Monday, May 16, 2016

Claim That the Culture Wars are Over and Religious Right Is Obsolescent Links to Claim That Political Left and Identity Politics Are Responsible for Trump: My Take

One thing I suppose many of us can agree on about the current U.S. presidential election cycle is that it has been full of surprises. Not the least of those has been the surprising way in which Mr. Trump has risen to the top of the GOP heap, when one media guru and statistician after another — most of these folks living in media bubbles and elite enclaves set apart from the rest of the nation — smugly assured us as the campaign began that we could safely laugh at him, since he had a snowball's chance in hell of being the Republican presidential candidate.

The laugh is on someone else now, it seems. And I wonder if I'm the only one who's surprised at the surprise of the members of the professional commentariat who have been, throughout this election cycle, so flatly and so frequently wrong about where the country appears to be headed now, as Trump rises to power. What has caused so many of those who mediate political reality to us (mediate: pointing to the root meaning of the word "media") to be so surprisingly out of touch with those on whom they practice said mediation, I ask myself?

And why do so many of the same people who have turned out to be so very wrong when they told us we could safely disregard Donald Trump happen to be the very same set of folks now seeking to assure us that the religious right has had its day in the sun and is slouching to obsolescence, taking its ugly culture wars along with it to the grave? And the same people who try to convince us that what they call the "identity politics" spawned by those cultural wars on the political left have contributed to the fraying of American democracy — as if it has been inappropriate and unacceptable for minority groups targeted by the religious and political right to have responded to these attacks by organizing, speaking out, demanding equal rights . . . ?

There is, I'm suggesting, a genetic link between the argument that the culture wars are over and done with and the religious right is obsolescent, and the argument that we can safely ignore Donald Trump. Just as there is a genetic link between these several lines of argumentation and the absurd proposal that it's the political left with its identity politics that's really responsible for the rise of Trump.

As I noted several weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan — who was, let's not allow ourselves to forget, wildly wrong about Mr. Bush's post-9/11 wars — is back on the commentary scene now with an essay blaming too much democracy for Donald Trump. Too much democracy, that is to say, in the wrong hands: Sullivan's thesis is that minority groups promoting the politics of identity have torn American democracy to pieces, and the rough beast now emerging through the fissures is none other than Donald Trump.

Democracy had been doing swimmingly, thank you very much, in the hands of people like the Yale-educated (and wealthy and white) Bushes. Or in the hands of Harvard-educated (and affluent and white) Andrew Sullivan. 

It has now become problematic because, well, those Black Lives Matter folks are out marching in the streets. And all those leftie gay folks not content to have won the culture war regarding same-sex marriage are being their predictable non-magnanimous selves and demanding cakes for Christ's sake to go with those weddings they've just won. And women are roiling the academy and going on and on about sexual violence and the need to challenge patriarchy and attain parity.

America was simply greater, don't you realize, back when there were not litmus tests for political correctness at places like Yale and Harvard, and when the right people held the reins of power and guided the rest of us to the right conclusions about where the limits of democracy lie in a well-governed democratic society.

We need to make America great again.

But as one commentator after another from Jim Sleeper at Alternet to Anis Shivani and Alex Trimble Young at Salon has said in response to Sullivan's inherently anti-democratic thesis about Donald Trump's rise to power, the problem is clearly not democracy: it's elites. It's the very elites to whose hands Sullivan is arguing that we need to return democracy in order to save it who have frayed our participatory democracy — have torn it to shreds. And those elites exist in and are served by both major political parties in the U.S. 

As Young notes, the antitode to Donald Trump is not less but more democracy — democracy that allows into the democratic process all those disenfranchised others whom Sullivan and his ilk fear, as they decry "identify politics" and blame it and political correctness for the woes of the nation at present: 

The rise of Trump through the ranks of a party working overtime to disenfranchise voters is not a crisis brought on by an excess of democracy, but by a lack of it. The radical work of American, ethnic, Indigenous, queer, and women’s studies scholars to champion education in modes of culture that empower rather than deracinate the marginalized citizens of our democracy is needed now more than ever. An embrace of this work offers the political left an alternative to the specter of fascism presented by Trump and the increasingly antidemocratic bent of mainstream American liberalism.

