I watched that new Cosmos show’s first episode last night. I had to reach for a tissue at the end when Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host, talked about how he’d met Carl Sagan, the famous host of the previous Cosmos incarnation. He talked about how he’d been this black teenager out of the Bronx, but his passion had inspired Dr. Sagan to invite him to Ithaca to spend the day with him at his lab at the college. The two spent the day together looking at equipment and talking about science, and finally Dr. Tyson got a signed copy of one of Dr. Sagan’s books. At the end of the visit, the snow was coming down hard, and Dr. Sagan was concerned that his young guest might not get home safely. He gave the youth his home phone number and told him to call if he couldn’t get home, so Dr. Sagan could fetch him and let him stay with his family till the weather cleared.
I was struck–totally thunderstruck, completely gobsmacked–by how respectfully Dr. Sagan treated this kid from the Bronx. You could tell Dr. Tyson was still touched and humbled by the memory of how well he’d been treated. For the time–1975–it was an incredible thing for a distinguished white man to treat a young black man in such a strikingly gentle and welcoming way.
Dr. Tyson didn’t say so out loud, but it is clear to me that he sees science as a great equalizer of men and women, as a way to climb out of tribalism and -isms of all kinds, as a way to move humanity forward out of primitive thinking and into a more universal mindset that puts humans into perspective as “little guys” who “think big” (to paraphrase what he said on the program). There’s no room in the pursuit of science for ego and unwarranted superiority. Ideas get challenged, and if they cannot stand up by themselves, then they get demolished to make way for better ideas.
There’s something inspirational in that idea to me, and I wonder what my life would look like today if I’d heard someone say that when I was a teenager. I was hugely interested in astronomy and science as a child, and it was becoming convinced somehow that I just wasn’t a math person that got me all intimidated about taking upper-level math and science courses. The idea that truth transcends tribalism and can defeat it, though, that’s an idea we can take to the bank even if we’re long past the age where going back to college looks comfortable.
Well, fast forward to 2014, and witness how many steps Americans have taken backward when we consider the case of CPAC: the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Republicans from all over the United States assembled this past week to worship at the feet of Republican!Jesus, badmouth the President, and drill down on the Republican Party’s various platforms–which include sexism, racism and ignorance of the most vicious and pernicious sorts. Jon Stewart has lambasted CPAC as “Burning Man for people who don’t do drugs and are afraid of fire,” and that really does cover it. We’re talking about CPAC here because most of the people who spoke at CPAC are also outspoken fundagelical Christians; at this point, the Republican Party–especially its extreme right wing–is a party of Christians who believe that their religion gives them special rights to dictate the lives of others. You don’t get much more toxic than the Republican Party’s version of Jesus and Christianity. So that’s why a religion blog is talking about this political convention.
CPAC is like any nerd convention for comic book or Sailor Moon fans, except it’s rabid Republicans attending. The biggest names of the right-wing world can be found speaking on their playbill: Rince Priebus, Grover Norquist, Jim DeMint, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and plenty of others. The topics are the usual ones for Republicans: small government–unless it involves women’s bodies; tax reform–reverse Robin Hood tactics; guns guns and more guns–for everybody. And as always, demolishing the Affordable Care Act and obstructing the President in any way possible.
CPAC is also where future failed Republican candidates come to roost and sell their message of division, exclusion, and bigotry for all. Rand Paul seems like the 2016 candidate they liked best, which I really hope happens, because there’s nothing Democrats would like better than seeing this lying, plagiarizing misogynist on the ballot.
But more importantly, CPAC is where right-wingers come to hone their message and test out new ideas. They don’t seem to realize that outsiders are there too, watching and hearing them talk. They seriously seem to think that they’re preaching only to the choir, just like any comics convention attendee thinks. When you get a bunch of folks together to celebrate a shared interest, they tend to think everybody around them shares that interest. So obviously, what ensues is comedy gold.
