WHAT’S NEXT FOR IRAN?

My interview with Iranian labor leader Homayoun Pourzad is now up on Dissent, just in time for tomorrow’s two-year anniversary of Iran’s contested election:

JE: How do you see the role of religion in terms of mobilizing people in the movement or suppressing the movement?


HP: For millions of people, including some workers, religion is the only language that they know in terms of culture and politics. Religious language and symbolism were used masterfully to mobilize people against the Shah. And the regime has been able to keep the mobilization going, even deepening it, with Ahmadinejad, with the same language and the same worldview. There is no reason why the democratic movement and even the labor movement shouldn’t use the same language. After all, many workers are devout religious people and most Iranians are believers, maybe over 80 percent. So this is not an opportunistic deployment of the other side’s tactics or language. It belongs as much to us as it belongs to them. So when in defiance of the regime people go on the rooftops and say, “God is great,” it really shakes the regime. Because that is exactly the language that they have used, and they have been able to dupe people with. And now it’s being hijacked. The same thing is going on in other Middle Eastern countries. And so I think religion could play a huge role in that sense.

We also talk about the evolving relationship between the labor movement and the Green movement, the challenges each faces, and what the US government should do. Check it out.

HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

YOU’RE SO VAIN, YOU PROBABLY THINK JESUS IS ABOUT YOU

David Brody, blogger for Pat Robertson’s CBN, weighs in on Barack Obama’s legitimacy:

He talks about Jesus and how Christ changed his life. But religious conservatives aren’t convinced at all and think he’s way too liberal to be considered legitimate with his faith talk. I expect the faith discussion about Obama’s Christianity to increase as time goes on. Is he genuine or not? If he is, then he’ll need to figure out a way to defend certain positions (abortion and marriage) that don’t jive with the Bible.

It takes a particular sort of arrogance to take every expression of personal faith by a political candidate as an audition for you and Pat Robertson. And it makes you wonder: How does David Brody know that Barack Obama doesn’t share the biblical position that if a man violently causes a woman to miscarriage, he should be held financially culpable? Nothing there that doesn’t jive with pro-choice doctrine.

This is a good example of why (though contra Rawls, I don’t want to force “public reason” on everyone) we should prefer political appeals to the persuasive power of your religious tradition over political appeals to its authority.

BIGOTS IN ABUNDANCE?

James Traub, in his Times Mag piece on ADL head Abe Foxman, notes that

Foxman upset many of his colleagues by extending a welcome to Christian conservatives, whose leaders tended to be strongly pro-Israel even as they spoke in disturbing terms of America’s “Christian” identity.

True that. Brings to mind the Zionist Organization of America’s decision to honor Pat Robertson with a “State of Israel Fellowship Award.” Abe Foxman at the time demurred that “He’s not deserving, but I have no objections to other groups honoring him.” This despite Robertson having literally written the book on how Jews conspired with Free Masons and Illuminati to engineer the major wars in American history in order to manipulate the global market (Norman Podhoretz argued at the time that that kind of antisemitism was rendered irrelevant by Robertson’s Zionism just as in the Talmud a tiny bit of treif can’t render a huge kosher vat no longer kosher). Robertson went on to raise the ire of the ADL, which had previously highlighted some of his rantings with concern, when he suggested that Ariel Sharon’s strike was punishment from God.

Perhaps the most telling piece of Traub’s article is this exchange:

I asked if it was really right to call Carter, the president who negotiated the Camp David accords, an anti-Semite.

“I didn’t call him an anti-Semite.”

“But you said he was bigoted. Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. ‘Bigoted’ is you have preconceived notions about things.”

The argument that the Israel lobby constricted debate was itself bigoted, he said.

“But several Jewish officials I’ve talked to say just that.”

“They’re wrong.”

“Are they bigoted?”

Foxman didn’t want to go there. He said that he had never heard any serious person make that claim.

This is the Abe Foxman worldview. Intellectual and/or moral serious equals the belief that the pro-Likud lobbying infrastructure exercises no pressure on the scope of the Israel debate in this country. Concern about the role of that lobby (unlike, say, concern about the role of the NRA) in shaping public perceptions and policy outcomes equals bigotry. And acceptance of Jews equals support for the actions of the current Israeli government.

