Between Blinders & Bible-Thumping, Fanciful Flights & Party Suicide, Where is America Heading?

Radio Flyer is a small 1992 film about two brothers, Mike and Bobby, who invent a flying machine out of a little red wagon so that Bobby can escape the brutal abuse he regularly suffers at the hands of his drunken stepfather.

The end of the film never baffled me. It seemed clear that Bobby’s escape down the side of a mountain failed, and that in order to ease the pain of his brother’s death, Mike invented an alternate reality that had Bobby sending him postcards from all over the world. As a grown man, Mike tells his children the story and says:

“Do you guys understand what I meant about history being in the mind of the teller?”
“I think so.” “Yeah.”
“Good. Good, because that’s the way I remember it.”

I wasn’t aware until recently that there was a controversy about the movie’s end.  Some people, it seems, are adamant that the little red wagon sailed off into the sky and that Bobby spent the rest of his life happy and traveling. This fantastical possibility was offered by the film’s somewhat cryptic ending and many fans decided that, despite the grim reality of the rest of the story, a fantasy ending was somehow fitting. The director, Richard Donner, seemed to want that, too, but he couldn’t sink the weight of writer David Evans’s final few lines.

Even as a writer and a creative person, it has always surprised me that some people are so willing to suspend reality in favor of even the most obvious fantasies — like karma and its accompanying bromides like “what comes around goes around” or “there are no accidents”.  Bad things happen to good people every day. Some ignorant or bad people are greatly rewarded. Sixteen year old girls blow lottery fortunes on fake boobs and cocaine,  while people who’ve worked hard for 30 or 40 years lose their jobs and homes. Talent and persistence don’t always win out — sometimes luck, nepotism, or family connections matter more.

And the chances are that if you see a baby being thrown against a wall, or a woman getting raped, or a gay man being beaten by a bunch of thugs, you’re not going to think it’s karma, or the mythical fates at work – you’re not going to think “there are no accidents” – instead you’re going to think that such events are wretched, horrible, often preventable, and totally unacceptable.

I believe that people buy into the karma myth because it comes with blinders attached. If people can delude themselves into believing that there’s some higher reason for unacceptable acts or circumstances, and that the world runs as it is supposed to, then they’re essentially letting themselves off the hook from having to consider the realities of the world they live in and, consequently, their place and role in those realities. If they believe that “there are no accidents”, then they don’t have to put forth much effort in righting the wrongs, or even acknowledging them, because wrongs simply don’t exist — and if they do, well, karma — not effort — will take care of them.

Many otherwise smart and liberal-minded people I know have fallen under the spell of karmical thinking. They are so enamored with idealized concepts of peace, fairness, inclusiveness, and supporting the underdog that they have become intellectually lazy.  They may be willing to lend their names to the progressive cause du jour of the day — Palestine, free elections in Iran, health care reform — but their understanding of the issues may be extremely narrow, often on purpose and adamantly so, because they refuse to see anything beyond their magical blinders.

While some liberals may be bent on mystical, karmic thinking, even more pervasive, particularly when it comes to politics and religion, is the dogmatic adherence being exhibited by many conservatives.  Here, people have ceased to think critically, as independent beings, and have instead subscribed to a rigid, and often fantastical, set of beliefs as proffered by their religion’s or party’s most prominent spokespeople.

Paradise in exchange for murder and suicide; heavenly forgiveness for even the most brutal and intentional of acts; forced marriages of young girls to older men; oppression and brutality heaped upon women, children, minorities, and the underclass — there are those, in America and abroad, who insist that God is a co-perpetrator of these and other savage and systematic abuses of humanity, and that man is only carrying out God’s will when he bombs an abortion clinic, forces a thirteen year old Texas girl into a polygamous marriage, or stones a Sudanese rape victim to death.

The horrors of oppressive religion become entwined with culture. In Afghanistan, a ten year old girl beaten with wires by her two older brothers for visiting a skateboard park says, “I’m not upset with my brothers for beating me, they have the right.” In Canada as well as the U.S., women and teenage girls defend a lifestyle in which it is common for 14 and 15 year old girls, most of whom have never experienced life outside of their isolated communities, to marry and bear children.

And while American conservatives have leaned on the gospel of Christianity a great deal, almost none of their social responses are merciful, e.g. Christian, in nature. They buck against the idea of society helping the poor or uninsured. They seek the harshest of punishments against even non-violent offenders. They bring guns to town hall meetings. They favor the deregulation of corporations and a mitigation of corporate responsibilities. They fight against increases in the minimum wage. They either don’t believe in global warming, or don’t think measures to curb it are fair to industry. They think the Constitution and Bill of Rights should bend to their whim — making things like The Patriot Act morally acceptable, but a secular, inclusive government evil.

