The Rodney King Era

The February 2012 issue of The American Conservative includes several pieces that reflect, directly or indirectly, on the presidential campaign currently underway in the USA, and a couple that have a broader interest.

The American Conservative started in 2002 as a forum for right-wingers who did not want the US to invade Iraq.  It continues to give voice to conservative anti-militarism.  Several items in this issue further develop right-wing arguments against warfare, among them: Doug Bandow’s “Attack of the Pork Hawks” (subtitle: “Loving the Pentagon turns conservatives into big-spending liberals”); William S. Lind’s “Clearing the Air Force,” which argues that the only useful functions of the United States Air Force are those that support operations led by the Army and Navy, and therefore that those functions should be transferred to those services while the independent Air Force is dissolved; and Kelly Beaucar Vlahos’ “Gitmo’s Prying Eyes,” about the Defense Department’s attempt to erase attorney-client privilege for the “unlawful combatants” it holds at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.  Noah Millman’s review of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel identifies Mr Gorenberg not by his usual sobriquet of “left-wing Zionist,” but as a “Jewish nationalist” who accepts a deeply conservative conception of nationhood as the maturity of a people, and who opposes Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories because that occupation reduces Israel from achieved nation-state to insurgent revolutionary movement.

The cover story, Scott McConnell’s “Ron Paul and his Enemies,” notes that Dr Paul’s campaign has inspired levels of alarm and anger from various elite groups in official Washington far out of proportion to the modest levels of support the good doctor has attracted.  Mr McConnell’s explanation of this is that those bêtes-noires of The American Conservative, the “neocons,” fear that Dr Paul will trigger a movement that will threaten the prestige they enjoy in policy-making circles in the American government.  The neocons are the neo-conservatives, adherents of an intellectual movement that traces its origins to the anti-Stalinist Left of the 1930s and 1940s and its rise to political salience in the work of a group of activists, academics, and functionaries who attached themselves to the Senator Henry M. Jackson in the 1960s and 1970s.  Like the late Senator Jackson, the neo-conservatives are generally sanguine about the ability of the US government to do good by means of large scale programs intervening in the domestic affairs of both of the United States itself and of other countries.  The group around The American Conservative consists of old-fashioned conservatives and libertarians who are deeply skeptical of Washington’s potential as a doer of good in any sphere.  Mr McConnell’s argument, summed up in his piece’s subtitle– “An effective antiwar candidate is what the neocons fear most”– is that, even though neoconservatives now hold such a stranglehold on respectability in foreign policy discussions in official Washington that the manifest failure of their signature project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could not weaken it, they know that it is in fact very tenuous.  The mobilization of a powerful antiwar constituency within the Republican Party could send the neocons to the sidelines very quickly, he believes.  Therefore, they must move quickly to silence Dr Paul, lest the 29% of Republicans who tell pollsters that they share his antiwar views should crystallize into a force that could shift the national discussion away from the presuppositions of militarism.

One stick with which neoconservative spokesmen and others have beaten Dr Paul is a series of racially charged columns that appeared in newsletters he edited in the early 1990s.  Mr McConnell discusses the controversy over these columns thus:

Here the reprise of the story of the newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name 20 years ago proved critical. The New Republic had made a national story of them early in the 2008 campaign. James Kirchick reported that numerous issues of the “Ron Paul Political Report” and the “Ron Paul Survival Report” contained passages that could be fairly characterized as race-baiting or paranoid conspiracy-mongering. (Few in Texas had cared very much when one of Paul’s congressional opponents tried to make an issue of the newsletters in 1996.). With Paul rising in the polls, the Weekly Standard essentially republished Kirchick’s 2008 piece.

I’ve seen no serious challenge to the reporting done four years ago by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez for Reason: the newsletters were the project of the late Murray Rothbard and Paul’s longtime aide Lew Rockwell, who has denied authorship.* Rothbard, who died in 1995, was a brilliant libertarian author and activist, William F. Buckley’s tutor for the economics passages of Up From Liberalism, and a man who pursued a lifelong mission to spread libertarian ideas beyond a quirky quadrant of the intelligentsia. He had led libertarian overtures to the New Left in the 1960s. In 1990, he argued for outreach to the redneck right, and the Ron Paul newsletters became the chosen vehicle. For his part, Rockwell has moved on from this kind of thing.

