Reply to Neal Gabler

11 January, 1999
Various newspapers, beginning with the L.A. Times, have recently been running an editorial by Neal Gabler explaining the sexual inquisition in Washington, DC, as a struggle between proponents and opponents of religion, and taking the side of the religious. I think Gabler is right about the struggle, and would like to comment from the opposing camp.

Of course, beliefs can be put together in any combination. Many people oppose the impeachment of Clinton and attend church. Many people oppose attending church and support “belief in God.” Many oppose “belief in God” and fanatically defend the existence of “objective reality.” Others reject “objective reality” but attend church. Still others favor removing Clinton from office – either because of his sex-lies or for one of the many more serious reasons now being ignored, as similar reasons have been ignored in the past – and do not have any use for religion.

But, for the most part, right-wing views are religious views. An ABSOLUTE defense of one’s preferred “rights,” appeals to the notion of what one “deserves,” condemnation of certain types of sex and drugs as “wrong,” as well as scientists’ talk of “objective reality”: none of this could exist without the assumption of a deity. I recall a bumper sticker that I saw shortly after Clinton’s first election to the presidency:

“Smoke pot, dodge the draft, cheat on your wife, get elected president – The new American way.”

I thought to myself: “What harm was done by his trying pot? He should have conscientiously objected and didn’t have the integrity, but at least he didn’t go. His marriage is none of my business. Can he be any worse a president (not a role model, but a president) than George Bush?”

A religious person might have thought: “He did three forbidden things. He should suffer.”

All right, so maybe Clinton has been worse than Bush as measured on a scale of left-wing concerns. But that fact supports Gabler’s view that Clinton has been impeached for being counter-cultural, not for opposing Republican initiatives.

For the most part, left-wing views can be detached from religion. Concern for human well-being is enough to motivate, for example, decreasing Big-Government spending on weapons, prisons, highways, and the clear-cutting of national forests, as well as to motivate the criminalization of campaign bribery, and the institution of humane human services including health care and decent schools. Mere concern for human happiness is not enough to motivate legalizing bribery, creating and accepting poverty, incarcerating what will probably soon be a full one percent of Americans, or destroying the environment. To defend these things one needs arguments derived from theistic notions like “just desserts” and the Enlightenment idea of anarchy as a “natural” state preceding a social contract. One has to be capable of calling the enforcement of starvation wages a “right to work” and destruction of forests a “salvaging operation.”

Many right-wing policies are so blatantly motivated by greed and bigotry that critics are tempted to call Republican religion hypocritical. Surely Jesus would not condone Republican behavior. Jesus preached love of enemies. We are about to pass another Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday during which we will probably not hear a word about love of enemies. No country with a criminal justice system like ours could have much memory of what loving enemies meant.

But one element of religion is an appeal to magical authority. It is precisely in cases of greed and cruelty that this appeal is made, as when Pat Robertson declared that it was God’s will to let Yugoslavians engage in “self-genocide.” In cases not involving such disreputable motives one can appeal to the goal of human well-being. It is entirely appropriate that the “right to work” is phrased in religious terms. The phrase doesn’t mention “God,” but without God we would be free to create and eliminate “rights” based on what looked likely to do the most good for people.

We hear less about the “right to a livable wage” than about the “right to work,” not because the former would be less beneficial, but because the proponents of the latter wear crosses on their lapels and display bibles on the dashboards of their Cadillacs. In addition, supporters of a livable wage don’t tend to declare their position “objective” and everyone else’s “subjective,” because they find this trick laughable and unconvincing when practiced by the likes of Neal Gabler.

Gabler’s editorial strikes the educated atheist as especially cynical because of its extraordinary ignorance. Deconstruction did not originate in linguistics, as Gabler claims, but in the philosophical writing of Jacques Derrida, who adapted the word from Martin Heidegger. And it has little in common with Gabler’s description of it. Gabler admits to oversimplifying and then claims that the idea he has oversimplified (or, rather, missed entirely) is nothing new.

Gabler blames Clinton (reasonably enough) for hiding behind legal technicalities, but condemns this, absurdly, as deconstruction. At the same time, Gabler more or less admits that the whole impeachment circus is driven by Republican sexual dogma, and has not one word to say against Republican claims to being motivated by concern for the legal offense of perjury. (Republicans, like Democrats, have a strong record of not opposing lies out-from-under oath.)

Gabler first paints the usual caricature of deconstruction (or pragmatism or postmodernism or secular humanism) as “subjectivism,” “relativism,” and the idea that any belief is just as good as any other. (One might respond that there are many ways for measuring beliefs against one another, but that none of these seem helped by vague talk of “objective truth.”) Next Gabler lumps anything that he doesn’t like under the label of deconstruction: Clinton’s lies and sophistry, the apparently wrong verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, the early Nazism of Paul de Man, etc.

Gabler even maintains that the idea that not all lies in a court are perjury is deconstruction. It is, as far as I know, a matter of long legal tradition that perjury is defined as lies relevant to important questions in a case. Somehow I doubt that this fact would be labeled deconstruction (i.e. evil) if a Republican president were on trial for perjury.

I applaud Gabler for openly admitting what motivates many Republicans and explaining that “Republicans don’t seem to mind that the public now reviles them,” because their cause is a holy one. I would ask only that Gabler consider whether that is an attitude which in an alleged democracy merits anything other than the fiercest criticism. If religion trumps the will of the people, then the people can achieve democracy only by refusing to elect religious representatives.