Category Archives: Politics

Acting on Guilt: The Campaigns to “Save Darfur”

by Selena Simmons-Duffin

It’s precisely because activism can make a difference that we need to be honest with ourselves when we assess what has succeeded, what hasn’t, and what has had unanticipated side effects.– Alex de Waal, Fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard   

Every once in a while, a violent conflict in a far off place gets to us. We care, we want to help, we want to do something. These days, the conflict that has moved us is the one in Darfur. And these days, doing something can mean any number of things.

“Dolls for Darfur” sends to senators thousands of tiny paper dolls representing the victims of the conflict, while “Designers for Darfur” puts on cutting-edge fashion shows. Students from Aviation High School in Seattle formed “Flying to the Rescue!” to raise money for Darfur, and the county of Westchester in New York spent a whole day organizing for and conversing about the issue. The crisis has also entered into new technological realms. In the online video game “Darfur is Dying,” users can play a refugee who goes to fetch water for the camp and learn how their character dies (which is likely). Darfur is everywhere; the urgency evident in the rhetoric and quantity of activism is palpable.

What is the goal of all this activism? About “Darfur is Dying,” Douglas Thomas, Professor of Communications at USC, suggested to the BBC, “Even just the idea that there is that game out there, that makes people say, ‘Oh, there’s a problem in Darfur,’ even if it provokes that kind of discussion, we’re miles ahead of where we were.” A similar sentiment was expressed in 2005 when Stanford’s STAND group dressed in black and lay down in a “die-in” that blocked the so-called “Intersection of Death.” A Stanford Daily article quoted one of the founders of Stanford STAND as saying, “Was the ‘die-in’ met with typical objections? Yes. But more importantly, did it make people say the word Darfur that wouldn’t otherwise [have said it]? Absolutely.”

Although getting people to speak the word ‘Darfur’ together with ‘crisis’ might generate a widespread, superficial awareness of the conflict, where does it lead from there? Some of these activities are— dare I say it?— silly. Their tenor creates a strange contrast with the gravity and complexity of the conflict they are designed to address.

Much of this activism works using a simple emotional formula: generate enough anxiety to compel action, while assuring that participation can make a difference. At best, this leads us to act in a productive, informed way for what we believe is right. At worst, we are turned off from the accusatory tone and do nothing. In reality, many of us settle somewhere between the two: vaguely informed, undirected, and a bit turned off. On confronting the Stanford “die-in” for Darfur, one freshman responded, “My automatic thought was that it was slowing me down on my way to class, and my second thought was that it was pretty superficial of me to have had that first thought.”

Where did all of this activity come from? Since 2003, the crisis in Darfur has emerged as the highest profile humanitarian issue of today. Around 2004, a positive feedback loop between media coverage and advocacy led to increasing awareness of the crisis. Advocacy organizations began to proliferate. In July 2004, the Save Darfur Coalition was formed as a collaboration of those groups interested in advocating for peace in Darfur. The coalition represents around 130 million people in more than 175 member organizations, ranging from Amnesty International to American Jewish World Service to the American Society for Muslim Advancement, to, of course, Aviation High School’s “Flying to the Rescue!”

Since the Coalition has been formed, it has dominated the Darfur issue. Last year members sent more than one million postcards to President Bush in favor of a UN peacekeeping force. In rallies put on by the Coalition, 75,000 activists gathered in Washington and New York City.

As the crisis in Darfur persists, advocacy work continues to grow. Large-scale campaigns have been created which give their members to lists of Darfur supporting activities, from postcards to car washes, from concerts to poker tournaments. The “Instant Karma” campaign is one of the newest of these large campaigns, in this case put out by Save Darfur Coalition board member Amnesty International. For this campaign, participants buy an album of various artists covering John Lennon songs whose profits go to helping resolve the Darfur crisis.

The title, “Instant Karma” is significant as a marker of the direction high profile advocacy for Darfur has gone: in purchasing this album, it is suggested, one may be instantly absolved of all of their guilt for not having acted in the past and for probably not acting in the future to help “save” Darfur. This intimation alone is problematic inasmuch as it constructs a commodity as a spiritual cleanser— it’s almost reminiscent of the indulgences of pre-Reformation Catholicism.

But this particular effort also stands out because of the way it epitomizes the tactics of similar high profile Darfur campaigns: a blend of low-commitment participation with shock-factor. In keeping with similar advocacy campaigns, “Instant Karma” is ripe with drama. One section on the website called “Who are the victims?” opens with, “In the remote, parched landscape of Darfur, in western Sudan, the rhythms of everyday life are a distant memory. Now there are days and nights filled with the dread of ‘evil horsemen’… They charge into villages on horseback and camelback and in trucks, armed with automatic weapons and murderous intent.” This rhetoric is compelling and moving, which is a mark of good advertising. However, the simplification of the complexities and the clear editorializing of this information makes it resemble entertainment— a tragic, easy to follow story we can observe with vague sympathy and interest while we listen to our CDs.

What’s lost is actual engagement with the issue, an understanding of what your participation in these flashy campaigns does or does not accomplish. “Instant Karma” rewards a small contribution with substantial return, streamlined information, and minimal contact with the political ramifications of the act. Is this a productive way to address the issue?

Save Darfur organizations generally take the tact that a conflict this desperate requires no nuance, and there is a moral imperative for intervention. An issue this horrific requires the loudest condemnation our voices can muster, and we must rally everyone possible around us. If simplification is the only way to do this, then so be it. It is better than nothing.

That is the key question: if flashy simplification helps to end the crisis, then what does nuance matter? Isn’t silly, oversimplified advocacy better than nothing at all? Yet when thousands of paper dolls are merely getting recycled by interns, never even making it to a policymaker’s desk, when money from high profile campaigns never gets applied on the ground, and when activist policy petitions enrage groups that carry out relief for Darfuris, then it may well be that our energy and sentiment are misplaced.

A closer look at the role of this type of high profile advocacy work is in order. Investigating just below the superficial level unearths complexities and more questions: How exactly did the conflict originate? How are we being encouraged to act on behalf of victims of the conflict? What is Darfur advocacy doing and what is it failing to do?

SOME HISTORY

With endless acronyms and constantly shifting rebel groups, round after round of peace talks, declarations and demands, and conflicting analyses, the situation in Darfur is hard to follow. Media often offers information incrementally— that is, assuming background knowledge and context for developments in the conflict— so it’s difficult to find material to get up to speed. Even if we’ve signed petitions and read some newspaper articles, we may still be missing a basic understanding. What follows is a summary of key points of the origins and development of the conflict, as well as a sense of how the international response has grown over the past few years.

The current situation in Darfur has its roots in inequality both between Darfur and eastern Sudan, and within Darfur. The conflicts within Darfur are not new— for centuries, non-Arab farmers and Arab pastoralists have struggled to negotiate use of the very limited primary resources in the region. In the late 1980s, Darfur began suffering from drought, which exacerbated tensions over resources. During this period, the Arab Sudanese government, headed by President Omar al-Bashir, helped the Arabs in the struggle for resources by arming them.

In the spring of 2003 newly formed groups from Darfur, called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), accused the government of abandoning and oppressing the non-Arabs of Darfur. These rebel groups attacked a sleeping army garrison at the Chad border. The Sudanese government was caught off-guard and enlisted the local Arab militia called the janjaweed— armed twenty years before by the government— to combat the forces on the ground.

In a method reminiscent of the civil war within the south of Sudan, the Sudanese government enlisted and armed the janjaweed to combat the rebel forces. However, in lieu of paying them, the government authorized them to loot and pillage whatever they wanted from the villages. Thus, instead of fighting a war specifically against the rebel forces, the targets of the janjaweed were the non-Arab civilian villages thought to be the base for the insurgents.

The next few months after that first attack, several ceasefire agreements were drawn up but quickly failed, and in their wake, fighting surged. By December of 2003, hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees were pouring into the neighboring country of Chad. The fighting escalated through 2004, and the number of people killed and displaced continued to rise.

