Saturday, August 22, 2009

Are Americans Going Bat-Shit Crazy?

Seems that way to me . . . and to others as well.

The New American Religion Behind the Growing American Rage

And the Oklahoma man — eighth-grade teacher by day, militant blogger by night — who may personify it more than any of the conservatives who, when the town halls pass, may be pointing the way to a holy war that goes way beyond health care.

By John H. Richardson

barack obama and adolf hitler sign at town hall meeting

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear to me that what we are witnessing is nothing less than the birth of a new religion. Cobbled together from old parts (fundamentalism, gun rights, excessive reverence for capitalism and The Founders, paranoid talking points from the good old liberal-hating John Birch Society), this new decidedly American religion has finally achieved critical mass under the pressure of a president whom its most extreme adherents call — by no accident — the Antichrist.

Though I have spent plenty of time by now tracking dangerous threats and outrageous actions first-hand, I'm not here just to bash this strange new thing. Because like most Americans, I have sympathy for some of these ideas and the people who believe them. That's what makes the new religion confusing: so many of these parts act in contradiction, held together by faith and faith alone — in order to keep calling themselves Christian, most of these folks had to throw out the entire Sermon on the Mount. I've got no problem with guns, but Jesus didn't carry a gun. And he didn't hate homosexuals, either. He believed in love and forgiveness and turning the other cheek.

At least he used to.

I've toyed with various names for this strange new thing: NRA Fundamentalism, NRA Market Fundamentalism, Mean Christianity, Tough Christianity. But perhaps it's better to provide an example...

Mike Austin: McVeigh-Caliber Nut, Oklahoma's Best Teacher, or Both?

mike austin

Behold the New American Radical. His name is Mike Austin. He's 52, with a shaved head and glasses and a private, restrained quality that feels slightly monkish. He teaches at the Independence Charter Middle School in Oklahoma City. He drives a late-model, metallic-green Jeep. He has called President Obama "evil" and "malignant," and he believes, along with much of the hard-line wing of the Republican party, that America is rapidly becoming a socialist dictatorship.

In his eighth-grade classroom, Austin is a whirlwind. "Desks cleared off! Get organized, ladies and gentlemen — we've got work to do!"

"Are you going to be nicer because someone is watching?"

"No!"

It's a completely integrated class, all the kids in blue-and-white uniforms, noisy and playful and completely engaged. "Those Americans who were in favor of the Constitution — what were they called?"

"Patriots?"

"Try again."

"Federalists?"

"What were those who were against the Constitution called?"

"Royalists!"

"Anti-Federalists!"

Austin mentions his hunger, which is due to Lent. They've talked about that before, he reminds his students, the idea of mortifying the flesh — that's morte-ify, from the Latin for death. By killing the flesh a little bit, you can dominate it — the flesh no longer is your master, you are. "Alright, show-offs! Who were the three authors of the Federalist Papers?"

"Madison!"

"Hamilton!"

"John Jay!"

"And the Anti-Federalists, they were worried about which of the branches having too much power?"

"Legislative!"

"Judicial!"

"Executive!"

"They thought the executive branch would turn into a what?"

"Monarchy!"

Austin doesn't put up with crude behavior — polish yourself, he tells them, moderate your vocabulary. The kids challenge him just for the pleasure of seeing him establish the boundaries. "Mr. Austin, I've been on a roll. Can I have ten points?"

"If I rewarded you for doing things that you should do, that would be making morality a function of commerce, and I wouldn't do that to you."

"But I've been doing extra good."

"I expect you to do extra good all the time. Now, three items we have to review about our Constitution..."

There's no doubt, watching this, that Austin is a great teacher. Walking the halls with him later, as students come up to him giggling and eager, making jokes and saying hello, it's even more difficult to imagine the man who rises each night at ninety minutes after midnight to write passages like these on a blog called The Return of Scipio:

We are going to learn whether it is true that "all power flows from the barrel of a gun." We are going to learn how many Americans will refuse to live in a single party state. We are going to learn who possesses the real power in this country...

The liberal must find a way to separate the conservative from his gun. The liberal must also find a way to weaken the military. The liberal must remove any possible threat to the very existence of his tribe. If he can do this, his victory will be complete...

