30 June 2006

Matthew Yglesias: Wanker of the Day

Well, he did ask for it:
At the risk of being made the wanker of the day, I thought Nathan Newman made several good points about Barak Obama. To make a more general point, while I appreciate blogospheric concern about re-enforcing conservative talking points, at the same time it's obviously the case that liberals aren't going to be able to improve either our electoral performance or our policy performance if people aren't going to be allowed to criticize what they see as broad tendencies in progressive politics. To make a more specific point, on the particular issue of allowing prayer or other religious gestures in official facilities and at official events, I tend to agree with what Obama is saying here -- that liberals should ease up on this. [emphasis added]
You know, for a philosopher by training, that is some really sloppy fucking thinking. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that there's a world of difference between "in official facilities" and "at official events," especially with the later clarification that, yes, he really does mean officially led and directed prayer.

OK, so Matt churned out some bone-stupid wankery in between his usually sharp wonkery; what else is new? Gotta keep up those contrarian and moderate credentials after all. I could just leave this at some snark, but for the benefit of those of you who grew up completely isolated from society (or were born yesterday), I'll point out just why his assertion that there is "no harm" in this is so hopelessly, stupidly, mind-numbingly wrong.

Let's start with the most clear-cut case of direct harm: schools. School is an official event children are required to attend*, so there is no opt-out cop-out here. Now, to avoid being accused of a straw man (who am I kidding, nobody reads this), let's say instead of an unconstitutional-since-the-50s forced mass prayer in class, it's at the pep rally (which, let me assure you from experience, is often just as mandatory as class). So you shamble on down there, sit down, and the principal leads the whole school in a non-denominational Judeo-Christian Christian Protestant prayer (credit where credit is due: Matt did at least recognize "non-denominational" prayer for what it is). Say you're an atheist, or that you're Muslim or Jewish or Wiccan. What is the clear, unambiguous message the government is now officially sending you? That you don't belong, that you're not a full member of society, that there's something wrong with your beliefs. Wait, you know what? Someone said the meaning of this far better than I ever could:
No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.
And this takes us directly to how it is injurious when officially sanctioned in any capacity: it sends the clear message, exactly the message desired by those promoting this, to all Americans that part of being American is being Christian (specifically, Protestant). Therefore, if you aren't Christian, you aren't really a "true" American. It's officially sanctioned bigotry and marginalization of religious minorities, nothing less.

I really can't see why this is so hard for some people to grep. Same goes for the distinction between officially led/sanctioned prayer and use of official facilities (assuming the facilities are available on a neutral basis -- and I don't just mean religiously neutral). I think a lot of people just deliberately ignore the bleeding obvious, or don't give a shit. One tangential observation about a common defense of officially mandated prayer and other obvious violations of the Establishment Clause, specifically the argument that it's simply a recognition of our country having an overwhelming Protestant majority and so it simply reflects the people: there is some definite fascist thinking lurking in there. I am talking not about Nazi thinking, but Umberto Eco's Ur-Fascism:
5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.

Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
That spells out the motivation. Here's the thinking behind it being alright because it reflects the People:
13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.

In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view -- one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. [emphasis added]
The theme, of course, is that the People are monolithic, that the Will of the People and that of one of the people must be the same, or at least cannot (must not) differ in important ways. The exact same argument for official prayer or "one nation, under god"/"In God We Trust" applies (almost) equally well to this Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one white, homophobic nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The only thing that doesn't perfectly analogize is the racial component, since you really can't be coerced to change your race like you can be coerced to (publicly) change what you believe or who you love (though you can't be coerced to truly change either). And you've got to admit, this version really shows how farcical the ending is.

As for Obama, from what I read of his speech, he didn't say anything quite as stupid as Yglesias, and did stick to use of official facilities. However, if he is strictly speaking about that, he's using a right-wing fundamentalist talking point to demagogue against a liberal straw-man. A small part of an otherwise generally good speech, but still. And a lot of what he said also had a strong Manichean (in the original sense of the term) feel to it. So, to paraphrase George Carlin, "Fuck Barak Obama! Fuck him with a big rubber dick. Then break it off and beat him with the rest of it."

*Please, no one spout bullshit about private schools or homeschooling -- most parents don't have near the resources for either.



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