In late May 2004, the first international observers were allowed into Darfur, and their reports were bleak. There were descriptions of brutal killings, dismemberment, systematic rape, and thousands of children sickened from malnutrition and disease due to poor health conditions in the camps. It became clear that in this conflict, non-violent deaths of those people displaced and not adequately cared for would be a significant proportion of this conflict’s toll.

Resisting international intervention, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir denied access to humanitarian assistance to some of the worst affected areas. The janjaweed was said to be destroying food and water sources, leaving many in the camps without access to relief. In April of 2004, the African Union deployed 7,000 troops to assist in keeping the peace. They were ill equipped, under-funded, and had a limited mandate, all of which greatly hindered their efficacy.

In July of 2006, due to the janjaweed’s threats of violence, the UN and several relief organizations began to pull out of Darfur. At the same time, because of funding cuts, the World Food Program halved its rations for Darfur, leaving 350,000 people in the region without food. On top of this, the Chadian government accused Sudan of arming an attempted coup and cut off diplomatic relations, further complicating aid to refugees settled there.

At this point, the UN Security Council began to discuss augmenting the African Union troops with 17,000 UN peacekeeping troops. Their first attempt at deploying these troops failed because the Sudanese government refused to cooperate— complaining that this intrusion was related to a US anti-Arab agenda related to the Iraq war and support for Israel.

Recently, however, the Sudanese government has agreed to these UN forces. A UN resolution made on July 31st of this year will send a combined African Union and UN peacekeeping force to Darfur by the beginning of 2008. The hope is that, finally, this international response will be significant enough to make a difference. Some worry that, with the fighting spreading into Chad, the conflict has the making of a civil war as long and brutal as the twenty-year war in the south of Sudan.

To complicate things even more, there is also a messy economic element to the conflict. The UN has recommended sanctions to pressure Sudan’s government to resolve the fighting, but so far they have been unsuccessful. China, which owns a huge portion of Sudanese oil reserves, has refused to comply, and has even expanded drilling into neighboring Chad. The US has enforced sanctions, but this has little actual influence on the Sudanese economy because the portion of the Sudanese economy that the US ceases to invest in will simply be taken up by other countries.

There still remains the question of what constitutes an ethical mandate for intervention. In 2004, the United States Congress unanimously voted to term the conflict in Darfur a “genocide,” but the UN has since fallen short of calling it that, favoring “war crimes.” The basic line of reasoning in favor of the term is that the Sudanese government arms and sponsors the janjaweed, who selectively murder, rape, pillage, and burn non-Arab villages, leaving untouched the nearby Arab villages. President al-Bashir is indignant at these allegations, claiming that the government is simply fighting with rebel groups and is unaffiliated with the actions of the janjaweed, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Alex de Waal, Darfur scholar and Fellow at the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard, argued in a Newsweek article against addressing the Darfur crisis as a genocide:

If we applied the letter of the convention, any attempt to inflict harm on members of a racial, religious or ethnic group, with the intent to destroy them in whole or in part, would be genocide. That would mean that at least half a dozen episodes in the Sudanese civil war would be genocide, as well as episodes in Ethiopia in the 1980s, Uganda in 1983, Somalia in 1988 and 1992-3 and again in the last few months, numerous episodes in the DRC and various others would all be genocide… Many scholars prefer to use a narrower interpretation of the genocide convention to apply to projects of racial or ethnic annihilation— which Darfur is not.

There is a compelling logic behind ceasing the arguments: No matter who is being killed for what reason, no matter what government agencies declare, the situation in Darfur needs a huge push from the international community so that peace can be attained as soon as possible.

ADVOCACY vs. RELIEF

You may have managed to glean some bits of this history already, despite the necessity to filter through the huge amount of articles, fact sheets, and emails on the subject. The truth is, communicating about another violent African conflict in a clear and compelling way is difficult.

As an American, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Even if we would like to make a gesture towards peace in Darfur, most of us don’t feel informed enough to call Capitol Hill or to donate to a relief agency, and all the Darfur fliers and events get lost in the shuffle.

There is a place for advocacy here. The idea is that groups make understanding an issue and acting on that understanding easy. Grassroots advocacy work— from the polio vaccine to apartheid— makes clear that rallying the pressure of the American people can make a difference. However, contrary to the maxim of public relations, not all publicity for a humanitarian cause is good publicity. In this kind of work, content and quality do matter. Galvanizing Americans on a humanitarian issue is touchy, not only because it’s difficult to do effectively, but also because it’s hard to then know how to most effectively direct that attention.
When it comes to advocacy, the basic goal is to build a member base. Members contribute to the advocacy organization by giving them money that they raise in their local activism, and by giving the organization leverage in lobbying for particular policy points. Because of the dominant position held by Save Darfur organizations in advocating for this issue, it’s worth taking one campaign like “Instant Karma” and asking: What does this campaign do with the money and attention they have raised?

In a press release, Amnesty’s executive director Larry Cox said he is very hopeful about the “Instant Karma” campaign for this reason:

We know music’s power to unite and inspire people… The “Instant Karma” campaign combines John Lennon’s passionate desire for us to imagine a more peaceful world with Amnesty International’s expertise in achieving justice. “Instant Karma” allows ordinary people to lend their hand in saving lives— a notion we think would make John proud.

It is an attractive notion, but how true is it that the money from this campaign actually saves lives in Darfur? Although Save Darfur groups tend to clump themselves with relief efforts, funds for these campaigns primarily stay in the US, coming no closer to Darfur than Capitol Hill. Advocacy groups are different from relief organizations— while the former works to garner public pressure for policy changes, the latter carries out services for Darfuris on the ground. Both advocacy and relief organizations have their ultimate goal as saving lives, but money for one does not infer money for the other.

According to their website, Amnesty International uses the proceeds from “Instant Karma” albums to conduct research on the situation in Darfur, contact news media about developments, and lobby Congress. Although they may send canvassers to Darfur, they do not stay long; instead they focus their efforts on informing people here. This is good work, but it is not the same as “saving lives,” as Larry Cox implies. The Coalition’s budget last year was $15 million; none of it went to relief groups working on the ground in Darfur.

In a very roundabout way, money from an “Instant Karma” album does affect the relief Darfuris receive. The proceeds from your album go towards Amnesty’s lobbying Congress on behalf of the people of Darfur. Each fiscal year, Congress sets out a budget for foreign aid that is sent to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is in charge of figuring out how to best use the money that Congress allocates for international aid. This budget stipulates how much money goes to a given country, and how that money should be spent (e.g., water wells, food donations, medical care, etc). Your “Karma” dollars end here, trying to convince Congress to favor Darfur in this process.

There are still several steps before anyone in Darfur benefits from this effort. Once USAID receives its budget, it must find effective and reliable organizations to carry out the relief itemized in the budget. The agency receives grant proposals from organizations to set up programs to implement the relief. In the past, the money went directly to foreign governments; however, because of certain incidents this slightly more circuitous route of giving foreign aid is now the norm.

The organizations that do the relief work are often large international non-profits, such as Save the Children, World Vision, and the World Food Program. Although the method of giving aid to the organizations cuts the local government out of the money equation, often they enlist the help of local people and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for implementing their projects. These projects, with the funding from USAID, then move in to Darfur and Chadian refugee camps and carry out help for the people there.

To recap, you buy a CD; your money pays for Amnesty International to lobby Congress; Congress makes a budget giving money to Darfur; USAID takes that budget and enlists relief organizations, who carry out aid on the ground. That, at least in basic terms, outlines what the money from “Instant Karma” does for Darfur.

The real impact of advocacy lies in using American public and media pressure to influence policy. Through petitions to President Bush and Congress, advertisements listing demands, press releases to put pressure on the media to continue coverage, etc., advocacy groups try to rally the American public to cry out to end genocide.

One way to get the American public’s attention is through celebrity support. Enter Bono. For that matter, enter Mia Farrow, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and others. These are people who America pines to see in their bathrobes, having their hearts broken, and paddling in the oceans with their kids. The idea of turning that indefatigable attention towards issues that deserve it is commendable. Many of them have been hailed by experts as doing genuinely good work and being well-informed. And many of them have chosen Darfur as their issue.

