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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

The Sacred and the Profane

Christine's last post on the American Family Association's successful scuttling of "anti-Christian" television programming makes an interesting counterpoint to much of the media coverage of the Danish cartoon demonstrations. Cast as "a contest between...immutable religious beliefs and uncompromising freedom of speech" (see Mahir Ali on Znet for the full critique), mainstream media have played the protests off as another "clash of civilizations." But freedom of speech is a poor framework for such a global and complicated story because "freedom of speech," however abstractly and absolutely put, is realized in local-national contexts. Critics have pointed to European and Canadian laws that prohibit varieties of "hate speech" (including bans on anti-Semitic and pornographic material). And as Christine's post reminds us, "freedom of speech" in the US doesn't mean media outlets are immune to boycotts and political protests, particularly from the Christian right. Think of the controversy over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary."

One way to think of this all is as a struggle to define and control sacred texts and images (the Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary, the crucifixion of Christ) whose religious power derive from their segregation from other cultural and political symbols. The Prophet is not drawn, and he most certainly does not carry out suicide bombings. Jesus does not endorse a cooking show or swim in urine for kicks. Such attempts at religious control are fraught enough in mono-religious cultures, but become tragicomic in multicultural contexts (as the brouhaha over Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary made in part by African elephant dung reminds us). Secularism proposes to be that neutral ground that resolves the sacred and the profane (in part by censoring and limiting both), but the mainstream is having a hard time digesting this one.

Finally, I'll just point out that religious roots acknowledged, at least in Afghanistan, Christian Parenti writes that the protests are fueled both by anti-Western sentiment stirred up by occupation and by "specifically local political and economic grievances."

McCain vs. Obama

In case you weren't paying attention, since yesterday there's been a very public war of words between the Senate's two most hyped members, Barack Obama and John McCain, over lobbying reform.

Rather then tell the entire backstory, which you can read here and here, I'll make three points.

1. McCain's lobbying reform bill is incredibly weak compared to the Democrats "Honest Leadership Act." That's why only two Senate Democrats, Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson, have signed on.

2. As Josh Marshall noted today, it was McCain who assured anxious Republicans that his Indian Affairs Committee investigation of Jack Abramoff wouldn't touch any prominent elected officials in his own party, including Tom DeLay.

3. McCain's a political opportunist. He only became a "reformer" after he was implicated in the Senate's Keating Five scandal. And as my profile of him last November made clear, there's no greater opportunity than the Presidency in '08. Which helps explain why he's acting like such an ass.

Christians Dodge Spears

NBC has abandoned, in the words of the American Family Association website , its plans to "Attack Christians with Spears." Britney Spears, that is.

The pop sensation turned trailer trash baby momma was to guest star in an upcoming episode of Will and Grace as a Christian conservative with a cooking show on which she made "Cruci-fixins." (No question that Will and Grace has seen better days, but you have to admit it's not a bad pun.) She'll still be on the show, but the offending material has been written out of the script.

NBC had previously been in hot water with angry Christian viewers over The Book of Daniel which portrayed a doubting Episcopalian minister. The show only ever made it three episodes before the network yanked it.

The whole thing smells a bit like the fracas around ABC's reality show Welcome to My Neighborhood which the New York Times reported on in late January. The show featured a slew of oddball families--gays! Wiccans! people with tattoos! and gasp! non-Whites!--trying to win the hearts and minds of neighbors and a McMansion in their tony Austin cul-de-sac to boot. The two gay dads won, and in the process inspired one of the neighbors to make amends with his own gay son. But ten days before the first episode was scheduled to be aired, ABC cancelled the show.

ABC, the Times pointed out, is owned by Disney. The same Disney that was targeted by Southern Baptists for hosting Gay Days ; the same Disney that has raked in over $281 million dollars in Narnia box office sales. Some have surmised that Disney didn't want to risk losing any of those who had newly forgiven its policies by showing Christians and gays holding hands. As Paul McCusker, Vice-President of Focus on the Family said, "''It would have been a huge misstep for Disney to aggressively do things that would disenfranchise the very people they wanted to go see 'Narnia.'"

I never thought I'd say this, but Why can't more people be like Mandy Moore? She was a comic genius in Saved!, in which she--a real-life Christian--poked fun at evangelicals. She proved that it's possible to hold a belief and still be comfortable making a joke at its expense. All these boycotts and protests of network TV are driven by fear--fear that faith can be lost forever if it's challenged at all. I think it's kind of sad.

At least we still have HBO.

It's Ken (Mehlman) Who Has Anger Management Problems

GOP Chairman, Ken Mehlman, made the talk show rounds on Sunday in order to dismiss Hillary Clinton as a woman who "seems to have a lot of anger." And what was Mehlman's evidence of Clinton's deep-seated anger? Her assertion that the Bush Administration is one of the worst in history and clearly out of step with mainstream America. Hmmm…. Do Clinton's conclusions reflect anger, or an accurate assessment of an administration which has gutted the treasury, eroded the environment, added millions to the rolls of those without health insurance, botched this medicare prescription drug plan, increased those living in poverty, divided our society, rolled back our hard-earned civil rights and liberties, ruined our reputation, frayed our military, undermined our security, and overall weakened America? Perhaps, Mr. Mehlman, the Senator's onto something. I think there are a lot of citizens who are mad as hell about what's happening to a nation they love. Have you checked out the polls on how many folks believe this country is heading in the wrong direction?

