Friday, June 30, 2006

Adopting the Frames of the Right

I have read, half-amused, half-appalled, the savage attacks on Sen. Barack Obama over the last few days. I listened to the speech and read the transcript. Three sentences are being pulled out of context to make Sen. Obama sound like one of the hate-preachers of the right. The speech, in its entirety, is a sharp, smart, and strong condemnation of the right's use of religion as a club, as well as explicitly holding out a hand to believers who are unsure of where they belong in the religious divide the right is forcing on the nation.

People like my father. A decorated combat veteran, a life-long public servant, and a devout Catholic who gently argues with his secular humanist child about God, love, the Pope, human decency, and moral judgment. He is a political liberal - far more so than most of the "liberal" bloggers, and for many more decades - and a deeply humane person, but he dislikes the anti-religious rhetoric of the left. He has taken me to task for my less generous statements without ever speaking a harsh word, and his caring opposition has made me reconsider my own perspective. In short, he lives his faith through good works and personal humility. He is what I thought all Christians were like. When I think of religion as it should be, I think of him.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of being caught in tear gas on the UC Berkeley campus, my father having taken me with him to Sproul Plaza for a war protest. He thought it was important that we kids understood what democracy meant, but also that we understood Christ's message of peace. I was caught in tear gas three times by the time I reached first grade. It has never been difficult for me to know what side I am on - I just remember the burn of the gas in my eyes and on my face and remember who ordered it fired. Another of my early memories is of walking through the woods with him, having him point out the plants and animals, teaching me the Latin names of the trees, and imparting his profound love for God's creation. That I do not believe Christ is the son of God, or even that there is such a being as God, does not diminish the power of those lessons.

When I read the screeds against religion, religious language, and religious practice in the original posts and associated comment threads, I cannot help but think of how my father would answer them, which is with far more patience and forgiveness than I can summon. I also cannot help thinking that these people would heap their scorn and resentment upon him, and saunter away, smugly patting themselves on the back for having "defended" the separation of church and state. They would sneer at him for being socially conservative - he doesn't approve of divorce, gay marriage, or abortion - and ignore his support for desegregation, ending the Viet Nam war, the ERA, gun control, environmentalism, and nuclear disarmament.

In short, they have adopted wholesale the most beloved frame of the right, that of ever-narrowing litmus tests to demonstrate ideological purity.

As I read Sen. Obama's speech, and then the hate speech that followed, I understood that the people who would be lost are people like my father, for the "netroots left" will afford him no ground on which to stand as a complete person. That is a cruel choice to demand of someone. It struck me that the real message of Sen. Obama's speech was the difficulty of living as a complete person - to refuse to allow one's religion to seize politics as a tool of dogma, nor to allow one's politics to make a sham and mockery of one's faith.

The response to Obama makes mockery of progressive politics. A few sentences, plucked out of a very long speech, were deployed to provide the excuse for launching very personal attacks on the Senator. I watched an opportunity to provide a place in the world for liberals like my father be thrown in the trash in preference for Lieberman bashing and excoriating the "DINOs", exactly the way every attempt to discuss substantive policy with the right becomes an occasion to invoke 9/11 and call Democrats traitors.

That frame the netroots left has imported from the right wholesale.

It is more sad than ironic that in the same time the Republicans are assaulting the New York Times, demanding punishment for the traitors who endanger the nation, I can open almost any netroots left blog and read one post after another demanding (electoral) punishment for the traitors who endanger the liberal cause. I had not realized the degree to which Ann Coulter had become the rhetorical model for the self-proclaimed defenders of progressive politics.

Because I am less charitable than my father, I will say plainly that most critics of Sen. Obama obviously did not read or listen to the entire speech, but swallowed whole the right-wing framing of it - gutless Democrat hypocritcally pandering to hostile evangelicals. The speech, however, is an intensely personal self-criticism, a story of coming to faith and understanding that it does not protect one from the buffeting of doubt or the hard choices of justice. It is a speech by a believer to other believers, first and foremost, and it is a challenge to them. It is an unyielding criticism of progressive believers for not professing their faith and leaving a space in public discourse into which have slithered the serpents of the right.

So, I prefer to uphold the faith of my father than shackle myself to the frames of the right, no matter how politically expedient. I do not care for my faith in liberalism to be used as a bludgeon by some on the purist left any more than my father accepts the crude use of Christianity by the ruthless right. In this, we share our place in the world.


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