Expand Civil Rights Laws to Include Social Class

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

In 2013, I researched legislative means of dealing with class bias in everyday life. This article was the result.

Expand Civil Rights Laws to Include Social Class (Razorcake, June 20, 2013)

America is dying of inequality. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that “the income share of just the top one half of the top 1 percent grew from 5.39 percent of the nation’s income in 1979 to 13.37 percent in 2010.” CEPR found that “the share of the bottom 90 [percent] fell from 67.65 percent to 53.74 percent,” during the same period. The Great Recession spawned by the financial crash has officially ended, but upward redistribution of wealth is still the order of the day. Stock prices are reaching new highs, amid crushing poverty, joblessness, and debt. The social divide will only get worse unless government ends right-wing austerity policies, which make everyone but the rich pay for the crisis caused by the rich.

We will not reverse the decline and fall of the American people until the people understand how the wealthy exploit them every day. Many activists, journalists, scholars, and filmmakers are working to show Americans in vivid terms just how they are being cheated. But the propaganda efforts of corporate media have been very successful, particularly in convincing the public that “freedom” means unregulated corporate power. Also, economic relationships can seem impersonal, causing many Americans to believe that inequality is beyond human control.

Fortunately, the Civil Rights Movement created a framework for understanding the problems we face, as well as a means of addressing them. Americans may not yet fully grasp the workings of economic exploitation. But, thanks to decades of civil rights struggles, nearly everyone is familiar with the concepts of prejudice and discrimination. And that is the essence of our economically divided society: prejudice and discrimination against those who are not wealthy or of high social status. Civil rights laws have proven effective against unequal treatment based on race, sex, religion, and national origin. We must expand those laws to prohibit unequal treatment based on social class.

Concepts of class are so backward in America that we lack even a proper term to describe class prejudice. Words like racist and sexist are commonplace, but what do you call a rich person who hates working-class people or even middle-class ones? The usual term is snob, which suggests an annoying but harmless character who frets about the placement of salad forks at a table setting. An alternative, classist, is too similar to other words, especially when spoken. The term I use is class bigot, and I find myself using it a lot. Likewise, when police or other authorities target people based on race, religion, or gender, we call that racial, religious, or gender profiling. Hardly anyone talks about social profiling, but it happens all the time.

Can civil rights law transform our class-ridden society? To answer that, we’ll need to review some history. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1868) mandates that “No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Along with the Fifteenth Amendment, which protects voting rights, the Fourteenth was meant to guarantee equal status for black citizens in the aftermath of the Civil War.

However, racists disregarded those guarantees, especially in the former Confederate states. It was not until the 1950s and ’60s that the federal government intervened decisively to enforce the Constitution. Citing the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregated public schools in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress added new weapons to the fight against injustice: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result was remarkable, if incomplete, progress toward an integrated America.

The Civil Rights Act remains the basis for a wide range of legal protections. Title IV of the Act forbids educational discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin.” Title VII deals with employment and includes provisions against unequal treatment due to sex, in addition to the categories mentioned in Title IV. Title VI applies the Act’s regulations to government agencies that receive federal funds.

Congress has expanded the scope of this legislation since the 1960s. For instance, the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibit sex bias in education, closing a loophole in the 1964 Act. To enforce these statutes, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains a Civil Rights Division and there is also a Commission on Civil Rights. Private citizens can sue in federal court when they believe their lawful rights have been violated. But discrimination based on social class is the defining evil of the age and it is currently beyond the reach of our legal system.

Admittedly, class is a less obvious identity than race or sex, but identities rooted in religion or national origin are not always obvious and those are covered by civil rights legislation. And, admittedly, not all provisions of civil rights law could apply to class. For instance, it is illegal to make decisions on loan or rental applications based on race. Obviously, it is not feasible to institute a blanket ban on discrimination by class in such cases, because that would prevent lenders and property owners from checking applicants’ incomes or credit histories.

The key distinction here is between interactions that are determined by a person’s financial standing (such as purchasing, borrowing, and leasing) and those that are not or should not be (such as law enforcement, public safety, education, and employment). In the latter category of interactions, it is wrong to discriminate against citizens merely because they possess less wealth or occupy a lower social status. But, all too often, that is exactly what occurs. Let’s look at some examples of class bigotry in action and consider whether improved civil rights legislation could help.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Sadhbh Walshe showed that U.S. courts are rife with class bias. She cited studies of non-felony criminal cases, which demonstrated that courts treat defendants more harshly if they are unable to pay bail. When defendants are locked up pending trial, prosecutors have the upper hand and are likely to offer more punitive plea bargains.

When a legal-aid organization in New York City started posting bail for impoverished misdemeanor defendants, the situation changed dramatically. “Over half of their clients’ cases were thrown out by the prosecution, and not a single one of the remaining clients took a disposition that involved any jail time,” Walshe wrote. “That small amount of bail money posted on their behalf was, literally, the price of their liberty.” A 2010 study showed that 87% of non-felony defendants in NYC who were assigned bail of $1,000 or less were unable to pay it. It is no exaggeration to say that, in such cases, courts are deciding guilt and punishment based on social class.