Intellectual honesty requires acknowledging that much of the racism in the newsletters would have appeared less over the top in mainstream conservative circles at the time than it does now. No one at the New York Post editorial page (where I worked) would have been offended by the newsletters’ use of welfare stereotypes to mock the Los Angeles rioters, or by their taking note that a gang of black teenagers were sticking white women with needles or pins in the streets of Manhattan. (Contrary to the fears of the time, the pins used in these assaults were not HIV-infected.) But racial tensions and fissures in the early 1990s were far more raw than today. The Rockwell-Rothbard team were, in effect, trying to play Lee Atwater for the libertarians. A generation later, their efforts look pretty ugly.

The resurfacing of the newsletter story in December froze Paul’s upward movement in the polls. For the critical week before the Iowa caucuses, no Ron Paul national TV interview was complete without newsletter questions, deemed more important than the candidate’s opposition to indefinite detention, the Fed, or a new war in Iran. On stage in the New Hampshire debate, Paul forcefully disavowed writing the newsletters or agreeing with their sentiments, as he had on dozens of prior occasions, and changed the subject to a spirited denunciation of the drug laws for their implicit racism. This of course did not explain the newsletters, but the response rang true on an emotional level, if only because no one who had observed Ron Paul in public life over the past 15 years could perceive him as any kind of racist.

If the Weekly Standard editors hoped the flap would stir an anti-Paul storm in the black community, they were sorely disappointed. In one telling dialogue, two important black intellectuals, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, showed far more interest in Paul’s foreign-policy ideas, and the attempts to stamp them out, than they did in the old documents. Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates likened Paul to Louis Farrakhan. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but the portrait fell well short of total scorn. It was difficult to ignore that the main promoters of the newsletters story, The New Republic and the Weekly Standard, had historically devoted exponentially more energy to promoting neoconservative policies in the Middle East than they had to chastising politicians for racism.

In 2008, Mr McConnell, then The American Conservative‘s editor, had responded to Mr Kirchick’s original piece with stern reproof for Dr Paul.  The magazine then endorsed Dr Paul for president anyway, though Mr McConnell himself would later express his preference for Barack Obama. In the paragraphs above, Mr McConnell seems to be rather straining to downplay the newsletter matter.  For one thing, while Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are by anyone’s standards “important black intellectuals,” each of them is rather conservative and neither of them could be accused of having a low tolerance for white-guy B.S.- rather the opposite, in fact.  It is true that the early 1990s were a time of unusually raw tension between whites and African Americans; indeed, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an extremely strange period in American history, as Dr Paul’s 1988 appearance on The Morton Downey, Jr Show should suffice to demonstrate.  But this does not excuse Dr Paul’s pandering to the racialist right in those years.  Rather, it makes it all the more culpable.  In 1991, many parts of the USA, from Crown Heights in New York City to South Central Los Angeles, were teetering on the brink of race riots.  In that year, a majority of white voters in Louisiana pulled the lever in support of the gubernatorial campaign of Neo-Nazi David Duke.   To peddle racially charged rhetoric at that time was, if anything, more irresponsible, because more dangerous, than it would be today.

An editorial in the same issue discusses Dr Paul from a slightly different perspective.  In a single page, it dismisses the newsletters twice, once as “artifacts of a time- the Andrew Dice Clay era in American politics, when the populist right reacted to political correctness– then a new phenomenon– by sinning in the opposite direction”; then with this line: “The Rodney King era is a distant memory; the wars and economic outrages of our bipartisan establishment are still very much with us.”  If these dismissals leave you unsatisfied, there is still a refuge for you on The American Conservative’s webpage, where blogger Rod Dreher has repeatedly expressed his objections to Dr Paul’s newsletters in very strong terms (see here for one of the strongest of these objections.)

