New York Press

How Christianity Became a Lucrative Brand

The following is an excerpt from Sarah Banet-Weiser's book Authentic published by NYU Press. Buy a copy of the book here. 

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Some of Us Still Think They Can Get Rich Quick from the Real Estate Bubble

My path to real estate riches began on the New York subway, when I grabbed a copy of a free daily rag one morning to read on the way to work. On the same day that Bernie Madoff pled guilty to the biggest investment fraud in Wall Street history, I was intrigued to find a full-page ad with the blaring headline:

"HOW TO GET YOUR SHARE OF TODAY'S TRILLION DOLLAR RECOVERY."

Besides details on a series of free, upcoming workshops where all would be revealed, the ad offered a mouthwatering menu of claims on "How to cash in on the biggest real estate liquidation sale in our entire United States history" and "how to maximize your profit with lucrative foreclosures." Even better was the claim that, "You can buy homes with little or no money coming out of your pocket. That's right: GET PAID TO BUY A HOUSE." There's even a quote from CNBC's embattled maharishi of mammon, James Cramer, citing the "precise date" that the housing market will turn around. If you care to mark your calendar, it's June 30, 2009; though given some of Cramer's other predictions of late, you might want to hedge your bets. Sold!

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Throat Job

I've seen some horseshit in my time, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like last week's Newsweek cover story on Deep Throat, by Evan Thomas.

The Thomas piece is remarkable on a number of levels, not the least being its frank and undisguised hypocrisy: Evan Thomas was one of the figures involved in the Koran-toilet-unnamed-sources fuck-up, and so an article written by him that denounces as unpatriotic the "legacy" of America's most famous unnamed source is humorous from the outset.

Thomas halfheartedly attempts a revisionist history of Watergate, arguing that the scandal was just an ordinary power struggle in which Nixon's part was that of a Capra-esque outsider president trying, quite reasonably, to assert his independence from an entrenched Democratic Party bureaucracy that was the Washington legacy of FDR. Thomas makes it sound like all Nixon was trying to do was break big-government gridlock. This is hilarious stuff, but it pales in comparison to the meat of the article.

Having titled his piece "The Meaning of Deep Throat," Thomas actually delivers his conclusion—the "meaning"—in the middle of the article:

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Flathead

I think it was about five months ago that Press editor Alex Zaitchik whispered to me in the office hallway that Thomas Friedman had a new book coming out. All he knew about it was the title, but that was enough; he approached me with the chilled demeanor of a British spy who has just discovered that Hitler was secretly buying up the world's manganese supply. Who knew what it meant--but one had to assume the worst

"It's going to be called 'The Flattening,'" he whispered. Then he stood there, eyebrows raised, staring at me, waiting to see the effect of the news when it landed. I said nothing.

It turned out Alex had bad information; the book that ultimately came out would be called 'The World Is Flat.' It didn't matter. Either version suggested the same horrifying possibility. Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s.

So I tried not to think about it. But when I heard the book was actually coming out, I started to worry. Among other things, I knew I would be asked to write the review. The usual ratio of Friedman criticism is 2:1, i.e., two human words to make sense of each single word of Friedmanese. Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I'll give you an example, drawn at random from "The World Is Flat." On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written "The Metamorphosis," Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.) Here's what he says:

I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.

Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

On an ideological level, Friedman's new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, "The World Is Flat" would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that's all there is.

It's impossible to divorce "The World Is Flat" from its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas Friedman is called "the most important columnist in America today." That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush, he's in the reality-making business. In the new flat world, argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the president and the country's most important columnist. You no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone; the process ends when you make the case.

Things are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters is how sure you sound when you say it. In politics, this allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense. In the intellectual world, Friedman is now probing the outer limits of this trick's potential, and it's absolutely perfect, a stroke of genius, that he's choosing to argue that the world is flat. The only thing that would have been better would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made of cheese.

And that's basically what he's doing here. The internet is speeding up business communications, and global labor markets are more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese. That is the rhetorical gist of "The World Is Flat." It's brilliant. Only an America-hater could fail to appreciate it.

Start with the title

The book's genesis is conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani causally mutters to Friedman: "Tom, the playing field is being leveled." To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase--the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: "The playing field is being leveled."
What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened... Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!
This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting--ironically, as it were--with Columbus's discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus's discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the "flat world" into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

"Let me... share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round," he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman "had Lufthansa business class." When he reaches India--Bangalore to be specific--he immediately plays golf. His caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo. Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: "Gigabites of Taste." Because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on the way to a golf course, something that could never happen in America, Friedman concludes: "No, this definitely wasn't Kansas."

After golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.

And boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end--and I'm not joking here--we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman's book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author's metaphors.

God strike me dead if I'm joking about this. Judge for yourself. After the initial passages of the book, after Nilekani has forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy description of the "ten great flatteners," which is basically a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Netscape IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything that would give an IBM human resources director a boner, that's a flattener. The catch here is that Flattener #10 is new communications technology: "Digital, Mobile, Personal, and Virtual." These technologies Friedman calls "steroids," because they are "amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners."

According to the mathematics of the book, if you add an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with them. Although these 10 flatteners existed already by the time Friedman wrote "The Lexus and the Olive Tree"--a period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbus--they did not come together to bring about Globalization 3.0, the flat world, until the 10 flatteners had, with the help of the steroids, gone through their "Triple Convergence." The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub (the product featured in Friedman's favorite television commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage industrial countries--India, Russia, China, among others--walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally, they occasionally are "not just walking" but "jogging and even sprinting" onto the playing field.

Now let's say that the steroids speed things up by a factor of two. It could be any number, but let's be conservative and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman's first bestselling book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current bestselling book). To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take 10 flatteners, and you have them converge--let's say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea--three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we're dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We're talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four-digit number. If you're like me, you're already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive imagery. For instance:

And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!

Let's speak Friedmanese for a moment and examine just a few of the notches on these antlers (Friedman, incidentally, measures the flattening of the world in notches, i.e. "The flattening process had to go another notch"; I'm not sure where the notches go in the flat plane, but there they are.) Flattener #1 is actually two flatteners, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spread of the Windows operating system. In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like "Windows" is introduced; you wince, knowing what's coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn't disappoint. His description of the early 90s:

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been--but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.
How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened?

Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?

I Spy a Sellout

Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq; either we hope for the vindication of Bush's risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians ... I don't mean to suggest, in the right-wing, proto-fascist rhetorical fashion, that every good American is obliged to support all American wars. But at this moment in this war, that binary choice of who you want to win is inescapable and needs to be faced squarely -- just as being pro-war obliges one to admit that thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed or maimed or orphaned.
-- Kurt Andersen, New York magazine
Man, is it easy to make money in this writing business in New York City. You youngsters out there who are still waiting to get published, still trawling for internships jobs, you may not see it yet. But take a good look at Kurt Andersen at New York if you want to see how it all works out at the end of the rainbow.

Once upon a time, when he was writing for the legendary Spy magazine, Kurt Andersen was not a mouse, but a man. After four years of working (along with Graydon Carter) at Time magazine, Andersen left in 1986 to found the famous send-up of Time's idiot news-mag culture. In hindsight, Spy was not the viciously dead-on parody of media careerism that it seemed to be, but it was funny as hell during a very unfunny time.

It was a publication Jefferson would have been proud of -- a high-tech pain in the ass that savaged everything that entered into its field of view, proving over and over that we were all better off thinking for ourselves than listening to the pompous mannequin-frauds American society presented to us as sages and cultural authorities.

For reasons that ought to strike everyone (and especially Andersen and Graydon Carter) as quite sinister, Spy never made anybody any real money. In a publishing landscape where dumbness itself (Cargo, Self) sells like hotcakes, this obviously brilliant magazine with a desperately devoted readership died something like a half-dozen deaths -- finally expiring, I think, in the spindly altruistic arms of the owners of Psychology Today.

Andersen was long gone by then, having joined Carter on a 20-year journey in which they would both be endlessly hailed as geniuses and innovators by hordes of media sycophants and offered gobs of money to do either nothing at all (splitting a million bucks to cowrite "Spy: The Funny Years") or to just add countercultural �lan to the staid, unthreatening publications (New York, Vanity Fair) that were placed in their rabbity custody.

Carter's career path showed that the best way to secure a golden old age of attending parties and carrying the skirts for celebrities is to behead a few in your youth.

What Andersen proves is that once you've put in a few years of writing very well, with dignity and iconoclastic fervor, you can then mail it in for the rest of your life. You can melt into the easy life and undead thinking of a timorous upper-class weasel, and you can dress it up as "realism" because you were somebody once.

Andersen's Feb. 21 Iraq piece in New York, "When Good News Feels Bad," is the most shameful, vicious piece of horseshit I have seen anybody write about this terrible war. It is sickening not on the level of writing or rhetoric, but on the level of human behavior.

On the surface, Andersen's piece is a cheeky piece of political self-denunciation, a mock show-trial confession. He confesses to being one of those many New Yorkers who considers himself smarter than everybody else and tends to disagree with the Bush administration "politically, temperamentally, and ontologically most of the time." But, he says, smart New York people like him -- us -- have to get real and face the ugly reality of our emotional struggle over Iraq. He then goes on to indict all of us for secretly applauding any bad news that comes from Iraq, and for choosing to ignore in grumbling fashion the "surprisingly smooth and inarguably inspiring" spectacle of the Iraqi elections. If we face this reality, he says, we are then forced to see that "the only way out is to root for Bush's victory."

"Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq." This is horseshit on its face. Even the original Hobbesian choice was horseshit, especially in the eyes of the stereotypical New York liberal Andersen is addressing. We no more have to choose between chaos and authoritarianism than we do between rooting for Bush and rooting for the insurgents. There is a vast array of other outcomes and developments to root for.

