Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barack Obama, Rick Warren and the Varieties of "Moderate" Experience

America's Pastor Rick Warren scorns moderation, as he explained to his followers as he invited them to take the Hitler Youth and the Chinese Cultural Revolution as their models for a Christian movement of proselytizing:

And the third part is the dream of a radical devotion of every believer. Now, I choose that word "radical" intentionally, because only radicals change the world. Everything great done in this world is done by passionate people. Moderate people get moderately nothing done. And moderation will never slay the global giants.
No, I'm not sure what he means by "global giants", either.

What Pastor Rick is asking his followers to do here is to reject emotional moderation and instead adopt an attitude of religious enthusiasm. Now, he certainly also leads his flock to believe the will of God includes political positions that are scarcely all moderate: outlawing of abortion, hostility to gay rights, opposition to same-sex marriage. And in his polemics against those he takes to be sinful, he doesn't stick to verbal moderation, either. As Michelle Goldberg writes in A wolf in sheep's clothing Guardian 12/18/08:

If nothing else, Rick Warren is a miracle worker in the realm of public relations. He is a man who compares legal abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to incest and paedophilia. He believes that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are going to spend eternity burning in hell. He doesn't believe in evolution. He recently dismissed the social gospel – the late 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant movement that led a religious crusade against poverty and inequality – as "Marxism in Christian clothing". Yet thanks to his amiable attitude and jocular tone, he has managed to create a popular image for himself as a moderate, even progressive force in American life, a reasonable, compassionate alternative to the punitive, sex-obsessed inquisitors of the religious right. ...

Warren supported the ballot initiative that stripped gay Californians of their marriage rights. He made the absurd argument that legalised gay marriage constituted a threat to the first amendment rights of religious conservatives. If gay marriage were to remain legal, Warren claimed, those who opposed it could somehow be charged with hate speech should they express their views. This is an utterly baseless canard, but one with great currency in the religious right, the milieu from which Warren consistently draws his ideas. [my emphasis]
She also gives a great example of how emotional non-moderation is part and parcel of Warren's "purpose-driven" religious message:

Warren is sometimes credited with broadening evangelical activism to transcend religious right preoccupations, but that's a bit deceptive. Much has been made of his work on HIV/Aids in Africa. In fact, though, Warren has taken the standard Christian conservative approach to the epidemic, which favours abstinence and prayer over condoms and sex education. I once attended Sunday services at the church of Martin Ssempa, one of Warren's protégés in Uganda and a major force in that country's devastating move away from safe-sex campaigns. It is a heartbreaking thing to watch a tongue-speaking faith-healer promise a room full of sobbing people – many of them poor, many infected with HIV – that Jesus can cure them, if only they believe in him unconditionally (belief demonstrated, of course, in part by tithing generously). [my emphasis]
But there is at least one issue on which America's Pastor is moderate in a way that the acolytes of High Broderism would recognize as such:

Meanwhile, while Warren says he opposes torture, he doesn't treat the subject with anything like the zeal he accords gay marriage and abortion. As he recently told Beliefnet.com, he never even brought up the subject with the Bush administration, where he had considerable access. Just before the 2004 election, he sent out an e-mail to his congregation outlining the five issues that he considered "non-negotiable". "In order to live a purpose-driven life – to affirm what God has clearly stated about his purpose for every person he creates – we must take a stand by finding out what the candidates believe about these five issues, and then vote accordingly," he wrote. The issues were abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning and euthanasia. Torture, apparently, is something that decent Christians can disagree on. [my emphasis]
Moderation as a general attitude is neither good nor bad in itself. In politics, it's held to be a virtue as opposed to "extremism". And in general, part of the point of democracy is to allow the public's business to be conducted in a calm and lawful way, i.e., in a "moderate" manner.

But the punditocracy and the Beltway Village in general use the notion of moderation in a very different way. In the creed of High Broderism, moderation and especially bipartisanship are like the Holy Grail. It's a generally Republican-friendly notion of partisanship but not mainly because of a partisan "bias". It's more a matter of being in awe of Republican macho swagger and a general sense that what is good for the very wealthy is good for America. It's partially a business assumption that to compete against the sensationalist coverage of FOX News and the venom of Republican hate radio, they have to adopt similar approaches to battle over market share. It's partly a commitment to "horse-race" coverage that focuses on who's ahead and who's behind, which implicitly assumes that "both sides" - Democrats and Republicans - are equally legitimate competitors. Even when, as in the case of torture, one side (the Republicans and some "bipartisan" Democrats) are advocating something blatantly cruel, immoral and illegal.

