Thursday, December 25, 2008


In an episode of the old TV show The Odd Couple, Felix Unger lectures his housemate Oscar Maddison--with the help of a chalkboard diagram--on the dangers of assuming. But of course all of us operate our daily lives on a set of assumptions which serve as the foundation of our worldview and without which something as simple as crossing the street would not be possible. Most of those assumptions remained consistent throughout much of the history of Western civilization. Even the philosophical upheavals of the Enlightenment, while attacking man's faith in God, for the most part left intact the moral and ethical systems that were the progeny of that faith.

The 20th century began to see a shift in some of those basic assumptions, first among academia, then filtering its way through all forms of popular media--especially the press, literature and the dramatic arts. Two things recently brought this to mind: first I watched a series of five video interviews by Peter Robinson with novelist Andrew Klavan on National Review TV program Uncommon Knowledge. (You can access the first interview here.) Klavan, a successful writer of thrillers, a number of which have been turned into equally successful movies, also happens to be politically conservative--and most rare of all for his profession--a Christian. In the interview he tells Robinson that the assumptions by which academia, the press, and the art world view existence allows them to ignore the fact that most of the ideas and policies of the left have failed--and failed catastrophically--so that they don't have to confront and abandon the ideology in which they have invested so much of their life and work, and so can continue to repeat the same platitudes and slogans without qualm or shame. These assumptions allow them to construct an alternate reality in which the failure of their policies are never due to the policies themselves nor the ideology which fostered them, but can always be accounted for by the machinations of their political and philosophical antagonists.

As true as this rang to me, what really brought it home is my second example: reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, James Lee Burke. Here are some excerpts from his latest book, Swan Peak:

Their form of religion was of a kind that probably goes back to the earliest log churches in prerevolutionary America. In the last twenty-five years, it has spread like a quiet fire seeping through the grass in a forest full of birdsong. It offers power and magic for the disenfranchised. It also assures true believers that they will survive an apocalyptic holocaust. It assures anti-Semites that Israel will be destroyed and that the Jews who aren't wiped off the planet will convert to Christianity. More simply, it offers succor and refuge to people who are both frightened by the world and angry at the unfair hand it has dealt them.

When the audience looked up at the sequins glittering on Jamie Sue's pink gown, when they saw the beauty of her face in the stage lights and heard the quiver in her voice, they experienced a rush of gratitude and affirmation and love that was akin to the love they felt for the founder of their faith. Idolatry was the word for it. But to them it was little different from the canonization of saints. Their tragedy lay in the fact that most of them were good people who possessed far greater virtue and courage than those who manipulated and controlled their lives.

He let the reference pass and inserted a cigarette into a holder. "Did you know in 2004 we were responsible for getting the anti-gay marriage initiative on the ballot in your home state?"
"Yeah, you got the fundamentalists into the voting booth, and once there, they pulled the lever to put your boy back in the White House," I said.

"I was in 'Nam," Clete said, eating his pain. "I saw psychopaths do stuff that made me ashamed I was a human being. I always wanted to believe some of them got help when they came back. But the truth is, they probably didn't. Know why? Because nobody cares what they did. They did it to Zips, and we were in the business of killing Zips. 'How do you shoot women and children? Easy, you just don't lead them as much.' Ever hear that one?"

In the Western world, who were the worst monsters of the twentieth century? Who tortured with glee and murdered with indifference? Stalin was an ex-seminarian. The people who fired the ovens in Auschwitz were baptized Christians.

The enlisted people who were punished for crimes inside the Abu Ghraib prison wouldn't drop their pants in a latrine without permission.

"The Wellstone Ministries aren't a scam about money. They're not interested in money. They don't even preach politics. They focus on the family, on family values, all that stuff. They've won over millions of people that way. Toward election time, the message goes out: If you believe in the family, vote against gay marriage and abortion. Vote against the people who believe in them. The Ministries don't get you to vote for people, they get you to vote against them. All they need is about four percent of the electorate. They're hooked in with some of the most powerful people in the country."

