Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ghosts of Nehemiah Scudder


American political discourse has become increasingly polarized, much of it leaning toward the so-called 'right-wing fringe.' Positions that were once considered quite extremist are now being discussed as legitimate, mainstream ideas. Some observers dismiss those promoting said positions as "crazy wing nuts". Even if they are, these people should not be dismissed so lightly.
Sometimes, it seems as though people just shake their heads at these individuals, finding them entertaining or as endearing as their "crazy Uncle Al". However, I think they should be seen as warning signals for America's political health that often go unheeded. Science Fiction provides worst-case, hyperbolic descriptions of these unheeded warnings.
Two examples of this are George Orwell's 1984, and Robert A. Heinlein's character, Nehemiah Scudder. Scudder is mentioned in several of Heinlein's stories including "If This Goes On…" and For Us the Living. George Orwell provides some vocabulary concepts in his dystopian 1984 that help describe some of the effects I am discussing. While Heinlein and Orwell have missed the mark on some of their predictions, I think that by dismissing Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and other rightwing and religious demagogues, America is putting itself in danger of a political takeover that could change the course of history.

Nehemiah Scudder

Nehemiah Scudder is a fictional televangelist created by Robert Heinlein who appears as a background character in many of his works. Scudder was a highly popular, conservative, (presumably Christian) religious demagogue who became the "First Prophet". His followers overthrew US Government and converted America to a theocracy, or religious dictatorship. According to Heinlein's Future History timeline, Scudder was elected in 2012(!) with 27% of the popular vote. 63% of registered voters voted in this fictional election. That 63% was less than half of those actually eligible. However, Scudder got 81% of the Electoral College vote, taking the presidency. In 2016, there were no elections; Scudder's religious dictatorship had begun.

Comparisons to political reality

While Scudder's story is fiction, there are many similarities to actual figures in American political discourse, including:
  • Glenn Beck
  • Sarah Palin
  • Michelle Bachmann
  • Pat Robertson
  • Rush Limbaugh
Pinpointing who is "most like" Scudder is not the point of this essay. Many have speculated about it, and cases can be made for lots of these figures. I am more concerned about the types of things these people are saying and the attitudes they express.

Is it patriotism or privilege?

Many of these political figures make statements in the name of patriotism that actually are contrary to the ideals America says they hold dear. They claim to be concerned about the American Constitution or items from the bill of rights, but then advocate a contrary position. For instance, they advocate religious freedom, citing the First Amendment, and then advocate banning the practice of Islam. They talk about how "all men are created equal" and then advocate positions against gay marriage claiming that it is 'granting special rights'. When a law banning discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation is proposed, they cite religious freedom and claim that they are the ones discriminated against. Plans for a community center with a room to accommodate Islamic followers built near the site of an American disaster are decried as a 'mosque'. They advocate moving the 'mosque' out of concern for the families of those killed in the disaster, yet plans for a similar center built by a Christian sect go by with hardly a mention.
They are not supporting patriotism; they are supporting privilege. Privilege is the set of laws, attitudes and customs that allow one group to benefit at the expense of another. The examples cited above are examples of a power imbalance that these people benefit from maintaining. While they often advocate for a 'smaller government', the attitudes are actually more similar to fascism. 'Fascism' is a buzzword that is thrown around, but Encarta defines it as
"Any movement, ideology, or attitude that favors dictatorial government, centralized control of private enterprise, repression of all opposition, and extreme nationalism"
The ideals they express often call for government to dictate a woman's right to choose when and how she is pregnant, even to the point of requiring her to carry her hypothetical rapist's baby to term. They want to dictate that immigrants to America are required to learn English and behave as "Americans", changing the way they dress, and in some cases how they practice their religion. They want to define narrowly who is an American, based on how a person's parents entered the country and how long their families have been here. These policies theoretically would be enforced by a "small government" and by social mores. While they ostensibly favor an individual business owner's rights to serve whatever customers he wanted, that business owner would be pressured to serve only the ones deemed acceptable by social standards. The centralized control of business and the roles of government would be accomplished by reliance on their interpretation of God. Sinclair Lewis said, "When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." We are headed down that road.
These demagogues claim to be Christians, and yet many attitudes they express are contrary to the Gospels they claim to follow. While they claim to support the right of a baby to be born and live, they advocate cutting programs that would help that baby's unwed, undereducated mother care for it, feed it healthy food, take it to the doctor and provide for it. They advocate ending programs that help people who have lost their jobs keep food on the table, implying that those workers are lazy and unmotivated. They seem to be more concerned with whether two men or two women get married than they are about children starving anywhere. They are less concerned about the poor, the sick, the discouraged, etc. than they are about maintaining their privilege. To maintain their privilege, they often make outrageous statements.

