Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Previewing the CNN Debate

It seems odd to have to put the candidates through another debate on foreign policy, not only so soon after the last CBS/National Journal debate, but also given the events taking place (or rather not taking place) in Washington with regard to the supercommittee. That, combined with the economic meltdown in Europe make it a sweet time to talk about economics (again).

But, given that it’s my thing as it were, I would be remiss if I turned my nose up at a second chance to delve back into international affairs. And, in any case, given that Syria is headed for conflagration, given the fluid situation in Egypt and given the formation of a new government and the arrest of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi in Libya, now is a critical moment for the American public to hear what the candidates think on these things.

In fact, it might be argued that if one throws in the spectre of a nuclear Iran, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the shaky situation in Iraq, the transformation in Pakistan into a failed state, and the economic and military rise of China, there has been no more important a moment since the conclusion of the Soviet Union for a Republican president candidate with a clear and dynamic foreign policy.

This evening, suffice to say should I manage to stay awake, I shall be looking out for the following from the candidates:

  • Mitt Romney: He needs to be nailed down on a single issue, particularly in terms of foreign affairs. He loosely agreed with Perry on the zeroing out of foreign aid, and was ignorantly bold on China in the last debate to his discredit. He needs to give the voters and pundits something to chew on.
  • Herman Cain: It is inevitable that the moderator will throw to Cain on the question of Libya. He needs to give a clear, concise and terse response to any remark, and not laugh his gaffe off as a by-product of the lamestream media with their gotcha questions. (I hold out little hope on this — it’ll be a car crash).
  • Rick Perry: He performed more-than-adequately in the last debate, providing the star quote of the evening on moralistic foreign policy. I’d like to hear him talk more and with greater specificity on his foreign aid programme, and moreover not divert back to the matter of energy independence whenever he is stumped.
  • Michele Bachmann: She needs to be more consistent. In the last debate, she was lucid on Pakistan and terrorism, then provided a clanger on China as a model for the United States in terms of reforming its social security and welfare.
  • The others: Ron Paul to highlight the moralistic side of his foreign policy (and I’d like someone to nail in on the consequences of his isolationism, other than Santorum); Jon Huntsman to provide light on China, and go after Romney for his brazenness in the last debate; Rick Santorum to speak authoratively on Iran at this critical juncture (and if possible to clarify his stance on Israel).

I suspect and fear however that the attention and focus will be on Newt Gingrich, or as Paul Krugman put it recently, the stupid man’s vision of what a clever person sounds like. On Gingrich, I expect nothing: simply more guff and bluster, snipes at the media, and competent, perfunctory, and unremarkable answers which sound full of wonder and fuzzbox to the layman.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

CBS/National Journal Debate: Perry Up, Cain Down, But a Lack of Vision Haunts All

Perhaps I expected too much of a Republican presidential debate. I had hoped, after what seems like fifty or so discussions on the economy, on jobs, on Obamacare, that this foreign policy in South Carolina would act as a delicious interlude overflowing with analysis and big ideas.

Sadly, the format prevented it. The CBS/National Journal debate was anchored by two great journalists, and Major Garrett in particular was tenacious, but they were hindered by the strict time format and the brevity of the event in general. Only sixty minutes on primetime, network television on the some of the biggest questions of our time? plus thirty minutes on the web? If it’s not important enough for two hours on CBS on a Saturday, then they shouldn’t have hosted it at all.

But, they did, so here are some thoughts. To rattle off some of the other candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were competent, if perfunctory and unremarkable. Ron Paul was correct to say that waterboarding is torture, that it is illegal under international law and that it is immoral, but in general he was as mad and unhinged as ever.

Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum were able to shine through in the moments that they were given. Sadly, they wasted too much of their allocated segments complaining about how they had so little time, and in the case of Huntsman, merely listing his past experience. Santorum was essentially correct on the two most important questions of the evening: Iran, and Pakistan. Were he not a homophobic, napkin-waving lunatic, he might be more electable.

Which brings us to Herman Cain, who easily gave the weakest performance of the evening. Whilst in the economic debate, his stock answer is “9-9-9! Grow the economy!”, in this forum, every response was coloured with, “I’d assemble a great team and ask them”. Cain seemingly prepared an answer on Iran, but had little knowledge (or rather no knowledge) of the Arab Spring, or Afghanistan, or Gitmo.

It was embarrassing, and he ought to be shamed by the fact that his entire ‘peace through strength and clarity' schtick was exposed in one brutal and naked exchange with Garrett. He was asked, point blank, is Pakistan friend or foe? After a pause, his best answer: “We don't know.”

Michele Bachmann displayed signs of lucidity on matters of foreign intelligence, particularly with regard to Pakistan, and the termination of bin Laden and others. But her grasp of the issues remains blinkered and decidedly ignorant, and she seems unable to speak without reaching for the old tropes on President Obama. And, if there’s any justice, her clanger of a comment on China as a model for the United States in terms of reforming its social security and welfare programmes, will loom over her until the end of all things.