This despite the ADL’s own research showing antisemitism declining in Europe at the same time that “anti-Israel” sentiment rises. As my friend Jacob Remes wrote at the time,

Abe Foxman, while hailing European governments that have worked to differentiate Israel from Jews, fails to do so himself and continues to equate the two.

GOD FORBID

Just finished David Kuo’s Tempting Faith, his account of how he came to doubt George Bush’s commitment to making real investments in his much-touted faith based initiatives, on which Kuo had come to work in the White House. The White House approach, Kuo contends, prioritized polarizing votes to discredit opponents over building consensus around fighting poverty. But while Kuo criticizes the White House’s use of the faith-based initiatives as a political bludgeon and criticizes the push for discrimination based on religious practice, he is unrepentant in his support for government-subsidized discrimination based on religious identity.

My junior year at Yale, Kuo’s boss Jim Towey came to campus and pledged that he “strongly believes” in the constitutional separation of church and state. He was working, he pledged, to “end discrimination against faith-based organizations.” The next morning, the White House called on the House to stop amendments to the Community Services Block Grants Act, H.R. 3030, which would have required faith-based agencies receiving federal funding to comply with federal civil rights standards. The “Statement of Administration Policy” went so far as to threaten a veto of any bill amended to require federally-funded agencies to obey federal non-discrimination laws. It didn’t come to that: all three amendments to ensure that funding from all Americans is tied to equal treatment for all Americans went down to defeat.

On the same day Towey was at Yale touting the constitutionality and compassion of the administration’s agenda, Kuo’s friends at Focus on the Family sent out an activist alert warning that if proposed amendments to H.R. 3030 passed, “Christian charities interested in accepting federal funds would be required to ignore religious conviction in hiring — even if potential employees practiced Islam, Judaism or no religion at all.” God forbid.

SAM BROWNBACK, CALL YOUR PUBLICIST

I’m not much one for “Great Man” theories of our political history – that is, I think most of the writing on twists and turns in American political history overstates the importance of the sensibilities and psychology of individual politicians and understates social movements, cultural trends, demographic shifts, and so forth – but I’ll readily acknowledge that when it comes to, say, the Republican presidential primary for 2008, there are only so many apparent contenders. And an act of hubris or poor strategery that pulls one out of contention can seriously shift the playing field for everybody else.

That’s why Democrats may come to reconsider their glee over George Allen’s “macaca” muck-up of two months ago if it turns out to have indeed taken Allen out of serious contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Because not long ago, George Allen was well-placed to bear the mantle of “Un-McCain,” a charismatic candidate with the right combination of sterling conservative credentials and cultural compatability (however affected) to excite folks from the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives, either nonplussed or turned off by a McCain candidacy. The evidence of racial animus on his part could have been just enough to let him take the primary but not the general election.

Now, not so much.

And just as Hillary Clinton’s best chance of taking her party’s nomination is the scenario in which a single charismatic, consenus “Un-Hillary” never quite materializes, for the GOP nod to go to McCain, whose otherwise right-wing record is marred by opposition to global warming, hard money, and torture, and by some carefully chosen symbolic snubs to the base, is the absence of a single viable “Un-McCain.”

Maybe what’s most striking in all this is the lack of a strong McCain alternative to gather in all the GOP activists under one placard. First it was supposed to be Bill Frist. Then he got outplayed by the “Gang of 14” over judicial nominations. And his impressive conversion on the road to Iowa into a religious right zealot was undercut by his betrayal on stem cells.

Rick Santorum, one of the most telegenic elected Republicans out there, from one of the states the party is trying hardest to bring back into its column, is now on track to get kicked out of office by Keystone State voters.

Mike Huckabee has so far failed to make a name for himself for more than losing weight – except with the Club for Growth and the economic right-wingers in its orbit, who hate his guts more than most non-McCain GOPers’.

Mitt Romney, though he pulled off an impressive ground game in the SRLC straw poll six months ago, is still going to have a hard time as the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts exciting the base enough to avert a marriage of convenience to McCain.