We could root for Bush to admit he fucked up and appeal to the world for help in stabilizing Iraq. We could root for a similar admission and a similar appeal to the U.N., only coupled with an immediate American withdrawal. We could root for America to come out firmly against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which would change the equation in Iraq. We could root for such things as the turning over of Iraqi oil contracts to the United Nations and an end to war profiteering -- which, again, would change the equation in the war.

And that's just the beginning. It does not come down to rooting either for Bush or for the insurgents. Andersen thinks he can make this argument because he thinks he knows that in our hearts, many of us are rooting for the insurgents -- and he is trying to tell us that renouncing this instinct automatically translates into unqualified support for Bush. But that is wrong, and totally dishonest.

"Either we hope for the vindication of Bush's risky, very possibly reckless policy... ." Note the use of the qualifying, "risky, very possibly reckless," here -- obscuring the stark lie of the word "vindication." To Andersen's audience, nothing can possibly vindicate Bush's Iraq policy. Along with millions of other people, I opposed the war before it began, and we opposed it not because we thought we might lose or fail in Iraq, but because invading Iraq was wrong. It was wrong because they were lying about why we were invading; it was wrong because the whole notion of pre-emptive invasion is immoral and dangerous; it was wrong for a dozen other plainly irrefutable reasons that will not change if Iraq is magically transformed into Switzerland by next year.

"I don't mean to suggest, in the right-wing, proto-fascist rhetorical fashion, that every good American is obliged to support all American wars." No. You suggest it in the pompous, verbose, superior fashion of a feckless left-wing snob.

"But at this moment in this war, that binary choice of who you want to win is inescapable." Translation: you're either with us or against us, either for us, or for the terrorists. Where have I heard that before?

Oh, that's right. I've heard it everywhere. Just never from that funny guy who used to run Spy.

Press Hails the Dress

I've always thought that one of America's best selling points was that it never had a king. If there is one thing that defines us as a people, as opposed to all other peoples, it is this fact. Every other nation in the world has a dozen or so of those embarrassing chapters from the past to live down. Not us. The moment of our conception was a rejection of the very idea of kings. All of that goes out the window whenever we have a presidential inauguration. The urge to turn the White House into Buckingham Palace (or, more to the point, Camelot) is one of the oldest and most shameful traditions of the media age, but this disgusting phenomenon always heats to whiteness during inauguration week, regardless of what party is ascending to power. What a splendiferous reception hall! Look at all the rich and tasty things on the banquet table! Why, it must be a hundred feet long!

"Paula, set the stage from your perspective," gushed serial ass-kisser Wolf Blitzer, as he threw to Paula Zahn, standing at the inauguration site, on CNN. "This is a majestic moment for the entire country!"

We heard about all the majesty; from the scalloped crab, roasted Missouri quail, chestnuts and brined root vegetables at the post-inauguration congressional luncheon ("Mmm, scalloped crab sounds good," said CNN anchor Carol Costello) to the mariachi band, Cohiba cigars and "buffet tables loaded with Tex-Mex fare" at the "Black Tie & Boots" ball the night before ("I feel very simpatico with the people of Texas," offered shameless-hanger-on-in-a-cowboy-hat Rudy Giuliani) to the elegant inauguration lunch at Statuary Hall in the Capitol ("It's majestic," repeated the fixated Blitzer. "What a beautiful hall, for those of our viewers who have never been inside the U.S. Capitol ..."). And so on and so on. Then there was this Washington Times description of the king stepping into the courtyard to meet his subjects at the Boogie Ball:

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Bowtie Me Up

CARLSON: We've been hearing all day about this volcano in the Canary Islands that may collapse at some point and send a tsunami toward the East Coast of the United States drowning the Hamptons. Do you consider that a likely scenario, a possible scenario?

SIPKIN: You know, I hate to say things are impossible ... I would say that it is not very likely, that if it was possible there's no way of telling whether it's going to happen in 100,000 years – I don't even know what the likelihood is.


– Tucker Carlson, on CNN's Newsnight, interviewing seismologist Stuart Sipkin of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thank you, Tucker, thank you. When this whole tsunami thing happened, that was my first thought, too – hey, what about the Hamptons? Are the Hamptons safe? Now I know.

Tucker Carlson is in the news this week. Rumor has it he is going to take Deborah Norville's nine o'clock slot on MSNBC, providing society with the hyperambitious, polysyllabic segue to Scarborough Country it has been lacking all these years. The move comes amidst reports that the network has scrapped plans for its long-anticipated revival show, Alvin Ailey Presents Michael Savage.

Carlson's move to MSNBC is almost certain to provoke yet another series of articles about the "right-i-zation" of cable news. Liberal outlets everywhere are going to remind us that the Fox network has been crushing its opposition so convincingly that the other networks are now fighting back with moves like this Carlson thing – by trying, in other words, to equal or surpass Fox's partisanship. Weed out the old "neutral" voices, stick in a seemingly open, unapologetic conservative like Carlson, and eventually the entire informational landscape will be dominated by flag-waving dunderheads fighting over the carcass of Alan Colmes. This is the terrifying future we are going to be warned about once again, if Carlson goes GE.

Certainly this is a frightening prospect, but I'm not sure the ascension of Carlson is the right thing to get upset about. Carlson's role in the cable-news world – that absurdist interpretation of Orwell that dominates the shape and speed of the American news cycle – has never been entirely clear. He has never been believable as a hatemongering brownshirt; his political ethnicity is probably closer to traitor than demagogue. You'd know exactly which side of the desert island to search for Carlson, if he were ever to be stranded on one with the Barnard French faculty and the Tuscaloosa chapter of the Klan – he'd be on the left bank, passionately misquoting Baudelaire. The same cannot be said for people like Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, genuinely insecure creeps whose ideal natural habitat is the praise of bigots.

Carlson occupies the same role for conservatives in the media landscape that Colmes does for liberals. Colmes is a pale-faced, paint-by-numbers loser whose only job is to be a believable liberal for people who live in trailers. Carlson is CNN's idea of a conservative. His right-wing ideas come from his changeable, expensive brains instead of his stomach. In the same way that the helpless, ineffectual Colmes is a reassuring image to hardcore conservatives, Carlson puts a soothing face on conservatism for educated East Coast progressives – because even the biggest neo-Marxist wanker from Brown takes one look at Carlson and sees the one man in America he would feel sure of being able to kick the shit out of in a back alley.

That same wanker could probably take Savage or O'Reilly, too, but those guys have supplicants and constituents by the millions who would come rushing to their aid. Not Carlson. In a bar fight, no 35-year-old man with a bowtie has friends. Especially not a smart-aleck closet case like Carlson. You would be hard-pressed to find an American who would not leap to his feet to cheer the sight of Tucker Carlson getting his teeth kicked down an alley, which I suspect is the reason CNN picked him to be their champion of conservatism. He is a patsy and a fraud – the kind of public personality totalitarian regimes used to nurture for years in order to execute for a lack of orthodoxy at some opportune historical moment much later on. That MSNBC hires him thinking they're getting the real thing, a big ticket to red-state ratings, just shows how clueless that network really is.

It's true that Carlson has said and done a lot of inflammatory things over the years. His criminal niches in the conservative pundit world seem to be the bald factual misrepresentation and the suggestively over-enthusiastic gay-bashing joke. He once described cross-dressing as a "Democratic value," and said the following about gay, lesbian and transgender delegates at the DNC: "If you don't find them at least mildly funny, you're probably a Democrat." In yet another break from the grimly onanistic Hannity/Savage aesthetic, Tucker will occasionally come on like a lascivious young sex god, and often seems anxious that the CNN demographic know how much he digs chicks and even – gasp – lesbians. "One area of liberal phenomenon I support is female bi-sexuality, this apparent increased willingness of girls to bring along a friend," he told Elle magazine. Famously, he once also confessed to a sex fantasy about Hillary Clinton; he said she was too wound up and that he could "help her."

More seriously, Carlson has been known to do things like falsely report that Al Gore decided to go campaigning on the day his sister died, and that Republican speakers were booed and hounded by angry activists at Paul Wellstone's memorial service (they were not). But this is academic. You play a conservative pundit on television long enough, and anyone will be able to find a whole pile of objectionable statements in your past. The real significance of Carlson, as the celebrated exchange with Jon Stewart incoherently hinted at, is not what he says about the right, but what he says about television.

Stewart was right to target Crossfire. The Carlson/Paul Begala "debate" show is not only one of the biggest con games in the informational arena, it's the archetypal blueprint for the larger con game of American politics. In the show, the "left" battles the "right," and the segments are structured in such a way that the commentary is bound to outrage virtually every viewer away from one or the other debate participant. Taking sides, the viewer accepts the black-and-white left-right paradigm and focuses exclusively on the two debaters. As a result, he doesn't ask the important question, which is this: If Tucker Carlson represents the right and Paul Begala represents the left, what is the ideology of the TV studio in which they sit? What's the politics of that dull white table upon which their arms rest? Because the unspoken assumption of the show is that the debate is held in a perfectly neutral medium – and this is a false assumption.

Television has its own ideology. No matter who wins the fake debates, it always wins. It is always selling something: not just products, but a whole mountain of cultural assumptions and prejudices that make the population passive, submissive and amenable to buying. One of the biggest of those assumptions is that politics is something neat and theatrical that fits in three eight-minute segments, and can be conducted with a handshake on an unchanging set day after day for decades, by a pair of glib geeks in suits who probably drink espresso together or blow each other after each show.

Real politics isn't a ping-pong game. It's ugly, uncomfortable, deadly serious and inherently bad television. That both Crossfire and our presidential elections are good television ought to tell us something. We're being had by a league of frauds, and whether they play on the right or the left is immaterial.

Did Jesus Wear Birkenstocks?

