Archive for November, 2010

Why Colbert and Stewart Matter to Politics

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Newspin

By Christian Piatt

(Originally published in PULP)

 

By the time this goes to press, political satirists John Stewart and Stephen Colbert will have conducted their “March to Restore Sanity” and the “Rally to Keep Fear Alive,” respectively, in Washington, D.C. Seen by many as a direct response to Glenn Beck’s rally in the same city on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Stewart explained in a recent interview on National Public Radio, such a mindset gives Beck too much credit.

 

Sure, he’s great fodder for comedy, says Stewart, but Beck’s rhetoric really lacks any more substance than the comedy shows that parody him, though it’s arguable that Beck isn’t in on the joke.

 

For those who see the emergence of more vocal conservative pundits and politicians as distressing, figures like Beck, Sarah Palin and the like as fodder for derision and even fear, it seems that the tea ,party movement is giving such people a platform that is bending the public’s ear, and for some, the prospect of someone who listens to Fox News as a legitimate source of “fair and balanced” information is nothing short of terrifying.

 

Not so, argues Stewart. He suggests that the worry about a Palin presidency or the like actually is overblown. If we can survive a civil war among other things, he says, we can live through a less-than-capable conservative presidency.

 

Sounds strangely familiar, in a way, actually.

 

In fact, there’s a case to be made that electing someone like Palin or Delaware’s GOP senate candidate Christine O’Donnell might actually be good medicine. If moderates and progressives already are asleep at the wheel after only two years to the point that they’ll let more extreme leaders win political office, perhaps the wakeup call of the 2000-08 Bush presidency wasn’t harsh enough.

 

All of this begs the question: Why do the media and those who consume their product seem content to reduce political figures to little more than caricatures, and to establish fear and contempt as the baseline emotions upon which our political system operates?

 

Because it’s easier than taking the time and effort to learn about issues of any real importance and substance.

 

Who wants to read about the latest arbitration over water rights when we can follow the developing story about O’Donnell’s dalliances with witchcraft or her positions, so to speak, on masturbation? Why debate the appropriateness of NAFTA or how to tackle immigration reform when it’s so much more fun to speculate about Barack Obama’s birth certificate or read an e-il about how he’s a closet Muslim?

 

This dumbing down of the American voter would be easy to blame either on politics or the media, but I’d argue it’s only a viable market because we, the end-user, have created such a demand.

 

In a culture where People Magazine outsells The New Yorker four-to-one and there are two Maxim subscribers for every U.S. News & World Report reader, it’s easier to put analysis and critical thought into its proper perspective. And while the emotional tide of good feeling that helped usher Obama into the White House was heartening in many ways, it’s also discouraging to see how quickly such fickle emotion can fade.

 

And, yes, this is an entirely appropriate time to point out the irony of my observations in the pages of an alt-monthly that also contains columns on sex, nightlife and the related fluff that accompanies them. No more ironic, I suppose, than the fact that some of our most poignant contemporary political commentary comes from 30-minute shows on Comedy Central that sandwich their wry observations between fart jokes and hyperbole.

 

John Adams, James Madison and other of our political progenitors are no doubt turning in their graves over the dim-witted offspring their revolutionary system of governance, based upon the nobility of human integrity and the value of rigorous intellectual debate, have now produced.     

 

In a culture where substance takes at least second chair to sensational rhetoric and character assassination, those who shout loudest garner the brightest spotlight. Politics has entered the compressed news cycle as one more distraction to be picked from an ever-running stream of detritus when we have a moment. The winners in such a context are those shiny morsels that grab our attention, which helps explain why every political speech now sounds like a string of unrelated sound bytes.

 

Sometimes, we have to laugh to keep from crying, which is why I’m grateful for people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Love or hate their take on issues, it’s hopeful to have a pair of comedians who have the nerve to point out that the political emperor has no clothes, or, in this case, no substance.

VOTE on the cover design for my new book series

Monday, November 15th, 2010

My publisher and I are hung up on a pair of designs for the BANNED QUESTIONS book series coming out next year, and we need your help. Take a second to check out the two different design options we have for the books and cast your vote for the one you like best:

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/7VMX8RF

Thanks,
Christian

Do we even need religion any more?

