Monday, March 16, 2009

The Uncultured Wars

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich is--with barely concealed glee--trumpeting the downfall of the influence of the religious right on US politics in the aftermath of the Obama administration's reversal of Bush policy on stem-cell research in his article When Times Go Bad, Americans Don't Turn to the Christian Right -- They Turn to Each Other. Rich writes,

"When Barack Obama ended the Bush stem-cell policy last week, there were no... overheated theatrics. No oversold prime-time address. No hysteria from politicians, the news media or the public. The family-values dinosaurs that once stalked the earth — Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Reed — are now either dead, retired or disgraced. Their less-famous successors pumped out their pro forma e-mail blasts, but to little avail. The Republican National Committee said nothing whatsoever about Obama’s reversal of Bush stem-cell policy."

Rich draws a historical parallel between our present moment and Roosevelt's post-prohibition New Deal politics. The comparison is provocative: he points out that, following the humiliating defeat Christian conservatives suffered over the Scopes Monkey Trial they lost power and didn't gain significant political traction in the US again until the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1970s. Rich has a good time with all of this, paraphrasing former Bush speech writer David Frum who contrasted apparent "devoted husband and father” Barack Obama, whose worst vice is “an occasional cigarette" with conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh, whose “history of drug dependency” and “tangled marital history” make him “a walking stereotype of self-indulgence.” Rich writes,

"What’s been revealing about watching conservatives debate their fate since their Election Day Waterloo is how, the occasional Frum excepted, so many of them don’t want to confront the obsolescence of culture wars as a political crutch. They’d rather...just change the subject — much as they avoid talking about Bush and avoid reckoning with the doomed demographics of the G.O.P.’s old white male base. To recognize all these failings would be to confront why a once-national party can now be tucked into the Bible Belt."

But that is not the only revealing thing in Rich's essay. If he is correct and the stem-cell legislation (or, more properly, the relatively modest reaction to it) is a pivot away from the influence religious conservatives enjoyed during the Bush presidency then, arguably it is going to get even more difficult to call out anti-Arab racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia because these sentiments will be expressed by liberals. We needn't look further than Rich's essay, which is subtitled, "This economic crisis spells an exodus for the Christian ayatollahs and the culture wars of the past 40 years" for confirmation of this fear.

Ayatollahs? Really?

So, in other words, even when liberals are talking, Islam is still the ne plus ultra of religious nut-baggery against which all Christians are judged. This sentiment is hardly new among the self-defined US left. For example, Bill Maher's "religulous" schtick regularly employs Islam as its limit case. Given the vast array of sins that can be attributed to conservative Christian religious leaders in the US, what is gained exactly through the comparison with Islam or Muslim religious and/or political figures? When I heard Steven Salaita speak about his new book of essays, The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, he addressed the dearth of nuance about the Middle East among US liberals. In Salaita's terms, the left "seems to believe in the same set of assumptions about Arabs and Muslims as the right."

For Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and the United States, the old white men, whose passing Rich celebrates are not the only worrisome population. The antipathy against us is far more widespread and insidious. As the Obama presidency progresses it will be interesting to see how--or if--the narrative changes.

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