Its always a learning experience with the Christian Right. Visit the websites of the movement's leading organizations and you'll find out about problems you didn't know you had, threats you didn't know the country faced.

On the Eagle Forum homepage, for instance, you can read about the urgent need for a renewed U.S. military presence at the Panama Canal. The Family Research Council site alerts visitors to the evil new line of Planned Parenthood Christmas cards. Or download the Christian Coalition for the latest on Congressman Todd Akin's efforts to stop lower federal court judges from holding hearings on the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. If you happen to be curious about how to protect the sanctity of marriage between man and woman, these sites offer a one-click shortcut to informational-pamphlet heaven.

But try to find any mention of the melting ice caps or the planet's quickening extinction rate, and ye shall seek in vain. In the world of the Christian Right, concern for the environment is still an atheistic socialist plot to bankrupt godly American industry; it has no place in the fight for the health and soul of the nation. Given that the Christian Right is foundational to the current Republican coalition, this isn't surprising. The party of George W. Bush is now preparing a devastating blitzkrieg against what remains of the regulatory controls clamped on industry in the last century. Today's GOP likes to toss around the name Teddy Roosevelt, but it has no use for the party philosophy expressed by T.R. when he declared, "[S]hort of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendents than it is for us"

With everyone focused on a few spots on the Supreme Court, over a third of the Environmental Protection Agency's staff will become eligible for retirement during the next four years. Future Bush appointees will dismantle the agency from the inside while a Republican Congress hacks away from the outside, teamwork that could very well result in the disappearance of the EPA as we know it by 2008. If this happens, there will simply be nothing left to save; the rebuilding will have to begin from scratch.

The party will pursue this scorched-earth policy as if there were a mandate behind it. As former EPA head Mike Leavitt recently told the UK's Independent, "The election was a validation of the philosophy and the agenda." Bush and Cheney were smart enough not to discuss this agenda in their campaign speeches, but it's known to include fiercer attacks on such landmark legislation as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, the prying open of protected lands to mining and drilling – in the new Senate, the ANWR fight is all but lost – and the weakening or elimination of mandatory emission controls on a range of pollutants. On climate change, the administration will ignore even the tepid action recently recommended by the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy. In short, the agenda is radical and sweeping, with the last four years offering an aftertaste of what's in store. Given the impact this will have on millions of American families and upon creation itself, you might expect at least a few words of concern from influential pro-family Christian Right groups like Eagle Forum.

And you'd be right. The Eagle Forum correspondent at this month's UN Climate Change Conference in Buenos Aires, Cathie Adams, did indeed post a report expressing concern about climate change. Her worry? That delegates will again "conjure up a man-caused global warming theory" to force "developed countries [to] fill the coffers of corrupt Third World governments."

The Christian Coalition also has an environmental platform. In fact, one of the group's nine official areas of concern is protecting young people from pollution – "the pollution of pornography," that is.

Wondering where the environment might fit into the Christian Right's constellation of moral obsessions, I called the Christian Coalition's Florida headquarters. Since the state has taken a biblical battering of extreme storms and droughts over the last few years, and since worse is predicted as ocean temperatures continue to rise, I thought the Christian Coalition Florida office might be ahead of the curve on the issue, at least compared to the mothership in Washington.

I asked Bill Stephens, executive director for the Sunshine State, what he thought about the fact that some Christians feel a religious duty to protect the environment. He didn't seem to understand the question, so I rephrased it. Could he imagine one day including the environment among the Christian Coalition's current stable of issues?

After a long pause, Stephens emitted a verbal shrug. "To be honest, I've never really thought about it," he said.

Then he told me to call Washington, and hung up the phone.

But Stephens doesnt speak for all conservative Christians. His lack of awareness is actually rarer than you might think.

This October, the board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), representing 51 denominations encompassing 30 million American evangelical Christians, unanimously approved a document entitled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." The declaration calls for public engagement in a range of issues, prominent among them "Creation Care" – Christian-speak for environmental activism.

The document states: "We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. We are not owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to 'watch over and care for it' (Gen. 2:15)."

Richard Cizik, the NAE's vice president for government affairs, says the purpose of the document is to "educate evangelicals that our public policy concerns go beyond a few high profile social issues like abortion."

Cizik is a self-described conservative evangelical, both pro-life and in favor of a federal marriage amendment. In this he reflects the broad membership of the NAE, the largest evangelical umbrella group in the country. Representing 60 percent of the nation's estimated 50 million evangelical Christians, Cizik thinks the NAE is in a position to send a shot across the bow of a Republican establishment that assumes evangelical support for its entire platform – so long as it includes homilies to faith, heterosexuality and family.

"Care for the created order is indeed one hallmark of evangelicalism," he says. "If we outline a policy that says that climate change is real, and that it poses a sincere threat to the earth, then you can no longer say, 'This is just hokum,' if you're an evangelical and you want to be with the leadership."

Among the leaders who have signed onto the NAE document are representatives of the most conservative strains in American Christianity. These include Vincent Synan, dean of the Divinity School of Regent University – where Pat Robertson is Chancellor – and Ted Haggard, the fundamentalist pastor and president of the NAE. Both men and the denominations they represent believe in the literal word of the Bible. So do many of the millions of readers of Christianity Today magazine, which has begun to feature regular reports on the environment.

It remains to be seen what impact developments such the NAE initiative will have on politically powerful Christian Right groups, but there are signs pointing toward stronger grassroots evangelical support for protecting the environment than is generally assumed. A poll conducted this year by the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron found that more than half of self-identified evangelicals agreed with the statement, "Strict rules to protect the environment are necessary even if they cost jobs or result in higher prices." Only one-third disagreed outright.

When it comes to the regulation of industry, a majority of evangelical Christians appears to side with Ted Kennedy over George W. Bush.

The man working hardest to expand this majority is Rev. Jim Ball. The executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and organizer of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, Ball has been working to raise environmental consciousness in the evangelical community since the early 1990s. In 1994, he issued an "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation." A precursor to this year's NAE document, it describes environmental activism as a Christian duty and has since been endorsed by nearly 500 evangelical leaders and counting.

This past July, Rev. Ball gathered evangelical pastors to a weekend conference at Chesapeake Bay, VA. Among the speakers was Sir John Houghton, a leading climatologist on the United Nations Panel on Climate Change and vocal proponent of action to reduce carbon emissions. Houghton is also an outspoken British evangelical Christian. The conference concluded with attendees committing to the goal of forging an official evangelical consensus on climate change within the next year. Among the signatories is Barrett Duke of the ultraconservative Southern Baptist Convention – the second-largest evangelical group in the country, with 16 million members.

"In dismissing environmental activism, many Christians are just going along with what their allies are telling them," says Ball. "They haven't really taken a serious look at issues like climate change. But when they hear people like Sir Houghton, who can talk to them as a brother and a scientist, they think, 'We'll if a brother is saying it, there's gotta be something to this.'"

As for the common perception that fundamentalist Christians aren't concerned with the Here-and-Now and never will be because of a theological belief in imminent Rapture, Ball claims this is not an insurmountable problem. Despite a general distrust of science found in this population – including a firm disbelief in the theories of Charles Darwin – he is confident that the gospel can be greened even among hardcore fundamentalist Christians.

"With most of these folks, it takes me about two minutes to punch a huge hole in [the Rapture] argument," says Ball. "I explain that the Biblical understanding of afterlife is not a disembodied existence. Revelations literally says the city comes down, not that we go up. I also say, 'Well, you take care of your body, don't you?' It doesn't take that much to win people over. If it's just some eschatological or future-oriented thinking [prejudicing them], that's handled pretty quickly."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to converting evangelicals to the environmental cause is cultural. Convincing pro-life evangelicals to join forces with secular and left-leaning environmentalist groups will require overcoming a deep-rooted prejudice that associates environmentalism with paganism, pantheism and the Counterculture and New Left revolts of the 1960s – all Godzilla-sized bogeymen in the evangelical worldview. (It's worth noting here that the distrust is mutual.)

"It's true some evangelicals are leery," admits Ball. "We have to work through the idea that the environment is just a liberal issue. But there's not as much resistance there as one might think. If done right, minds can be changed and people can be brought on board." Richard Cizik of the NAE adds that even this prejudice is not as pronounced as it once was. "There is a younger generation coming up," he says. "There is a transitional leadership, and the stereotype is simply not true."

One way to bridge the gulf is to relate environmental issues to primary evangelical concerns. Ball's latest project is a campaign drawing attention to the effects of mercury emissions, regulations on which have been eliminated under Bush.

"The evangelical community is very concerned about the unborn, [but] is just starting to understand the impact that mercury has on the unborn child," says Ball. "If we can help them understand that this is a dangerous neurotoxin, and most dangerous to the unborn, then I think we'll see a real significant movement on that issue. Any kind of pollution that hurts the unborn, children, families and the poor – this is contrary to loving your neighbor, which is at the center of ethical teaching."

If a slowly expanding majority of evangelical Christians in this country supports the regulation of industry to protect the environment, and if there is no clear Biblical injunction against doing so, why are the most vehement anti-environmentalists in American politics consistently found among the Christian Right?

What Jim Ball calls the "brownwashing" of the Bible is largely the work of the same secular powers that seek expanded Pentagon budgets, private retirement accounts and sweeping tax cuts. Corporate agendas dipped in Scripture are still corporate agendas. While to some extent fundamentalist theology is useful in packaging such views, the easy embrace of the environment among the evangelical rank and file indicates that industry is the dominant player in shaping the Christian Right worldview on the question – not religion.

