Tribal Loyalty and Free Expression

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conservatism, entertainment and popular culture, Religion

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the role of scripture in either causing or justifying armed conflicts around the planet. The “hook” for the post was an article by a Turkish Muslim who argued that Muslim extremists don’t learn to hate from reading the Koran. They hate, and then they cherry pick words out of the Koran to justify their hatred. I took his word on this, because I’m unfamiliar with the Koran.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon elsewhere. Propagandists on “our” side like to cherry-pick verses from the Koran to argue that Islam teaches hatred. Muslim propagandists have have cranked out similar hate material about Jews. People hostile to Christianity cherry-pick verses from the New Testament to argue that Jesus was some sort of bloodthirsty rabble rouser. Interestingly, fundies use these same verses to justify their bigotry toward everyone who isn’t Them, homosexuals in particular.

I also once got an email from an atheist who had pulled a verse from the murky depths of early Sanskrit Buddhist texts — possibly a bad translation — to inform me that Buddhism teaches that women cannot enter Nirvana. My understanding is that no individual of whatever gender can “enter” Nirvana, however, so I’m not worried about gender bias in the dharmakaya. (See, for example, the Diamond Sutra, section III.)

Anyway, one commenter to the scripture post concluded I was either taking sides with or making excuses for Muslims. In fact, the only “side” I was taking is that people around the planet misuse scripture to justify their hatred and bigotry. Essentially, this individual mistook objectivity for “taking sides.” That’s fairly common with bigots. If you aren’t avowedly with them, they assume you’re “for” the other side. And attempting to understand what motivates The Enemy is tantamount to making excuses.

A couple of days ago Glenn Greenwald wrote a post called “Selective defenders of free expression,” pointing out that wingnuts promote anti-Muslim expression but try to suppress anti-Christian expression. A comment by Kathy Griffith Griffin — “suck it, Jesus” — has been cut from a pre-taped telecast of the Emmy Awards show after Catholic crusader Bill Donohue threw a fit about it. Donohue still wants Griffith Griffin to apologize to Christians. We can only hope he holds his breath until she does.

Anyway, Kathryn Jean Lopez at the Corner celebrated the “victory over Kathy Griffin’s mouth.” Meanwhile, Lulu and other righties are still flogging the Mohammad cartoon controversy, demanding that mostly crude and hateful depictions of Mohammad not be surpressed.

I’m not surprised by, and not really critical of, Fox’s decision to cut Kathy Griffin’s comment from the show. Commercial publishers and entertainment outlets often cut material they think might offend consumers or advertisers. By the same token, however, Michelle Malkin has no right to demand a newspaper publish anything it judges not to be fit for publishing.

About a year ago Little Lulu was up in arms because the Berlin Opera had canceled a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo that was disrespectful of Mohammad and might have given offense to Muslims. “Jihadists hate Western art and music,” she said. But last March she crusaded against a sculpture that she decided — purely a matter of opinion — was disrespectful of Jesus. Lulu doesn’t think much of Western art either, I guess.

This nation is being jerked around by brute mob hysteria wrapped in sanctimony, and I’m damn sick of it. Ed Pilkington writes in today’s Guardian:

Given the reception John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received for their London Review of Books essay last year on what they called the Israel Lobby, it would have been understandable had they crawled away to a dark corner of their respective academic institutions to lick their wounds. Their argument that US foreign policy has been distorted by the stultifying power of pro-Israeli groups and individuals was met with a firestorm of protest that has smouldered ever since.

The authors were assailed with headlines such as the Washington Post’s: “Yes, it’s anti-semitic.” The neocon pundit William Kristol accused them in the Wall Street Journal of “anti-Judaism” while the New York Sun linked them with the white supremacist David Duke.

The row became a focal point of a much wider debate about the limits of permitted criticism of the state of Israel and its American-based supporters that has ensnared several academics and writers, including a former president. Jimmy Carter was castigated earlier this year when he published a plea for a renewed engagement in the Middle-East peace process under the admittedly provocative title, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He was labelled an anti-semitic “Jew hater” and even a Nazi sympathiser. Meanwhile, a British-born historian at New York University, Tony Judt, has been warned off or disinvited from four academic events in the past year. On one occasion, he was asked to promise not to mention Israel in a speech on the Holocaust. He refused.

Naturally, much of the backlash targeted Mearsheimer and Walt personally and ignored what they actually said.

Mearsheimer and Walt have now come out with a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, making the same argument.