Celebrity involvement is designed to focus the media’s attention on the issue, so that people are continually exposed to the word “Darfur.” After meeting with Sudanese President al-Bashir in December 2006, actor Don Cheadle told the UN News Centre that he hoped he could use his celebrity status not so much to influence the leaders of Security Council members and other individual nations, but to maintain the public pressure and ensure that the media stay focused on Darfur.

Several who have met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir report that he follows American media and has a sense for how he is being portrayed. In the Save Darfur-sponsored meeting with Governor Bill Richardson, President al-Bashir told him that he felt he was being unfairly represented. If media coverage and public pressure compel President al-Bashir to end the conflict, then that is certainly a worthwhile effort.

With the attention of key policymakers on the issue, how is the Coalition working to direct that attention? The sudden influx of money, attention, and responsibility passed onto the hastily formed coalition has raised some questions about its efficacy. In June, a New York Times article by Stephanie Strom and Lydia Polgreen, called “Advocacy Group’s Publicity Campaign on Darfur Angers Relief Organizations,” examined the recent criticism of the Save Darfur Coalition:

The organization that helped bring the conflict in Darfur to the world’s attention is in upheaval, firing its executive director, reorganizing its board and rethinking its strategies. At the heart of the shake-up are questions of whether [David Rubenstein], the former executive director of the organization, the Save Darfur Coalition, wisely used a sudden influx of money from a few anonymous donors in an advertising blitz to push for action.

The advertising blitz in question listed “international relief organizations” among supporters of policy recommendations, such as forced deployment of UN troops into Darfur and a no-fly zone over the region. Many relief organizations were angered by being abstractly clumped into supporters of these policy plans, worrying it might anger the government and put in jeopardy what little aid was allowed to go to Darfur. The Strom and Polgreen Times article relates an exchange between aid groups and the Save Darfur Coalition:

Sam Worthington, the president and chief executive of InterAction, a coalition of aid groups, complained to Rubenstein by e-mail that Save Darfur’s advertising was confusing the public and damaging the relief effort. ‘’I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions,’’ Mr. Worthington wrote.

One relief group, Action Against Hunger, stated that unilateral deployment of United Nations troops “could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people.” Some relief groups also argued that the creation of a no-fly zone above Darfur would interfere with the distribution of aid to millions of people depending on it.

Relief groups were also concerned that, if they were associated with advocacy groups that preach a hard-line with the Sudanese government, then the relief work would become even more difficult. Sudan’s government is notorious for making life difficult for relief workers— delaying visas, confiscating supplies, etc.

This is a very worrisome situation. Although advocacy groups have done a remarkable job of getting public, media, and celebrity attention on Darfur, the money they have raised and the policies they endorse do not seem to be helping the victims of the conflict.

WHY DARFUR?

The final question about this overproduction of advocacy is: why Darfur? How did we arrive with all our advocacy efforts focused there?

All around the world there are atrocities that do not garner a fraction of the media coverage or advocacy attention given to Darfur. To address this problem, Doctors Without Borders puts out an annual report of the ten most under reported crises of the year. For 2006, the list included Colombia, Haiti, Chechnya, the DRC, and tuberculosis— a health issue that suffers from lack of novelty but still claims the lives of two million people a year. But who would go to a car wash for tuberculosis or for Chechnya? Darfur seems to have gained the position of an “in-vogue” crisis. Why does Darfur deserve our attention and grassroots mobilization more than any number of other equally serious humanitarian issues?

There are a number of possible answers. In an article called “How will History Judge Us?” Slate Magazine’s Anne Applebaum observes:

I can offer no scientific explanation for why the tragedy of Darfur conjures up the specter of history’s judgment and why other tragedies do not. But the answer must lie in the fact that this conflict has so few strategic or geopolitical implications. Because it seems to be in no one’s “interest” do so, a call for a U.N. intervention in Darfur surely feels— at least to Americans and Europeans who haven’t followed China’s involvement in Sudan’s oil industry— like an act of real charity and not more evidence of the West pursuing its interests.

Although this is a rather cynical view of the reason for our intervention, it does raise the point that there are non-altruistic forces that play a role in the attention being paid to Darfur.

Related to this is the issue of an unequal balance of power between organizations and the causes they serve. NGOs that do both humanitarian and advocacy work have to decide which crises receive their limited attention and support, decisions not based purely on need. This issue is discussed in an intriguing way in The Marketing of Rebellion, by Duquesne University political science professor Clifford Bob. In a related essay for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, he says:

While many have good intentions, NGOs carefully choose where they devote their scarce money, personnel, and time. In addition, they have internal needs–pleasing funders and constituents while sustaining and expanding their organizations. Therefore, NGO views of what constitutes a major problem, NGO predilections for certain tactics, and NGO demands for accountability— themselves a reflection of Northern perspectives or fads— profoundly shape the field on which needy groups compete for support.

With the level of attention focused on Darfur, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the number of humanitarian crises that are not in the spotlight. Although in 2004 Darfur was declared the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, it’s possible that the overproduction of advocacy is obscuring other issues from the international frame of view.

There are daily developments in Darfur. In the time it has taken to compose this essay, already the facts here have become dated. Eventually there will be news that peace is imminent, the fighting will cease, and people will be able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild and recover.

In the coming weeks and months, the American people galvanized by Save Darfur advocacy need to consider carefully how we may fit in to the effort of bringing this conflict to a close. Sudan is a country where we have, in the last 40 years, born witness to what internal strife can turn into when inadequately addressed by the international community. Yet every conflict is different. The desire to recompense past failures— like the drawn-out civil war in the South of Sudan or the brutal genocide in Rwanda— must not blind us to the particularities of this place and these people, the history of this conflict, and the various external pressures that threaten to complicate any best intentioned work for peace.

The number of people saying the word “Darfur” is a start, but now we must direct that awareness towards action that is effective— first of all— and conscious of the stakes involved. We cannot just act to alleviate our guilt that people in a far away place are suffering. We cannot just act for the sake of acting.

Download “Acting on Guilt” as a PDF.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Vol 2 Issue 1

Against God and Country

by Gabriel Winant

Download “Against God and Country” as a PDF.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Vol 1 Issue 3

The Death of the Historical Jesus

By Nick Benavides

Being a Christian in the United States today entails more than just having a set of beliefs about God and the afterlife. In many cases church membership implies holding conservative positions on a number of political and social issues including abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, attitudes towards the government, the “war on terror,” and many others. Although there are many churches in the United States which are liberal in their social and political views, the most vocal members of the church are often the most conservative. Known as “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” Christians, this group has grown increasingly political in recent years. One need only browse the websites of groups such as the Christian Coalition of America to see that many Christians are no longer satisfied with simply teaching the gospel story and inculcating conventional moral values. Instead, their focus has grown and shifted outward: the Christian community now plays a critical activist role in debates over many social, political and economic issues. No longer voting as individuals but as a powerful collective, the Christian right has indeed become a significant political force, taking “faith based” stances on such issues as abortion, homosexual marriage, and the “war on terror.”

This Christian entrance into the political arena has inevitably engendered conflict with political groups comprised of people who do not share the Christians’ values. Every day the news is filled with reports of passionate conflict between the two groups, leading both sides to lament that the nation has grown increasingly divided both morally and politically. On the one hand, many American’s support for gay marriage and abortion makes the Evangelicals feel that the country is slipping into moral decline. The Reverend Jerry Falwell has warned the Republican Party “if the candidate running for president is not pro-life, pro-family… you’re not going to win” and that “you cannot be a sincere committed born-again believer who takes the Bible seriously and vote for a pro-choice anti-family candidate.” By anti-family, of course, the Reverend Falwell is referring to a pro-gay marriage stance. It is positions like Falwell’s, argued mostly from a commitment to the Bible, that so worry the Christians’ secular counterparts. To those outside the evangelical tradition, it does not make sense to argue for political and social issues based on faith in Jesus and the Bible. Both sides eye the other with a considerable degree of suspicion and constantly question the motivations of their political opponents.

