Jan/Feb 2006  •   Salon

Barbarians and Other Areas of Concern

by Tom Dooley

I define a barbarian as someone who does not understand the basic rules that are necessary for a society to survive and flourish: Do not murder. Do not steal. Keep your word. The fact so many in the Third World do not follow these rules is why the Third World is the Third World. They try to blame their poverty and lack of freedom on us. They should instead look in the mirror. I've met immigrants who don't even understand these rules. Talking to them is like trying to talk to [a] dog. Huh? What? —Bob Wallace

I offer my own definition of a barbarian: someone who ignores or goes against the costly lessons of history, knowingly or unknowingly, thereby causing the lessons to be needlessly relearned, the price of tuition paid most often by those who did not ask for nor need remediation.

Take American fundamentalist Christians. It's hard to conceive of a group of people more barbaric by my definition, and with less of an excuse. These are people enjoying unprecedented wealth and freedom, religious and otherwise. They have access to all the knowledge mankind has amassed since stepping out of the primordial ooze (or Garden of Eden, if you prefer). Every week, they spend at least an hour or two consulting a text that provides a wealth of insight into how to live one's life in a way not barbaric, by anyone's definition. And yet, their leaders are repeatedly caught swindling, whoring, and generally making fools of themselves and anyone who follows them.

Some examples: Pat Robertson recently called for the US Government to assassinate a South American president, Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and racketeering, Jimmy Swaggart was repeatedly caught with prostitutes, Oral Roberts claimed falsely to have raised someone from the dead, and the former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Warren Jeffs, is now on the FBI's most wanted list.

It's hard to tell who should be faulted more—the wealthy elite who have cynically aligned themselves with these supposedly well-meaning rubes, or the rubes themselves, who have hypocritically and opportunistically aligned themselves with war-mongering, wealth-hoarding, civil rights-trouncing neo-conservative Republicans, in spite of the very values Christians are supposed to espouse (see the well-trodden arguments of previous articles here in the Salon, or read Jimmy Carter's new book).

Lest I be accused of speaking in the abstract, I'm referring specifically to people like Sun Myung Moon, Dr. James Dobson, Ralph Reed, and the rogues gallery cited above, to name a few. I'm not referring to people of faith—which includes many people I know—who don't go around evangelizing and fighting evolution and fretting about Christmas being under attack. But besides preaching to the choir (yes, pun intended), I am speaking to those people of faith who are not fanatics, who actually practice the tenets of their religion, and who might be swayed to join with those who oppose the barbaric squandering of the many lessons that led to the separation of church and state in this country.

Fundamentalist Christians like to reference our founding fathers when arguing America needs to return to its religious roots. However, many of the principal "fathers" were avowed atheists or agnostics who vehemently and successfully opposed efforts to make the Constitution a more Christ-oriented document.

To wit:

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." Benjamin Franklin.

"All natural institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." Thomas Paine.

"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." Thomas Jefferson.

"The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State." James Madison.

"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." John Adams.

"What you should say to outsiders is that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our Association than an atheist. When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself shall not stand upon it." Susan B. Anthony.

Unless someone can successfully prove the above quotes were taken out of context, or their authors never authored them, I suggest the whole founding fathers argument for mixing church and state be immediately put to rest. Turns out, a great many of the principle intellects who built this country were not religious at all. Turns out, their lack of faith didn't prevent Christianity from flourishing here. The profound irony is our founders' very ambivalence toward religion directly resulted in the US being a place where religion—all religion—could and can flourish.

Recent ham-handed efforts to fuse church and state would be laughable, were it all not so dangerous, were it all not playing directly into the hands of some very wealthy, very ruthless people who are anything but Christian, and were it not a barbaric turning away from the lessons of history. I ask anyone reading this, be you a person of faith or not, please realize keeping religion out of politics is in the best interest of yourself, everyone in this country, and the world at large.


Come a Reckoning

The Bible says, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Whether one is a believer or not, this is one soundbite of religious dogma that rings true for most of us. At least, we wish it were true. How nice would it be if everyone truly got what was coming to them? Unfortunately, history suggests that this sort of Karmic justice rarely happens.

Gandhi said, "It's the action, not the fruit of the action that's important. You have to do the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result."