No discussion of “the Rodney King era” would be complete without a reference to The Bell Curve, in which psychologist Richard Herrnstein and historian Charles Murray argued that American society was becoming more stratified by cognitive ability, that cognitive ability is largely inherited, and therefore that America’s class system will likely become more unequal and less fluid as the highly intelligent pull ever further away from the rest of us.  Four chapters of the book dealt with race, analyzing the average IQ scores of various ethnic groups and concluding that African Americans as a group are likely to be among the hardest hit by the adverse consequences of this trend.  Professor Herrnstein and Mr Murray offered chillingly few suggestions as to how this grim scenario could be prevented or ameliorated; Mr Murray’s right-of-center libertarianism led him always to emphasize out the ways in which social programs intended to broaden opportunity sometimes redound to the disadvantage of their intended beneficiaries, an emphasis which, in conjunction with the book’s overall argument, seemed to suggest that there is no escape from the most dystopian version of its predictions.  Published in 1994, The Bell Curve rose to the top of the bestseller lists and garnered enormous attention; today, it would be difficult to imagine a major publisher agreeing to release it.  The nativist theory of IQ which is at its heart, and particularly the explicit development of that theory’s implications in the four chapters on race, makes it such an easy target for anti-racist spokesmen that a publisher who released it nowadays would be risking public infamy.  Yet in those days, The Bell Curve hardly represented the far edge even of acceptable public discourse.  So the far more aggressively anti-black Paved With Good Intentions, by Jared Taylor (a self-styled “white nationalist”,) found a major publisher and considerable sales when it was published in 1992; his recent followups to that book have been self-published.

Mr Murray has returned to the scene with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  By focusing exclusively on whites, Mr Murray need not dwell explicitly on racial differences in average IQ score or any theory as to what causes these differences; by setting 2010 as an ending date, he need not dwell on its grimmest implications for the future.  Reviewer Steve Sailer, himself a tireless advocate of the nativist theory of IQ, reviews this new book and finds some interesting nuggets in it.  For example, Mr Sailer refers to figures, evidently included in the book, which indicate that while 40 percent of affluent American whites are now unaffiliated with any religion (as compared with 27% of their counterparts in the early 1970s,) 59% of less well-off whites are now religiously unaffiliated (as compared with 35% of the same group in the earlier period.)  That leads me to wonder if the very conservative, rather militant forms of Evangelical Christianity that are so popular among the white working class, as well as the right-wing political views that so often accompany that form of Christianity, are a sign that the individuals who profess them identify themselves as cadet members of the  professional classes.  Their militancy, even when presented as a challenge to some relatively liberal subset of the upper middle class such as elite academics or Democratic Party politicians or leaders of mainline Protestant churches, advertises to all that they are church-goers, and thus strivers, not to be confused with the defeated mass who have lost interest in such institutions and faith in the promises they represent.

Timothy Stanley’s “Buchanan’s Revolution” looks back at the last antiwar rightist to make a splash as a US presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan.  Mr Buchanan was one of the founders of The American Conservative, and the magazine still runs his column (including a recent one lauding Ron Paul.)  So it is no surprise that the treatment of him here is respectful.  However, in light of what was going on with race relations in the USA in 1992, it is sobering to see these passages:

Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times. Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.

Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.

But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”

Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.

Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.

Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,

that the dominant authorities in… the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.

Buchanan agreed. He wrote, reflecting on Francis’s words, “We traditionalists who love the culture and country we grew up in are going to have to deal with this question: Do we simply conserve the remnant, or do we try to take the culture back? Are we conservatives, or must we also become counter-revolutionaries and overthrow the dominant culture?”

The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.

Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.


During the primary, (economist Harry) Veryser arranged a meeting between himself, Pat, Francis, and (scholar Russell) Kirk. Buchanan and Francis behaved as if no one else was there, and Pat sat in rapt silence listening to his friend expand upon the coming revolution. It was an intellectual romance, said Veryser. Harry was embarrassed, Kirk was furious that he wasn’t paid the attention he deserved. Both concluded that Buchanan was in love with Francis’s mind, that he truly believed that the two men could remake the world. Francis was a true believer, and his zeal infected Pat. He gave to Buchanan’s peculiar rebellion the theoretical structure of a popular revolution.

