Friday, December 10, 2004

Red Values and Faust's Bargain

It is disheartening to bear witness to the alacrity with which the "values theory" of Bush's re-election has been accepted, processed, and incorporated into the operating strategy of the mainstream media and the business community at large. All because a paltry 22% of the voters indicated that the nebulous category of "values" was their primary motivation for voting this past November. Ignoring the vagaries of this term and the fact that as many people, if not more, indicated that values type issues were their priority in recent elections (as Andrew Sullivan and other have pointed out), the media, both liberal and conservative alike, was quick to run with the values angle and, with the perseverance of a Kenyan marathoner, hasn't grown tired of it yet. In fact, this narrative appears destined to enter the history books as the raison d'election for Bush in 2004, and has given rise to the dominant theory that America is experiencing some type of moralistic revival.

Frank Rich continues his vigilant crusade against the calcification of this dubious explanation in yet another witty piece in the New York Times. The object of Rich's ire in this instance is the recent displays of timidity from those institutions that have seemed most dedicated to mature depictions of truth and accuracy.
Channel 13 killed a spot for the acclaimed movie "Kinsey," in which Liam Neeson stars as the pioneering Indiana University sex researcher who first let Americans know that nonmarital sex is a national pastime, that women have orgasms too and that masturbation and homosexuality do not lead to insanity.
Apparently, the folks at Channel 13 thought that the subject of the piece, Dr. Kinsey, and the object of his research, human sexuality, were too provocative and randy for the newly discovered moral masses. As Rich notes, "When they start pushing the panic button over 'moral values' at the bluest of TV channels, public broadcasting's WNET, in the bluest of cities, New York, you know this country has entered a new cultural twilight zone."

And just what are the parameters of this cultural twilight zone? When the mainstream media is so willing to act on the basis of scant evidence of a quasi-moral resurgence and allow those misperceived trends about the sensibilities of the population to inform their programming decisions, the potential for overreaction and exaggeration are ever present - and that might be the least of our concerns.

But if we are truly going down this path to cultural piety, or at least suggesting that we model the country's cultural institutions on the supposed red state paradigm, let's scratch the surface of these so called values. What exactly about the red state mentality entitles its denizens to claim moral superiority and preferential treatment?

A series of disturbing stories involving champions of "red" America should give the blues a cause for concern. They might also provide impetus for a bit of introspection and meditation on the part of moderate Republicans and conservatives, who might want to reflect on whether they are making a Faustian bargain with certain extreme factions in order to achieve success at the polls. Perhaps red America has its own demons to slay before it tilts its lances at the excesses of the blue.

Sex Mis-Education

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) has recently issued a report documenting the unsettling fact that many young children and teenagers have been taught a series of untruths through federally funded abstinence-only programs, a pet project of the religious right. According to the Washington Post article detailing the Waxman report, these adolescents have been improperly instructed about, amongst other things, the fact...
...that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person's genitals "can result in pregnancy"...

Among the misconceptions cited by Waxman's investigators:

- A 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person."

- HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears.

- Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse. [the real rate of failure is 3%]

One curriculum, called "Me, My World, My Future," teaches that women who have an abortion "are more prone to suicide" and that as many as 10 percent of them become sterile. This contradicts the 2001 edition of a standard obstetrics textbook that says fertility is not affected by elective abortion, the Waxman report said.
The purveyors of this misinformation are either buying in to the concept of the "noble lie," told in order to insure the greater good, or they have completely abandoned rational thought in favor of faith-based science - or both. Frank Rich picks up the story as well, discussing a recent appearance of an abstinence proponent on CNN:

Genevieve Wood of the Family Research Council repeatedly refuse[d] - five times, according to the transcript - to disown the idea that masturbation can cause pregnancy.

Ms. Wood was being asked about that on "Crossfire" because a new Congressional report, spearheaded by the California Democrat Henry Waxman, shows that various fictions of junk science (AIDS is spread by tears and sweat, for instance) have turned up as dogma in abstinence-only sex education programs into which American taxpayers have sunk some $900 million in five years. [emphasis added]
The vaunted results of these programs are as poorly supported as the bizarre pseudo-scientific claims used in the teaching.

