Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Two Must Reads from Alternet, surrounding a Chomsky

One is an excerpt of Michelle Goldberg's book on the religious right, subtly titled, "Tyranny of the Christian Right":

If current trends continue, we will see ever-increasing division and acrimony in our politics. That's partly because, as Christian nationalism spreads, secularism is spreading as well, while moderate Christianity is in decline. According to the City University of New York Graduate Center's comprehensive American religious identification survey, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians has actually fallen in recent years, from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001. The survey found that the largest growth, in both absolute and percentage terms, was among those who don't subscribe to any religion. Their numbers more than doubled, from 14.3 million in 1990, when they constituted 8 percent of the population, to 29.4 million in 2001, when they made up 14 percent.

"The top three 'gainers' in America's vast religious marketplace appear to be Evangelical Christians, those describing themselves as Non-Denominational Christians and those who profess no religion," the survey found. (The percentage of other religious minorities remained small, totaling less than 4 percent of the population).

This is a recipe for polarization. As Christian nationalism becomes more militant, secularists and religious minorities will mobilize in opposition, ratcheting up the hostility. Thus we're likely to see a shrinking middle ground, with both camps increasingly viewing each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and contempt.

...There's still a long way, though, between this damaged version of democracy and real theocracy. Tremendous crises would have to shred what's left of the American consensus before religious fascism becomes a possibility. That means that secularists and liberals shouldn't get hysterical, but they also shouldn't be complacent...

It would take a national disaster, or several of them, for all these bulwarks to crumble and for Christian nationalists to truly "take the land," as Michael Farris, president of the evangelical Patrick Henry College, put it. Historically, totalitarian movements have been able to seize state power only when existing authorities prove unable to deal with catastrophic challenges -- economic meltdown, security failures, military defeat -- and people lose their faith in the legitimacy of the system.

Such calamities are certainly conceivable in America -- Hurricane Katrina's aftermath offered a terrifying glimpse of how quickly order can collapse. If terrorists successfully strike again, we'd probably see significant curtailment of liberal dissenters' free speech rights, coupled with mounting right-wing belligerence, both religious and secular.

The breakdown in the system could also be subtler. Many experts have warned that America's debt is unsustainable and that economic crisis could be on the horizon. If there is a hard landing -- due to an oil shock, a burst housing bubble, a sharp decline in the value of the dollar, or some other crisis -- interest rates would shoot up, leaving many people unable to pay their floating-rate mortgages and credit card bills. Repossessions and bankruptcies would follow. The resulting anger could fuel radical populist movements of either the left or the right -- more likely the right, since it has a far stronger ideological infrastructure in place in most of America.

Military disaster may also exacerbate such disaffection. America's war in Iraq seems nearly certain to come to an ignominious end. The real victims of failure there will be Iraqi, but many Americans will feel embittered, humiliated and sympathetic to the stab-in-the-back rhetoric peddled by the right to explain how Bush's venture has gone so horribly wrong. It was the defeat in World War I, after all, that created the conditions for fascism to grow in Germany.

It's not for nothing that I would bet that these folks would, if they were to get into power, manage the economy almost as well as Mao did during the "Great Leap Forward."

It's really all you have to know about long-term investment trends: the Republicans have created a monster that says nothing but the US is an investment risk.

Thanks in part to these folks electing the current government, we have this dark picture as described by Noam Chomsky:

The selection of issues that should rank high on the agenda of concern for human welfare and rights is, naturally, a subjective matter. But there are a few choices that seem unavoidable, because they bear so directly on the prospects for decent survival. Among them are at least these three: nuclear war, environmental disaster, and the fact that the government of the world's leading power is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of these catastrophes. It is important to stress the government, because the population, not surprisingly, does not agree.

That brings up a fourth issue that should deeply concern Americans, and the world: the sharp divide between public opinion and public policy, one of the reasons for the fear, which cannot casually be put aside, that, as Gar Alperowitz puts it in America Beyond Capitalism, "the American 'system' as a whole is in real trouble - that it is heading in a direction that spells the end of its historic values [of] equality, liberty, and meaningful democracy."

The "system" is coming to have some of the features of failed states, to adopt a currently fashionable notion that is conventionally applied to states regarded as potential threats to our security (like Iraq) or as needing our intervention to rescue the population from severe internal threats (like Haiti). Though the concept is recognized to be, according to the journal Foreign Affairs, "frustratingly imprecise," some of the primary characteristics of failed states can be identified. One is their inability or unwillingness to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction. Another is their tendency to regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and hence free to carry out aggression and violence. And if they have democratic forms, they suffer from a serious "democratic deficit" that deprives their formal democratic institutions of real substance.

The other must read from Alternet is this bit on the crushing debt of our nation's younger members:

"Government no longer has our back," explains Tamara Draut, author of the recently published book Strapped, in an email. "Young adults today, working to get into the middle class -- they're being hit by a one-two punch: The economy no longer generates widespread opportunity, and our public policies haven't picked up any of the slack."

Her words ring uncomfortably true. As a "young adult" (age 29, thank you very much) from the generation Draut is covering, I've watched more than a few college-grad friends struggle to pay off their towering school loans and credit card debt -- usually on "creative sector" annual salaries ranging from $25K to $40K (while attempting to thrive in notoriously overpriced cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco).

According to Strapped, Gen X-ers have it much worse than our Baby Boomer parents, because while typical earnings for college grads have stayed the same for three decades, the costs of housing, education and health care have grown exponentially -- much faster than inflation.

The grim financial situation many young folks are now facing is part of a broad governmental failure to regulate the rising costs of higher education, to boost the minimum wage to a livable wage, and to create a sufficient number of full-time jobs -- with benefits -- to ensure that America's massive twenty- and thirty-something work force is healthy and paid well enough to provide for their families.

I would hasten to add, though, if younger folks voted like elder folks, government would pamper to them every bit as much.

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