I used to read Samuel T. Francis’ column in Chronicles magazine.  It was a microcosm of Chronicles itself; full of one fascinating bit after another, often making the most interesting sort of points, and then, by the way, dropped in the middle someplace, a bizarre remark that could only be attributed to racism.  In one of the last to appear before his death in 2005, he was going on about the things that American children ought to, but don’t, learn in public schools.  He was developing a powerful vision of public education as a vehicle for cultural continuity and the formation of a common national heritage.  It was thrilling stuff, if not entirely convincing, until the middle of the fifth or sixth paragraph when he listed among the things that all Americans should learn in school “why slavery was right, and why the South was right to maintain it as long as it did.”  Then he went back to being interesting, but really, it was hard to focus after that.  And really, all of his columns were like that, brilliant, fascinating, and marred beyond saving by such outlandish remarks.  When The American Conservative started in 2002, Dr Francis wasan occasional contributor, writing three articles for the magazine (one each in 2002, 2003, and 2004.)  The editorial team there evidently took more of an interest than did their counterparts at Chronicles in toning the racialist content of his columns to a minimum, so that there were no true lightning bolts of lunacy.

Dr Francis, to the embarrassment of his more respectable friends, called himself a white nationalist and socialized with David Duke.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr Francis was a figure of some influence.  The “job with the Washington Times” that Mr Stanley mentions was that of editorial page director.  That a man of his views could attain such a position is another marker of how raw the racial resentments of whites were in the Rodney King era. In his obituary of Dr Francis for The American Conservative, Scott McConnell wrote that at Dr Francis’ funeral he found himself talking with none other than Jared Taylor.  Mr Taylor said that the cab driver who took him from the airport to the funeral had asked who Dr Francis was.  In response, Mr Taylor proclaimed “He stood up for white people!”  The cab driver, a white workingman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was visibly shocked and uncomfortable.  I very much doubt that many like him would have been upset by such a remark 14 years before.

One of Ron Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Willard Milton Romney (known familiarly as “Mitt,”) is mentioned by name in a review of economist Bruce Bartlett’s book, The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need It, and What It will TakeMr Bartlett was a staffer for Dr Paul in the 1970s, but has not been associated with him in recent years.  Reviewer Tom Pauken quotes Bartlett as saying that the USA’s corporate income tax exempts money spent on interest payments, but does not give such favorable treatment to money returned to shareholders in dividends.  It is unsurprising, then, that US businesses raise vastly more money by borrowing than by selling equity.  Mr Pauken says that this situation “has been great for private-equity moguls and leveraged buy-out operators like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwarzman, who have made fortunes gaming the system.   But it has been destructive to the long-term health of many US companies and to American workers who have lost jobs as a consequence of tax incentives that encourage companies to pile up debt.”  Mr Bartlett calls for the repeal of the corporate income tax and of several other taxes, and their replacement by a border-adjusted value added tax.  I’ve endorsed similar proposals here, often under Mr Bartlett’s influence, and am glad to see that he is still working the old stand.  As for the connection to Mr Romney, I would mention a link I posted on our tumblr page to a recent column by Paul Rosenberg called “Mitt Romney, ‘Welfare Queen.'”  The caption I gave that link was “In the USA, corporations can write interest payments off their income taxes, while they have to pay taxes on dividends they pay shareholders.  So, shareholders collect almost nothing in dividends, while banks and private equity firms collect trillions of dollars in interest payments.  Those interest payments are an alternative form of taxation, and people like Willard M. Romney are tax recipients, not taxpayers.”  I think is a reasonably fair summary of Mr Rosenberg’s argument, though Mr Bartlett’s views are somewhat more complex.   

A few months ago, I noted here a column about the Revised Common Lectionary that Philip Jenkins had contributed to Chronicles magazine.  Professor Jenkins argued that the committees that produced that selection of Bible readings had left out all of the passages in which God is shown commanding or praising violence, thus creating a false impression of the scriptures.  Professor Jenkins has presented that argument at book length, in a volume called Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  Patrick Allitt’s review of Professor Jenkins’ book in this issue draws out some interesting points.  For example, the books of Joshua and Judges, which include many of the Bible’s most bloodthirsty passages, describe events that supposedly occurred in the late Bronze Age, but in fact were written at least 600 years after that period.  That not only means that the massacres they celebrate are not only unlikely to have taken place (archaeologists have found no residue of such conflicts,) but also that they were written at about the same time as, and very likely as part of a dialogue with the authors of, the passages about social justice and universal benevolence that warm the hearts of those who read the books of Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah.  The thorny passages in Deuteronomy also date from this relatively late period.  So to suppress the Mr Angry Guy passages from the Heptateuch is to misrepresent the Mr Nice Guy passages from the prophets.  I should mention that elsewhere on the magazine’s website, blogger Noah Millman appends a nifty bit of rabbinical logic to the review.

