Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The hateful words of Maureen Dowd and everyone else

Media Matters recently documented a pattern New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd follows as she ridicules political candidates. Dowd often has portrayed Hillary Clinton as masculine, such as writing that Senator Clinton won the Indiana primary by playing “The Man”. She has portrayed Barack Obama and John Edwards as effeminate, even claiming that historians will note that one reason Obama defeated the first serious female candidate for President was because voters were drawn to his “more feminine management style”.

I had been meaning to look up how Dowd started calling Senator Obama “Obambi”. Was that the fawn Bambi or the grown-up Bambi? Now Media Matters has helped me with that. Frequently procrastination does have that benefit. It turns out that Dowd in her column of December 13, 2006 foresaw the manly Clinton as Godzilla, taking on the not-so-black Obambi in a way that in Dowd’s mind presumably followed the very brief plot of the movie Bambi vs. Godzilla, something all of us born in the fifties must know. Dowd’s analysis of the race thereby fell short of reminding anyone of Cassandra. Apparently Dowd compensates for such lack of vision with her biting ridicule of the candidates. It wasn’t just straight analysis that got her that 1999 Pulitzer Prize for her columns on Monica Lewinsky.

Interestingly, Dowd once made the same claim for which Christopher Matthews had to apologize this year, that Clinton, “won her Senate seat only after becoming sympathetic as a victim”. Meanwhile Dowd victimized Senator Edwards, calling him a “Breck girl”. Before the current campaign, Al Gore seemed effeminate to her as well. Didn’t Dowd have any men in her life to show her that helping people is not effeminate?

At the same time Dowd finds few emasculating nicknames for Republican candidates. She didn’t ignore Rudy Giuliani dressing up as a woman, of course. But to find any sexist insult of John McCain, Media Matters had to go back to April 30, 2000, when Dowd called him “McDiva” on comparing Senator McCain to Diana Ross.

It’s not that Republicans can’t be funny as the butt of jokes. Those are easy to find in the blogosphere. But Republicans as effeminate? Well, I think I’ve seen those, but perhaps Dowd’s readers wouldn’t think that’s as funny. I’m sure Dowd knows her audience.

One thing I did notice in looking at Dowd’s columns in the Media Matters links is how much she calls Senator Obama, “Barry”. Is this where so many in the blogosphere decided this was a cool thing to do? Much more subtle than “Hussein”, I suppose.

Maureen Dowd, trendsetter for hateful words one can pretend are cool, only there’s no chance that Dowd invented such a disguise for hate. Go through any newspaper archive and look at 19th-century political attacks, words and cartoons. I’m sure “Ape” Lincoln was thought to be a clever and penetrating insult at the time. Yeah, we’ll keep that ape from becoming President. Then when he did, we’ll secede. We won’t stand for being under that ape. Then if they want to fight us, bring it on. Yeah, it was really clever to make such an extreme caricature of Lincoln.

I know of no place on either the political spectrum or the religious spectrum where there aren’t some people who think such ridicule is funny, as long as it’s directed at those other people, the ones not as cool as we are. Part of me would preach for the better way, the way of love, even for one’s enemy, instead of hate, indifference or the strange way some people combine both in their contempt for some scapegoat. Yet the more interesting part for me is to look at Maureen Dowd and know she’s not at all unique. She’s prolific in her insults, but not unique.

Maybe Dowd shares my beliefs that all religions are false and all politics corrupt. Maybe that’s where her contempt for just about everyone comes from. Is it cynicism or does she find existential joy in attacking the powerful? I don’t know Maureen Dowd well enough to tell the difference, but either way I’d rather be more straightforward. She’s not that right in relentlessly insulting candidates through gender roles. She just has a taste for that sort of insult, whether it tastes bitter or sweet to her.

There is a better way than hate and indifference if people want to choose it, but again and again, people choose hate and indifference. There is power in the latter, power in finding people who agree with you in mocking those other people, enough people to win elections, even to establish a political philosophy that will last more than one election. Such a winning political philosophy and coalition is still transient, of course, but that’s enough power for many people to embrace it.

Plus look at all the fun various people are having calling Senator Obama “Barry”, from anti-McCain libertarians and neo-cons to loyal Republicans to those who still say it’s Senator Clinton or nothing for them. They have at least 5 months to enjoy that. Then one just has to tweak one’s hatred a little after one’s position has been defeated at the polls. It can still be so clever. What do those stupid voters know?

