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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/20/09

Palin's Death Committee as a Projection of the Fundamentalist God

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Message Barton Kunstler
Sarah Palin's "Death Committees" have had a vibrant media life since she first made the charge that President Obama's health plan would install committees to decide who will receive life-saving care and who will be dispensed with. Many commentators have discussed the fact that the idea is not rooted in reality, and linked it to the intense, strident, at times violent tone of the health plan opponents who have disrupted so many debates and discussions across the U.S.A. But where did Palin's strange thought come from in the first place?

One clue lies in the religious fundamentalism so vital to the sizable, ultra-right wing of American politics. The basic tenets of fundamentalism, as laid out in the 1909 work, The Fundamentals, written by a large committee of devotees, basically sets their god up as a one-man Death Committee, although undoubtedly assisted by his many angels and saints. Fundamentalism views all humans as sinners, that is, we all are afflicted with a "sickness unto death", to misapply Soren Kierkegaard's term. Our only hope of salvation and redemption lies in following a strict set of rules that, come judgment day, will be considered a free ticket to heaven or a long sentence in hell. In other words, their god serves as his own Death Committee.

The mean-spiritedness of this religious matrix is demonstrated by its adherents' view of those who don't agree with them. It's bad enough that many fundamentalists view their belief system as the only way to heaven, thus condemning many fellow Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, pantheists, pagans, etc., to the everlasting flames. What's really crazy is how pissed off they are that others don't believe as they do. I mean, here we've got people who have found the key to the universe and eternal life. They believe in the absolute word-for-word truth of a book that was stitched together over the course of centuries; rewritten, re-translated and mis-translated; borrowed heavily from other cultures' texts; and was probably not taken literally by the very people who wrote it! That last point is rarely addressed. The people who wrote Genesis, aside from borrowing heavily from the Sumerians and their successors in Akkad and Babylonia, very likely viewed the Genesis creation myth as a metaphorical meditation on cosmos, reality, and psyche. This is precisely the role of such creation stories in most societies. Besides, Genesis is a Jewish book. How can fundamentalist Christians in modern America claim it as their absolute, literal truth?

Fundamentalists believe in miraculous healing and a few minutes watching Benny Hin "cure" people on-stage during one of his fund-a-thons makes one wonder if his credulous audience believes that they already have an inexpensive health plan - just go to Benny. Another staple is talking in tongues. I always thought talking in tongues meant you spoke another language you had no other way of knowing. But the films I've seen of fundamentalists talking in tongues show them reverting to the language of a 10-year old's notion of magic spells. Lots of "Zs", as in shazam and Alazel, and lots of "Ls" as well. It's all pretty much the same rolling of syllables. Not an Akkadian, Russian, Egyptian or even French phrase among them. Of course, with a mind-set where anything is justified as coming from their God, fundamentalists can claim to speak the language of angels which mere non-believers cannot recognize, but again, it sounds like the nonsense syllables children pronounce by candlelight around a Ouija board.

But hey, what do I know? Maybe this is what the absolute apex of civilization is supposed to be like. This is what it means to be one of the elect, marked for an eternity on God's knees, the deity, no doubt, looking like a giant Santa.

Now I would think, and perhaps you would too, that given their certainty over their inevitable ascension to the heights of human achievement, fundamentalists (and not just our national Protestant Christian branch, but those of all stripes - Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, Catholics) would be content to live and let live. Yet when we look out over this bleeding world of ours, surprise! It is the fundamentalists of all stripes who are highly likely to harangue, slaughter, and condemn non-believers!

I don't get that. If I were walking around with a secret that held the key to all the afterlife's joys, I can imagine a number of reactions I might have. I might want to share it, to give it away. Well, forget that - the evangelical pitch-men and -women on TV ain't givin' away nothin'. I might feel compassion for those who can never partake of this treasure, and be especially kind to them. Nope, doesn't seem to be part of the program for today's fundamentalists. I might try to teach others about the treasure, to understand how they feel about not having it, engage in dialog. I might even think that maybe this treasure is what works for me and that somewhere else in the world there are people "" in fact, even possibly just about everyone! - who have their own treasure and whom I can learn from! Nope, not part of the equation for today's funda-thonists. Everyone else be damned, feared, and resented for not being as blessed as they are. Believers, send cash.

