Monday, November 17, 2008

A New Journalistic Low

I've been meaning to ask this for a while now:

What's so scary about Barack Obama?

Really, I've got to know. What is it about him - other, of course, than his race - that has a small but significant minority of Americans absolutely losing their minds?

The most credible non-racist answer I've heard is that his tax policies amount to a quasi-socialist redistribution of wealth. For some people, as a matter of principle, income tax levels should never be raised. I have no interest in having that debate at the moment, though I will say that a certain amount of taxation is the price we all pay for living in a civil society that helps protect our interests. Exactly who should pay how much of the taxes that provide our social and yes fiscal security is a fair and open question.

However, I fail to see exactly what's so scary about raising to income taxes of the wealthiest 1% of Americans to the pre-Bush levels. What that amounts to is an increase in the tax rate for highest tax bracket from 36% to 39%. Of course for those people (including, I might add, most likely my parents, though they've never told me exactly how much they make from year to year) this amounts to a pretty good chunk of change. But it doesn't exactly leave them penniless.

Brian Beech - our regular conservative commenter, and all-around-good-guy - has argued passionately that such increases place a disincentive on work, writing here that president-elect Obama's tax policy stems from a "Robin Hood" mentality that, carried to its logical conclusion, would "reward people for not working" (Brian, please do let me know if my selective edit of your comment somehow misrepresents your point).

This, I think, is a pretty clear articulation of the point that many conservatives are trying to make, that the accumulation of wealth should be rewarded, not penalized, in a capitalist society, and that the system of progressive taxation that has long been the staple of the modern American tax code penalizes that which should be rewarded. Of course I strongly disagree with this point. It overlooks the extent to which the social fabric bought by the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans actually secures their wealth by providing for them a stable society in which that wealth may be preserved. Thus the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans is not so much a punishment as it is an investment. And that investment is, in any democracy, not altogether involuntary.

I could also make a fair number of ethical points. I, after all, don't have a great deal of sympathy for the person who can't buy an extra yacht because their taxes got raised, when people all around have little idea where there next meal is coming from. But independent of those considerations, the fact remains, whatever one thinks of Barack Obama's tax plan, that progressive taxation has long been the way we do things in America. Notwithstanding the occasional lead balloon that is some right-wing plan for a flat-tax, the fight over progressive taxation was won or lost a long, long time ago.

Barack Obama's tax plan does not do something new or unprecedented. It simply bumps the highest tax bracket up a little, to where it was before the Bush tax cuts. If this is the best that those who are deathly afraid of Obama's upcoming presidency can come up with, I don't know what to say.

But that's not why I'm writing today. I'm writing because, once again, I'm simply in shock. I've noted here before that nut-jobs like Hal Lindesy, famous author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, (for those of you unfamiliar with contemporary evangelical eschatology, think Tim LaHaye before there was a Tim LaHaye) have declared that Barack Obama is a precursor to the anti-Christ.

Well now Newsweek has an article asking if Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. Yes, that Newsweek!

I don't know what to say. I really don't.

I could start with how the whole anti-Christ thing is misunderstood. Despite thousands upon thousands of assertions through history that the biblical book of Revelation (not Revelations!) forecasts such a figure, the word "anti-Christ" does not appear in it even once. Either it or its plural are found in the Bible only in 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:22, 1 John 4:3, and 2 John 7. There the anti-Christ is not some apocalyptic future being, but rather persons present at the time of the writing (probably sometime in the early 2nd century CE). See, for example, 1 John 2:18b: "So now many antichrists have come," (NRSV, italics mine). This and the other references to antichrists in the epistles of John refer to a group present within the church at that time, who in John's view had a bad ("deceitful") Christology.

Thus anyone using the Bible as some sort of prophetic code telling when some supernatural enemy called the anti-Christ is coming should probably go back and read their Bible - especially those parts of it that actually mention antichrists!

But, of course, there has been a long tradition of Christians speculating about the anti-Christ. That doesn't begin with Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. And while that word is not used in the Bible the way that those who profit (literally! These people make millions of dollars selling books, making movies and giving lectures!) from it use it, there are still Biblical images that give rise to this mad speculation about the anti-Christ. But since when is Newsweek in the contemporary evangelical eschatology business?!?

And, since when is it OK for Newsweek to give space to speculations that our president elect may be this anti-Christ?!?

I'm not advocating censorship of the press. Newsweek is of course legally free to print just about whatever the hell it wants. But whatever happened to journalistic standards? Anyone seen those around?

________________________________________________________________________________________

Since posting, I've seen posts on this at Political Base and Daily Kos. And, Political Base notes that CNN has been down this road, too.

27 comments:

Paula said...

