Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Banging Hush Puppies on the Table

Certainly, Mr. John McCandlish Phillips is free to hold and express any opinion. On the other hand, to be given a third of a page in today's Washington Post (Wednesday, May 4, 2005; Page A19), he ought to satisfy some standard of quality and provide arguments supporting his position. Otherwise, I don't see why the other 200+ million American adults are not given equally prominent public forum for their musings. As it happens, the only plausible explanation for his privilege seems to be that he is an evangelical Christian.

The main thesis of his column, titled "When Columnists Cry 'Jihad'", is that the major news media (specifically, The New York Times and The Washington Post) have been staging a coordinated and improper attack on traditional Catholics and his fellow evangelicals. While he does not use big words like "conspiracy", he conveys an unambiguous message that a secularist offensive is directly threatening the liberty - and perhaps more - of people like him. (If you read his column, pay attention to how he uses the pronoun "we/us" with varying degree of specificity, at least three times clearly encompassing only conservative Christians.)

What evidence does he show that such an offensive exists?

From March 24 through April 23 (...), I counted 13 opinion columns of similarly alarmist tone aimed at us on the Christian right

Aha - "It's the numbers, stupid!" But what does that say about whether the columns are justified and well argued or not? Nothing, of course. Not to mention that he conveniently forgot to count the pro-religion opinion columns in the same papers. The Washington Post is often unkind to secularists even in its editorials.

Unencumbered by inconvenient passages from his religion's sacred texts (Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37), Phillips judges the liberal columnists. Here is what he says about Krugman:

Krugman, conceding the wide majority of secular liberals over conservatives on the faculties of our major universities, had the supreme chutzpah to tell us why: The former, unfettered by presuppositions of faith, are free to commit genuine investigative work and to reach valid scholarly conclusions, while the latter are disabled in that critical respect by their unprovable prior assumptions.

I would say that Phillips has the "supreme chutzpah" to misrepresent Krugman's explanation and attack it without demonstrating a single flaw in it. And here is his message to Frank Rich:

Frank Rich (...) went on to tell Times readers that GOP zealots in Congress and the White House have edged our country over into "a full-scale jihad." If Rich were to have the misfortune to live for one week in a genuine jihad, and the unlikely fortune to survive it, he would temper his categorization of the perceived President Bush-driven jihad by a minimum of 77 percent.

I wonder what authority Phillips possesses to adjudicate which jihad is genuine and which is fake. His own seems quite genuine to me; I admire the overt and shameless nature of his statements, such as:

Evangelicals are concerned about the frequently advanced and historically untenable secularists' view of the intent of our non-establishment/free exercise of religion clause (...) That view (...) constitutes what seems dangerous to most evangelicals: the strict and entire separation of God from state.

Never mind that he exaggerated the secularist position in the parts I omitted from the quote. What counts is that he openly and unconditionally pronounces that the separation of religion and government is dangerous. He did not include James Madison among the objectionable columnists, but he must find him profoundly disagreeable.

Phillips' only attempts at actual counter-arguments refer to religious faith of the founders of the (now woefully secularist) elite universities, and to the Congressional resolution authorizing Washington to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Those arguments fail because they are based on a fallacy of applying modern standards to actions from another historical period. Harvard and Yale, of course, were not centers of scientific research when they were founded. (There hardly was any scientific research then.) Moreover, a purely declarative Congressional action is an exceedingly weal example to support the far-reaching interpretation of history Phillips is pushing.

Phillips spends considerable page space to show personal-level affinity for the columnists he criticizes. Maureen Dowd is an "ever-so-readable columnist" and "[r]eading everything [she] writes" is, for Phillips, "one of life's guilty pleasures". Frank Rich is "an often acute, broadly knowledgeable and witty cultural observer". Richard Cohen is "generally amiable and highly communicative", Eugene Robinson is "urbane", and so on. Thus the writer maintains a formal appearance of politeness and respect for the columnists as persons. But, in reality, he displays utmost disrespect as he objects to their columns, and even implies a sinister context for them, without providing any valid counterarguments.

The general style of Phillips' column - civilized on surface, but vacuous and malevolent below - is symptomatic of much that passes as acceptable discourse these days, especially by conservatives. Under scrutiny, there is no more content in his article than in a child's claim "My daddy is stronger than yours!" and hence it amounts to nothing more (or less) than a demonstration of the raw power of the legions of evangelicals in whose name he writes.

I view such expression as essentially equivalent to the shoe-banging by that quintessential populist authoritarian, Nikita Khrushchev. Yes, our religious conservatives are far less temperamental and behave more amiably, so they may be banging soft Hush Puppies instead of heavy Soviet-made leather shoes, and the sound of it may be more pleasant, but, by golly, shoe banging is still shoe banging.

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