While our aging republic is setting itself up for the most regrettable choice of presidential candidates in its history, how are the American people occupying themselves? Watching TV, of course — especially the antics of Lena Dunham and other habitually naked and/or potty-mouthed pay-cable darlings. Rewarding Beyoncé for taking a baseball bat to multiple car windows in her latest video. Mourning the premature death of pop idol Prince, posthumously acclaimed by some experts as the greatest musician of all time. Roll over, Paganini.
They’re also in a tizzy over toilets — specifically the right of transgender folk to use facilities originally intended for the opposite biological sex. First the government of North Carolina stirred up a tempest by enacting legislation that curtailed those rights. Progressives were outraged; boycotts and acrimony ensued. Now Target has scandalized conservatives by launching a transgender-friendly bathroom policy in all its stores. A million traditionalists, led by the American Family Association, have promised to boycott the retail giant.
Restrooms, like just about everything else in our fractured red-blue nation, have suddenly become politicized. Colorful memes mocking one side or the other are popping up daily on my Facebook feed. Conservatives command us to stand guard while our wives and daughters attend to their necessities, while progressives caution us that the ones we need to guard against are the creepy Republicans peeking under the stalls.
The whole transgender category is a relatively recent addition to the cultural landscape; it used to be that someone who felt marooned in the wrong body had a sex-change operation to clarify his or her gender status. Witness travel writer James/Jan Morris, musician Walter/Wendy Carlos, celebrity scion Chastity/Chaz Bono. Surgery eliminated the ambiguity, and all was right with the world. Where gender was concerned, we were still operating on the binary system.
That’s history now, if we’re to accept the progressive perspective on the subject. (Since progressives almost always shape our future attitudes on social issues, we have little choice but to yield to their wisdom or be trodden under with fundamentalist Christians and other troglodytes.) Gender is no longer a superficial matter of genitals, chromosomes or outward appearance, they tell us; it’s certainly not in the eye of the beholder. A man who looks, sounds and acts like a man can still call himself a woman if he feels like one, and that person is entitled (except in Paleolithic states like North Carolina) to use the ladies’ room.
I really don’t mean to sound flippant. As a living relic of the binary gender era, I’m taking a while to adjust. (We Baby Boomers have had a deluge of social changes to deal with since the Eisenhower administration.) I can understand the existence of a gender spectrum: manly men and womanly women at one end, shading toward gender-fluid individuals and finally, at the opposite end, those who feel convinced that the gods stranded them in the wrong body.
I sympathize with anyone who feels maladjusted, including the unfortunate gender misfits. It has to be a vexing and difficult life. Yet I’m still not sure I understand the idea that gender is a subjective social construct… that a biologically intact man can be a woman — and be treated as a woman by society — as long as he believes he’s a woman. All in good time, I suppose.
The restroom controversy didn’t disturb me as much as it seemed to disturb our cultural conservatives. A male-to-female transgender person who uses a ladies’ room will be hidden inside a stall, since ladies’ rooms offer no other options. No cause for alarm there.
Similarly, a female-to-male transgender person will also occupy a stall — although that person might catch a fleeting glimpse of actual biological men relieving themselves at the communal pissoir. Again, hardly a cause for ruffled feathers. Men who’d rather not be glimpsed can also use a stall.
I’m a little more tentative when it comes to transgender people who still look like members of their biologically assigned sex. A lone woman washing up in a restroom has every right to be alarmed by a bearded individual bursting into her sanctuary. Most men would be startled, too, if a pixieish five-foot-tall human surprised them in mid-stream. Most likely these are exceptions, but they’re part of the strange future we’ll all be confronting.
Locker rooms and changing rooms are another story — I don’t think we can treat them as an automatic extension of the transgender restroom issue. (A true moderate is rarely all in favor or all against; we generally find ourselves drawing wobbly lines of demarcation between the acceptable and the unacceptable.) If I had a six-year-old daughter, I’d be livid if a biological male stripped down and paraded his man-parts in front of her. No exceptions, even if the biological male thinks he’s more feminine than Loretta Young.
If public changing areas are to be open to transgender people, they need to be made less public. In other words, build them with private stalls and private showers. This isn’t bigotry. Until we as a society endorse public nudity, it’s simple common sense.
But that raises a larger and more perplexing question: since when is common sense a guiding factor in contemporary life? Maybe I need to sit in front of a screen and learn to applaud as Beyoncé smashes those car windows. It’s art, isn’t it? It must be art if the critics say it is, just as that bearded person must be a woman if she insists she is. As Pope Francis famously said, Who am I to judge?
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
What is it about the month of March that brings out the whackadoodle in otherwise competent creatures? “Mad as a March hare” refers to the frenzied mating antics of lusty lagomorphs as spring rolls around. But apparently the madness isn’t confined to the rabbit tribe.
Maybe our collective emergence from the doldrums of winter overheats our brain circuitry. In the U.S. at least, the stress of gathering a year’s worth of tax records while following the college basketball playoffs (affectionately known as “March Madness”) can strain susceptible nervous systems to the limit. But whatever the cause, March 2016 has been a banner month for showcasing our species at its maddest and worst.
In Brussels, that usually sedate European capital, Muslim terrorists linked to ISIS detonated two explosions that killed over 30 innocent people and injured at least 200 more. Coming in the wake of last year’s Paris massacres, and coupled with the news that a few hundred more ISIS operatives have infiltrated Europe to wreak future mayhem, it’s clear that the Continent is under siege by murderous medieval lunatics.
Europe’s ghettoized, often hostile Muslim neighborhoods have become spawning grounds for militants, and it only makes sense that several nations have finally halted the influx of Muslim refugees from Middle Eastern war zones. It’s easy for liberals to condemn nativism while rhapsodizing about diversity and humanitarian values, but — at least in Europe — non-assimilating, sharia-abiding Muslims are a bad fit at best and potentially treacherous at worst. Unfortunately, it’s too late to stuff this genie back inside the bottle. Europe will be reaping the consequences of its well-intentioned but ill-advised open-immigration policies for generations to come.
I’ve been waiting for moderate Muslims to lash out at the fanatics and de-legitimize them, but it’s no more likely to happen than American Christians rising up to shut down the KKK. So much the worse for Western civilization.