Former Reagan interior secretary James Watt is generally held up as a prime example of religious fanaticism leading to hostility toward the environment. Famous for proclaiming, "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back," Watt is considered the godfather of today's anti-regulation fundamentalists. But Watt, from the mining state of Wyoming, had deep ties to extraction industries before he found Jesus in the rings of old-growth tree-stumps. Then as now, it is profit – not Psalms – that best explains the anti-environment ethos of the Christian Right. Watt may have genuinely believed in the Second Coming, but his views on environmental protection were most deeply rooted in his past leadership of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce natural resources section, as well as the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the mining and timber industry association he founded in 1976.

Today's Christian Right leaders enjoy similarly strong ties to industry. In the online environmental magazine Grist, Glenn Scherer reports that James Inhofe, the clownish anti-regulation evangelical who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has received almost $600,000 from the fossil-fuel industry and utility firms in the last five years. That Inhofe has stronger views about the evils of regulating industry than the average evangelical should come as no surprise. Scherer also notes that among members of Congress in 2003 who received the highest approval ratings from Christian Right advocacy groups, most received flunking grades from the League of Conservation Voters. But the conclusion Scherer draws from this is that conservative Christianity is the driving force, with industry influence playing a secondary and complementary role.

A better explanation for this synchronicity between God and chainsaw is found in Michael Lind's pithy description of the current Republican Party coalition: "A Frankenstein operation [has] stitched the bodiless head of Northeastern neoconservativism onto the headless body of Southern fundamentalism." Though incomplete, the image explains the rough flow of ideas in today's Republican Party. Southern evangelicals set the social agenda at the grassroots level, while secular forces in the north (and west) set the economic and foreign policy agendas. These policies are then fed back to the religious base through industry-subsidized Christian Right leaders in Congress and the media, who reinforce the idea that pollution controls are part of the same godless liberal plot that wants gay porn and home-abortion kits distributed in public high-schools.

That this carefully maintained association could be threatened by an environmental awakening among "the base" makes some in the Republican Party's opinion-making apparatus nervous. In response to the work of people like Jim Ball, the market-oriented Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship was formed to express concern about "a growing chorus of voices [that] has been attempting to redefine traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on stewardship, and ultimately, our duties as responsible human beings." The group warns against "passionbased on a romantic view of nature, a misguided distrust of science and technology, and an intense focus on problems that are highly speculative" At times, the language is indistinguishable from that used by industry groups like the Global Climate Coalition.

Other idea mills working to keep a biblical sheen on anti-green politics are the National Center for Public Policy Research and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, both of which publish papers warning against the lure of "creation care." In one such article, Samuel Casey Carter decries the "swarm of seemingly mainstream Protestant organizations conjur[ing] support for their activist programs through specious readings of disconnected biblical texts." The truth is, writes Carter, "the whole of nature has been delivered over to man for him to use as he sees fit. Man is not simply the head of the natural order, rather, that order was made for him."

Or for the National Association of Manufacturers, as the case may be.

In beginning its belated recognition of the moral, religious and public health dimensions of protecting the environment, the evangelical community is following in the footsteps of the other branches of Christianity. The World Council of Churches, mostly mainstream Protestant, has long asserted its belief in "a moral responsibility to respect the rights of future generations; and to conserve and work for the integrity of creation." The Orthodox Churches have gone further, creating a day in the Ecclesiastical Calendar (Sept. 1) as a sort of Christian Earth Day. The annual holiday has given rise to hundreds of local initiatives, from soil-reclamation projects in Russia to preservation programs in the Greek islands. The Roman Catholic Church has established Commissions on Justice, Peace and the Safeguarding of Creation in dioceses around the world, while America's Roman Catholic bishops have declared fighting climate change a "moral duty" and called for immediate action.

Even if the Republican Party's religious base does begin to make noise over issues like mercury emissions and climate change, this anger is unlikely to overshadow their satisfaction with the party's positions on the cultural issues closer to the average evangelical's heart. "I can see environmental issues in the top five [evangelical concerns]," says Rev. Ball. "But it will never be as paramount as, say, abortion, because evangelical Christianity has a very strong focus on the individual."

Still, a split on the issue within the party's base could slow or complicate current GOP efforts to roll environmental law back to the 19th century. It may be a slim hope, but it could be a while before another one comes along, and these days you take what you can get. Who knows? If enough evangelicals start praying for it, George W. Bush just might fall off his horse on the way to Tehran and emerge as the greatest environmental president in the history of the United States. Just don't go looking for green prayer scripts on the website of the Presidential Prayer Team. Not yet anyway.

A Blueprint for Moore Bashing

We've got to repudiate, you know, the most strident and insulting anti-American voices out there sometimes on our party's left ... We can't have our party identified by Michael Moore and Hollywood as our cultural values. – Al From, CEO, Democratic Leadership Council

You know, let's let Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival fawn all over Michael Moore. We ought to make it pretty clear that he sure doesn't speak for us when it comes to standing up for our country. – Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the DLC

The first thing I thought when reading these passages – both taken from a "soul-searching" roundtable held by the Democratic Leadership Council – was this: Who the hell is Will Marshall?

I couldn't remember seeing his name at the top of anybody's ballot. I didn't remember which, if any, elections he had ever won. I was a little mystified, in fact, by the nature of his popular support – who he meant, exactly, when he used the word "we" to talk about whom Michael Moore does and does not speak for.

According to the last data I could find, Moore recently made a movie that was seen by tens of millions of people around the world and has grossed nearly $120 million in the U.S. alone. Furthermore, it was, according to exit polls, a much better demographic success than the actual Democratic party. A Harris poll conducted in July found that 89 percent of Democrats agreed with "Fahrenheit 9/11," along with 70 percent of independents. That means Moore outperformed John Kerry among independents by about 19 points, if we are to go just by the data presented by bum-licking power-worshipper Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times at the DLC roundtable.

Moore's revenues come from millions of ordinary people paying 10 bucks a pop to see his film. In contrast, only about 200 people a year visit the DLC at the box office – only they pay thousands of dollars per ticket, and they all have names you'd recognize: Eli Lilly, Coca-Cola, Union Carbide, Occidental Petroleum, BP and so on.

Like Moore, Marshall is a media figure. He is one of the chief contributors to Blueprint magazine, the flagship publication of the DLC. Despite the fact that subscriptions to this magazine are included free with membership in the DLC, its annual circulation still lags slightly behind the gate for "Fahrenheit 9/11," with about 20,000 readers per year.

An unfair dig, you say: Blueprint is a trade magazine. Seen in that light, it indeed appears a much better market performer, with only about six times fewer readers than the industry bible for horror makeup artists, Fangoria.

While it is not exactly clear who else Marshall is talking about in this quotation, it is fairly clear that he means that Michael Moore does not speak for him personally. Which makes sense, of course.

In addition to his duties as the president of the PPI, Marshall kept himself busy in the last few years. Among other things, he served on the board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an organization co-chaired by Joe Lieberman and John McCain whose aim was to build bipartisan support for the invasion of Iraq.

Marshall also signed, at the outset of the war, a letter issued by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) expressing support for the invasion. Marshall signed a similar letter sent to President Bush put out by the conservative Social Democrats/USA group on Feb. 25, 2003, just before the invasion. The SD/USA letter urged Bush to commit to "maintaining substantial U.S. military forces in Iraq for as long as may be required to ensure a stable, representative regime is in place and functioning."

One of just a handful of Marshall's co-signatories on that letter was Bruce Jackson, who also happens to be the head of the PNAC (whose letter Marshall also signed) and the founder of the aforementioned Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Jackson is not only a neo-con of high rank and one of the chief pom-pom wavers for the war effort. He was also a vice president in the weapons division of Lockheed-Martin between 1993 and 2002 – meaning that he was one of the implied targets of "Bowling for Columbine," which came out in Jackson's last year with the company.

Clearly, Marshall was thinking about the good of the Democratic Party, and not the integrity of his grimy little network of missile-humping cronies, when he and Al From made the curious – and curiously conspicuous – decision to denounce Moore, Hollywood and France at the DLC meeting in early November.

There were a number of things that were strange about the release of this obviously coordinated series of sound bites from the DLC heavies.

For one thing, people like Al From, Donna Brazile and DLC president Bruce Reed – event speakers who are all high-level political heavyweights whose instinct for spontaneity died with their souls 100 years ago, and would never say anything without first calculating its potential impact – would seem to gain very little by mentioning Moore's name at all in the conference.

To say openly in front of a roomful of reporters that the party has to disavow Michael Moore is to remind a roomful of reporters that the Democratic party is still currently linked to Michael Moore. This would be like George Bush Sr. using the word "wimp" in public, or John Kerry using the word "effete" or "snob." No alert political operative would recommend it, under normal circumstances.

Furthermore, as both Marshall and From surely know, there was no effort whatsoever even this time around by the Democratic Party to associate itself with Michael Moore. Excepting the brief and mostly unrequited love affair between Moore and Wes Clark, most of the party candidates recoiled from the fat director as from a diseased thing throughout the entire campaign season. They've already kept him at arm's length – why talk about the need to do it again? Why bring him up at all?

Well, that's easy. It's one thing to avoid public appearances with a Michael Moore, and to accept his support only tacitly. But it's another thing entirely to openly denounce him as anti-American, which is what Al From did last week.

What From, Marshall and the other DLC speakers were doing last week was not just ruminating out loud about the need to shy away from certain demonized liberal icons. They were, instead, announcing their willingness to embrace the other side's tactic – I hate to lean on this overused word, but it is a McCarthyite tactic – of branding certain individuals as traitors and anti-Americans. What they were doing was sending up a trial balloon, to see if anyone noticed this chilling affirmative shift in strategy and tactics.

Well, I noticed. I also noticed that unless something is done about it, this unelected bund of corporate pawns is once again going to end up writing the party platform and arranging things to make sure that no anti-war candidate is allowed to compete for votes in the primaries. It will push one of its own – probably Harold Ickes, or Brazile – in next year's election for the chairman of the Democratic Party. And when that person wins, the tens of millions of Democrats who opposed the war will have to get used to people like Will Marshall referring to them as "we" in front of roomfuls of reporters – Marshall, who this year wrote, in Blueprint, an article entitled "Stay and Win in Iraq" that offered the following view of the progress of the war:

"Coalition forces still face daily attacks but the body count tilts massively in their favor."

