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Wide Eyes Shut
Andrew Gumbel misses the America he thought he came to a few years back -- the "melting pot" America -- and reflects on what America has become, thanks to the people who elected George Bush:

Theirs is an America that is almost exclusively white, almost exclusively Protestant, almost exclusively rural or suburban. It is an America more comfortable with people who believe homosexuals should be killed on sight than it is with homosexuals themselves. It is an America that believes sex of any kind between unmarried adults is a greater moral crime than dumping toxic waste or knowingly selling unsafe medicines. It is an America that believes it is promoting a “culture of life,” even as it applauds the bombing of civilians in faraway countries, the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, and the use of torture in military interrogations.

I started the year writing about Tom Vail, an official guide at the Grand Canyon who had written a book positing that God personally carved out the spectacular rock formations above the Colorado River in forty days and forty nights. And I finished it reading about a booklet being taught in a Christian school in North Carolina, in which slavery is characterized as both biblically justifiable and also a positive, happy experience for the slaves themselves.

Such aberrant thinking has always existed, of course, but now it is creeping ever closer toward becoming an official ideology. The kind of anti-evolutionary nonsense peddled by Tom Vail has just been voted onto the curriculum in a rural Pennsylvania school district in the form of “intelligent design,” a more sophisticated, superficially more acceptable variant on old-style creationism. The authors of the revisionist booklet on Southern slavery, meanwhile, have responded to their outraged detractors in much the same terms used by social conservatives in and around the Bush administration. “Establishment secularism can’t stand real criticism,” they proclaimed. “It can’t bear real differences.” Suddenly, it’s not about excusing slavery, it’s about the refusal of American liberals to accept God. We’ve certainly heard that one before – Bill O’Reilly and the jihad against Christmas, anyone? – and we are likely to hear it over and over in the next four years.

Posted by aalkon at December 30, 2004 7:59 AM


What a bizarre piece. I’m thinking that if Andrew becomes any more paranoid he might need an involuntary mental health commitment. I personally know many people who supported George Bush who, except for perhaps a few weddings, haven’t been near a church in years. Bush received 60 million plus votes in November and even by the most liberal demographic estimates there are no where near that many evangelical Christians in this country. I myself am an atheist who voted for Bush. I feel not the least bit threatened by his religious supporters. As I observe it, Republicans treat their right wing a lot like Democrats treat their black voting block, with lots of campaign platitudes and ra-ra lip service but little else. The religious right has made very few serious substantive policy inroads in the last 50 years, and absolutely none in the last four, not a one. Abortion remains legal, mandated public school prayer is still not permitted, the Supreme Court has even broadened sexual privacy rights to include sodomy (oh joy), and we haven’t had a heretic burned at the stake for nearly two centuries (which is a good thing for me). I simply do not understand how anyone can objectively hold the opinion that ours has been or is currently a nation controlled by Jesus People hell bent on converting society into a theocratic bible study class. Andrew, it seems to me, has become a miserable victim of his own rhetoric.

Posted by: Richard Ames at December 30, 2004 12:12 PM

B-b-but Richard... he's European!

Posted by: Jim Treacher at December 30, 2004 1:41 PM

Search his name on this blog. You'll see he's a hard-core factualist, and a great reporter. There are so many ways you're wrong in your assertion above about the Republicans, and I thought it was clear, both in Andrew's piece and in the country in general (prayer in schools, religious nannies getting to control what's on TV, stem-cell research, faith-based care turning people away from getting health care, "Intelligent" Design being taught in schools (Rand Imberg has a brilliant post on why that's moronic). And then there's his "crusade" in Iraq. Why the fuck are we there? Osama hit the WTC. I'm not a lefty and I'm not a dove, but I'm a true conservative (fiscally) and a libertarian socially. We should be flattening the caves of Afghanistan right now. And PS Tell me the way we're flattening the environment in this country, with reckless abandon, doesn't have to do with the moron in the Oval Office and all his moron followers believing that the the world will end soon, and "The Rapture" and all that. There's no other reasonable explanation for how they're leaving a polluted world for their kids. (PS Other people's kids are the ones who get to die and become amputees in Iraq.)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 30, 2004 4:21 PM

I don't know how pointing to a few nut jobs (ie the Grand Canyon guy) is in any way indicative of those that elected Bush. Many of my otherwise rational friends voted for him.