In Washington, stiff-necked Republican representatives are proving once again that they refuse to accept the mandate of the American people who twice elected Barack Obama as president. It’s one thing to reject a president’s Supreme Court nominee after a fair hearing, but that senescent snapping turtle Mitch McConnell and his outlaw gang of GOP obstructionists insist on ignoring the existence of that nominee (a respected moderate, as it turns out) until Obama shuffles off into retirement.
The Republicans’ obsessive hyperpartisanship, a thorny issue from Day One of Obama’s presidency, has morphed into blatant dereliction of duty. Call it Obama Derangement Syndrome, covert racism or just plain spitefulness, the obstructionists are asking us to believe the nonsensical argument that “the people” must guide the process by electing a new president (preferably a Republican) who will nominate the next justice.
Hello! “The people” already chose that president — in 2008 and again in 2012. Last I heard, he was still occupying the White House.
Meanwhile, establishment Democrats have been pulling out all the stops to block the Bernie Sanders insurgency. Former First Lady / Senator / Secretary of State / Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton has picked up endorsements, massive media coverage and tons of cash from the elite corporate potentates and plutocrats who would love to rule the known universe for at least another four years. The mainstream media coverage of the Sanders campaign amounts almost to a blackout.
A Bernie Sanders presidency would hit the ruling class like the bucket of water that snuffed the Wicked Witch of the West and destroyed her “beautiful wickedness.” Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats even tilted the results of several state primaries by using reliable party insiders (a.k.a., “superdelegates”) to override the popular vote. They may be Democrats, but clearly they don’t trust the people enough to believe in genuine democracy.
Of course, the ongoing Donald Trump juggernaut has caused many of us self-styled rational folk to question the virtues of democracy. I don’t believe that Trump is Hitler or even Mussolini, and I have to confess that I’ve enjoyed the spectacle of establishment Republicans scurrying madly to thwart his nomination. But I have to wonder how such a hefty plurality of garden-variety Republicans could fall under the spell of such a consummate flim-flam man.
Trump’s supporters are, of course, mad — angry mad as well as deranged mad, but mostly the former. The bulk of them are members of that most despised and neglected American tribe: older, less affluent, white Christian males. To be old, white, Christian and male in America is a sorry enough fate: you belong to one of the few remaining demographics that your fellow countrymen (and women) can mock with impunity. But to be all those things and struggle financially — while irate people of color call you out for your presumed “privilege” — well, let’s just say the inner furies mount ominously and cry for revenge.
Trump is the instrument of their revenge. He’s a populist demagogue unlike any other in recent American political history. Pugnacious Alabama governor George Wallace paled by comparison; you’d have to go back to someone like Huey “Kingfish” Long to find an apt parallel.
Like Long, Trump is smarter than he sounds; and he knows he has to sound brash, crude and defiantly ignorant to win the hearts of his constituency. His blunt, unscripted, shoot-from-the-hip style lends this particular demagogue the panache of a maverick.
Unlike Long, Trump can claim no actual political experience. He made his reputation as a high-rolling dealmaker, although (as establishment GOP veteran Mitt Romney gleefully pointed out), many if not most of his business enterprises have come to grief. Trump just seems to have a genius for winging it, saying whatever pops into his mind and talking trash about his rivals. His followers can’t get enough of it.
Believe me, I’d love to see a genuine maverick assume the presidency — a principled maverick who would overturn the tables of the money-changers, chastise the special interests and restore some semblance of sanity and balance to our beleaguered, bewildered nation. Trump is not that maverick. For me, he’s simply exploiting H. L. Mencken’s conviction that democracy is a self-limiting disease.
Here’s what Mencken meant. Given enough freedom and opportunity, smart people typically abandon the small towns that nurtured them and seek their fortunes in the big cities. They acquire the tastes and values of the urban elite, and they mate with other members of that elite. They produce elite offspring; they become a natural aristocracy.
Meanwhile, the small towns and rural hamlets across the republic languish in sad neglect, reduced to impoverished gene pools of frustrated left-behinds who enjoy little respect and fewer prospects. Where once their communities could boast scholars and men of vision along with the sturdy, sensible yeomanry, all that remains is a forlorn, resentful white underclass. They’re mad, they love guns, and they’ll be voting for Trump.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
What do we moderates have to worry about? More than ever, naturally. 2015 was a banner year for extremists and, by extension, not such a good one for us.
I’ve been updating this list each year to reflect our current jitters. Last year’s list ran to 19 items and more than 4,000 words, and I was about to add several new entries for 2016. Because I don’t want my fellow moderates to wring their hands and gnash their teeth any more than necessary, I’ve consolidated many of the items and cut the verbiage so you can read the list without breaking for therapy. I’ve also dispensed with the references to the previous year’s rank for each item — partly because of all the consolidations, and partly because there’s no need for moderates to be fanatical about record-keeping. We’re not fanatics, after all. Here goes…
1. Rising factionalism. We’ve become a nation of us-against-them, “my team is better than your team,” ”anyone who disagrees with me is stupid.” And that’s not only a stupid attitude but a dangerous one. What will it take to remind all those petty partisans, special-interest warriors, sowers of discord, promulgators of identity politics, subscribers to sacred narratives, and denizens of online amen corners that we’re all Americans here… that the land is spacious and generous enough to accommodate a full spectrum of beliefs, and that we won’t survive much longer as a nation unless we act like one? It’s the United States… remember? Remedy: Try to see every issue from the other guy’s perspective. (We moderates are good at this.) Don’t borrow all your opinions from glib Internet memes and other sources that simply confirm your biases. We all need to start identifying as Americans instead of pledging our loyalty to whatever little ideological boutique promotes our own interests.
2. Islamic jihad and other forms of terrorism. Yes, terrorists come in all colors and persuasions, and homegrown nutjob terrorism is on the rise. But let’s face it: the militant Islamists take top honors in this department. ISIS continues to murder innocents and destroy priceless historic monuments, and the would-be Caliphate has demonstrated an evil genius for enlisting young recruits around the world. We can’t coexist peacefully with people who believe that God has called upon them to destroy us. Moderate Muslims aren’t succeeding in stifling the terrorists, and the West can’t constantly police the world. Remedy: A massive reformation within Islam to bring it into the 21st century, or at least the 17th or 18th. The bloodcurdling excesses of the terrorists could (and should) trigger such a movement among the majority of decent Muslims. Without it, we could be looking at a century of jihad.