Right now this is the only kind of sex education that our government supports, even though science says that abstinence-only programs don't work - or may be counterproductive. A recent Columbia University study found that teens who make "virginity pledges" to delay sex until marriage still have premarital sex at a high rate (88 percent) rivaling those that don't, but are less likely to use contraception once they do. It's California, a huge blue state that refuses to accept federal funding for abstinence-only curriculums, that has a 40 percent falloff in teenage pregnancy over the past decade, second only to Alaska.
Chris Mooney chimes in, quoting a piece by Michelle Goldberg:

Some abstinence-only programs, like more comprehensive sex education, have been shown to delay the age at which teenagers first have sex -- which almost everyone agrees is a good thing. Yet studies also show that when teenagers from abstinence-only programs do have sex, they're less likely than others to use protection. Perhaps that's why the teen pregnancy rate in Texas remains one of the highest in the country, despite the abstinence-only policies Bush pushed as governor.
The lack of teaching about birth control and condoms not only leads to higher incidents of teen pregnancy, such omissions also lead to unsafe sexual practices that lead to higher rates of sexually transmitted disease when the children eventually grow older and engage in sexual activity - as they inevitably do. In fact, instructors are forbidden by the terms of these grants to even advise about the use of condoms or other safety precautions even if an adolescent approaches an instructor and explains that they are already sexually active. Chris Mooney decries the hypocrisy of supposed Christian values in this context:

The most appalling thing about this issue, in my view, is that the Christian Right seems fundamentally committed to punishing young people who have unprotected sex at an age where they're not ready for it, instead of helping them. The kinds who go astray are condemned to AIDS, other STDs, and unwanted pregnancies. This isn't compassionate conservatism--it's pure 'hellfire and brimstone' thinking.
Since when was lying to our children and exposing them to deadly risks because of our own stubborn insistence on rigid behavior that we ourselves were incapable of maintaining a family value? Will the media continue to be scared of the backlash from such misguided moralists?

Keep Them Separated

There has been a distressing level of racial animus bubbling to the surface from the ranks of the recently emboldened right in America. To be certain, there are many Republicans, conservatives, and red staters that find racism to be an abhorrent relic of backwards thinking. Unfortunately, some of their political and electoral allies do not share this distaste for bigotry.

Even the supposedly moderate New York Times columnist
David Brooks got in on the act in his latest iteration of the pop-sociology that has dominated his professional career of late. In an effort to construct another tale of red state virtue and blue state vice, Brooks wrote about a trend that supposedly supports the conclusion that having children is more important and esteemed in red America than blue America - a movement he labeled "natalism." In the process, however, he revealed a nasty undercurrent to this meme:
As Steve Sailer pointed out in The American Conservative, George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates, and 25 of the top 26. John Kerry won the 16 states with the lowest rates. [emphasis added]
While Brooks began his piece seemingly discussing broad trends of child rearing practices, he causally slips in the real crux of the story: white fertility rates. Because if you add in minority fertility rates, the neat little theory breaks down. But it is worse than the mere marginalization of minority parents and children. In building his case, Brooks enlists the support of Steve Sailer, accurately described by journalist Garance Franke-Ruta as a "well-known eugenicist sympathizer who regularly indulges in racial stereotyping" as well as anti-homosexual pseudo-science. Sailer's well documented work, by Franke-Ruta and others, speaks for itself, and the story is not an appealing one - which understates the magnitude of his bigotry. If this is the "paradise" that Brooks has previously described, I would prefer the untidiness of tolerant blue America.

Another story to percolate up from the base of red family values involves the curriculum at the Cary Christian School in North Carolina, one of its region's largest Christian schools. Students at this school are reading, as part of their syllabus, a book entitled Southern Slavery, As It Was, which simultaneously defends the biblical justifications for slavery, as well as engages in some insidious historical revisionism of America's dark chapter involving that practice. These quotes represent the thrust of the book:

* "To say the least, it is strange that the thing the Bible condemns (slave-trading) brings very little opprobrium upon the North, yet that which the Bible allows (slave-ownership) has brought down all manner of condemnation upon the South." (page 22)

* "As we have already mentioned, the 'peculiar institution' of slavery was not perfect or sinless, but the reality was a far cry from the horrific descriptions given to us in modern histories." (page 22)

* "Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence." (page 24)

* "Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care." (page 25)

* "But many Southern blacks supported the South because of long established bonds of affection and trust that had been forged over generations with their white masters and friends." (page 27)

* "Nearly every slave in the South enjoyed a higher standard of living than the poor whites of the South -- and had a much easier existence." (page 30)[emphasis added]
The school's administration, and many parents of the students, justify the use of such material on the basis that it presents both sides of the story. In the words of the principal, Larry Stephenson, "You can have two different sides, a Northern perspective and a Southern perspective."

That's odd, I thought that red America was famed for its moral clarity, its black and white certainty about right and wrong. Red America, like its favored presidential candidate, isn't supposed to "do nuance" or "sensitivity." Well, I guess they do, but only when it comes to bending truths in order to be sensitive and understanding toward slave masters. It seems that it's not only the blues that do "gray."

Then there's this delightful little bit of racist diatribe from nationally syndicated conservative columnist
Sam Francis (via Political Spectrum), discussing the infamous Monday Night Football promo for Desperate Housewives.

