The new political interest group We Need Smith is thick with normative narratives – stories that seek to tell us what’s ordinary for Americans, and reflecting a troubled and confused relationship with this cultural identity.
On the one hand, We Need Smith seems to reject the normative American identity, as reflected through our democratic process. The shadowy group rejects the legitimacy of the leaders that American voters have chosen to represent them at the national level. In this sense, We Need Smith appears to be seeking to promote unusual, even conspicuously unpopular political ideas, writing that it opposes “the usual politics, the usual politicians, and the usual interest groups”.
However, underneath this first blush of defiance of normal politics, We Need Smith proposes to grab political power for a specific group: Normal Americans. We Need Smith promises to support only “leaders from mainstream America”, electing politicians who come from “the real America”.
What is mainstream America? It’s the America of the majority. Apparently, We Need Smith doesn’t intend to incorporate minorities into its political movement. If you are outside of the mainstream, you won’t be welcome in We Need Smith.
What is the real America? The very concept suggests the existence of a phony America – created by groups of people who pretend to be American but aren’t authentically American. They’re pretenders to the American identity, who must be rejected, and not allowed to have a say in the American political system
We Need Smith, this new political organization insists, and seeks to collect Smiths as supporters. But, what is a Smith, and what if you aren’t a Smith?
The political concept of Smith has a very culturally-specific history in the United States. It’s a history of white political power, and even more particularly, the power of English-speaking Americans of Anglo ancestry. This Anglocentric cultural narrative of has many manifestations, including the legends of Plymouth Rock, placing colonists of English ancestry at the center of American identity, even though the thirteen colonies were culturally diverse, holding people speaking many different languages, carrying names from many nations of origin. It’s carried by the members of the Mayflower Society, who seek to establish their value as Americans by proving ancestral connection to English colonists who came to North America aboard the Mayflower.
Despite the cultural diversity of the American colonies at the time of the Revolution of 1776, the idea that people of English descent are “real Americans” has been pervasive. It was particularly strong in 1939, when Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the movie that We Need Smith cites as its inspiration, was released. The name of the title character, Mr. Smith, was chosen because Smith was felt to be a normal American name, unlike surnames of Americans whose ancestors came from places other than the British Isles.
Mr. Rossi Goes To Washington would not have sent this message of normalcy. Mr. Rodriguez Goes To Washington would not have been perceived as a tale of an ordinary American. Mr. Suzuki Goes To Washington would have seemed like the tale of a foreigner. Mr. Kabbah Goes To Washington would have been considered downright exotic.
When the political insiders at We Need Smith decided to use the surname Smith as a synonym for a “real American” who comes from “mainstream America”, they chose to evoke the longstanding belief that people with English ancestry are at the core of the American identity, the normal people who are entitled to political power, while everyone else is an outsider who threatens “the American Dream”. This Anglocentric ethnic idea is present even in the scanty political agenda of We Need Smith, which seeks to require that congressional legislation to be written “in clear English”.
For the people at We Need Smith clarity and English identity seem to be one and the same. This attitude is antidemocratic, and not just because it excludes ethnic minorities. The focus from We Need Smith on adherence to mainstream normality closes off the critical thinking that is vital to effective democracy. The vague populism of the group rewards conformity, and seeks to exclude leaders who are willing to stand apart from the crowd.
The claims by We Need Smith that there is a secret cabal of mysterious elites who are culturally estranged from the authentic folk of the United States ought to be alarming to anyone who is familiar with right wing conspiracy theorists who assert the existence of an Illuminati elite that controls the machinery of political and economic power. The overlap of these new conspiracy theories with contemporary antisemitism should also serve as an additional caution: The Nazi Party of Germany in the time of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington shared the belief of We Need Smith that cultural minorities wield unjust power over the majority.