3. The rule of moneyed interests. Call it plutocracy or oligarchy or capitalism on steroids — the bottom line is that a tiny, self-entitled, deep-pocketed elite is now firmly in charge of our government, our finances and ultimately our lives. The plutocracy continues to squeeze the middle class by manipulating markets, outsourcing jobs and adopting disruptive technologies without regard for the fate of workers. The yawning gap between meager interest rates on savings (paid to us) and exorbitant interest rates on credit (paid to the banks) is unconscionable. And of course, the plutocrats effectively own most of our politicians. This state of affairs is totally unacceptable within a representative democracy. Unless we correct it, we’re headed toward a neo-feudal society of latter-day lords and serfs. Jousting, anyone? Remedy: Ban thinly veiled bribes by lobbyists (via Constitutional amendment if necessary), regulate the financial industry, get rid of corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, impose penalties on companies that move jobs away from the U.S. And yes, raise taxes on the rich — especially on income from passive capital gains.
4. The scariest presidential candidate field in living memory. Take your pick: a vulgar billionaire demagogue with narcissistic personality disorder, a couple of self-professed evangelical Christians who promote conservative theocracy while conveniently shunning the teachings of Jesus, a shrewd big-money beneficiary with a 25-year paper trail of questionable dealings and decisions, or a 74-year-old avowed “democratic socialist.” When the socialist looks like the most appealing candidate, you know we’re in trouble. Remedy: Draft a reform-minded, non-establishment moderate or hang in there for another four years, mates!
5. Militant political correctness. It’s no longer about being considerate toward historically oppressed groups. That would be too easy. Now whites are routinely ordered to “check their privilege,” even though you’d be hard-pressed to find privileged trailer-dwellers in Appalachia and elsewhere. An award-winning actress took heat because her feminist speech denied “intersectionality” — i.e., she failed to mention transgender women of color. Worst of all, we saw American college campuses, already bastions of anti-DWEM (dead white European male) bias, suddenly flare up as political correctness went all Bolshevik on us. College officials were forced to resign for not crusading against “microaggressions” like culturally inappropriate Halloween costumes. (Hide those sombreros, kiddies!) The oppressed have become the oppressors, and they’re indoctrinating a new generation. Remedy: Encourage your kids to think for themselves and avoid professors with a reputation for militant PC. Just as important, let’s use the PC warriors’ own weapons and start calling them out for their hate speech.
6. The hollowing of the center. It used to be that more Americans thought of themselves as moderates than as liberals or conservatives. No more. Thanks to chronically biased news sources and online amen corners, as well as rising levels of anger, the percentage of self-styled moderates is dropping as more Americans migrate to the left and right (especially the right). It’s bad enough that we moderates have precious few news sources and opinion-makers on our side… now those few bastions of sanity will be struggling to find an audience in a deeply polarized society. Remedy: Don’t let anger distort your thinking. Keep the faith; never feel pressured by others to abandon your sensible beliefs. Support clear-thinking news outlets and columnists wherever you can find them. (And read The New Moderate, of course.)
7. Racial animosity. The race riots of 2014 and early 2015 eventually gave way to more peaceful demonstrations. But as the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam, so did unreasonable demands and provocations. Online message boards often teem with vile racial vitriol from both sides. Double standards abound: blacks get roughed up by police and incarcerated more often than whites for the same offenses; on the other hand, blacks are allowed (even encouraged) to criticize whites, while there’s still a strict social taboo against whites criticizing blacks. Sometimes I wonder if blacks and whites will ever be able to coexist amicably in this society. Remedy: Make an effort to see members of other races as individuals instead of symbols. Even better, make friends with members of other races. Maybe the time has come for us to stop referring to each other as blacks and whites, as if we’re destined by nature to be opposites.
8. American gun culture. I felt impelled to add this item after reading that more Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 — approximately 1.5 million — than in all our wars combined. (Granted, many of those fatalities were suicides, but still… ) Radical white militias are on the rise, mass shootings have become commonplace, and our inner cities are essentially war zones. America’s highest per-capita gun fatalities actually occur in the “red” states, where gun culture is strongest. Despite the bloodshed, the powerful NRA lobby and Second Amendment diehards still scream whenever anyone mentions tightening access to guns through background checks. Remedy: Guns don’t kill people, but bullets do. With over 300 million guns already in circulation, it makes more sense to restrict access to ammunition — especially semi-automatic cartridges whose only purpose is to dispatch dozens of victims as quickly and efficiently as possible. Let’s make it happen.
9. The “Great Demographic Shift.” People of color now account for more than 50 percent of U.S. births. School dropout rates and other endemic social problems will doom a hefty percentage of these new babies to poverty. At the other end of the age spectrum, Americans are living longer and will require decades of subsidies to get by. How will a shrinking middle class support all these needy Americans and still provide enough funds to maintain our infrastructure? Remedy: I’d encourage middle-class and wealthy Americans to procreate more freely (Hey, it’s fun!) to build up the taxpayer base. But I’d also recommend higher taxes (they’re practically at historic lows) and drastic cuts in foreign aid and military spending to open up resources for urgent domestic needs.
10. Environmental destruction. Climate change denialists, take note: 15 of the hottest 16 years on record have occurred since 2000. The only question is how much of the change is caused by human activity. Whatever the cause, we need to take prompt action unless we’d like to see massive crop failures, extensive lowland flooding and seaports that look like Venice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Venice.) On top of that, the world has lost half of its nonhuman animal population since 1970. Developing nations like Indonesia and Brazil account for much of the destruction as they convert forest to farmland. Several East Asian nations must be held accountable for the wanton poaching of critically endangered wildlife for ivory and folk medicine. Finally, as more Third World nations aspire to middle-class status, they’ll be fighting us for use of the Earth’s limited resources. Eventually we’ll realize that we’ve ransacked a wondrous planet, but by then it will be too late. (And we’re not equipped to start colonizing distant planets just yet.) Remedy: Work with other governments toward establishing and enforcing sensible environmental regulations, because the Earth belongs to all of us. Poachers deserve to be shot on sight, and it’s time for East Asian scientists to perform experiments demonstrating the worthlessness of folk medicines derived from endangered creatures.