But it is Rick Perry who, once the make-up is removed, will feel most pleased with his performance at the CBS/NJ debate. It was — up until the invention of the word, ‘forwithall’ — like we were witnessing the second coming of a more articulate and clear-minded candidate. He will, more likely than not, receive some blowback in the form of some negative ads from his comments on Israel — even though they were decidedly in favour of maintaining “substantial” aid links with that nation.

Rather, it was Perry who made the most salient remark of the evening. Speaking on China, and after some rambling preliminaries on Reagan (who else?), Perry stated:

I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues.

Whilst the grammar of the remark is off-kilter, the essence of the comment is on-the-mark. Nations which do not afford their citizens rights and freedoms, and governments absent of virtues, values, and a decent moral compass will inevitability implode, crumble, or be dismantled by their own peoples. Witness the Arab Spring.

The problem the Republican Party has, based on the debate, is that there exists amongst any of the candidates no actual credible foreign policy to back this up. Romney, for example, nearly declared war on the Chinese for currency manipulation and fictional trade offences. The candidate who can seize Perry’s sentiment, and formulate a moralistic yet pragmatic foreign policy which will appeal to the American people’s sense of their own especial place in the world, will ease their passage to capturing the nomination, and maybe even the White House.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Mormon hides in the Moment

A lengthy riposte, such as the one I received to my article “Romney hides in the Mormon Moment”, is just too delicious to leave. For, but hours after my piece was posted on hackeryblog (an article which was posted here a day later), a Mormon blogger, purveyor of the site The Gospel According to Jeffrey, took up my challenge and underwent the “I Believe…” test. In doing so, he was overly critical of the whole idea and as it goes my article in toto. I shall attempt to be precise and terse in my response.

The author’s initial gripe appears not so much to be the questions I selected, but rather that I stole the grammar and cadences from the creators of South Park. “It’s obvious that Mr. Hoar [sic] knows little to nothing about the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ,” Jeff writes, before going on to take my questions as normal as if they were entirely valid queries about the nature of his so-called church.

The most flagrant, shameful and nauseating incidence of mendacity and white-washing in Jeff’s riposte came in answering what was arguably my strongest question: “Do you believe that in 1978 God did change his mind about black people?” Jeff’s response, after some banal preliminaries by way of a badly-written quote from the false prophet and huckster Joseph Smith, was so astonishing it demanded a double-take: “Church policy has never discriminated on the basis of skin colour” [emphasis added].

Jeff makes the assertion in his reply that Joseph Smith was some kind of Lincoln before there was a Lincoln. Sadly, we are all too aware of the following for that to be even true-adjacent. First, Smith conceived of a race of Lamanites, whose descendants were punished with dark pigmented skin for turning away from God. Second, Smith and his followers actively preached against abolitionists in Missouri in the lead-up to the American civil war. Third, one of his disciples, Orson Pratt, proselytised that at the time of the battle between God and the devil, a people who did not take a side in the conflict were cast out “to take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the negro or African race”.

We also know that Joseph Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, drawing upon the former’s teachings, instituted a policy which meant that no African-American was allowed to hold any position within the Mormon priesthood, nor take part in a succession of important rituals and ceremonies, including endowment, marriage and sealing. It was not until 1978 that on account of divine intervention, President Kimbell announced a reversal and the extension of consecration to all males regardless of race:

He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or colour.

In the wake of such evidence, Jeff is left with two choices. Either, the elders did receive word from God on this matter, and therefore the Lord himself did “change his mind about black people”. Or, if we presume that God never took a position on African-Americans, it must be concluded that not only did Joseph Smith fictionalise the various revelations he received on race, but the elders of the Church then lied subsequently in the 1978 declaration in order to duck a rather thorny branch of Mormon doctrine.

I am thankful to Jeff for taking the test, and making his own affirmation of faith. As you can see, it was rather revealing, but he isn’t the person I want to hear from and the American people deserve to have answers from. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman need to say if they think President Monson speaks directly to God, if they think God lives in the vicinity of a star named Kolob and, more fundamentally, if they think Joseph Smith is a prophet, if they agree with the 1978 proclamation, and as such where they were whilst their church was actively discriminating against America’s African-American population.

To read the original article, “Romney hides in the Mormon Moment”, click here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Romney hides in the Mormon Moment

NEWSWEEK has labelled this the ‘Mormon Moment’, encapsulated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon taking home nine Tony Awards (the theatrical Oscar), including Best Musical. The show is a hit with the public too, currently grossing over $1 million a week (setting the record for a single seat at $487.25) and playing at 102.6pc capacity (we’re talking standing room only). The original cast recording has flown off the shelves, landing at third place on the Billboard 200; in doing so it became the first album of its type to enter the top 10 since Hair in 1969.