Hi, long time not see wand is only my fault.:-)

Good post,thank you for it. I am also fed-up to keep on hearing the Obama-antichrist talk and mind, I live in Europe, over the pond.:-).

Liam said...

In the end, like the whole "socialist" thing (asserted as if Obama's tax policies were fundamentally different than the ones we have always had), I think the whole antichrist thing just comes down to people trying to find a way to express something that is nothing more or less than racism.

Renee said...

When I read the newsweek article that you linked to, I must admit that I was quite shocked. How in the world this is considered legitimate journalism is beyond me.

Obama has not even been sworn in yet and this terrible nonsense is really just beginning. When we look at all of the terrible things that baby Bush did to destablize the world how is it that he was not branded with the anti-christ label? These wingnuts are illogical to the bitter end.

Monk-in-Training said...

I though Hal Lindsey was discredited when Jesus did not come back in 1988, oh wait...

Sandalstraps said...

Monk,

If only it were that easy...

Seriously, one of my scripture professors, on the subject of quacks who profit from ridiculous eschatological claims, said that he felt pretty good about the world's not ending anytime soon when he saw that Hal Lindsey spent his book royalties on a posh mansion in Texas.

Anonymous said...

PamBG posting from handheld and can't be bothered to log in...

As someone who has lived in a 'Socialist country' for over 20 years, I can guarantee that it's not frightening.

I find it extraordinary that so much of American Christianity is utterly convinced that money is more important than people.

If the Antichrist can be personified certainly it is she or he who preaches the false gospel of 'Money ueber alles!'

Let's beware both of demonising the President-elect and also let's beware of hero worship. He has a very tough job ahead of him.

Anonymous said...

Sandalstraps, go over to the natinal debt clock and see how high the US debt is? The feds have a problem. In case you haven't noticed, they can't seem to stop spending. What is scary is that Obama the economy is in the tank and this guy is doing socialism the normal "robin hood" way. He's doing it in reverse! Public money isn't going to the poor, it's going to bail out the fat cats on wall street.
-Ben

Sandalstraps said...

Ben,

I totally agree with you that the national debt is a problem - coupled with health care, it is the greatest economic problem we face as a nation.

I also agree with you on the various "bailouts" being floated. Here's what a posted when the Paulson plan came out.

But seriously, how is any of this Obama's fault? Isn't it the Bush administration the one handing out our money left and right? Or have a missed the inauguration?

And I thought the substance of the "socialist" charge was dealt with sufficiently in the post.

Or, perhaps your comment is an underhanded jab at the Bushies, and I just missed that aspect of it.

Anonymous said...

Sandalstraps,

Sorry about that last post. After reading it, I realized that it was a bit incoherent. Just so you know, I’m the same guy that you were discussing religion with at Renee’s blog. Also, I’m a libertarian. Having said that, I read you post about the bail out and I saw the picture of gun on the poor dog. What I would like to do is take that a step further and say why de we need to taking anyone’s money and giving it away; rich or poor? I advocate a sale’s tax. My mother used to say that taking something without first asking permission is called stealing. That’s what an income tax is. I feel like the dog in the picture. I didn’t support the war in Iraq, and I can’t stop the government from spending money on G-d know’s what they are spending it on. To justify this by saying it’s okay to target one group of people over another just seems wrong to me.

-Ben

Sandalstraps said...

Ben,

You're not the first Libertarian to make his/her way here, and I hope you're not the last. As far as conservative go, Libertarians are my favorite. They're honest, principled, and consistent. I just happen to totally disagree with them on economic issues.

There's a time and a place for a nuanced debate on the income tax. If I weren't so tired, it might even be here and now. However, at the moment I simply want to note that - as stated in the post - whatever you think of the income tax and progressive taxation, a progressive income tax has a long history in the United States.

Barack Obama's tax plan, as noted in the post, is not something radically new. It simply raises the tax rate on the top tax bracket from 36% to 39%. As Jon Stewart asked Bill O'Reilly, which one of those three percent makes it socialist?

What this aspect of his plan amounts to is a roll back of the Bush tax cuts in the highest tax bracket, restoring that tax rate to the pre-Bush levels. This is in effect a minor adjustment, though I acknowledge that for some people it will cost them a fair amount of money.

Whether or not you agree with this move - and, as a Libertarian, I'm sure you don't - you must acknowledge that this is not some radical move. Its portrayal as such mystifies me, and I think that Liam may be right in asserting that the "Obama is a socialist" narrative is inherently racist.

Surely you can oppose income taxes altogether on principle while also acknowledging that Obama's plan is no more radical than progressive taxation in general, and progressive taxation is the backbone of the American tax code.

Anonymous said...

