Inflammatory Rhetoric

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INTRODUCTION

After posting “The Incendiary President” yesterday, someone with better memory than I remembered the guest commentary aired by Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered 10 years ago. Some things don’t change. The audio has vanished, but MPR’s archives preserves the text. In 2020, we are reaping the harvest of what we’ve sown.

When political rhetoric poisons . . .” – All Things Considered (MPR), March 29, 2010

Our nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric. How else does one explain the sending of a used condom to a Minnesota congresswoman, or the phone message left on Rep. Keith Ellison’s answering machine: “Timothy McVeigh said dead government workers are good government workers. Goodbye, Sambo”?

And that’s just here in Minnesota.

The success of a democratic republic depends upon the civility of its citizens and their respect for the offices of public servants, regardless of who occupies the office. Unless we clean up the language of our civil discourse, we are inviting unimaginable tragedy.

According to a Harris Interactive Poll taken this month, “more than 20 percent believe [President Obama] was not born in the United States, that he is ‘the domestic enemy’ of whom the U.S. Constitution speaks, that he is racist and aynti-American, and that he ‘wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.’ Fully 20 percent think he is ‘doing many of the things that Hitler did,’ while 14 percent believe ‘he may be the anti-Christ’ and 13 percent think ‘he wants the terrorists to win.'” 

Though I distrust the percentages of any poll, whatever the real percentages of such views, this cocktail is lethal. But it is not new. The acrid taste is familiar to my generation We grew up in another time when the civil discourse was being poisoned.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy was dumping poison — instigating a national witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers in government, the entertainment industry, and labor unions. In the spring of 1954, McCarthy’s crusade of insinuation, innuendo and guilt by association was brought to an end by journalist Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh, attorney for the U.S. Army.

Sharpening his teeth to devour his adversary by character assassination, McCarthy snarled and reminded Welch that one of Welch’s colleagues had belonged to an organization suspected of communist sympathies. Welch replied with words we all need to hear again: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Welch’s words took our breath away back then. They still do. A sense of decency is the only thing that will strengthen us to escape the politics of assassination and allow us to seek solutions in a difficult time. In Murrow’s words, “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from the fearful.”

Painting the president of the United States or members of Congress with McCarthy’s sloppy brush as domestic enemies — let alone as the Antichrist — gives deranged minds a license to send used condoms or hateful voicemails. Or even to plot an assassination.

I am a pastor. The use of Christian scripture to stoke the fires of fear and hate are the hardest to take. The Christian life takes evil seriously, but there may be no greater evil than ill-informed, loud spirituality. All the great religions hold some version of the essential tenet expressed in the First Letter of John, which, incidentally, is the only place in all of Christian Scripture that the idea of the Antichrist appears. “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still.”

Where are the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh now? We need them again.

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Gordon C. Stewart, Minnesota Public Radio (91.1 FM), March 29, 2010. Re-posted September 4, 2020.

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9/11 Anniversary Reflection

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” [Bhagavad Gita XI.32]

We live under the reign of death – under the threat of death, the fact of death, the fear of death, the practice of death, the way of death. We are reminded of it on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the day after President Obama’s speech about ISIS.

One might suppose J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons, thought he and his colleagues were taking humanity higher up the ladder of human progress. Whatever he may have thought at the beginning, he sensed a fall into the arms of the destroyer of worlds while watching the first nuclear explosion in 1945.

Twenty years later, during a visit to Japan, Oppenheimer reflected on his immediate reaction watching the Trinity explosion at Alamogordo that unleashed the genie of atomic power on the world, knowing it could never be put back in the bottle.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” he said. His eyes were sullen, like someone who was remembering a great horror, his voice quiet, his speech slow, pensive, sorrowful. Maybe even penitential. The way some people talk who suffer post traumatic stress syndrome.

“A few people laughed, a few people cried . . . most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Oppenheimer is long gone. So is Edward R. Murrow, the courageous journalist who stood up to the right wing’s insidious attacks on J. Robert Oppenheimer and others using the verbal weaponry to which we have become accustomed: innuendo, guilt by association, sentences taken out of context, and the imputation of scurrilous motives, character assassinations the destroy the reputations of thoughtful people deemed by the dutiful to be less than dutiful patriots.

Today, the 13th Anniversary of the horror of 9/11, we pause to remember. We do so in the post-nuclear world of mass destruction first observed by Oppenheimer at Alamogordo where Death has become the destroyer of worlds, where ISIL beheads journalists and President Obama commits to destroying ISIL from the face of the earth. We all hold our breath at the sight of the multi-armed, ever-changing form of the power of Death and its summons to duty.

In America the arms industry stands alone as exempt from consumer protection laws, beyond congressional review. The guns at the gun shows, the military vehicles that patrolled the streets of Ferguson, the arms and other military equipment our government supplies to regimes around the world, the bombs dropped from drones, and the drones themselves constitute an unaccountable cabal of money and power like no other in the American economy. Ours has become a war economy, an economy that profits from death.

