Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

J. R. R. Tolkien vs. Ayn Rand

U. S. readers may have noticed that lately conservatives are citing the late philosophical author Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged.  If you aren’t familiar with this, you may have wondered what all the fuss is about.  Rand advocated a philosophy of selfish individualism (she wrote an essay called “The Virtue of Selfishness”) and unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.  Rand was a mentor to the economist Milton Friedman who, in turn, inspired “Reaganomics,” although Friedman always thought that Reagan was not pure enough in his capitalism.  In her novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand has “the creative people” i.e., rich people, decide that they are so burdened by taxation and regulation that they will protest by simply stopping their “creative” wealth creating activity. 

It’s worth noting that Rand’s novel was published in 1957, during the Eisenhower administration, when those at the top 1% of the U.S. pay scale were taxed at 90% of their upper 1% income.  Unlike John Galt, the hero of Rand’s novel, the U.S. rich people did not decide to pack it in and go play golf. Instead, the 1950s and the 1960s constituted the period of American history when we had the broadest middle class– a middle class where one income could support a family.  It was a time when social stratification was lowest and it was easiest for people who began at or near the bottom of the economic ladder could climb higher. (There was a major–GLARING–exception to this: Due to segregation, African-Americans could NOT easily move into either the middle class or upper class. I am not idealizing the 1950s and 1960s–but merely pointing out that they were not the grim economically stagnating world of Rand’s novel.)

Lately, as I said, American conservatives have been citing this novel as part of their pushback against Obama’s plan for a fairer tax system and more financial regulation. (They call this “socialism” when Obama only plans to roll back the Bush tax cuts–thereby increasing the top tax bracket, the upper 1% who make more than the bottom 50% of Americans combined, from its current 36% to 39%!  This is not only not “socialism,” it isn’t even close to the progressive taxation of the Truman and Eisenhower eras.) I find it ironic that they are reduced to citing a bad novel to justify their indefensible support of greed and individual selfishness and complete rejection of the common good in a time of national and international crisis.  I suppose Rand is slightly more respectable than channeling  Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglass character in the 1987 movie Wall Street who, in a hostile takeover that destroys a corporation and puts people out of work, declares “Greed is good.”  I saw Michael Douglass interviewed years later about that film. He said that, as an actor, he always assumed that he was playing the villain, but that in the years since, he’d had dozens of Wall Street investors come up to him and shake his hand and say that the Gekko speech  is what motivated them to go into finance!!!

A contrasting piece of fiction is that of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in which selfless hobbits, elves, dwarves and some humans sacrifice themselves for the greater good–and in which greed and selfishness are seen as vices, not virtues.  Of course, Rand was an atheist and Tolkien was a Catholic and I used to believe that this was the root of their different outlooks on individualism versus the common good, selfishness and greed versus  heroic sacrifice, care for others, courage, and mercy and respect for the created order.  But since the rise of the Religious Right, U.S. Christians seem to have largely embraced the self-centeredness of Rand and Gordon Gekko–ignoring all that Scripture says against exploiting the poor and of the dangers of wealth. And, at least some atheists and agnostics during this same period (perhaps via general revelation or common grace), have lined up more with Tolkien and against Rand.

But maybe this can all be said with more humor.  Via Kung Fu Monkey comes this gem of a quote:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

March 21, 2009 Posted by | arts, myths | 12 Comments

Conservative Myth: GOP Politicians Serve in Military More Than Dems

 Myths or “Urban Legends” abound.  I am not speaking of “myth” as an identity shaping story that might or might not have historical basis, as biblical scholars use the term. I am using the popular definition of “myth” as a fictitious story with no clear author.  In the spirit of the cable TV show “mythbusters,” I am starting a series of posts (irregularly posted) on “conservative myths.” Liberals and progressives have their own myths, but I think that conservative ones are far more pervasive in contemporary U.S.A. popular culture.  I want to expose them. 

Myth #1 Republicans are more patriotic than Democrats and one excellent measure of this is the fact that so many more Republican politicians than Democratic ones have had military service.

As a pacifist, I am not convinced that military service is the only or even best demonstration of patriotism. (Patriotism is variously defined and some definitions should make Christians wary.  Christians have primary loyalty to the global Body of Christ, not to any nation-state.  But whereas nationalism is forbidden to Christians, I don’t think that chastened, critical, and humble forms of patriotism are forbidden us.) But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that military service IS the most obvious litmus test of a politician’s patriotism.  Are Republican politicians really more likely than Democratic ones to have seen military service?

The short answer is “no.” In the 109th Congresss, when the GOP was in charge, there were 233 GOP members of the House of Representatives and 206 Democratic members.  There were only 110 House members altogether who had any form of military service.  This is low number is a reflection of the class bias in Congress.  Getting elected takes much money and usually the kind of education and connections that come from the upper class and upper middle class. Since the end of the draft (compulsory military service), much fewer middle and upper class people in this nation see military service. So, the younger members of Congress are less likely to have seen military service, regardless of Party. 

But of that low number (110), 59 were Democrats and 51 Republicans.  Source: Congressional Database.  

In that same 109th Congress (with GOP in charge), there were 55 GOP Senators and 44 Democratic Senators and 1 Indep.  Only 31 of those Senators had military service, 17 of which were Democratic and 13 were Republican. Source: Congressional Database.