Now some may say that the right wing's tactics in the health care debate mirror 1960s anti-Vietnam War activism. Such parallels may play well in some media outlets where the most superficial similarities provide an excuse for what passes as clever interpretive analysis. Both groups shouted a lot! Both were rude at public meetings! Hence, they are the same. Socrates and Hitler both spoke eloquently. Both had two arms. Hence, both are the same! No, not really. Socrates and Hitler were both eloquent homo sapiens. The similarity pretty much ends there.

Forgive me for asserting a qualitative difference between two points of view, but I still believe that opposing an illicit war based on the government's public lies (see the Pentagon Papers) and a deep-seated national paranoia is somehow different in kind from opposing the extension of health care to the nation's poorest people. In fact, as the continual weakening of company health plans and the poor health care that afflicts many American communities indicate, it is not only those without coverage who need a better plan but the majority of Americans. Besides, these are not people whose message has any trouble getting out there. They have some of the most cash-rich corporate giants in the world behind them.

From the protesters' point of view, though, health care may be a matter of life and death, God or the Devil. Just as abortion is framed by its fundamentalist opponents as equivalent to the Holocaust, government "interference" in health care is viewed as culminating in Death Committees.

This hysteria is due in part to a host of historically rooted reasons: the desolation afflicting so many rural communities; the deep anti-intellectual and apocalyptic strains in the American psyche; the more recent (post-Civil Rights and Roe vs. Wade) fury that infects so many right wing movements that are still racist at heart and whose compassion for human life seems to end at a baby's birth; and a general stupidity fed by an incessant techno-media blather that reduces ideas and thought to attention-seeking

But I suspect the hysteria also has something to do with a primal fear of being insidiously violated, which often arises when a community feels the bonds that hold it together begin to dissolve. It is then we look for the scapegoat, the malicious "agents" who has infiltrated the community in order to weaken, demoralize, and ultimately destroy or conquer it. This is why so many classic paranoid delusions - anti-Semitism and McCarthyism, for instance - describe their enemies as pulling invisible strings, of walking among us while secretly eroding our very way of life, a delusion of many clinical paranoids as well. This is also an ancient fear men held against women knowledgeable in the ways of healing plants. Before we had the scientific means to detect poison in a body, i.e., for almost all of human history, men might beat and rape women but women could seek to even the score by poisoning men. The same held for poisoning kings (hence the role of court-taster).

To top it off, there is an obvious basis in fact to all these fears - disease comes upon us silently, stealthily, as an invasion of billions and trillions of tiny little troglodytes called bacteria and viruses - and again, for most of human history, we didn't know enough to blame the germs. And history holds many examples of populations whose societal anxieties led to hysterical mob action and the slaughter of innocents. The human imagination tends to translate panic at unknown forces larger than itself into a somewhat comforting image of a single, devious enemy. If the community could only purify itself of the violator enemy, all will be well. Such enemies commonly include the aforementioned scapegoats, witches, demons, the Jews, Reds, feminists, gays, and "big government". Once the enemy is identified, they are demonized, de-humanized, and persecuted.

Anxieties over impending loss of comfort, stability, and security feed the desperate fires of fundamentalism worldwide, including in the United States. And in the fundamentalist imagination, one dominant image holds sway: that of the purifying Death Committee of God whose final judgment will rain reward and death upon us all. The same insanity and inanity that animated the protests against gay marriage are behind the extreme responses, exemplified by Sarah Palin, to the health care proposals. Of course there are serious arguments against the health plan and its various alternative proposals. And people have the right to be against gay marriage. But the far right's hysteria is fed by a deep reservoir of primeval panic, animated by a truly weird set of beliefs that has claimed the name "religion" and the sanctity and protection that come with it.

The fact that the subject is health - with all its implications for decisions regarding the fate of both body and soul - only fuels the sense of anxiety and panic. The fundamentalist deity, with its total power over one's eternal life and death, becomes projected as the fearsome image of the power allegedly implicit in a government-run or -facilitated health care system.

Palin's cognitive dissonance is hardly the last we will hear from these right wing fantasists , just as it wasn't the first. The ultra-right is as intransigent as any group of religious fanatics about giving up their influence over American life. The images will get more lurid, the contexts more far-fetched, and the reactions more violent unless we all play a role in adding substance and understanding to public debate.

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Barton Kunstler, Ph.D. is a writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. He is author of "The Hothouse Effect" (Amacom), a book describing the dynamics of highly creative groups and organizations. His play, "An Inquiry in Florence", was recently (more...)
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