Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Reading

Crank It Up to Ten — Charlie Pierce on those wonderful folks who love the Tenth Amendment above all else.

In 1996, Kenneth Stern wrote a terrific book called A Force Upon The Plain, about the rise of the militia movement in America, particularly in the west. At one point in the book, Stern quotes a militia-connected Colorado state senator named Charlie Duke, who tells a gathering of “patriots” in Indianapolis, that members of Congress “don’t seem to know what the Tenth Amendment is about.” Duke, Stern reports, also was the driving force behind non-binding “Tenth Amendment Resolutions” in 15 states. These resolutions, writes Stern, “exalted states rights over the laws of the federal government.” Recall now that, in 1994, this was the thinking of a guy who also believed that the federal government was implanting microchips into American infants.

Recall it because now, in 2012, every single one of the four remaining Republican candidates for president essentially have signed onto Charlie Duke’s program. Oh, they’ve shined it up. It’s not draped in camo any more, and the four of them are considerably less well-armed than the people who were pushing this 20 years ago, but they’ve all come around to the basic notion. What was once the province of people who were flirting with armed sedition is now a position that any Republican who wants to have a serious chance at national office has to take. Rick Perry based his entire campaign for presidency on this very point, and now he’s heading up a group of Tenther SuperFriends on behalf of N. Leroy Gingrich.

As with many things, the four of them are confused on the issue. At one moment, they’re saying that it is a violation of the Tenth Amendment for the federal government to do those things that they don’t like it to be doing. (This is the pure Tenther position.) But then the discussion quickly morphs into an argument that the various states can do those things better than the federal government can. The latter contention is easily refuted, and more easily laughed into oblivion. Those of us here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) find the whole thing very funny; we’ve just seen our third consecutive speaker of the state house of representatives convicted and sent to jail. Top that, Louisiana!

State governments are sinkholes of fraud and thievery. Just ask any local wingnut radio talk-show host. Only this week, we saw what happens when you “leave things to the states.” Governors and legislatures in several states are appropriating the money sent out by the federal government to the victims of the foreclosure fraud scandal for their own purposes. Which leaves our heroes up there with the constitutional argument, the intellectual parentage of which should give us all pause.

The Creation of a People — Jeff Wheelwright looks at the origins of the New Mexicans.

The story begins in 1598, when an expedition of several hundred Spanish colonists led by Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande near present-day El Paso. Most were unmarried young soldiers. Some of the officers and civilians had brought along their wives and children. Spearheading the entrada was a tatterdemalion group of friars in gray robes. Unlike earlier conquests in the Americas, whose object was treasure, the northern extension of New Spain was intended to be peaceful and evangelical. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, an officer of the expedition who wrote the first history of New Mexico, found it significant that El Paso and Jerusalem lay on the same latitude.

In this New Jerusalem of the Rio Grande del Norte lived forty-five thousand Pueblo Indians, by modern estimates. (Pueblo means town or village in Spanish.) Pueblos looked something like rectangular Lego constructions, with interlocking apartments and multiple stories. You entered a house not through the ground floor but by a ladder, which could be pulled up afterward for safety. Women were in charge of the houses, while men focused on the kiva, the religious center of the village. The kiva was circular in shape, and it too lacked a ground-level entrance, being accessed through a hole in the roof. Pueblo women were stationed closer to the earth than men, because they bore fruit like the earth. The domain of males was airborne—in the realm of clouds, lightning, and rain, the tempestuous things that fertilized the earth. The Indian deities, collectively called katsinas, dwelled in the rain clouds, as did the departed ancestors.

The Spaniards told the Puebloans they must surrender all of these beliefs. Although the soldiers and friars had come in peace, refusal to convert to Catholicism was not an option. What’s more, they were required to supply food for the Spaniards and unpaid labor for the building of the missions and the conventos where the friars would live. An early commentator, the American Josiah Gregg, in his 1845 account of the Santa Fe trade, tersely summarized the Spaniards’ relationship with the Indians, “upon whom they forced baptism and the cross in exchange for the vast possessions of which they robbed them.”