It’s quite possible that the individuals behind We Need Smith have no specific intention of relying upon the creepy political appeal of xenophobic paranoia. It’s possible it merely picked up references to these racist ideologies from standard American political platitudes that just so happen to be derived from unjust presumptions embedded within our nation’s history. But then, even if that’s the case, it’s not a valid excuse.
Any new political organization ought to be leading us away from the prejudices that have dominated American politics in the past, rather than exploiting them for its own political purposes. We Need Smith fails this test.
This week, President Barack Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by announcing that American involvement in the religious civil war in Iraq will escalate. The execution of Foley by the removal of his head was of course an inexcusable act.
What isn’t clear is how increasing American military involvement in Iraq can make up for the atrocity, given that the US military just got done spending almost an entire decade clearing Iraq of Muslim extremists. We got rid of Al Quaida in Iraq. Now ISIS/ISIL has popped up. Get rid of ISIS/ISIL this time, and another group of violent Muslim extremists will probably pop up and commit atrocities again. Barack Obama has failed to explain what he intends to do done differently this time, to avoid the failures of the last Iraq War.
Obama doesn’t seem to have a plan for his new Iraq War at all, only reacting to political pressure to do something. The politics of religion in particular seems to distort his analysis of the situation in Iraq in dangerous ways. Obama only decided that the US should return to war in Iraq after he received political pressure from American Christians to protect Christians and Yazidis in Iraq. Before those religious groups were targeted in the Iraqi civil war, Obama seemed content to stay out of the mess.
The twisted religious motivations of the Iraq War were in evidence again in Obama’s statement condemning the decapitation of James Foley, when, even as he condemned the religiously-inspired warriors of ISIS/ISIL, he sought to claim that religion has nothing at all to do with the Iraqi civil war. He said, “They have murdered Muslims – both Sunni and Shia – by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can for no other reason than they practice a different religion. They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people. So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
ISIL speaks for no religion?
The inclination to avoid blaming all Muslims for the actions of some is admirable. However, it is naive of Barack Obama to pretend that Islam is a religion of peace, from which the actions of ISIL are a bizarre departure.
In the very same paragraph where he claims that ISIL is irreligious, he acknowledges that their motivations are religious, that they kill people “for no other reason than they practice a different religion”. ISIL certainly does speak for a religion – not an entire religion, but they do speak for a religion nonetheless. The old saying that actions speak louder than words comes to mind.
That ISIL’s victims are overwhelmingly Muslim has no bearing on the fact that ISIL’s violence is speaking for a branch of Islam. When Mary Tudor engaged in her vicious burning of Protestants at the stake, all of her victims were Christians, but that didn’t change the fact that she was speaking for her branch of Christianity when she committed her own atrocities.
When ISIS/ISIL spokesmman Abu Mosa pledged to “raise the flag of Allah” over the White House, he was speaking for his religion. Many Muslims disagree with him, but that’s how religions are. Multiple people speak for every religion, with multiple messages, each reflecting some aspect of their religion, often disagreeing with each other. To deny the violent strain within Islam is absurd, just as it is absurd to deny the violent strain within Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism – yes, Buddhism.
No faith teaches people to massacre innocents?
This claim is obviously false to anyone who knows just a bit of religious history. Most religions have, at some time, implored their followers to massacre innocents.
Of course, it isn’t just Islam that has a history of teaching people to massacre innocents. Christians’ holy book contains many passages in which their god commands his followers to kill entire villages of people, even the babies. Christians can’t honestly claim that these biblical genocides are something that their religion was absolved of when Jesus came along and declared that God had changed his mind about the old laws. The New Testament contains passages clearly approving of the old religious genocide, and promising new terrors to come for unbelievers. Christians also have been happy to use the Bible’s genocides as justification of their own, as in the slaughter of Native Americans by American colonists.
No just God would stand for what they did… and for what the do every single day?
Here, Barack Obama gets to the height of his religious absurdity. If no just god would stand for the violence of ISIS/ISIL, then how come Barack Obama’s god allows ISIL/ISIS to go on doing it, as Obama says, “every single day”? The god of Obama’s religion is supposed to be all-powerful, so that he could stop the violence at any time, if he wanted to.