Under the umbrella of Christianity, the Republicans have stood against equality for women. They have sought to undo affirmative action. They do not believe gay people should have equal rights to the benefits of marriage. They believe that hate crime legislation imposes on their religious freedom.  They continue to fight against The United Nations Bill of Rights for Children, which seeks to make children less the chattel of their parents and give them protections as autonomous but dependent beings. 193 countries have signed the bill over the past decade. America and Somalia are two who have not.

In the fantastical world of fundamentalist religiopolitics, it is acceptable for Glenn Beck to call Obama a racist, but not acceptable to question the racial motives behind the continuous, frivolous, and often frighteningly ignorant attacks on President Obama. It was acceptable when a Republican President put the country into trillions of dollars of debt, lied to the American people, advocated torture, kept prisoners without due process, and allowed companies like Halliburton and Blackwater to fill their coffers with tax money — but it is unacceptable that Obama works towards health care reform, and speaks to school children about working hard and not giving up. It was unpatriotic to criticize war and torture under Bush, but it’s perfectly patriotic to bring a gun to a protest against health care.

Ever since Obama became a contender, I have watched the dogmatic branch of the right-wing slip into a state of near hysteria. While there was just something sad and pathetic about watching religious Republican mouthpieces like Jerry Falwell debate the sexuality of Tinky Winky or blaming gays, feminists and pagans for the attack of 9/11, what’s happening now is steeped in a vicious and hateful brew that makes yesterday’s spewed ignorance seem almost innocuous.  From conspiracy theories about the President’s birth certificate, to ongoing accusations that Obama is a Muslim, socialist, Marxist, thug — even Satan incarnate — these attacks step way outside the realm of political disagreement or religious differences, and seek to illigitimize and demonize a President who hasn’t even been in office for a full year; who hasn’t yet significantly changed the political or social landscape of America; and who, coincidentally, happens to be America’s most powerful and popular minority figure.

Of course, the possibility that racism is behind much of the expressed hatred is met with staunch denial.  Then again, as long as they don’t mention blackness, but instead insist that Obama is an A-rab and play on the fears of their most ignorant followers, then that’s not racist but somehow proper and worthy of consideration.

If a parallel between the Radio Flyer movie and today’s political climate were to be drawn, the mystical thinkers in the liberal party would be the blinders-on idealists who really believe that their little red wagon can effortlessly defy the laws of physics and reality, and fly happily into the sunset to live happily-ever-after in some future made of dreams and wishes.  They actually do little to accomplish their imagined flight because that would involve having to fight and possibly alienate the people that don’t want them to take off in the first place. Instead, the mystical thinkers seek to build consensus even among the most inhospitable people, compromising themselves right into a steady holding pattern where little gets done but hey — the intentions were good and in the end isn’t that what’s most important?

Conservatives, on the other hand, may be helping the Republican party commit suicide with their outlandish escapades & maniacal speech but they’re playing it off as if they, too, were taking flight — into a future that glorifies and seeks to replicate the past — when uppity black and poor people, women, and children knew their places; labor laws and unions didn’t interfere with business; war was glorified; prayer was considered more fruitful than knowledge; and non-white, non-Christians were viewed as less than equal or heretical.

In between the two extremes, there are those who seek neither fanciful flight nor destruction of progress. We wonder why it’s not possible to effect a rescue before the wagon goes careening down the mountainside in the first place.

The ending that wasn’t offered by the movie Radio Flyer also seems absent in politics.  The question is, between the inaction of the karmic thinkers and the screaming of the backward dogmatists, will the country be able to save itself  from the kind of cryptic politics that leaves the future precariously hanging from the side of a cliff?

This article also appears on The Huffington Post if you’d like to comment.

9/11, correction to director’s name.

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Courting the Jester: The Slippery Right’s Love Affair With Rush Limbaugh

When George W. Bush was campaigning for President, I thought there was no better man he could have in his corner than Rush Limbaugh. After all, who could understand the political aspirations of a privileged, party-going, service-avoiding, C-average candidate better than a privileged, two-and-a-half semester college flunk-out, with a penchant for Oxycontin and bombastic talk, who got out of the service altogether for having a hairy butt boil?

