Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Glenn Beck, "Amazing Grace," 2010

Two a.m. and I've been packing for a big move for hours. An unpleasant chore, so I gave it an unpleasant soundtrack -- the three-and-a-half hour video of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor Rally," on C-Span. I've been reporting on the American right for close to a decade now, so I've mostly gotten past the snark with which lefties respond to this sort of thing. I'm more fascinated by the craft of mass movement manipulation. For the first couple of hours, I was thinking that Beck was genius. Because the rally really wasn't explicitly political, not even Palin, and there were Native Americans and black preachers and MLK, and even if it didn't make sense -- if Beck was stealing history -- he seemed to be getting away with it. That is, he was successfully passing off the radical witness of MLK as prelude to the almost all white crowd on hand. That great white crowd would leave feeling itself redeemed from and inoculated against charges of racism. The use of veterans, too, was masterful -- never about the war, always about the soldiers. Beck can say anything he wants now -- he's proven, to his followers, that he is above politics.

"So what?" says the liberal. His followers are, after all, his followers, right? Not exactly. He needs not only to keep them but to keep them moving. Beck isn't Rush; Rush appeals to the cranky, while Beck speaks to discontent. Rush satisfies his fans' cynicism; Beck offers them hope. Or, rather, promises them that it's up ahead, and there's danger behind -- keep moving, nation.

So I'm watching out of the corner of my eye while I pack, admiring the craft of manipulation, when Beck starts winding it down with the story of John Newton, the slave trader turned clergyman who wrote "Amazing Grace." Beck, predictably, mangles the story, as he has every other moment of history he's stroked during the rally. But what catches me off guard is Beck's description of the song as the best ever written for the bagpipes. Cue bagpipes.

Now, I like bagpipes, too, but "Amazing Grace" wasn't written for bagpipes -- a military instrument. It's not a militant song, but Beck, tipping his hand at the end, makes it a battle hymn. A few more songs follow, but that's the big finale -- Beck has closed his rally like Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. Remember, the boulder rolled away from the tomb, and the marching music rising, Christ rising too, to go kick some ass? That was Gibson's real theological sleight of hand, the replacement of the lamb with the action hero, muscular Christianity on steroids. Beck has followed his lead, turning the plaintive beauty of "Amazing Grace" into a war song. I know, firemen and policemen killed on the job sometimes get "Amazing Grace" with bagpipes. But somehow this is different. Those are funerals; this is a movement rising, getting read to kick some ass. It's the only moment in this really kind of dull rally that galls me -- the only real crack in Beck's facade of democratic pluralism. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

"No Solution," Wendy Doniger, 1999

More old notes from basement cleaning and packing, these from interviews with the great scholar of myth Wendy Doniger, whom I profiled for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1999, I think. Her short book on method, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, is one of my favorite books about writing. Even though it's not about writing.

In one of our conversations, she cited Levi-Strauss's idea that "myths tackle problems that have no solution." I said that in the context of her work, that made me think of a novelist knowingly wading into a doomed attempt to resolve a plot. "That's an interesting way of putting it," Doniger answered.
That explains to me why I drive my publishers crazy. Because I hate to produce conclusions. I tell all these stories and I have ideas about them, and I say, "Look at this, did you notice that, I know another story that sheds some light on it." Then I want to go home. And my publisher says, "What's the answer? What's the solution?" And I usually have to make something up for the book. But my heart isn't in it because I usually think there is no solution. It's just an interesting way of talking about the problem. I'm a mythologist.
I also salvaged an index card on which I'd written a comment from another conversation with Doniger: "There are so few interesting questions, and so many interesting answers."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"We are the moment the of deconstruction," January, 2001

