Strakon Lights Up, No. 64

A canticle for Lieberman


I watched the sci-fi movie "Deep Blue Sea" again on cable the other night — it's the one about genetically enhanced smart sharks — and while enjoying its wild ride I thought again how interesting it is that, in our present media culture, favored kinds of people are allowed to be religious and good, while disfavored kinds of people can only be religious and bad.

The Negro cook (played by a rap star) at the movie's fictional shark-research lab is some kind of Christian, of the genus Protestant. Indeed, he's a former lay preacher. Now, he's a fallible fellow who gave in to the temptations of alcohol and wimmin, and lost his pulpit as a result. His backsliding continues, but he's aware of it. He talks to God all the time, if not always politely. He wears a big pectoral cross throughout the movie — until the moment when he stabs one of the killer-genius sharks in the eye with it. He's no saint, but when he rides that shark and wields his cross, he lifts himself up to become not just a good man but a veritable hero: a Christian knight slaying the dragon of the deeps.

In the movies, admirable black characters are often permitted to be not only religious but explicitly Christian — even Christian of the Bible-thumping variety. It's rarely so with whites. In the Hollywood stereotype, white Christians are not merely fallible backsliders but actual villains: tyrants, con men, pedophiles, lynchers, maniacs. Or they are spineless and ineffectual weaklings, like all those cowering priests who are ridiculed by the vampire or the risen Satan before being off-handedly slaughtered. Exceptions tend to prove the rule: Robert Duvall, though a heavy-hitter in Hollywood, had to move Heaven and Earth, in a struggle that took years, to make his movie "The Apostle," where he plays a Christian preacher who backslides all the time but is still touched by grace.


When he wrote his play "The Best Man" forty years ago, Gore Vidal had one of his cynically wise characters observe that, in order to succeed, American politicians usually have to "pour God over everything like ketchup." If that was true then, it has certainly changed, at least if you're a white Christian politician in the national arena. Minitrue applies pretty much the same rules to nationally ambitious pols that it applies to characters in its screenplays. You're allowed to touch delicately on your faith in just the right context, but you have to be mighty careful. Even Jimmeh Carter had to be careful in 1976, and that was 50 or 75 years ago in "normal culture" years. Bill Clinton can go to church and carry a Bible around, and he could probably get away with a lot more, possessed as he is of, or with, that hideous strength that allows him to cloud men's minds. But for most professed Christians of the Caucasian persuasion it's dangerous to present yourself as someone who is strictly pious in his observances — as one, that is, who is too explicitly orthodox.

It's just fine, though, for someone like Joe Lieberman, the Orthodox Jew who has "pour[ed] God over everything like ketchup," as Vidal would say, not only in his Nashville speech yesterday but in every public utterance of his I've heard since Algore named him. And I'm confident it's going to be just fine for the Democrats in general.

The cohort of voters I've dubbed the soccerites — white soccer Mom and white soccer Dad living in the suburbs, gentrified city neighborhoods, and nice neighborhoods of smaller cities — read the paper or at least watch the news, and they're probably the most responsive of all voters to sophisticated media manipulation. They take their respectability very seriously, and they rely on the media to tell them what that respectability consists of this week. They are mostly Christian in heritage and maybe even in observance, but Minitrue has educated them to mistrust candidates who wear their Christianity on their sleeve. (That's especially so if those candidates are Protestants.)

Ronn Neff has written of the "cognitive vanity" practiced by voters who assume they can tell — usually on the mere basis of what they see in the established media — that a politician is a "nice" or "decent" man, worthy of their support. In the case of white politicians who advertise their Christianity, Minitrue has done its best to make sure that process runs in reverse. It would be a great thing if the media treated all pols that way, but that's not the way it works.

The result of promoting skepticism selectively — against those who represent themselves as strictly observant Christians but not against those who represent themselves as strictly observant Jews — has got to benefit the Gore-Lieberman ticket this year. The cognitive vanity of voters yearning for a candidate of strong character, piety, self-restraint, and so on will be given free rein with Lieberman and only Lieberman. We can be sure we won't be hearing anything — anything bad, that is — about his "odd beliefs," or anything about his being a member of a "sect" that lacks "multicultural inclusiveness," or anything about a "looming theocracy." We won't hear the usual suspects squeal that his nomination threatens the separation of synagogue and state. Already I've heard commentators predicting that Lieberman will be able to strip away whatever "Clinton stink" Gore carries around with him; and Lieberman's ability to do that will depend much more on his ongoing media persona as a Good, Strict Jew than his empty criticism of Clinton in the run-up to impeachment.

George W. Bush would be disinclined to take up the cross even if he didn't still bear scars from the media "crisis" over his appearance at Bob Jones U. Rich preppies never went in for that sort of tent-revival politics even in the days of "The Best Man," when down-home Christians could still make it work. Bush won't be out-pietizing Lieberman, and the same goes for the colorless technocrat Cheney. The trouble is, though, they've still got to hold on to the soccerites — the Republicans among them, certainly, as well as many of the independents. They've got to hope that the "Clinton stink" remains powerful enough to overcome the holy fragrance given off by the Blessed Lieberman. But how powerful, really, is that stink? If it didn't hurt the Democrats in the '98 midstink elections — with Clinton strenuously throwing off vast, putrid clouds of Very Bad Smell — how badly will it hurt them this year?

The soccerites' precious but fragile respectability would, of course, crash and shiver into smithereens if anyone were ever to accuse them of anti-Semitism. With media skepticism and hatred of religion suspended with respect to Lieberman, an undercurrent is likely to start running through the soccerites' leafy neighborhoods. I call it an undercurrent because few will dare put it into words. But many will think it, especially independents who had been inclining toward Bush: "If I vote against Gore and Lieberman — who's such a good man — does that mean I'm really anti-Semitic?"


Don't be surprised if the Blessed Lieberman comes in for more commentary hereabouts.

August 9, 2000

© 2000 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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