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“The Hostility Is Clarifying”: Conservatives To Pope Francis: Stick With Salvation; We’ll Handle Politics

In a 1979 column, George Will quoted Chekhov describing a character in these terms: “He was a rationalist, but he had to confess that he liked the ringing of church bells.” To Chekhov’s lovely words, Will added his own smarmy endorsement, writing, “Me too.” In his column, Will was affirming the quote in the most literal way possible: He was writing to celebrate bells. But it’s not hard to discern in the quote a larger attitude toward religion. Will is, as he told an interviewer from this magazine, an atheist, yet as a conservative he finds religion to be socially useful and often praises it for that reason. Like the political philosopher Leo Strauss, who has shaped much of his broader outlook, Will has a utilitarian attitude toward religion: Christianity might not be true, but it helps create a cohesive society. To put it another way, Will believes in philosophy for the elite and religion for the masses.

Not surprisingly given this attitude, Will has been at the head of the conservative chorus denouncing Pope Francis’s advocacy for the environment, for migrants, and for the poor—a chorus that has grown more vehement in the run-up to Francis’s U.S. journey. In a syndicated column published on Saturday, Will came out firing: “Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false, and deeply reactionary.”

Seeing religion as a tool for political ends, Will quite naturally praises religious figures he sees as politically simpatico (like Pope John Paul II) and savages those whose politics he finds politically unpalatable (like Pope Francis). It’s not surprising that Will is so nakedly partisan in his evaluation of religious leaders. What is perhaps more noteworthy is that the same pattern can be found among conservatives who claim to be genuinely devout. Some of these critics voice the objection that Francis is too political, but on closer inspection their real problem is the same as Will’s: They don’t like his politics.

In a 2005 column, for instance, Will praised John Paul II as one of the great heroes of the 20th century because he made common cause with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in fighting communism. Enthusiastically voicing a theme common to conservatives, Will marveled that “[i]n an amazingly fecund 27-month period, the cause of freedom was strengthened by the coming to high offices of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and John Paul II, who, like the president, had been an actor and was gifted at the presentational dimension of his office.”

Yet if John Paul II’s political interventions were held up as crucial in the battle against the enemies of civilization, then his successor Francis, seemingly embodying very different politics, stands condemned as a menace who threatens the very survival of capitalism. As one of America’s foremost climate change deniers, Will has nothing but contempt for Francis’s calls for environmental responsibility. In a 2014 column, Will condemned the Pope as a sanctimonious interloper whose ignorance of worldly matters threatens to leave millions impoverished. “He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources,” Will thundered. “Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”

In taking up the cause of the environment, Will argued over the weekend, the church was abandoning its “salvific mission.” Since Will doesn’t actually believe that the salvation the church offers is real, his polemic amounts to a call for the church to continue to offer consoling lies to parishioners and ignore real problems so that the social system continues to work the way Will wants it to. Continue ringing those church bells, Will is saying, so they’ll drown out the protests of environmentalists.

The cynicism of Will’s position hardly needs to be underlined. Yet it is broadly shared by others on the right. Writing at the Federalist, Joy Pullmann, managing editor of the publication and a fellow at the lavishly funded climate change denialist think tank The Heartland Institute, makes many of the same arguments that Will does: that in voicing concern for the environment, the Pope is overstepping his proper duties as a religious leader, and that serious efforts to combat climate change would lead to an economic catastrophe that would have its worst impact on the world’s poor. In an extremely confusing line of argument, Pullmann seems to suggest that an environmental apocalypse might actually be a welcome outcome from a Christian point of view:

We will never achieve utopia in this world. That’s kind of the central story arc of the Bible: How humans screwed themselves and the whole world up, and how Jesus has and will ultimately put things to right. Getting all the way to a perfect eternity, however, requires first an apocalypse.

So maybe Pope Francis should welcome the environmental apocalypse he thinks is coming. That’s partly a joke and partly serious, because every time I see another Planned Parenthood butchering video I am ready for Jesus to take me and my kiddos right up to Paradise and end this sick, mad world.

Pullmann’s words might seem lurid and even nonsensical, but they follow the basic contours of Will’s: The church should stick to saving souls and leave the job of running the world to big business. She also upholds John Paul II as an example of a pope whom it was possible “to respect and admire”—further proof that what is wanted is not an apolitical pope but a pope who aligned with the Republican Party.

