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Looking for a Straight Answer

Last Saturday, I pondered America’s soul.

I was in Portland, Maine, attending the annual Veterans For Peace convention, which featured Chris Hedges as its keynote speaker. Hedges, a Harvard divinity graduate who worked for many years as a war correspondent in El Salvador, Bosnia and other very violent places, gave a take-no-prisoners speech that prophesized the end of America as we know it.

The way Hedges saw it, the forces of militarized capitalism organized a coup in America, and that coup has been successful. The party’s over and things are going to get a lot worse. He spoke of a land fallen into barbarism and a dictatorial state in power.

It’s becoming pretty widely understood that America is in the midst of a major, epochal reckoning that does not seem to be letting up. Few in Portland would have disagreed with this. The issue was in the degree of unpleasantness one could stand as one contemplated the future. Some felt Hedges had come too close to hopelessness.

As Dylan said: “Somethin’s happenin’ here, and you don’t know what it is … do you, Mister Jones.”

After listening to Hedges and discussing his speech and other things over beers with veteran friends, I turned in for the night. I flipped on the massive wide-screen TV in my room and ended up watching 45-minutes of Glenn Beck’s “Returning Honor Rally” recorded earlier on the apron of the Lincoln Memorial.

Beck was “like an Aztec priest ascending the Pyramid of Huitzilopochtli,” according to James Howard Kuntsler on his blog Clusterfuck Nation. It was lots of tired Christian revivalist mush mixed in with some sensible family counseling. The country was going to hell and “God” was the answer.

There was no avoiding a comparison between Hedges and Beck. Both saw the nation in a deep crisis that would not be solved by the current politics. The difference was in what aspects of this “clusterfuck” they identified with and who they would stand and fight with when it all really hit the fan.

Hedges came down on the idea of local communities working cooperatively and providing for themselves, finding safety in numbers, in fellow human beings. Time and again, Beck came back to his “God” — or, as Kuntsler put it, “what people resort to when they don’t understand what is happening to them.”

I have a healthy spiritual sensitivity for the mystery of life and nature. I see this as a fundamental human need to find answers for the unanswerable questions that reside at the outer edges of all human thought. As far as Beck’s “God” goes, I’m an atheist.

Meeting Beck’s God at a red light

The other day, as I waited for a red light to change, I encountered Beck’s “God” on the back gate of a pickup truck driven by a guy in his thirties with a shaved head. The following verse was printed very professionally on the gate.

Bless those who serve and protect
The rights and freedoms of this great land.
Continue to bless this world through
Us (in Jesus’ name). Amen.
Bring our troops home, Lord.

Addressed to the “Lord,” the request in the first two stanzas presumably referred to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the post-9/11 Global War On Terror. Dear God, bless our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan for protecting our “rights and freedoms.”

This is one of our current core value delusions, that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are somehow protecting our rights here at home. Given post-9/11 realities, all arguments for this fall apart quickly. Whatever we are in Iraq and Afghanistan for at any given time, it’s not to protect our rights here. The only ones protecting our rights here at home are the people who insist on using those rights. Use ‘em or lose ‘em. It’s actually the government and the military who seem to be whittling away at these rights. And Libertarian Tea Baggers make it clear this is not an exclusive left-wing view.

Then, God is asked to “bless this world” we live in. Finally, there’s the part that truly baffles me: “Bring our troops home, Lord.”

If I could have had a cordial word with the driver I would have seriously asked, if you really want our troops to come home, it doesn’t take the Lord or any other religious deity. All it takes is the will to do it — or as one senator put it when asked how he would get us out of Vietnam: “Ships and planes.” Wait for the Lord to do it and we’ll likely be waiting for a very long time.

Religious demagogues like Beck count on their followers believing that “God” is out there somehow speaking to them and offering them guidance. But, then, that guidance always ends up being delivered by the demagogue himself. What feels like piety is too often really about conformity to Faith, about not wanting to be known as the individual who doesn’t believe, and not wanting to be expelled by the flock, especially in bad times.

Since God loves you and is always right, if the Pentagon and the US government refuse to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, that means God must want them to remain there.

But if you follow this logic, it also works the other way. If instead of the phony PR withdrawals we’re witnessing, the US government began to ask serious questions about its bankrupting military overreach around the world and, as a consequence, began to seriously withdraw its vast mobilizations from Iraq and Afghanistan and to pull back its many overseas bases … after we decided to do it and did it, it would then be the Lord’s will that we did it.

The Lord works in such strange ways.

It all makes my head spin — especially when you add in the growing lunacies of Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists.

There’s Christian-based attacks on Muslims in the US sprouting up everywhere, and Islam itself is more and more seen by Americans as our enemy. The New York Times reports that the secular Zionist movement in Israel that was once able to sit down with Arab Muslims has been overpowered by an orthodox, fundamentalist settlement movement that disdains Palestinian Muslims. And, of course, let’s not forget fundamentalist Muslims like Osama bin Laden who love to fuel this circular firing squad of narcissism and hatred.

On one hand, the world is becoming more and more stressed due to poverty exacerbated by corporate greed and political corruption. On the other hand, fundamentalist elements of the three major religions are doing their best to drive the world’s populations mad and to encourage greater conflagrations.

Liberation Theology as the villain

Following his three-hour Aztec sacrifice, Beck conceded on Fox News he was wrong to call President Obama a “racist.” No, Obama was a “liberation theologist.” That would put him in the same gang as Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop gunned down in El Salvador for supporting the poor.

From my experience in Central American in the 1980s, a liberation theologist is someone who sees Jesus Christ as a moral and spiritual actor in history. The term was coined by Peruvian theologist Gustavo Gutierrez. One of its central tenets is “the preferential option for the poor,” or the Christ-like identification with the least comfortable among us. They also preach the importance of addressing social conditions that cause poverty.

It should come as no surprise that those who damn liberation theology tend to identify with the most comfortable elements of society, the ones doing the oppressing and the ones benefiting from it. They naturally want their priests and religious leaders to tell the poor that Jesus is about salvation in the next world, that this world is about pain and suffering and graceful acceptance.

The notion that President Obama is a liberation theologist is comical. It’s the same ridiculous slur that he is a “socialist.”

Obama is a centrist, but more important, he is a classic progressive like Teddy Roosevelt, liberal on the domestic front and an imperial militarist on the foreign policy front. Unfortunately for Obama, it’s not 100 years ago, when the glories of imperial outreach were ascendant and not as expensive as they are today, when they tend to eat up resources needed to address deteriorating conditions at home.

So President Obama visits ex-President George Bush before giving a speech announcing that the war in Iraq is over. It would be unfair to make a joke about appearing in a flight suit to give his “mission accomplished” speech. So I won’t.

Still, it’s a fact 50,000 well-armed combat troops and ample super lethal aerial support units remain in the country; it’s a fact the Iraqi government is a joke and people are dying like flies from political bombings; and it’s a fact electricity, fuel supplies and other vital services are at such an abysmal level Iraqis tell reporters they’re demoralized and pine for the stable, developed conditions under Saddam Hussein.

You get to the point you just want a straight answer from somebody in government.

It’s like my good friend who died in February from lung cancer. He had been getting lots of cheerleading answers he did not trust. He looked at his doctor and said, ”Hey, doc, give it to me straight.”

The news was not good, but it was honest and respectful of my friend. He thanked the doctor and shook his hand. That’s the kind of information the American people need. We’ve had enough secrecy and fairy tales.

JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper.

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JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, uncompromised, five-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. 

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