11. The immigration/refugee crisis. Yes, it’s honorable and humane to admit desperate people into our country; after all, the Statue of Liberty has been welcoming the huddled masses for well over a century. But mass immigration from a single group has permanent consequences. In the U.S., it means absorbing countless millions of impoverished Spanish-speaking peasants from Mexico and Central America. Will they assimilate, learn English and join the middle class? They might if we didn’t make it so easy for them to get by in Spanish. We’re now a de facto bilingual nation. In Europe, mass Muslim immigration is changing the nature of thousand-year-old cities and cultures. Like the Latinos, Muslim immigrants have resisted assimilation. In some cities they form a surly internal proletariat, and their numbers keep increasing. What if half the population of the Third World decided to migrate to the U.S. and Europe? There has to be a sane limit. Last year saw the mass exodus of refugees from Muslim war zones, and our rich petro-pals on the Persian Gulf didn’t lift a finger to help. Remedy: A thorny issue with no satisfactory solutions. For now: offer temporary shelter visas for the most desperate, impose limits on permanent immigration, use leverage to force the Arab states to accept refugees, and (in the U.S.) make English our official language once and for all.
12. Perpetual low-grade recession. Wealth isn’t trickling down, good jobs aren’t opening up, and I’ve simply come to accept our current doldrums as the “new normal.” Meanwhile, corporations are still exporting jobs with impunity and too many Americans are sinking deeper into debt and dejection. Companies today focus more on beating the next quarterly forecast than on the needs of their own people. At this point we might just be witnessing the American future: prosperity for the few, unending financial woes for everyone else. Remedy: More hiring of Americans by corporations currently sitting atop piles of cash… NOW, not later. Fear not, capitalists: give enough Americans decent jobs, and the money will trickle back up in the form of healthy consumer spending.
13. Police brutality. Here’s a sobering wake-up call: American cops killed more citizens in one month last year than British police have done in all the years since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Sure, American cops have to deal with society’s low-lifes on a daily basis. Any cop with an inner-city beat is instinctively primed for life-or-death confrontations, and the prevailing “no snitching” culture makes their job even more difficult. But (and it’s a big “but”) they also need to be seen as a positive force in their communities. There are too many trigger-happy cops who use lethal force to stop suspects (especially black suspects) who simply resist arrest. When there’s a disturbance, they swoop in like an army of occupation. This isn’t the sort of behavior that builds trust. Remedy: Deeper engagement between cops and their communities. Police need to be vigilant but not aggressive… find alternatives to lethal force… define themselves as protectors rather than hired thugs. If all goes well, the residents of these neighborhoods might open up to their local cops instead of putting up resistance.
14. Cultural degeneracy. When did Western culture become an exercise in pushing the proverbial envelope — and how much farther can they push it? Movies, TV, pop music, video games, high art and everyday behavior have combined to forge a cheap and often loathsome culture. Nobody reads the classics. On top of that, we’ve become selfish and narcissistic… the “what’s in it for me?” mentality has spread from Wall Street to the boondocks. Bullying and cheating abound. It’s not enough to succeed; others must be crushed. Do I believe in having fun? Absolutely. (This isn’t The New Puritan, after all.) But we also need to restore respect for the nobler virtues, or we’ll crumble, as the Romans did, from internal and external assaults that we’re too weak to withstand. Do I sound like an alarmist? You bet. Remedy: Beats me. Sometimes I think Western civilization at its apex was simply too demanding and rarefied for our species to maintain for any length of time. We’re slowly reverting to our simian roots, which may be lamentable but probably suits our natures. Still, if you have standards, don’t surrender them!
15. Deficit spending. Our government is spending more than it’s taking in (Greece, anybody?), and the Republican majority would rather cut benefits for the 99% than reduce the military budget or (God forbid) raise taxes. This past year it became evident that the credit crisis is a global issue, and that, if unresolved, the whole system could come crashing down on top of us. Remedy: All governments, including ours, need to stop living beyond their means. Here’s a start, at least in the U.S.: slash military spending and foreign aid. Trim those plush federal pensions, beginning with members of the House and Senate. Trim redundant welfare programs, too (if we offer food stamps, do we also need free lunches?). Stop state-sponsored corporate welfare in the form of bailouts and subsidies. Collect a fair share of taxes from huge corporations and the super-rich. No loopholes. No compromises.
That’s my list for 2016, and it should be more than enough to rouse our fellow moderates from their slumber. Share this list so your friends of all political persuasions can see it. And feel free to propose your own additions to the list. I’d like to hear from you.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Just when you thought America couldn’t slip any farther down the slope from which no civilization ever returns, it seems we’ve just slipped a little deeper. If you hoped, as I did, that the new year would see us rebound from the atrocities of 2015 (mass shootings, police brutality, two-way racial animosities, totalitarian PC warriors on campus, Donald Trump), forget it. The ugliness abides and increases.
In the cold, arid wilds of southeastern Oregon, the belligerent Bundy Gang has occupied a federal compound in the appropriately named Malheur (French for “trouble”) National Wildlife Refuge. Their ostensible reason: to protest the imprisonment of a father-and-son ranching duo who set fire to federal land bordering their property, and to assert their belief that federal land rightfully belongs to “the people.” (Yes, it does — all the people, as opposed to a select group of cowboys and landowners.)
What struck me about the occupying militia was that it seemed like a picture-perfect caricature of today’s far-right wingnut fringe. White? Check. Male? Check. Angry? Check. Rural? Check. Gun-crazy? Emphatic check. Obamaphobic? No doubt. “Patriotic”? So they tell us. Defiantly anti-government? But of course! The more polarized we become, the more extreme the extremists look — a cartoonist’s parody of what used to be reasonably sensible conservative or liberal viewpoints.