As night follows day, the dispute has started anew. The New York Sun has dedicated a section of its website to the controversy; Dershowitz has revved up again, calling the book “a bigoted attack on the American Jewish community”; and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, has gone to the trouble of writing his own book in riposte – and it’s in the bookshops a week before The Israel Lobby appears. …

…But the authors have brought into the open aspects of American intellectual life that needed airing. They cast light on the overweening activities of specific pro-Israeli groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Aipac is a self-avowed lobby (it calls itself America’s pro-Israel lobby) and has been ranked the second most powerful such body in the US. With a staff of more than 150 and a budget of $60m, it wields extensive influence among Congressmen, working to ensure criticism of Israel is rarely aired on Capitol Hill. The Guardian invited it to comment, but it declined.

Though Foxman insists the furore is proof that debate is alive and kicking, Walt and Mearsheimer have also put their finger on the limits of acceptable discourse in the US. It is notable that none of the candidates standing for president in 2008 have a word of criticism for Israeli state behaviour; this week Barack Obama pulled an advert for his campaign from the Amazon page selling The Israel Lobby, denouncing the book as “just wrong”.

So what happened to America’s commitment to free speech, the First Amendment? “We knew from De Tocqueville this country is driven by conformity,” Judt says. “The law can’t make people speak out – it can only prevent people from stopping free speech. What’s happened is not censorship, but self-censorship.” Judt believes that a few well-organised groups including Aipac have succeeded in proscribing debate. He recalls a prominent Democratic senator confiding to him that he would never criticise Israel in public. “He told me that if he did so, for the rest of his career he would never be able to get a majority for what he cared about. He would be cut off at the knees.”

In the final chapter of the book, Walt and Mearsheimer make a shopping list of reforms. They call for: a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis; greater separation of US foreign policy from Israel for both nations’ sake; and campaign finance reform to reduce the power of pro-Israeli groups.

Nothing outlandish, or even controversial, there. Coming at the end of such a bumpy ride of claim and counter-claim, the conclusion feels almost disappointingly gentle. That in itself bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale.

I haven’t read Walt and Mearsheimer’s London Review of Books article or their book, and I’m not going to endorse either sight unseen. I’m just saying I know a mob when I see it.

Although one never knows what’s in another person’s heart, I would take people like Donohue and Malkin more seriously if I saw an occasional spark of genuine piety or devotion in them. I believe that for them and for many allegedly “religious” Americans, religion is merely a matter of tribal loyalty. And I don’t care if you’re Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist; when religion is merely part of your tribal identity, it’s a piss-poor excuse for religion.

Also at The Guardian, Andrew Brown writes,

The point about theological disagreement is that it is almost entirely arbitrary. Perhaps, among philosophers trained in the discipline, there are rules of argument. But it is not philosophers we have to fear; and theological disputes certainly become entirely arbitrary at those unhappy times when they become really popular, which is to say divisive. The more arcane a theological point can be, the better it will serve as a tribal rallying point.

This isn’t because theology is wicked, but because people are.

If we see politics as essentially a matter of conflict between shifting coalitions, one of the functions of religious argument is to strengthen and enlarge your own coalition in a way that pure politics, with their suggestion of grubby self-interest and compromise, just won’t do. Appeals to theology function to make your position inflexible when it needs be, because they are by definition appealing to a supreme value; but they can also have the opposite effect, when surrender becomes inevitable, they have the further advantage over merely political claims that the sacred text can be reinterpreted without losing any of its immemorial authority. Look at the role that Christianity played first in justifying apartheid, and then in proving the need to demolish it.

All these are good reasons, perhaps, for liberal democracies to be suspicious of political movements animated by theology. But they are absolutely not reasons to suppose that religious belief will shrivel, or that it is irrational. If it is true that appeals to the sacred are among the most effective political technologies mankind has ever stumbled on, no Darwinian should expect them to be replaced by less effective pieties.

This takes us back to my original point about the misuse of scripture. People who are desperate to defend whatever conceptual boxes they live in will grab at anything for support. Religion can be the ideal crutch, because it is both infinitely malleable and infinitely authoritative. I believe most of the world’s Malkins, Donohues, etc. would lose all interest in religion if it stopped reinforcing their bigotries. And if that ever happened, they’d find another crutch.

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18 Comments

  1. Martha Moran  •  Sep 16, 2007 @8:48 am

    btw/ the commedienne’s name is Kathy Griffin, not Griffith.

