Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sunday Reading

  • Frank Rich on the emerging Buzzard Culture in America.

    Mortality – the more graphic, the merrier – is the biggest thing going in America. Between Terri Schiavo and the pope, we’ve feasted on decomposing bodies for almost a solid month now. The carefully edited, three-year-old video loops of Ms. Schiavo may have been worthless as medical evidence but as necro-porn their ubiquity rivaled that of TV’s top entertainment franchise, the all-forensics-all-the-time “CSI.” To help us visualize the dying John Paul, another Fox star, Geraldo Rivera, brought on Dr. Michael Baden, the go-to cadaver expert from the JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson mediathons, to contrast His Holiness’s cortex with Ms. Schiavo’s.

    As sponsors line up to buy time on “CSI,” so celebrity deaths have become a marvelous opportunity for beatific self-promotion by news and political stars alike. Tim Russert showed a video of his papal encounter on a “Meet the Press” where one of the guests, unchallenged, gave John Paul an A-plus for his handling of the church’s sex abuse scandal. Jesse Jackson, staking out a new career as the angel of deathotainment, hit the trifecta: in rapid succession he appeared with the Schindlers at their daughter’s hospice in Florida, eulogized Johnnie Cochran on “Larry King Live” and reminisced about his own papal audience with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

    What’s disturbing about this spectacle is not so much its tastelessness; America will always have a fatal attraction to sideshows. What’s unsettling is the nastier agenda that lies far less than six feet under the surface. Once the culture of death at its most virulent intersects with politicians in power, it starts to inflict damage on the living.

    When those leaders, led by the Bush brothers, wallow in this culture, they do a bait-and-switch and claim to be upholding John Paul’s vision of a “culture of life.” This has to be one of the biggest shams of all time. Yes, these politicians oppose abortion, but the number of abortions has in fact been going down steadily in America under both Republican and Democratic presidents since 1990 – some 40 percent in all. The same cannot be said of American infant fatalities, AIDS cases and war casualties – all up in the George W. Bush years. Meanwhile, potentially lifesaving phenomena like condom-conscious sex education and federally run stem-cell research are in shackles.

    This agenda is synergistic with the entertainment culture of Mr. Bush’s base: No one does the culture of death with more of a vengeance – literally so – than the doomsday right. The “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins all but pant for the bloody demise of nonbelievers at Armageddon. And now, as Eric J. Greenberg has reported in The Forward, there’s even a children’s auxiliary: a 40-title series, “Left Behind: The Kids,” that warns Jewish children of the hell that awaits them if they don’t convert before it’s too late. Eleven million copies have been sold on top of the original series’ 60 million.


    If there’s one lesson to take away from the saturation coverage of the pope, it is how relatively enlightened he was compared with the men in business suits ruling Washington. Our leaders are not only to the right of most Americans (at least three-quarters of whom opposed Congressional intervention in the Schiavo case) but even to the right of most American evangelical Christians (most of whom favored the removal of Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube, according to Time magazine). They are also, like Mel Gibson and the fiery nun of “Revelations,” to the right of the largely conservative pontiff they say they revere. This is true not only on such issues as the war in Iraq and the death penalty but also on the core belief of how life began. Though the president of the United States believes that the jury is still out on evolution, John Paul in 1996 officially declared that “fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.”

    We don’t know the identity of the corpse that will follow the pope in riveting the nation’s attention. What we do know is that the reality show we’ve made of death has jumped the shark, turning from a soporific television diversion into the cultural embodiment of the apocalyptic right’s growing theocratic crusade.

  • Conservatives are circling their wagons around Tom DeLay.

    Allies and friends of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) have concluded that public attention to his ethics is unlikely to abate for months to come, and they plan to try to preserve his power by launching an aggressive media strategy and calling in favors from prominent conservative leaders, according to Republicans participating in the strategy sessions.

    The Republicans said the strategy combines leaks from DeLay allies about questionable Democratic trips and financial matters; denunciations of unfavorable news stories as biased, orchestrated rehashes; and swift, organized responses to journalists’ inquiries.