The bail issue is a question of court procedure and therefore violates the principle of “equal protection of the laws” at its most fundamental. But when judges and prosecutors use non-felony defendants’ poverty as a means of extracting a guilty plea or imposing a harsher sentence, there is currently no recourse. That is because, unlike race or gender, class is not a category that triggers legal protections. We should amend the law to fix that.

Class bigotry poisons justice by other means as well. There is no better illustration of that than the contrast between law enforcement’s harsh measures against ordinary citizens, such as peaceful protesters, and its refusal to take action against Wall Street criminals. The country is still suffering from the effects of the financial crisis, which was caused by fraud. Banks issued home loans at inflated prices, often knowing that the borrowers would not be able to keep up payments. Then the banks created worthless securities out of those loans and sold them to unsuspecting customers around the world.

In fact, the banksters-in-chief at Goldman Sachs were so sure that the price of their securities would collapse that they bought insurance on them even after they sold them. When the inevitable crash came, no one at Goldman Sachs was punished. Instead, the company received taxpayer-funded bailouts, both directly and from another bailed-out firm, American International Group (AIG), which had insured those fake securities. “At least $13 billion of the taxpayer money given to AIG in the bailout ultimately went to Goldman,” financial journalist Matt Taibbi reported.

Many other financial institutions, including foreign ones, benefitted from bailouts in the form of direct government payments, special credit arrangements, or guarantees. A 2011 report by the government’s General Accounting Office put the price of the Federal Reserve Board’s corporate welfare to leading banks at $16 trillion. (America’s Gross Domestic Product, the value of all goods and services in the country, stands at about $15.7 trillion.)

The people were not so fortunate: the economic disaster resulting from Wall Street’s scams inflicts new casualties every day. Since the taxpayers saved the banks and their stockholders, punishing the banksters who caused the crisis is literally the least the government can do. Taibbi sums up the matter with this question: “We couldn’t find a single person on Wall Street to do even a day in jail for losing 40% of the world’s wealth in a criminal fraud scheme?”

The crimes didn’t stop after the bailouts. Wall Street made a fortune off toxic mortgages, so the next step was to profit from the houses themselves by repossessing and reselling them. There was only one problem: the banks had cut up the mortgages and spread the pieces across different securities. That tactic helped the scam artists cover their tracks, but made it practically impossible to establish ownership of any individual mortgage. Wall Street bosses came up with a solution to that problem: perjury. They presented fake mortgage documents in court. William Black, a former federal regulator, told Democracy Now! that “what [the bankers] were doing was lying systematically to the tune, typically, of the large places, of 10,000 times a month.” They were “committing felonies that would lead to people being made homeless in America.”

Not satisfied with that, the banks also repossessed homes of buyers who were legally entitled to refinance. In some cases, they seized the houses of people who were not behind on their payments or who were military personnel on combat duty, and therefore supposed to be protected from foreclosure. The list of banks involved in illegal dispossession includes Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

The Obama administration and officials in 49 states took up the issue, reaching a settlement with the banks in 2012. Most victims of illegal foreclosure—about 80%—will receive compensation of $300 to $1,000. No, that is not a misprint. The settlement grants immunity to the banks, so the only choice given to those who lost their homes unjustly is take it or leave it.

Under today’s laws, if the Ku Klux Klan threw African Americans out of their homes, not only would the Klansmen go to jail for it, but they would be forced to return the stolen houses. If the government cut a deal with the KKK granting immunity to the group’s members and allowing them to pay practically nothing, the evicted residents could sue the government for racially discriminatory law enforcement. They could also obtain a court injunction preventing the corrupt bargain between politicians and Klansmen from going into effect.

Victims of the real-life illegal dispossession case should have the right to sue. Government officials acted with gross bias toward the too-big-to-fail banks and their too-rich-to-lose stockholders. The main difference between the hypothetical Klan example above and the actual banker home-theft case is that the bankers’ thugs don’t wear sheets. Let’s expand civil rights law and create a remedy for wholesale property theft by the wealthy, one that applies even when political figures and prosecutors are too cozy with the social elite to care.

Speaking of which, in February, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized government officials’ eagerness to reach settlements with posh criminals rather than prosecuting them. At a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee, Warren asked a panel of federal regulators to tell her “about the last few times you’ve taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to a trial.” None of the panelists could cite a single case. Warren pointed out the contradiction at the heart of American “justice.” “There are district attorneys and U.S. attorneys who are out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial,” she said. “I’m really concerned that too big to fail has become too big for trial.” If you doubt that Warren is right, I recommend that you repeatedly watch this clip from that hearing, alternated with footage of police brutalizing protesters.

