On August 3rd, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke before a number of conservative students at John Hopkins University. The overarching intent was to foster grass-roots campaigns in order to win the midterm elections for the Republican Party, building momentum for the 2012 election. It was clear that Gingrich fervently believed what he was saying and it was refreshing to see so many 18-25 year olds dedicated to a political cause. The problem is in what was being said.
I will not take the time to counter every point that was made, or every question raised, but I am worried about this. I am worried that it is the right that is most energized this year and worried about the misleading and blind rhetoric used to arouse this support.
The Gingrich speech comes on the heels of the Texas textbook law and the spreading popularity of the Tea Party and groups that support the defense of “Western Civilization” (also a statement that came up during the speech). Closest to my heart is that one of the common denominators here is that they are all based on a limited, twisted or mistaken perception of history. Of course there is the movement to recast Thomas Jefferson as of limited importance to the creation of the United States, as well as the declaration that Western Civilization is a unique corpus challenged and destroyed by multiculturalism and integration. As an aside, at least one of the groups claims that a classical education is also a threat to Western Civilization, despite it being one of the foundations of that civilization, both temporally and in that it has for centuries formed the the core of education in Europe and America.
Universally among my colleagues at the University of Missouri, the Texas textbook reform was met with resignation as much as with outrage. It is a rather basic, if sometimes overlooked fact that all history taught in schools is constructed to portray a message, whether that is what is about the unity of the country, states rights or the value of democracy. This construction doesn’t mean that it is untrue, merely that there is an inherent bias in what is useful and what is appropriate for young people. Then, at the college level, half of what happens is that educators have to first correct mistaken impressions from high school, as well as actually educating students. The Texas reform marks just the latest high school folly to correct, hence the resignation.
Getting back to Gingrich, my first reaction is the complete mangling of ideas and labels. His basic point is that America leans to the Right, but that the Left fights from the high ground, embedded as the Left is in tenured professor positions, media, presidency, House and Senate leadership, and so on (his opinion, not mine). As such, he claims that the mass of regular Americans need to start a revolution to overthrow the elite. This should sound familiar given the history of the last 150 years and the successes and failures of socialist and communist revolutions. And then Gingrich (among others) march on to call Obama a socialist. To call liberals elitist and socialist. In this particular instance, Gingrich called Obama a secular socialist.
This is my second concern, on which the latest incident is the debate raging over the mosque alongside ground zero. I understand that a majority of Americans are Christian, and I strongly support the right of all Americans to worship freely as they see fit. My issue is the suggestion that the United States was founded as a Christian country and it is this Christian foundation that guarantees civil liberties, including freedom of religion.
Christianity ensures freedom of religion.
Leaving alone that Christianity is a religious umbrella that comprises hundreds of different, sometimes mutually unrecognizable groups, the idea that it is a religious tenet to encourage other religions to worship as they see fit is unfathomable to me. This is not to say that individual Christians or Christian groups do not now recognize this right in other groups and other religions. The issue is twofold: 1) Their religion is right (as many claim) and therefore other religions should not be recognized; 2) If their religion is not the only one that is right or doesn’t have the whole Truth or the sole right to exist, how is it that their religion is the one that is so graciously granting the right to existence to those others?
Then there is the argument that one of the problems with Obama is that he is secular. Gingrich bluntly declared that secularism–rejection of Christian belief–is one of the underlying causes of dictatorships. Because no Christian nation has every oppressed its citizens or started wars, and there has never been a Christian dictatorship. As far as I am concerned God-given rights may as well be the same as natural rights. In either circumstance the rights are granted by the creator, in whatsoever guise that Creator is viewed. The rights are not ensured because we are a nation composed mostly of Christians founded on Christian ideals, but we are a nation of religious freedom because we are a nation that came together from multiple denominations.
This brings me back to the proposed mosque in Manhattan. I understand the argument Gingrich raised about Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia) not permitting synagogues and churches, but that is not a valid reason to limit religious freedoms here. This is exactly the argument Tom Friedman makes in his August 3 column. His argument is the same as mine: this is a display of openness and inclusion that is all but unprecedented. It is also a symbol of recognition that it was not “Muslims” who attacked the United States, but particular extremists. Yet people come out and basically claim that a mosque is sacrilege because Muslims or Arabs attacked the United States and while we support religious freedom, we do so everywhere except that piece of real estate. On top of it all there is increasing rhetoric about Sharia Law being instituted, supposedly as an insidious scheme to supplant the Constitution.
I have no issue with what people do. I have no problem with what people believe. So long as those two do not infringe on my person. I also find a lot to be admired in the conservative platform–small government, safety, lower taxes (although if there will be lower taxes, the savings should be equitably balanced), states rights and individual freedoms. I just cannot stand hypocrisy, including, but not limited to the dual standard between Bush and Obama, and individual freedoms everywhere except Patriot Act, marriage law, and abortions. I admire people who stand by their convictions, except where those convictions made without enough information. My greatest fear and what I find most depressing in America today is the thorough, unapologetic ignorance that exists. In a sense I believe in some sort of American exceptionalism, but in our constitution and because, historically, American creativity, ingenuity and ambition has achieved great things, not because being American is inherently exceptional.
Education and information are the keys to all of this. The problem is that if people are unreceptive or uninterested, education and information are limited.