Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Jesus loves me, but he can't stand you..."

This is why I've stayed away from the controversy in left blogistan stirred up by the hiring and now the resignations of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan. Because no matter how much it is called a front in the war on religious intolerance, I just have a hard time buying into it.

Let me say that, based on blog-links alone, I started here with my opinion on this:

But I shan’t belabor the point. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the hate mail the Bill Donohue’s “Christian” campaign against me has inspired. This is all stuff from days ago—I’ve gotten more than 100 since. Hell, from the looks of my email from last night, I’ve had more than 100 in the past 12 hours from self-proclaimed Christians who want me to know that I have hurt their feelings and this has nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with their own misogyny and tendency to witch hunt.
And I went here, from that:

It is, of course, all about hurt feelings. It's all about me, and my personal thoughts, and what it means to me. Because if it isn't, then what's the point?

This is the dark underbelly of what Bill McKibben described when he studed TV ads and determined the common denominator among them was that the individual on the couch in front of the screen was being told that he/she was, indeed, the moral center of the universe and the reason for the existence of the entire industrialized society: to provide him/her with all the conveniences, comforts, and pleasures he/she could imagine. After all, "This Bud's for you!" Or "We Believe in You!" It's all one, in the end.

And it's all about me, and what matters to me, and I should be wound as tight as a drumhead at all times so that I respond as tensely and loudly and resonantly as possible to any thought, opinion, or public expression which strikes me, and especially which strikes me in the wrong way.

After all, that's what blogs are about, right?

Romanticism has reached its bitter, painful end. What is going to replace it, and how long do we have to put up with this over-weening navel gazing until it is gone?
Good, philosophical, high-minded stuff, the kind of thing you've come to know and love from this place. But then I went looking for something I saw on Huffington Post last night, and I found this, which made me realize I'd never actually read what McEwen and Marcotte had actually said:

In one posting, McEwan described Christian supporters of President Bush as his "wingnut Christofascist base." Marcotte once posed a mock question-and-answer session in which she speculated what would have happened if the Virgin Mary had taken an emergency contraceptive.

"You'd have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology," came the answer.
Now, Bill Donahue is a "brash and frequent critic of those who speak out against the church, as well as homosexuals and Hollywood's control by 'secular Jews who hate Christianity.' " And that's putting it mildly. Clearly he thinks that, if you are not with him, you are against him. But that doesn't relieve you from the fact that you're gonna dance with the one what brung ya, and if you want to fight foul ideas with foul ideas well, expect to come out just as covered in mud as your opponent. And I see that topic, too, is already being discussed in left blogistan.

There are several answers to this situation. Frankly, Faithful Progressive gets it right. But this is the problem of left blogistan. Having decided freedom of speech should always be free, left blogistan is still slow in catching on to the idea that freedom of speech does not mean speech, like the mythical Western mustangs, is wild and free.

Words, in other words, have a purpose. When you call someone a "Christofascist" (which I imagine most people have to puzzle over for a while before they get the meaning, although it was a popular blogistan buzz word once upon a time) or mock the Virgin Mary (who is also a standard of Protestant, not just Roman Catholic, doctrine), you've stopped lobbing verbal hand grenades and gone nuculear. Or at least "postal." And while relatively few people (let's be honest) are listening to you in left blogistan, people are listening. This is more, frankly, than a matter of "having a paper trail."

By odd coincidence, I've been listening to Molly Ivins read her last book, Who Let the Dogs In? It was my good fortune to acquire a copy, and I slipped it into the car CD player last night. It's a "retrospective" of her work, as she notes, but it opens with her comments on the current political situation. She notes that, in the 19th century, politics in America was entertainment. It took the place of what wasn't there (so it "took the place" on anachronistically, but still....), such as movies, TV, even "Friday Night Lights." Ms. Ivins notes that politicians used to give "lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng speeches" (and it'a a delight to hear that in her twangy Texas drawl) that people listened to, as she says, "as if their lives depended on it." Of course, she points out, it did; it still does.

