Contemporary U.S. politics, as seen by Chicken Little

The Baltimore Sun

The Politics of Heaven

America in Fearful Times

By Earl Shorris

W.W. Norton & Co. / 352 pages / $25.95

A new movement - "the most powerful political movement on earth" - holds sway in the United States, according to Earl Shorris, a freelance writer and founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Without a name or a leader, the movement preys on the fear of death, which became "a national mania" in response to the Holocaust, nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Bound together by a belief in Armageddon and the search for an alternative to extinction - "a loophole" - members of the movement "do not know what they oppose in general." But they've got grievances galore. With roots in the Christian right, the new movement appeals to fundamentalists of all faiths. It has a secular as well as a religious agenda, united in a "leave us alone coalition." The movement coalesced when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and consolidated control after Sept. 11, 2001. With a majority of officeholders at every level of government, the movement will be difficult to dislodge because its 50 million members decide what Americans will hear and they define "acceptable" responses. "History's cruel truth," Shorris proclaims, "is that democracies fall by democratic means."

The Politics of Heaven delivers this gloomy homily. A stream-of-consciousness screed, the book appears to have been published while the editorial staff of W.W. Norton & Co. was on vacation. Halfway through the writing, Shorris tells us, he discovered that his target was not the Christian right, "but something vague, a dissatisfaction movement, an opposition." He seems to revel in a lack of precision and specificity, as if it testifies to the potency of the forces with which he - and we - must contend.

The Politics of Heaven zigs and zags, shouts and sags. Shorris rummages through history, comparing Gen. John J. Pershing's pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916 and Franklin D. Roosevelt's call for a declaration of war on Japan in 1941 to George W. Bush's attack on Iraq. He devotes two chapters to philosophers, ancient and modern, famous and obscure, including Plato, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre, Allan Bloom and Seth Benardete. His point seems to be that philosophers have ceased combating pessimism: "If we are to survive as a society, we have to agree once again that the greatest philosophers are Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx."

Shorris asks readers "not to be concerned with proving direct lines of influence" between the philosophers and politicians in his book and the new movement. He does not explain the connection between opposition to taxes, environmental regulations, gun control, immigration, affirmative action, health care reform and foreign aid, and a fear of death. Perhaps he's trying to give new meaning to the phrase "charitable remainder trust." Shorris does not think the conflict between social and economic agendas imperils the movement. Because it treats opposing views as opinions, not beliefs, and refuses to label disagreements sinful, he insists, the movement can - and does - have a big tent.

In Shorris' melodrama, just about everybody is a movement member. Dick Cheney represents "the dark side" of the movement, but not all of it. John McCain "belongs to the movement." He "will not be killed - he is a killer. ... He is a man of angers and memories. ... He will be the master of opposition, who is not likely to tolerate opposition." And Grover Norquist, who allied Americans for Tax Reform with the Christian right, is "merely another operative of the movement."

The Democrats, Shorris asserts, "have now conceded that the only way to get elected is to join the movement." Former President Jimmy Carter advised them to endorse a "right to life." Bill Clinton ended welfare. And, in predicting a climate catastrophe, Al Gore called himself an optimist, embarked on a "moral crusade." This phrase, Shorris suggests, signals that he's selling self-preservation and transforming "earthly politics into the politics of heaven." Making concessions to the national political movement seemed to work in 2006. So, in the run-up to the race for the White House in 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and even Howard Dean now pray for your vote.

While lamenting the apostasy of Democrats, The Politics of Heaven reserves the largest spaces in hell for Republicans. "There are dreadful people in politics," Shorris declares. Atop his list are President Bush, Tom DeLay and Rudy Giuliani. Fortunately there "are not many true villains" as evil as Henry Kissinger or Newt Gingrich. "Most of those we find despicable are educated fools, company men, like Paul Wolfowitz and the pompous Richard Perle; a few are mean-spirited and opinionated, like Lynne Cheney; and some are miserable, mean, mistaken, and arrogant, like Cheney's husband Dick."

By perfecting techniques of silencing others, Shorris believes, the Bush administration and the new movement pose a grave threat to democracy. But "keeping silent oneself" is equally dangerous. He's right, of course, but it helps a lot if you have something worthwhile to say.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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