  2. Donna  •  Sep 16, 2007 @9:36 am

    I have long believed that Howard Dean’s remarkable rise in the last presidential primary was cut short by two instances of too much direct honesty from his mouth in December of ’03: 1] he made a single statement to the effect that America needs to be ‘an honest broker’ in the middle east……..Dean’s language wasn’t sufficiently ‘avowedly for Israel’ to comfort the powerful Aipac chapter in Des Moines, Iowa; and 2] Dean spoke one time in December of ’03 of the need to counter the consolidation of the media into the hands of too few, which statement, I believe, was the actual reason that the ‘consolidated media’ edited out the crowd roar to replay that edited ‘Dean’s scream’ 700+ times in one week. I remember when I heard Dean make that statement about media consolidation, I thought, “uh oh”.

    I do believe that the crises of the past ten years [Gringrich ‘revolution’, Clinton impeachment, 9/11, corporate malfaisance, loss of middle class standing, GWB domestic and foreign incompetencies, Iraq] have shaken the status quo power sharing arrangements between the political party elites in a way that renewed populism is strong again like it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Candidates this go-around who tap into that populism [Edwards, Ron Paul, Kucinich, and Obama] will become targets of behind the scenes actions, if they seem to be gaining too much strength AND are speaking too much ‘truth to power’. For the elites who work to maintain their position of influence, the use of charged religious terms [anti-semitic, secularism, pro-choice, etc] are what is fed to the voters as red herring ‘reasons’ to cover the actual [greed/top of the pyramid standing] reasons for countering populism. BTW, I think the bizarre instances of Florida and Michigan reneging on the primary schedule is a piece of the beltway democrats maneuvering to oust Dean from the DNC after the next Dem convention, as well as to thwart the populist power of Edwards and Obama who have been reaching folks on the ground in the original early states.

    So, what has happened to free speech? If such speech comes from the populist appealers, it is being countered and distorted by slogans, memes, charged language, and preemptive editing and nit-picking by the pundits. If it comes from insider favoreds, that ‘free’ speech already avoids the hot buttons by being acceptably vague, and/or is otherwise given a pass or even built up by glowing review.

  3. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 16, 2007 @9:37 am

    Maha,
    This is long, and I apologize for it, but I think it’s appropriate. This is a poem I wrote yesterday:

    A New Mass
    And so,
    We are told,
    Take, eat; for
    This is thy body armor.
    And we eat the bread.

    And then,
    We are told
    Take the cup,
    And we give thanks.
    And pass it to others…

    Drink ye American’s all of it.
    For this is the blood
    Of the new testament of lies,
    Which has been shed by the many
    For the commission of our sins.

    Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread,
    And drink this cup,
    Shall be guilty of the body and blood
    Of the President’s lies.

    And we take the bread.
    We drink from the cup
    Given to us
    By mendacious handmaiden’s
    On the flickering screen.

    We are now guilty
    Of the bodies
    And ocean’s of blood of the President.
    A graven image,
    In a grey flannel suit.

    The cup which he blesses,
    Is it not the communion of the blood he shed?
    The bread which he breaks,
    Is it not the communion of the bodies?

    For we,
    Being many, are now one bread,
    Composed of many body parts.
    For we are now all partakers of that one bread
    That breaks hearts and families.

    That bread leavened by
    Headless bodies
    On dead-end street’s,
    Whose only mourner’s
    Are hungry flies.

    We drink the cup of blood,
    The cup of evil:
    We are partakers of our Lord President’s table,
    And of the table of devils.

    The President took the bread,
    Blessed it,
    And brake it
    And gave it to his disciples in the media.

    And said,
    Take, eat, this is thy body armor.
    And he passed the cup of blood,
    Spilling over with lies,
    And gave thanks.
    And gave it to them, saying,
    Drink ye all of it.

    Drink ye all of it, America.
    Drink ye all of it…

    Last thought from cund gulag – My apologies to those who are religious.
    I mean no offence. But the imagery and words came to me in a sleepless dream this morning. And struck me…
    Maybe if more people used the words in the Bible, we could stop the Christianista’s and their minion’s.
    They use the words. Why can’t we?

  4. Doug Hughes  •  Sep 16, 2007 @10:14 am

    Don’t forget how they came unglued at Jimmy Carter over his last book. The former president had harsh words for the manner that land has been seized from the Palistinians by connected greedy individuals. That these individuals are Jewish is not anti-semitism. But damn few were willing to address WHAT Jimmy Carter said impartially, and the impact the land grabs are having on peace prospects. I am a firm advocate of Israels right to exist, but that does not mean I am blind to injustice, or the effect that injustice has on negotiations.

