Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Democracy: Reason "Left Behind"

This morning, I looked( up the "Rapture Index" because Bill Moyer (by way of Brian Leiter) told me to. After a brief -- very brief -- period of fascination, my mood quickly turned to one of all-encompassing horror as I realized the implications of Moyer's comments. Here is what Moyer said:

How do we explain the possibility that a close election in November could turn on several million good and decent citizens who believe in the Rapture Index?

If, after reading that and realizing that it is true, you are not horrified, then you obviously haven't clicked the Rapture Index link. Swing states like Florida and West Virginia are hotbeads of that sort of doomsday-cult fundamentalism, as are many of the states that Bush will win with little effort. And they don't just influence elections; they influence policy. Think I'm wrong? Read what Moyer says about it. Here's an extended passage:

According to this narrative, Jesus will return to earth only when certain conditions are met: when Israel has been established as a state; when Israel then occupies the rest of its 'biblical lands;' when the third temple has been rebuilt on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques; and, then, when legions of the Antichrist attack Israel. This will trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon during which all the Jews who have not converted will be burned. Then the Messiah returns to earth. The Rapture occurs once the big battle begins. True believers 'will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation which follow.'
I’m not making this up. We’ve reported on these people for our weekly broadcast on PBS, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious and polite as they tell you that they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why they have staged confrontations at the old temple site in Jerusalem. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the 9th chapter of the Book of Revelations where four angels 'which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of men.’ As the British writer George Monbiot has pointed out, for these people, the Middle East is not a foreign policy issue, it’s a biblical scenario, a matter of personal belief. A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed; if there’s a conflagration there, they come out winners on the far side of tribulation, inside the pearly gates, in celestial splendor, supping on ambrosia to the accompaniment of harps plucked by angels.

"One estimate puts these people at about 15 percent of the electorate. Most are likely to vote Republican; they are part of the core of George W. Bush’s base support. He knows who they are and what they want. When the president asked Ariel Sharon to pull his tanks out of Jenin in 2002, more than one hundred thousand angry Christian fundamentalists barraged the White House with e-mails, and Mr. Bush never mentioned the matter again. Not coincidentally, the administration recently put itself solidly behind Ariel Sharon’s expansions of settlements on the West Banks. In George Monbiot’s analysis, the president stands to lose fewer votes by encouraging Israeli expansion into the West Bank than he stands to lose by restraining it. 'He would be mad to listen to these people, but he would also be mad not to.

So I read the Moyer's speech, looked up what he told me to, and after my heart stopped pounding, and I finished a short but relatively fruitful web search for deserted island property, I began to think about democracy. This isn't always easy to do critically. The sublimity of democracy is deeply implanted in the minds of American children from an early age. So deeply, and firmly, that it is difficult for many of us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a democratic system, especially the weaknesses. Yet there are weaknesses, and I think the fact that doomsday-cult Christians are able to have such influence on both electoral politics and even foriegn policy illustrate some of them quite well.

From within the democratic perspective, there are no rational arguments for preventing groups like Left Behind readers from voting in accordance with their world-view. They have as much a right to vote the way they want to as you or I do. Yet, outside of their world-view, there is no rational argument for the belief that their influence in elections makes this country a better one, or that their influence on policy is a good thing1. In fact, it has the potential to be a very, very bad thing. Francois Marie Arouet once described the relationship between belief in absurdities and the commission of atrocities. The fundamentalist influence on Bush's Middle East policy is a case in point.

But when I considered the fact that such ignorant people can have so much influence in a contemporary democratic system, I began to think about the even bigger problem with democracy. I remembered Churchill's famous remark about the best argument against democracy being a five minute conversation with the average voter. His quip is even more appropriate today, in a world when national and international policies are so complex, with so much to know, and so few who know any of it. As Churchill's contempory John Simon put it, "Democracy encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority is blissfully ignorant."

The results of the ignorance of the majority is that those who are in power, and who have the public ear, can and do work very hard to manipulate the public into taking their sides on issues about which the people know very little about. Rapture Index followers can think that a U.S. policy in Israel, or anywhere else in the Middle East, based on the Book of Revelations is a good thing because they know so very little about the situation in the Middle East -- just what the Rapture Index, and other sources, especially clergy, tell them is relevant to apocolyptic prophecy. Republicans can gain evangelical votes by equating stem cell research with abortion, and then siding against it, because so few evangelicals know anything about stem cell research. As Frank Dane said, "Get all the fools on your side and you can be elected to anything."

This is where clever framing becomes important. The general public doesn't care about the details of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the science of stem cell research. They just want to know how these things are relevant to their own lives, and their core beliefs. By highlighting a few key facts, and presenting them in a certain way, politicians or political group can win a lot of votes without any demonstration of how their policies will actually result in a better state of affairs. Real rational arguments have no place here, but reason can win out if reason dictates which facts the people want, and which they are given. Unfortunately, some people are hopeless. Their belief in absurdities renders them dead to the world of reason. This is the biggest problem with democracy, an Enlightenment ideal that lets the unenlightened enact their ideals: if you allow everyone to vote, then everyone can vote.

Now, back to looking up deserted island property. If crazy fundamentalists continue to influence American politics, I may be looking to escape soon.

1 I don't mean to imply that there are any rational arguments for this belief within the Christian fundamentalist's world-view, either. There's nothing rational about their world-view!


Anonymous said...

My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead.


Christian said...

It's truly fascinating what you wrote here. I added a link to your text from my article "Is America Paving the Road to Armageddon?"

Are these people leading us in fact to the End of Days? Unbelievable!

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