Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obama, Beck and America.

Crooks and Liars have picked up on a point made in a Digby post, about the real lesson to be learned from the Beckathon this weekend.

Previously, most of the Tea Party debate focused on secular matters -- taxes, health care, immigration. As Digby points out, the religious elements were always present as an undercurrent, but they had been mostly suppressed as the movement initially attempted to sell itself as a "spontaneous" and secular response to Obama's policies. Now, they're out in the open.
Beck has now, by doing a rally in which he spoke of God more than he spoke of politics, tied the Tea Party movement to the Christian right. Oh, there were always links, but Beck has now made them blatant.

But Michael Tomasky in today's Guardian points out what is wrong with Beck and the Christian rights view of "big government".

They believe government strangles their liberty. I guess they really believe, as Beck put it, that "we are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights movement."

The two problems here are, first, that while they think they owe government nothing, they actually owe government a great deal. If they're small business people, they depend on the freight rails and the roadways and the utilities and the regulation of interstate commerce and the laws that keep their crooked competitors from undercutting them and the courts' abilities to enforce those laws. Without question the government is an annoyance in their lives in dozens of ways. But they don't see any of the good, only the bad. If you tote it up, the government helps them a lot more than it hurts them, and if they think not, let them go open a hardware store in downtown Mogadishu and see how that works out.

The second problem is the one I saw manifest at that dinner that night. Everybody in this country isn't like you. Yes, you worked hard to get where you are. But the vast majority of people work hard. Some have good luck, some have bad. Some stay healthy, some get sick. Some make only wise decisions, some make an unwise one. Some benefit from free-market oddities and inequities, some lose. And yes, some, because of history or birth circumstances, started the race at a starting line several paces back from the one where you started. Part of citizenship, a crucial part of citizenship, is standing in their shoes for a few moments – as they must stand in yours, and understand your point of view too.

The Beck movement is the we-stay-in-our-shoes movement. It's Grover Norquist's "leave us alone" coalition. It has existed since the republic was founded – the anti-Federalists, who opposed the constitution from the start. Its adherents fomented crises in the early-to-mid-1800s that led to civil war. Today, they have corporate billions behind them and a formidable propaganda machine, and a black cosmopolitan president to rally against, who seems to them to represent everything they hate and fear.

The Beck movement are largely white middle aged Americans who feel that their world is under threat.

Which is why the American right seriously talks about a world where black criminals are no longer prosecuted in cases where the victim is white. It's why they demand that American Muslims show sensitivity to their fears, even whilst they remain unable to imagine how it must feel to be an American Muslim in the climate which they are presently creating. They lack the gift of empathy, even as they demand that others must imagine how it must feel to walk in their shoes.

Tomasky points out how it came to this and implies what the American left must do if it to win this argument.

But what is really missing in this country is that no one is making the affirmative case for mutual civic obligation. In the America of my youth, some sense of that was given. Democrats and Republicans disagreed about what that obligation entailed – how much assistance to the poor, say – and in addition, the lines then were not cleanly along party lines. But majorities of both parties accepted the basic premise of mutuality.

Certainly, there were conservatives who said fie on you both, we dispute the very idea of obligation. But they were marginal headcases then. Now, they're extremely powerful. Most American liberals and moderates still don't quite see this big picture, I think.

Certainly, Democratic politicians don't ever talk in these terms. So Beck can hoist the concept of civil rights and turn it from its actual meaning, about expanding the community, into its opposite, the free zone of the individual; and he can get away with it because the people on the other side don't say no, that is a perversion of the truth. Until non-conservatives come to terms with how to do something about this, American political debates won't change much.

I think Obama does get this argument which is why, during the election, he often voiced the notion of, "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper." And, it obviously follows as he was elected, that a large proportion of Americans also understand this.

Obama needs to voice, as loudly and with the same articulation he used during the election campaign, the notion of mutual civic obligation. It's what Tony Blair meant when he used to argue that we have rights, but with those rights come obligations. Those obligations are to each other.

On the fifth anniversary of Katrina, it should be obvious to all what can happen when a government fails to respond adequately to it's citizens needs. At that time, the knee jerk response of many on the American right - especially on the newsgroups - was to blame the victims themselves for not fleeing. That toxic argument did not gain much favour with the public at large. Katrina reminded us that big problems need a big government response.

And yet Beck and the Tea Party brigade are still making that long ago lost argument which states that government is useless. It's not a hard argument to defeat. Someone on the left needs to stand up and make it.

Click here for Tomasky's article.

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