Pat Buchanan, the legendary conservative columnist, takes the right-wing hostility toward Francis to its logical conclusion and sees the current Pope, along with President Obama, as being emblematic of the deep sickness in Western civilization. In a breathtaking recent column, Buchanan opines that Francis is promoting “moral confusion,” and argues that both Putin’s Russia and Communist China show much greater cultural health than either Obama’s America or Francis’s church:

America is a different country today, a secular and post-Christian nation on its way to becoming anti-Christian. Some feel like strangers in their own land. And from the standpoint of traditional Catholicism, American culture is an open sewer. A vast volume of the traffic on the Internet is pornography.

Ironically, as all this unfolds in what was once “God’s country,” Vladimir Putin seeks to re-establish Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the basis of morality and law in Russia. And one reads in The Wall Street Journal on Monday that Xi Jinping is trying to reintroduce his Chinese Communist comrades to the teachings of Confucianism.

The world is turned upside down. Every civilization seems to recognize the necessity of faith except for the West, which has lost its faith and is shrinking and dying for lack of it.

Will is a religious skeptic, while both Pullmann and Buchanan are believers. Will’s prose is elegant and measured, while both Pullmann and Buchanan write shrill screeds. Yet despite these surface differences, they are making the same argument: that the proper role of the church is promoting individual salvation and social morality, a mission Francis is jeopardizing by advocating for political change.

The hostility conservatives of all stripes have toward Francis is clarifying. It shows that issues of belief and non-belief are less important to conservatives than adherence to an ideological party line. Despite their different metaphysics, Will, Pullmann, and Buchanan can unite in opposing Francis as a political enemy. Theology serves merely as a convenient cloak for politics.

 

By: Jeet Heer, Senior Editor, The New Republic; September 22, 2015

September 23, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, George Will, Pope Francis | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“There’s Bound To Be A Next Time”: The Sony Leak Unearthed Juicy Gossip, But The Blackmailers Must Not Win

My heart sinks, to be honest, at the prospect of having to watch The Interview. Judging from the trailers, it’s the kind of crass, juvenile slapstick that’s barely worth a bucket of popcorn and a babysitter – although we can scratch the babysitter, since the only way ever to watch this comedy may  be at home now that the embattled Sony Pictures has cancelled its cinema release. If only someone had mounted a repressive cyber-attack over an unflattering portrayal of North Korean politics in something that’s actually funny, like 2004’s Team America World Police.

But just as everyone felt obliged to order Spycatcher from Australia after the Thatcher government banned its publication, we’ll all feel obliged to watch this film should it ever emerge from what’s left of Sony HQ. The hacking of the company apparently in retaliation for this fictional account of a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader is pure political censorship, a chilling of free speech that threatens far better films and books and journalism. It cannot be allowed to succeed.

The attack on Sony seemed rather harmlessly entertaining at first, when it was all about squirming senior executives being forced to explain leaks about Jennifer Lawrence earning less than her male co-stars, or to grovel over racially charged private jokes dumped in the public domain. Even the mooted involvement of the North Korean government didn’t feel threatening when the studio was being held to ransom by little more than bitchy gossip about Angelina Jolie. Perhaps we’re all too used to watching hackers open up secretive worlds (even if at times they have done so cavalierly, and – in the past – with potentially fatal consequences) to see this for what it really was, namely an attempt to shut debate down.

Or perhaps the reaction was a slow burner because, despite leading a regime described by Amnesty International as “in a category of its own” for torture and repression, Kim Jong-un is so often inexplicably treated in the west as a sort of semi-comical cartoon baddie, a bit like a Bond villain. The oddest thing about this whole saga is that had the British government slashed the BBC’s licence fee in retaliation for a show satirising George Osborne, the response would probably have been angrier and more immediate.

But we should have realised long before cinemas started to receive threats evoking the memory of 9/11 that this wasn’t funny. Even if the White House declined on Thursday to blame the North Korean government directly, the attack on Sony has more in common with the furore over Danish cartoons of the prophet than with mischievous data raids on tax-dodging corporates. Sony has been not just embarrassed but crippled by an attack on its IT infrastructure that exposes the surprising fragility of our digitised world: the ease with which the plug can be pulled.

And while making films isn’t exactly life and death stuff, no secretary should go unpaid at Christmas because someone shut down the computerised payroll in homage to a thin-skinned dictator. No legitimate business deserves to be crippled for offending a totalitarian regime, and no government can be allowed to exercise a veto over the way it is portrayed around the world, whether what we’re talking about is a hissy fit over a comedy or China blocking Google.