They were a match made in a blinders-on Republican heaven, where the conservative faithful still believe that with a little bit of faith and a lot of charm, they can transform failures and shortcomings into delusory gold, and rebirth multimillionaires into everyday people who really care about the plights of their Joe Six-Pack and Soccer Mom peers. Operating under the premise that if something is said often enough it will become accepted as the truth, they tend to blame the mythical devil of the Liberal Media for their public embarrassments, and don’t find it odd at all when their counterparts wave off abuse-of-power reports, and even court convictions,  as if they were the conspiratorial fantasies of an unpatriotic public. Behind the thick cigar smoke and carnival mirrors of such political propaganda, Limbaugh isn’t just a barker, but a godhead with a loyal legion of followers hailing from the furthest backwoods shacks to the hallowed halls of Washington. Those followers are called, appropriately enough, dittoheads.

The slippery, delusional thought processes of dittohead candidates and their lobbying groups were never as transparent as they were during the 2008 election. In the midst of a economic crisis, with the highest national debt in the history of the nation — after eight years of iron-fisted Republican domination — millions of Americans were bombarded with political slogans like these:

  • Who can fix our economy? Only one party will fix the damage and prevent another crisis. Vote Republican.
  • Jobs lost. Spending up. Economy down. Energy prices Up. Vote Republican to end America’s economic crisis.
  • Vote Republican & Restore Balance to Our Economy.
  • Republicans will eliminate wasteful spending, balance the budget and regain the trust of the American taxpayer.

Of course, Rush Limbaugh was there to lead the charge. And in the foggy realm of Republican obfuscation, Limbaugh is not just a college dropout with an inflammatory radio show, but an authority on capitalism, economics, defense, domestic policy, world relations and more.  Never mind that Limbaugh has not passed so much as one college course in business, law or political science — he has a $400M dollar contract with Clear Channel Radio, and a show that reaches an estimated 20 million viewers a week between 600 stations. According to figures obtained by Forbes, Limbaugh’s eight-year contract is only $87M short of what Hollywood’s 10 best-paid actors earned in the year between June 2007-June 2008, and $155.5M more than what the 10 best-paid actresses earned in the same time.

$400M can buy a lot of prestige in Washington, but a charismatic personality is worth much more, particularly when it comes attached to a substantial base of fans.  Just ask James Dobson or Pat Robertson.   Like Limbaugh, Dobson and Robertson managed to hold political sway based not on their intellectual credentials or objective reasoning skills, but on the basis of their Arbitron ratings.  They were given credibility by Washington politicians not because they were giants of integrity, ethics, or reason, but because they were media giants — willing to stand up for even the most beleaguered Republican politicians and truth-bereft party messages in exchange for Washington-sanctioned political standing.

Without that sanction, it is unlikely that personalities like Limbaugh, Dobson, and Robertson would have ever been considered newsworthy outside of the entertainment or religion pages. Certainly, without the sanction of Washington politicians, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would not be doing what amounts to PR for Limbaugh.

Instead, thanks to Washington and the slavish capitulation of congressmen like Phil Gingrey-R (who backed off of his justified criticism of Limbaugh after fans inundated his office with complaints), Americans who would not normally tune in to hear the opinions of an unschooled political shock-jock, are being inundated with his ridiculous, uninformed messages.

Businesses need tax cuts. The US corporate tax rate is obscene. It is the highest of all industrialized nations. It’s 35%. Cut it. Cut it in half. – excerpt from Rush Limbaugh’s stimulus plan.

Taking his cue from dogmatic Republicans who can’t stop repeating the mantra of corporate tax cuts long enough to address the truth, Limbaugh used his PR opportunity to mislead more Americans than usual. The 35% tax rate is born from a paper figure that has little to do with the reality of what corporations actually pay. At the risk of repeating information that seems to bounce right off the collective conscience of the dittoheads, the fact is that despite the high bracket tax rate on paper, many corporations pay no taxes at all, and those that do pay, don’t pay anywhere near 35% after deductions, incentives, and loopholes.

America has known many charismatic media personalities but Republican politicians, perhaps still impressed by the number of conservative evangelicals thought to be delivered by television and radio preachers in the Reagan and Bush years (as if they would have voted otherwise), seem especially inclined to lend credence to Rush Limbaugh, even at the expense of their own reputations outside of the Republican party.

I don’t think President Obama was being flip when he told congressional leaders that “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done”.  Rather, it seems he might have been responding to the lack of original thought and leadership within the Republican party, and the seeming eagerness of Republican politicians to hand the intellectual reins of their platform over to whatever colorful pundit they think can best deliver them voters in the next election. If it’s a strategy, it would seem to be one as disastrous as the Palin pick, and if it’s a habit, it’s one that surely needs breaking if the Republican party is to recover from the Bush years with any integrity.

This article also appears on the Huffington Post.
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