Uh-huh. And Michael Moore and Hollywood are the problem with the Democratic Party.

Finding Love in Electoral Politics

But we have to face facts: We got our clocks cleaned up and down the ballot ... If, as the DLC has long argued, the test for Democrats is to convince voters that they will defend their country, share their values, and champion their economic interests, it's pretty clear Democrats continue to come up short on the first two tests even as they pass the third with flying colors.

—Statement by the Democratic Leadership Council in the wake of Kerry's defeat

That was the DLC's conclusion after the fiasco we all watched on television last week. Apparently the Democrats failed to convince America that a) they're as bad-ass as the Republicans and b) they believe that the return of the baby Jesus to Earth is imminent, and we're doing a good enough job of making sure the guest accommodations will be to his liking.

If history is any guide, the DLC will spend the next four years trying to find a pious bomb-thrower to put up as the nominee — unless, of course, the poll numbers in a few years' time show that Barack Obama is good-looking, black and charming enough to get the party over the hump using the same basic playbook that worked so swimmingly this time.

Those are the DLC's conclusions. Whether the conclusions of the rest of us count at all is, of course, a matter of serious debate. As this past election season showed, the dominant factors in giving us the candidates we got had a lot more to do with the internal thinking of party hacks and the media than the feelings of the actual public. There is still really no evidence that a ground-up phenomenon is building anywhere on the anti-Bush side that will ever mobilize seriously to do anything beyond wave the flag for whichever zombie the DLC chooses to hand to us as the next champion of middle-of-the-road faux-pragmatism.

There is going to be a lot of talk in the next few months and years about "soul-searching" within the Democratic party. Indeed, the DLC referred overtly to this phenomenon already, in its post-election memorandum. Here's how they put it:
The slow but significant erosion of Democratic support in recent years is a collective responsibility for all Democrats, us included. It will not be reversed by any simple, mechanical move to the "left" or the "right;" by any new infusion of cash or grassroots organizing; by any reshuffling of party institutions or their leadership; or by any magically charismatic candidates. That's why engaging in any "struggle for the soul of the party," or any assignment of blame, is such a waste of time.
The key phrase here is the collective responsibility for all Democrats, which is where the key lie of the election post-mortem is going to reside. When this kind of talk is fed to us, most people who are Democrats (as I am not, incidentally) are going to accept unquestioningly the idea that this "struggle for the soul of the party" is their problem. In fact, this struggle is really exclusively the problem of the Democratic Party, a very different thing. Because for the rest of us, for the ones who woke up Wednesday morning staring a four-year shit sandwich in the face, we have another problem. We have our own souls to worry about, and this is a much bigger problem than the soul of the Democratic Party, an organization that would be purified by fire on live television if we lived in a more just era.

The Republicans won last week because they stand for something that voters can understand. A large number of them stand for being deranged lunatics who believe that the Bible was the last book ever written, and for being intellectual cowards who hide from the terrifying complexities of modern society by placing all of their faith in infantile concepts like faith, force and patriotism.

Our handicap, to which they are immune, is to understand that modern society is a machine that can operate seamlessly according to its own peculiarly twisted morality without obviously interfering with the advance of those concepts they consider important.

That makes it easy for us to understand why such things as the Iraq war are not only disastrous and immoral but simply stupid policy, and guaranteed to weaken our country in the long run. But it does not make it easy for us to sum up what we ourselves stand for in a word or two.

Because we don't know. When we look to the future, we don't know what we hope to see. The other side is energized because its vision of the future is clear; it wants a return to the days when the one organizing concept of sexual relations was marriage for life, when patriotism was putting on a uniform and fighting for freedom, when the goal of life was a good job, hard work, kids, the church, a house and a well-attended funeral.

These are all reasonable goals to have when you know heaven is at the end of it all. That's what it comes down to. They're fighting for a simple path to heaven, while the rest of us are fighting for something a little less exciting: the desire to have a more rational and inoffensive political atmosphere within which to wrestle with the underlying problem of existential despair in a confusing secular world whose only offered paradises are affluence, sexual freedom and consumer choice.

What's ironic is that a lot of what motivated the progressive sector within and even outside the Democratic party this time around was a rebellion against this very set of circumstances. Certainly there was an intellectual basis for a lot of the anti-corporate anger that goaded people onto the streets in the past years — legitimate disgust over the idea that the honest jobs that used to be held by Americans had been exported abroad, where Asian children working for pennies an hour stitched together the sneakers we all bring to the gym — but it went deeper than that. There was a lot of anger out there at the underlying concept that the ultimate purpose of life was to acquire things, that the answer society provides us to each of our personal problems was a product.

Most of us are aware and despairing on some level that our lives have become de-eroticized, that love and romance are not all around us but have to be hunted for with the kind of desperation that people used to bring when they went west looking for gold. But the answers that society gives us for this sexual desert are Viagra and Cialis and Levitra, products that allow us to stay hard for hours as we hump the indifferent mannequins we run into in bars. The country is lonely, self-obsessed and the individual members of the population are offered a thousand ways to improve their individual appearance and vigor. But there seems to be no solution on the horizon that anyone is offering to bring us more together, to give us the things we really need — love and acceptance and community.

We blame corporate America for this state of affairs because this ideology of individual acquisitiveness is the religion it naturally preaches. But it's our failure to come up with a competing ideology of getting along that's the real problem. Down south, in those "backward" red states, they vote the way they do because they see this individualistic religion as a creature of the cold, greedy, north, which has chosen to attack the idiocy of the right wing church rather than admit to its own spiritual unhappiness.

Bush is our fault. He's our fault because too many of us found it easier to hate him than find a way to love each other. If we work on the second thing a little harder, we won't need to rely on the cynics in the DLC to come up with the right "formula" the next time around. Because happiness and hope have a way of selling themselves.

A March To Irrelevance

Hey, you assholes: The ‘60s are over!

I'm not talking about your white-guy fros, mutton-chops and beads. I'm not talking about your Che t-shirts or that wan, concerned, young Joanie Baez look on the faces of half of your women. I'm not even talking about skinny young potheads carrying wood puppets and joyously dancing in druid circles during a march to protest a bloody war.

I'm not harping on any of that. I could, but I won't. Because the protests of the last week in New York were more than a silly, off-key exercise in irrelevant chest-puffing. It was a colossal waste of political energy by a group of people with no sense of history, mission or tactics, a group of people so atomized and inured to its own powerlessness that it no longer even considers seeking anything beyond a fleeting helping of that worthless and disgusting media currency known as play.

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. I admire young people with political passion, and am enormously heartened by the sheer numbers of people who time after time turn out to protest this idiot president of ours. But at the same time, I think it is time that some responsible person in the progressive movement recognize that we have a serious problem our hands.

We are raising a group of people whose only ideas about protest and opposition come from televised images of 40 years ago, when large public demonstrations could shake the foundations of society. There has been no organized effort of any kind to recognize that we now live in a completely different era, operating according to a completely different political dynamic. What worked then not only doesn't work now, it doesn't even make superficial sense now.

Let's just start with a simple, seemingly inconsequential facet of the protests: appearance. If you read the bulletins by United for Peace and Justice ahead of the protests, you knew that the marchers were encouraged to "show their creativity" and dress outlandishly. The marchers complied, turning 7th Ave. into a lake of midriffs, Billabong, bandanas and "Buck Fush" t-shirts. There were facial studs and funny hair and man-sandals and papier-mache masks and plenty of chicks in their skivvies all jousting to be the next young Heather Taylor inspiring the next Jimi Hendrix to write the next "Foxy Lady."

And the New York Post and Fox were standing on the sidelines greedily recording all of this unbowed individuality for posterity, understanding instinctively that each successive t-shirt and goatee was just more fresh red meat for mean Middle America looking for good news from the front.

Back in the '60s, dressing crazy and letting your hair down really was a form of defiance. It was a giant, raised middle finger to a ruling class that until that point had insisted on a kind of suffocating, static conformity in all things – in sexual mores, in professional ambitions, in life goals and expectations, and even in dress and speech.

Publicly refusing to wear your hair like an Omega house towel boy wasn't just a meaningless gesture then. It was an important step in refusing later to go to war, join the corporate workforce and commit yourself to the long, soulless life of political amnesia and periodic consumer drama that was the inflexible expectation of the time.

That conformist expectation still exists, and the same corporate class still imposes it. But conformity looks a lot different now than it did then. Outlandish dress is now for sale in a thousand flavors, and absolutely no one is threatened by it: not your parents, not the government, not even our most prehistoric brand of fundamentalist Christianity. The vision of hundreds of thousands of people dressed in every color of the rainbow and marching their diverse selves past Madison Square Garden is, on the contrary, a great relief to the other side – because it means that the opposition is composed of individuals, not a Force In Concert.

In the conformist atmosphere of the late '50s and early '60s, the individual was a threat. Like communist Russia, the system then was so weak that it was actually threatened by a single person standing up and saying, "This is bullshit!"

That is not the case anymore. This current American juggernaut is the mightiest empire the world has ever seen, and it is absolutely immune to the individual. Short of violent crime, it has assimilated the individual's every conceivable political action into mainstream commercial activity. It fears only one thing: organization.

That's why the one thing that would have really shaken Middle America last week wasn't "creativity." It was something else: uniforms. Three hundred thousand people banging bongos and dressed like extras in an Oliver Stone movie scares no one in America. But 300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts, marching mute and angry in the direction of Your Town, would have instantly necessitated a new cabinet-level domestic security agency.