If the North Korean government really is behind this attack, in the short term it’s arguably scored its own goal. Sony says it has no current plans to release the film on DVD or streaming services, perhaps because of fears that any distributor could become a hacking target, but it’s hard to believe it won’t eventually emerge somehow.

If nothing else, social media is alive with jibes at Kim Jong-un’s expense, and more people will surely now watch the trailers than would have seen the film in cinemas – just as tabloid outrage over the BBC serialising Hilary Mantel’s book on murdering Margaret Thatcher (talking of fictional assassinations) will probably only remind more people to tune into A Book at Bedtime. All arts censorship really does, whether it’s prosecuting Penguin Books over Lady Chatterley’s Lover or plastering parental advisory stickers on rap CDs, is make the object more exciting.

But in the longer term, there’s cause for concern. What major Hollywood studio is raring to make a film about North Korea now? Will a TV network or publisher think twice about commissioning something on the regime? And how should any platform respond to something like this in the future?

Sony has been criticised for caving in rather than simply collaborating with those independent cinemas still willing to show the film (most of the big chains pulled out after warnings, apparently from the hackers, that the “world will be full of fear” if they screened it). There was, we’re told, no credible intelligence of a terrorist plot. But the studio has a responsibility to cinema staff and cinemagoers that makes this a little more complicated than the robust “publish and be damned” attitude you might get from a paper. Would you risk people dying, however tiny the risk, just to see a half-baked Seth Rogen vehicle?

And to criticise Sony is arguably to gloss over big questions for those media organisations that gleefully published the leaked emails, and thus became awkwardly complicit in a blackmail exercise seemingly conducted on behalf of a prolific abuser of human rights.

Whenever they’re confronted with a juicy leak, journalists need to ask themselves the cui bono question: to whose benefit? And the answer is often pretty unedifying – a spurned lover, a disgruntled MP passed over for promotion, someone wanting cash. That doesn’t mean you don’t publish private information if there is a public interest, as there arguably was in some of this material. If you don’t want to be publicly embarrassed about paying women less than men, maybe don’t pay them less, rather than begging for our sympathy when you’re caught at it.

But when all that’s being revealed is that George Clooney hates getting bad reviews – well, this is the territory of bears and woods and a lack of outdoor toilet facilities, and tougher questions ought to be asked before republishing it, even if the stuff is already everywhere online. We need to think this through before the next time, because there’s bound to be a next time, if only on the grounds that what happened to Sony has given every other repressive regime – or organisation, or culture – on the planet a glimpse of the possible. And that’s not funny.

 

By: Gaby Hinsliff, The Guardian, December 18, 2014

December 19, 2014 Posted by | Entertainment Industry, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“He Evened No Scores, Waged No Vendettas”: Nelson Mandela Remains The Standard By Which We Must Judge Ourselves

With Nelson Mandela, the devil would not like the details. We all know that he spent 27 years in jail, much of it on Robben Island. We all know about his remarkable strength, intellect and tolerance. But I did not know that when he was in prison, he studied Afrikaans, the language of his jailers, so he could get to know them better and possibly convert them to his cause. Physically he was a big man. But it is how he conducted himself that made other men seem so small.

Mandela is no demigod. He has his faults, but rage, anger, jealousy, egotism and the need for revenge are not among them. He was born into tribal nobility: he is the son of a counselor to the chief and, later, was a ward of the chief. An easy life was his for the asking. But he chose the path of rebellion against racist apartheid, which is to say he chose to be on the run, to live underground, to forsake the love of the astonishingly attractive Winnie — and yet all the time to pursue knowledge. It seems he did not waste a moment in prison. He was forever studying something.

On Robben Island, where he spent 18 years, he was largely confined to a fetid cell. He slept on a straw mat. He was persecuted by the guards. He spent his days breaking rocks. Because he was forbidden to wear sunglasses, his eyes were damaged. On occasion, he was put into solitary confinement for the infraction of reading a smuggled newspaper. At night, somehow, he studied for advanced degrees and when, eventually, he got out of prison, he brimmed with forgiveness and demanded a colorblind society.