The Book of Mormon takes a succession of pot shots at the tenets of Mormonism, but ultimately the message of the show, so asserts David Brooks, is that “religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally”, a “warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion”. Parker has called the show “an atheist’s love letter to religion”.

All of this is fine in a Broadway musical: in fact, as Parker and Stone have pointed out, the show probably won’t work if they spent the whole time mocking Mormonism relentlessly. But this sickly, über-tolerant take on faith and spirituality – one which sustained Oprah for twenty-five long, vapid years – will be detrimental to America’s political culture if they fail to grill the two Mormon candidates currently running for the Republican nomination.

When Romney ran last time around, he made a speech on his Mormon faith billed as equivalent to JFK’s on his Catholicism, but to describe the former’s oratory as Kennedyesque would be to slander and defame the former President. Jack Kennedy confronted the fears the American people had in 1960 about Catholics openly. “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish,” Kennedy said, “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope”.

Kennedy used the word ‘Catholic’ twenty times in a smart and brilliant speech. Romney’s verbose 2007 address used the word ‘Mormon’ but once, skirting around the issue to instead orate at length on the traditional social conservative talking point of America as a Christian nation. When he did discuss Mormonism specifically, Romney said the following:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Saviour of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.

Never has an assessment of schisms in Christian doctrine been so understated. Not only this but his defence of his faith, if you can call it that, was abject, weak and fuzzy. Instead of opening up about his philosophy, Romney elected to hide beneath the shelter of tolerance, as to demand that, merely because his ideas on Christ are different, Americans should blindly respect that by never questioning him about it again. Such an argument is intellectually dishonest, brazenly arrogant and un-American.

Rather, Romney and Jon Huntsman should be required to answer a number of very specific and direct questions about the nature of their faith. It should be called the “I Believe…” test, since all these enquiries demand sincere declarations of faith. So, do you believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America? Do you believe that the current President of the LDS Church Thomas S. Monson speaks directly to God? Do you believe that in 1978 God did change his mind about black people? Do you believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob? and that Jesus has his own planet as well? Do you believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri?

Some of these questions are of course more important than others, to the extent that whether or not Huntsman or Romney consider there to be a planet Kolob does not have much of an impact on their ability to conduct relations with China. On the other hand, Romney in his Mormon speech made it clear that he sees God as inseparable from government:

In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

No: Romney is wrong. The First Amendment is a two-way street: it grants individuals the freedom to practice their faith absent of central influence; but it clearly separates church from state in order to keep religion out of the public sphere. Kennedy acknowledged this in his address: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote [and] where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference”.

Romney instead believes in a polar, odious conflation, where at once religion (read Christianity) should be permitted to creep back into the public sphere, completely free of criticism or objective analysis. The First Amendment protects religious observance, but Americans have a duty to uphold the Constitution and a right to query all those who seek elected office about their faith, be they Catholic, Baptist or indeed Mormon. This ‘Mormon Moment’ ought to be a chance for Huntsman, Romney and other notable practitioners to discuss their faith openly, for an America without an honest discourse on religion is no America at all.

From an idea originally published as "Romney, Huntsman and the Book of Mormon", June 17, 2011.

(Source: hackeryblog.wordpress.com)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Huntsman, Romney and The Book of Mormon

When John F. Kennedy gave his landmark speech on his Catholicism, he allayed the voting public two principal fears with regard to this alien faith: he would adhere to the separation of church and state, and would be answering to the American people, not the Pope. Mitt Romney’s speech on faith of 2007 was a somewhat woollier affair. He used the word ‘Mormon’ but once: “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavour to live by it”. He added the following:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

Indeed, the Mormon Church’s beliefs are not the same as other faiths, but Romney is fundamentally incorrect to argue, sheltering under the umbrella of tolerance, that we ought not to critique it. He and Jon Huntsman should be required to answer a number of very direct and specific questions about their faith: the Book of Mormon test. Do you believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America? Do you believe that the current President of the LDS Church Thomas S. Monson speaks directly to God? Do you believe that in 1978 God did change his mind about black people? Do you believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob? and that Jesus has his own planet as well? Do you believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri?

One of the qualities which make the United States one of a few exceptional nations is its absolute freedom of religion, as set down in the First Amendment of the Constitution. This freedom is a two-way street: it grants individuals the freedom to practice their faith free of federal or state influence; and it prevents one faith from dominating all others by separating church from state and keeping religious proselytising out of public life. Americans have the right and the duty to question all those who seek elected office about their faith, be they Catholic, Mormon or Southern Baptist (or indeed, maybe one day, their absence of it), and Romney is wrong to argue that religious freedom is a shield, preventing all faiths from any kind of criticism. The absence of religious criticism would mean the death of the American experiment.