I don’t think hatred and indifference are going away. I think it’s human nature. People so often subdivide hatred, so it becomes OK to hate racism or hate sexism or even try to decide which is being favored more, racism or sexism. It’s all hatred, whether it’s more traditional, more institutionalized or more organically from the present, whether the purveyors of a particular hatred are in power or out of power. Only some people say it’s just those other people who hate. “We’re fine. We’re being clever. They’re stupid” Right.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Whatever God wants, He keeps!"

I heard a joke many years ago, more than once I think. I considered retelling it here in a way that’s neither sectarian nor ethnic, but since I heard it told by a Jewish man and the link here is about Jewish humor, I’ll just reproduce it this way:

As retold by Bruce Lowitt

A Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew are discussing tithing. They draw a circle in chalk on the pavement below them.

The Catholic says: "We should take the money and throw it in the air, and whatever lands inside the circle, we give to God."

The Protestant says: "No, we should throw it in the air and whatever lands outside the circle we give to God."

The Jew says: “No, we throw it in the air; whatever God wants, He keeps!”

Apparently the joke is supposed to resonate with the stereotype of the miserly Jew, but I have remembered it often over the years as something one reasonably could expect of an omnipotent God. Why not? Given enough faith, why not expect the omnipotent God to pluck whatever money He wants from out of the air?

And if God has no direct need for money, but would like it to be sent to some approved cause, why not announce that, either to a single individual or in some sort of broadcast? Some believe that the Bible is a broadcast from God. There are many verses there that encourage charity. Some like Matthew 25 described fearsome consequences for those who fail to help others.

Yet many claim to be believers while doing little to help others. Do they pick and choose what parts of the Bible to believe, maybe even while accusing liberals of being inferior for doing just that? Do they expect the omnipotent God to speak to them individually, something like, “I mean you!” Is it the absence of this that has them believing they don’t need to do more than they are?

This is not just about charity. People seem to have the same attitude towards their beliefs, their lifestyle, and the judgments they make. If the omnipotent God wanted them to be different, wouldn’t He tell them? If not through a great, big booming voice, then perhaps one can hear a still, small voice. If not even that, surely God can reach us through our conscience, as secularly as any of us may see that happening.

I often think of this when I hear anyone proclaim that their beliefs are right, and everyone else’s beliefs are wrong, be that person atheist, liberal or traditionalist. I’ve heard that recently from some who claim Jeremiah Wright can’t be Christian, along with calling him racist, hater, demagogue, anti-American, whatever else.

Do people even consider the possibilities that their judgments are exactly the opposite of how God sees it unless God Himself tells them? I suppose someone less than God might make a dent in such judgments, a religious leader perhaps, someone trusted by the person making judgments. Yet religious leaders tend to make the same judgments as their followers. Jerry Falwell didn’t shy away from saying that he knew God’s mind about sexual orientation. Who says he did?

Of course many people make claims not based on their theology, but supposedly supported by logic. Only I’ve been online for ten years, and one of the most pointless things I’ve done online is try to point out the lack of a foundation for judgments such as these. That doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

People believe what their group believes, their political group, their religious group, the people at work. People may extend those group beliefs in some idiosyncratic way or even abandon some of them should their experience teach them otherwise, but how often do you go wrong deciding what someone’s religion or politics is based on their rhetoric? I don’t think it’s very often.

People largely conform to their group and if they’re open to God leading them in another way at all, it’s only the God as seen by their group who can lead. Even that might not be enough. Otherwise, why don’t all those who believe in an omnipotent God assume things such as God’s power to whisk money out of the air? Because they’ve never seen it? Oh come on, people believe all sorts of things they’ve never seen, as long as enough other people back them up in those beliefs.

This year’s Presidential campaign is not going to be about whether or not Jeremiah Wright deserves the judgments various people make about him. I’m not sure if there ever will be a dialog about this during the lifetime of those involved. Instead people have their opinions based on their experience and wherever they get their beliefs, and I expect those opinions to be quite stable, because I don’t expect God to do anything to change this.

Personally I believe that’s because God lacks the power to communicate to those who have no idea who the real God is. That’s what God tells me. It fits with what I see, and most of what God tells me I find to be helpful, so I believe it.

Ancient people saw it otherwise. They supposed gods controlled everything. Who was there to say differently? Theologians built on that to make this perfect God with absolute and infinite properties, making Him completely different from any of us profane creatures, just as Aristotle decided celestial movement must be entirely different from terrestrial movement. It’s been known that Aristotle was wrong for at least 400 years. It does take time for the consequences of new knowledge to take hold fully.