Intellectuals in the traditionalist right often mention the name of philosopher Eric Voegelin.  The late Professor Voegelin’s works are too deep for the likes of me, but an essay by Gene Callahan about his ideas in this issue of the magazine had me thinking of making another attempt at reading one of Professor Voegelin’s book, most likely The New Science of Politics (simply because it’s the one I’ve made the most progress with in my previous attempts.)  Of the many extremely interesting bits in Professor Callahan’s essay, the most interesting to me was his summary of a notion Professor Voegelin labeled the “hieroglyph.”  By this word, Professor Voegelin evidently meant “superficial invocations of a preexisting concept that failed to embody its essence because those  invoking it had not experienced the reality behind the original concept.  As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied.  But as they were being employed without the context from which their original authority arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.”

I think this notion might explain a great deal.  Take for example a term like “national security.”  In such a place as the USA in the early nineteenth century, a poor country with a tiny population, a vast border, a radically decentralized political system, and every empire of Europe occupying territory in the immediate neighborhood, a patriot might very well advocate an aggressive program of territorial expansion, political consolidation, and a military buildup.  Such steps might well have been necessary for the infant USA to maintain its independence.  Today, however, such policies only weaken the United States.  Our international commitments empower our enemies, our national government threatens our liberties, our military expenditures divert capital from productive uses and weigh heavily on the economy as a whole.  To secure the blessings that make the United States of America worth living in and dying for, we must be prepared to revise or discontinue all of the policies customarily justified under the rubric of “national security.”

Likewise with the term “free market.”  As someone like Mr Bartlett has done so much to demonstrate, our current financial and corporate elites by no means owe their preeminence to success in unfettered competition.  Rather, they are the figures who have been most successful at manipulating a system that is defined and sustained by the continual involvement of government in every phase of economic life.  And yet even those among the rich who are most blatantly tax-recipients find defenders who speak of them as if they were so many Robinson Crusoes, in possession of nothing but that which they themselves had wrested single-handed from nature.  Virtually all conservatives and most libertarians are guilty of this form of hieroglyphic use of the term “free market” and its accompanying imagery at least occasionally.  Some libertarians, like the aforementioned Murray Rothbard, acknowledge the fact that the existing economic system is not a free market in any meaningful sense, and so speak not of a “free market” that is to be defended, but of a “freed market” that is to be created when our currently existing economic system is abolished.  The late Professor Rothbard and his followers frankly call the existing system, the one which they find unacceptable, “capitalism.”  For my part, I am perfectly willing to accept and defend the system Rothbardians call capitalism, though I would also call for a recognition that where there is subsidy, there must also be regulation.  And of course I would hope that we would have a lively democratic political culture that would guide our regime of subsidy and regulation to aim at socially desirable ends, rather than simply functioning as a means by which the power elite can entrench its position at the top of the economic and political order.

*I don’t actually agree with Mr McConnell that Llewellyn Rockwell is the likeliest author of the articles in question.  The most obnoxious piece, which in fact contains all of the tropes that drew fire in the other pieces, appeared under the byline “James B. Powell.”  A man by that name did in fact write for the Ron Paul newsletters, and is today a member of the board of directors of the Forbes Corporation.

The Nice Creed

In the June issue of Chronicles magazine, Philip Jenkins wrote a very interesting piece about the Revised Common Lectionary.  A lectionary is a table of holy writings that are prescribed to be read in church or temple on particular days; the Revised Common Lectionary is the product of a collaboration among many of the largest Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. Throughout the English-speaking world, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants hear the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary in their services.

Jenkins asks us to imagine a new Christian denomination, one founded with a close eye to market research.  This denomination might find a stumbling block in the Bible.  How might they clear such a hurdle?  “Our focus groups tell us that many modern people do not like or do not understand large portions of the Bible, about half the book in fact, and we want to serve their needs.  The God we preach is, above all, Nice, and the scripture must focus on that paramount reality.  So our church has produced a new version of the Bible, carefully selected for Niceness, and edited to remove the half of the material that modern readers find difficult, unpleasant, or thorny.  That is our belief- or as we call it, our Nice Creed.”