Either Obama’s god is not really all powerful, or is not really just, or does not exist at all.
The motivation behind this part of Obama’s speech seems to be to discourage anti-Islamic hatred in the United States. That motivation is laudable, but the execution in sloppy, and thus undermines itself. There’s no need to assert historical and theological absurdities in order to urge a mood of toleration among members of different religions here in the United States.
All President Obama needed to say is that, although religious differences have led people in Iraq to hate each other violently, we don’t need to do the same, because here in the United States, all people are equal under the law, regardless of religion. We don’t have to promote ridiculous fantasies about the purity of religion in order to promote the idea that people should be free to practice it.
What do you get when church and state are mixed?
You get things like the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Who could object to that?
Atheists could object, of course, but then, you know how atheists are, complaining all the time…
…when they get locked up behind bars.
This week, Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government body that seeks out religious heretics so that they may be punished, referred a list of atheist bloggers from Saudi Arabia to the Interior Ministry, so that the atheists could be hunted down by the police and thrown into prison. Human Rights Watch notes that the government of Saudi Arabia categorizes the promotion of atheist ideas as a form of terrorism.
We don’t arrest people for being atheist here in the United States, but there are many who wish to make Christianity an official state-sponsored religion. In Florida, the Brevard County Commission voted unanimously this week to exclude members of the Central Florida Freethought Community from ever giving an invocation before the Commission.
The Commission told the freethinkers that the purpose of invocation is “guidance for the County Commission from the highest spiritual authority”. Given that freethinkers are often atheists, and don’t acknowledge spiritual authority, they aren’t eligible to give an invocation. One of the commissioners, Andy Anderson, explained that only Christian prayers should be allowed before the Brevard County Commission, because Christianity is under attack… in Iraq.
Christians are under attack in Iraq, but not because of separation of church and state. Rather, attacks against Christians come from groups that seek to strengthen the incorporation of religion into government at all levels. The best way to protect Christians from attack is also the best way to protect atheists from attack – to honor the approach of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, ensuring that government neither sponsors religion nor opposes its free practice.
Present-day skeptics are fond of presenting their kind of thinking as the latest thing, a relatively new invention that was developed only with the struggle and sacrifice of freethinkers and scientists during the Enlightenment. However, the writings of Lucian of Samosata, who lived in present-day Syria nearly two thousand years ago, show that the skill skeptical inquiry is quite ancient.
Lucian writes of the popular god Glycon, a god who was said to have descended from the heavens to take on the earthly form of a snake. That snake was held in the arms of Alexander of Abonoteichus, who was said to have discovered him. Upon hearing of the wonders of Glycon, who was said to have been able to heal the sick and raise the dead, Lucian went himself to see what it was all about.
Lucian claims to have uncovered proof that Glycon’s prophet Alexander created the whole religion out of thin air. According to Lucian, Alexander planted false evidence of a prophecy of Glycon, by, in a foreshadowing of the Mormon’s Joseph Smith, burying bronze tablets with cryptic writing, and then discovering them later.
The next step, according to Lucian, was to perform a similar false discovery with the incarnation of the god itself. Lucian writes that Alexander, “went one night to the temple foundations, still in the process of digging, and with standing water in them which had collected from the rainfall or otherwise; here he deposited a goose egg, into which, after blowing it, he had inserted some newborn reptile. He made a resting-place deep down in the mud for this, and departed. Early next morning he rushed into the marketplace, naked expect for a gold-spangled loincloth; with nothing but this and his scimitar, and shaking his long loose hair, like the fanatics who collect money in the name of Cybele, he climbed on to a lofty altar and delivered a harangue, felicitating the city upon the advent of the god now to bless them with his presence. In a few minutes nearly the whole population was on the spot, women, old men, and children included; all was awe, prayer, and adoration. He uttered some unintelligible sounds, which might have been Hebrew or Phoenician, but completed his victory over his audience, who could make nothing of what he said, beyond the constant repetition of the names Apollo and Asclepius.