“A few people laughed,” said Oppenheimer with deep sadness. “Most people were silent.”

Once the destroyer of worlds is loosed, the genie can never be put back in the bottle. But those who have witnessed the explosions, or heard of them, here at home in Ferguson, and abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, or Syria have a responsibility to honor the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer and other brave men and women who refused to remain silent about the tragic climb up the ladder toward divine power that always leads to the fall into a hell of our own making.

FOX and the Scapegoat Mechanism

Today’s post on FOX News is inspired by Rene Girard’s “Mimetic” theory and an Aesop’s fable. First the fable.

THE FOX AND THE CROW

A Fox (read FOX) saw a Crow (the American people) fly off with a piece of cheese (real information) in its beak and settle on a branch in a tree.

“That’s for me, as I am a Fox,” said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree.

“Good day, Mistress Crow,” he cried. “How well you are looking today: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds (parties, races, countries), just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of all Birds.”

The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth, the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox.

“That will do,” said he. “That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese, I will give you a piece of advice for the future: ‘Do not trust flatterers.'”

THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AND SOCIAL CONTROL

Rene Girard’s theory of “mimetic” desire, mimetic rivalry, and the scapegoat mechanism explains the secret of the appeal and success of FOX News. The Fox takes the cheese it extols by flattering its viewers as the true patriots, the lovers of goodness and truth.

FOX News is the 21st Century voice of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). Joe McCarthy and what came to be known as “McCarthyism” scared the American public in a search for neighbors who might be closeted communists or communist sympathizers until news anchor Edward R. Murrow ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt with a single newscast.

As in that sordid history of the Salem Witch Trials in which the Puritans were summoned by their magistrates and clergy to rid themselves of evil (see Kai Erickson’s The Wayward Puritans: a Study in the Sociology of Deviance), McCarthy’s hunt was a convention of social control to maintain the old fraying religious, political, cultural consensus. FOX resurrects those shameful chapters of the American experience.

There is no quicker way to rally people than to create a scapegoat (a shared enemy, the embodiment of evil). All it takes is a FOX to flatter the “Queen of all Birds” into dropping the Cheese.

A Journey of Faith into Economics

 – Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 12, 2012

North Philadelphia street scene

Where I grew up Karl Marx was the enemy of all that was good and true. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a dead heat in the Cold War between the Christian and capitalist West, and the atheistic, Communist East. In elementary school we dove under our desks during air raid drills to prepare us for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Broomall, Pennsylvania, population 1,000. We began the school day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – “one nation under God” – and a prayer that asked for God’s blessing. In World War II our fathers had beaten back the evil of Nazism. Now, evil was threatening once again from fascism’s opposite, godless Communism. It was either us or them.

It took a while before I asked about the coupling of Christian faith and capitalism or read Marx himself. To read him or to entertain the idea of a classless society was heretical treason, or treasonable heresy. Church and nation were two sides of the same thing. But the more I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, went to worship and youth group,  and became acquainted with the poverty of north Philadelphia, I began to realize that “freedom and justice for all” was, at best, an aspiration, not a fact.  At worst, it was a compelling myth that allowed us to think of ourselves as the chosen whose job was to eliminate evil from a fallen world.

Two summers working as a street worker for the Presbytery of Philadelphia in the poorest neighborhoods rattled my world and shook me to my knees. Every Monday through Friday during the summers of 1961 and ’62, I traveled an hour-and-a-half by bus and subway from my suburban home in Broomall to north Philadelphia and back trying to make some sense of these two very different worlds. How and why did they exist – one white; one black? One materially satisfied; one not? Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement were answering that it was because of  the politics and economics of white privilege.

When I read the work of Willem Zuurdeeg, a Dutch philosopher of religion who grew up as part of the underground resistance during World War II, I found the philosophical mind that looked below the surface to the deeper convictions that hold our hearts and minds captive. The rest of the story is too long to tell.

Capitalism, like Communism, is an idol manufactured by the human heart, one of the convictions, often unexamined, that vie for our worship and allegiance. No economic system is now, or ever will be, perfect. Its efficacy and utility are to be judged by what it does to the people who live under its mindset and institutions.  Today, I hear strident voices that sound like the voice of the late Senator Joe McCarthy who turned over the tables looking for America’s internal enemies. I would like it to be said when I am gone that I honored the memories of Edward R. Murrow whose courageous reporting exposed McCarthyism, and of Joseph Walsh, the attorney for the Army who spoke aloud the words that brought an end to the power of the McCarthy Hearings to destroy decent, dissenting American citizens: “Have you no decency, Sir? Have you no decency left?”

Ours is a later time. The issues of our day are complex. But underneath the debates, the “us against them” mindset of World War II and the Cold War is no less alive than it was then. However and wherever McCarthy’s eyes flash while his finger points and his voice rises again, those of us who hear a Deeper Voice must not be silent. The Deeper Voice is the “still small Voice” of conscience and dissent.