    Dualism tries to frame everything in us-them terms. If you are for Israel, then nothing that THEY say is true. You can’t listen, and must not negotiate with THEM. That kind of thinking has gotten us in this mess.

  5. joanr16  •  Sep 16, 2007 @10:16 am

    I believe most of the world’s Malkins, Donohues, etc. would lose all interest in religion if it stopped reinforcing their bigotries. And if that ever happened, they’d find another crutch.

    Oh my, what an essential truth.

    It occurred to me, during that phony crusade of Donohue’s against John Edwards and a couple of feminist bloggers, that Donohue himself is a far greater insult to the Catholic Church than any critical outsider ever could be.

  6. grayslady  •  Sep 16, 2007 @11:40 am

    Maha, I think I see the making of a book here. You began with a series of lengthy, thought-provoking diaries on faith and organized religion. Those diaries could constitute the first part of the book. Today’s diary could begin the second part of the book, examining specific ways in which political issues are bogged down by didactic religious pronunciations that are intended to curtail open discussion, having little to do with what is right and more to do with self-styled righteousness. Nicely written.

    Glenn Greenwald has been doing a yeoman’s job spotlighting the decline of the media in our country, especially calling out those who consider themselves to be the “serious” commentators in the contest among political analysts. With this diary, you have started to provide a related analysis of idealogues, deliniating the names and tactics of those who use religion to justify their “seriousness” in political discourse.

    Also: what Donna says.

  7. r4d20  •  Sep 16, 2007 @5:53 pm

    Maha,

    The link to the Diamond Sutra reminded me -Have you ever seen http://www.sacred-texts.com?

    Its a huge,free, internet archive of texts from every major religion and a host of smaller ones. Its the best site for religious primary sources I’ve yet found. If you havent seen it then check it out. I think you will find it worthy of a bookmark.

  8. Doug Hughes  •  Sep 16, 2007 @9:50 pm

    “You Broke It – You Bought It”. I have been hearing that as a reason we have to stay in Iraq. The expression is from a sign a merchant might post in his store to indicate a customer is liable for damages to merchandise he handles.What if the owner overrides the manager & forgives the obligation?

    Supposedly, we are there at the invitation of the elected government. The government in the green zone is (at best) the manager. The owner of Iraq is the people, and as I read the polls, they overwhelmingly want the occupation to end. So put it on the ballot in the next election as a referendum; should the US military stay or have the people of Iraq had enough ‘help’.

    What more ‘cover’ does the US government need to depart having completed the mission of destroying the WMD and bringing Sadaam to justice? Allow democracy prevail in Iraq; let’s get ‘uninvited’ and get the hell out.

  9. Swami  •  Sep 16, 2007 @10:08 pm

    “We support Israel because all other nations were created by an act of men, but Israel was created by an act of God! The Royal Land Grant that was given to Abraham and his seed through Isaac and Jacob with an everlasting and unconditional covenant. “ – John Hagee Ministries

    How can anybody argue with that? I’m sure god would have given the Israelis F-16’s had they been invented in biblical times, so seeing how they weren’t, he left it to the United States to act as his agent.

  10. Elblot  •  Sep 17, 2007 @11:34 am

    Maha,

    Thank you for excellent blog and this excellent post in particular. It amazes me how even many of my supposedly liberal friends believe that:
    1. The Koran commands Muslims to kill all non-Muslims all the time.
    2. Muslims do not worship the same God as Jews and Christians.
    3. Islam itself is the principle cause of “terrorism” and the greatest single threat to world stability.

    I could not agree with you more – people will use religion to justify their pre-existing beliefs whenever they can. This has nothing to do with the specific religion in question and everything to do with human nature as you say.

    But more specifically – and personally – about the Walt / Meerschemer (sp?) articles and books.

    I was born a Jew, grew up in a primarily Jewish neighborhood in New York City and went to a high school that was 70% Jewish. Like all of my friends, I was raised to believe that Israel was the greatest thing to happen to humanity since…well forever. I read Golda Meyer’s autobiography, Miracle at Entebbe, Exodus, and more books that I can remember that reinforced these myths.

    I was proud of Israel and proud to associate myself with that country.

    That started to change for me when I read Tom Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I wonder what happened to him since he wrote that book, but this was the first I had heard of the deep flaws within Israeli society and I still admire the intellectual honesty and courage it took for him to come to his conclusions.