I myself was raised as an evangelical Christian and personally believe that both groups sincerely desire to do the right thing. Unfortunately, there is very little reasonable dialogue which takes place between both parties, so it often seems like a compromise is impossible. Yet it is my conviction that if we together examine the basis for the beliefs held by Evangelicals we can clear up much of the misunderstanding between Christians and non-Christians. For the Evangelicals, what it ultimately comes down to is this: the belief that Jesus physically rose from the dead. It is this resurrection that proves to them that Jesus was God and provides the basis for their belief that the Bible is divinely inspired, clear and inerrant in all its teachings. From these teachings flow the evangelical stances on abortion, homosexuality and a host of other political issues. Everything in the evangelical view of the world rests on this one statement: “Jesus is risen.” The objection that secular liberals have to evangelical Christian politics and social mores is thus also grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. They do not believe it occurred and often view those who believe it did with disdain. However, I feel this disdain is itself rooted in a lack of understanding of the significance of the resurrection and what it originally meant. It is clear then that to really have a meaningful discussion about these topics, both sides must first have clear knowledge of what the resurrection was and was not.

I seek to demonstrate that our modern understanding of the resurrection is extremely different from how early Christians viewed the event and from how we should view it now. For them it would have been absurd to say that Jesus was alive and walked out of the tomb. They knew full well that Jesus was really, truly dead. The concept of the resurrection was initially a metaphorical affirmation of the value of the life that Jesus lived and the truth of the faith that he held. Over time, however, the metaphor was transformed into a literal belief with the effect that it is now difficult for Christians to think about the resurrection as meaning anything other than an empty tomb and a physical resurrection. The focus shifted from what happened during Jesus’ life to what happened after his death. Instead of emphasizing the radical acceptance and table fellowship necessary to bring God’s empire to life right now, Christianity today emphasizes the afterlife and adherence to the moral codes necessary to get there. It is these moral codes that form the basis of the Christian’s emphatic condemnation of homosexuality, amongst other things. For the Evangelicals, returning to a traditional understanding of the resurrection does not mean that one has to abandon the Christian faith but rather that one must re-imagine it. For the secular liberals, this view of the resurrection should lead to a greater acceptance of Christianity and respect for the person of Jesus. By positing a re-imagined Christianity which puts more emphasis on Jesus’ radical acceptance of social outcasts and the Empire of God than on Jesus’ death and how to reach heaven, we can come to a place where both parties can sit down and reason effectively with one another.

Beliefs do not spring fully formed from the ground, but rather evolve over time, becoming more and more complex as different layers of interpretation are added on. Noted scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Stephen Patterson and the men and women who participated in the Jesus Seminar have spent years attempting to peel back those layers of interpretation to get at whom Jesus was and what the resurrection really meant. This editorial is deeply indebted to their work and will undertake their task in reverse: starting from Jesus’ life I will chronologically work through the pertinent New Testament texts and demonstrate how the concept of the resurrection evolved over time. It is impossible to understand the meaning of the resurrection without understanding Jesus’ life, so it is with his life that I will begin.

Yeshua, as Jesus was actually called in his day, was a Jewish peasant who lived in the beginning of the first century. He grew up in Galilee, in the northern part of Israel in a multicultural area displaying both Greek and Roman influences. Most of his fellow Jews were poor farmers or craftsman who had had their land expropriated by the Roman Empire. Yeshua’s experience would have been shaped by two powerful social structures: the Roman Empire’s occupation of Israel and the Jewish religion’s cleanliness codes.

During Yeshua’s time, Israel was a captive state of the powerful Roman Empire. Roman control was almost total, and during his youth many of Yeshua’s friends and relatives would still have had first or second-hand memories of the Roman legions’ terrifying conquest of the land. The indignity of life in an occupied country hung over the Jews like a weight, reminding them of God’s promise to protect Israel and causing them to look forward to a Messiah who would free them from Roman rule. Roman occupation also brought with it staggering economic change. Jewish peasants had their land expropriated by Roman authorities and were forced to work fields they had once owned for a paltry subsistence wage. For these disenfranchised Jews living on the margins of survival, starvation was a serious and ever-present concern, making the sharing of food a powerful act defining who counted as one’s family.

Although the Jews were starving, the Roman Empire was enjoying the fruits of Caesar the Augustus’ conquests and was exceedingly wealthy. The economic and political structure of the empire was based on a series of pyramidal patron-client relationships radiating out from Rome. Wealthy and powerful patrons in Rome would offer wealth and political favors to their clients in return for loyalty and support for their interests from below. Those clients in turn were patrons for people lower on the social ladder. These relationships extended from Rome into the farthest reaches of the Empire with the Galilean Jews at the very bottom of this hierarchy, with little to give and nothing to gain. To maintain this structure of patron-client relationships the Roman Empire emphasized the values necessary to maintain it: fides, pietas, familia – loyalty, piety, and Roman family values. Patron-client relationships ran mostly through family groups and it was to them that you had to be loyal.

On top of this clearly oppressive economic and political structure, Yeshua and his fellow peasants also had to bear up under an intricate cleanliness code. The religious leaders of his day had expanded upon the laws of Moses, creating a dizzyingly complex system of rules dividing those who were “clean” and Godly from those who were “unclean” and not in a right relationship with God. Although following these codes may have been possible for some of the Jewish elite living in Jerusalem, it was out of the question for the Galilean Jews just barely eking out a living; they simply didn’t have time for such things. As a result, most of Yeshua’s fellows were not only being crushed under the Roman system of patronage but they were also being pushed to the margins of their own people and forced to think of themselves as unacceptable in the eyes of God.

Into this world of oppression Yeshua brought a radical anti-establishment message, proclaiming the arrival of the Empire of God through table fellowship. Yeshua wandered the length and breadth of Israel teaching that the Empire of God that the Jews were so eagerly awaiting had already arrived, if only they would just recognize and accept it. To illustrate this point Yeshua established the tradition of table fellowship, breaking bread with the lowest members of society: prostitutes, Jews who collected taxes for the Romans and others who were ritually unclean. Although today Yeshua’s table fellowships are seen as a rather innocuous act, they were actually revolutionary and seditious, directly attacking the oppressive power structures of Rome and the Jewish religious elite.

By eating with the ritually unclean, Yeshua proclaimed the end of the cleanliness code and of the separation between clean and unclean, social insiders and social outsiders. His table fellowships were a living rebuke to the religious authorities. “And you experts in the law,” Yeshua said, “woe to you, because you load the people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). Yeshua’s table fellowships freed the people from the burden of following the complex code and assured them that they were loved and accepted by God. Yet Yeshua did not see himself as breaking from traditional Judaism and he had no intention of founding a new religion. Rather, he saw the Empire of God he proclaimed as fulfilling the ancient promise that the traditional legal code could not deliver on. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Yeshua told the Pharisees, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 15:17). Where the impossible demands of the law failed to bring about the Empire of God, the radical acceptance of Yeshua’s table fellowships could succeed.

If Yeshua’s message was an affront to the religious authorities, it was viewed by Roman authorities as nothing less than a direct assault on their empire. Remember that many of the Jews at this time were living on the verge of starvation; sharing food was an extremely significant act reserved for members of ones family. By sharing food with prostitutes and the ritually unclean, Yeshua redefined family and created a new community where the outcasts of society would be loved and have a place to belong. This redefinition of family disrupted the patron-client system that maintained the Roman Empire’s control over the people. As Stephen Patterson observed,

Family loyalty was the linchpin of the entire system of patronage that held the empire together. Jesus pulled that pin, creating a new family with new loyalties. Their faith was directed to another empire, another God.

Calling this redefinition of family the “Empire of God” was not merely of theoretical or theological concern. In an empire where the emperor was considered divine and religion and politics were inextricably linked, proclaiming the “Empire of God” was nothing short of proclaiming a revolution.

Yeshua’s revolutionary ministry only lasted about three years until Pontius Pilate ordered him crucified outside of Jerusalem during the Passover Festival at about 32CE. The Jewish religious leaders had accused him of blasphemy and the Romans had accused him of treason. Like many other Jews of his day, Yeshua was executed without fanfare after a meaningless trial. Yeshua ultimately died refusing to deny the same message that he had lived: the present appearance of the Empire of God.