It's not in the least accidental that Andrew Sullivan's essay on why Trump is gathering steam overlooks mounds of evidence we've repeatedly considered here — most recently in this posting last week about Trumpism and the geography of white racial resentment — that Donald Trump's rise to power is correlated in the most direct way possible with racial resentment, with an ugly backlash reaction after the nation has now twice elected an African-American president who called for the implementation of a program that extended basic healthcare to many citizens living on the socioeconomic margins of American society.

It is not accidental that Andrew Sullivan and others who share his political commitments wish to downplay the role that racism is playing in promoting Donad Trump — and wish ludicrously to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for making Trump appear attractive to many white Americans who imagine that the rights of minority groups are bought at the expense of those white Americans. I say it's not accidental that Sullivan's thought moves along this track because it has to do so when the prescription that it is implicitly offering for the illness that is Trumpism is a return to a frank cultural and political elitism that kept such refractory others well-controlled and people like Sullivan and his friends in the driver's seat of the democratic process.

What might be less obvious, though, to many folks now surveying the political-cultural landscape of the U.S. is how these ideas link to the notion — which is often promoted by liberals — that culture wars are waning in the U.S. and the religious right is on its last legs. The connection I'd like to point you to here is this: many of those who push this idea, and who reflect the views of academic, cultural, and liberal elites, are promoting the very same kind of elitist prescription for American democracy that Andrew Sullivan and his friends are promoting from a right-leaning perspective.

In the face of the repeated insistence that the religious right is losing power and its culture wars are fading, I particularly appreciate the dogged determination of Frederick Clarkson to rub our noses in  the abundant solid, hard, raw evidence which proves these dangerous claims fatuous. Fred has issued yet another of his warnings in this vein just a day or so ago in an essay at Talk to Action, where he argues, 

Towards this end, we have seen a down playing of the so-called "culture wars" to the point of claiming, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Religious Right is dead or dying, and that the culture wars themselves are over or just about.

If the religious right is dead and the culture wars are over, why are 100+ anti-LGBT bills now pending in state legislatures in almost half of the states in the nation, as Jennifer Bendery reports a few weeks back? Given the obsolescence of the religious right and its culture wars, why has religious-right leader Tony Perkins just called for President Obama to be impeached due to the federal government's insistence that transgender students in U.S. schools have the right to be treated with dignity? 

In what precise way does the enormous political and religious influence exerted by Trump supporter and culture warrior Franklin Graham, who is now in many ways the face of white evangelicalism in America, as Fred Clark has just noted, demonstrate that the religious right is weak and its culture wars a thing of the past?

If the religious right has lost power and its culture wars no longer compel attention, then why have the Republican-controlled legislature and the Republican governor of North Carolina insisted on pushing through and hotly defending legislation targeting LGBT individuals in the hope of gaining votes for the GOP in the fall elections — as Rev. Wiliam J. Barber has just noted as he explains to Washington Post reporter Katie Zezima the rationale for this legislation which he calls the latest iteration of the GOP's Southern Strategy?

The North Carolina legislation has drawn national attention as a bill targeting transgender people in particular, but as Garrett Epps points out in a recent Atlantic essay, it actually targets the entire LGBT community in the state of North Carolina. Epps writes, 

This bill is, not to put too fine a point on it, obsessed with sex, with genitals, with the sexuality of transgender people, and with the entire LGBT community. As a whole, it first stigmatizes and restricts transgender people, and only then goes on to sweep away existing protections against sexual-orientation discrimination. Its justification seems to be a fear of trans people as criminals and sex offenders. There is no evidence, other than hateful stereotype, that they are either. 
Even from a cold computer screen, the stench of animus assails the nostrils.