He then set off at a run for the future temple. Arrived at the excavation and the already completed sacred fount, he got down into the water, chanted in a loud voice hymns to Asclepius and Apollo, and invited the god to come, a welcome guest, to the city. He next demanded a bowl, and when this was handed to him, had no difficulty in putting it down a the right place and scooping up, besides water and mud, the egg in which the god had been enclosed; the edges of the aperture had been joined with wax and white lead. He took the egg in his hand and announced that here he held Asclepius. The people, who had been sufficiently astonished by the discovery of the egg in the water, were now all eyes for what was to come. He broke it, and received in his hollowed palm the hardly developed reptile; the crowd could see it stirring and winding about his fingers; they raised a shout, hailed the god, blessed the city, and every mouth was full of prayers—for treasure and wealth and health and all the other good things that he might give.”
Quickly, devotees of the new religion, worshipping Glycon, gathered in the province of Bithynia-Pontus, on the south shore of the Black Sea. In time, however, Lucian says that people began to see through the flim flam of the snake god. So, the prophet Alexander resorted to a tactic well-known to many present day preachers: Focus believers on the danger of infidels in their midst. Lucian writes, “A time came when a number of sensible people began to shake off their intoxication and combine against him, chief among them the numerous Epicureans; in the cities, the imposture with all its theatrical accessories began to be seen through. It was now that he resorted to a measure of intimidation; he proclaimed that Pontus was overrun with atheists and Christians, who presumed to spread the most scandalous reports concerning him; he exhorted Pontus, as it valued the god’s favor, to stone these men.”
We can’t know whether Lucian’s depictions of the religion of Glycon’s many frauds are honest and accurate, because we don’t have any corroborating evidence. It’s possible that Lucian had an axe to grind with the growing power of Glycon’s followers, and made up his story much as he accuses Alexander of doing. What Lucian’s writings about Alexander and Glycon do prove, however, is that the ability to think critically about religious claims of fantastic events has been around for a very long time.
I certainly intend to comply. If you do it out of order, who knows what might happen.
A Nigerian preacher named Temitope Joshua has sent thousands of bottles of holy water to Sierra Leone as cures for the deadly ebola virus sweeping through that country.
Is this donation:
1. A great idea, as the holy water can’t do any harm
2. A terrible idea, given that holy water has never been shown to benefit people infected with ebola, and may interfere with legitimate humanitarian efforts
3. Not worthy of attention, given that it’s just a gimmick from the preacher to get attention for himself
4… something else
I am visiting Maine. Alongside the trail I was hiking today, I saw large stands of this pink wildflower. It doesn’t grow where I live.
Does anyone know what it is called?
“The brilliance of Google,” writes Owl Eyes Creative, “is that the company has grown to understand its users.”
Part of understanding Google’s users is an understanding of where Google users live. Google has become an unrivaled expert at using the power of well-designed data mining to create a deeper level of understanding for users about the real-world geography that surrounds them.
Google’s accomplishments in this area are being celebrated around the world, but nowhere is this recognition stronger than in the small coastal community, which has dedicated a park to George Trailer, the principal architect of Google’s intelligent mapping systems. George Trailer lived in Rockland for a 7-month period while his parents were getting divorced back in 1997.
Right behind the stand-alone Walmart One Hour Photo booth on Route 1 lies the new Trailer Park, a green and peaceful area with playgrounds, picnic tables, a volleyball court, and the George Trailer Map Museum, which was dedicated today in a noontime ceremony. “Google’s maps are so accurate,” said Rockland resident Arthur Thentick, who attended the ceremony. “I think it’s a lovely thing that Trailer Park is now included on Google Maps, of which we are so proud. I couldn’t get around Rockland without his inventions.”