Why? Because 300,000 people who are capable of showing the unity and discipline to dress alike are also capable of doing more than just march. Which is important, because marching, as we have seen in the last few years, has been rendered basically useless. Before the war, Washington and New York saw the largest protests this country has seen since the '60s – and this not only did not stop the war, it didn't even motivate the opposition political party to nominate an anti-war candidate.

There was a time when mass protests were enough to cause Johnson to give up the Oval Office and cause Richard Nixon to spend his nights staring out his window in panic. No more. We have a different media now, different and more sophisticated law enforcement techniques and, most importantly, a different brand of protester.

Protests can now be ignored because our media has learned how to dismiss them, because our police know how to contain them, and because our leaders now know that once a protest is peacefully held and concluded, the protesters simply go home and sit on their asses until the next protest or the next election. They are not going to go home and bomb draft offices, take over campuses, riot in the streets. Instead, although there are many earnest, involved political activists among them, the majority will simply go back to their lives, surf the net and wait for the ballot. Which to our leaders means that, in most cases, if you allow a protest to happen... Nothing happens.

The people who run this country are not afraid of much when it comes to the population, but there are a few things that do worry them. They are afraid we will stop working, afraid we will stop buying, and afraid we will break things. Interruption of commerce and any rattling of the cage of profit – that is where this system is vulnerable. That means boycotts and strikes at the very least, and these things require vision, discipline and organization.

The '60s were an historical anomaly. It was an era when political power could also be an acid party, a felicitous situation in which fun also happened to be a threat. We still listen to that old fun on the radio, we buy it reconstituted in clothing stores, we watch it in countless movies and documentaries. Society has kept the "fun" alive, or at least a dubious facsimile of it.

But no one anywhere is teaching us about how to be a threat. That is something we have to learn all over again for ourselves, from scratch, with new rules. The '60s are gone. The Republican Convention isn't the only party that's over.

Post-Iraq Syndrome

With all due respect to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, who was polite to me when we spoke on the phone earlier this year, I had to laugh at his 3,000-word "We Fucked Up on Iraq" piece that came out last week.

Kurtz's Aug. 12 piece, entitled "The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story; Prewar Articles Questioning Threat Often Didn't Make Front Page," was the latest in what is likely to be a long series of tepid media mea culpas about pre-war Iraq reporting. The piece comes on the heels of the New York Times' infamous "The Bitch Set Us Up" piece from this past May, in which that paper implicitly blamed hyperambitious hormone-case Judith Miller for its hilarious prewar failures.

The Kurtz article was a curious piece of writing. In reading it, I was reminded of a scene I once witnessed at the New England Aquarium in Boston, in the aqua-petting-zoo section on the second floor.

The petting pool contained a sea cucumber. Now, anyone who has ever made it through seventh-grade science class knows what a sea cucumber does when threatened. Unfortunately, some parent unleashed a sixth-grader on the pool unattended. The kid started fucking with the sea cucumber, poking and prodding it like crazy. So the sea cucumber pulled out its only defense mechanism, turning itself inside out and showing its nasty guts to the poor kid, who immediately thought he'd killed the thing and ran away crying. Later, when I made another turn through the same area of the aquarium, the cucumber had reconstituted itself and was sitting in its usual log-like position.

It is hard to imagine a better metaphor for these post-invasion auto-crucifixions our papers of record have been giving us lately.

The Post piece featured an array of senior and less-senior reporters who let us in on the shocking revelation that stories questioning the Bush administration's pre-war intelligence claims were often buried deep in the news section, while Bush claims ran on the front. Revelations included the heartwarming Thelma & Louise tale of Walter Pincus and Bob Woodward teaming up to get Pincus' WMD skepticism piece into the paper just days before the country went over the cliff into Iraq. In fact, the second paragraph of the piece is devoted to this tale of editorial foxhole heroism:

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Ribbons of Revenge

There's a man going round taking names/And he decides who to free and who to blame/Everybody won't be treated all the same/There'll be a golden ladder reaching down/When the man comes around.

So sings Johnny Cash in "The Man Comes Around," a song inspired by a dream Cash had wherein Queen Elizabeth II told Cash he was "a thorn tree in a whirlwind." Cash knew that phrase was familiar but could not remember where he first heard it. He later said he located it in the Book of Job and was spurred to write "The Man Comes Around," a song built upon biblical imagery of reckoning and responsibility. Many of the lyrics are either direct quotes or paraphrases of lines from the Book of Revelation -- the ultimate reckoning, the "end of days."

It's fitting that Cash's last classic plays beneath the opening credits of the new Dawn of the Dead. The horrifically funny montage depicts America's zombie-fueled collapse in quick-cut, channel-surfing glimpses. In this grainy, bloody stream of images, made jaunty by Cash's frank warnings of biblical judgment, it's like seeing live news coverage of a society's collapse. It's the perfect mood-setter. Zack Snyder's remake of George Romero's same-titled 1978 original zombie epic, about a band of hardy Americans making a last stand against the Other in a shopping mall, offers not just the latest in film school style and splatter FX, but also a recent-vintage assortment of real-world fears.

The poster tagline for Romero's original promised, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth." But the tagline actually makes better cultural sense in the remake, when it's quoted onscreen in a cameo by Ken Foree, star of the 1978 Dawn. Romero's Carter-era zombie picture was a bloody goof on consumerism -- a horror-movie dig at a country that had fallen so deep into narcissistic isolation that its denizens shopped after they'd dropped. With few traces of religious feeling, much less religious fear, it felt like a 1970s disaster picture with zombies instead of an earthquake.

The new Dead feels more uncanny. Where the undead onslaught in Romero's version seemed a motiveless plot-driver, the onslaught in this new version seems more purposeful: a massive punishment for massive sins. It's an end-of-days movie strengthened by thematically appropriate touches: the Cash-backed credits sequence, which includes a high-angled shot of men kneeling in prayer; an "innocent" child zombie that's like a ghoul equivalent of a preadolescent suicide bomber; shots of wrecked cityscapes dotted with World Trade Center-style smoke plumes; a pivotal conversation between major characters about the possibility of paying for one's sins in hell. The ruined America depicted in the new Dead still appears democratic, capitalist, secular. But an unknowable spiritual world lurks beneath the surface. When the spiritual world erupts and the horror show unfolds, we sense that characters who didn't think about the afterlife before are thinking about it now -- maybe even dreaming about it.

Just as Cash's song was inspired by a dream, the new Dawn is one of many recent movies that seems to have been dreamed up by the industry. Recent history has seeped into movies, and manifested itself in powerful, if mostly oblique, ways. With some overlap, the movies tend to fit into one of two categories: revenge dramas and religious pictures.

The revenge dramas generally suggest one of two opposed conclusions: revenge is troubling but necessary (A Man Apart, Walking Tall, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2) or a life-altering mistake (21 Grams, Mystic River). The religious movies aren't religious in the sense that they advocate a particular religious point of view or dramatize a religious story (though The Passion of the Christ does both). They're religious in the sense that they presuppose and invite a religious view of life. They assume there's a higher power and perhaps a hell. They assume that good and evil are not rhetorical abstractions, but words to describe real cosmic forces at war in the universe and inside each person.

Like dreams, these movies are coded, half-involuntary responses to a post-9/11 world, and the fears of war, religious unrest, mass death and spiritual reckoning the event hatched. The movies are not precise or even outwardly purposeful, and none deals specifically with politics. But they are still movie dreams that work through real anxieties.

What are dreams but deep subconscious responses to real-world anxieties and fears? They are mechanisms allowing the brain to work through and interpret life in a sub-rational, even irrational way -- through images rather than words. Take then, film, described by Orson Welles as "ribbon[s] of dreams."

Those dreams willed into creation by American cinema express unresolved tensions that have always existed in this country and probably always will. Look at films from any given decade and one senses the tensions between secular and religious impulses, between those who feel that violence can be justified, even moral, and those who think it's almost always a mistake; between those who believe the American status quo is essentially healthy versus those who are predisposed to think it's sick, dishonest or destructive.

American movies made from the end of World War II through the late 1950s dreamed images of a polite, productive, white, Christian society (Rock Hudson and Doris Day, biblical spectaculars) that was nevertheless riddled by self-interest, cynicism and corruption (Touch of Evil, Sweet Smell of Success, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), family dysfunction (Giant, Written on the Wind, Rebel Without a Cause), fears of annihilation (The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and pockets of deprivation and resentment (Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, Kenneth Anger's coded gay fantasia Fireworks).

Movies made from the mid 60s through the late 70s contrasted a patriotic, pious, tradition-loving, Old Testament, violence-approving silent majority against a left-leaning, drug-taking, war-protesting youth culture. The leftish, counterculture-friendly visions of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Zabriskie Point, The Conversation and Who'll Stop the Rain were counterbalanced by the more conservative, gotta-break-eggs-to-make omelettes visions articulated in Patton, the original Walking Tall, Joe, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, The Exorcist and The Omen. (The latter shocked bluenoses with satanic sadism, but also reassured the devout by insisting that God and the devil were real.)

This new era has its own set of tensions that we sense whenever we turn on the television or the radio, or open up a newspaper. And it's only natural that the entertainment industry would attempt to confront the defining events, if not the tension. The play-turned-movie The Guys, for instance. Or the USA Network biopic Rudy, built around 9/11. There's also the "Yeah, Bush!" Showtime melodrama DC 9/11, some well-meaning episodes of Third Watch and the short subjects gathered in the anthology 11'09"01.

Still, there haven't been as many overtly 9/11-themed movies and tv projects as one might have expected, considering what a Very-Special-Episode nation we live in. You'd have thought by now there would have been several tv movies about the passenger revolt on Flight 93, especially after Neil Young wrote a song about it. But the part of our entertainment industry that makes moving pictures has stuck to its usual timetable, addressing the first few years of the Era of Terror indirectly, or connecting with it only in a generalized way. The resultant films bear visual and thematic signifiers that are as obvious as bruises, and as ripe for interpretation as dreams.