Packing for a move, which means throwing out old papers. Among the notebooks to be disposed of is the tiny pocket one in which I wrote these words by a forgotten speaker, someone I interviewed about something in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I have no idea who it was. Nobody I'd planned to encounter -- that's why I wrote in a tiny notebook instead of my preferred steno pad.
Cocaine was rediscovered by the individual in the 1980s. Then, by a whole bunch of individuals in the 1990s. Cocaine was especially good for people with no sense of belonging. A lot of people don't have anything to belong to. They're not religious, they're not in a labor union. I'm drawn to labor unions, but I was not a worker. Well, that's not true. I was. I was a worker in the cocaine business. 
I've been an addict, I've been a dealer. But that didn't reflect who I thought I was. So I went to law school, and at law school, I sit down with all these people at lunch time, but they're not my people. The only place I see myself reflected is in the people I graduated from college with.
My disdain isn't sociological. I'm actually jealous of the fratboy law students. And of my boyfriend. [A minor dealer, in the business through family connections.] He belongs. And he feels belonging with me. But I don't belong. Do you? [Laughing:] We are truly postmodern. We are the deconstructionist moment. We're the day after generation. 
Sometimes I look at some insane piece of furniture, a $30,000 coffee table, and I calculate, How many families can't eat because of it? Because of the wealth compressed into this table? 
I asked, "Do you look at $180,000 of coke" -- a shipment the dealer had helped process -- "and think the same thing?"
[Thinking. Laughs.] You know, I was taught to be introspective. You know, hippie stuff, "I spoke to the river; did the river speak back to me?" And the answer is, I don't know. I see the problem. I understand the problem with what I'm doing. I can say with certainty that I'm not happy. I mean, I sell drugs; I facilitate the sale of drugs. I'm a saleswoman. It's not the drugs. It's the sales. I persuade, right? That's what you do, right? That's what journalists do? What's the difference? I'm a propagandist. You're a propagandist. That's what we do. 
Now that I'm done typing this in, I remember who I was talking with, and when. It was the late fall of 2000. I wanted to write a story about her, a dealer with plans for a union. But the coke had other plans. The last time we discussed the story she grew paranoid; she talked about guns. It was the eve of W.'s first inauguration. One of customer came over, giddy. He was a rising star conservative writer. He called her a Marxist, and giggled when she counted his money. She called him a fascist, and cackled with delight when he bragged about the young Bushies he'd soon be fucking -- confirmation of her low opinion. She considered herself -- she was -- a deeply moral person. She no longer touches coke, in any capacity, but back then she was a diligent law student by day and a drug dealer by night. Not the glam kind, the gritty kind, not slumming but paying the bills. It wasn't cute; as I recall, she told me she'd established her authority as a woman in a business of men by putting out a cigarette on the arm of an asshole who didn't pay her on time. She was always a tough girl. Still is; but sober, and past the moment of deconstruction.

Glenn Beck and American History

In light of Glenn Beck's invocation of phony American history on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial today, I think it's worth reviving my 2006 Harper's magazine story on the Christian Right's make over of the past, "Through a Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right is Re-imagining American History."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead, 1998; King Motherfucker Rat, 1999

For years I've been wondering where I'd put some notes I'd made on a conversation with homeless guy by the office I was then working. Tonight I found them, written in the end pages of Bringing Out the Dead, Joe Connelly's amazing 1998 autobiographical novel of a New York City paramedic who's losing his mind. I was reading it one night in 1999,  when I left the offices of The Chronicle of Higher Education late. I covered the new research in the humanities; hardly the cops beat. It was good work, a license to travel around the country asking dumb questions of brilliant scholars, but it felt a little removed from the world, and the setting didn't help -- an antiseptic office plaza that looked, in real life, like an architect's rendering. A really boring architect's rendering. At night it was deserted, which is why a few homeless guys napped on the benches. I don't remember how I struck up an acquaintance with this guy, Joe, but I did; and on this night, March 29, I ended up scribbling down his words in the back of Bringing Out the Dead.

"The knife or the gun, they don't know nobody," my notes began. Joe was talking about an argument he'd had with a friend that had come close to violence before Joe walked away. "Let that shit rest in the past," he continued,
bury that motherfucker, call that shit dead and gone. Cause he is the sweetest, goodest kinda man when he sober, but get him a drink -- I can handle mine,  I can drink a beer, I can even drink liquor -- he don't know all to stop. Then he let the 'nigger' out."
Joe was black; his friend was white.
"Nigger" this, "Nigger" that. The racist type of shit -- holy shit, look at that rat!
A big rat was sniffing around a bench a few yards off.
You gotta see it cause he BIG. He on patrol.  Yeah, now look at him. In the alley -- ok, I sleep in the alley, but we don't got rats there, it's only when I come over by the clean buildings here. You tell em, that's dangerous, here in the clean buildings. That motherfucker. Somebody eat their lunch out here and he be on patrol. Then somebody set their sandwich down and that motherfucker rat take the sandwich and the hand, too. Cause I seen movies about them -- No! Don't throw nothing at him. Leave him be, cause you get him mad a dozen -- maybe 14 -- come out. I seen movies, they live in colonies, the peoples do. And they got a king motherfucker rat, he big as a dog, like this he stand up. I seen him. I hit him with a pole, like this, and king motherfucker rat stood right back up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