Right-wing extremists like the Bundy militiamen are easy targets for the mockery that emanates from our sniffish left-of-center elite, and of course their pundits wasted no time painting the occupiers as “Y’all Qaeda”: inbred redneck jihadists who reeked of fried squirrel and white privilege. (Never mind that poor rural whites are among the least privileged members of society: they don’t benefit from affirmative action, and everyone is free to insult them without consequence.)
If the occupiers had been people of color, the progressive pundits tell us, they would have been tagged as thugs and terrorists… and they would have been set upon by the National Guard faster than you can say “Ferguson.” I can understand the outcry over double standards, but in fact the Bundy militiamen have yet to harm people or property. They’re not disrupting traffic or otherwise creating a public nuisance in a densely populated setting. What they’ve done is to hunker down in a potentially lethal game of chicken with the federal government.
The Bundy Bunch is dangerous, and their occupation of a federal building — no matter how remote or unimportant — is not only illegal but an outrage against the very patriotism they claim to embrace. I’d stop short of calling them terrorists at this point, because they haven’t terrorized anyone. But it’s not a stretch to label them as insurrectionists, comparable to the rural Pennsylvanians who launched the Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s presidency. If they take up arms against the government, they need to be put down — simple as that. (Federal agents could start by cutting off their access to food and supplies… the bold militiamen reportedly whined that they forgot to bring snacks.)
The feds don’t want another Waco on their hands, so they’re exercising caution in Oregon. An armed confrontation would be more deadly than Waco, because it would ripple across the republic. We’re not talking about evicting a flaky religious cult with minimal ties to the real world. The polarized climate of the country has raised the stakes, and any bloodshed could easily trigger a wider rebellion among the anti-government faction of the far right — the same people who flip out whenever Obama talks about expanding background checks for potential gun owners.
Back in 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that the United States was home to over 1,300 right-wing militias and radical anti-government groups, an eightfold increase in just the three years since Obama took office. Call it Obama Derangement Syndrome, or Second Amendment fetishism, or cultural solidarity among embattled rural whites — it amounts to collective paranoia, and it poses a very real threat to a nation already under siege by all manner of irate extremists.
Extremists to the right of us, extremists to the left of us — and their numbers just keep growing. It used to be that the bulk of Americans occupied the center of the political spectrum — a bulging bell curve that tapered off to the right and left. Today the curve looks more like a slanted line: conservatives constitute the biggest group, followed by moderates and liberals in that order. But — and it’s an ominous “but” — the ranks of both liberals and conservatives have been growing while the moderate population is shrinking. Eventually the center could look like a valley between two contentious hills.
How did it happen? Why are the extremes exerting such a powerful magnetic pull while the center languishes? I’ll venture a few educated guesses. Because Americans are angrier than they used to be, and angry people lack the patience for dealing with nuanced ideas. They need to express their anger or rely on like-minded souls to articulate that anger. They need to form factions in the time-honored tradition of our species — to bond with kindred spirits who feel angry about the same issues. They want to live in their own sequestered corner of the Internet, shouting “Amen!” every time a fellow extremist ratchets up the rhetoric.
Ideological purity is paramount in such a world. The extremists keep raising the bar for what constitutes purity — whether it takes shape as militant right-wing militias or leftist PC police who exile renegade thinkers for “microaggressions” against selected minorities. And of course, moderate politicians no longer stand a chance of winning their party’s primaries.
How does the sensible center survive in such an inflammatory environment? How does it become a mountain instead of a valley? I wish I knew. But I do know that the center is more indispensable than ever. We’re the last link between the warring factions, the best hope for civility and fairness in American politics.
Our mission, if we choose to accept it (and I think we must), is to convince the extremists that there are at least two legitimate sides to almost every issue: abortion, race relations, the size of government, the distribution of wealth, and — yes — the meaning of the Second Amendment. Once the extremists can see the world through their enemies’ eyes, their enemies won’t seem like enemies. They’d simply be honorable opponents, and neither side would feel the need to man the barricades in defense of their ideologies. If they decide to become moderates themselves, so much the better.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Part Two: The ISIS Massacres
First a Russian jetliner exploded over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard. Then a pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up along with 43 unsuspecting residents of Beirut. The next day, Friday the 13th, terrorists pulled off the most terrifying stunt of them all: 130 souls blasted to eternity in Paris — at a rock concert, at a sporting event, at a couple of restaurants in a fashionable pleasure district — ordinary people out for a good time who never made it home that evening.
The common thread in all this manmade mayhem: ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State and (if all goes according to plans) future worldwide Caliphate, performing acts of unconscionable evil in the name of Allah and his favorite Prophet.
Africa wasn’t spared, either: at least 147 dead, mostly students, at a university in Kenya, and another 21 butchered at a luxury hotel in Mali. Not ISIS this time, but Islamist terrorists all the same. Whether we describe them as dutiful Muslim fundamentalists or as unholy fanatics who pervert their faith, all the aforementioned killers killed for reasons intimately related to their interpretation of Islam.
The carnage in Paris generated the most heat and fury, with mourners draping their Facebook profile photos in the French Tricolor. The massacres there resonated in the West because Paris represents something vital: a joyous mingling of enlightenment and pleasure, fine food and literature and art and romance — in short, liberalism in the purest sense of the word. The liberal spirit is exactly what the Islamists fear and envy (and therefore hate). Joie de vivre is anathema to their souls. So is freedom. To their stunted minds, the city that gave birth to the unapologetically irreverent Charlie Hebdo is even more vile than New York or Hollywood.
Left-leaning apologists were quick to interpret the latest massacres as Western chickens coming home to roost: the fruits of our meddlesome wars, deals and interventions in the Middle East. But aside from bending so far backward as to unhinge their spines, these apologists are simply wrong. Anger with meddlesome Westerners might explain the chronic hostility of Palestinians and Iranians, but ISIS is a different animal: pure theocracy carried to its looniest outer limits. The twin disasters of the Syrian civil war and our misadventures in Iraq simply gave it the power vacuum it needed to take root and flourish.
We all know that ISIS wants to build a new Caliphate and conquer the world for Islam. But we also need to know that ISIS represents only the Sunni branch of Islam — those who insist that the leaders of the faith must be chosen. (Their foes, the Shiites, believe that leaders must descend directly from Mohammed.) This chronic factionalism, like a petty squabble out of Gulliver’s Travels, has been simmering and occasionally boiling over since Mohammed’s death in A.D. 632.
