The Becky Blog


July 22, 2006

John Dean: "Right-Wing Authoritarians"


"The president and vice president, it appears," writes John W. Dean, the former counsel to President Nixon, in his new book, "Conservatives Without Conscience," "believe the lesson of Watergate was not to stay within the law, but rather not to get caught. And if you do get caught, claim that the president can do whatever he thinks necessary in the name of national security."

The metastasizing of conservatism under Bush is a problem that has naturally obsessed Dean. His part in the Watergate drama as the witness who stepped forward to describe a "cancer on the presidency" has given him an unparalleled insight into the roots of the current presidency's pathology. He recalls the words of Charles Colson, Nixon's counselor and overseer of dirty tricks: "I would do anything the president of the United States would ask me to do, period." This vow of unthinking obedience is a doctrinal forerunner of Bush's notion of presidential infallibility.

Dean, moreover, was close to Barry Goldwater, progenitor of the conservative movement and advocate of limited government. Dean was the high school roommate of Barry Goldwater Jr. and became close to his father. In his retirement, the senator from Arizona, who had been the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, had become increasingly upset at the direction of the Republican Party and the influence of the religious right. He and Dean talked about writing a book about the perverse evolution away from conservatism as he believed in it, but his illness and death prevented him from the task. Now, Dean has published "Conservatives Without Conscience," whose title is a riff on Goldwater's creedal "Conscience of a Conservative," and intended as an homage.

Conservatism, as Dean sees it, has been transformed into authoritarianism. In his book, he revives an analysis of the social psychology of the right that its ideologues spent decades trying to deflect and discourage. In 1950, Theodor Adorno and a team of social scientists published "The Authoritarian Personality," exploring the psychological underpinnings of those attracted to Nazi, fascist and right-wing movements. In the immediate aftermath of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's rise and fall, the leading American sociologists and historians of the time -- Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset and others -- contributed in 1955 to "The New American Right," examining the status anxieties of reactionary populism. The 1964 Goldwater campaign provided grist for historian Hofstadter to offer his memorable description of the "paranoid style" of the "pseudo-conservative revolt."

While Dean honors Goldwater, he picks up where Hofstadter left off. "During the past half century," he writes, "our understanding of authoritarianism has been significantly refined and advanced." In particular, he cites the work of Bob Altemeyer, a social psychologist at the University of Manitoba, whose studies have plumbed the depths of those he calls "right-wing authoritarians." They are submissive toward authority, fundamentalist in orientation, dogmatic, socially isolated and insular, fearful of people different from themselves, hostile to minorities, uncritical toward dominating authority figures, prone to a constant sense of besiegement and panic, and punitive and self-righteous. Altemeyer estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of Americans might be categorized as right-wing authoritarians.

According to Dean's assessment, "Nixon, for all his faults, had more of a conscience than Bush and Cheney ... Our government has become largely authoritarian ... run by an array of authoritarian personalities," who flourish "because the growth of contemporary conservatism has generated countless millions of authoritarian followers, people who will not question such actions."

It's scary to realize that I know quite a few of these folks. Many progressive thinkers do not really know a significant number of authoritarians, so they think these folks can be subject to rational persuasion. They can't. The authoritarians are not going to change, no matter how much logic you confront them with. They know they are right. They know you are wrong. You can't reason with an authoritarian. The way to deal with the dilemma they present is to reason with other moderates and even conservatives who still retain their rationality - to persuade thoughtful people that there are areas where authoritarians should not be permitted to have the final word. Areas such as stem cell research, vetoed by the authoritarian president; freedom of choice; and fair and equal treatment for LGBT persons. Authoritarians have the right to their opinion, but they shouldn't have the right to make it mandatory for the rest of us.

July 29, 2006

An Evangelical Who "Gets It"

From the New York Times:

Like most pastors who lead thriving evangelical megachurches, the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd was asked frequently to give his blessing — and the church’s — to conservative political candidates and causes.

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called “The Cross and the Sword” in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a “Christian nation” and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

...In his six sermons, Mr. Boyd laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek “power over” others — by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting wars. Christians should instead seek to have “power under” others — “winning people’s hearts” by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did, Mr. Boyd said.

“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

“I am sorry to tell you,” he continued, “that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”

Mr. Boyd lambasted the “hypocrisy and pettiness” of Christians who focus on “sexual issues” like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson’s breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.

“Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,” he said. “And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.”

Pastor Boyd paid for his courage and integrity. About a thousand of his 5,000 members left the church in suburban St. Paul, and a $7 million building drive fell far short of its goal. But the remaining members are secure, strong, and reaching out to have "power under" the minorities in need in their area.

Congratulations to Pastor Gregory Boyd and the Woodland Hills church. Thank you for reminding us that not every Christian is a right wing authoritarian.

August 21, 2006


When the story and the pictures first appeared in the news, one commentator used the phrase "about two quarts shy on testosterone." Surely his appearance was less than macho. And the fact he was in Bangkok... so when the news broke in the more sensational outlets that Karr had visited a surgeon who performs SRS procedures, I shouldn't have been surprised.

Not that I think there's any indication he is a transsexual person.