Okay, we can agree that it is not radical, but I still think Obama is largely a socialist. The radical thing is just what the people on the right wanted to convince the American people of by repeating reverend Wright on news reels and Bill Ayers. What I would like to ask Obama is why does it make any sense to tax anyone during a recession? That 3% you spoke of may have been affordable by your standards during the Clinton years, but we are in bad times now. Furthermore, cutting the capital gains tax actually increases the revenue to the federal goverment. Obama would have to be seriously "unaware" of this or he has some beliefs that are along the lines of "the rich are going to have pay to help out the poor and that's the way it is." I think the latter is the case and that, in my mind, makes him a socialist. Why? Because this mentality is the definition of socialism in that it outlines the basic belief that the "collective" is more important than the individual in any given society.

-Ben

Sandalstraps said...

Here's a little syllogism:

Obama's tax plan is not radical.

Obama's tax plan is socialist.

Socialism is not radical.

Is this seriously the conversation we're having? Because, as someone with strong socialist leanings - radical individualism leaves out a great many individuals - I'd love for a libertarian to say that socialism isn't radical, and thus that in American political discourse accusing someone of being a socialist is not, in fact, trying to paint them as a dangerous "other."

But I suspect that's not what you're saying.

However, when you agree that, thus far, nothing about Barack Obama or his tax plan has, in fact, been radical, I'm not sure how you can keep from concluding that:

1.) Barack Obama is not a "socialist" (though his policies are by no means libertarian - and that does not differentiate him from any viable politician, though we'll have to have that argument some other time), and

2.) the drive to paint him as one is part of a broader strategy to portray him as a dangerous "other."

Fortunately, that inherently racist strategy did not work in the most recent election. Hopefully it will not work in the future. But the more people try to convince me that Obama - though you yourself acknowledge that, by American standards, there is nothing "radical" about his proposals - is some kind of socialist, the more I can't help but see this as stemming from some kind of residual racism.

In any event, the topic of this post is that all other charges against Barack Obama - especially the anti-Christ nonsense - seem patently racist on their face. The whole "socialist" narrative was the one I held out the most hope for. This discussion has, on that front, been less that persuasive.

But, moving on - since I suspect we'll never find common ground on the topic you've chosen to discuss here - what do you think of Newsweek wasting space asking if Barack Obama is the anti-Christ?

AR said...

Complete media incoherence on what constitutes "socialism" in America is to be expected by now. Most people are so utterly confused about the nation's economic history that they praise/vilify Reagan as a free market president, despite the fact that spending and regulation went up under his administration, and his failure to abolish the Department of Education and Energy as promised.

Since a politician's actual economics has nothing to do with what they get labeled as, it seems fair to me to look for unrelated motives when people assign such a label to someone. Obama is only about as socialist as every other president we've had for a while, which is to say, way too socialist, but the fact that only he is attracting that label strikes even this libertarian as reason to question people's true motivations for doing so.

AR said...

It overlooks the extent to which the social fabric bought by the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans actually secures their wealth by providing for them a stable society in which that wealth may be preserved.

I think that's backwards; if the government ceased to exist, the relatively wealthy would be able to afford security services at least as good as what they have now, probably better. The poor could not.

Sandalstraps said...

AR,

Thanks for your comments.

I'm headed out the door in a minute, and so I don't have time for sustained debate. I certainly don't intend for this to be the last word on the top of the relationship between government and wealth, but simply an act of self-location, so that you may know the source of the line you disputed in your last comment.

That statement follows an argument made by Nobel-prize winning economist Herbert Simon, who estimated that roughly 90% of income in wealthy nations is attributable to "social capital," which consists of things like the development and availability of technology, and organizational and governmental skills, rather than individual effort.

As ethicist Peter Singer summarized his work, he noted:

The conclusion to draw is that if we put aside utopian fantasies that have no relevance tot he real world, it makes no sense to talk of the money you would have if the government did not levy taxes. A system of government is conceptually prior to property rights - and a system of government requires taxation. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great Supreme Court justice, is often quoted as saying, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization." And without civilization, he might have added, you would have no money. Especially in a complex modern society, there is no way of sorting out what your property entitlements might be if there were no government and no taxes.

Again, I don't intend for that to settle the matter. I just leave it for you so that you may see where the statement you disputed comes from, and how it functions.

AR said...

I think this depends on how we define "wealthiest." Complex human societies have always had their top 0.01%, and those people will never go without unless such measures akin to the French Revolution are employed, or they are defeated by other members of the top 0.01%. The wealth of the industrialized world would mean little to them, besides medicine, since, as Friedman put it, "running servants replace running water." Modern prosperity, and the law and order that helps it, means far more to the bottom 99.99%. Indeed, the top 0.01% often got and stayed there by blatant violations of what we would call law and order! The situation changes as you expand who is considered wealthy.