Ousted from power during the Iraq War, the Sunnis were hellbent on avenging themselves against the hated Shiites. ISIS emerged as the Sunni engine of conquest, death and destruction: ravaging the desert regions of Syria and Iraq, murdering all the infidels it could capture, destroying every non-Sunni landmark in its path, including the fabled ruins of Palmyra. On a 0-10 scale of intolerance, ISIS probably rates an 11.
ISIS is more than an intolerant religious fringe group with territorial ambitions. It’s also a death cult. The purpose of the Caliphate isn’t simply to spread Sunni fundamentalism around the globe, but to bring about the end of days. Such blatant nihilism is just the thing to attract angry, aimless, alienated young people from all over the world. It’s like Satanism and death metal and blow-’em away video games rolled into one irresistibly ugly cause. If you’re a disaffected adolescent, what’s not to like?
Poverty has almost nothing to do with the allure of ISIS. It’s about belonging to a potent, violently homicidal (and suicidal) in-group… and about the giddy hormonal rush that presumably comes from holding the power of life or death in one’s hands.
Like the Nazis before them, the ISIS folks are master propagandists. They recruit warriors through savvy social media manipulation and a lavishly produced magazine, Dabiq. Ghastly photos and videos of executions by burning or beheading appeal to the wanton urges of their skeezy teenage base. They even draw young children into their ranks and indoctrinate them in the ways of death warriors.
ISIS proudly concedes that Islam is a religion of the sword, an admission that would find most American conservatives nodding in agreement. Of course, moderate Muslims insist they’re wrong: the Islam they follow is a religion of peace.
So which is it: violence or peace? Will the real Islam please stand up? The scriptural Mohammed was, among other things, a zealot and a conqueror. The Koran and the Hadith abound with undeniably intolerant and violent exhortations — the basis of today’s militant Islam.
Of course, we can find plenty of bloodcurdling passages in the Holy Bible. But here’s the difference: virtually no modern Jews and Christians — even the most orthodox — believe, for example, that we must execute anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15). Islamic fundamentalists refuse to cherry-pick their scriptures; even the most violent proclamations are holy writ and must be blindly obeyed. Like our own extremist ideologues on the far right and left, they brook no departures from their dogma.
Moderate Muslims are more like our own political moderates; they don’t follow scripture to the letter, they don’t persecute infidels, and they’re flexible enough to make allowances for common sense, not to mention ordinary human decency. They represent the best hope for the future of Islam, if not the world.
But meanwhile, how do we confront the murderous fanaticism of ISIS? We have to acknowledge that we’re at war with these monsters, but we can’t suspend our lives or our principles. These are perilous times all around. We take a chance whenever we enter an American movie theater or send our kids to school. Like Israel, we probably have to accept sporadic attacks and random death as a fact of life. But waging war on terrorism is like fighting a scattered swarm of hornets. For every enemy we kill, two more seem to take their place. Surrender is an alien concept to them.
We can wipe ISIS off the map in Syria and Iraq, but they’ll spring up again in some other desert stronghold: in Yemen or Libya or Afghanistan — or even Saudi Arabia. After all, our longtime “ally” embraces extreme Islamic fundamentalism… discriminates against Christians and women… and, most tellingly, has accepted not a single Syrian refugee.
Speaking of refugees, the current war is producing them by the millions. The American response to the refugee crisis, like our response to nearly everything else these days, has been thoroughly politicized.
The left takes the sanctimonious high road, condemning anyone hesitant about admitting Syrian refugees into the U.S. They remind us that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant (yes, but there were no terrorists in those days)… that Jesus, Mary and Joseph sought refuge (yes, in their native land)… that we wrongfully interned Japanese Americans during World War II (true, but we’re not rounding up Muslim Americans) and refused desperate Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis during the same war (doubtful that their ranks included Nazi terrorists in disguise). Can the left be objective enough to concede that radical Islamists might sneak into the country along with the innocent refugees? That the Trojan Horse theory isn’t entirely a paranoid myth? (Good luck.)
Meanwhile, our conservatives are sounding the nativist alarms. They insist we should help our veterans instead of the refugees. (Why can’t we help both?) They yell about importing Sharia law and burqas against our will. (Nobody said we had to.) Candidate Trump not only opposes granting refuge to refugees but wants to monitor all American Muslims. Welcome aboard the Overkill Express.
Should we admit our fair share of refugees? Yes, bring ’em on, as long as their numbers don’t soar into the millions. Our generosity toward the dispossessed is part of what defines America. No doubt some radicals will slip through and spread their poisons here, but native-born Muslims (and even non-Muslims) can become jihadists, too. We simply need to minimize the odds, so let’s give the newcomers a heartfelt welcome — and a thorough screening.
Am I optimistic about our struggle against ISIS? Not especially, but I haven’t abandoned hope. We’re at war against a pathological mentality, not a country. Radical Islam has to die from within, but the rest of the world can help it along.
I’m encouraged that so many Muslims railed against the Paris attacks, and that ISIS can count no allies in the Islamic world other than Boko Haram and a few other fringe groups. They’d like us to think they’re in the catbird seat, but they’re hungry. They need fresh recruits, money and medical professionals. If we can destroy their lifelines to the outside world, we can disrupt their operations.
Besides destroying their home base, we need to attack their recruiting efforts. The hacker tribe known as Anonymous is finally making itself useful by exposing the identities of ISIS operatives online. If we can leverage the unity of mainstream Muslims against the fanatics, that could be the crushing blow. We can hope that Paris was their wake-up call.
If we fail, we can probably bid farewell to Western civilization. It’s already endangered from within by a depressing assortment of afflictions, including extreme political polarization, angry minorities, greedy plutocrats, a crumbling middle class, lone-wolf psychopaths, widespread indifference to the past, and some really atrocious music. Maybe Western civilization was too rarefied for our rowdy souls; we’re just higher breed of ape, after all. But I think the Western world as we know it is worth preserving.