The first wave of post-9/11 movies arrived in late 2001 and continued throughout 2002. They seemed to reflect post-9/11 life directly and purposefully. But because these movies were made long before the attacks, their resonance might have been due less to the filmmakers' intentions than the films' subject matter. The covert viciousness of Spy Game, the siege mayhem of Black Hawk Down, the tribal violence of Gangs of New York and the civilization-testing showdowns in the Lord of the Rings trilogy come to mind.

One could make a slightly stronger, if still problematic, case for certain dramas released during 2003 that dealt with the consequences of revenge. House of Sand and Fog struck certain critics as a 9/11 movie, even though it was based on a 1999 novel, because it revolved around a conflict between a self-pitying, young white woman and a smug, immigrant Iranian and his family over possession of a house. Irreversible, Mystic River and 21 Grams have been cited as veiled commentaries on American involvement in Iraq, because all three revolve around grievously injured parties seeking revenge. (In two cases, they're seeking revenge on the wrong person.)

The past two seasons of Fox's action series 24 have worked through Iraq and the war on terror in grim comic book terms, pandering to conspiracy theorists on the left and the right while critiquing America's longtime belief that it has a God-given right to vengeance. The series' man-of-action brutality, xenophobic resentment and disdain for diplomatic niceties feel very silent majority, but the show's elaborate backstories are more leftish. Season two found American oil interests and their patrons in the United States government allowing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in order to justify a retaliatory war against Middle Eastern countries that had nothing to do with the attack. Season three is shaping up as a tale of disgruntled ex-commandos who threaten terrorist violence against America to scare the president into doing their bidding. Even though it was conceived last summer, this plotline crazily echoes right-wing explanations of what happened in Spain four weeks ago, where terrorist attacks on the cusp of election spurred voters to kick out the ruling conservative government and put socialists in charge. Thus 24 might be the only show in tv history that John Milius and Gore Vidal could watch together.

HBO's Deadwood is just as relevant, obliquely referencing both the war on terror (the town's citizens are terrified of murderous "Injuns" few of them have actually seen) and Iraq (the town's gradual evolution from outlaw mess to functioning government amounts to nation-building in miniature). Like 24, Deadwood suggests that powerful people manipulate America's fear of the Other to get what they want. The season opener revolved around an alleged Indian attack on white settlers, which spurred the righteous formation of a white posse. Turns out the attack was carried out by white criminals associated with the series' chief bad guy, who also happens to be the town's most prominent businessman.

Other revenge tales are less dark and messy. Last spring's A Man Apart starred Vin Diesel as a drug enforcement agent seeking revenge against the thugs who killed his wife. While the movie clearly implied that the hero was crazed with grief, it just as clearly endorsed his need for vengeance. The new Walking Tall goes further. Updating the 1973 silent majority classic, it replaces beefy white guy Joe Don Baker with biracial ex-wrestler The Rock, setting the story in the Pacific Northwest instead of the Deep South and giving the picture a populist-progressive storyline. (Much of the town's crime wave is the fault of its richest citizen, who is bleeding the place dry.) But the subtext of the picture is far more basic, even reactionary. It's produced by a contemporary version of the mindset that birthed the original Walking Tall, not to mention Dirty Harry and Death Wish. It is a mindset that says one must act in uncivilized ways to protect civilization, and that only a naive liberal would argue otherwise. (In a classic vigilante moment, the hero pulls the bad guy over for broken taillights, then breaks them.)

Quentin Tarantino's two volumes of Kill Bill are a DVD obsessive's version of a revenge picture, wherein primal emotion takes a backseat to homage. It's hard to argue that its tropes have much to do with political reality; it's an ostentatiously abstract and self-conscious project, as emotionally connected to real revenge as Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were connected to details of real life in 19th-century America. But some of the director's choices resonate anyway: the international odyssey undertaken by Uma Thurman's Bride, and her go-it-alone determination; the juxtaposition of extreme violence and bland domestic peace; a revelation in Vol. 2 that establishes a deep connection between the Bride and Bill and complicates her rush toward revenge.

The Australian folktale Ned Kelly is an outlaw movie in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, an outlaw movie with an obvious political dimension, about young outlaws fighting an occupying government that turns citizen against citizen while exploiting the country's resources. Lines of voiceover dialogue refer to the outlaws hiding in caves (an image that's never actually shown onscreen). Cops fear the gang, but average citizens are thrilled to see anyone take action to remove an oppressor's boot from their neck. Kelly's gang is hunted not just because they committed crimes and disrupted the peace, but because they dared seek personal revenge against the injustices of government agents. The gang must be killed or captured, because its continued existence reminds civilians that their government is not as wise and feared as it wants the world to think.

David Mamet's Spartan is the richest post-9/11 treatment of revenge thus far, a political nightmare pointed enough yet vague enough to support numerous divergent readings. Like 24, Spartan plays out Sept. 11 and subsequent wars in stripped-down, mythic terms. The initial assault finds Arab slavers unwittingly kidnapping the president's disaffected, sex-club-working daughter (possibly a stand-in for the American people, in the sense that she's innocent, but not that innocent). Val Kilmer's hero leads a Secret Service black ops mission to find the first daughter and bring her home safely.

The mission is declared over -- accomplished -- when a body fitting the first daughter's description turns up in Boston Harbor. But the hero and his acolyte (Derek Luke) think she's still alive and undertake a perilous, unapproved mission to rescue her. Mamet appears to suggest that the false "death" of the kidnap victim was part of a setup -- a Russian-doll style con-inside-a-con, designed to eventually lead the hero to Saudi Arabia, where he could rescue the first daughter "off the books," so to speak. One leaves the movie thinking the hero was set up by forces too vast and nefarious to fully understand. Even though the kidnapping was carried out by people with their own agenda and no apparent connections to the Saudi government, Mamet suggests the crime will still be used as a pretext for "vengeance" against a country the U.S. could not otherwise justify attacking.

As my friend Robert Abele has suggested, Spartan can also be read as a cautionary tale about parameters of the military mind. Soldiers do whatever they're told to do and prefer not to know why. When you get into "why," you start asking questions, and questions invariably lead you to the realization that the leaders you trust are self-interested, untrustworthy or both. Truth leads to paralysis; ignorance is bliss.

While post-9/11 revenge pictures are fun to analyze, they might ultimately prove less significant to historians than the flowering of religious feeling, nearly always Christian, in recent Hollywood movies.

Hollywood has generally been hospitable to the idea of religion. But with few exceptions (notably the biblical spectaculars of the 1920s and 1950s) it has avoided specifics. For now, that seems to be changing. There is certainly more religious feeling in mainstream movies now than there was four years ago; more, perhaps, than at any time since the 1970s, when graphic, supernaturally themed horror movies appeared to symbolically punish Americans for various political and cultural sins. When the devil possesses little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, for instance, her actress mother is leading onscreen protests in what looks to be a counterculture movie.

The most obvious example is The Passion of the Christ, which defied expert predictions to become the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time and now seems poised to become the top-grossing movie, period. The massive success of Mel Gibson's troubling and amazing film is a better topic for a book than a couple of paragraphs of an essay. Suffice it to say that it's hard to imagine the film being as massively successful had it been released five or 10 or 20 years ago.

The televised mass murder of 9/11 drove a lot of people back to church -- or temple, or mosque -- who hadn't been spending much time there before, and prompted fierce examination of good, evil, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and all matters spiritual. For the past three years, religion (in the form of religious violence) has been the top story on the news almost every night. Between the sight of Christian soldiers in Muslim lands (Afghanistan, Iraq) and the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinians, one cannot help thinking that the increasingly secular, materialist mindset religious folks kept warning the world against was not as pervasive as they thought.

Perhaps religion was never truly decimated or rendered irrelevant in this country. Even in supposedly godless places like New York City, The Passion of the Christ is as popular as it is everywhere else. Perhaps, instead, faith was simply made no. 1 on the unwritten list of things Americans weren't supposed to talk about; culturally and politically, faith was driven underground like a river of lava from a volcanic eruption that occurred long ago. Now the world is less stable than it was during the 1990s, and we're seeing little theological eruptions when we go to the movies.

Christ is the Krakatoa of theological eruptions--the right religious picture for the right time. Where the Jesus of 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ was a neurotic waffler who doubted He was really God's son, Gibson's Jesus could not be more certain of His identity and His destiny. He's an action-hero Jesus, a unilateral, go-it-alone Jesus who's willing to withstand horrendous punishment without complaint on behalf of a world that does not understand the nature of His sacrifice, much less the means by which it must happen. (Jesus' departure from the cave of resurrection is accompanied by martial drum music -- the warrior reborn.)

Not all religious imagery is so straightforward. In fact, most recent movies that express religious feeling put it in the background of the story. But the feelings are no less palpable for not being front-and-center.

The Fighting Temptations and The Ladykillers aren't aiming to convert anybody, but they spend more time in gospel-singing, Jesus-praising churches than Hollywood movies are usually willing to spend. And both films (The Ladykillers especially) suggest that faith is not just an expression of goodness, but a central force that animates goodness. Ernest Dickerson's excellent movie version of Donald Goines' 1970s noir novel Never Die Alone transcribes the author's ideas and incidents more or less faithfully, but places them in the context of spiritual distress to a much greater degree than Goines did. The drug-dealing, woman-abusing antihero, King David, narrates his story from beyond the grave like William Holden's deader-but-wiser screenwriter from Sunset Blvd. King David's ugly odyssey is presented moralistically, as a tall tale about an entertaining but indefensible swine that knew he was doing evil but was having too much fun to stop. At the end of the movie, Dickinson lingers over images of King David's corpse being packed inside a pauper's coffin, then fed into a crematorium furnace to be consumed by hellfire -- a sendoff that would have passed muster with the Hays Office in about 1938.