Michael Tomasky may very well be right when he insists at Daily Beast last week that a majority of Americans have grown increasingly tired of the culture wars and the antics of the religious right, and Jonathan Merritt may also be correct when he maintains for Religion News Service that the religious right will lose the culture war over transgender rights in the same way it lost the war over same-sex marriage. But there's a meantime (a very mean time, indeed) demanding attention here: in the meantime, 100+ anti-LGBT bills are sitting in front of some 22 state legislatures, and the religious right retains enormous power to affect the lives of LGBT citizens of the United States in deleterious ways, even as commentators comfortably ensconced in elite cultural enclaves and elite institutions — whose own lives, nor the lives of their own children, will never be affected in the same direct way by the religious right — assure us that the culture wars are over and done with. And that the religious right has no more power.

Some of these same comfortably ensconced commentators want us, in fact, to go back to an America in which the real rights of real people were at the forefront of progressive movements — real working people, men struggling for their dignity as they sought to put bread on their families' tables and to earn a decent wage for an honest day's work. These are the real Americans with real problems that are being overlooked as we expend valuable energy fighting about gay rights and black rights and women's rights, some liberal commentators who have declared the end of the culture wars tell us.

And as they implicitly propose, just as Andrew Sullivan does, and as Donald Trump quite explicitly does, returning our society to the control of white males — even as black and brown people and women and LGBT people threaten to overturn the balance of power that has, for a long time, determined how things are done in the U.S. It is critically important that the attempts of these commentators to hold the door shut against these groups of citizens is taking place at a moment when it becomes increasingly apparent that demographic changes in the U.S. will, in fact, inevitably displace white males as a dominant group in American society, to whom all other groups should defer.

The Jonathan Merritt article to which I point you above suggests that one primary reason the religious right will lose its current war on transgender people is that increasing numbers of Americans will now begin to see that trans human beings are human beings, and that attacks on these fellow human beings in the name of God are cruel. David Gushee has just made a parallel point in an RNS statement as he talks about how the United Methodist Church is once again twisting itself into pretzels at this year's General Conference, regarding whether it can welcome openly gay members. 

As Gushee points out, the "stale and circular arguments" about LGBT people that keep being rehashed year after year in the UMC should not obscure for us the reality of what is being argued about: that reality is the real human lives of members of a minority group, who are being treated by a Christian denomination as if they are just not there in the room, as their lives are dissected in the name of Christian truth:

What I mainly hear is the howl of pain of a small minority of Christians (and many traumatized ex-Christians) crushed under the wheel of a 2000-year-old religious tradition that cannot quite figure out how to account for their existence. It’s all so very, very sad.

As General Conference got underway, over 111 ordained Methodist clergy came out of the closet, noting as they did so that the UMC has been entirely happy to use their (LGBT) gifts and talents as long as they remained in the closet, and that it seems peculiar that the church's response to closeted clergy who come out of the closet is to act as if those gifts and talents have suddenly become tainted by the act of coming out. UMC pastor Vicki Flippin, who was slated to give welcome greetings at the opening worship service at General Conference, reported recently on her Facebook page that she was informed by church officials that she could welcome everyone in the world except LGBT people — who were not to be named in her welcome greetings.

In response to Vicki Flippin's report, I stated in my own Facebook feed this weekend, half facetiously but in deadly earnest, 

I hear the United Methodist General Conference is going to vote this year on an amendment to alter John Wesley's charge to his followers, which was, "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can." 
The word "all" will now have an asterisk next to it, and the asterisk will read, at the bottom of the page, 
*LGBTQ people not included in this UMC offer.

In what way does any of this evidence suggest that the religious right has died and gone to heaven and that its ugly culture wars are over and done with? And what would Andrew Sullivan or the liberal political commentators informing us that the religious right and its culture wars are over and done with have those treated in this imminently dehumanizing way do if not engage in the "politics of identity" which is all about defending their very humanity, and asserting it in the face of political and religious actions designed to erase that humanity?

No comments: