Editors Note: This is the third of the four part Culture of Lies series; read the entire series here.
Some Americans are so angry and fearful they are screaming to be heard, screaming over the amplified anger coming from candidates on stage, anger that doesn’t seem to have a point beyond fanning the flames already smoldering in the crowd’s rage. There is hatred on display, venom, and hostility.
Many more Americans are watching this spectacle play out in wonder, horror, and prayer. But it is nothing new. This rage has been directed at women, racial and sexual minorities, well, forever. The most recent manifestations? Try going to a women’s health clinic for contraception, a pap smear, or a legal, safe abortion — chances are women find anti-choice protesters screaming at them on sidewalks. Attending the funeral of an Iraqi soldier? Chances are the Rev. Fred Phelps and his band of anti-gay protesters will scream that the war is God’s curse on a tolerant nation. New brown immigrants in a nation descended from European immigrants beware — you may incite rage. Try to bring facts about sexual and reproductive health into a public policy debate online? People who disagree will scream at you in comments. All the lies, the rage, the fear, won’t improve or save one life. But they could kill our democracy.
Are these people screaming because they believe they have not been heard? Do they yell because people who believe differently threaten them? Are they angry that free will allows people to make different choices? Are they mad at God for not giving them dominion over the humans with whom they disagree?
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Not content to live their lives as they see fit, granting others the respect to do the same, the far-right views anything "different" or “other” as a threat, and organizes politically to stamp it out. A University of Nebraska study recently published in the journal Science suggests that people who scare easily tend to be conservative, that our political outlook on the world may be hardwired to our sense of impending doom, danger, fear or paranoia.
Instead of recognizing this and developing ways of communicating about politics that help people deal with change or find common ground and consensus, the far right exploits this knowledge to create fear of anything and anyone who is different. To be fair, liberals try using scare tactics on issues like Social Security, but they just aren’t as good at it — perhaps more evidence that these traits really are hardwired.
So the lesson of politics that the far right teaches young people is that facts don’t matter, fear does. Scare enough people and you achieve two things: 1) alienate many thinking people who are disgusted by politics, thus shrinking the electorate; and 2) motivate a conservative base. The problem is, as we’ve seen since the 1970s, the stimuli required must get more and more extreme to work. Like crack addicts, the conservative base requires more venom and vitriol to get the high they enjoy, so the tactics get more frightening. Unable to win the abortion debate by focusing on the 90 percent that happen in the first few weeks of a pregnancy, they focus on the less than two percent performed in later stages, always performed as a result of complications to the health or life of the mother or fetus.
Eventually, what started as political rhetoric and misinformation to win an election becomes fodder for a man, out of work because of conservative economic policies, to walk into a “liberal church” with a gun and kill people, as happened this year in Tennessee. This is pro-life?
Bill Moyers recently reported that the Tennessee gunman, police suspect, was motivated by the rage the far right stirs up. In Rage on the Radio, highlighting the far right’s favorite medium, Moyers played several clips from far-right talk show hosts, including the son of former President Reagan, Michael Reagan, talking about 9-11 conspiracy theorists:
Take them out and shoot them. They are traitors to this country, and shoot them. But anybody who would do that doesn’t deserve to live. You shoot them. You call them traitors, that’s what they are, and you shoot them dead. I’ll pay for the bullet.
Neal Boortz talking about Hurricane Katriana:
That wasn’t the cries of the downtrodden. That’s the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not, and had no desire to fend for themselves. You have a hurricane descending on them and they sit on their fat asses and wait for somebody else to come rescue them.
I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out of him. Is this wrong?
But do you understand what the NEW YORK TIMES wants? And the far left want? They want to break down the white, Christian male power structure which you are a part and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have.
Yes, this is what passes for "truth" and “traditional family values” these days.
Even the chief lobbyist for the National Evangelical Association, Richard Cizik, is concerned, as Cara DeGette wrote in the Colorado Independent:
[McCain’s] campaign instead has opted to play identity and culture-war politics.
“He’s playing that card, and many of us thought he didn’t need to do it — it just polarizes the country,” Cizik says. “The irony of it is that John McCain can’t speak with an evangelical voice of faith — let’s face it, it’s just not his thing — so I guess the substitute is this other [Palin]. I guess that’s pretty cynical, but maybe his actions are cynical.
“The consequences of going to identity and culture-war politics is that experience is denigrated, authority is questioned and ignorance is strength,” Cizik says
Who really wants to be part of an angry mob, of people who call for violence against their fellow Americans, and do it in the name of God?