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Do we even need religion any more?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

It’s no secret that organized religion in America has slipped dramatically in the public eye during the past several decades. Though just as many people claim to have some sort of faith in a higher power, since the 1970s we’ve witnessed a steady decline in church attendance.

This isn’t exactly the case across the board. Large churches, with membership over 500 people, are still pretty strong overall, and the more conservative evangelical churches tend to maintain their bases of folks more than the moderate, so-called
“mainline” churches.

There are a handful of reasons why this downward trend has continued for nearly two generations. First, an increasingly mobile population, held together more by technology than by geography, has dissolved many of the physical, social centers that helped make up communities in the past. After all, why go through the painstaking effort of getting the whole family out of bed and dressed when you can just hit folks up on Facebook, or Skype grandma, who now lives more than a thousand miles away?

Second, there’s been a pervasive suspicion of all things institutional that took hold particularly around the Watergate/Vietnam era. Prior to this, most people held something of an inherent trust of the systems of governance and authority, assuming they had the best interests of the general public at heart. But with the scandals, protests and violence of the ’60s and early ’70 came a cynicism about powerful institutions that we’ve never shaken since, and, perhaps, with good reason.

Add to this the breakneck speed of the distribution of information and the lack of filters to contain and/or verify what’s true and what’s garbage before it reaches consumers. On one hand, this explosion of the information age has democratized the information-sharing process; on the other, it’s created more opportunities for gossip, scandal exposes and even outright slander.

The all-seeing eye of the interconnected world misses little these days, and there few things that it loves than watching the mighty fall, especially when there’s also sex involved. So when ministers are caught getting a massage with benefits or predatory priests are found to be molesting boys, it’s sure to make headlines.

Some folks assume that early Christianity was all about establishing churches, but the institution we now see as organized religion didn’t come along until much later. Jesus himself didn’t spend much time in the synagogues, opting instead for small gatherings in homes and traveling the countryside to talk with whomever he came across.
It wasn’t until three centuries later when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire that the community of believers began to seriously get both organized and powerful. Though Constantine’s motives for converting to Christianity are arguable, most historians believe the move was more about consolidating power than it was about his faith.

Over the following centuries, the powerful combination of church and state helped spread Christianity to all corners of the world – often at the point of a sword – while the church willingly sanctioned the conquest of nations by rulers who claimed fidelity to the church. It was a convenient, if unsavory, marriage.

So, given the fact that the earliest church was more of a movement than an institution, and considering that, later, the real strength of the institutional church was built upon the backs of millions it forced into claiming loyalty, perhaps the institutional church as it stands actually is a bastardized version of what an otherwise peaceful and life-giving community of faith had to offer.

What if, after all the time, money and effort that’s gone into propping up our religious institutions, it’s actually those very institutions that are keeping communities of faith from doing the real work of positive social change to which they’re called?

In the end, every faith community has to continually take its own pulse, asking if the effort and resources being expended are primarily intent on keeping a building or power structure in place, or if those institutions and systems are, as they ideally should be, simply a means to a greater end.

Meanwhile, house churches and loosely networked faith groups continue to spring up, much like the seeds of early Christianity before religious barons ever thought about buildings, polity, conquest or empire. Many would see the collapse of the institutional church as we now know it as a failure of faith and humanity. But what if, after all the dust settled, we were left with something more genuinely focused on mission rather than on institutionality?

It’s hard to comprehend now, but perhaps we’re witnessing an evolution of human faith, shedding one older, rigid skin for a more pliable, adaptable one. Regardless, humanity’s resolve to maintain belief in something greater than itself has endured far worse than a weakened system of authority and some crumbling buildings. We’ll continue to seek an understanding of the divine, with or without the church.

NEW PODCAST: Privilege, Power, Politics and Peace

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The following is an edited-down version of the keynote lecture I gave to the Young Adults Disciples gathering in Las Vegas in October, 2010. The message discusses privilege, what it means to be white, the nature of violence, and how we can creatively respond to systems of oppression and injustice without responding in kind with violence.

There is also an audio clip from an interview of Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People, with Stephen Colbert.

http://christianpiatt.podbean.com/

Peace,
Christian
www.christianpiatt.com