hate this movie. It's about Jesus Christ, and it's about truth."
This Oscar-induced outrage is symptomatic of a larger trend of crying out persecution by the hypersensitive religious right, sentiments made all the more curious by evidence of the nation's overwhelming Christian leanings.

You'd think peace might reign in a nation where there is so much unanimity of faith. In Newsweek's "Birth of Jesus" holiday cover article - not to be confused with Time's competing "Secrets of the Nativity" cover - a poll found that 84 percent of American adults call themselves Christian, 82 percent see Jesus as the son of God, and 79 percent believe in the Virgin Birth. Though by a far slimmer margin, the presidential election reinstalled a chief executive who ostentatiously invokes a Christian Almighty. As for "The Passion of the Christ," it achieved the monetary landslide of a $370 million domestic gross (second only to the cartoon saviors Shrek and Spider-Man).

Yet if you watch the news and listen to certain politicians, especially since Election Day, you'll hear an ever-growing drumbeat that Christianity is under siege in America. Like Mr. Gibson, the international movie star who portrayed himself as a powerless martyr to a shadowy anti- Christian conspiracy in the run-up to the release of "The Passion," his fellow travelers on the right detect a sinister plot - of secularists, "secular Jews" and "elites" - out to destroy the religion followed by more than four out of every five Americans.
In addition to The Passion, the other cause celebre of the right-wing religious crusaders this holiday season is the sacrosanct American institution of Christmas - and the secular Grinches who seek to steal it. In this context, the perception of persecution is equally misplaced.

If more than 90 percent of American households celebrate Christmas, you have to wonder why the guy is whining. The only evidence of what Pat Buchanan has called Christmas-season "hate crimes against Christianity" consists of a few ridiculous and isolated incidents, like the banishment of a religious float from a parade in Denver and of religious songs from a high school band concert in New Jersey. (In scale, this is nothing compared with the refusal of the world's largest retailer, Wal- Mart, to stock George Carlin's new best seller, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?," whose cover depicts its author at the Last Supper.) Yet the hysteria is being pumped up daily by Fox News, newspapers like The New York Post and The Washington Times, and Web sites like Mr. O'Reilly and Jerry Falwell have gone so far as to name Michael Bloomberg an anti-Christmas conspirator because the mayor referred to the Christmas tree as a "holiday tree" in the lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.
Rich raises an interesting point. In reality, the forces of the right's moral movement have actually been more successful at suppressing voices they deem inappropriate, such as Carlin, while the token incidents of hyper-vigilance regarding the maintenance of the church/state separation are paraded around as if there is some inverted inquisition taking place.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? The Christian-themed victims ploy is almost identical in tone and tenor to the right wing's claims of political disempowerment. The same tactics of exaggeration and obfuscation are used to establish the myth that the media is liberal, and that the powerful elites in this country are lined up, in unison, to suppress the underdog conservatives. By magnifying isolated incidents of bias, and ignoring the countervailing bias shown by conservative media organizations, reality is altered by manipulated perception. Despite the fact that the CEO's of all the major networks supported Bush in 2004, talk-radio is an arm of the Republican Party, and tycoons like Murdoch, Scaife, Black, Moon and others have established an impressive armada of media venues, print and broadcast alike, we are told that the media is liberal because the pro-Iraq war New York Times leans left on social issues. Similarly, the righteous conservative is still the outsider railing against the corruption and inefficiencies of Washington insiders, despite the fact the Republicans have an unprecedented level of control of all three branches of the government: the Executive, Congress and the Judiciary.

What is this about? How can those in this country's overwhelming religious majority maintain that they are victims in a fiery battle with forces of darkness? It is certainly not about actual victimization. Christmas is as pervasive as it has ever been in America, where it wasn't even declared a federal holiday until after the Civil War. What's really going on here is yet another example of a post-Election-Day winner-takes-all power grab by the "moral values" brigade. As Mr. Gibson shrewdly contrived his own crucifixion all the way to the bank, trumping up nonexistent threats to his movie to hype it, so the creation of imagined enemies and exaggerated threats to Christianity by "moral values" mongers of the right has its own secular purpose. The idea is to intimidate and marginalize anyone who objects to their efforts to impose the most conservative of Christian dogma on public policy. If you're against their views, you don't have a differing opinion - you're anti-Christian (even if you are a Christian).
Vital to the successful dissemination of these memes and myths is a certain level of rancor surrounding issues of religion and politics. Shouting matches crowd out reasoned analysis and allow for uncorroborated charges to escape scrutiny while all attempts at ex post facto clarification are chalked up to partisanship in a haunting post-modern swirl of fact and bias. The so-called liberal media is an all too willing accomplice in the degradation of discourse in America's mainstream public fora by opting for the Jerry Springerization of news coverage and commentary.

Even more important than inflated notions of the fundamentalists' power may be their entertainment value. As Ms. Kissling points out, the 50 million Americans who belong to progressive religious organizations are rarely represented on television because "progressive religious leaders are so tolerant that they don't make good TV." The Rev. Bob Chase of the United Church of Christ agrees: "We're not exciting guests." His church's recent ad trumpeting its inclusion of gay couples was rejected by the same networks that routinely give a forum to the far more dramatic anti-gay views of Mr. Falwell. Ms. Kissling laments that contemporary progressive Christians lack an intellectual star to rival Reinhold Niebuhr or William Sloane Coffin, but adds that today "Jesus Christ would have a tough time getting covered by TV if he didn't get arrested."

This paradigm is everywhere in our news culture. When Jon Stewart went on CNN's "Crossfire" to demand that its hosts stop "hurting America" by turning news and political debate into a form of pro wrestling, it may have sounded a bit hyperbolic. "Crossfire" is an aging show that few watch. But his broader point holds up: it's all crossfire now. In the electronic news sphere where most Americans live much of the time, anyone who refuses to engage in combat is quickly sent packing as a bore.

Toss the issue of religion into that 24/7 wrestling match, as into any conflict in human history, and the incendiary possibilities are limitless. When even phenomena as innocuous as Oscar nominations or the lighting of a Christmas tree can be inflated into divisive religious warfare, it's only a matter of time before someone uncovers an anti-Christian plot in "White Christmas." It avoids any mention of religion and it was, as William Donohue might be the first to point out, written by a secular Jew.
Careful Frank, don't give him any ideas.

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