More generally, even Jeffersonians could tolerate the existence of a state with power over law and defense. The thing is, though, that law enforcement limited to protection of negative rights, and national defense (and assuming a focus on defense only) actually wouldn't be very expensive, so to use such arguments to call a 30+% tax rate one's Civilization Bill, when the fraction of that tax actually being used towards the maintenance of civilization is comparatively tiny, strikes me as largely missing the point.

AR said...

I think that came out as more snippy than intended; I didn't mean to say you were missing the point, but Oliver Wendell Holmes. Protection of my property rights did not require the fall of Baghdad!

Sandalstraps said...

AR,

Protection of my property rights did not require the fall of Baghdad!

On that, at least, we agree!

brian beech said...

Just a brief comment - I just read a few posts and I did notice that if one calls Obama the anti-Christ, that stems from racism; also, if one calls Obama a socialist, that also stems from racism... Is there anything that can be said about Obama that doesn't stem from racism, or must it all be positive?

Also Chris.... I noticed you wrote - "As far as conservative go, Libertarians are my favorite. They're honest, principled, and consistent."

I'd like to think that I'm honest, principled, and consistent - even if you and I don't agree on things.

AR said...

Makes me wonder why Ron Paul didn't get more support from the left. Unlike Obama, he favors dismantling the US military's overseas operations in general.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

There's lot's that you can say about Obama that isn't racist, but the fact remains that he clearly isn't socialist - the only thing that separates him from politicians that aren't socialist is the color of his skin - and he's probably not the anti-Christ (whatever people think they mean by that term!). Those kinds of unsupported attacks are clearly an attempt to paint him as a dangerous "other," and thus are racist. You don't have to like him to keep from being racist. You certainly don't have to agree with him to keep from being racist.

But, unless you think that the American tax code itself, and progressive taxation in general, is "socialist," if you're going around calling Barack Obama and no other mainstream politician a "socialist," I've got to call that false narrative racist. (Not that I'm saying that you yourself are doing that - the "you" here is hypothetical.) And if you're willing to believe that the first black president in American history is the anti-Christ, and you haven't been calling any other president the anti-Christ, I've got to call that racist.

The willingness of white people to believe the very worst about prominent blacks is rooted in deep-seated racism.

And I stand by what I said about Libertarians, which wasn't intended as a stab at other conservatives, and especially not at you.

Sandalstraps said...

AR,

Ron Paul didn't get more support from the left because most liberals are not single-issue voters.

Brian Beech said...

The color of his skin is not the only thing that separates him from other politicians. His stated policies and his campaign promises have people calling him a socialist. When someone says 'spread the wealth' and then does not recant that when asked about it, that helps paint him as a socialist. Not to mention the fact that he even wrote that he seeked out Marxist mentors and attended a socialist conference. Name one other president who has said or done that (that we know of).

If we want to throw the race card around, let's hold it up for his tax plan. You assert that institutional racism is keeping the black population from succeeding in a 'stereotypical' way - I say then that Obama only wants to raise taxes on white people and give it to black people. This, I believe, should be the logical conclusion from your previous arguments on institutional racism as well as point out the frivolous way the race card was played. I do not think his tax plan is racist (for the record).

Also, I read the 'Anti-Christ' column and to me it seemed as if the journalism was fine. The journalist didn't even make any personal comments, she simply reported that a lot of people think Obama could possibly be the anti-Christ. You may question the choice of story to cover, but the coverage was unbiased. I assume you think she was biased because she didn't trash those who have those thoughts, but I would say she would have been biased had she done such a thing. Aren't people free to think whatever they want? I assure you, he is not the first one to be accused of being the anti-Christ. A lot of what brings these people to that conclusion is the amount of adoration people all over the world have for the man. Maybe you should look at it as a positive then - it shows that he is hugely popular and loved by millions - if not billions.

Just for the record - in all fairness - Bush did a great socialist act by signing the bailout. I think everyone in congress and Bush acted as socialists in that - and the should be called socialists too!

Sandalstraps said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

I'm cooling off. My previous comment was not helpful in the least, and so I deleted it. I'll respond later if I can do so in a way that sheds more light than heat.

In the meantime, I'll say that there's a fair amount more to the evaluation of journalism than just "bias," (and, incidentally, I never said that the journalist in question was "biased" - whatever may be meant by that). I'd say more, but at the moment I'm trying to fight off the temptation to write while angry, which is good neither for the cultivation of friendship nor the pursuit of truth.

Brian Beech said...

well, I'll just skip the responses then. Anger is not what's meant by this conversation.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

I have no doubt that you neither intend nor deserve anger; hence the injustice of my dispensing it.