Like the Jackson-Timberlake performance, the Owens-Sheridan ad was interracial and brazenly so - if only morals and taste had been the targets, the producers could easily have found white actresses who are less obviously Nordic than the golden-locked Miss Sheridan, but Nordic is what the ad's producers no doubt wanted.

For that matter, if you only wanted to take a swipe at morals and taste, you could find a black woman to rip her towel off or replace Mr. Owens with a famous white athlete (there are still a few).

But that wasn't the point, was it? The point was not just to hurl a pie in the face of morals and good taste but also of white racial and cultural identity. The message of the ad was that white women are eager to have sex with black men, that they should be eager, and that black men should take them up on it....

But the ad's message also was that interracial sex is normal and legitimate, a fairly radical concept for both the dominant media as well as its audience.

Nevertheless, for decades, interracial couples of different sexes have been sneaked into advertising, movies and television series, and almost certainly not because of popular demand from either race. The Owens-Sheridan match is only the most notorious to date...

Re-electing President Bush and voting against homosexual marriage are well and good, but they won't defeat the real enemy in the moral, cultural and racial war that the likes of Mr. Mandel and Mr. Eisner are waging.

If American voters really are driven by the "moral issue," they need to drive a good bit further than Mr. Bush and his "family values" allies have suggested.

Got that Bush supporters? If you are serious about moral issues and family values, you better be prepared to go above and beyond mere homosexual bigotry. You must unleash your inner-racist, or so Mr. Francis suggests. For Francis, and some of his allies, racism is a family value. If that's the case, maybe the media should think twice about the ascendancy of red America's moral compass. Perhaps we should stick to the tried and true blue ethos of tolerance and unity.

Why Does God Hate The Environment? - Good News For People Who Love Bad News

When accepting an award for his work on the environment from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, Bill Moyers gave a
speech (hat tip to Cyndy) about the state of environmental policy in the United States. He discussed a perverse marriage between certain conservative Christian and business interests which has given birth to the reckless environmental policies espoused by the Bush administration and its supporters. Moyers discussed the historical roots of this movement:
James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the bible is literally true - one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index. That's right - the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye...

Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the rest of its "biblical lands," legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the Messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow...

So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist, Glenn Scherer - "The Road to Environmental Apocalypse." Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed - even hastened - as a sign of the coming apocalypse...

Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same god who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a word?". [emphasis added]
It is one thing to turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, but another thing entirely to actively encourage it. What about the people who believe that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will actually inherit the Earth, and will need it to survive and thrive in good health and prosperity? Why is it that the prophets of doom have been anointed by the media as those possessing "family values?" I guess it's only in blue America that grandchildren and beyond count as "family." Moyers anticipates the response from thoughtful conservatives and moderate Republicans, that surely this group of voters, although totaling in the millions, has no real influence on Capitol Hill. The truth is much more frightening:

...we're not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election - 231 legislators in total - more since the election - are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian coalition was Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, who recently quoted from the biblical book of Amos on the senate floor: "the days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land." he seemed to be relishing the thought...

I read that the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the election a mandate for President Bush on the environment. This for an administration that wants to rewrite the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act protecting rare plant and animal species and their habitats, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act that requires the government to judge beforehand if actions might damage natural resources.
Moyers documents a long list of specific policy proposals emanating from Bush's EPA, the sum of which is sure to please big business and those that see the destruction of humanity's habitat as good news. There was one particularly heart-warming anecdote about the folksy family values that the Bush administration supports that warrants mention:

I read the news just this week and learned how the Environmental Protection Agency had planned to spend nine million dollars - two million of it from the administration's friends at the American Chemistry Council - to pay poor families to continue to use pesticides in their homes. These pesticides have been linked to neurological damage in children, but instead of ordering an end to their use, the government and the industry were going to offer the families $970 each, as well as a camcorder and children's clothing, to serve as guinea pigs for the study.
You have to admit, the camcorder and children's clothing was a thoughtful touch. And just think of all the health care they can afford with the whopping $970, cause they'll need it to contend with the results of those experimental pesticides. These red America family values sure do warm the cockles.

All snark aside, these stories are a valuable reminder to those that want to divide our country into red and blue, and blithely assign to one side the virtues of ethics and morals, that to do so is to ignore reality, and cover up the truth. It is disingenuous and dangerous, and it's getting out of control. The left must not cede this moral high ground to the right, because in reality the right doesn't deserve it. As far as policy goes, because of the right's domination of the many facets of our government, it's up to moderate Republicans and conservatives to determine how far they intend to let this runaway train go. To these moderates I say, Harnessing these extreme voices may have delivered all three branches of the government to your Party, but you might want to put down that pen before it's too late Mr. Faust, and before your Party becomes as foreign to you as it is to the American tradition.

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