Monday, January 23, 2012

The Revolution Will Not Be Compartmentalized

Early in The Coming Revolution, Dr. Richard G. Lee drops a line that reveals his real thesis. Praising a soldier who gave his life protecting his fellows from an Iraqi insurgent, he extols “the true meaning of duty, honor, country, and all those fine virtues the mainstream culture loves to ridicule and disdain.” This idea, that all American goodness is besieged by mass wickedness, informs not only this book, but much recent populist hysteria.

Which is weird, on balance, because Lee claims “the overwhelming majority” of Americans are on the verge of rebellion against the oppressive social order. So apparently the “mainstream culture” isn’t made by, you know, people. And it’s certainly not supported by ordinary Americans who reward culture creators with their time, money, votes, and other sustenance. “Mainstream culture” must be a charity from the dark matter universe.

This underscores the problem I have not just with Lee’s book, but with a certain subset of political discourse. On the one hand, Lee wants to claim he speaks for the silent majority of American thought. On the other hand, he places all goodness, virtue, and truth within a fortress under attack from mighty forces of unimaginable depravity. And he backs both claims with evidence that shows an appalling lack of forethought or study.

For instance, Lee claims to speak for an unbroken political tradition going back to the framers of the Constitution, and even before. But his historical awareness doesn’t proceed beyond 11th grade American Civics. He ignores any historical facts which contradict his story. He claims to know the Founders’ intent beyond what they set in writing. And though he dedicates an entire chapter to what they wrote, he includes only what supports his position.

Likewise, Lee’s knowledge of current events comes carefully pre-filtered. He cites opinion generators like Michael Medved, Glenn Beck, and Mona Charen as though they were scholarly sources. He uncritically quotes partisan journals like National Review and The American Spectator, presenting their reportage as unslanted fact. And he reduces complex, ongoing controversies to one-sentence bromides.

In my favorite example, Lee says that “in December 2009... a Vermont court ordered a Christian child to be taken away from her biological mother and given to a former lesbian partner.” No further details, not even the parties’ names, are forthcoming. This seems like a simple case of anti-Christian judicial overreach. But following his source notes to an overtly partisan website, I found he was referencing the unresolved Lisa Miller-Janet Jenkins case.

According to the New York Times, Miller and Jenkins were in a Vermont civil union and raising Miller’s daughter together, when Miller converted to Christianity. Miller believed exposure to homosexuality would harm the girl; Jenkins believed the same about Christianity. When a court awarded Jenkins parental visitation rights, Miller, aided by her pastor, fled the country altogether. Clearly this case resists the simple resolution Lee demands.

For obvious reasons, I take personal affront at Lee’s diatribes against higher education. While some professors push a radical agenda, I and most of my colleagues endeavor to maintain a respectful, nonpartisan learning environment. Moreover, many colleagues share my Christianity to a greater or lesser degree. My undergraduate mentor, now deceased, led the local Quaker circle. We are hardly the vanguard of godless socialism Lee claims.

The longer I read, the more Lee presents a ceaseless array of enemies beating drums against America around every corner. But he somehow still claims his position represents the silent majority. Then he insists that, if the 2012 election doesn’t go the way he expects, “who knows what could happen?” Though Lee disavows violence, his subtext sounds like a Mafia protection racket: give us what we want, or something bad might happen.

Lee, whose doctorate is in theology, has a long publishing history linking conservative patriotism with evangelical Christianity. To him, American Christianity is indistinguishable from laissez-faire nationalism. While he fairly represents a certain subset of public discourse, he discounts any patriotism or Christianity that doesn’t align with his particular view. Then he trumpets the product as an ascendant mass movement for which he will speak.

My problem is not that Dr. Lee is conservative. Conservatism is a legitimate political position with a long and noble history. And anyone who reads liberal political theory knows that anyone, of any political stripe, can wear the same blinders Lee does. Rather, Lee’s strange, contradictory, and even comical positions reflect what happens when opinion leaders start with the answer, and go in search of the question.

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