We didn’t get here by chance. More than a generation of far-right political tactics created the Culture of Lies that has fueled this rage. Multiple books have been written documenting the rise and influence of the far right, but in a year when social conservatives celebrate the nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate, it seems fitting to note the contributions of the woman who helped start it all, Phyllis Schafly, as responsible as anyone for the tactical morass we now find ourselves in.
Phyllis Schlafly, it turns out, was a conservative woman looking to break through a glass ceiling during a time when the ceilings were lower and harder to crack. In Schlafly lay the very roots of co-mingling religion and politics, funded by oil interests, that have always made the social conservative movement much more about political partisanship, creating wealth for a few, and using power to oppress rather than liberate.
In her biography, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade, author Donald Critchlow writes:
It is certain that ERA would have been ratified. In defeating the ERA, Schlafly tapped into a new constituency that GOP conservative strategists realized could revive the party: Christian evangelicals. This was a constituency waiting to be mobilized. Traditional minded Christians, as well as Jews, felt that they were under attack by the secular left. Since the banning of prayer in public schools in 1962, evangelical Christians had been simmering. Then in the late 1960s came further assaults on tradition and custom through the liberalization of abortion on the state level, feminism, sex education, and the spread of pornography. Schlafly mobilized evangelical Christian women into the STOP ERA campaign, and in doing so, helped revive the conservative movement and the GOP, shifting it to the Right. She showed that social issues was the key to unleash a conservative revolution that began in the midterm elections of 1978 and continued through the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Libertarian writer at From Reason to Freedom, The Melinda, uses Critchow as a starting point in discussing Schlafly, adding:
BigOil had gone after the Conservative Movement using William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and employing the wiles of Bush Senior and his paid political operative, Karl Rove. They had subsidized the work of Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson in remaking the demographics of the GOP. Hiring Phyllis was a natural continuation of the same strategy. The first goal was extinguishing the real agenda of Conservatism as enunciated by Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater while continuing to shake the boogie man of Communism.
It worked. But looking back we can see that it was always a ruse.
The analysis of United Republicans of California, the group who had gotten Reagan the governorship of California in 1968, showed Ronald Reagan was never a Conservative. His administration had laid the groundwork for a shift to centralized control that was unprecedented in California history. Changes included state control of education, promotion of regional government, institution of sex education in schools, guidelines for redress of racial imbalance in schools, a sharp decrease in personal property rights, income tax withholding, a move towards gun control, and other acts that caused the group to ‘oppose Ronald Reagan’ as candidate for president or vice president, and urge Americans nationwide to carefully scrutinize his record.”
An educated woman who had known Barry Goldwater and was well informed, Phyllis Schlafly would have had to be well aware of the disconnect between two philosophies that were diametrically opposed. Schlafly consistently ignored the ideas of Conservatism, selling the repackaged ideas of the newly rising wave of Evangelicals from Southern denominations then being urged to become political and active in the Republican Party. This wave of membership was very different than the activists who had supported Goldwater.
The Republican Party shifted not to the Right, the traditional direction of individual rights, small government, and low taxes, but to burgeoning Federalism that used government as the accepted means for coercing personal behavior. Phyllis helped create that shift; she profited and gloried in her success.
Author Frank Shaeffer offers a perspective from within the evangelical movement of the 1970s, as he and his father helped shape the anti-abortion rights crusade. Since leaving the far right, Shaeffer has been sounding an alarm for Americans to wake up and understand the truth about this Culture of Lies. Shaeffer, echoing Cizik, says the only reason John McCain chose Sarah Palin was:
… because Palin is ideologically pure on the culture war ‘issues’ that have motivated the far right: abortion, prayer in schools, gay marriage, a concept of a ‘Christian America,’ the usual ‘End Times’ Christian Zionism, etc., etc. And the only reason McCain thought this would work is because in the early 1970s through the mid 80s my late father (Francis Schaeffer) and I, along with many others from [James] Dobson to C. Everett Koop to [Jerry] Falwell et al. preached a new religion: national salvation through religiously correct politics. For a while it ‘worked.’ Just ask Rove.
Fast forward to the uniquely miserable [President George] W. Bush. He only got elected because the ‘base’ I helped create voted for him. They voted for him because of his theology (born-again) and because he said the correct things on the social issues too. Ability, fitness for office, willingness to govern, none of that mattered to the base.
In other words, it always was about the tactical political advantage more than the "values" that some people of faith genuinely hold. Perhaps this explains why the far-right has precious little to show in terms of policy success after nearly 30 years at the right-hand of worldly power.