Obama desires to turn the nation into a socialist dependency wholly controlled by the Democrat party. He plans to allow sodomites in the military. He has laid out plans to enlist the entire nation in his Marxist crusade...

That same day, the school principal welcomes me to a homey office with green vines outside the window. She's cheerful and firm, a middle-school principal from Central Casting, Vana Baker by name. She says that Austin is so popular with the kids that his colleagues get jealous. He works very hard to teach the young men chivalry, how to open doors and treat a girl. He's really very sweet. He even made this loaf of bread on the end of her desk. (Austin looks a little sheepish. "I have a bread machine.")

But she has gotten some complaints, which do concern her. Recently, someone wrote an angry letter saying that Austin is a Timothy McVeigh-caliber nut who could end up bearing arms against Obama and that the school should fire him if it didn't want any trouble. That was the basic gist, anyway, and it was intimidating. And she got another one on Monday, quoting things Austin had written, like that he was teaching the kids to be a little militia, which would never happen because Baker would never permit it: "Number one, I can handle him. Number two, what he writes, it's from that conservative Christian philosophy, and I agree with a lot of it."

"But he does question the legitimacy of the Obama government."

She looks surprised for a moment. "Absolutely, he does."

"Is that a concern?"

"Not as long as he doesn't stand up in front of the students and put their parents down for the way they voted."

Anyway, Baker says, the parents in this area are very conservative. None of them have complained about the blog.

The Birth of the Modern Conservative: Celibate by Way of Guatemala

blogger mike austin in 1978

Courtesy of Mike Austin

Off campus, Austin couldn't be more welcoming. His apartment is a one-bedroom unit on the ground floor of a rambling development — a lot of books like Patton, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Atlas Shrugged on cheap Ikea shelves, posters of John Wayne and Gladiator, a couple of giant speakers, two crucifixes, one statue of the Virgin Mary, and one incense burner "because Martin Luther said incense drives away the devil." His record collection is mostly classical, with a few old Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers discs. His DVDs include Braveheart, The Godfather, and The Untouchables. By his desk, Austin's got The 5000 Year Leap, a book Glenn Beck has been pushing on his show that says American freedoms are all based on Christian morality and the Constitution doesn't really call for the separation of church and state.

And here is his gun, light and gray. "It's my concealed-carry gun," he says, loading bullets into the chamber. "I never, ever want to use this."

He first started carrying two years ago, and it felt odd. "I thought, What am I doing? This is crazy. This is freakin' nuts."

But he came to consider it his duty. As he puts it on the blog:

An armed citizen is a free citizen. He is more than his brother's keeper, he is the keeper of American liberty.

In his bedroom, Austin pulls out another gun. "This is the one I take backpacking. It's a very serious tool — 44 magnum. Boom, boom."

His expression is grave, his voice soft. "I don't want to use that either. I don't want to kill any animals. I'm not a hunter type."

Austin's story seems designed to confound glib assumptions. He is, in fact, the son of an illegal Mexican immigrant and a white working-class mother from Portland. His father committed suicide before he was born, and he was put up for adoption at a Catholic orphanage, where a nun recognized the family name and called his grandmother, who made his mother take him back. He grew up poor, sometimes going without shoes or electricity, started working at nine, dropped out, joined the service, went to college, and discovered Tacitus, moved into a commune, smoked pot, grew his hair long, played blues guitar, hit the road — first Mexico, then Guatemala and beyond, picking up a Mayan girlfriend and traveling the jungles with a machete. Guerillas took him hostage. He married and divorced three wives.

To this day, he has some passionate liberal viewpoints. He has no sympathy for the many fans of the Confederacy who live in the area, for example. "They talk about taxes, about the war of northern aggression — that's all crap. It was about keeping black men in chains, and that was an affront against God."

His turning point came about ten years ago, when Austin came across a book called Mere Christianity and realized — as he was reading it, getting angry at the book for the things it was making him feel — that he was living a lie. He was nothing but a "charming animal" chasing pleasure. So he decided to do it right, strictly orthodox, no-fish-on-Fridays, absolute fidelity to the magisterium and the catechism and whatever the pope says when he's speaking ex cathedra. To him, pro-choice liberals like Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry aren't even Catholics. They're renegades and betrayers who should be denied communion and driven from public life. You can't pick and choose, he says.