Things have shifted slightly in the GOP favor since the Democratic Party has gained ascendancy in the current 110th Congress, but things are still fairly even.  There are 20 senators with military service, 10 Democratic and 10 GOP.  Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) is the only member of either the House or Senate to have a family member (his son) serving in Iraq.  There are only 70 House members with military service, of which 37 are Republican (including one who has died in office this year) and 33 are Democratic (including the only member of Congress who is a veteran of the Iraq invasion and occupation).

The decline of military service in Congress is clearly continuing, but neither major Party has any kind of clear pattern of enthusiastic joining of the military or clear avoidance.

What is fascinating is the “Chickenhawk factor,” that is how many high-ranking Republican leaders who were cheerleaders for the Iraq war, but who avoided military service themselves in time of war.  The term “chickenhawk,” is rude and may not even be fair in all cases.  But there does seem to be a pattern in which some of the most enthusiastically pro-war refused to go themselves.  They weren’t opposed to the Vietnam War, some of them were cheerleaders for that war, too, but they wanted others to fight it. 

Consider the following list of pro-war Republicans:

Vice President Richard B. Cheney had several deferments, none for medical reasons such as his later poor health.  He infamously said that he “had other priorities.”

Former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft did not serve–received 7 deferments to teach business ed. at Southwest Missouri State University.

Former Florida Gov.  Jeb Bush did not serve, receiving a deferment during Vietnam.

“Bush’s Brain” Karl Rove, did not serve, receiving several deferments so that he could plan future wars and GOP “permanent majority.”

Former Sen. Phil Gramm, did not serve, received several deferments.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not serve, avoided the draft with several deferments.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a major hawk, avoided combat during World War II by making training films for the army while remaining in California.  Later, he seemed several times to have confused his movie role as a tailgunner with the real thing.

President George W. Bush used his father’s influence to get into the Air National Guard in order to avoid going to Vietnam, though he loudly proposed using nuclear weapons on the North Vietnamese.  He was Absent Without Leave (AWOL) several times and eventually failed to finish his 6 year term in the Air National Guard, serving only 4 years.  His father’s influence kept him from being prosecuted for this.  For some reason, “W” still insists that he “has seen war.” Maybe on TV, but that’s all.


Not all big-league Republicans have been chickenhawks, of course.  Former Sen. Bob Dole, one time Pres. candidate, for instance, served honorably in WWII. Dole was permanently injured and earned several medals.  Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NB), earned two purple hearts and a bronze star in Vietnam.  Sen. John McCain (R-UT), was, of course captured in Vietnam and spent several years as a prisoner of war. In the 2000 presidential race, the Bush campaign smeared McCain’s reputation (was this practice for the later hatchet jobs to be done on Democrats Max Cleland, John Kerry, and others?) by claiming that he did dishonorable things in Vietnam, but he was defended by several prominent Democrats.

But its interesting that these honorable, sometimes even heroic, Republican veterans are much less hawkish than their civilian chickenhawk counterparts.


By contrast, many prominent Democrats who have been smeared as unpatriotic by the GOP have served honorably, sometimes even heroically, in the military. 

Former VP Al Gore enlisted in the military when he could have avoided it and volunteered for a tour of Vietnam to prevent some poor kid from going in his place.  He did this even though his father was one of the most prominent anti-Vietnam war senators at the time. 

Former Sen. Minority Leader Tom Daschle was a Lt. in the U.S. Air Force from 1969-1972.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) a very high ranking Democrat, served in the U.S. Army when his family was interred in U.S. concentration camps for citizens of Japanese ancestry.  He lost an arm and earned the Medal of Honor.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), presidential candidate in ’04 (although not my first choice), was a Lt. in the U.S. Navy from 1966 to 1970, going to Vietnam and earning 3 Purple Hearts, a bronze star with combat V and a silver star for valor.  Then, and in my view, this was just as courageous and patriotic if not more so, he testified before Congress in the Winter Soldier hearings, helping to end the Vietnam War and helping to create Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (It’s too bad that he was so hawkish in his ’04 campaign.)  Chickenhawks smeared his record in the ’04 campaign.

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA), lost both legs and one arm serving in Vietnam.  He lost reelection when Republican Chickenhawks, led by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, smeared his record and tried to claim that he was unpatriotic. !!!

Former Presidential Candidate (and still a political activist) General Wesley Clark:  Had a 38 year career of public service in the Army culminating in being the Supreme Commander of NATO. (He was a prominent critic of the Iraq invasion and occupation.)

Former Democratic President John F. Kennedy was highly decorated during WWII.  As was former Sen. and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy.  Whatever else one could say about Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), served in the Army in 1951-1953 and was in the Korean War.

Former Pres. Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, was commissioned an Ensign in 1947 just as WWII ended.  He  spent 7 years in the Navy helping to create the nuclear submarine fleet and becoming a nuclear engineer. 

Former VP Walter Mondale, served in the U.S. Army from 1951-1953, including a tour in the Korean war.

Former Sen. and Presidential candidate, George McGovern, a famous liberal politician, was in the Army Air Force in WWII and earned the Silver Star for valor.


The list could be expanded on both sides.  Other forms of national service, such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or alternative service as a conscientious objector, etc. should all be counted as patriotic service, in my view.  But even for those who claim military service as THE form of patriotic service, this should disprove the conservative myth that Republicans are more patriotic and respect the military more than Democrats.  There is simply no basis for this view.

August 22, 2007 Posted by | human rights., myths, nonviolence, politics | 8 Comments