During his life, Yeshua’s message was crystal clear. The Empire of God has arrived; it is up to you to make it a reality. Yeshua was not the point of his own message, he came to spread the Empire of God, not create a Yeshua brand religion. After his death however, things began to get muddied. While the earliest texts relating to Yeshua do not even mention his arrest, trial and execution, later books treat the subject differently. Over time, more and more emphasis gets placed on the resurrection and on achieving salvation in the afterlife. Paul speaks of Yeshua being “awakened” and “exalted” by God, introducing an apocalyptic framework, but does not mention a bodily resurrection. Mark pushes further, mentioning an empty tomb while Matthew, Luke, and John all offer stories of Yeshua’s physical body being seen after his death. If Yeshua’s message while he was alive was the faith he built his life around, why did this evolution in interpretation and emphasis occur?

The earliest known texts treating the life of Yeshua that are the most critical are the Gospel of Thomas and the Q Gospel. The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Egypt in 1945 and is composed of a collection of wisdom sayings attributed to Yeshua. It is dated to around 50CE, before which time it likely circulated orally among different Christian communities. The Gospel of Thomas does not show even the faintest knowledge of the resurrection of Yeshua. Instead it is concerned with showing the way Yeshua re-imagined the world as the Empire of God. It is not apocalyptic in nature and focuses on Yeshua’s message as the point, not Yeshua himself. If the resurrection were truly a critical part of the early Christian faith, one would assume that it would appear in this gospel. Additionally, even if the resurrection occurred but was not an important part of the faith, one would expect it to be an event extraordinary enough to at least warrant passing mention. It is, however, conspicuously absent from this text, leading one to conclude that the earliest Christians did not believe that Yeshua was physically resurrected.

The Q Gospel is a hypothetical text redacted from the common parts of Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. Although no physical text of the Q Gospel exists, there is a strong scholarly consensus that it existed as an oral tradition dating back to about the death of Yeshua. Similar to Thomas, it completely lacks any reference to the resurrection of Yeshua. Again, if the early Christians thought that the resurrection of Yeshua was the point, it is extremely odd that it is not included in this source.

The man who came to be known as the apostle Paul was an extremely zealous Pharisee, one of the Jewish religious elites, and a proponent of the cleanliness code. He was so outraged by the Jews who abandoned the cleanliness code in favor of Yeshua’s table fellowships that he traveled the ancient world persecuting the early Christians and dragging them to prison. Eventually, however, Paul was won over the by the Christians’ love for one another and embraced Yeshua’s vision for the Empire of God. Having left behind his religious tradition, Paul had to justify the validity of the movement he had joined. Paul was not merely writing to record history, but to prove a point: That Yeshua’s vision for the world was more valid than the vision of the clean-unclean divide. Additionally, Paul needed to explain why, if Yeshua was on the side of God, he was allowed to be killed by the Romans. The answer that Paul strikes upon is not that Yeshua was physically resurrected but that he was “awakened” and “exalted” by God after his death.

Paul fleshes out his answer in the texts he wrote between 50 and 60 CE by interpreting Yeshua through an apocalyptic framework and situating him in a long line of powerful prophets who had the authority to speak on behalf of God. All the powerful Jewish prophets before Yeshua exhibited a pattern of persecution and vindication in their lives. The prophet would arrive on the scene, speak on behalf of God, be persecuted by wicked men and eventually be vindicated by God. Yet God not vindicate Yeshua while he was alive. To the contrary, Yeshua died an ignominious death as a revolutionary at the hands of the Romans. Paul’s solution to the lack of vindication during Yeshua’s life was to argue that Yeshua was vindicated after his death. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul states that “God greatly exalted [Yeshua], and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name” (Philippians 2:9). If God exalted Yeshua then his life fits the familiar persecution and vindication framework making him a legitimate prophet and his vision for the world authoritative. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” and that Yeshua appeared to Peter, to the Twelve disciples, more than five hundred Christians, to James and finally to Paul. Although it may appear at first glance that Paul is describing a physical resurrection, it is important to note that the Greek word that gets translated as “raised” is egêrthai, which literally means “awakened.” Yeshua was not physically raised from the dead but was rather “awakened” by God to be “exalted” to God’s right hand. This is an expression of the importance of Yeshua. Similarly, when Paul speaks of Yeshua appearing to people he uses the Greek word apokalupsis which means “to be revealed.” Again, this does not mean that Yeshua physically appeared to Paul, but that Paul realized the truth of Yeshua’s faith.

Apocalypticism views the struggle between good and evil in terms of a cosmic battle between God and Satan. In the Jewish tradition God’s victory over evil is marked by the resurrection of the righteous slain. Paul was very familiar with this manner of thinking, which was popular in his home town of Jerusalem and interpreted Yeshua through this framework. Yeshua’s exaltation to heaven meant that Yeshua was the “first fruits” of the general resurrection anticipated in the apocalyptic framework (I Corinthians 15:20). Since Yeshua was raised to Paradise everyone else who died after him would have that same opportunity. In order to join Yeshua in Paradise and be saved, one did not need to have faith in Jesus but rather accept the faith of Jesus, a critical distinction that is lost on most Christians today due to a poor translation of Romans 3:21-26.

Indeed, Paul over and over again emphasizes the life and faith of Yeshua over and against the death of Yeshua. Later in Romans Paul states that, “if while we were still enemies [with God as a result of the cleanliness code], we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10) Although it may have been Yeshua’s death that reconciled man to God, it was Yeshua’s life and his faith that had the power to save. For Paul, Yeshua himself was not divine, but his faith was. Accepting Yeshua’s faith and not Yeshua himself is what brings one the same exaltation that Yeshua experienced. Finally, as if to drive his point home, Paul later emphasizes that the resurrection of the dead is exclusively spiritual and not physical in nature (I Corinthians 15:42-44).

As Stephen Patterson points out, for Paul, the statement “Yeshua is alive” means that “Yeshua was right.” The faith of Yeshua is the point, not Yeshua himself or what happened to him after his death. Paul’s solution to the problem of how to justify abandoning the cleanliness codes was a brilliant one. By looking back into the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance, Paul interpreted Yeshua’s life in the prophetic and apocalyptic frameworks, theologically justifying Yeshua’s faith. Unfortunately this move opened the door to further interpretive developments that ultimately shifted the focus away from Yeshua’s life and the Empire of God to Yeshua himself, his “physical resurrection” and the afterlife.

Mark is the first Christian author to build upon Paul’s apocalyptic interpretation of Yeshua. Mark wrote his gospel soon after the failed Jewish revolt of 66-70CE that led to the deaths of over 100,000 Jews and the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. For Mark, as for Paul, the task at hand was not merely to record history, but to provide a justification for remaining faithful to Yeshua’s message in the face of lethal oppression. Mark achieves this goal by reading an apocalyptic narrative into Yeshua’s life, having Yeshua predict the destruction of the temple, and by ending his gospel with an image of Yeshua’s empty tomb: the obvious implication of which is that Yeshua physically rose from the dead (Mark 13, Mark 16).

Mark should not necessarily be condemned for his embellishment of Yeshua’s life; he merely did what he thought was necessary to hold together the young movement built on Yeshua’s faith. Believing that Yeshua had the power to read the future and predict the temple’s destruction made it easier to accept the reassuring promise of a quickly approaching apocalypse that Mark placed in Yeshua’s mouth. This apocalyptic belief that God would soon radically break into the world and right injustice likely helped many Christians maintain their faith during those trying times.

Mark was too subtle to resort to presenting Yeshua’s physically resurrected body to the reader, but his depiction of the empty tomb hinted that Yeshua was physically risen. This depiction of the tomb was originally intended to underscore Mark’s main point that Yeshua was the Messiah and that his faith was true. Later, extra material was added on to the Gospel of Mark that did have Yeshua physically appear after his death. These scenes however, were not part of Mark’s personal composition but were added to bring Mark “up to speed” with the later Gospels which did depict Yeshua as physically resurrected.

