Metaphors Regarding Power
As mentioned last week in Explaining Things, one of the things that needs explaining is what is in the just published Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, a book by David Kuo. Kuo was an up and comer among those known as social conservatives - the religious right, opposed to women having any option at all to abort an unwanted pregnancy, to gay marriage, to that separation of church and state business that forbids mandatory prayer in school and forbids the government funding or even endorsing crosses on hills and the Ten Commandments on slabs of stone in courthouses. That was the fight. He wrote speeches for Ralph Reed, one of the founders of the Christian Right organization - although Reed is now disgraced, caught up in the Abramoff scandal, where Reed jerked around various Indian tribes for fun and profit. Kuo had also served as a policy adviser to John Ashcroft, the former attorney general who draped heavy cloth over the statues in Justice Department lobby (the stone bare breasts were offensive) and who led his subordinates in daily prayer meetings imploring Jesus for guidance. Kuo has said Bill Bennett was his mentor - and that would be the Bill Bennett who wrote the Book of Values and the Book of Values for Children, and admitted he had dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling in Vegas casinos, but it was no big deal. Kuo joined the George Bush campaign early - 1998, two years before the first presidential election - and rose to become second in command at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Now he's slapping his forehead and saying evangelicals should take a two-year "fast" from politics. The new book documents that the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was kind of a farce - a tool to trick the Christian Right and its associated organizations into getting out the Republican vote, and behind their backs Rove and the rest were mocking Falwell and Dobson and the rest as "nuts" and "kooks." They were useful idiots, with the emphasis on the word idiots. It was pure manipulation of the Christian groups, and there was the failure to fund the policies the president said were his "personal priority" - giving grants to religious organizations to do government work. Nothing much was ever funded - in fact such funding actually decreased - but the political benefits were enormous. If you were a certain kind of Christian - the evangelical kind - you had to be a Republican. The government was finally on your side, and on Jesus' side - unless you looked at the spreadsheets. Kuo looked at the spreadsheets, and he heard what was said behind the backs of the major evangelical leaders. He was not amused. He took notes. He wrote a book about it all. And he even appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to discuss it all (video here).
The White House is most unhappy with him, and the evangelicals are pretty much refusing to believe all this is so. It's quite a mess, but the White House is good at saying things that are so are just not so - they've raised that to a fine art - and evangelicals are conditioned to believe in authority, be it the inherency of the Bible or the inherent authority of a devout and godly president, one who's always saying that he is doing Jesus' work. The damage may be minimal.
Those outside that frame of reference - who don't have a predilection to stop thinking, shut down and simply trust what others claim is inherently authoritative, or trust anyone who makes the claim, without evidence, to be an authority figure - find all of this puzzling.
In an exclusive interview with Richard Wolffe of NBC, Kuo tries to provide a frame of reference for the few skeptics left in America. That odd bit of explaining what's going on is here -
I have no anger towards my former colleagues or towards anyone else. Part of what made this so difficult to write is the amount of respect I have for my former colleagues. I like and respect them.
It was also a real challenge to try and tell the entire story, my own intimate story about what happens when you struggle with God and politics - and politics wins. I think one of the things that drove me was feeling the urgent need to tell people, particularly Christians, I suppose, that politicians look at any constituency with very cold eyes. They form constituencies to form a governing coalition. That isn't a bad thing; that's just what they do. And I think Christians have come to this notion that this White House is somehow their fellow parishioners with them, and that is simply not the case. I am shocked, frankly, by the White House response that it [the faith-based agenda] hasn't been political. That is the other side of absurd, and fundamentally misleading.
… In some ways White House power is like [J.R.R.] Tolkien's ring of power. When you put it on, it feels good and it's dazzling. But after a while it begins to consume you in ways you don't realize. That's the nature of White House power. I have no doubt that Christian political leaders have gotten involved for all the right reasons. I just think over time it becomes harder and harder to stand up against that ring of power and the White House, to say no and walk away.
So, as you saw scrawled on the walls of midtown subways near NYU in the early 1960s - Frodo Lives! Tolkien's rolling over in his grave. But if you know the books, or the film trilogy (and how could you not?) then this begins to make sense.
As you recall, the One Ring was created by the "Dark Lord" Sauron during the Second Age in order to gain dominion over the remaining elves of Middle-earth. Don't ask. Anyway, he tricked the elves into helping him make such rings and then forged the One Ring himself in the fires of Mount Doom. It controlled all the rings of power ever made. Sauron was obliged to place most of his native power, life force and will into the ring, and then, by doing that, as long as the One Ring existed, it was impossible to remove him from the mortal plane - he was both immortal and invincible. With it he could control others and rule the world, but then he lost the damned thing. And whoever found it would have all the power. Drat! And everyone really wanted it, but part of the nature of the One Ring was that it slowly but inevitably corrupted its wearer, even if the wearer wanted to use its unimaginable power to do good. For this reason the Wise - Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel - when Frodo came up with the thing, refused to wield it in their own defense, saying it must be destroyed. They knew it would corrupt even them, and turn them into monsters. Political power at its highest level - the office of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth - is kind of like that. Or it isn't.