Mehlman's crude remarks are ridiculous in another way. He claims that the senator has "a very leftwing record" and that it does not reflect the values of most Americans. Hillary Clinton is against setting a timetable for withdrawal from the disastrous occupation of Iraq, and she hasn't fought for universal health care. These two issues, as Paul Krugman points out in his strong column in yesterday's New York Times, are majority positions. It is this extremist administration which is out of step with the values of most Americans. But, instead of tending to the nation's needs, this White House sends out lockstep attack dogs like Mehlman.

Why We Fight

The twin headlines on the front page of the Washington Post today, "Gonzales Defends Surveillance," and "Bush's Budget Bolsters Pentagon," made me think of Eugene Jarecki's stirring documentary about the military-industrial complex, Why We Fight.

Jarecki not only provides a historical overview of an arms buildup that dates back to President Eisenhower--who warned of the military establishment's "acquisition of unwarranted influence"--he shows how a lack of opportunities at home helps drive enlistment for foreign interventions abroad. Bush's appalling new budget will only exacerbate this trend by starving domestic programs, cutting taxes and boosting defense spending to a record $439.3 billion at a time of ever-increasing deficits. Defense spending has grown by 45 percent since Bush took office, accounting for more than half of all government programs. And that doesn't include the $120 billion needed this year to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What has over half a trillion dollars bought in terms of America's security? Shoddy intelligence, quagmire in Iraq and a nucular (née nuclear) Iran? Bin Laden's still alive and Hamas is running Palestine.

Democrats (and a few sensible Republicans) are rightfully incensed about Bush's proposed spending and tax cuts. "More deficits, more debt, and more denial," said John Spratt, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. But these criticisms contain nary a peep about the size and scope of America's bloated and wasteful military budgets. Out in Abilene, Kansas, General Eisenhower is rolling over in his grave.

Going Postal

Did you see last week's horrifying stories about the shootings at the Southern California mail distribution center? A 44 year old woman shot three employees in a parking lot, and three more inside the postal building, and then turned the gun on herself. Experts in workplace killings have called it the nation's deadliest act of workplace violence ever committed by a woman.

For those who track such things, workplace violence by postal workers was more frequent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, it brought a new phrase into the American vocabulary: "going postal."For those who want to go beyond the headlines and understand the roots of this phenomenon, I recommend Mark Ames' Going Postal: Murder and Rebellion from Reagan's Workplace to Clinton Columbine and Beyond (Soft Skull Press, 2005). The book places so-called "rage murders" in the American workplace and schoolyards in the context of the brutal socio-economic changes following the Reagan Revolution. Ames ties together a massive shift of wealth over the past 25 years--from the lower and middle classes to the wealthy--as well as the change in corporate culture in which companies have squeezed their workers dry for more hours of work at less pay, with less health care and ravaged pensions. He dissects a workforce that has faced massive layoffs, and workers who find themselves scraping by while their bosses live like kings. Ames never excuses, but he does try to understand why we've seen such brutality in the workplace.

This is grim reading --especially in these bleak times-- but as The Toronto Eye Weekly puts it, Ames "writes like a breezy, barroom Foucault while building an alternative history of 'the office' andGoing Postal is audacious, necessary reading...though perhaps not while transiting to work."

Disclosure: Ames is a friend who, with the inimitable Matt Taibbi--now a regular writer at Rolling Stone--co-founded the eXile, an incendiary English-language Moscow-based newspaper. He tells me that the strangest, positive review he received was in Forbes.

Check out Going Postal.

Boehner's Broken Promises

In his victory over Roy Blunt to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader, John Boehner ran as the reformer. This weekend he hit the Sunday talk shows to explain just which reforms he had in mind.

Banning earmarks, as he promised to do during his campaign? "I don't know that it's appropriate to eliminate all of them," he told Tim Russert.

Banning privately-funded travel, as suggested by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert? "I've got my doubts about that."

Curtailing contact between lawmakers and lobbyists? "I've got a very open relationship with lobbyists in town."

Empowering the dormant House Ethics Committee? "I think the Ethics Committee process really, in fact, is back up, it's working. They know what the rules are, they interpret the rules."

Returning money from Jack Abramoff-related Indian tribes? "No. Those tribes gave money to my political action committee. It had nothing to do with Jack Abramoff...Some of his under--underlings worked with some low-level employees in my office."

Regaining the trust of the American people? On Fox News Sunday: "Taking actions to ban this and ban that, when there's no appearance of a problem, there's no foundation of a problem, I think, in fact, does not serve the institution well."