The Franciscans were experienced at spiritual warfare from having dealt with native peoples in Mexico. The padres took credit for rainmaking and healing and hunting success—the powers the people ascribed to the katsina spirits. They superimposed their adobe missions on the Indian kiva sites and substituted their icons and relics for the animal fetishes on the Indians’ altars. Because by happy coincidence the Christian cross resembled the Pueblo prayer-stick, the friars made sure to enter an unfamiliar village brandishing their most important symbol. Holy days were adjusted so that they fell on Indian feast days. And when the missionaries found out that Pueblo warriors whipped their bodies with cactus in order to toughen up for battle, the Franciscans were pleased to demonstrate their own mortifications, dragging huge crosses through the pueblos, with blood dripping from their bare, striped backs.

So the Christianity that was forged in the Kingdom of New Mexico was part Indian. A flamboyant, demon-riddled Catholicism from sixteenth-century Spain found a mate in the out-of-body expressionism of Native Americans. Syncretism is what you call it, syncretism meaning religious combination or religious admixture.

And the Oscar Goes To…. Frank Bruni reviews tonight’s Academy Awards with an eye towards the presidential campaign.

Perhaps because the 84th Academy Awards fall smack in the middle of an unusually dizzying stretch of the presidential campaign, the parallels between our cinematic and political sweepstakes have come into bold relief. And though Hollywood often sees itself — and is regarded — as a bastion of liberalism, the kinship of the Oscars with the Republican primaries is particularly striking.

Both pointlessly bloated, the two contests showcase a slew of options without a single one that inspires outsize passion or commands any real consensus. There are nine best picture nominees, and if you put away all reference materials, closed your eyes and tried to name them, you’d probably come up with no more than four, overlooking, for example, “The Tree of Life,” whose box-office haul isn’t much bigger than Callista Gingrich’s monthly budget for hairspray.

“The Tree of Life” had the distinction of actually repelling viewers, many of whom stormed out of theaters midmovie, baffled by dinosaur cameos in a family drama set in the Texas of the 1950s. Although the Academy’s goal when it upped the number of best picture nominees from five a few years back was to assure that television viewers would have multiple movies on the slate that they could relate to, only one of this year’s aspirants, “The Help,” qualifies as a bona fide hit that a sizable fraction of Americans actually saw.

The Republican field also began with a bevy of possibilities. Remember Rick Perry? Herman Cain? Such a sprawling buffet, so many empty calories.

Academy officials and Republican leaders are both grappling with a pronounced enthusiasm deficit, and you have to wonder if both groups’ demographic profiles are partly responsible for their failure to connect. Like the G.O.P., the Academy isn’t as heterogeneous as it could be. The Los Angeles Times published a widely discussed story last weekend that estimated that the Academy’s 5,765 voting members are nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with a median age of 62. This easily explains the triumph of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” last year, along with this year’s invitation to Billy Crystal to return — yet again — to host. By the yardstick of Academy membership, he’s wickedly au courant, verging on edgy.

What we have here are two hoary institutions flailing for relevance, failing to find it and responding in ways that merely exhaust the audience. Although viewership for the Oscars telecast plummeted from about 55 million in 1998, when “Titanic” cleaned up, to 37.6 million last year, the movie industry’s curious response has been to make the Oscars feel more redundant and anticlimactic than ever. Yes, the ceremony in recent years has occurred on an earlier date than in the past, when it was often in late March. But the industry has conversely teased out and tarted up the buildup to the big night by quadrupling the amount of publicity that each nominee does, larding the calendar with luncheons and parties and trumpeting all the mini- and demi-Oscars like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, now treated as must-see TV in their own right. Whole sections of greater Los Angeles are carpeted in red, so that gowns can be donned and poses struck at a moment’s notice.

Doonesbury — Class warfare.