Friday, September 11, 2009

Hell be damned; a response to the Christian Right

Hal Pepinsky,
One member of Congress who dared to diss the prez by calling out “you lie”—a Southern anglo-american to a black man at that. You know Joe, I sympathize with you. I’ve become impatient enough with being lectured at to interrupt many a lecturer myself in my own time. In the classroom, I prize the student who interrupts, let alone takes issue with, anything I say most of all. It appeared to me that the president was at most momentarily distracted by the outburst. I imagine that in contemporary political discourse in my country, both Barack Obama and Joe Wilson are as surprised by the fuss over the incident as most of us. One thing the fuss does is take news media air time off health care issues.
I don’t believe in repression. Nor, I hear, does Obama. I learned long ago that the passion that underlies a debater is more fundamental than any evidence I can muster. I have learned to experiment with appealing to an understanding of the passion that in blatant sincerity unites those who profit from Christian right-ism with a rural poor and military, openly angry political base. I have learned to try to respect and understand the passion that underlies unrelenting warfare on “the other side,” in this case to those who would do so much as to allow women to terminate pregnancies. On its face, the passion many people living on the economic margin devote to defending fetus rights is laughable…for us urbane citizens perhaps. From Ahmedinajad to Chavez to places all over the world, we urban elites look down on what in my part of the world are called rednecks, whom we profile as rural and ignorant.
I had taught only graduate students at the country’s first Ph.D. program in criminal justice for four years when I got to Indiana University in 1976. It took me years to get from student hostility to the point where as I told my students repeatedly, from experiences I had never had, taught me more about social control than any other data source I have had, except perhaps my experience in my immediate family of choice. Bloomington lies in a historical heartbed of the Klan. I think the biggest thing my students taught me is the more respect and empathy I showed especially for people courageous enough openly to disagree with me, the more many students seemed to appreciate that their own feelings and beliefs mattered. The more appreciation I and associate instructors added to theirs, the more people in class generally became open to crazy new ideas like “restorative justice.” As I entitled one article become book chapter, “Empathy Works, Obedience Doesn’t.”
So I ask myself: What is the source of the passion that is now known as the Republican base?
My mother, Pauline Wright Nichols, Jr., left her Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home with a master’s degree from LSU to Yankee-land never to return. I was Grandmother Pauline’s cherished first grandchild. Grandmother Pauline gave me a ukulele and encouraged my interesting in singing. She gave me an lp album of “Songs of the Confederacy” as a special present on some occasion. In her gentle and always polite voice, she called the Civil War “the late unpleasantness.” I heard stories about Yankee carpetbaggers—foreign occupiers who exploited white Southerners, especially rural white poor, after the war. On Christmas visits I drank from “white only” drinking fountains.
When in the fourth grade in 1953-54, in my present home town, Worthington, Ohio, we learned about state history and capitals, I read in the almanac that Grandmother Pauline’s state of birth, Mississippi, was the poorest state in the nation.
Growing up I was constantly reminded of the sense in the South that they had lost the war, and hence by extraction, were victims of national government. Southerners taught me that the main reason the war had been fought was economic, notably whether Northern textile mills could dictate terms to Southern cotton plantation owners. The Emancipation Proclamation was nothing more than a war tactic on the road to solidifying Yankee occupation of Southern production.
My great uncle married my parents at her parents’ home in Baton Rouge on a hundred-degree August afternoon in 1943. He was minister at the First Baptist Church of Oxford, Mississippi. My mother married a Russian Jew from Minneapolis. I think my status as a mutt gave me a little latitude to experience Southern Christian Confederacy and its aftermath.
I think that the heart of today’s Republican base is fear of hell, fire, and excommunication. Fear!
How to cast out devils at all costs? I’m not a Democrat at heart. Democrats have taken us to war, beginning in my lifetime with Harry Truman’s declaration of the Cold War, establishment of the CIA, and entry into the Korean War. But in the presidential campaign of 1968 it finally hit me that Republicans had become the party of no-holds-barred polemics against political opponents while Democrats keep trying to get along with political opponents. As political opposition filters up to national media levels, Democrats keep falling back on decency and compromise while a Republican juggernaut launches every invective, truth or falsehood be damned, at what President Nixon early on labeled “political enemies.”
When you most fear damnation, you most lash out, without reason, just to prove that you are on the side of angels. That terrified human spirit has captured national Republicanism as in Congress.
In his inaugural address, FDR famously pronounced, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the late Confederacy of my maternal ancestry, children of losers of the “late unpleasantness” in this life are passionately committed to proving that they deserve to avoid continued hell in the afterlife. This is a passion to earn a ticket to heaven by exorcising earthly political devils.
The U.S. South became Republican after the Supreme Court ruled in a Georgia case that Congressional districts could no longer favor dwindling rural populations, just as Jim Crow was shut down. As white migration shifted westward, the foreign threat melded as between black and latino. Today, the passion of the US Republican base derives most from the continuing belief that the US government is the devil incarnate, and that the only hope for salvation lies in earning one’s way to heaven in the afterlife by defeating the devils that have conquered and occupied us. In that struggle, anger desperately needs to win at all costs, and so live today’s mainstream Republicans.
I don’t believe anyone is damned, and I hope to help persuade those who are terrified of losing the game of meaningful life that the only hell we can know is the suffering we face here and now. As to the hereafter, hell be damned. Love and peace--hal

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