Drawn from Mike Mignola's graphic novels, Hellboy at first seems like just another B-list comic book picture, this one about a nice-guy devil that growls softly and swings a big fist. But even a cursory examination of the film's images betrays a stark religious sensibility. Look past the wham-bam mayhem and you'll see a celebration of religious and political conversion -- and easily the most Roman Catholic Hollywood film not directed by someone named Scorsese.

The title character is an imp brought into our world by a Nazi experiment overseen, bizarrely enough, by Rasputin. The imp is a gun-fighting, pizza-scarfing galoot raised by the United States' Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and taught to love America and want to protect it. (He even carries rosary beads.) His enemies include a host of HP Lovecraft-inspired demons and a reanimated, mummy-like ninja assassin whose insides turned to dust long ago. Co-writer and co-director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) deploys Christian motifs throughout, including sacramental rivers of blood, stigmata and intimations of resurrection. (The murder of Hellboy's surrogate father, a paranormal expert played by John Hurt, occurs while a turntable plays "We'll Meet Again.")

Del Toro favorably contrasts Hellboy's sarcastic yet sincere allegiance to Christian America against satanic foes who aim to unleash the Seven Gods of Chaos on the world. The final 15 minutes are a near-apocalypse, with Twin Tower-sized demon tentacles raking down from storm clouds. Like a comic book opposite of Jesus, Hellboy realizes that the entire time he imagined himself in unshakable allegiance with the good guys, he was actually part of an anti-divine plan orchestrated by the forces of darkness. If he hopes to save his adoptive Christian culture, he must reject his true father, Satan. Writing in the online magazine Film Forum for Christianity Today, Jeffrey Overstreet correctly observed that del Toro's film "boasts more religious symbolism than any comic-movie yet produced."

Hellboy is a deliberately light film, but its messages are dead serious: good and evil are struggling for control of every mortal soul; the end of days are nigh; agnosticism and neutrality are as bad as conscious evil; it's time to pick a side.

The Horrible Answer to My Fat Chick Prayer

I wouldn't mind so much if I didn't know the truth.

Carnie Wilson's recent cover story in People heralded her surgically-engineered 150-lb. weight loss as if it were the Second Coming. I believed in bariatric surgery too -- so much so that three months after I logged on to adoctorinyourhouse.com and watched what I thought was Wilson's stomach-reducing surgery (according to an E! Entertainment Online Profile, she's recently admitted that it wasn't her surgery that was on the web, but someone who had the same procedure) I checked into a Bronx hospital and had the same thing done. After 33 years and 330 lbs, I too had thought this would be the answer to my fat chick prayer.

Wilson's surgeon and mine told us the same thing -- that we were in relatively good health despite our morbid obesity, but we were walking timebombs. The heart disease, the diabetes, the sleep apnea that could choke us to death, the early onset of arthritis (the pressure on my joints was so much that a specialist told me it would be a matter of less than two years before I'd need both my kneecaps replaced). Did the doctors tell her she was a "perfect candidate" for the surgery? They told me that. Another 30 lbs and I'd run a bigger risk of never coming out of the anesthesia. As I was, however, I had "nothing to worry about." Yes, people died having this radical procedure, but I ran "a higher risk of a heart attack" on the stairs to my fourth floor walkup. "Sure, there can be complications, but you're young, healthy..."

Did they gloss over those "complications" during Wilson's consultation? I can't remember hearing the words "pulmonary embolism" or "blood clot," but then again I barely remember the two office visits I was allowed by my HMO to the sole surgeon they approved for this procedure, other than he was a very arrogant, confident, handsome man who "never lost anyone in the 18 years" he'd done the surgery. I was surprised that my HMO had approved the surgery in the first place -- according to the year's worth of research I'd done beforehand the majority of HMO's and insurance companies won't cover bariatric surgery because it is elective.

Then I found out why I had been approved. After consulting with the HMO psychiatrist, dietitian, general practitioner, pulmonary specialist, cardiologist, pretty much everyone concurred that I would be permanently disabled in a matter of two to three years by obesity. Long-term care is pricey, and while bariatric surgery is very expensive, they would save money in the long run compared to what could be another 30 years of replacements, prescriptions, consultations and the like.

So on Nov. 30, 1999 I went under the knife, allowing a man I'd barely met slice a pouch off my stomach and attach it to my intestine; this would only let me consume an ounce of food at a time, instead of my usual quart-plus.

And then the fun began. I hemorrhaged into my small intestine, threw a pulmonary embolism, sank into a coma, and three weeks and two more surgeries later, awoke in Intensive Care to see my mother, sister and best friend grinning like idiots around me. "There she is," Bucky said, tears running down her face. "Welcome back." She was more than relieved -- she'd seen me code on the way to X-ray and watched them defibrillate me, scared out of her mind because with my family in Buffalo she'd agreed to be my next of kin on the "just in case" forms.

I spent three months in the hospital, without a drop to drink or eat -- there were holes in my "pouch" and the surgeons didn't want to go in a fourth time unless they absolutely had to. Instead, they waited for the pouch to seal itself. So I watched as cans of liquid crap were poured into an IV and pumped though a jejunal tube inserted into my body. I felt like a Yugo sucking down unleaded through a straw.

Did Carnie have to have six people at a time tip her off a gurney onto an X-ray machine every day? Did she have to sleep on a "bari bed" specially designed so that the nurses could tip you over on your side to remove the shit stained sheets from under your fat ass? Did she fall out of the bed a few times and have to have an entire medical team hoist her back up because she was so weak she couldn't even sit up by herself? Did she wonder if maybe she'd never get the hell out of there, that she'd die alone in a hospital room with a bunch of monitors beeping at her and a nurse coming in every half hour to gauge a raging fever and sing to her to comfort you after a scary, morphine-induced hallucination?

I bet she enjoyed the luxury of the less invasive laser surgery -- my scar is a spreading red zipper from my chest to my now floppy "apron" around my abdomen. They tried to encourage it to close faster by stapling plastic floss to either side, criss-crossing all the way down, and pulling it taut, like I was a sneaker. The staples popped out every day, and every day they had to be replaced, without anesthetic, without painkillers (by that time, they were trying to get me off the morphine).

Yes, I knew when I went into the surgery I could die. I accepted it as a risk. But I didn't bargain on unconsciousness through Christmas, a lonely New Year's Eve spent flat on my back trying to remember how to breathe without an oxygen mask, or my 33rd birthday in a claustrophobic MRI machine, nauseous and choking on the 10 cc's of radiology juice I'd greedily swallowed for the procedure -- it tasted like thick, chalky Pepto Bismol, but it was the only thing they'd let me consume in three months, and I got so used to drinking it almost every day I looked forward to it. Happy Birthday to me, as I slid into the cold, metallic donut, hearing the robotic voice tell me to breathe, then hold my breath as the machine got my good side, at least internally.

I could go on and on -- about the following three months I spent trying to recover in my mom's apartment; about the follow-up visit with a loving, caring surgeon there who confided to me that I'd been through hell, and half of it was perhaps unnecessary, but I would get better. Did Carnie throw up every single thing she put in her mouth for two months, and shit out anything that managed to be digested? She must have, but she never talk about that in her People interview. She went on about how she nibbles three small meals now, and a spoonful of peanut butter is an occasional snack. I do that now, too. But it's been a long, slow climb from a half-jar of baby food a day, baby.

Carnie says that too much sugar makes her nauseous now. That the surgery doesn't "work on the brain, but you have fewer cravings." That's true -- after experiencing "dumping" (think insulin shock with a puke/crap chaser) a few times I stopped "craving" junk food, too. She never mentioned that one can outeat the pouch -- constant grazing all though the day on small things adds up, and can lead to weight gain.

The one truth I admire her for was the last paragraph of the article, when she admits that it's hard to let go of the fat. "I mourn for the loss of my old self. It brought me some protection in some way, and now that it's gone I sort of feel empty," she tells the reader. I ache for the weight I carried with me like a shield -- it was an excuse for every bad thing I'd ever experienced in my life. If someone doesn't like me now, it's me, and not the fat, that they object to. It makes people like us vulnerable, in a way we avoided all our lives. I feel the cold now, and I cannot tell if it's from the blood thinners they gave me postop or the loss of the layer I came to rely on that isn't there any more.

I admit I hated Carnie all through that People article. It was just a roll of the dice that her surgery was such a breeze, and mine was fraught with complications. But she is a member of what my beloved's brother refers to as The Legion of Doom -- the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of the famous and talented, who exploit their name and legacy to their own ends. This allowed her to access the very best medical experts in the field, a personal trainer after the surgery, a personal chef to teach her "how" to eat, and now plastic surgery to nip and tuck her batwings and her saggy folds. In telling her story she was not telling the whole truth about this "miracle cure" she's the new poster child for, because those little details never come up. Instead, fat people all over America read her waxing rhapsodic over fitting into size 6 clothing and having men stare at her in the street, and they come away thinking that's the be-all and end-all of life.

I am down over 100 pounds myself, and a size 18, on my way to a 14. I enjoy trying on clothes, too, and the fact that I can walk up the four flights of stairs in my building without stopping on each landing to catch my breath is the most exhilarating feeling I've ever experienced. But I cannot forget the fear in my mother's eyes the time I fainted in the shower and it took an hour and a half to heave myself out of the tub, I was so weak. I cannot forget what I put my family and friends through all those months of trying to stay alive.

You see, when I slip out of my new clothes, and stand in front of my beloved, and his green eyes blink in astonishment as a little bit more of me disappears, I feel a cold chill on the skin that still has sensation. And when he kneels in front of me, his hands finally able to span my waist, and places a kiss on my scar, I cringe. I can't feel anything there at all.

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