By now we’re so accustomed to verbal attacks on Western civilization that we almost feel like racists when we rush to its defense. If so, we’ve been brainwashed. The left delights in recounting the historical crimes committed by Christians, as if those offenses somehow justify the current crimes committed by Islamists. Nearly all empires — European, Asian and African alike — are guilty of past outrages. But, for better or worse, most of us live in the present.
So here we stand, faced with chaos and factionalism and a brutal theocratic enemy waiting for the chance to topple us from our high perch. The enemy enjoys the giddy confidence of the self-deluded: those who know for sure that a righteous and judgmental God is on their side. It helps to be sure, but it also helps to be in touch with reality.
We desperately need a worldwide religious reformation, a great awakening that would hold all fundamentalism up to the bright light of scrutiny. If we all took the dictates of our scriptures literally, we’d be committing atrocities on a daily basis. It’s time we acknowledged that no religion has an exclusive pipeline to the will of an inscrutable God, and that all our scriptures were written by gifted but otherwise ordinary men looking for answers.
The faithful should learn to live without certainty. It’s that damnable certainty that makes tyrants of the world’s believers. Of that much I’m reasonably certain. Not 100 percent, mind you — because unlike ideologues and fundamentalists, I’m never entirely sure of anything.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Every so often, even a diehard moderate is driven beyond mere indignation, beyond a willingness to compromise and dutifully stitch up the holes in our social fabric. When the tail starts wagging the dog… when reason no longer suffices in the struggle against cultural lunacy… when we finally hear one insult too many after hearing those insults for half a century… some of us reach the dreaded “Popeye Point”: a visceral, irrepressible, over-the-top response that causes us to drop any pretense of mild-mannered moderation and exclaim, with the immortal sailor, THAT’S ALL I CAN STANDS, ‘CAUSE I CAN’T STANDS NO MORE!
I don’t pack a handy can of spinach inside my shirt, so you probably won’t see me revving up my fists and pummeling my oppressors while “Stars and Stripes Forever” blasts triumphantly in the background. But I feel like doing some verbal pummeling all the same. Feel free to join me, if only to release the pent-up steam from your cerebral hemispheres.
What roused The New Moderate’s ire this time? It started with the viral outbreak of surly student demands at American colleges from coast to coast. First at the University of Missouri, where the president was bullied into resigning after standing accused of “inadequate” responses to a few isolated racist incidents perpetrated by stupid local bubbas. (He wanted to help, really he did, but his good intentions fell short of student expectations.) The son of a black multimillionaire went on a hunger strike to force the resignation, and the football team threatened to boycott its own games.
Just how racist an atmosphere prevails at the University of Missouri? Well, the school boasts a black student government along with six other special diversity programs for African Americans on campus. What’s more, visibly half the students protesting along with the blacks were white — not to mention the iconically irate adjunct professor who shooed the media away. Enough said.
From Mizzou the mayhem spread to Claremont McKenna College (formerly Claremont Men’s College), where a well-intentioned dean wrote that she wanted to help those students “who don’t fit our CMC mold.” Her choice of words proved fatal to her employment status.
Meanwhile, nonwhite students at Ithaca College, which boasts a “chief diversity officer,” organized a movement to oust their president for sluggish responses to alleged racial incidents on campus. At the moment, he’s hanging onto his job by a thread.
Soon the contagion spread to the storied halls of Yale, where the spectre of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes (Indians! Mexican mariachi musicians! Cultural appropriation!) led students of color to assail the master of Silliman (a residential college) for failing to provide them with a “safe” space. He apologized abjectly. When the master’s wife had the audacity to write that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society,” the emotionally battered students went to the university president with a list of six demands, including the banishment of the offending couple. (Done!)
But here’s the topper: they called for the construction of a campus monument acknowledging that Yale was built on land stolen from indigenous peoples. (Fine, but why stop at Yale? Why not all of Connecticut? For that matter, how about the entire United States? Why don’t we all just rewind American history, return to the lands of our ancestors and leave the continent to its original inhabitants?)
At Dartmouth, some 150 “Black Lives Matter” protesters stormed the college library and verbally assaulted white students with profanities and accusations of white privilege. (You can bet that if 150 white protesters stormed a library and hurled insults at black students, we’d be seeing nonstop coverage of the incident on CNN and MSNBC for the next two weeks.)
Those who love the language of grievance will coo over the demands whipped up by angry marginalized Amherst students: that the elite college confess its “institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx (sic) racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.” Whew! Did they forget any victims? Witches, perhaps? (Excuse me… Wiccans.) And how about calling for a fatwa against heterosexual WASP males, those perennial evildoers?
By now we’re all familiar with the vocabulary of outrage. When we see 20-year-old protesters bandying terms like “patriarchy,” “cultural appropriation,” “white privilege,” “microagressions,” “rape culture,” “systemic racism,” “institutional racism” (is there a difference?), “colonialism” and “hegemony,” it’s reasonable to assume that their stealthy professors, viruslike, have inserted a lethal dose of ideological DNA into their half-formed minds.
The progressive takeover of academia by “Grievance Studies” scholars and their intellectual progeny seems to be nearly complete. Where once our liberal arts professors inflamed their students with a lifelong passion for knowledge and debate, today’s Orwellian propagandists seem hellbent on pure indoctrination. And of course, they find a receptive audience eager for an excuse to get angry.
Instead of educating bright minority students so they can prosper and take their rightful place in the middle class, the grievance specialists are churning out a generation of hostile, petulant intellectual robots whose icy adherence to the prescribed language of class war — along with their extreme intolerance of any ideas that depart from scripture — will only drive a further wedge between themselves and the American mainstream. Maybe that’s what they want, but it’s not what they need.
Roger Kimball, the crusty author of Tenured Radicals, calls these newly minted manipulators “crybullies.” They’re not violent, but when they whine loudly enough, heads roll. And of course, nearly all those heads are white — because, as we’ve been carefully taught, even well-intentioned white people are inherently racist.
Yes, racism exists and it always will; most of us are genetically programmed to favor our own tribe. And yes, racial minorities have often faced brutal discrimination and demeaning attitudes. Today’s college administrators can provide a nurturing environment for diverse groups of students, but they can’t guarantee an unblemished four-year passage… they can’t wave a wand to silence the occasional hatemongers.
