Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Liberal politics and liberal religion

A recent James Carroll column illustrated for me a point of distinction between the principles of liberal religion and the strategic dictates of liberal politics.

In an interview about his book How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev describes the status of the Irish in America during slavery:

...In 1841, the Irish political leader (in Ireland) Daniel O'Connell--he was something of a combination of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, the most popular figure among Irishmen throughout the world--issued an appeal--he and 70,000 others in Ireland--to the Irish in the United States, calling upon them to join with the abolitionists in America, to join the struggle to overthrow slavery. Treat the Negro everywhere as your equal, your brother, he said, and in doing so you will bring honor to the name of Ireland. O'Connell was speaking from a situation where Catholics in Ireland were members of an oppressed race. He was the leader of their movement to overturn that kind of subjugation. So he naturally reached out for alliances with the struggle against racial injustice everywhere.

The Irish in America rejected him. He went so far as to say if you don't do this, then we won't recognize you as Irish. They thought about it and concluded, okay, if you force us to choose between our love for Ireland and our attachment to the institutions of our new country, then it's South Carolina forever. What they decided to do was integrate themselves into American life as citizens, invoking the privileges of whiteness.

Having fair skin made the Irish eligible to be white, but it didn't guarantee their admission. They had to earn it.

Q: And how were they supposed to earn it?

A: There were two things they had to do. First, they had to distance themselves as much as possible from the black population of North America. They had to do whatever they possibly could to create barriers, to insulate themselves, to separate themselves from the black population.

The second thing they had to do was overcome the resistance to their own civil rights coming from the people who were better off than them--that is, the native Protestant, bigoted, anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner establishment that was running the country.

There was a relationship, in fact, between these two tasks. To the extent to which they could prove themselves worthy of being white Americans--that is, by joining gleefully in the subjugation of black people--they showed that they belonged, that they deserved all the rights of citizenship. On the other side, to the extent to which they were able to force their way into the white polity of this country, they were able to distance themselves from black people.

What my book is about, then, is how the Irish used the different institutions of American society to accomplish these tasks: the Democratic Party, early labor unions, the church, forms of urban social disorder--race riots, for example. It's about how they managed to implement and carry out an agenda which finally gained them admission into what I like to call the white race in America.

Carroll's column "America's Mess, not Bush's" lays out a small explanation of how so many of the things that (stereo)typical UUs like to accuse the Bush administration of that are not significantly different from the policies of earlier Democrats or Republicans. Of course he leaves out the similarities between the Patriot Act and the Counterterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that I always like to remind people of.

MUCH AS Democrats and liberals hate to admit it, the Bush disaster did not begin with him. That he swatted aside the structures of international law as a mode of responding to Osama bin Laden was prepared for by Washington's habit, begun in the Reagan years, of dismissing international courts, ignoring treaties, and refusing to meet obligations to the United Nations and other transnational bodies.

Certainly, I suppose many UUs sided with the World Court when they ruled against the US for mining the harbors of Nicaragua.

The International Criminal Court, just coming into existence as America's war on terrorism was mobilized, fulfilled the impulse to replace revenge with adjudication. Completing the Nuremberg legacy, this new court would have been the perfect arena in which to make world historic cases against Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein, but George W. Bush, in one of his first acts as president, had ''unsigned" the ICC treaty.

This momentous act of political destruction had been prepared for, though, by Bill Clinton, who, despite signing the treaty, had never argued for it. Both presidents were protective of the US military because the Pentagon regarded itself as a ready target of ICC prosecution, a fear that seemed paranoid until revelations both that American soldiers routinely abused prisoners in Iraq and high Pentagon officials unilaterally rejected norms set by the Geneva Convention. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were epiphanies of a new Pentagon lawlessness, but it was rooted in several decades' worth of dismissal of international law.

Ironically, US military initiatives, including the invasion of Iraq, were justified with the language of human rights, as if the promotion of elections and the liberation of females defined the heart of Washington's agenda. This fulfilled a trend that began when liberals and neo-conservatives found common ground in the Clinton-era ideal of ''humanitarian intervention," as if every war in history hadn't been justified by its perpetrator as humanitarian.

The measure of the humanitarian character of interventions, of course, is taken by what happens on the ground in the countries at issue. In Afghanistan and Iraq, new levels of sectarianism, ethnic conflict, warlordism, drug trafficking, and radical Islamism are all evident in the broader context of destroyed infrastructure, widespread malnourishment, and obliterated civil society.

I would suspect however that many UUs were in the "humanitarian interventionist" camp during the Clinton era and probably during the Afghanistan invasion.

The deeper origins of the current crisis are revealed in other ways. The compelling, but rarely admitted purpose of shoring up American control of supplies of oil and natural gas is expressly reflected in the job histories of Bush's policy team, but the explicit claim of economic hegemony over the Persian Gulf region, with the threat of military force to back it up, had begun with the ''doctrine" of Jimmy Carter. The stated focus of America's Mideast war is on the threat of terrorism, yet the overriding strategic issue remains oil supply. That reflects the old thirst, the old policy.

Democrats and liberals blame George W. Bush for the American mess, but it is worse than that. In sum, the immoral and futile war in Iraq, increasingly disapproved in polls but steadily unopposed by politicians, belongs not just to our feckless president, but to the nation.

Even the current hero, Carter, for all the houses he has built since then, built the groundwork for precisely these kinds of interventions. Sure, one can argue that countries must defend themselves (or more nebulously their interests), or strategically, that the Democrats/liberals must be serious about foreign policy and appear macho if they want to be elected. But is this in line with your values?

What would it take for American Unitarian Universalists to ever have to decide to side with Unitarian Universalist values against Americanism? For the most part, even our dissenters and protesters are a patriotic bunch. Sadly though, it is not as easy as the "Peace is Patriotic" bumpersticker that is so popular here. Sometimes peace, "inherent worth and dignity" or even "the use of the democratic process" are in direct contradiction with the actions of the patria or father land.

Our faith is not one that gives us Romans 13 as a cop out, to say that the established powers are all of G-d so we should not oppose them.

I'm remind of REM lyricsfor Exhuming McCarthy:

You’re beautiful more beautiful than me
You’re honorable more honorable than me
Loyal to the Bank of America

It’s a sign of the times
It’s a sign of the times

You’re sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen.
Sharpening stones, walking on coals,
To improve your business acumen.

Vested interest united ties, landed gentry rationalize
Look who bought the myth, by jingo, buy America

I feel guilty for posting yet another Jeremiad. Maybe I'll move on to something else now that I have finished my Law and Prophets class. It's ironic that our situation today is vaguely reminiscent of the time of the Pauline letters, where people are called to figure out how to balance their values with their participation in the larger society.


At 8:50 AM, Blogger Ralph said...

This post raises important questions. I personally supported military action by the Clinton Administration in Bosnia, and I believed that overthrowing the Taliban was good for the world.

Given the the massive U.S. technological infrastructure, along with our financial and military resources, how should we use these resources to benefit ourselves and the world?

This appears to be an extraordinarily difficult question to answer with honesty and depth.

It appears to me that there is no one single, simple answer. And trying to answer the question gives me a feeling of humility. We cannot know the future. How then can we decide which actions are appropriate to take?

If I were the leader of the country, what should I choose as policies and priorities?

I would do my best to help our people and the rest of the world prepare for a near-term future (within ten to twenty years) of drastically reduced dependency on fossil fuels. That would mean acknowledging that the American dream -- or rather fantasy -- of endless expansion has come to an end.

I don't think I would be a very popular politician.


Post a Comment

<< Home