"Celibacy doesn't bother me at all. I've been celibate for seven years."

"Deliberately?"

"Deliberately."

"Why?"

"Getting clean. I want to be chaste and clean."

"For now?"

"No, I'm done. These women are creatures of God, these beautiful creations. To fornicate with them, to touch them, is to defile them. I'm not going to do that."

Since When Did Oklahoma City Become Nazi Germany?

barack obama at notre dame graduation

Courtesy the University of Notre Dame

Mike Austin's transformation exactly parallels the changes in the Catholic Church, which has 65 million followers in America. In 2004, conservative rage over abortion persuaded a handful of bishops to say they would deny communion to John Kerry. By 2009, the anger had risen to the point that 28 percent of those 65 million (or 18 million people) wanted Notre Dame to withdraw its commencement-address invitation to Obama, and the bishop leading the protests sounded like Austin's twin: "We are engaged in a constant warfare with Satan, with the glamour of evil, and the lure of false truths and empty promises," he said. "Four thousand abortions each day in the United States — this is the tally of the enemy."

But the disconnect between Austin's militant ideas and his gentle personality is baffling. He turns out to be a good companion, skilled in the humane arts of introspection and doubt. At dinner, he even admits to worrying about his detachment from ordinary life and wonders if he's just a "fake man" who runs from responsibilities and obligations. If he had a wife, she'd want real estate and roots and he just can't do that. He doesn't know why, but he knows he would end up letting her down.

He's also comfortable poking fun at himself. "I'm becoming what I'll be five years from now. I'll be living in some northern Idaho hut, buncha Dobermans in one room..."

"Carving little wooden bombs..."

"Shotgun on my lap, whiskey..."

"This property protected..."

"By Mike Austin."

Then he's on to a happier subject, Alexander the Great, the finest military man who ever lived — eighteen when he commanded his father's cavalry in the last battle against Macedon, twenty when he took the kingdom, twenty-five when he conquered the world. What a joy to see man's unleashed potential stride across the stage of history!

Listening to all this, bonding over beer and nachos, the anger on The Return of Scipio seems so distant and unreal. It seems to exist on a separate plane from actual human life. This begins to seem like a significant contradiction, a key of some kind. Is it all just theater? A passion play for modern times?

As we drive back to my hotel through the clean wide streets of Oklahoma City, I take a chance on some gentle teasing: "Everything's so well-groomed, you got no garbage, no graffiti — I do not see the collapse of American civilization here."

His answer comes out cold as a can from a Coke machine: "If you were to look at the streets of Nazi Germany in 1936, they would appear a lot like this. Probably cleaner."

I've heard this exact argument before, from the Glenn Beck follower types, but I can't believe they really mean to compare their fellow Americans to the most cold-blooded killers in human history. It must be rhetoric. They can't be that alienated from the society that has given them, beyond any civilization in history, lives of such extraordinary privilege and comfort. My voice rises with my exasperation. "You could say that about any town anywhere!"

His answer comes back steady and patient, like he's explaining history to one of his eighth graders. "The government in Washington, D.C. has encroached so much on states' rights, it seems like we don't have a federal system any more, rather an imperial one. And when the states lose their rights guaranteed in the Constitution, then what you have is tyranny."

Obama is a fascist, he continues. Setting the limits of investment-bank incomes and claiming the right to seize General Motors are just two examples. Where in the Constitution does it grant him those powers? Are we a nation of laws, or is this a lawless regime that sends out its goons like Mussolini?

(And there it is, the voice of the blog: What has always stood against lawless men? Force. That is the only idiom understood by such men. To answer lawless men with force is to speak their language.)

President Obama is a wicked and evil man, Austin says. His abortion policy is the most murderous of "any man anywhere in American public life."

(Again: A Godless man is a rebel who apes the first rebel, Lucifer. Obama is a Godless man.)