When Frank Lautenberg died, we noted that he was the last World War II veteran in the Senate. Not many of our politicians have been to war, fewer still have been in solitary and few of those have chosen to forsake the easy life for the deprivations of a cause. They talk — and so do we journalists — about the bravery of this or that political position, but, to my knowledge, only Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), both prisoners of war in Vietnam, know the utter terror of hearing the approaching footsteps of the torturer.

I remember when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with Ronald Reagan in 1981. The contrast could not have been more vivid. Here was the amiable movie actor, a man who had had an easy, fortunate life. And here was a man who had been a terrorist, a guerrilla fighter, who had lost his family in the Holocaust and had been imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. At night, “after twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours of work, we had to dig ourselves deep into the snow and go to sleep,” Begin wrote in “White Nights,” a memoir of those days. In the morning, he would awake to find some of his fellow prisoners frozen to death. Reagan probably told Begin some Hollywood story. Begin probably kept his mouth shut.

Most of us are like Ronald Reagan. What do we know of such travails? Could we be as brave, as indomitable and as averse to self-pity? Could we rise above it all as Mandela has or, less successfully, as Begin did? When Mandela’s mother died in 1968, he was not permitted to attend her funeral. When his son died a bit later, he was not allowed to attend his funeral. When his wife Winnie cheated on him, he stood by her, divorcing her only later. When Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sided with the apartheid regime and refused to join the calls for Mandela’s release, he forgave them and later met with them. He is not merely a big man. He is bigger than any man.

What you find often in insurgents is a bitter hatred and the need to carry on the struggle even after it’s over. This is not what happened with Mandela. He was not a freedom fighter looking to continue the fight — a Yasser Arafat unable to put down his gun and take yes for an answer. Mandela was able to administer, to turn to politics, to plead for racial understanding and tolerance. More important, he embodies those qualities. He evened no scores, waged no vendettas, never made himself the cause and casts a shadow across the inner lives of all people. He was the first black president of South Africa. He remains the standard by which we must judge ourselves.

 

By: Richard Cohen, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 28, 2013

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Nelson Mandela | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Her Tea Party”: What Margaret Thatcher Really Meant To England And The World

Amid all the suffocating claptrap celebrating Margaret Thatcher in the media, only the British themselves seem able to provide a refreshing hit of brisk reality. Over here, she is the paragon of principle known as the “Iron Lady,” devoted to freedom, democracy, and traditional values who bolstered the West against encroaching darkness. Over there, she is seen clearly as a class warrior, whose chief accomplishments involved busting unions and breaking the post-war social contract.

Promoting the economic doctrines of the far right – whose eager acolytes in the Tea Party today revere her – Thatcher helped to hasten the decline of the venerable English village whose values she claimed to represent. “There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop,” she once wrote, recalling her upbringing in the little grocery store that her father operated in the town of Grantham. But as a left-leaning British writer observed acidly, her “free-market” policies “led to the domination of small-town life by supermarkets and other powerful corporations.”

In the hometown she left behind, factories were shuttered and coal mines closed, owing to her policies – which may be why not so long ago, the vast majority of the town’s residents expressed opposition to erecting a bronze statue of her.

Indeed, much as she emphasized her humble roots – a theme echoed constantly in the American media – the less romantic fact is that Thatcher’s path to 10 Downing Street was paved with the fortune of her husband Denis, a millionaire businessman. It was not an image that matched her self-portrait as a hardworking grocer’s daughter, but it turned out to be the template for the policies she pursued as prime minister – cracking down hard on unruly workers; cutting aid to the poor, even milk for children; and privatizing public services for better or worse, but always to the benefit of the financial class.

At the same time that she and her ideological companion Ronald Reagan were smashing labor on both sides of the Atlantic, with lasting consequences for equality and democracy, they voiced support for workers in Eastern Europe, where unions rose up against Stalinism and Soviet domination. Workers’ rights were to be defended in the East, and abrogated in the West.

Three decades later, her ideological heirs continue to prosecute class warfare against public and private sector workers, seeking to deprive them of the same rights that she and Reagan supposedly held sacrosanct in communist Poland. Seeking to complete the Thatcherite crusade against organized labor, America’s Tea Party governors are now trying to undermine and virtually abolish the right to unionize in their states.

The justification for this sustained assault on working families, then and now, was to prevent inflation and promote economic growth. Yet the result of Thatcher’s policies was unemployment that hovered around 10 percent during most of her rule, and inflation that remained around 5 percent. Hardly a roaring success, even when measured against the current weak recovery.