But is it an explanation of what is happening here for those outside the evangelical world of ceding critical thought to authority. Just think of what the ring did - it drove people who wanted it to make the world better quite mad, and for those who possessed it, twisted them in to monsters. The hero of the tale, Frodo the Hobbit, at great personal cost, got to Mount Doom and destroyed the thing - and saved the world.
And that leads to this -
David Kuo's comparison of White House power to Sauron's Ring of Power is something that has been on my mind recently too. Neither he nor I are alone in making that comparison - a couple of weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker on the streets of Portland, Oregon which said "Frodo Has Failed, Bush Has the Ring."
No! Really? But you can actually buy the bumper sticker (and matching mugs, t-shirts and a backpack). Amazing.
But wait! There's more! The guys on the other side of the political fence can use Tolkien too!
Note that here we see in an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, knowing that he's losing the battle to keep his senate seat - he's the third ranking Republican in the senate and as socially conservative as they come, and a staunch supporter of the president's "we stay until we win it all" approach to Iraq - says the Iraq War is just like what's going on in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." Really it is. But its not the ring business - you see, the United States has avoided terrorist attacks at home over the past five years because the "Eye of Mordor" has been focused on Iraq instead.
That goes like this -
As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else. It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.
So both sides can play this Tolkien game, or we're all Hobbits, or something. For those not into Tolkien, or who missed the films, even with the eleven Oscars, the Courier Times explains - the "Eye of Mordor" was "the tool the evil Lord Sauron used in search of the magical ring that would consolidate his power over Middle-earth." Of course it is. Everyone knows that.
The problem is, of course, the one side is making a joke and Santorum is quite serious. Or he's mad. The idea that there is one vastly evil and somewhat supernatural power scanning the globe and out to get us all seems a bit pathological, but then he doesn't say aliens from the planet Clorox II are sending messages to him through the fillings in his teeth, and that's why he's wearing the tin-foil hat. It's just he imagines one super-powerful bad guy behind everything, and it doesn't appear to be Michael Moore. He never says who it is, actually. It may be Professor Moriarty - but that's Sherlock Holmes' stuff, not the Hobbit stuff. But we are supposed to admire his unified paranoia, which is supposed to be some sort of geopolitical wisdom.
But Santorum does come down to earth, sort of. Elsewhere in the interview he says he disagrees with the notion that the United States is "bogged down" in Iraq. And there's all this talk of troop withdrawal. People are asking quests, and they shouldn't - "I don't think you ask that question. I know that's the question everybody wants to ask. But I don't think anyone would ask that question in 1944, 'Gee, how long are we going to be in Europe?' We're going to be in Europe until we win."
People should shut up. And they should really worry about THE EYE.
Okay. Why not? Santorum is always amusing.
And anyway, the war is going fine, in fact "remarkably well." Vice President Cheney came out of hiding to tell Rush Limbaugh that with this -
Well, I think there's some natural level of concern out there because in fact, you know, it wasn't over instantaneously. It's been a little over three years now since we went into Iraq, so I don't think it's surprising that people are concerned.
On the other hand, this government has only been in office about five months, five or six months now. They're off to a good start. It is difficult, no question about it, but we've now got over 300,000 Iraqis trained and equipped as part of their security forces. They've had three national elections with higher turnout than we have here in the United States. If you look at the general overall situation, they're doing remarkably well.
It's still very, very difficult, very tough. Nobody should underestimate the extent to which we're engaged there with this sort of, at present, the "major front" of the war on terror. That's what Osama bin Laden says, and he's right."
As Andrew Sullivan says - "If you were at all concerned that this administration has no grip on reality, then you need to become more concerned."
But maybe Dick Cheney is Lord Sauron, or one of his tools. You never know.
But the recent flurry of Tolkien talk is an anomaly. The standard authoritative reference work about how the world works is still the Bible. See the video clip here (at the 4:58 mark) or check out the Sacramento Bee here.
It's John Doolittle, the Deputy Majority Whip and Secretary of the House Republican Conference, with this -
As for Armageddon, I just note with interest that's what the Bible says. That it's on the Plains of Megiddo. Right there in Israel. And it makes you wonder where this conflict's all going to ultimately lead. And I happen to believe it will ultimately lead to what the Bible says.
There are books more dangerous than Tolkien's. And Doolittle isn't dealing in metaphor. Such folks don't do that.
Whether Kuo is right or not - the political operatives at the White House think the religious folks who drop by are "kooks" to be used and mocked - there's a chance he had it wrong. And we're going to all die, because the Bible says we should.