Paul Ryan, as part of his ceaseless efforts to become the most vile and hated human being in the country, told a touching little story about a little boy who said he didn’t want free school lunches because only kids with brown-bag lunches had parents who cared about them–except that story never actually happened. Mr. Ryan seems to have lifted this lie straight from a book, An Invisible Thread, but greatly distorted to be a better GOP talking point to shame and stigmatize poor people. This reminds me strongly of Michele Bachmann’s famous story about the woman with the daughter who’d become retarded because of the HPV vaccine. That mystery woman and daughter have never been identified and their story has never been verified, but it touched Ms. Bachmann so strongly she had to use them as leverage to fight the HPV vaccine. (Does this remind you of all the fundagelicals who keep claiming to have seen miracle healings that they can’t ever seem to verify? These stories are good enough for them, and they get downright indignant when someone challenges their cherished myths.) If it weren’t for distorting the truth and flat making up lies to suit themselves, I’m not sure what Republicans would have to talk about.
These stories get debunked as fast as Republicans deploy them, but still, they keep the faith that surely, if they try hard enough, one of their false stories will stick. And they know that nobody in their target audience is going to go fact-checking their claims. For example, it is an article of faith with Republicans that the Affordable Care Act is hurting Americans and causing untold damage to the middle- and lower-classes. I suspect that’s why we keep seeing those fake Obamacare horror stories making the rounds with paid actors pretending to be people who’ve been adversely affected by the ACA. All of these stories have been soundly debunked to the point where Mother Jones, along with the LA Times, is wondering if there actually are any true horror stories. Surely if there’d been a real case of someone being destroyed by having affordable health care, the Republicans would be all over it like white on rice, right? Think of all those people on your Facebook feed complaining about the ACA and how much more money they’ll be spending and how much worse their coverage is–why aren’t those people going straight to the media or the GOP to tell them all about it, so their stories can be paraded around as proof that the ACA is a bad awful terrible no-good idea?
Sometimes I was surprised to see someone show up at CPAC who I thought was a past trend. Christine O’Donnell showed up to whine about how meeeeean the IRS is for daring to investigate her failed campaign’s various financial misdeeds. Sharron Angle was there to help people remember she’s still interested in speaking gigs if anybody wants to pay her to come talk to their group.
Death Becomes Her was written well before Sarah Palin rose to prominence, but one of its best jokes–“she’d go to the opening of an envelope”–definitely covers this fame-starved, attention-hungry self-described hockey mom. For some reason the Tea Party and GOP love her despite most of the country despising her and every single thing she stands for, so of course she was on hand to give CPAC’s keynote speech. Look, we can say what we want about this failed onetime governor and now equally failed reality-show maven, but we have to give her this: the woman can construct a speech out of bumper-sticker slogans like nobody else. She pretty much nailed every one of the ones Republicans like best, and got roars of approval and huge applause for them all.
Most of those slogans are lies, of course. Sarah Palin insists that the Democrats are really the ones waging a “war on women,” what with their insistence on women having the right to consent over each and every single use of their bodies 100% of the time. That’s the real victimization, according to her. She demonstrates that Republicans have convinced themselves that if they just repeat something often enough, it magically becomes true (just like most fundagelicals think, for that matter). When Michael Medved showed up to disingenuously and fatuously insist that no state has ever banned gay marriage, Republicans were thrilled, but the rest of us did a spit-take because it takes a special kind of contortion and privilege-blindness not to see that while yes, no state has specifically banned gay marriage, quite a few states have passed laws that caused exactly that effect by setting up rules allowing only mixed-gender couples to marry (it reminded me of Michele Bachmann’s now-famous and equally disingenuous and fatuous claim that gay people were perfectly free to marry–as long as it was to someone of the opposite gender).
Here at CPAC is where you will find Republicans being so very concerned about people’s souls that they’re willing to fight the good fight against feeding hungry children. They’re so very concerned about terrified white people’s right to shoot unarmed children that they’ll fight to the last breath to keep felons armed and lies on gun applications unpursued. They’re so worried about their “little sisters in the womb” that they will advocate any action necessary to force the real women carrying those fetuses to gestate them against their wills–though once those “little sisters in the womb” get born, hopefully their impoverished mothers will be able to find money and time to make them brown-bag lunches to prove they care about them.