In hindsight, Kerry did a lousy job campaigning, never caught the publics imagination, and was buffeted to and fro by Roves machine. The election was really about Bush vs. Diet Bush, so in a time a military crisis, Bush narrowly won.

It sounds like existential panic to me on the part of Andrew Gumbel. If Kerry had won, there would be those who would predict armies of homosexual couples taking away everyones guns while performing partial birth abortions during the Superbowl halftime show.

Posted by: eric at December 30, 2004 5:19 PM

The Bush voters above may delude themselves into thinking that this administration is firmly in the mainstream of American politics. (And, no, I never suggested that all Bush voters are extremist nutcases, just that they are willing to be put into the same voting bloc as them.) But they would do well to a) study the history of the American South, whose dominant political culture -- quasi-feudal, racist, brooding with resentment and latent violence -- is now the country's dominant political culture and b) ask themselves, as the logical next step, whether they really feel comfortable in a country of Tom DeLay/Trent Lott unbound.

On the subject of racism and the South, I found it revealing that Richard Ames compared black Democrats on the left with fundamentalist nutjobs on the right. In other words, he regards African Americans as an aberration out of the political mainstream. At least he's telling us where he's coming from.

Posted by: andrew gumbel at December 30, 2004 6:02 PM

Amy-- I don't want to belabor this, but just look at the list you present as "evidence" of America turning into a theocracy:

1. "Prayer in schools": Not happening in any public school I know of. Not one. Name the public schools for me.

2. "Religious nannies getting to control what's on TV": Not happening Amy. There was a fuss over Janet Jackson's breast, but other than that TV is packed full of all types of sex (hetero, homo, affairs, out-of-wedlock births ... just watch a few hours of afternoon soaps Amy), violence, programming with homosexual themes (e.g., "Queer Eye"), even now a show on Desperate Housewives. There is no such thing as a religious nanny controlling anything on TV. Who are they? What is the extent of their official powers? Names five programs they have had removed from airing on television because they are not pristine enough?

3. "Stem-cell research": It's going on at this moment. No one has stopped it. There are absolutely no bans whatsoever on use of private money for research (billions are being spent right now!), and only a limited ban on taxpayer money for use on NEW stem lines.

4. "Faith-based care turning people away from getting health care": No idea what you're referring to here, but I've not heard, read, or know of a single person denied health care in the U.S. based on their religious beliefs.

5. "Intelligent design being taught in schools": I'm a school director in Pennsylvania. We have 501 public school districts. Not a single one of those districts is teaching "intelligent design" as part of its science curriculum. Not a single district. Dover Area School District tried a stupid disclaimer on its science texts and ended up in court. The judge hasn't ruled yet, but a betting person would say Dover is going to lose that fight. To say intelligent design is "being taught in schools" is a fiction, pure fiction.

My point to all this is not to be overly critical of you, but to ask you to step back from all the highly charged emotional rhetoric out there and see the world as it really is. What's happening is that various religious interest groups are fighting over a very limited number of very limited issues. They have to kick and scratch for ever last drop of influence in our society just like, say, the homosexual lobby has to. And it's been this way since the beginning of this country. Religion is the U.S. has progressively been playing less and less of a role in public life. I'll bet you know this intuitively from your own education and experience. Just pick up and text or newspaper or magazine from, say, 50 years ago. Religious references and themes were far more prevalent. We were far more religious during WWII for example than we are now. It's not even close.

Posted by: Richard Ames at December 30, 2004 6:16 PM

Sorry -- I meant religion in schools. Again, search "Andrew Gumbel" and you'll find evidence of that. On the rest, you're stretching like mad. I do see the world as it really is. That's why I'm one of the tiny minority of people in it who doesn't believe in god. You?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 30, 2004 6:24 PM

Where is this rise in anti-gay violence? Where are the death squads? They don't exist. The Klan is not returning, there are no lynchings, and for the most part gay society is being more accepted throughout the nation. You may point to an isolated episode, but in a country of 300 million, there are always going to be extremists.

You want to talk about the consolidation of wealth and power, you have my full attention. Or how about the increasing divide between the average American and the government that represents him? But I do not see this groundswell of bigotry and hatred you point to.

There have always been bigots, homophobes, and racists in our society. And those televangelists, revisionists, and rednecks do not represent the South any more than Lynyrd Skynyrd did.