And let's not forget a very obvious part. When it comes to public policies and bureaucratic processes that don't lend themselves to horse-race reporting, our high-end press corps just isn't that bright. Some of them make a lot of money for their celebrity talents, which is highly relevant for their careers in a business that places more value on entertainment than news. (Whether that orientation reflects savvy business assumptions is a different question. Certainly it's leaving the market niche for good news reporting seriously under-served.)

Commenting on a recent piece by reporter and media critic Jay Rosen about how media gatekeepers decide what opinions fit within the range of respectable, the incomparable Daily Howler writes in his 01/19/09 post:

Dis- and misinformation: Quite correctly, Jay says that journalists won’t debate ideas that lurk in the "sphere of deviance." But the problem is actually worse than that: Journalists will actively promote (or tolerate) disinformation about such ideas. It isn't just that journos won't respect a person, like [Michael] Moore, who proposes single-payer [health insurance]; they’ll stand around as hacks present "information" about single-payer systems which is blatantly bogus. (Routinely, Rudy Giuliani was afforded this favor during the last campaign.) ...

Standard Group Stories: In the "sphere of consensus," we find those ideas which journalists take to be obvious. But journalistic conduct has been much worse than that over the past many years. As we have repeatedly noted: Once journalists agree on a Group Idea, they start hatching Accepted Group Stories designed to promote that idea. These Group Stories are often made out of whole cloth - but journalists agree to repeat them anyway. This includes many journalists who know that these stories are counter-factual, illogical or misleading. [my emphasis]
These dysfunctional aspects of our national political press mean that their notion of "moderate" positions acceptable to High Broderism are often articulated in a way that reinforces them with bad reporting, and not seldom very bad reporting. And the commentary on that reporting, which is how a lot of TV news comes packaged, is even worse.

Gene Lyons in Barack Obama's teachable moment Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 01/21/09 takes on the "moderate" ideal of High Broderism:

That's not to say that Obama's calls for bipartisanship, some of which are making infatuated supporters nervous, are wholly mistaken. By signaling an intention to reform Social Security and Medicare, he's frightened some who fear that bipartisanship invariably means slashing benefits - mainly because that's what it means to lazy-minded Beltway pundits constantly preaching "moderation."

In his pungent column at mediamatters.org, Jamison Foser calls this "centrist dogma": the idea that the best solution invariably lies midway between two extremes. The problem is that when one party's dead wrong, as Republicans have been wrong on virtually every economic issue for a generation, that kind of compromise is folly. Imagine where we'd be today, for example, had Bush succeeded in privatizing Social Security. [my emphasis]
On the Social Security and Medicare issues, the positions Obama has taken on those programs himself so far don't actually indicate any support on his part for reducing benefits, as Lyons points out.

Joe Conason in Obama and the New Center New York Observer Online 01/20/09 suggests that Obama's understanding of centrism and, more specifically, bipartisanship is quite different than what the Pod Pundits mean when they talk about those terms:

This speech was neither a programmatic list nor a call to compromise. Mr. Obama laid out the challenges that face the country and explained in broad strokes how he intends to address them - with bold action, necessary expenditure and a summoning of citizens to service. What he invited the nation to do, regardless of party, was to return to the basic American principles that made us strong and great over the past century and that were violated, discarded and mocked by those in power over the past eight years — and through the inordinate and unwholesome influence of the far right for much longer.

He will reach out to bring the Republicans back toward the center, where he hopes that goodwill and patriotic emotion can bring us together to lift us out of the ditch into which their ideology drove us. But now the center will be found in a different place - and bipartisanship again describes a consensus led by liberal Democrats. "The ground has shifted," he warned those who will oppose his ambitious agenda. He has earned the assumption that he means it. [my emphasis]
As Gene Lyons puts it, "The point is to bring aboard those members of the opposition willing to deal with reality."

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