    I went on to read “Strangers in the House” by Raja Shehadeh and a whole new world was opened to me. Since that time, I have learned a great deal about the situation and I can say I have experienced a true conversion on the topic. In truth, if I had more confidence that the Holocaust could not be repeated here in the U.S, I would find a way to officially renounce my “right of return”. Unfortunately I am still hedging my bets on that topic.

    And this brings me to the essence of what motivated to finally (after reading your blog for 2+ years) to write a comment. I believe that many neo-conservative Jews have indeed “hijacked” American policy to further Israeli interests. I accept that they believe that American and Israeli interests are one and the same in a big picture “ends justifies the means” sort of way, but I certainly do not agree with this opinion in any way. While, as Mr. Walt said on Fresh Air with Terry Gross last week, you certainly can not lay the blame for the Iraq fiasco entirely with the Paul Wolfowitz’s of the world, their prominent role can not be denied. As he also stated, polling indicated that a majority of American Jews opposed this war, but unfortunately we are not as well organized and funded as AIPAC, JDL and their allies.

    My worst nightmare is to see the headline “the Jews lied to us and led us into Iraq to help Israel” appear on a right wing blog. This theme would fit so well into their racist narrative that I have to believe it is only a matter of time.

    In my heart, I believe that many of the Jewish neo-conservatives have betrayed the country that opened its arms to us when we were persecuted by the most of the rest of the world. As American Jews, there is no greater threat to our continued prosperity and well-being in this country. Sorry for the rambling and poorly written post, but basically I just want to personally thanks you for fighting this battle for me.

  11. felicity  •  Sep 17, 2007 @12:37 pm

    Where liberty is oppressed, dogmatism and fanaticism result. By not resisting those who would limit our liberty by limiting our speech, we are nurturing dogmatism and fanaticism.

  12. Eris  •  Sep 17, 2007 @1:16 pm

    For a concise overview of the problems with the Walt-Mearsheimer essay and book, see the 5 page pdf at this link.

    This pdf is being widely disseminated in academia, industry and government.

  13. maha  •  Sep 17, 2007 @2:05 pm

    For a concise overview of the problems with the Walt-Mearsheimer essay and book, see the 5 page pdf at this link.

    I know propaganda when I see it, too. This is not an academic critique of Walt-Mearsheimer. Don’t bother me with crap like this.

  14. maha  •  Sep 17, 2007 @2:07 pm

    Elblot — thank you for a gutsy comment.

  15. Elblot  •  Sep 17, 2007 @6:07 pm

    Maha – Someday soon I will be gutsy enough to spend the time to write it better and post it on the Great Orange Satan 🙂

    Thanks for the kind words and keep up the great work.

  16. Eris  •  Sep 18, 2007 @7:23 pm

    Maha writes: I know propaganda when I see it, too. This is not an academic critique of Walt-Mearsheimer. Don’t bother me with crap like this.

    Why don’t you explain what items are “propaganda.”

    Further, academia is so corrupt, you should believe very little that comes from there.

  17. Jewboy  •  Sep 19, 2007 @7:11 pm

    It’s amazin’ to see the faulty thinking here. Ya’all need to study the rules of logical fallacy here, not to mention here.

    It’s pretty obvious after reading some of these pro-Walt and Mearsheimer blogs just why Jews are so over-represented in the legal and medical professions, in art, in music, and other fields requiring high intelligence and high creativity, and why they win Nobel prizes way in excess of their percentage of the population.

    It’s because of their superior intellect, honed over centuries of placing extremely high value on learning rather than boozing and womanizing, and the intellectual midgetry of the competition. Asians are the same way.

    You folks here exhibit the puny intellects of the lowbrow, of the racist, of the gutter dweller, I’m sorry to say.

    There is one difference from eras past regarding Jews and llowbrow anti-semitic racist bigots: the Jews are now not only intelligent, but also have learned from history and from the wisdom of one of the greatest Judeochristian sages of all time that “A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.”

    Indeed, Jews in the U.S. take that to the next level. A critical mass of American Jews are armed. They don’t march into the pit anymore. Rather, you attempt to harm them, you get a hot lead surprise.

    If you really want to hurt or kill the Jews inthe 21st century, now you’ll have to do it on the street. Of course, you then have to pray to whatever god(s) you worship that you won’t find the answer to the eternal question “Who is Keyser Soze?” delivered to your doorstep.

    Yes, it appears the Jews will do well in the twenty-first century.

  18. maha  •  Sep 19, 2007 @7:55 pm

    Jewboy — Thanks for proving my point. Also, learn to read.

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