exercises in compound storytelling
Monday, November 24, 2008
happy consequences of forced idleness, etc.
I'm finally back in New Mexico; I'm actually sitting in a shuttle van on the way to Santa Fe. It's good to be back in the States, but mostly because this is where my wife is. Every time I go to Japan the culture shock gradually creeps up on me: the sense of everything being just different enough that I wouldn't be able to function without an expense account and a customer, the sense of being other, perceived as big and dumb and a little dangerous. I get tired of being not just illiterate, but not even close to being functional. But then I come back to the States and see how fat, rude, loud, and unpleasant everyone is. And afraid, of course. And then I don't necessarily want to go back to Japan. I just want to go somewhere sane.
The trip back included one fourteen-hour flight, a ten-hour layover, an overnight stay in a cheap hotel, and now the van ride back to Santa Fe. In order to deal with the plane trips and the time difference I stayed doped up on Dramamine most of the way back, listening to podcasts, dozing, and reading. I just wasn't in any shape to get any work done.
I listened to a couple of old episodes of the Commonwealth Club of California podcast: John Dean pushing a book (Conservatives Without Conscience) where he says Republicans are sociopaths and fascists-in-waiting, one featuring Paul Krugman umming his way through one insult after another, harping on income disparities, insisting that universal health care is possible if we just have the will to redistribute money, and declining to define the middle class. And finally, a panel discussion on the Electoral College, discussing an attempt to get states to allocate their College votes to the winner of the popular vote. As far as I can tell the latter is a thinly-veiled attempt on the part of people in California to make it even more powerful on the national stage.
I read all of Michael Babcock's book Unchristian America yesterday. To his credit Babcock admits that Christians' efforts at seizing political power since about 1976 have been mostly wasted: their top line issues (abortion, prayer in schools, and now gay marriage) get lip service from their candidates during campaigns, but the politicians don't deliver when they get in office. Unfortunately the book is thin on details and kind of wanders between stories about Babcock's life, reassuring anecdotes that everything is going to be all right in the end, and a vague reassertion that abortion is still the most important thing in the world and shouldn't be diluted with other "culture of life" issues like social services, especially for children, examination of capital punishment, or foreign policy issues. In virtually the same breath, however, Babcock asserts that abortion is important because it's a slippery-slope issue: abortion leads in sequence to infanticide, eugenics, and euthanasia, especially for old people. As far as I can tell this last issue is the real taproot of the abortion issue for many evangelicals: they're getting older themselves and concerned that an uncaring state will pull the plug on them as soon as they're unable to make health insurance payments. It's pretty grim stuff, both as a prospect to contemplate and as a way of getting leverage over voters. And as far as I can tell people in my neck of the woods haven't had any new ideas regarding the "culture of life" since Francis Schaeffer teamed up with C. Everett Koop.
Babcock's stated central theme, that America was never a Christian nation, but was founded as a post-Christian Enlightenment experiment, needed to be stated by somebody inside the movement. I just wish Babcock had done more with the rest of the book: I was disappointed that after saying that America isn't a Christian nation, and never was, so appealing to "founding principles" is vacuous, and then pointing out that abortion was a show issue for our movement, at least at the top, rather than a core issue, and then reaffirming his position that abortion is important to our culture, he then didn't attempt to tie the two pieces together: did our leaders sell us out? Who's really to blame: Ronald Reagan and the two Presidents Bush? Movement leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, and Ralph Reed? And what should we do now? Stop voting Republican?
I read a chunk of Paul Roberts's The End of Oil, but couldn't stick with it. I don't get a sense that anyone knows how to get to a post-petroleum future.
Finally, I read all of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book Imeperial Life in the Emerald City. It's a story of the first couple of years of the current Iraq War, focused mostly on the process that produced Paul Bremer and some of the decisions he made. I have to wonder what the Bush Administration was thinking: I'd guess it went a little something like this: Dick Cheney saw a way to give Haliburton a huge contract, Bush saw a way to settle an old family score with Saddam Hussein, and believed that the Iraqi people were yearninig for a Western-style democracy, and as a result the Administration engaged in some magical thinking regarding what would happen to Iraq after the liberation. The bottom line was that because of the religious and ethnic tensions in Iraq and the fact that there was no viable opposition there was nobody ready to govern Iraq, so there was nobody to hand the country over to. What's more, there was no plan to keep people employed and no plan to transition from the artificial economy set up by Hussein to something more reasonable. As a result the Bush loyalists who went to run Iraq focused on setting up the experiments they'd do here if they could: flat taxes, free markets, privatization, etc.
I can't imagine for a minute that Chandrasekaran is a neutral observer, but he tells a compelling story replete with details of qualified people passed over because they weren't loyal to Bush personally and/or didn't have their bona fides in order, or because there was a Bush loyalist who was ready to do the job, no matter how unqualified they were.
Frankly this story resonates with me and my experiences inside evangelicalism: the head man tends to value loyalty and predictability above all else, and to trust people who have been "faithful in little" with important positions and responsibilities as they themselves become more successful. They tend to see themselves as God's man, having all the answers, and anyone who agrees with them personally by implication agrees with God.
Which brings me back to John Dean. He essentially claims that the Republican Party is in the shape it's in (or was a year ago when he addressed the Commonwealth Club) because it tends to identify, promote, and reward strong leaders who value loyalty above all else. I need to track down Conservatives Without Conscience, because as far as I can tell the Republican Party and modern American Evangelicalism are so similar and so tightly bound to one another it's hard to imagine they'll ever part.