When Rhetoric crosses the line

The demagogues claim that they make these extreme statements to encourage thought and discussion, or for entertainment value. However, sometimes the followers who hear this rhetoric take things too far. Arizona's SB 1070, the "Papers, Please" law, is one example. The demagogues whip up such frenzy over 'illegal immigration', Mexican drug cartels, and beheaded bodies that a law requiring documentation that someone is legally in America easily passes, even when 'illegal immigration' has been dropping over the past 20-odd years. The "Ground-zero mosque"/Park 51 community center is another case. They have stoked the anti-Islam fires so much that not only is there national discussion about one community center in downtown Manhattan, but also there have been fires set and shots fired at a mosque construction site in Tennessee. The national discussion is so heated that an Islamic cab driver in New York was stabbed and had his throat slashed, just because he was Muslim.
To disguise their attitudes, these strident voices use doublespeak code words to hide what they actually mean: phrases like "Family values" to mean "anti-gay" and "Pro-life" instead of "anti-abortion". They fail to recognize that telling parents to reject their children because they are LGBT does nothing to strengthen a family or its values. They profess to be "pro life" while supporting the death penalty, and other policies that diminish the quality of that life they are in favor of.
This cognitive dissonance is illustrated in a term George Orwell coined, blackwhite. According to the "newspeak dictionary", which he included at the end of 1984:
"This word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink."
The conspiracy theories opponents spread, to try to discredit the current president and the Democratic Party, apply this concept. The "birthers" are still absolutely convinced that Pres. Obama is a Kenyan, and therefore ineligible to be President, even when an official birth certificate has been widely publicized. One birther even went so far as to sue and appeal her case all the way to the Supreme Court!
Another persistent conspiracy theory is that the recent Healthcare reform bill would institute "Death Panels" that would decide when to execute Grandma because she was too old, infirm and unhealthy to keep treating. While that was proven false, and roundly debunked, the "Death Panels" myth features prominently in many campaigns to repeal the Healthcare Reform.
Especially when it comes to discussions of gay rights, "Christianists" claim they are victims of bigotry and discrimination. They keep preaching various debunked anti-gay myths and then claim discrimination when the decision to allow gays to marry, or to explain the harm "conversion therapy" can do to people does not go their way.

Lack of critical thinking

The reason statements like the ones above take hold is the listener's apathy and desire to disengage from all of the distasteful argument. That apathy is compounded by compressing serious subjects down into sound bites. Because the argument has been summarized by that sound bite, no one stops to really dig into the argument and examine it, and they just keep passing on this flippant sound bite without realizing exactly what they are advocating.
Another factor that contributes to this is disinformation, or "truthiness".
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."—Joeseph Goebbels
Because the sound bites are not examined, and the lies uncovered, these lies are passed around repeatedly, gaining a veneer of "truthiness". They have been repeated so often that they therefore must be truth. Fox News is one of the big players in this. In addition to repeating lies, it also edits videos, mislabels particular government representatives, and presents false information to its viewers. Fox is one of the largest "news" producers in the country, and claims to be "fair and balanced." Since it makes those claims, few people question what it actually presents as "news."
This willful ignorance using the Big Lie and blackwhite, also allows false equivalencies to creep in. When discussing gay rights, Focus on Family uses discredited researcher Paul Cameron's work to present their side. However, the FOF presenter is introduced as an expert and no one questions the credentials. Since that person is an 'expert', they must therefore be presenting factually correct information. That inaccurate, discredited information is repeated multiple times, and now is a Big Lie, and "party members" are not supposed to question it.

Why is this dangerous?

People turn off and then disengage from politics. They say things like "I don't get engaged in politics. Both major parties hold equally stupid ideas and I don't want to get involved," or "They're all crooks. Why does it matter?" The ones who are not disengaged are carried away with the mob. They are influenced by the hysteria stirred up by the outrageous statements, and some extremists take the overheated rhetoric to heart and perform truly heinous actions. In the process, real, actual discourse is drowned out in all of the shouting so nothing actually is done to rectify situations like actually discussing and rectifying conflicts between discrimination and privilege. Instead, those discussions devolve into name-calling.
Sometimes, the participants try to keep the discussion civil, and refuel to stoop to their level. However, when one side is behaving outrageously and the other is trying calmly to discuss sensitive subjects, opponents end up choosing the battlefield, putting the 'sane' ones into defensive mode. Unfortunately, that usually means lost ground.


The situations described are a "perfect storm". In order for a Nehemiah Scudder-like shift occur, several things need to happen:
  • parts of electorate are disillusioned and apathetic
  • Others are enthusiastic, and willfully mis- or uninformed
  • Some are entertained by the 'crazies' and think, "Let's see what happens" and/or "It'll never happen here."
In regards to apathy and disengaging from politics, remember Pastor Martin Niemoller's poem:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

As much as we might not want to stoop to their level or not interfere, the enemies are already attacking. Do we fight back? Or do we just let them gradually chip away at the US?