    The resistance was launched two weeks ago when DeLay flew back to Washington from Texas during Easter recess to speak to a group of about 30 conservative leaders who had gathered in the conference room of the Family Research Council for a call to arms on his behalf.

    Officials working with DeLay said he is trying to lock in support by sowing the message that an attack on him is an attack on the conservative movement, and that taking him out would be the Democrats’ first step toward regaining control of the House and Senate. These officials said they believe the attacks are part of a strategy by Democrats, aided by watchdog groups funded by liberals, to use the ethics process to try to regain power.


    DeLay staff members are linking with outside lawyers — including Barbara Comstock, former research director of the Republican National Committee — to form what is essentially a campaign organization aimed at minimizing damage to DeLay and building support despite what they believe will be a continuing torrent of news stories about his travel, fundraising and dealings with lobbyists.

    One Republican familiar with the strategy, who asked not to be identified in order to be more candid, described the message as “Clintonian” in that it emphasized the idea that “there’s no news, and they’re out to get us” — with the addition that “liberal media, liberal Democrats” are to blame.


    Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a prominent social conservative, said his mission is to remind people that DeLay is a large reason that Congress has a conservative majority. “He is in the cross hairs in large part because of his effectiveness,” Perkins said. “It’s a typical strategy: Take out the leader, and other people scatter.”

    This is great. The conservatives are doing exactly the right thing to make Tom DeLay the poster boy for right-wing arrogance, and just like Newt Gingrich, they’re giving their opponents a big helmet-haired (and slightly balding in the back) target. Knock yourself out, guys.

  • The Blade notes the approaching 80th anniversary of the Scopes Trial.

    Americans are approaching the 80th anniversary of the famous “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tenn., one of the few legal proceedings in our history that genuinely qualifies for the title of “trial of the century.”
    It defined a generation and, while the case was inconclusive, it carved out the stereotype of the “Bible Belt” or “the Sahara of the Bozart,” an area of the country that could be deemed to be south of freedom, which, as the acerbic H.L. Mencken wrote, is “a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.”

    The state of Ohio is not exempt from this Bozartian trend, as demonstrated by an effort to mobilize 2,000 evangelical, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic leaders in a grass-roots campaign to gain control of the Ohio Republican Party.

    For years there was a cultural divide within the country. Now, it appears to be reaching toward the 49th parallel. Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio GOP, warned that the party, if pushed too far to the right, could lose its role as a “party of a big tent,” and its decade-long dominance in a state that still remains quite equally divided.

    Do Ohioans really want to get their marching orders from the pulpits across the state? If churches were to become adjuncts of a political party, it could be argued that they should forfeit the tax-free status that religion enjoys in this country, unless they manage to gain control of the third branch of the federal government, the still largely independent judiciary.

    How long would the voters of a diverse and free-wheeling federal republic tolerate a tyranny of the majority, one in which doctors and pharmacists might even some day refuse to provide birth control pills for women on grounds of religious scruples and in which clergymen attempt to set the political agenda?

    In the Scopes “monkey trial,” which revolved around the teaching of evolution, it may be said that the prosecution eventually triumphed. Surveys have shown that teachers increasingly avoid the teaching of evolution or are pressured to label it as a “theory” and to put forward the biblical version of the creation of life on earth.

    The result of that almost certainly will be the production of generations of young people who are scientifically illiterate and have contempt for science and its methods of inquiry. The folks in Dayton, Tenn., at least are profiting from the furor over Charles Darwin’s theories; it brings in tourism dollars.

    Strangely, Americans fail to comprehend the irony of imposing religious orthodoxy on our own society at a time when we are under attack by Islamic radicals and in which peace prospects between militant Israelis and their Muslim adversaries are not noticeably brighter.

    It remains one of history’s great paradoxes that wars fought over religion have been the scourge of mankind.

    Ohioans should reject a pulpit-centered march to the right led by so-called “Patriot pastors” and the opportunistic politicians seeking to ally themselves with such a movement.

    It sounds like a good time for a revival of Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.