We don't know the details yet, and we mustn't form fixed opinions. Still I feel it's necessary to share an opinion on what we know so far. There's no evidence he ever saw a therapist for GID. No evidence of any attempt to live in a new role. What do we make of such a person presenting to a surgeon (who obviously doesn't follow the HBIGDA standards)?

The following is speculation on my part - my opinion only.

I think there are a number of men who are not happy about the acts they have committed with their sex organs. These acts may have been illegal - or they may have been perfectly legal between consenting adults - or they may have been strictly of the imagination. But the men feel guilt and shame.

So what are we taught to do in the land of the up, tight, religious right?

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew 5:30

There are reasons people seek surgery which have nothing to do with being a transsexual person. I'm not ready to diagnose this person, but I am pointing out that such behavior is not our behavior.

Stay tuned. Don't let the tabloids frighten you. They undoubtedly will try.

September 1, 2006


This month has always been my favorite, and remains so despite the assaults of recent history. It's the month of changes. The summer heat starts to relax its grip. A couple of days ago, Fairbanks, Alaska registered its first frost of the season. The cooler winds move south and, in a few weeks, the leaves will start turning in the Northeast. By the end of September, the summer season is over at Jackson Lake Lodge in the Tetons, and Yellowstone Park starts to get ready for the snow season.

Even in Arizona some changes begin to appear. The last triple-digit high temperatures in Phoenix will be recorded in mid-month. Northern Arizona becomes a marvelous temperate world as Flagstaff, Sedona, and the Rim turn cooler at night. October is coming, with its blazing leaf colors.

I wonder how much the excitement of autumn is tied into the anxiety of approaching winter. The beauty of September and October gives way to the dead leaves of December, and the chill is no longer so pleasant - it demands protection. The foliage dies and goes dormant. While we don't see any of this in September, our knowledge of past years warns us to anticipation.

So much music speaks to the changes of autumn, relating them to the cycle of life and death. (You knew this was going to get around to music, didn't you?) Two albums, one contemporary and one fourteen years old, leave an impression on me.

R.E.M. were immensely popular in the late 1980s and 1990s. They should have gone out on top, and quit after 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi. But at their peak, with the great Automatic For the People, no band was more popular, no lyrics more eloquent. It's a difficult album, full of songs about death and loss. "Everybody Hurts" is an undisguised plea to choose life over suicide. The video is still my all time favorite. "Sweetness Follows" speaks of loss of loved ones and the search for closure. In "Try Not To Breathe" the anxiety over aging and death is contagious. The album's closing pair of songs are a true grand finale. "Find the River" ends on a hopeful note of discovering one's place in the world, finding meaning in life. Before that, however, we are treated to the wonderful ballad "Nightswimming." In this music, the joys of youth (okay, exemplified by skinny dipping) are giving way to adult anxiety - the "fear of getting caught," "I'm not sure all these people understand." Central to the theme is the phrase, sneaked in unexpectedly: "September's Coming Soon." Time for a change.

Here are the lyrics to "Nightswimming." Enjoy the poetry:

Deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard
Taken years ago
Turned around backward so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals
A picture in reverse
Still, it's so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water's edge
The moon is low tonight

Deserves a quiet night
I'm not sure all these people understand
It's not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
Of recklessness and water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away
Replaced by everyday
Remembering that night
September's coming soon
I'm pining for the moon
But what if there were two?
Side by side in orbit,
Around the fairest sun?
The bright, tight forever drum
Cannot describe

You, I thought I knew you
You, I cannot judge
You, I thought you knew me
This one laughing quietly
Underneath my breath

The photograph reflects
Every streetlight a reminder
Deserves a quiet night
Deserves a quiet night

©Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe

Later in the weekend I'll talk more about the heart of the Flaming Lips' album "At War With The Mystics." I'm at a meeting in Albuquerque, where September starts off cooler than in Phoenix. Labor Day in Santa Fe. What's not to like?

September 3, 2006

More Autumn Music: Be the Bird

In addition to "Nightswimming," there are many more musical allusions to autumn as a first warning of the dead winter to come. I wrote in "Parallel Lines" about "Forever Autumn," featured in Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds and written by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues. The reference to the birds disappearing "one by one" is echoed in Enya's song by the same name:

One by one my leaves fold
One by one my tales are told...

I am reminded of my high school friends. We stay in touch by e-mail, and several of our number have folded their leaves in the last couple of years. Each one had a tale to tell, but who will tell their stories now?

The Flaming Lips, my favorite alternative band, have been obsessed with the phenomenon of dying - and living until we die - for years. Both their 2002 and 2006 albums include three consecutive songs on the topic. From Yoshimi we hear:

Do You Realize - that everyone you know someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes —
Let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last

All we have is now
All we've ever had is now...

Just in case we didn't get the message, they are more emphatic on At War With the Mystics. There's no pie-in-the-sky afterlife to blind us to the needs of the present:

Who knows, maybe there isn't
A vein of stars calling out my name

There's just you and me, maybe that's just as well
If there ain't no heaven, maybe there ain't no hell...

The point is not to argue theology, but to seize the moment and fill the present day with good deeds. My favorite number, "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," notes the blessing of having a friend to "stay through the wintertime" with you.

They tell us autumn's coming
Soon everything around us will die
Only a fool believes that he is different from the birds in the sky
All those birds go chasin' some better sunny days
You can't hear them singing 'cause they've all gone away