CPAC’s speakers are so upset about immigration reform that when Ann “Right-Wing Chatterbox” Coulter squawked before her appearance there that this country’s demographic shift is just like being raped because nobody asked any white people like her for permission for all those brown and black people to come into the country looking for citizenship, nobody there even thought about revoking her timeslot at CPAC. Hating immigrants and thinking they’re nowhere near as good as white people is just part of the CPAC mindset. Someone as viciously, shockingly racist as Ann Coulter is not only not punished for her statements but invited to positions of honor among Republicans and given an even bigger soapbox from which to spread her willful ignorance, love of shaming tactics, and eagerness to stigmatize others. Nobody there even seems to have hesitated about having someone like her at CPAC.
The other favorite topic, of course, was healthcare reform. They’re so positive that universal healthcare will spell the end of America that they are happy to put back into place a system that already causes three out of five bankruptcy filings in America and is rising at twice the rate of inflation and double any raises in middle-class households’ income, and a financial burden for 20% of US households. But none of those households are kabillionaires who own US Congresspeople and push millions of dollars at laws designed to benefit themselves, so who cares about the Poors? If we just shame them more and cut more benefits and help to them, that’ll force them to “bootstrap” themselves up out of poverty.
CPAC is the rising tide of Republican thought. Watch these conventions carefully, because here is where they talk in their out-loud voices, serene and falsely confident that their audience is 100% on board with them. Here we see that 2016 is largely going to be about them splintering the Republican Party even further between more-moderate members who recognize that extremism isn’t going to win them national elections, and Tea Party doofuses who are happy to take the Koch Brothers’ money in exchange for campaigning against people’s rights.
But I also perceive that CPAC’s organizers understand that their exclusionary, delusional message isn’t going to fly with most voters. So they brought failed Presidential candidate Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum to the stage to share his view of how Republicans can sell their sickness better to an increasingly-hostile and skeptical public: by being super-nice, like Pope Francis. Mr. Santorum, who is himself Catholic, is strangely unaware that Pope Francis isn’t just being nice; he’s actually doing some stuff to ameliorate the damage his church has done to people over the last few years, and he’s trying to make amends. Mr. Santorum does correctly nail that Pope Francis hasn’t actually changed any doctrines in the Church; he’s still the head of the biggest group of misogynistic bigots in the world. But he’s not just being nice. He’s doing actual nice things, and he’s trying to heal some of the damage and pull Catholic hardliners away from being so judgmental. American Republicans have no intention of doing any of that. If someone said “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t parade and flaunt our wealth quite so much and maybe we should maybe listen to the people we’re destroying and stop silencing them in our push to power and you know, we should totally stop lying to people and distorting the truth,” that noise you’d hear would be a few thousand CPAC attendees’ heads exploding.
Republicans take it for granted that the problem isn’t their message, but about how they are packaging that message and selling it. They’re positive that if they just find the right (false) slogan, the right (untrue) sob story, the right (sickeningly bigoted) slant on a topic, that voters will click and go “ohhh, that’s what they meant!” and flock to their banner. CPAC is a crucial part of their exploration of slogans, sob stories, and slants.
So was CPAC a success? It seems like it was on some levels. It definitely got the Republican message out and told us what their tactics are going to be for the next couple of years. They’re going to be lying about the new healthcare reforms, pushing misogyny like it’s the BONUS PLAN for women, doing more to strip LGBT people of rights and dignity, shaming poor people, acting like they’re being religiously persecuted while they continue to try to push their Christian Taliban views and lifestyle onto the rest of us, forcing more people into poverty, and scaring the hell out of white people while pushing gun ownership so they’ll be even more likely to shoot unarmed children.
On Cosmos, Dr. Tyson put science into a perspective that many Republicans and fundagelical Christians just can’t understand. He linked science to humanity’s march into the future, to the fostering and encouragement of our freedoms and humanity, to fearlessness and even to our joy. He showed how opening our minds to what is real and learning how to assess claims leads us to abandon that which is false, but even more than that, he showed how rigid adherence to religious dogma has destroyed not only good ideas but good people.
I doubt CPAC would understand, but I sure did. Now, more than ever, it is important for us as a society not to allow theocrats and zealots to determine the future of science, because where science goes, so goes the rest of society. We cannot stop fighting lies, willful ignorance and institutionalized bigotry.
And we won’t.
If you don’t have your voter registration done, please think about doing it. All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing. Even if you live somewhere that seems like a CPAC wet dream, your vote matters. We need you.