Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When You Wish Upon A Star

Glenn Beck's Restore America rally has come and gone, but whatever it represented probably hasn't.

Writing in Salon, Gabriel Winant draws a parallel between the Park51 controversy and the event at the Lincoln Memorial, which may have drawn more than a million people (Michelle Bachmann) or significantly fewer than 100,000. "What makes for hallowed ground?" he asks, noting "sacred places aren't sacred in the same way to everyone." Ironically, he observes

just a few feet behind Palin's podium on the Lincoln Memorial are Lincoln's own words, on just this topic, carved into the marble. At Gettysburg cemetery, he warned, "We can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground."

The rally wasn't about reality at all, only a comfortable perception of it. Beck proclaimed "Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God."

One may be forgiven for asking: who in America has turned away from God? Apparently, Beck never quite said, though presumably he wasn't talking about himself, Sarah Palin, or the other politically conservative speakers. Nor did the self-described "rodeo clown" explain how the America first of slavery, later of lynchings and segregation, and now far removed from either, once had been a nation dedicated to the Lord, but no longer.

Sarah Palin struck a similar tone and message, declaring “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want; we must restore America and restore her honor.” The reference to "transform America" probably was, as several people have suggested, a dig at the first black President, who famously asserted his intention to be a transformative President, albeit in the mode of President Reagan, an aim apparently lost on Republicans, who routinely condemn the incumbent.

Palin's confidence that her involvement would help "restore America and restore her honor" was of a piece with Beck's statements that his rally would prompt individuals "to turn back to God" because "something that is beyond man is happening." Winant quotes Beck, ignoring conservative opposition to the struggle for racial equality in the U.S.A., as improbably claiming "we will reclaim the civil rights moveent.... because we were the people that did it in the first place." The right wing, Winant observes

is busy evacuating the real, troubling meanings from important historical sites, and replacing them with legends of self-flattery.

This is an ignoble tradition that began after the Civil War. David Blight, one of our leading historians of the era, has shown how the process of reconciliation between North and South entailed an agreement that what the war was about was the valor of the soldiers , the romance of blue and gray. Countless memorial events and battlefield reunions featured veterans shaking hands. At newly-sacred places -- cemeteries, battlefields and memorials that still dot the South and the border states -- white Northerners and Southerners forgave one another and dismissed the meaning of the bloodletting. "I think that we were both right and both wrong," wrote one soldier, capturing the essence of the moment. "Life and history, and right and wrong and minds of men look out of more windows than we used to think! Did you never hear of the shield that had two sides and both were precious metal?"

The true, central catalyst of the war, which lent it its moral meaning -- that is, slavery -- was pushed out of mind.

This was, it appears, the guiding theme of the rally- pushing bad thoughts out of mind, imagining America not as a great nation warts and all, but as something that needs to be restored to its glorious, and yet placid, self. That was, as Winant notes, a "fictitious version: Americana-land. It's a place where everyone was in the right, and everyone got along, back when everything was sepia-toned and men were men and the whole town played baseball on Saturday mornings."

We have gotten so excited, the left happily so and the right unhappily so, of noting our growing diversity that we fail to realize that it never was quite so, as when Reverend John Hagee on Saturday contended "under the banner of pluralism we have embraced and worshipped the gods of this world.” Though we now have those pesky Muslims and Hindi to deal with, we always had Jews vs. Christians; Roman Catholics vs. Protestants; Roman Catholics vs. Eastern Orthodox adherents; and even Protestant vs. Protestant. (That would be Lutheran and Baptist and Episcopalian and Presbyterian and Pentecostal and Methodist and a myriad of others. And that's not even counting the three major Lutheran denominations, three major Presbyterian denominations, and some five dozen Baptist sects.) Nearly everyone in this country believes in God; who- or what- they perceive as God is all over the map.

Such is the annoying "pluralism" from which America must be rescued and restored. That would be the same pluralism in which a rally attended mostly by devout and wayward Protestants and Catholics can be led by a Mormon male, as well as a Protestant female, who adorns herself with the mantle of the Almighty while avoiding membership in a church for eight years. The homogeneity rally organizers prayed for never was, is not now, and never will be, and in some ways we're better off for it.

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