Although Mark’s version of Yeshua’s life significantly alters what likely happened, the subsequent Gospel writers are the ones who get truly carried away. When Matthew and Luke pen their Gospels between 85 and 90 CE the emphasis on Yeshua’s physical resurrection becomes almost overwhelming. Building on Mark’s account, their Gospels have Yeshua physically appearing to numerous people after his death and it is at this point that the focus of Christianity begins to seriously lose its original orientation. More and more Yeshua is being depicted as divine, with his resurrection beginning to overshadow the significance of his faith and way of life.

One story which particularly demonstrates how creative the gospel writers got in their work is an account of a mass resurrection which appears in Matthew. Matthew 27:52-53 tells us that after Yeshua’s resurrection,

“The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city [Jerusalem] and appeared to many people.”

It would be difficult for any modern observer to take this talk of people physically rising from the dead seriously. One could imagine what a stir it would create if hundreds of dead people from the cemeteries of San Francisco rose from their graves and started wandering around on Market Street. The newspapers, radio and TV would be filled with news of the extraordinary event and everyone would have some story to tell about what happened that day. The world would hold its breath and stop to ponder the significance of the resurrections; history would be forever impacted. One would expect a similarly strong reaction in Jerusalem to the resurrections depicted in Matthew, yet this is not what we observe.

If this sort of thing actually happened, it would serve as excellent proof that the faith of Yeshua was worth holding, and that Yeshua was truly something special. Because of this it would make sense for the event to appear in all Christian accounts of the time. Yet none of the other canonical gospels record this event, an extremely puzzling omission if Matthew’s story were literally true. Additionally, an event of this uniquely unusually nature would certainly make it into the Roman annals of history, but neither Flavius Josephus nor Tacitus, Roman historians who do mention Yeshua’s life and his execution, record resurrection of Jesus or the mass resurrection mentioned in Matthew. The lack of corroboration from such critical sources should lead us to believe that Matthew’s story was a fabrication. What should be taken away from this account is not the belief that people physically rose from the dead, but rather the recognition that in a pre-modern society filled with myths and a complex pantheon of gods, such resurrection stories were often told and were readily accepted by the people. The inclusion of such a story in Matthew ultimately serves to underscore the efforts the gospel writers were making to try and justify the faith of Yeshua as being legitimate.

John takes the process begun in Mark and furthered by Matthew and Luke to a whole new level. In John’s Gospel, written around 90CE, Yeshua is completely divine and existed with God before his earthly birth (John 1). The post-resurrection appearances in John are the most vivid and dramatic of all the gospel accounts; at this point they have become the centerpiece of a new faith based on the person of Yeshua and not his message. When Yeshua is arrested his voice alone has the power to cause a large group of Roman soldiers to fall trembling to their knees (John 18). On the cross, Yeshua does not so much die but willfully give up his spirit, in total control until the very end (John 19). It is in John that we truly begin to lose sight of Yeshua’s humanity in favor of a God-man who is in complete control.

Having already passed through the interpretive frameworks of Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Yeshua that remains when John is through with his Gospel bears only passing resemblance to the Yeshua depicted in Thomas and the Q Gospel. Over the course of a mere 60 years, Yeshua changed from a person just like you or I who risked his life for a vision of God’s Empire to God himself. Yeshua started out as a brave human being but wound up a supremely confident deity. He began as an empowering prophet drawing attention to the willful creation of God’s Empire, but ended as a transcendent being demanding worship and devotion. From a Yeshua who insisted that the focus of our lives should be on others and radical acceptance we get a Yeshua who insists that we focus on and radically accept him as divine and risen from the dead. At this point, one can see that the heart of Yeshua’s message was ultimately lost in the interpretation of his death.

If Yeshua was a human being just like us, we must remember that he had faith in much the same way that we do. Like us, he had no guarantee that he was correct. He believed that the old system of cleanliness codes had been abolished and that the law of love and acceptance trumped the laws of judgment and exclusion. Yeshua’s faith was a radical faith that was going places; it was attempting to include more and more people in that category we call “us,” in the hopes that eventually there would be no more “them.” But at Yeshua’s abrupt death, a transformation occurred. His followers made Christianity not about Yeshua’s faith, but about Yeshua himself. Had the focus been on the faith of Yeshua, instead of faith in Yeshua, Christianity may have continued his project of the loving inclusion of more and more social outcasts. Instead, his faith was cut off where it stopped in favor of faith in him. What was a living, vibrant, and courageously held faith of progressive social activism became one with static dogmas and a redrawn clean/unclean divide. Yeshua was taking a risk with his life, the ultimate risk. He was staking his entire existence upon the belief that God was more interested in us loving each other than in defining who was righteous and who was not, who was going to ascend to heaven and who would be left behind.

For us as it was for Paul, the meaning of “Jesus is alive” should be “Jesus was right.” Restoring the focus of Christianity from Yeshua’s physical resurrection, back to his life and practice of radical acceptance, would make at least some of the disagreements between Christianity and the culture at large disappear. When beliefs about Yeshua’s physical resurrection no longer guarantee the inerrancy of the Bible and the political views derived from it, Evangelicals would be more open to new and different political stances. Christianity could become an Empire of God where homosexuals, ex-convicts, homeless people and others who are “ritually unclean” would be welcome as equals at the table of fellowship. Yet even if modern Christians reject this view and a subsequent return to the roots of Christianity, this examination of the resurrection should draw attention to the humanly constructed nature of the Bible. Paul and his counterparts were interpreting the life of Yeshua, doing their best but ultimately making it up as they went along. Understanding this should offer Christians the freedom to reconsider the exclusionary doctrines in Christianity that reconstruct the ancient clean-unclean divide that Yeshua worked so hard to tear down. It is up to us to continue the heroic task of interpreting Yeshua’s life and faith that Paul began.

Yet lest this essay seems to be demanding compromise only from the Evangelicals, I have a hope for the secular liberals as well. Those of us who do not find religion a useful way to find meaning in our lives must learn how to dialogue respectfully with those who do. We too must understand the difference between the person of Yeshua and the message now preached in his name. There are many valuable lessons we can learn from his life and teachings, and we should not reject religion outright simply because it has at times gone astray from its noble ideals. The insensitive polemics of Richard Dawkins and others like him will not help to further the cause of human solidarity. We must learn to understand and respect Christianity, arguing our points respectfully, effectively and without derision. In the end, armed with improved knowledge about the resurrection, Christians and secular liberals alike should feel free to develop new views on divisive sociopolitical issues such as homosexuality that will further the radical acceptance Yeshua preached as the Empire of God.

Download “The Death of the Historical Jesus” as a PDF

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Vol 1 Issue 2

When the Going Gets Tough

By Gabriel Winant

In the world of politics, masculinity has gone rabid. Machista strongmen flex their muscles on a world stage that increasingly resembles L.A.’s Muscle Beach. While Putin consolidates power in the name of order, Ahmadinejad rattles his scimitar at the corrupt West, Nigerian men threaten to stone to death Nigerian women, Orthodox Jews are infuriated over a gay pride march in Jerusalem and American states can’t preserve the nuclear family fast enough. Everyone is suddenly spoiling for a fight.

Americans think they know what makes a man. The ideal male is actually a pretty recognizable character, and he’s a lot like Johnny Cash. He’s patriotic, unpretentious and blunt, tough and unafraid to fight, and strong-headed and self-reliant. If wronged, he’ll exact revenge; if he commits a misdeed, he will be redeemed. There is another American man who shares these characteristics with the country singer—or at least wants us to think that he does.

Consider George W. Bush in the rubble of the World Trade Center, bullhorn in hand, warning that the world would hear from America. At our most vulnerable, we turned to this incarnation of American manhood, incubated on the ranch in Texas, to land on an aircraft carrier to reassure us that the foe is awed into submission, and that we are safe. Bush pulled off this butch stunt to accolades of his virility from the pundit class. Chris Matthews of “Hardball” heaped praise on the size of the bulge in his pants—his “manly characteristic,” as talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy described it. Columnist Peggy Noonan proclaimed Bush the resurrected John Wayne. Meanwhile, People Magazine anointed septuagenarian Donald Rumsfeld one of its sexiest men of the year. And all of this seems somehow vaguely unsurprising; our leaders are supposed to be warriors and cowboys.