Well, for visionaries who will someday be cited in our children's textbooks as having positively contributed to the history of the human race, for artists and philosophers, even for everyday folks trying to make a living and raise their kids, Gandhi's words are probably as true as such words can be. But for people who aren't constrained by such quaint notions as ethics, laws, or even religious doctrine—basically, by "goodness" of any kind—these words are about as meaningful as say, the Bill of Rights or the Geneva Conventions. Such ruthless, unconscionable people are only interested in sowing things to be reaped (raped) in the short term, and as for the long-term consequences of their actions, they're quite happy to thrust them off onto others. Scapegoats. Victims. Future generations.

For such unprincipled opportunists, the fruit of the action is all that matters, and the short term, material ends always justify the means. They are the poachers who kill a seven-ton elephant and leave its carcass rotting on the African Savannah for $22 per tusk, even more so the ivory traffickers who pay them. They are the lobbyists who bilk Native American tribes out of tens of millions of dollars to fight legislation they themselves helped create, even as they take money from still other tribes with competing interests, all the while mocking Native leaders behind their backs as "troglodytes" and "monkeys"; even more so the religious and political leaders who knowingly and directly work with said lobbyists. They are the politically appointed heads of government agencies who relax environmental standards and institute industry-friendly policies—against the recommendations of advisory boards made up of experts warning of documented health risks and fatal consequences for thousands of people—even more so the heads of industry who exert the political pressure for these relaxed standards and then profit from the results.

There are plenty of examples, both Third World and not, of people and governments who murder, steal, and lie to achieve short term gains, who appear to reap only benefits to their own, selfish interests, who create two sets of victims: those who lose now, and those who pay later. In fact, contrary to what Bob Wallace contends in the passage quoted above, it may very well be the civilized barbarians of European descent, rather than their hapless victims, who created the Third World—through their own longstanding tradition of murdering, stealing, and not keeping one's word, going all the way back to the crusades and before.


Anarchy in the USA

The recent Gulf Coast hurricane debacle demonstrated, for those who have forgotten or who thought we in America were beyond such lessons, government serves a purpose. Lack of government results in lack of justice, and Katrina illustrated bad government actually results in systemic injustice.

The purpose of government, then, is to provide justice and to prevent injustice. If conservatives don't believe that, they should rightly label themselves anarchists and go live on an island somewhere. (Speaking of Karmic justice, they could then experience firsthand the ravages of weather patterns souped up by global warming and rising sea levels caused by melting icecaps.)

Having accepted government serves a purpose, politicians ought to strive to make it more effective and more efficient, which is to say less expensive and less obtrusive, not cynically decry it in order to get elected so they can use it to benefit themselves and a narrow band of their constituents in order to stay elected.

Handouts, charity, and welfare are not the answer. However, there are variations on handouts that, while annoying to those who don't like to part with their own wealth, represent a valuable preventive investment. In other words, it's cheaper and preferable to do a really good job of educating a person than to police, try, and incarcerate said individual and his offspring into perpetuity. It's cheaper and preferable to invest in emergency response teams and infrastructure improvements than to, say, rebuild an an entire fricking city.

I fail to see how the conservative religious preference of degrading personal charity in the face of dehumanizing tragedy is preferable to proactive measures designed to give people a fighting chance at getting out of poverty.

And if businesses and the wealthy have had such a tough go of it, therefore needing so much tax relief in order to ostensibly help out the middle class, why is it the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer and the middle class keeps disappearing? Or is that a myth like global warming? The average American worker's salary rose two percent last year, while the average American CEO's salary rose 12 percent, and thanks to the Bush tax cuts, the 12-percenters get to keep an even greater percentage of their income than before. This is business as usual in the United States. Those who still have the ability to do so after the continued degradation of our public schools can do the math and see the politics of envy are fueled by policies ensuring a few keep getting more while the many keep getting less.


Curvilinear Aesthetics

Last winter, my friend Brice and I were enjoying a friendly argument about politics, during which Brice made an interesting point: people often confuse aesthetics with real values. I think he meant one man's soulless and industrial parking structure might be another man's, well, parking structure. Matters of taste should not be substituted for matters of life and death. A similar point is illustrated in the movie The Ballad of Jack and Rose, where Daniel Day Lewis plays an aging hippy engaging in eco-terrorism to stop development on his beloved Nantucket island, only to realize in the end that there isn't much real difference between himself and the developer beyond their differing views of what is enjoyable and pleasing. And so, Brice argued, there's a difference between values—say, freedom, love of one's family and country, faith in God, etc.—and whether or not a neighborhood contains sufficient green space.