"This wasn't in Abu Ghraib. But we done things at this other place that got out of control, just like at the prison outside Baghdad. Some contract intelligence personnel wanted this one guy prepped. That's what they called it. Like softened up, before they interrogated him. The guy was a hard case. We called him Cujo 'cause he had jaws like a big dog. He'd been tortured in Egypt and showed off his scars like they was badges of honor. He told us we couldn't hurt him 'cause he wasn't like us, that he didn't eat God in a Communion wafer, that he lived inside Allah just like the Bedouins live inside the desert. He said Allah was as big as the desert, and once you were in Allah's belly, you became part of him and nobody could touch you, not even death. He told all this to guys who was going to cuff him to a bed frame and wrap a wet towel around his face and keep pouring water into his nose and mouth till he near drowned."

For Whitley's people, life and hardship and struggle were interchangeable concepts. Man was born in sin and corruption and delivered bloody and terrified from the womb. The devil was more real than God, and the flames of perdition roared right under the plank floor of the church house. The man with the power to shut down a mill or evict a tenant farmer's family lived in a white house on the hill. But the enemy was the black man who came ragged and hungry into the poor white's domain and asked for part of what the white man had been told was his birth. When people talk about class war, they're dead wrong. The war was never between the classes. It was a war between the have-nots and the have-nots. The people in the house on the hill watched if from afar when they watched at all.

"Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce came down that ridge right behind us and were wiped out on the Big Hole. The Blackfeet Indians got massacred on the Marias River the same way. The army burned their tents and blankets and left the wounded and the old people and the children to freeze to death. That's the history that seldom gets written."

Okay, let's recap the assumption that underlay these excerpts, taken in the same order as listed here:
1) Evangelical Christianity is an insidious virus of fear, bigotry, and hatred spreading through our society.
2) Christianity's adherents are good-natured people who are being hoodwinked, manipulated and exploited by a cynical political elite.
3) Those who vote for "family values" are the dupes of a cabal of capitalist exploiters to retain political power at the expense of those whom they exploit.
4) American veterans of the Viet Nam war are rife with psychopaths, war criminals, and degenerates who performed these atrocities with the full sanction--and perhaps even at the prompting--of the highest levels of command. Those who weren't psychopaths or degenerates for the most part returned irreparably scarred and emotionally traumatized for life--drug addicts and basket-cases.
5) Religious faith, and most particularly Christian religious faith, is responsible for most of the horrors of the twentieth century (and probably for many of the centuries prior).
6) The abuses of Abu Ghraib were carried out on the orders of higher command.
7) See assumptions 2&3.
8) "Waterboarding" is a lethal torture involving slow downing which American interrogators used on a wide-spread basis. Also, see assumption 6.
9) Fundamentalist Christianity is a form of primitive superstition that is predicated on and nurtures bigotry, fear, and hatred. Class warfare (and culture warfare) are myths created by the right to manipulate ignorant whites.
10) The history of the United States is one of unrelenting cruelty and genocide against the indigenous people of this land, and this fact is hidden by most of written history.

Space doesn't permit me to address the errors of each of these assumptions. Besides, my main point is to highlight the fact that all of these assumptions were spread casually throughout a crime novel, meant as literary entertainment. Take these throw-away anecdotes, comments, and assertions and multiply them by millions, in other novels, in television programs, in news broadcasts, in grade school text books, put them on the lips of hollywood stars on late night talk shows and in gossip magazine interviews, put them in every form of entertainment and information mass communication in existence and you begin to understand how we move through a medium of leftist assumptions like fish swimming in water.

Conservative friends and acquaintances with whom I've discussed this issue have often thrown up their hands, asking, "what can we do?" My answer is, first arm yourselves with the truth, with cogent, fact-based arguments. This is not easy. It takes time and effort. Then, learn how to argue effectively; not by being belligerent or ranting, but cooly questioning leftist statements and presenting your line of reasoning supported by logic and verifiable facts. This too can be very difficult. I have found myself rendered completely flustered and speechless by a statement so completely devoid of reason and connection with reality, so thoroughly non sequitur, that I simply didn't know how to respond. Persevere; make those arguments. Try again, even if you fail at first attempts. And finally, support the organizations and professionals who study, write, and speak for the conservative worldview: the pundits, the authors, the radio talk-show hosts, the think tanks, and yes...even the politicians.

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