While this imaginary Nice Creed might be very different from the series of statements known in various times and places as the Nicene Creed, it would have a distinguished historical lineage.  Marcion of Pontus, a major figure in the early development of Christian thought, was so troubled by the many passages of the Jewish scriptures that depict a vengeful God Who takes a particular interest in one chosen people that he decided those scriptures were describing a different God from the world-redeeming, grace-giving God of Jesus and Paul.  Marcion did not deny the truth of Judaism, but claimed that while the Jewish God created the universe and the Messiah would come and establish a millennial kingdom for the Jews, the God of Jesus was quite another fellow, and Jesus Himself, though He were Savior of all humanity, was no Messiah.  No church today claims Marcion as an inspiration; all that express an opinion about him call him a heretic.  But the Revised Common Lectionary elides, in Jenkins’ words, “exactly those Old Testament elements that most repelled that ancient heretic.  What remains in the text is an acceptable Bible Lite.”

For example, 94% of the Book of Esther is missing from the Revised Common Lectionary.  While the lectionary leaves in the story of the hanging of the wicked Haman, it leaves out the revenge the Jews took on his people, a revenge that left 75,000 dead.  This is the foundation story of the feast of Purim, and is important enough to Jews today that worshipers ritually make noise in temple when Haman’s name is mentioned.  But it certainly isn’t Nice.  So out it goes.

Jenkins puts it thus: “In terms of the ordinary experience of Christian Church life, the Book of Esther has ceased to exist.  So has the Book of Ezra (not quoted at all in the lectionary); so have Judges, Leviticus, Nehemiah (each represented by one meager passage.)”  Even worse is the selective editing within passages.  “A passage will be cited as (for instance) ‘Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18’ without any explanation of what has vanished from that chapter.  Just what was in verses three through eight?”  Jenkins gives some examples of passages which are seriously misrepresented by selective editing of this sort.  For example, this lesson gives us the first verse and a half of chapter 24 of Joshua, then jumps to verses 14-18.  What’s wrong with verses 3-13?  Jenkins explains that “these omitted verses recount the conquest and destruction of the Amorite and Moabite peoples, the annihilation of Jericho, and the ethnic cleansing of the seven peoples of Canaan.  Leaving out that section, we imagine the rival peoples listed in this chapter as armed enemies in battle, not as civilian targets for genocide.”  Definitely not Nice!

Jenkins two closing paragraphs make his point very forcefully, I think, so I’ll quote them in full:

Why should we worry about this radical purging of the biblical text? After all, Christians are not forbidden to read the troubling texts on their own, either in a private context or in a common study group.  Yet having said this, many such groups like to use the lectionary as a guide for such activity, either using the texts for the coming Sunday, r else linking the study to a sermon.  Ordinary readers are free to pursue Joshua, Ezra, and Deuteronomy, but how many do?  If you are a faithful church attendee- a Catholic or Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian, Lutheran or Mennonite- the odds are that you will simply never encounter some of the Bible’s most challenging passages, texts that must be understood if we are to see that work holistically.  Jesus, after all, was really Yeshua, and He shared His name with the ancient warlord we call Joshua, the book of whose deeds has virtually disappeared from church usage.

The worst feature of this far-reaching excision of troubling texts is what it suggests about the churches’ attitude toward their ordinary believers, who must be protected from anything that might call them to question the orthodoxies of the day.  God forbid they might hear these texts: They might be induced to think.

I am one of those who would be glad if there were nothing in the Bible encouraging war, or genocide, or slavery; if it spoke out consistently and clearly in favor of equality between men and women, of a mindful relationship with the natural world, of the rights and dignity of sexual minorities; if it fit easily into a scientific worldview and a liberal democratic political system.  These are some of the values Jenkins would classify among the “orthodoxies of the day,” and of course they are that.  I don’t mind being called orthodox.  But it is simply false to pretend that the Bible really is that way, and Jenkins deserves commendation for speaking out against the infantilization of “ordinary believers” implied in the Nice version of the scriptures presented in the Revised Common Lectionary.