But enough about reform this and reform that. On to the other pressing issues Fox host Chris Wallace quizzed Boehner about:

 

WALLACE: I do have to ask you the one question that a lot of people asked me this week. How do you keep that tan?

 

 

BOEHNER: I was born dark, but I do like to play a little golf, and it's myescape from all of the pressures of my job.

 

Reformers yell fore!

Texas Judge Denounces New Bankruptcy Law

I received this email from my colleague Doug Henwood last week:

A bankruptcy judge in Texas, by all accounts a sober and respected fellow, wrote the attached opinion, denouncing the new bankruptcy law. As he puts it: Congress wasn't interested in theopinions of any experts in the field, because it had its own agenda, "to make more money off the backs of consumers." He also says that to call the Act a "consumer protection" Act is the "grossest ofmisnomers," and declared that "no rational human being could make a cogent argument" in the law's favor. Wow. Check it out.

Arnie's Favorite Double Dipper

To some California conservatives, she's no less than Satan. To Governor Schwarzenegger, she's his Chief of Staff and his favorite Democrat. To some reformers, she's the embodiment of a double dippin' conflict of interest.

Susan Kennedy is also a former top aide to Arnold's predecessor Gray Davis, a former director of the state's National Abortion Rights Action League and she's a high-profile lesbian who invited scads of pols to her 1999 commitment ceremony.

Whatever one thinks of Schwarzenegger, putting Kennedy in charge of his staff and now sending her out in public as his most aggressive campaigner for re-election has thrown everyone off-kilter. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, there will be a move at this month's state GOP convention by Republicans who despise Kennedy to withhold endorsement of Schwarzenegger. It's an unlikely bet but still sure to be messy.

On the other side of the spectrum, Kennedy draws fire from left-of-center reformers because of her brazen salary double dipping. She not only gets a state salary of more than $130,000 for her work as Chief of Staff, but will also be collecting an additional $75,000 from the Governor's re-election campaign funds. Schwarzenegger was elected in the 2003 recall on precisely the promise to do away with such funny-money political games. But this movie has taken a twist.

"What's amazing is that you've got a situation where Schwarzenegger has become worse than Gray Davis,'' said Doug Heller, who runs the ArnoldWatch Web site on behalf of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "It's almost like a Schwarzenegger movie where the hero kills the villain -- and takes over his personality.''

Hey, it's California politics. We're strange out here. Make sure to bookmark Bill Bradley's New West Notes to keep close track on All Things Arnold. And while you're at it, take a peek as well at my daily blog. The fight over the Governor's re-election is really heating up. And Bill and I will both be covering it.

Nipplegate's Legacy

Though it has only been two years since it made its live debut on national television, Janet Jackson's right nipple has already left an indelible mark on American society. Many thought that The Nipple's legacy would be limited to introducing the expression "wardrobe malfunction" to the English language, as well as the astonishing revelation that there exists a fashion accessory known as a "nipple shield." Thankfully, both inventions have failed to catch-on. Nonetheless, The Nipple's impact on culture and politics has been profound and deep.

First, ABC broadcast the entire Super Bowl tonight (pre-game, game, half-time show and post-game wrap-up) on a five-second tape delay. I'm not much of a football fan, but the idea seems to me a violation of the democratic ethos of sports and mass spectatorship. Now, the privileged few who are able to cough up the lowest ticket price of $600 will be living history, whereas the masses huddled over nachos in their living rooms will be merely watching history.

Second, in a nod to critics, Super Bowl planners booked the Rolling Stones for this year's half-time show. I am a huge Stones fan, and the apparent fact that Mick and Keith now constitute clean, family-fare is hugely disappointing.

Third, Nipplegate was exactly what social conservatives needed to ramp up the culture war on indecency. In its wake the Parents Television Council launched a campaign encouraging its constituents to flood the FCC with indecency complaints. The result: broadcasters were charged a record $7.9 million in fines in 2004 including $550,000 paid by CBS for Ms. Jackson's "nasty" exposure -- a mere flesh wound to corporate media, but perhaps a harbinger of things to come. The Christian Coalition vociferously lobbied Congress to pass legislation dramatically increasing indecency fines; the bill passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, head of the Commerce Committee, floated the idea of extending FCC jurisdiction to cable broadcasters. If he succeeds, you can kiss programs like "The Sopranos," "Sex in the City," "South Park" and "The Daily Show" goodbye. Finally, not content to harass the FCC from the outside, last year conservatives placed former Concerned Women of America board member and anti-porn activist Penny Nance in the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis as a special adviser.

Last week Bush nominated telecommunications lawyer and lobbyist Robert McDowell to the FCC. If confirmed by the Senate, McDowell would restore the 3-2 Republican majority and re-ignite attempts to gut media ownership regulations. It doesn't appear that Bush was thinking of Janet Jackson's right nipple and the family-values crowd when he made this choice, but if the Senate takes the confirmation hearings seriously, McDowell should have to answer tough questions on both censorship and media consolidation.

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