Disadvantaged students admitted to a premier American college, many of them as the result of generous diversity initiatives and scholarships, should be thanking the gods (and the college) for the advantages they’ve gained — advantages that will serve them handsomely for the rest of their lives. The vast majority of us privileged white folks aren’t as lucky. And of course, nobody cares about working-class whites: let them live in their trailers while they grow fat on Cheetos and beer. There’s no affirmative action plan to send these unloved proletarians to Amherst and Yale; maybe that’s why they vote Republican.
Why the immoderate response to a series of peaceful protests? Because the ideologues have rigged the game. Because aggrieved students of color can derail careers and reputations simply by crying racism. (It doesn’t work in reverse; we’ve been instructed that people of color can never be racist.) Because those same students cause white flak-catchers to cringe, crumple and grovel for mercy before their heads fly. Because Americans need to identify as Americans, not representatives of special identity groups. Because ideological race politics can blind us to the genuine indignities that individuals of all races face from time to time. Because a generation of doctrinaire scholars has been poisoning young minds, defaming Western civilization as nothing more than an endless chronicle of oppression, racism, exploitation, rape, colonialism and genocide. It has to stop.
Shakespeare, anyone? Bach, Rembrandt, Isaac Newton, Emily Dickinson… the Parthenon? Will you toss them all into history’s dumpster along with Christopher Columbus and Simon Legree? You’d better not, because a polarized society needs reasonable moderates to listen to legitimate grievances from both sides and take them seriously.
Don’t make us shut our ears. Above all, don’t make us reach the Popeye Point.
Coming later this week… Part Two: The ISIS Massacres
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Let’s start with an easier question: who lost the first Democrat debate this week in Las Vegas?
The most grotesque loser was Rhode Island political scion Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican who became an Independent before hooking up with the Democrats. The 62-year-old erstwhile senator and governor looked vaguely mummified and sounded as confused as his party-switching past. When asked why he voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, that invisible wall between commercial banks and investment banks, the flustered candidate burbled a series of wimpy excuses: his father had just died, he had just taken his seat as a rookie senator, etc., etc. If he hasn’t mastered the art of political prevarication at his age, he never will. Give this poor gentleman the hook.
Former U.S. Marine and senator Jim (“I need more time!”) Webb wasted his airtime whining about his inability to command more airtime. He may have been a war hero, but whiners usually don’t make it to the White House. If he had the requisite political skill, he would have inserted himself into the conversation instead of grumbling repeatedly that he couldn’t. Color him eliminated.
Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who has struggled to gain momentum as a presidential candidate, is a man of serious and generally reasonable progressive ideas. But his seriousness shaded into moroseness on the debate podium. He gained strength toward the end, but he could use a shot of ebullience if he wants to connect with the electorate and rise in the polls. Maybe he and Donald Trump should be lined up side-by-side for a partial ego transfusion; both men would benefit.
That leaves us with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the two heavy hitters among the Democrat hopefuls. Both candidates gave it their best: Bernie was loud, passionate and rough-hewn, just the way his fans love him. He even displayed a chivalrous streak, as he dismissed the kerfuffle over Hillary’s e-mails with a blunt, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!”
That was vintage Bernie. He had a chance to go for the jugular, but he took the high road so we could “talk about real issues.” Did he help or hurt himself by doing so? Probably both. His gesture revealed a principled man who could rise above competitive pettiness — and probably cemented his viability as a potential Clinton running mate. But that’s part of the problem: he had a chance to expose his opponent’s vulnerable underside and pin her to the mat, but he relented. (Clinton’s credibility IS a “real issue,” Bernie.)
The former First Lady, senator and secretary of state breezed through the debate like the poised, polished, practiced pro that she is. Her admirers lauded her performance as “presidential;” her detractors tended to use adjectives like “rehearsed” and “robotic.”
She wasn’t as charitable as Sanders when it came to pulling punches: she accused the Vermont senator of being soft on gun control — a hot-button issue in the wake of numerous mass shootings. Sanders defended himself with a nuanced response, but Hillary won that round. She also took a mild dig at her opponent’s “democratic socialism” by reminding him — and us — that we’re not Denmark. True enough. Score another point for the liberal establishment’s favorite candidate.
So who really won the debate? Earnest, emotional, scruffy populist Bernie Sanders or icy-cool elite progressive Hillary Clinton? If you believe the pundit class, it was Hillary all the way: a knockout. If you believe the polls, Bernie obliterated the competition.
How can two audiences have viewed the same debate and come away with diametrically opposed impressions? Both candidates gave their fans exactly what they wanted: an authentic, impassioned, morally outraged Sanders who rose above tit-for-tat pettiness… and a poised, energized, articulate Clinton back in fighting trim after weathering some unflattering controversies.
How did The New Moderate view the two leading contenders? I like Sanders’ bluntness and no-BS approach to simmering domestic issues (i.e., the wealth gap that just keeps growing until we’re looking at an essentially feudal America down the road). But he strikes me as a one-note candidate: the voice of Occupy Wall Street. Yes, Wall Street could probably use a good occupation, but a functioning U.S. president needs to see beyond the barricades.
As for Mrs. Clinton, I give her credit for a bright and lively persona — composed, smart, graceful under pressure, mature and able to seem as if she’s not taking herself too seriously. But let’s get real: how can a plutocrat-friendly elitist convince down-and-out Americans that she’s one of them? Is it all smoke and mirrors? I’m beginning to think of Clinton as the Wizard of Oz in reverse: the image of a folksy, down-to-earth, “relatable” candidate projected onto the big screen by the machinating bully behind the curtain.
So who won the debate? Let’s call it a tie between Sanders and Clinton: they both delivered what they needed to deliver, even if Bernie missed his big chance for a knockout. Would I vote for either of them? Not without holding my nose, although anything is possible.
If The New Moderate can’t wholeheartedly endorse any of the Democrats who mounted the stage in Las Vegas this week, does anyone look like a tolerable prospect for 2016? Any of the Republicans, perhaps? Not unless you can clone Dwight D. Eisenhower and zap him to presidential age within the span of a year.
Who, then? Will a real presidential candidate please stand up? Maybe the folks who paid for a particularly touching commercial during the debate had the right idea. “Joe, run.” Biden for president? We could do worse.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.