And he won't apologize for repeating that famous Thomas Jefferson quote about using blood to nourish the tree of liberty, either. If Jefferson's words offend, so be it.

(One more time: They have removed all other options, all other appeals, all other possibilities. They have connived to make our Republic into a single party state that controls all information, every school, both houses of Congress, all entertainment, every university, the entire government bureaucracy and the executive branch.)

"There are things worse than violence, John," Austin tells me. "Slavery is worse than violence. The most peaceful place in the world is the cemetery."

The next day — my last in town — Austin is enjoying the last of this rare man-to-man conversation so much that he misses the exit for the airport. And the next exit after that.

"Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia."

armies of the night by norman mailer

Like I said, there's a lot to like about Mike Austin. In many ways, he's a very good man. But he scares the crap out of me. Consider the deadly dynamic that Norman Mailer — long-winded and barking-at-the-moon crazy, but a major American genius nonetheless — described in The Armies of the Night:

Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul. For the center of Christianity was a mystery, the son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ. The average America, striving to do his duty, drove further and further each day into working for Christ, and drove further and further each day in the opposite direction — into working for the absolute computer of the Corporation. Yes and no, 1 and 0. Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia; the average American believed in two opposites more profoundly apart than any previous schism in the Christian soul. Christians had been able to keep some kind of sanity for centuries while embracing love against honor, desire versus duty, even charity opposed in the same heart to the lust for power — that was difficult to balance but not impossible. The love of the Mystery of Christ, however, and the love of no Mystery whatsoever, had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition — since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic. So the average good Christian American secretly loved the war in Vietnam. It opened his emotions. He felt compassion for the hardships and the sufferings of the American boys in Vietnam, even the Vietnamese orphans. And his view of the war could shift a little daily as he read his paper, the war connected him to his newspaper again: connection to the outside world, and the small shift of opinions from day to day are the two nostrums of that apothecary where schizophrenia is treated. America needed the war. It would need a war so long as technology expanded on very road of communication, and the cities and corporations spread like cancer; the good Christian Americans needed the war or they would lose their Christ.

That's what scares me: that the birthers and the tea parties aren't really about health care or a birth certificate or even Nobama the Socialist Antichrist, but the first skirmishes of a new holy war.

Next week: some good-bad news from a major American economist, and an exchange with a former Soviet citizen who sees both sides of the health-care conflict from a completely fresh angle. Stay tuned.

For the Record

Below, my response to the response of Newsweek's Sarah Kliff after she (sort of) read my feature on Dr. Warren Hern:

It is a black irony when someone attacks you for getting facts wrong by getting her own facts wrong, but that is what Sarah Kliff has done in her criticism of my story in Esquire, The Last Abortion Doctor. The headline she objects to says that Dr. Hern is now the last doctor to "specialize in late-term abortions." Kliff asks why I didn't include Dr. Carhart, but her own story (which she helpfully links to above) shows that Carhart used to perform late-term abortions just one day every three weeks at Dr. Tiller's clinic, which was closed following Dr. Tiller's killing. Although he has begun to offer the service at his clinic in Nebraska — where only 29 late-term abortions were performed in 2008 — he refuses to do "elective abortions past 24 weeks" and "will operate only when another physician has declared the fetus unable to live more than momentarily outside the womb." Again, these are Kliff's own words. I don't see how anyone could describe this as "specializing" in late-term abortions, which is probably why the quote Kliff cites ("the notion that Dr. Warren Hern is the last remaining late-abortion provider is not accurate") does not use the word "specialize." The same goes for the handful of other doctors who sometimes perform late-term abortions but do not "specialize" in them, instead performing them very quietly on a spot basis — again, even Kliff says that Carhart refused to provide any names of the six doctors he knew who were willing to perform this service. They certainly don't advertise and put themselves out in the public eye as Dr. Hern so courageously does, which is why distressed women come to him from all over the world for treatment. Because of all this, I am saddened that Kliff would take such a cheap shot at a piece which she apparently not even read, given the wording of her first paragraph, and I would appreciate it if she would go to all the Websites that have linked to it and correct her mistake.

EVERYBODY HATES OBAMA: A THREE-PART SERIES


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