Now let us praise free minds

Last week I gave a talk on what I called “The Myth of the Liberal Media” to a pleasingly large and well-informed group called Pointes for Peace, in (surprise) Grosse Pointe Woods. I told them there are mainly two kinds of media in this nation today — the “mainstream media,” which are about as liberal as corporate America in general, and virulently ideological right-wing media.

What could honestly be called the “liberal media” consists, pretty much (apart from a few cranks like me), of a handful of columnists like Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, Paul Krugman, and — did I mention Molly Ivins?

All of this was hardly news to anyone paying attention to what Eric Alterman and Ben Bagdikian have been saying for years. This country and its press have shifted dramatically to the right in the last quarter-century, and my craft will pay for this folly for years.

Being in the Grosse Pointes, I imagined I’d get challenged by people who think there’s really a vast conspiracy of New York intellectuals who want to force gay marriage, partial-birth abortions and fluoridated water on us all. There was none of that. But something did happen that astonished me to the point of speechlessness. An attractive, if a bit steely, dark-haired woman on the sidelines raised her hand and, after ranting on that Bush and Kerry were equally bad, proclaimed that the only hope for salvation, or mankind, or something, was Chairman Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party.

Had I been prepared, I might have allowed myself a frisson of nostalgia, and spoken to her in her own artificial language. “Sorry, comrade, but an objective analysis of current conditions demonstrates that the time is not right for the mass uprising, and that what’s now needed is a popular front.”

Part of me wanted to sing the “Internationale” off-key in French, just to watch her swoon with desire, or nausea. But instead, I merely stood there like a geek staring at a two-headed calf until my colleague Dick Wright said, “I think we are all pretty bourgeois here,” and brought down the house.

Later, a sweetly grandmotherish lady, who said she was a revolutionary communist too, tried to sell me Avakian’s autobiography, From Ike to Mao. I was barely mature enough not to say, “Hold the mayo.”

We tend to think of commies as harmless anachronisms now, which they mostly are. But back in the day — the 1960s, say — we tended to regard fundamentalist religious movements the same way. Not now. Both the Marxist-Leninists and the dogmatic Christians are very much alike in that they promise you answers and a blueprint for living your life, if you promise not to think too much, and keep your mouth shut if you do.

That promise has proven devastatingly seductive for most men at most times. Ayn Rand offers another system with all the answers, and so does Osama bin Laden, and so do various others of what George Orwell used to call “all the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.” What all these systems do is take parts of the truth and construct a brilliantly woven little system and substitute it for reality.

Ayn Rand has a lot to say that’s worthwhile about the heroic struggle of the individual. There’s much that even an intelligent atheist can recognize as true and compelling in most religious dogma. Marxism is a brilliant critique of the sins of capitalism, especially capitalism as it existed during the Industrial Revolution. And most of our multinational corporations today seem to be misbehaving as though following a script written by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. That may well be sparking a mini-revival of revolutionary communist movements.

But the Glorious Worldwide Great Proletarian Revolution isn’t coming, comrades. Unfortunately all these systems, when in power, eventually bump against annoying reality, which they try to overlook first, then suppress by killing anyone who points out the man behind the curtain, before they finally crash.

And none of them rewards the person who points out, however gently, that the system has flaws, or even worse, tries to think for himself. Those who question are seen as heretics, savagely turned on, and true believers are taught to hate them more than they do their ideology’s natural enemies. Orwell, my personal hero, was a writer of uncompromising honesty, a socialist who nevertheless was hated, in his day, by many on the left because he pointed out the flaws of his allies as well as his foes. He was attacked especially for noting that Soviet communism had evolved into just another form of murderous totalitarian dictatorship, something he lampooned brilliantly in his masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984.

Locally, I have a couple heroes who fit this mold, both of whom, ironically, are religious, rather than political figures. The first is Bishop Tom Gumbleton, best known perhaps for trying to raise our consciousness about the conditions in places such as Haiti and Iraq and El Salvador.

These are all countries in wretched shape, and in most of them our nation has managed to make things worse. He’s tried to help them when he could, and tried to be a tug on our conscience too. He’s no opportunistic, cynical politician with a clerical collar; he deeply believes in God.

But he also believes in speaking truth to power, whether that power wears a Haitian general’s uniform, works in the White House or sits in the Vatican. He was among the first to demand the Roman Catholic Church he loves come clean on the sex scandals of a few years ago.

As a young man studying in Rome, Gumbleton was inspired by the excitement of renewal and the heady intellectual ferment of the Vatican II conferences, which tried to redefine the church’s role in the modern world.

This set his path for life; he came away believing that his church ought to dedicate itself to transforming this world into as close an imitation of the kingdom of heaven as possible. He was made a bishop in 1968. The leadership of his church is far more reactionary today. Last week, he turned 75, and bishops are traditionally supposed to offer their resignations then.

Bishop Tom, who looks and acts two decades younger, has no desire to stop doing what he’s doing, and more than one member of his parish (St. Leo’s) has told me they’ll protest if the church tries to take him from them. The irony, of course, is that the pope is a decade older and in appalling shape. Yet nobody would dare whisper that he step aside.

My other hero is the Rev. Harry Cook, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Clawson. In a lecture this week at the University of Colorado, he plans to tell the students that he fears “religion may be the death of us all.”

He means the kind of religion that actually caused a GOP politician to say that denuding the forests is all right because “when the last tree is felled, Jesus will come again.” Cook proclaims himself a “secular agnostic humanist,” for which he has taken some heat. I think he deserves more admiration than the pope. What’s so moral about being good if you know you’ll get paradise as a reward?

What’s far nobler, I think, is to try and follow Christian principles even if you have no idea what comes after this life, and grappling with the awesome challenge of trying to figure out each unique situation. These are two different, but very inspiring men, and Detroit is lucky to have them.


Confidential to “Raymond Jackson”: You make some interesting arguments about the city apart from your defensiveness and name-calling, but I’m afraid I can’t pay attention unless you provide me with a way of verifying your existence and contacting you. For all I know, you’re really the niece of the late Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria, or Alberta Tinsley-Talabi’s mom, or both.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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