Basing your vote on your values makes sense. But having your values used and manipulated for political power undermines trust, faith and democracy.
Starting with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition, and Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and leading up to today’s Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and many other offshoots, the far right has grown in political sophistication. Simultaneously, our politics became less honest, less truthful, less about every American and more about either those with wealth, or those who hold specific and narrow religious views. “Traditional family values,” we learned, only exist within one political party, Republican, one narrow interpretation of one faith, Christian, comes mostly in one color, white, and is never the least bit gay, in any sense of that word.
The first president the far right targeted was himself an Evangelical Christian, Jimmy Carter. Say what you will about the post-Watergate world he inherited and his handling of the economic and hostage crises, this perfectly honest and genuine Christian man’s faith and values were never in doubt. The far-right “agents of intolerance,” as John McCain once called them, have always put Party First, above faith, above country, and did so in demonizing a humble Christian man in Carter.
Carter did not “use” his religion as political leverage, he did not push fundamentalist Christianity, and did not elevate religious ideology over science. A nuclear engineer, he was a man of science and faith, and his life continues to demonstrate values that inspire millions. As someone inspired by his humility and compassion, I’m thankful he lived to see the truth that he was not the "W"orst president ever.
Along with the modern day heirs of the tactical politics born a generation ago, Karl Rove and Ralph Reed, the third link of their unholy triumvirate, convicted felon Jack Abramhoff, recently gave us another window into the shadowy world of the far right. He was the bag man for Reed’s manipulations of small town church people and Karl Rove’s politics of personal destruction and demonization. The three came up through the ranks of the far-right, and now their protégés, Steve Scmidt and others, lead the McCain-Palin campaign. A campaign defined exclusively by negative tactics and bereft of ideas — but still promoting their "family values."
How can we reclaim a sense of civil discourse and lift ourselves out of the muck the far-right tactics of fear create?
For more than thirty years we have argued about who deserves life and who deserves love. Many Americans are standing up to say we all do and working to make that reality.
We have all known far too many who died simply trying to live. Some of us count deaths in numbers of children in poverty or orphaned, women and girls bruised by husbands or victims in back alleys, people lost to AIDS, gay lives bashed, beaten and killed, of clinics bombed and doctors shot. The truth is that others count deaths in the number of abortions.
When we decide to work together to create fewer reasons to count the dead and mourn the loss of potential, we will move forward. There is ample data to suggest Americans who agree on a goal, can achieve it. There is also ample data to suggest that when humans stop fearing one another, stop screaming and start listening, they learn to move beyond simple tolerance, toward acceptance and respect of each other as unique. When we work from a place of medical science, fact, and faith, we can develop strategies to solve any problem.
Which tactics and strategies do we think will get us the results we want? Stoking the rage and violence of anti-choice, anti-gay people at rallies? Screaming on sidewalks? People who employ these tactics desperately want to make this election about them and recreate America in their image. Through advertising, emails, videos, robo-calls and mailings, they attack candidates. In the process, they hurt millions of American families. Families who have made different choices, or are simply living the life they came to live, to love in the ways they were oriented from birth. Americans simply living their own family values.
We have lost too many lives in the Culture War because we failed to work together, wisely, to prevent the loss. We have pointed fingers, laughed at one another, sneered from one side at people in red states — only to realize that it is the sneering from others that made us blue in the first place.
Many other Americans, regardless of party or faith, have been fighting for policies to prevent the loss of life all along, based on facts, science, developing consensus about what works based on learning from what has not. Progressives have been in a defensive posture for decades, simply trying to protect those we love, the decisions we make, that part of us that is our conscience, our true north through the most challenging moments of life. That sacred quiet place within each of us, no matter how we explain it or what we call it, that guides us.
There is an opportunity now — before the election — to decide together as Americans not to be defensive, not to choose fear, or anger or rage. There is an opportunity to choose the strategies and tactics we think will best help us reach our goals as a diverse nation. There is an opportunity to rediscover that which connects us and allows us to work together.
To do that, we must be able to distinguish truth from lies, values from tactics, and rediscover respect and responsibility.
We all view life as sacred. We all view love and sexuality as sacred. We all know and respect the importance of transitions at birth and death. We rejoice in each, as we rejoice in each other. We celebrate life. We want it to be better for everyone.
So if we agree on so many goals, maybe the only choice in this election are the tactics and strategies we think will best help us reach them. Regardless of party, faith or candidate you choose, won’t we all be better off with fewer lies?
Continue to Part 4, Culture of Lies: Conservative Revolt