In a statement released by the White House, President Obama said that her death meant the loss of “one of the world’s great champions of freedom and liberty” – a peculiar tribute from the first black U.S. president, considering that Thatcher, like Reagan, defended the apartheid regime in South Africa from its Western critics.

She opposed the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress who later became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, referring to him as a “terrorist.” In 1984, she reversed longstanding British foreign policy by hosting a state visit by white South African president P.W. Botha. And although she defeated Argentina’s military junta in the Falklands war, Thatcher befriended the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet – even inviting him to her home in England when he was under investigation for human rights atrocities.

Here in America, at least, the pap mythology surrounding Thatcherism – its putative successes and purity of purpose – contrasts with the reality of a cruel and contradictory ideology whose malignant impact lives on without its namesake.

 

By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, April 9, 2013

April 10, 2013 Posted by | Conservatives | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Winning The Argument”: Reagan Wanted To Shrink Government, Today’s Republican Party Wants To Destroy It

In his bid to be remembered as a transformational leader, President Obama is following the playbook of an ideological opposite, Margaret Thatcher. First you win the argument, she used to say, then you win the vote.

Obama is gradually winning the argument about what government can and should do. His State of the Union address was an announcement of that fact — and a warning to conservatives that, to remain relevant, they will have to move beyond the premise that government is always the problem and never the solution.

It’s ridiculous for critics to charge that Tuesday night’s speech was not sufficiently bipartisan. Repairing the nation’s infrastructure is not a partisan issue; bridges rust at the same rate in Republican-held congressional districts as in Democratic ones. The benefits of universal preschool will accrue in red states as well as blue. Climate change is not deterred by the fact that a majority of the Republican caucus in the House doesn’t believe in it.

There is no bipartisan compromise between “do something” and “do nothing.” Obama’s reelection reflected the progress he has made in convincing Americans that “do something” is the only option — and that “do nothing” leads inexorably to decline.

Thatcher’s reshaping of British politics and governance is instructive. The Iron Lady came to power at a time when Britain was sinking. The ideological pendulum had swung too far to the left, and the nominally socialist Labor Party, architect of the modern British welfare state, was out of ideas. Thatcher’s Conservative government roused the nation from its torpor. She was an enormously polarizing figure, and much of what she did — fighting the unions, privatizing state industries and public housing — met with bitter resistance.

Today, Britain remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world and continues to play a major role in international affairs. London is arguably the world’s preeminent financial center. I doubt any of this would be the case if Thatcher had not won the argument about how her nation should move forward.

When Obama took office, the United States was in a similar funk. Ronald Reagan’s conservative ideas had been corrupted by his followers into a kind of anti-government nihilism. Reagan wanted to shrink government; today’s Republican Party wants to destroy it.

Obama assumed leadership of a country in which inequality was growing and economic mobility declining, with the result that the American dream was becoming less attainable. It was a country whose primary and secondary schools lagged far behind international norms; whose airports, roads and bridges were showing their age; and, most important, whose path to continued prosperity, in the age of globalization and information technology, was not entirely clear.

Obama’s State of the Union speech was a detailed reiteration of his position that we can and must act to secure our future — and that government can and must be one of our principal instruments.

To understand why Americans reelected Obama in November and sent more Democrats to both houses of Congress, consider the Republican response to the president’s address, delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Never mind the unforgettable moment when Rubio stooped almost out of sight and reached for a bottle of water, all the while trying to look straight ahead at the camera like John Cleese in some Monty Python sketch. I felt genuinely sorry for him — and appalled at the Republican Party’s incompetence at basic stagecraft. First they give Clint Eastwood an empty chair to perform with at the convention, and now this?

Even more unfortunate, in the end, was the utter lack of ideas in Rubio’s speech.

“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead, it’s going to hold you back,” Rubio said. Yet he also said that he never would have been able to go to college without government-backed student loans. And he spoke touchingly of how Medicare paid for the care his father received in his final days and the care his mother needs now.

I expected him to try to reconcile this contradiction. Instead, he went back to portraying government as something to be tamed rather than something to be used. To a majority of Republican primary voters, this makes sense. To the electorate as a whole, it might have made sense 30 years ago — but not today.

Margaret Thatcher never won the hearts of her many opponents. But by winning her argument, she shaped a nation’s future. There’s an increasing chance that historians will say the same of Barack Obama.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 14, 2013

February 16, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, State of the Union | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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