This line of thinking got me wondering—where does one draw the line, or even more importantly, what kind of line does one draw? I mean, isn't it all about aesthetics? Some people like curves and some people like straight lines. Some people like circular thinking, some people prefer linear. Some people like reincarnation, some like to keep existence pared down to one life, one death, and maybe one afterlife. Either the universe is curved or flat...

It occurred to me that much of the difference between so-called eastern and western philosophy comes down to this predilection for either circular or linear constructions. The stereotypical American is not interested in circles. In fact, going in circles is expressly frowned upon here. We tell our young men to "Go West." We don't then add, when you get there, come on back and do it again. The presumption is they will somehow find a way to keep on going.

Speaking of the West, in growing cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque, it's all about expansion. Developers are tossing cardboard housing projects into the desert, rolling them out with the tumbleweeds. It's the same in almost every American city, though. Why rebuild or take care of the inner city when you can just keep moving outwards toward suburban newness?

The universally accepted symbol for recycling is that of three arrows chasing each other in a renewable circle. Should we be surprised recycling has failed to amount to a hill of beans in this country despite many years of legislation and activism to make it so?

The Christian belief system is predicated on a linear existence bookmarked by Genesis and Revelations. If you think about it, Christianity is the ultimate justification for the spoiled, self-centered, destructive children Americans have ultimately proven to be. Why should we conserve or renew anything when the world is going to end with the second coming? Why should we really care about our actions so long as we remember to go to confession?

Is the very idea of life and death a matter of aesthetic preference?

The conservative viewpoint is that killing unborn fetuses is bad, but the occasional killing of convicted murderers, even if there's a real possibility they're innocent (13 inmates on Illinois' death row were recently cleared by DNA testing), is an unfortunate necessity. The liberal viewpoint is that killing convicted murderers is bad, but the widespread killing of unborn fetuses (46 million per year worldwide, 1.3 million per year in the US) is an unfortunate necessity. The conservative would argue government should stay out of people's business, except when it comes to whom they can marry. The liberal would argue for freedom of religion so long as no one is allowed to express his religion in public. How else can these and a hundred other inconsistencies be explained other than that they are matters of aesthetics? Bottom line is, for most people, their so-called values are informed not by a substantiated belief system, but by their own personal preferences.


A Purpose-Driven Politician

Since losing the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore has been running an investment firm dedicated to business ventures combining profitability with sustainability, social accountability, and environmental responsibility. Since losing his bid for vice president in 2004, John Edwards has been traveling the country in support of the One America Committee, an organization he founded, and directing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina. Bill Clinton, since leaving Washington, has moved his offices to Harlem and worked to promote African American interests with such efforts as The Harlem Small Business Pilot Program, and his Clinton Foundation is now leading the fight against HIV/AIDS around the world. Jimmy Carter has been running the Carter Center, an organization he founded to "wage peace, fight disease, and build hope by both engaging with those at the highest levels of government and working side by side with poor and often forgotten people." Consider, by way of contrast, what George H.W. Bush has been up to. Aside from working with Clinton on two disaster relief efforts, he's been spending his retirement as senior advisor to the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm known for using its considerable political connections to leverage buyouts, win contract awards, and influence world events to benefit its subsidiaries.

Had Cheney and the current Bush lost the last election, what would they be doing right now? Running baseball teams and no-bid contracting conglomerates? Not that there's anything wrong with that. We need people to run baseball teams and corporations just as much as we need people to pick up the trash and serve burgers. But it just seems to me that when it comes to our political leaders, we the people benefit if we elect folks who are actually committed to making the world a better place, not ones who are only committed to making big bucks for themselves and their cronies.


The Sniff Test

I know I've said it before, but recent events make it bear repeating: George W. Bush's administration is just plain arrogant. Never mind incompetent, duplicitous, hypocritical, greedy, nepotistic, ruthless, or driven by right-wing ideology. What sticks in my craw is how flat-out arrogant they are. The latest? At a time when the nation's demographics are shifting Latino and a white male has just been confirmed as the new chief justice, when another life-long appointment to the Supreme Court is available, and when his own party's platform has been one of bashing so-called out of touch, activist judges, Bush first nominated a white spinster from Dallas, Texas, with no judicial experience and a resume that includes, get this, being personal lawyer to none other than G.W. himself, and then, when his own party balked at the choice (not, it should be noted, because of her personal connection to Bush or her near lack of credentials, but because they couldn't be sure she was radical enough in her views on abortion to toe the party line), he has nominated yet another white male, who once proudly belonged to an openly bigoted organization that protested the increasing enrollment of blacks and Latinos at his alma mater, Princeton University.