God is whoever and whatever God is, even if He is no more sacred than anything else, even if nothing is omnipotent or omniscient. An omnipotent God could proclaim who and what He is to a few individuals, to everyone, however He wants to do it, but you’d think that would be a reliable process, not like the mess of this world. A non-existent God can’t tell anyone anything. If those were the only two possibilities, God’s failure to correct the most obviously incorrect judgments of His followers would be so incomprehensible to me, it would be yet one more observation that makes me sure He doesn’t exist.

There are possibilities between those two, however. What I observe of people’s opinions, both religious and political, may be almost entirely the result of biological evolution and cultural evolution, with only a little bit of input from people who have tried to understand God directly. So we have the contrast of a Bible with a verse like Matthew 7:1 in it, a verse that says not to judge, yet Bible-believers are just as judgmental as anyone else, and not any more accurate in their judgments. It seems that many say they are Bible believers from their culture, from their church, but they don’t actually believe words from the Bible. An omnipotent God would do better than that. Even a God with some power over such believers would do better than that. What about a God with very little power over Bible believers or idolators of the Bible, whichever term is more accurate?

All religion is false. All politics is corrupt. That’s not absolutely true, but isn’t it amazing how close to being true it is?

People pretend that’s not true. Their religion is fine, but Jeremiah Wright’s Christianity certainly isn’t or maybe it’s John Hagee’s Christianity someone would say isn’t really Christian. Their own politics is fine, but not the politics of those evil people on the other side or stupid people or selfish people or crazy people.

I watch people come at these conflicts rationally. What a waste of words, time, and effort. Professional politicians know how to win elections. Their efforts are not so wasted. It matter some who wins. Cultural evolution is built up from such choices. But what an excessive amount of attention politics gets, religion, too, especially when so much of both are pride and idolatries.

Hardly anyone looks to God directly. To some degree, that can be just as crazy as expecting God to pull your money out of the air unless He doesn’t care if you keep it all. Yet looking to God doesn’t have to involve any physical miracle, the likes of which I have never seen. One can talk with God not sure if there is a God. I suppose it helps to have some expectation there is a God. Otherwise who would stick with this enough to consider how God might answer one of us profane creatures?

However it works, I’m convinced there is a God who is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, yet helps me with direction, strength, comfort, love, and hope, through prayer, through words that are better than my words. He can’t change anyone’s mind involuntarily, so those who are sure God would fix them if they need to be fixed might better reconsider that. Few will. It’s human nature for people to keep certain beliefs until they die. Because of that cultural evolution has to wait for younger generations to replace older ones.

Individuals can change faster than cultures, but we have to give up the delusion that we know so much for that. Giving up that delusion didn’t send me into my backyard to give God whatever part of my money He wants. If I threw my money up into the air and claimed God didn’t want it, I’d be lying. I don’t believe in a God who can do physical miracles. I’d be lying if I suggested I did. I know that. The God who somehow shares my consciousness knows that. There’s no point in lying to someone who knows me that well.

I don’t rely on any kind of casting lots to know what God wants. I don’t trust any ritual, doctrine, religious leader, book, or institution to substitute for God. Why should they? Who says God wants them to? Have you asked Him?

Few people have. They believe whatever words pass their lips, whatever excuses they have to say they can say and do whatever they say and do and be in the right. Anyone is free to live that way. It is such a natural thing for our brain to think of how we are right in what we say and do. Yet people on both sides of a conflict insist they are right despite having completely contradictory opinions. They can’t all be right. They may all be wrong.

That’s what I’ve come to in recent years. They are all wrong. Each of the characters in the above joke is wrong. Each pretends they can know God through a ritual. In real life it’s doctrines and leaders people fight over more than rituals, but it’s the same process. People want to know what to do quickly, too quickly to consult God seriously. People want to say and do what they’ve already decided on saying and doing, whether it’s some judgment they’ve made of other people or some action they decided for themselves. Few even pretend to ask God. So the world is full of falseness, hatred, and indifference. Before you decide that means there isn’t a God, consider another possibility.

If you want to know what God wants, ask Him. Every other method is hopelessly flawed. There are flaws in how we ask God anything, but my experience in this has surprised me and made me a believer in whoever and whatever God is. That is not hopeless.