Friday, September 17, 2010

In the News: DADT, The Centrist Game, and the Papal Spectacle in Britain

Several news items that catch my eye as this week ends:

First, a good editorial in today's New York Times calling for the Obama administration to stop enforcing don't ask, don't tell (DADT)—the federal regulation which requires that openly gay or lesbian service members be dismissed from the armed services or barred from service if they declare their orientation prior to enlistment. Readers will no doubt know that last week, federal judge Virginia Phillips in California found the regulation unconstitutional. It violates the civil rights of gay and lesbian citizens, subjecting them to a standard based solely in prejudice, which has no foundation in factual claims and is not applied to other groups seeking to serve in the armed services.

Though the Obama administration has professed itself eager to end this ban (and it will have to use little political capital to do so, since over 75% of Americans indicate that they view it as unjust and discriminatory), legislation to abolish DADT is hung up in the Senate.  In fact, the Senate bill may not even pass, because it (and the lives of gay Americans) have gotten caught up in partisan political game-playing in this pre-election period. Meanwhile, valuable soldiers whose only crime is that they happen to be gay and have either declared that or have been outed are still being dismissed from the military. These are soldiers we sorely need now, some of them with outstanding language skills at a moment when it has been discovered that some military Arabic interpreters cannot even speak the language in which they claim to be proficient.

And so the Times editorial concludes, "Not one more of America's military men and women should be harmed by 'don't ask, don't tell.'" And the editorial is right. And the refusal of an administration that professes itself committed to ending this discriminatory policy to stop enforcing it is an unattractive manifestation of moral (and political) cowardice.

Second, Alex Pareene brilliantly skewers the faux-bipartisanship of contemporary American political centrism in an article at Salon. As he notes, political commentators like David Ignatius at the Washington Post have made a career out of promoting this bogus political option—which is really all about trying to tie administrations that might enact progressive change up in knots, so that their every move must be made against the backdrop of loud screams of outrage by the rabid right. So that they can, when push comes to shove, never really accomplish anything truly progressive, since the far right, no matter how minuscule its numbers, must have automatic veto power over progressive programs.  It must have such veto power to keep our government "balanced" and "representative" of the wishes of our "center-right" nation (in which over 75% of citizens see clearly that barring gay people from military service solely because they are gay is antithetical to all that we stand for as a democratic society).

Pareene gets right to the heart of the game (bash the left and provide undue privilege and protection to the right) that centrists are really playing, by noting that Ignatius has recently—and fatuously—placed Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater on the same level as ideological power brokers in the beltway community of their heyday. As Pareene notes, this judgment rests on a false equivalence that revises history. Anyone who lived through the period in which Humphrey and Goldwater were politically active will immediately recall what an uphill battle Hubert Humphrey constantly had, as he sought a hearing for any and all progressive ideas, while the media hung on every word that dropped from Goldwater's mouth, as if his lips were gilded.

And it's certainly no different today. Let a right-wing extremist minister in Florida, serving a congregation of  fewer than 50 people, blare threats about burning the Koran, and the entire nation stops to listen, while the media divert our attention to a self-serving stunt that, if it were staged by a progressive group pursuing a progressive goal, would not have a snowball's chance in hell of reaching mainstream media attention. As Robert Parry notes at Alternet today, we're a nation whose media are clearly part of the problem, insofar as they collude with the far right in attaching a ball and chain to progressive ideas when Democrats have power in the White House and Congress.  And insofar as they lend legitimacy to even the most far-fetched right-wing ideas (of folks like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Dinesh D'Souza, and Christine O'Donnell), while people like Hubert Humphrey or Eugene McCarthy have historically had to work overtime to obtain any hearing at all in the media.

Pareene's analysis of the dishonest game being played by faux-centrist commentators like David Ignatius parallels my own thinking, by the way, about the centrist Catholic journalists who keep promoting a new beyond-partisan, centrist theological option for younger Catholics. I addressed this issue yesterday, as I commented on a recent conference of young U.S. Catholic theologians.