There is a distinctly American mythology of the up-by-the-bootstraps hero and the brave cowboy taming new worlds. In our mental geography, it seems a Western tale, springing from somewhere around Texas. While there are different versions of this story with different characters—the vengeful and righteous white-hat cowboy, the young man gone west on Horatio Alger’s advice, who makes his own way and grows up with the country—they are all masculine, even macho. The gendered nature lends this narrative tremendous rhetorical power in the face of threats to American security. Modern candidates for president—chiefly Republicans—have largely succeeded in playing to these gender-based caricatures; they are more decisive, rough-and-tumble, and virile. They have portrayed their opponents as unwilling or unable to deal with American foes because they are too much brain and too little brawn, because they are hand-wringing, and generally effeminate. National campaigns, fought on television, transform into Western movies; the presidential aspirant who knows best how to ward off the Indians gets the keys to the White House.

The birth of the modern conservative movement, appropriately enough, can be traced to the cowboy country of the American Southwest with the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater retired from the Air Force as a Major General; in the Senate and as a presidential candidate he was a voice shouting in the desert for a confrontational conservatism, against the New Deal and for using nuclear weapons against Vietnam. His cowboy code contrasted very neatly with the perceived communist military threat. Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in San Francisco was a call to arms against communism, and it shows early telltale signs of individualist machismo: “This nation, whose creative people have enhanced this entire span of history, should again thrive upon the greatness of all those things which we—we as individual citizens—can and should do.” Goldwater painted a picture of the polity as a macrocosm of the stateless old West, in which those who succeed are those who get by on their own.

The masculine, individualist ethos translated clearly for Goldwater into a readiness to project military power with a steady hand. He praised the Eisenhower administration for its forceful custody of national security: “And I needn’t remind you that it was the strength and the believable will of the Eisenhower years that kept the peace by using our strength, by using it in the Formosa Strait, and in Lebanon, and by showing it courageously at all times.” Goldwater eagerly contrasted these decisive actions with what he saw as a cowardly Kennedy-Johnson administration: “During four futile years the Administration which we shall replace has distorted and lost that faith. It has talked and talked and talked and talked the words of freedom but it has failed and failed and failed in the works of freedom. “ How recognizably macho this insult is—that an inadequate opponent is all hat and no cattle. Early attempts to redefine military competence as synonymous with Sun Belt swagger—“believable will”—were underway.

American politics pivoted during the 1960s and 1970s; the Republican Party began building a majority, its ranks swollen by millions of former Democrats who had watched their traditional political home become the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Nixon’s two successful campaigns for the presidency in 1968 and 1972 capitalized on a Democratic Party unsure of its own position. The Republicans portrayed themselves as the appropriately masculine steady hand to conduct the Vietnam War and wage the Cold War. Nixon studiedly communicated in his 1968 acceptance speech just how much his life was a story of a plucky American man:

I see another child tonight. He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of far away places where he’d like to go. It seems like an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life. A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college. A gentle, Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war but she understood why he had to go. A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way. A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also defeat . . . And tonight he stands before you—nominated for President of the United States of America.

Nixon eagerly conveyed (in sentencefragments; complete sentences seem to be a mark of softness) that he had lived a life in which the people around him were all-American archetypes, filling their traditional gender roles. His father worked hard, his mother was “gentle” and “wept,” his football coach and minister were influential, his wife was loyal, and he had risen on pure Western grit to the top, where he swore, “We will never stain the honor of the United States of America.” This kind of macho belligerence, evocative of the Marine Corps hymn, “First to fight for right and freedom / And to keep our honor clean,” was particularly effective in the face of a Democratic Party shredding itself over the Vietnam War.

The Democratic nominees of 1968 and 1972—Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern—led a fractious party that did not seem tough enough to run itself, much less a war. In 1968, as Humphrey was handed the nomination, the party imploded on national television as thousands of anti-war protesters flooded its convention in Chicago. The police met them with a shockingly brutal response, later described as a “police riot.” As the police rained down blows, the protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” It turned out that America was watching, but it was rooting for Chicago’s blue-collar police force against the hippies, with their unshaven women and longhaired men. The tear gas left Humphrey weeping in his hotel room that overlooked the protest. Onstage at the convention, liberal Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff accused Chicago Mayor Daley of “Gestapo tactics”; on tape, Richard Daley can be seen shouting, “Fucking kike,” upward at Ribicoff’s podium. The party emerged from the convention devastated by the fight over its identity; Humphrey hobbled out of Chicago the pyrrhic victor.

Left and right alike loathed Humphrey as the spineless creature of Lyndon Johnson, given the nomination without fairly competing for it. Under pressure from Johnson, Humphrey had avoided a compromise with the anti-war elements of the Democratic Party, and by large margins, respondents in Gallup polls indicated that they did not believe he would change from Johnson’s now unpopular strategy in Vietnam. Perceived as a hostage to the man who made him Vice President, Humphrey was hardly the stuff of Western heroism.

McGovern did not have it any easier. In fact, McGovern was more explicitly antiwar than Humphrey had been; if Humphrey was seen as the creature of Lyndon Johnson, McGovern was seen as that of the hippie Left, whose members did not abide by traditional gender roles and opposed military intervention.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff asserts that, at least when it comes to politics, we think in metaphors that arise from our understanding of the family:

What links strict-father family-based morality to politics is a common metaphor shared by conservatives and liberals alike—the Nation-as- Family metaphor, in which the nation is seen as a family, the government as a parent, and the citizens as children. This metaphor turns family-based morality into political morality.

If we accept this analysis, then the famous refrain of McGovern’s acceptance speech— “Come home, America”—sounds incredibly maternal. He seems to have done Nixon’s work for him by choosing this particular rhetorical backdrop, rather than claiming the battle-front as his stage. Where Nixon had spoken of protecting national honor, McGovern spoke of healing national wounds. Rather than bursting with pride and courage like Nixon’s, McGovern’s “heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam.” The Democrats emerged from the Nixon era humiliated by the landslide defeat of their nominee, who’d been caricatured as the candidate of surrender in Vietnam, leading his army of indeterminately-gendered supporters; the Richard Daleys of the country were now Republicans.

Shift to 1980: Jimmy Carter ran for re-election amidst two crises—one in Iran, one in the American economy—that exposed his inability to control events. The conditions were perfect for Ronald Reagan, a man intimately familiar with American male archetypes from his career in show business. His filmography includes dozens of roles as cowpokes, football coaches, and soldiers in titles like “Death Valley Days,” “The Lawless Have Laws,” and “No Gun Behind His Badge.” The dominant trope of Reagan’s campaign was opposition to what he saw as the intrusive nature of the federal government, a variation on old Western distrust of the power of the state.

The old West came to Washington with Ronald Reagan, who rode into town to save the day from an impotent administration, warning the nation, “The administration which has brought us to this state is seeking your endorsement for four more years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence.” Carter’s inadequate mettle yielded military shame, according to Reagan: “We are given weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness.” The elements of the gendered critique are here so clear that one is tempted to wonder what Freud would have made of Reagan’s language; the opposition lacks “resolve,” shows “weakness,” and “vacillates” when “times demand firmness.”

The difference between Reagan and Goldwater, of course, is that Reagan won in a landslide. The important distinction seems to be that while Goldwater was all cowboy tough talk, Reagan also employed the kind of sunny can-do Western rhetoric that seemed to echo the Nixon campaign. Take, for example, his 1984 acceptance speech: “America is coming back and is more confident than ever about the future.” Reagan had a consistent scrappiness, sunnier than Goldwater’s dark fury; he was both confrontational and optimistic at once.

During the 1980s, a large gender gap in voting patterns emerged that is still present today. Men followed Reagan to the new countrified Republican Party. Polls show that men are more likely to be supportive of the use of violence, and opposed to communal —that is, non-individualist— measures: for example, 45% of men and 30% of women believe that the government should provide fewer services, 61% of men and 37% of women support allowing bombers to strike populated areas, and 28% of men but a full 48% of women support a ban on handguns. Once the gendered rhetoric became more sophisticated and complete, as it was in Reagan’s campaigns, this difference in opinion was tapped into more deeply; the gender gap materialized.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, more or less attempted to reproduce Reagan’s rhetorical strategy in his 1988 RNC speech. Bush established both his plainspoken cowboy and self-made man credentials in the same story:

We moved to west Texas 40 years ago. The war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own. Those were exciting days. Lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, started my own. In time we had six children. Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house. Lived the dream—high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue.