Now, I'm no constitutional or legal scholar, but I've always suffered under the (apparent) mis-apprehension that people appointed to the highest positions in their chosen professions in the land should, well, actually be appointed to a position matching their chosen profession. Harriet Meirs' chosen profession may have been in the field of law, but she had never been a judge. It's a little like a gym teacher being given the job of superintendent of schools on the grounds that she has educational experience. It's like a car salesman being made CEO of General Motors because he knows automobiles. I mean, maybe Meirs was everything her (few) supporters were saying she was. I'll grant at first blush she was a worthy human being. But does all that make her the most qualified person in this country—even the most qualified conservative—to be our next Supreme Court justice?!

And I'm not saying I'm a scholar of ethics, either, but I've heard of the "sniff-test." That's a term used by public administration types and babysitters to describe how to tell if somebody just did something ethically questionable. If it smells funny, it probably isn't ethical. A sitting president trying to put his own lawyer on the Supreme Court smells really funny, and I don't mean funny like Dennis Miller used to be funny. I mean funny like Dennis Miller is now.

And now, with Samuel Alito, can anyone really argue there is not one equally qualified female and/or Latino judge in this country? If there isn't, doesn't that indicate our entire system is flawed, sexist, and/or racist? If there is, can anyone really argue Alito should get the job over that individual?

Or is it that there are no qualified women/Latinos who are conservative enough? If so, why is that? If there are no qualified women or Latino judges who buy the conservative republican line, doesn't that say something right there, and doesn't that make it all the more essential the highest court in the land contains at least one Latino and preferably more than one woman?

So yeah, the arrogance sticks in my craw. But so what? To the victors go the spoils. The American people had to have known before the last election that they were being lied to and manipulated on a daily basis. Nonetheless, 42 percent of registered voters chose not to do anything about it. Of the remaining population, 24 percent decided, many of them cynically I have to believe, that four more years of George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism was the way to go. And so here we are, subject to continued arrogance. But the arrogance isn't what's really harming us—not directly, anyway. Arrogance doesn't break bones; sticks and stones do. Also tough on bones and other body parts: pollution, poverty, and improvised explosive devices.

There's a difference, then, between things that stick in one's craw and things that deprive one of one's livelihood, rights, or health. Arrogance may have been a contributing factor in many ways to the problems associated with, say, the Katrina disaster, but it's the problems themselves I can't believe the public can possibly want to continue abiding. At some point, the great American electorate, whom I've berated in this column for among other things, elevating Britney Spears as a vocalist and George W. Bush as a commander in chief and leader of the free world, have just got to realize they've been the victim of mass hysteria for long enough.

Unfortunately, short of doing everything we can to revitalize this nation's public education system so students can be "brainwashed" into thinking for themselves and giving a crap about anything other than themselves, there's just no way to cure this country of the aforementioned hysteria. It's just not possible to socially engineer a society worthy of the kind of freedom most Americans, be they liberal, conservative, or just plain apathetic, want—when and if they actually think about anything beyond what they're going to watch on TV tonight. Because a free society can't be forced to truly respect freedom. Truly free people can't be told what and how to think, except by people like me of course, who have absolutely no ability to enforce what we're saying. Any cure is going to have to be an act of God, then: a spontaneous combustion of the collective unconscience. A critical mass of us are going to have to wake up one day and say, "Hey, I care about my community, my country, and my world, and I'm finally ready to get off my ass for just half a second and do something about it." I suppose it could happen.


Journey's End

I need to address one last item of concern: my first annual award for most annoying phrase of the year. For 2005, the award goes to "This has been the most amazing journey." Everyone, it seems—particularly contestants on American Idol and actors making motion pictures—is on a journey. Political candidates aren't just running for office, they're on a journey. Sports teams are no longer trying to win championships, they're on a journey. Come to think of it, writing this essay for the Salon has been a journey for me, but I prefer to think of it in slightly less metaphorical terms. So chill out on the word journey, America, unless you really are physically going somewhere, and even then I recommend something more specific—like road trip, hike, voyage, etc. As for me, I'm going to try jetting, or maybe bouncing.