It's clear to me that the primary interest of those Catholic commentators promoting this option, and predicting that it is the wave of the future for American Catholicism, is to disempower progressives and marginalize progressive ideas. Not to bring everyone to the table. Not to facilitate dialogue across partisan lines.

But to continue the controlling power (as a constant check and balance) of right-leaning political and theological ideas in American Catholicism, while treating left-leaning ideas (which are increasingly where the center of the American church lies, in significant respects) as unthinkable, impermissible, not worth discussing. Because these ideas are tainted by "ideological" presuppositions that we're supposed to believe aren't part and parcel of the baggage of the right—even the far right.

Younger Catholics who buy into this way of thinking are being used. They're being used in political games played by others, by Catholic journalists who are inextricably enmeshed in the mainstream media and its political narratives.  These games are designed to control the center—and who is permitted to speak in the dialogues that shape the center. And so I find far more hope among those younger Catholics who have recognized and who frankly admit that it is necessary to take a stand and to stop playing the "both-and" game when it comes to the theological and political options facing us: to take a stand with those on the political, social, and ecclesial margins. Where Jesus stands.

Finally, some much-needed truth-telling commentary by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen today on the papal visit to Britain: as Cohen notes, the papal visit to Britain is a state visit, and it should be viewed in that light. There's something unseemly—there's something exceedingly dishonest and even slimy—about the attempt of some mainstream Catholic commentators to depict this gaudy show of political power as a religious spectacle that ought to be taken seriously as religion. It's nothing of the sort. It's a state-supported, state-protected display that raises profound questions about the claims Benedict wants to make re: the marginal role religion now has in an ostensibly secularized European culture.

It's hard to detect the marginality the pope is so intent to demonstrate in this spectacle—in the huge amounts of money spent to stage it, in the media power at the command of those staging the show, in the lavish government support and protection afforded this visiting Vatican dignitary. And the massive theatrical event will not silence, for many of us—for many Catholics as well as others—the disquieting questions that lurk just beneath the surface of the refulgent splendor of it all.

To wit:

And yet, this man who found himself in the Hitler Youth in his teens, as required then of young Germans, and whose own conduct in handling an abuse case while archbishop of Munich and Freising has raised questions about his forthrightness — this churchman with such ample opportunity to see the darker sides of man's soul has proved arid in comprehension and unbending in doctrine. 

The church's transparency and openness to justice for crimes committed remain limited. Benedict has shown scant willingness to come to terms with how and why repressed sexuality among a clergy vowed to celibacy led to molestations of minors so widespread as to make the church institutionally ill.
At times it has seemed that, like a chief executive dismissive of non-performing profit centers, he has given up on the West to concentrate on the Church's growth areas in the developing world. 

I can see why Benedict might view modern life on a largely secular European continent as a hedonistic wasteland. But it is preposterous for him to deplore the "moral relativism" of the West when the moral absolutes of the church have so often proved no more than a hollow shield — or even a seductive disguise — for predators.

Roger Cohen will be raked over the coals for writing these words. There will be subtle charges that someone of Jewish heritage cannot credibly comment on the Catholic papacy. There will be less subtle cries about the New York Times' purported anti-Catholic bias.

But these words need to be said. They need to be said because they aren't going to go away—not when many Catholics are voicing precisely these same critiques, because our religious training has taught us that the pope is not Christ and that, in a church with a long history that includes some spectacularly corrupt popes, we have a right (and an obligation) to critique our pastoral leaders.

Above all, Cohen's analysis deserves to be heard because it's true. Unlike the smoke-and-mirrors journalism of the hired guns of the mainstream Catholic media, who are bending the truth as they seek desperately to depict the empty political show as a spectacular manifestation of religious meaning in a secular island hungry to return to God.

Spectacular it may be. Religiously meaningful? That's doubtful in the extreme. 

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