Bush projects an image as a forthright Westerner who has no truck with fancy language or personal pronouns. He said as much moments later: “I may not be the most eloquent, but I learned early that eloquence won’t draw oil from the ground.” Bush, of course, was not a roughneck from the oil fields, but the Yale-educated millionaire son of a U. S. senator.

In the tradition of his ideological predecessors, Bush’s projection of masculinity extended to foreign policy. Once again, indecision and weakness seemed to plague those who, rather than being plainspoken or Western, seemed to represent the views of the over-sophisticated Eastern elite: “Strength and clarity lead to peace—weakness and ambivalence lead to war. Weakness and ambivalence lead to war. Weakness tempts aggressors. Strength stops them. I will not allow this country to be made weak again.” And like Reagan and Nixon, George H.W. Bush did not face an opponent who was particularly conscious of the gender image he put forward.

Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, was a Republican’s dream come true; he steadfastly refused to engage in bluster or braggadocio. Dukakis declared in his convention speech, “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” He was, inadvertently but painstakingly, laying the foundation for the eventual attack on him as a soulless technocrat, unwilling to fight for anything. In the second presidential debate, journalist Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis’ infamous response was painfully cold and clinical: “I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” With no mention of the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife, Dukakis then moved on to discuss a “hemispheric summit” on the drug war. Dukakis appeared unable to be the nation’s protective father-figure, defending what is dear, and punishing those who threaten it.

To make up for the masculinity gap, Dukakis infamously rode around in an M-1 tank, apparently hoping to perform a kind of reverse-engineering of the Republican strategy; if he could not seem macho enough to appear interested in national security, perhaps he could seem interested enough in national security to appear macho. He ended up looking so awkward that the Bush campaign used the image in its own attack ad. It was what political scientists call an “uncertainty ad”—it devastatingly suggested that Dukakis did not have a steady enough hand to lead America militarily, as evinced by how ridiculous he looked in military getup.

Having triumphed over the champion of the tame Eastern boutique, George H. W. Bush found himself presiding over an event that would damage his own party’s electoral strength: the end of the Cold War. With national security temporarily removed from the political discourse (hence Clinton campaign manager James Carville’s mantra “It’s the economy, stupid!”), Democrats—or at least Clinton— found themselves able to win elections while ignoring the machismo contest.

George W. Bush brought back the old macho rhetoric in 2000, by showing up on his ranch whenever possible, flamboyantly clearing brush and using hay and guns as props. Like Reagan and his father, he grasped for the entire Western macho myth: he is a self-made cowboy who operates his own ranch—a true individualist. Fortunately for Bush, Clinton himself had already recast his party in a way that made it vulnerable to Bush’s attack from the West.

That Bush was able to win an election in which his opponent was believed to have every advantage speaks to the profound power of cultural difference in American politics. The combination of Clinton’s constant, pandering reach for the political center and the Lewinsky scandal had cast a pall over the Democratic Party. Democrats seemed too slick, too refined and ready to parse the meaning of the most basic language (most infamously, Clinton’s “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is”). This was the party that represented those qualities most resented about the university, the cosmopolitan, the essentially blue-state: disrespect for sexual and gender tradition, overintellectuality, and artificiality. Bush was able to portray Gore—notorious not as a suave dissembler, but as an insufferably boring straight arrow—as dishonestly grandiloquent and thus a cultural alien, not an American man. The plainspoken cowboy stepped in just in time to save the country.

The September 11 attacks put national security squarely back onto the center of the national stage, and with it, the rhetoric of masculinity in politics. In the 2004 election season, the Bush campaign let blaze the guns of the culture war: red state against blue, rural against urban, Southwestern against Northeastern, plainspoken against evasive, ordinary against elite. Perhaps the governing dichotomy of the campaign, though, was that of the steady hand and the limp wrist. Bush made explicit the claims about himself that his predecessors tended to express with their life stories or merely by their style: “You know what I believe and where I stand. You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English … Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called ‘walking.’ Now and then I come across as a little too blunt.” The amount of confrontational language in Bush’s RNC speech is extraordinary. He ends eleven paragraphs of his speech with some kind of challenge. He warns three separate times, “Nothing will hold us back.” The other challenges he issues are “This will not happen on my watch,” “We are not turning back,” “I will never relent in defending America—whatever it takes,” “And we will prevail,” “I will defend America every time,” “America will not forget,” “Freedom is on the march,” and “Our tested and confident nation can achieve anything.” This is the cocky, swaggering Bush we know so well, who challenged Iraqi insurgents to “Bring them on,” and fell back on a cowboy formula when dealing with September 11: “I want justice. There’s an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” Here, the line from cowboy swagger to military competence barely needs to be drawn; for Bush, they are synonymous. His bluntness and his capacity as commanderin- chief are the same characteristic.

John Kerry hardly knew what hit him. Kerry had hedged his bets on the war in Iraq; he seemed to hope to be just left enough to win the Democratic nomination, while still right enough to be what he considered electable in November. It was this incoherent approach that led Kerry to utter his infamous flip-flop, for which Bush did not hesitate to excoriate him in his acceptance speech: “When asked to explain his vote, the Senator said, ‘I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it.’ Then he said he was ‘proud’ of that vote. Then, when pressed, he said it was a ‘complicated’ matter. There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.” One would be hardpressed to find a more perfect contrast to Bush’s macho black-and-white style than Kerry’s insistence on shades of gray.

Vice President Dick Cheney was eager to point out in his RNC speech just how effeminate Kerry’s nuance was: “Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn’t appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a ‘more sensitive war on terror’—(laughter) —as though al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side.” This baldly gendered attack is in keeping with some of the worst tendencies of the Bush campaign, whose operatives coordinated their campaign with the drive to ban gay marriage and preserve the “traditional family,” and nicknamed Democratic candidate John Edwards “the Breck girl,” after a famous shampoo spokeswoman. The message resonates at an almost subconscious level: the candidate who cares too much about his hair is not man enough to care enough about killing the enemy. Bush rode to triumph in an election in which the electorate was wracked by anxiety—particularly, though not exclusively, about terrorism—that provided an ideal backdrop for a resolute Westerner and brought out the contrast between him and the effeminacies his campaign was eager to point out.

Bush’s swagger and strut are the most recent manifestations of a strategy ever more present in our politics. As the decades since Goldwater have passed, Republican nominees—all but one from the Sun Belt—have relied increasingly on Western individualist bravado. One might have expected that, like other strategies of rhetorical symbolism used in presidential politics—racial appeals, for example—the kind of language used to communicate the masculinity of these candidates would have grown more subtle and refined with time. Instead, the reverse has happened; while Goldwater merely talked like a cowboy, Bush now feels comfortable referring explicitly and frequently to the old West.

Perhaps this vanishing Republican subtlety is a function of increased uncertainty in general; the world of 2004 is fraught with an array of new and potentially frightening ideological, cultural, political, and economic forces that were not present in 1964. While cowboy rhetoric obviously cannot explain every political development, a certain late twentieth-century erosion of barriers—literal barriers as well as the figurative ones of gender, race, class, and countless others—may have left us hungry for a more authoritarian, macho brand of leadership. One worries that modernity itself is provoking male fury, that threatened masculinity and reactionary politics go together. Thousands of years of male hegemony are suddenly being pushed back, piece by piece. Perhaps all of manhood now finds itself assaulted by a differentseeming world. Cultures rise in arms as offensive images and ideas flood in, or jobs pour out, and men the world over begin to feel newly and strangely powerless. This may be the same uncertainty—a crisis of masculinity, even—that has helped to create the strong-man politics perfectly embodied by George W. Bush.

Download “When the Going Gets Tough” as a PDF

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Vol 1 Issue 1