C Street

I'll be talking about my new book C Street, with NPR's Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" today, so now is as good a time as ever to blog the jacket copy. 
Democracy, desire, and the street address for fundamentalism in America 
Jeff Sharlet is the only writer to have reported from inside the C Street House, the Christian Fellowship residence known simply by its Washington DC address. The house has lately been the scene of notorious political scandal, but more crucially it’s home to fundamentalist efforts to transform the fabric of American democracy. And now, after laying bare its tenants’ past in The Family, Sharlet reports from deep within fundamentalism in today’s world, revealing that the past efforts of religious fundamentalists in America pale in comparison to their long-term ambitions.
When Obama entered the White House, headlines declared the age of culture war over—just like they did after the Democratic victories of 2006 and, ten years before, Bill Clinton’s re-election. It’s an American tradition, declaring conflict a thing of the past. In C Street, Sharlet tells the story of why these conflicts endure and why they matter now—from the sensationalism of Washington sex scandals to fundamentalism’s long shadow in Africa, where American culture warriors determined to eradicate homosexuality have set genocide on simmer.
We’ve reached a point where piety and corruption are not at odds but one and the same. Reporting with exclusive sources and explosive documents from C Street, the American-backed war on gays in Uganda, and the battle for the soul of America’s armed forces—waged by a 15,000-strong movement of officers intent on “reclaiming territory for Christ in the military”—Sharlet reveals not the last gasp of old-time religion but the new front lines of fundamentalism.
The Uganda chapter is excerpted in the September Harper's; and an excerpt of the excerpt is now online.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

R.I.P. Tony Judt

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, died today of Lou Gehrig's disease, at age 62. Before Postwar, I'd skipped Judt's essays in The New York Review of Books, thinking him a typical centrist liberal wonk. My mistake. I picked up Postwar while I was working on a chapter of my book The Family, about the role of American fundamentalists in the rehabilitation of Nazis. My interest, then, was limited to a small piece of Judt's book; really, I was simply hoping to find a generalist's account of the Adenauer government. But what I found was a vigorously argued, well-paced, deeply engaged history that picked me up and carried well beyond Germany. I'm usually not a fan of doorstop continental histories, but Judt's book is, in one sense, less than that, and thus more. Judt eschewed the omniscient authority of the all-powerful historian for the greater passion -- and, to me, persuasiveness -- of the essayist. It's a valuable book. And since then, I've read Judt's NYRB essays, including his moving memoir, dictated in his dying days, which begins here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lt. General Mike Gould, 2010; J.C. Hallman, In Utopia, 2010

What do you call an amplification -- not a correction -- issued in advance of the original statement? A preemptive post-publication addendum? Whatever it is, here's one. In my forthcoming book, C Street, I expanded on 2009 Harper's article of mine on Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. military, in which I briefly mentioned U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent Mike Gould:

Gould granted himself the nickname “Coach” after a brief stint in that capacity early in his career. Coach Gould enjoys public speaking, and he’s famous for his  3- F mantra: Faith, Family, Fitness. At the Pentagon, a former senior officer who served under Gould told me, the general was so impressed by a special presentation Pastor Rick Warren gave to senior officers that he e-mailed his 104 subordinates, advising them to read and live by Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. 
“People thought it was weird,” recalls the former officer, a defense contractor, who requested anonymity for fear of losing government business. “But no one wants to show their ass to the general.” 
The "heroes" of the chapter are the activists of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a nonprofit watchdog dedicated to defending first amendment freedom of (and from) religion for military personnel of all faiths and no faith. Tonight, MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein forwards an email he received from an Air Force Academy professor that shows Gould has turned a corner. 
Today, I heard the most astonishing words from an Air Force Academy Superintendent that I have ever heard in my entire 16 years as an Academy professor.  Quoting from a well-known 1997 United States Air Force report, Lt Gen Mike Gould, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy, actually said in a Commander’s Call addressed to the entire permanent population of the base that “military officers shouldn’t push their religious views on subordinates”.  My jaw dropped in astonishment.  This man clearly “gets it”.  My elation was tempered only by the sad fact that it took multiple Superintendents and several years of painful turmoil for us to finally get a top guy in here who clearly sensed that the environment was right to say something so blatantly obvious and true to every single person here at the Air Force Academy. 
 Credit, he continues, belongs to Mikey Weinstein and MRFF.

I sadden only when I realize that two years from now, this Air Force Academy Superintendent will retire, we will have a different USAF Chief of Staff, and the process of training yet another chain of command must begin anew.  Who knows what we will get.  That means, Mikey, that you and the MRFF must be vigilant.  You must be vigilant, and you must have staying power.  The forces you so appropriately and aggressively oppose here at the Air Force Academy, and indeed all over the Department of Defense, think in terms of eternity, so four years between Academy Superintendents is nothing to them.  Please, Mikey and MRFF, be there for an eternity too. 

Meantime, I have to give Gould some credit for being better than anyone expected or even hoped.


In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better ParadiseUnrelated, and, really, a lot more interesting, is the arrival in my mail today of J.C. Hallman's newest book, In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradisethe official pub date of which is today. (Or, yesterday, when I started this post.) It deserves more attention and will get it, but for now I'll go with the jacket blurb I contributed: 
Hallman brilliantly explores the idea of utopia and its applications in the real world, from hippie communes to shooting ranges to a massive floating city. We could hardly ask for a better guide: Hallman is an erudite but humble writer, with the skepticism, wit, and compassion necessary for those close encounters with the distant possibility of a perfected world.
Here's an excerpt from Hallman's last book, The Devil is a Gentleman, we published on Killing the Buddha.