In the same issue, Aaron D. Wolf marks the 400th anniversary of the “King James Bible.”  Wolf has fond memories of his fundamentalist boyhood and of the 1611 Bible as a presence in that boyhood, but now that he has left fundamentalism behind and become a more traditional sort of Christian he is constrained to point out some of the limitations in that translation.  I hadn’t known just how dependent the 1611 translation was on William Tyndale’s earlier translation.  Evidently 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament in the 1611 translation comes verbatim from Tyndale, and the rest was shaped by the influence of Tyndale’s approach.  As a Lutheran in an England whose established church was still subordinate to Rome, Tyndale was put to death for heresy in 1536, but it would seem he managed to get the last word.

Thomas Fleming isn’t a particularly humorous author, at least not intentionally, but his column did make me chuckle this time around with this story.  He meets a man.  “‘Been to church’?  he asked.  Dressed in a suit at 10:30 on Sunday morning, I was forced to admt the fact.”

Chilton Williamson writes about industrialization.  He grants that the industrial revolution was in a sense inevitable, so that “the question of whether men should have created industrialism is a meaningless one, the kind of modern question-putting Chesterton deplored.”  Still, t’s clear that he wishes he could answer the question in the negative.  “Industrialism has two ultimate tendencies.  One is to subdue nature and to exhaust it, while ruining it as a home for man, as well as for the thousands upon thousands of other species that industrial activity has driven to extinction, not least through the explosive growth of the human species that industrialization has made possible.  The other is to subdue and exploit man, while progressively marginalizing him in the workplace and in society as a whole by mechanization, and finally replacing him altogether with robotic labor.” Williamson doesn’t mention Eric Gill, but Gill’s critique of industrialization seems to be behind this remark and his suspicion that “industrialism, in both human and natural terms, is patently unsustainable, and that its eventual collapse is therefore guaranteed.”

Designed to fail

Jeffrey Reiman

The June 2010 issue of the ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine contains this paragraph, in a column by Philip Jenkins:

The concept of “designed to fail” was formulated back in 1979 in an influential study by leftist scholar Jeffrey Reiman entitled The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.  Following Marxist theory, Reiman argued that the goal of the criminal-justice system was not to suppress crime but to promote and sustain acceptable levels of social misbehavior, with the aim of enhancing the power and resources of official agencies.  Crime, in short, is useful, even essential, for the preservation of state power.  Reiman was not postulating a conspiracy theory but exploring the dynamics of agencies charged with tasks that were literally impossible.  Yet rather than being discredited or disheartened by their failures, agencies stood to benefit mightily from them and actively sought out still more absurdly quioxotic challenges.  They were in a no-lose situation. 

This description reminds me of an idea I’ve sometimes tried to express.  In a representative democracy, political power is in the hands of the electorate, yet the electorate consists almost entirely of people who are in no position to know what the state is doing.  If the government undertakes a program meant to discourage certain crimes, the most the majority will now about this program is that it represents a campaign to fight crime.  Even if this program is an absolute success in rational terms, and entirely eliminates the crimes it was aimed at discouraging, the public will observe that other crimes still go unchecked.  The electorate, therefore, will count the program as a failure.  

Because of these disparate perceptions, advocates of increased state power find themselves in a position to appeal simultaneously to political insiders and to the public at large.  Insiders may respond to the fact that the program succeeded in its actual goals, and support future programs to pursue other goals.  The public at large will focus on the program’s imagined failures, and demand a more aggressive program to make good on promises that they suppose the first program to have made.  As a result, the degree of police authority and other sorts of bureaucratic domination tends to ratchet ever upward as a representative democracy develops.  When this idea first popped into my head a while back, I thought of labeling it “the authoritarian spiral.”  I was disappointed to find that political scientist Ian Loader had already coined the phrase “authoritarian spiral,” with another meaning, a few years before.  So I started calling it “the authoritarian ratchet effect,” which is admit not at all catchy.   

To prevent this ratchet effect from transforming a representative democracy into a despotism, I call for a revival of direct democracy.  People who are actively involved in drafting, approving, and carrying out particular laws are likelier to have an idea what can reasonably be expected of those laws than are people whose only involvement in that process is the right to cast one vote out of 100,000,000.