I've mentioned before that in Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg travels across the American West on his way back to England, and comes upon a frontier town in the midst of a small riot in the streets. It turns out not to be a riot, but a political campaign, which apparently is for an important office, such as governor, because it arouses such passions. It turns out the election in question is for dog-catcher. Verne could mock our political passions 100 years ago. Today our passions are turned against each other still, but with no real effect on the political process.

Ms. Ivins,' of course, never tired of telling us not to take politics too seriously, all the while treating it as if our lives depended on it. It's good advice. As she says, being a liberal in Texas teaches you that you might as well laugh, because you sure aren't going to win.

This isn't a "limits on free speech" issue. We've done crossed that line, and the criminals who made death threats against Marcotte and McEwen get no sympathy from me. But the answer to offenseive speech isnt' always the simple Jeffersonian response of "more speech." Part and parcel of that idea is the Jeffersonian assumption that all those engaged in public speech are gentlemen; are, in fact, as the Constitutiona intended it: landed gentry. When Jefferson imagined a nation of farmers, he imagined a nation of gentlemen farmers, of Wendell Berrys perhaps, not of hard-bitten hard working ranchers; not even Joe Aguirre, much less Ennis and Jack. Gentlemen settle matters like gentlemen; working class people tend to use other means, and that history, not the one Jefferson imagined, has been the reality of American politics. It still is.

Where are we on this, then? All over the place, to judge just from Pastor Dan's comments. Here he defends the posts by Marcotte, here he agrees they were offensive. Free speech, it seems, simply is not free. And Heraclitus was right: we never step twice into the same reaction to someone else's words. The simple fact is, we're all navel gazers. We all think our words are vitally important, and everyone else's words are irrelevant guff and nonsense. That much hasn't really changed. You have to demonize your opponent in order to take a swing at him. And American politics has always more resembled "The Gangs of New York" than it has "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." While we lovingly cling to the idea that "the answer to free speech is more speech," we also live assured that our speech can't possibly be offensive, and other people who "get their feelings hurt" simply need to get over it. Until, of course, they turn into Timothy McVeigh. And I suspect some in left blogistan would vigorously defend Amanda Marcotte while just as vigorously condemning The Turner Diaries. We do have to take the bitter with the sweet. But we also have to realize that, while we write in left blogistan, and imagine there is a line between our "virtual reality" and "meatspace," the line exists only in our imaginations, and in our awareness of reaction to our words based on those who post comments for us. I learned as a pastor that what I said was heard by people in ways I never imagined and never intended. Sometimes that was good; sometimes that was bad. But the hardest lesson I learned was realizing that, unimportant and insignificant as I thought I was, simply by being the individual willing to step into that pulpit in front of even a handful of people, made me responsible for what I said, and for what they thought they heard, even if it was not what I meant. I never had death threats, but I had the next best thing, or maybe worse, since it truly affected my life: I had my jobs threatened, and I finally lost them both. Because of what I said? No, not entirely; but because I was accountable to a lot of people who didn't exactly have my best interests at heart. And that kind of accountability begins the minute you imagine you have something to say that other people should listen to, and especially when you set yourself up in opposition to Conventional Wisdom. In an obituary by one of Molly Ivins' editors at her last paper, he recounted that colleagues in the newspaper business warned him against hiring her because she was coming from the Dallas Times Herald (the people who ran billboards promoting her: "Molly Ivins can't say that, can she?"). The allegation was that she'd shut down that paper, and she'd shut down the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, too. Just because Molly was jolly, doesn't mean she was universally respected, or accepted; or always enjoyed full employment.

If you want to engage in politics, truly engage in it rather than snipe at it from the sidelines like the Washington pundits and talking heads and columnists across the country and political spectrum, you have to take responsibility for what you say. If you want to engage in public life at all, beyond shouting opinions and spouting your preference and gathering to you people of like mind who nod at your "sage" pronouncements, you have to take responsibility for what you say. It doesn't mean "they" get a free pass for threatening your life or simply your job; but it does mean they get to swing back, and you can't retreat behind complaining about their "hurt feelings." If that's the best you've got, the kitchen's gonna be too hot for you.

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