Moral Values: Red Herrings of the 2004 Election
Issue #72, February 2005
Bill Clinton stated somewhere in his thick autobiography that George W. Bush was the best politician in the Bush family: a prima facie compliment coming from another 2nd termer. A short list of the job description for a politician elucidates his loaded and misleading comment. A politician garners votes. A politician plays to the crowd. A politician plays the crowd. And Dubya delivers. Had Clinton said "leader" instead of "politician," then this snippet would probably have found its way into whatever "rightist" journal publishes essays for the disenfranchised conservatives. Clinton wrote "politician" though, and included with the word all of the accumulated baggage that it signifies. Bush is a bona fide politician and he pulled off the greatest mass manipulation that the United States has ever not noticed.
The "red herring" fallacy gets its name from a fugitive's tactic for outwitting the scent-sniffing hounds. The fugitive rubs the body of a fish over an article of clothing. After running a good distance dragging the smelly scarf (or whatever), the fugitive retraces his or her steps and heads off in another direction. Following the overwhelming scent, the dogs chase down the cloth, and the fugitive gets away.
In the few states that contain liberal, and the occasional Ivy League institution, scent-sniffing citizens and political pundits cried foul when George W. Bush managed to make a nation believe that the election of 2004 was about such nominal issues as gay marriage and stem cells. However, these yelps from the fringes did little to rival the widespread baying and howling of millions of Bush supporters as they mushed right past the war, the bombing of innocents, the global warming, the melting of the icecaps, and the corporate scandal, on their way down the primrose path to gay marriage and "moral values." How did he do it? The same way it's been done for almost two millennia. He invoked that same magic word that every "red state," red-blooded bible beater loves to hear; he invoked the name of Jesus.
Oh Jesus: that cottage industry turned global behemoth, that savior, that only begotten son. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. Jesus is the answer. What Would Jesus Do? Jesus saves. Jesus always forgives. Jesus dies, resurrects, cooks, cleans feet, and carves wood. Such is the power of Jesus. he can be made to do anything.
Jesus is even a match-maker. I can't begin to count how many times I heard as a post-pubescent adolescent that I could meet a "nice girl" in church, or watched the older men exchange business cards while they graciously let other families ahead of theirs in line to get their bulletin.
Jesus is the ultimate franchise, with locations nationwide featuring snake-handling, hand-clapping, and even healing, via a good forehead slapping. Jesus has served millions and millions in the United States, and anyone able to tap into that brand recognition can get thousands of rollover minutes of free airtime. Jesus works for George Bush.
As a motivational force, nothing works like religion. The illiterate Egyptians depended on the Pharaoh and his scribes to decode the mysteries of god to them. So too do the typical citizens of today (too busy working to really break down their own bible) depend on their religious and political leaders for tickets to the eternal theme park. This arrangement is by no means special, nor is it unique to Christianity. Opportunistic power structures worldwide and throughout time have utilized the effective methods of social behavior modification that religion provides. If your community somehow benefits from taking multiple spouses, or not eating germ-laden meat products, then your community can get God to write it into the by-laws. This country's theoretical company handbook has been guiding new hires in the ways of the protestant ethic ever since religious zealots landed at Plymouth Rock. From then on in America, fellowship in Christ promised compelling end of life dividends for the faithful. And why shouldn't we praise Jesus? We have nothing to lose except ostracism and an extended process of spiritual questioning. And we have everything to gain, including that one-way ticket to paradise where we can live forever with our dead relatives. Just tell me when to sit, stand, kneel, and genuflect.
The prospect of eternal life is so powerful that religions of every flavor have some version of it. Threats of pain, imprisonment and death are inferior in deterring errant behavior compared to the possibility of spending eternity south of heaven. In a time when the left is defined by various causes and is split along various intellectual lines, the conservative right in this country is united under a craftily fabricated threat to their spiritual well-being. A great way to mobilize the largest bloc of voters is to call into question those notions that determine the end-of-life traveler's final destination. How will you fare on judgment day? Have you lived a life that condones the laying of men with other men and allows unborn humans to be murdered? George W. Bush and his well-funded monolithic hype machine framed the context in America for these questions to be asked, and succeeded in diverting the attention of the masses away from the pressing issues of the day.
Greenhouse gases stemming from the burning of fossil fuels are causing the polar icecaps to melt; subsequently, many coastal communities in Alaska are being washed into the ocean while the indigenous people are scrambling to relocate. By the end of the 21st century, the majority of the Florida Everglades (and large portions of some "blue states" incidentally) will be covered by ocean. Multi-national corporations are exploiting foreign lands with impunity while, domestically, every Wal-Mart fences goods from countries known to engage in cruel human rights violations. Unemployment numbers in the United States are nearly as high as the number of medically uninsured. Teachers, firefighters, and police are being laid-off across the nation while Halliburton truck drivers make $90,000 a year in Iraq.
And there is a war going on. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Iraq takes place almost daily which has resulted in what researchers estimate to be the loss of more than 50,000 lives: so called "collateral damage." Somehow life loses its value when it exits the womb.
In spite of all this, many people who told me that they voted for George W. said they did so because of "moral values." How was George W. Bush able to cultivate this righteous persona? He did it by continuously pandering to the Christian Conservative right over his entire political career and by fabricating a cult of fear that the moral fabric of our country was in danger of disintegrating.
Like an oversized red herring, George W. Bush's moral crusade swept America on November 2nd, 2004, much to the horror of "blue-staters" and industrialized nations worldwide. As state after state blazed red, armchair analysts tried to account for the root causes of this disaster. John Kerry's quasi-commando "kill the terrorists" mantra during the debates, in concert with his patronizing bible verse recital reverberated in my ear as I started to get a sense of what went wrong. By the debate, it was already too late. George W. had spent his whole career appealing to the holy trinity of political power in Jesusland (the rich, the old, and the Christian), dropping phrases like "born-again" and "faith-based initiative" and "...my faith in Jesus Christ." The George Bush political machine snared the rapt attention of American Christians with invigorated emphasis on "family values," the "sanctity" of marriage and the "unethical" nature of embryonic stem-cell research and partial-birth abortions. While many of these issues found their way onto state ballots, unnoticeably absent were the proposals concerning the more pressing issues of the day. The deployment of the greatest "red herring" in American history had been pulled off.
Bill Cottrell is an Army veteran, a cancer survivor, a newlywed, an expectant father, a native of Michigan, a recovering alcoholic, and a liberal. He indulges himself in carbohydrates, Bad Subjects, an interesting novel, the Flaming Lips, Dave Chapelle, and deep conversations. He'll graduate this year from Saginaw Valley State University.
Yee-had graphic by John Leanos. Reproduced with permission.