And from what I understood from Richard Ames, he was saying that the political machine uses these two groups for their own gain, and ignores them after the election.

Posted by: eric at December 30, 2004 6:25 PM

Yes, there have always been extremists in America, as Eric says (and as I said in my piece). The difference now is that they are in the House, in leadership positions, in the Senate, also in leadership positions, on the National Security Council, the Defense Policy Board, the Pentagon (remember General Boykin?), the Cabinet (let's start with Dick Cheney, who may not be a religious zealot, but he thought apartheid in South Africa was a good idea and opposes Head Start), on the Supreme Court, on federal and state benches throughout the country, on Fox News and in church pulpits where preachers command weekly audiences numbering in the millions or even the tens of millions.

This is not paranoia. It is reality. If there aren't anti-gay witch-hunts, it is precisely because the country as a whole isn't nearly as bigoted and extreme as its leaders. If intelligent design hasn't made it into the classroom yet, it is because teachers and school superintendents in this country still have some intellectual integrity. But this will start to change the longer the extremists are in charge. Look at what the leadership IS doing where they succeed in overcoming the resistance -- fucking up the Middle East in the name of who knows what crackpot ideology, granting oil and gas leases in the great, irreplaceable wilderness areas of the American West, attempting to demolish the Geneva Conventions, habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights etc etc etc.

Feel comfortable with all of this if you will. But I make no apologies in finding it frightening, and saying so.

Posted by: andrew gumbel at December 30, 2004 6:55 PM

The whole issue of gay marriage was a well placed distraction so real issues are not discussed. And just as so many railed against inter-racial marriage, their arguments are a last ditch stand against the real tide of society- acceptance.

The first battlefield, I would suspect from Andrews listing, would be again banning gays in the military, but I have heard no serious talk of this from the Administration. I believe they have the power and backing to do it today, if they wished it so.

What you see as "fucking up the middle east" probably has a whole different flavor to Texas oil men, who now garner twice as much per barrel as they did when Clinton left. Or to defense contractors, who salivate at a prolonged conflict, or spreading conflict. It is all about profits.

Prayer or religion in schools would be a quagmire, and every serious thinker can foresee the problems. I doubt even Bush would want the hassles of dealing with equal rights of worship in the classroom.

Bring on intelligent design! It may get more people to think about our place in the universe, especially when presented with hard facts of science being manipulated by an invisible force somewhere that may or may not look like us. It may foster debate that encourages tolerance. Or not. It would be interesting though.

Regarding the great irreplaceable West, though I consider myself an Idaho enviromentalist, the prospect of drilling in ANWR (along with a sound energy conservation policy) is not frightening. The oil industry in Alaska has been an amazing success, and Alaskans (I visit often) are remarkably proud and tied to their land.

I agree completely with you Andrew when it comes to judgeships, Habeas Corpus, and especially The Geneva Conventions.

Don't lose faith in America- we were never that pretty in the past, but we aren't that ugly in the present.

Posted by: eric at December 30, 2004 7:34 PM

I know and like Andrew but he doesn't get away from the West Side much, and his notion of the melting pot vanished a few decades ago. he's a wonderful writer, but he needs to drive around the country and talk to people rather than just sort of generalize.

Posted by: KateCoe at December 30, 2004 11:07 PM

But he does get around the country. And you know I like and respect you, Kate, but, living on the West Side has become a way of generalizing about people the way "liberal" has come to mean "turd." I live on the West Side, but I get letters from all over the country, and travel to unpleasant places within it several times a year...including the frozen wasteland of my chilidhood (and I'm talking weather and culture).

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 31, 2004 12:26 AM

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 31, 2004 12:28 AM

Whilst looking up Kate Coe, I got sidetracked to Claes Oldenburg. Fun stuff! I saw his works before but now a connection! Lipstick kate? Giant snow penises? Or is it penii?

Posted by: eric at December 31, 2004 2:23 AM

I've read Kate's post about four times now and I'm still not clear what her point is, except to say I don't get out much (which has been true for the past month and a half because I'm writing a book, but hasn't been otherwise).

Kate, you say I generalize too much, but you be a bit more, er, specific about what generalizations you are referring to?

Posted by: andrew gumbel at December 31, 2004 2:30 AM