Newt Gingrich, like Gary Hart in the lead-up to ’04, seems to have underestimated the staying power of his scandals and overestimated the yearning of the American people for a wonk.

Rudy Giuliani believes in the right to choose.

So it’s not clear who is left to stop the steady flow of strategists, fund-raisers, and activists to John McCain, who is by far the most popular advocate of right-wing politics in the United States. After Macacagate, McCain has at least a passable shot at benefiting from the kind of dynamic that played a key role in elevating Bill Clinton in ’92: the absence of a primary candidate beloved by the party’s base.

And while McCain is beatable, he has the benefit of years of praise not only from starstruck journalists but from short-sighted Democrats who’ve boosted his claims to speak for the center of America.

Meanwhile, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going through the head of Sam Brownback, as staunch a social conservative as you’ll find in the Senate, with no bruising re-election fight in sight, no awkward position in the Republican leadership, and no scandal-ridden press clippings to buck.

LISTENING TO LAURA (ET AL)

Here are the top three things that have genuinely surprised me listening to Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, Laura Ingraham, and Dennis Prager on the local right-wing radio station the past month or so:

For an ostensibly uber-populist medium, there’s sure an awful lot of complaining about the ignorance and weak will of the American people. For every denunciation of the elitism of prayer-banning, lesbian-loving, terror-supporting liberal judges (who are just like the Islamo-Nazis in their lack of faith in the people, Laura Ingraham reminds us), there are two or three denunciations of the gullibility of our Bush-betraying, 9/11-forgetting, sacrifice-disrespecting electorate. ABC’s docu-drama, Hugh Hewitt insists, was assailed by the Democrats because it had the potential to remind an ungrateful citizenry of the risk posed by the bad men and the weak men who wouldn’t fight them. Michael Medved is doing his part by quizzing his callers about their ability to match terrorists with the buildings they tried to blow up – and then mocking them for not keeping up with the news. Turns out it’s the conservatives who are the pointy-headed know-it-alls.

More surprising has been the preponderance of product placement. Having trouble sleeping well as your kids return to public schools full of multiculturalism, sodomy, and self-esteem? Laura Ingraham can recommend a really comfortable mattress. Stressed over the preponderance of porn on the net? Michael Medved has just the safe-surf product for you – and it blocks those annoying pop-ups too! Looking to find a nice home safe from hoodlums and single parents? Check out Hugh Hewitt’s real estate agent!

And here some of us thought there were underlying contradictions between social conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism…

But perhaps the biggest surprise of my dalliance with the medium has been the enduring popularity of George W. Bush among some of the supposed leaders of a base that’s supposedly up in arms against the man. Sure, there’s talk of differences with the President, but it’s mostly that: references to having differences with the President in the context of defending him. Part of the explanation here is that Bush is a very conservative president. Call me cynical, but leading conservatives’ increasingly shrill protestations to the contrary are in large part about protecting the conservative brand from an unpopular product. These folks don’t seem to have gotten that memo (neither have the liberals who go on about how Bush isn’t conservative). But I think there’s something more going on here aside from policy.

These radio hosts spend less time defending the conduct of Bush’s war than they do the sincerity of his religious faith – which, they insist, is what maddens the left about him most. George Bush, like Hillary Clinton – who’s done much less for the left than Bush has for the right – has a popularity with a certain base as an icon based not just on what he believes but on what his beliefs and his biography together suggest about the kind of person he is (Paul Waldman would say this is about ethos rather than logos). Just as Clinton has a certain base of support that will stay loyal because she’s a brilliant woman who built a successful career and has withstood years of nasty attack by right-wing radio hosts, no matter what she says about trade of flag-burning, Bush has a certain base that will stay loyal because he’s an ostensibly straight-talking Texan who doesn’t respect the New York Times or the UN, no matter what he says about spending or immigration. Bush and Clinton each have a certain following who will cleave to them in good part because of the vituperation inspired in the other side. I think it’s clear, between Clinton’s loyalists and Bush’s, which group I think is getting taken for more of a ride.