Class bias is a matter of life and death. In its annual “Death on the Job” report, released in April, the AFL-CIO presented statistics on work-related deaths, including those from disease caused by exposure to dangerous materials at work. “Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail,” the report stated. “During this time there were more than 390,000 worker deaths.” That amounts to one month of jail time per 4,382 workers killed.

Compare that to government officials’ response to terror attacks. In that case, they are so aggressive that they don’t think twice about violating civil liberties. There is a gross imbalance in the way American government responds to threats against its citizens’ safety. When the issue is foreign-based terrorism, our gung-ho authorities refuse to stay within their constitutional limits. But when workers die needlessly on the job, the authorities do nothing. The politicians, prosecutors, and many of the regulators are more concerned about corporate profits than workers’ lives. How long before al-Qaeda leaders figure out that if they want to kill Americans with impunity, they can forget about making bombs and just open unsafe factories in the U.S.? Restoring balance to law enforcement will prove a big job, but we can fight against death at the workplace by using amended civil rights law to hold corporate and government officials accountable in court.

Improved civil rights legislation would end many other destructive inequities. So-called “right to work” laws, which effectively prevent union organizing, would finally become illegal, simply because they are discriminatory. Stockholders and other business owners are allowed to form groups for collective bargaining: those groups are called corporations. Created by the state, corporations let business owners take advantage of a wide range of privileges, including tax breaks and the ability to walk away from certain debts. Permitting business owners to organize for their interests, while denying workers the same right, is the definition of unequal treatment.

If class becomes a category of civil rights law, it will allow us to combat social elitism in higher education. The percentage of working-class students at top universities is far below the level that would trigger widespread outrage if any other group were so systematically excluded. Many leading colleges openly admit that they grant enormous admissions preferences to “legacies,” children of rich graduates. In a 2009 book, two sociologists, T. J. Espenshade and A.W. Radford, published data showing that leading colleges penalize working-class white applicants. The deafening media silence that has accompanied that revelation should end with a legal challenge.

When offering examples of how civil rights legislation could apply to class, I glossed over one problem for the sake of clarity. I depicted the courts acting to enforce the new law, rather than resisting it. Actually, civil rights laws are under fire and conservatives on the bench are doing much of the shooting. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering suits aimed at eliminating race-based affirmative action and key elements of the Voting Rights Act. Even if those efforts fail, the fact remains that racial segregation is on the rise again in America’s schools and neighborhoods. We need to build a powerful coalition to defend existing anti-discrimination laws. Broadening the definition of civil rights to encompass social class would help that effort by giving more Americans—specifically, economically disadvantaged whites—a stake in this crucial legislation.

Corporate attacks on the lives of everyday Americans are successful because working-class people are often divided by race and sex. Under our unreformed class system, the quest for racial and gender diversity entails discriminating against working-class white men while continuing to privilege rich white men. Liberal college administrators may not acknowledge that, but the targets of their class bigotry are fully aware of it. Likewise, working-class women understand that “affirmative action for women” normally applies only to bourgeois women. Campaigns for equality should unite excluded groups instead of setting them against each other.

This plan to include class within the scope of civil rights law belongs at the center of the progressive agenda. It offers a comprehensive solution to the problems of our unequal society. Just as important, it will strengthen and focus demands for change by prompting Americans to think systematically about the role of class in daily life.

Eminent Class Bigots: Tad Friend and The New Yorker, Part 2

My last post detailed the bigoted writing of Tad Friend. Descended from generations of East Coast, Ivy League preppies, Friend found himself writing for New York in 1994. He surveyed America and decided that “white trash” were destroying society. The magazine published his bizarre conclusions and Friend moved up to The New Yorker four years later, where he remains.

Even in 1994, it was obvious that our national decline was due to a rapacious elite: bankers, executives in the energy and weapons industries, and the upper echelons of the investor class. So I found it remarkable that Friend could affix so much blame to people at the bottom of the social scale.

Had he targeted women or minorities in the same manner, his article would not have been published in New York. If it had somehow made its way into the magazine, Friend and the editor who approved it would have bid adieu to their careers. Had such an article appeared and gone unnoticed at the time, it would have provoked justifiable outrage whenever it was discovered. Friend’s continued immunity from criticism tells you all you need to know about elite media. Class bigotry is considered not merely acceptable, but laudable.

Friend’s ludicrous assertions in “White Hot Trash!” have not improved with age. For instance, there is this discussion of crime.

An even more damaged trash response than being chubby and riding without a helmet is serial killings, which are almost exclusively committed by white men between the ages of 25 and 40. More serial murders have been reported since 1970 than in all previous American history combined.

Friend blames “white trash” for that, though most American serial murders that occurred before or after 1970 were perpetrated by the social elite. Even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, thousands of Americans die every year due to lack of health insurance. Why? Because the rich owners of the private-health-care industry want it that way. When you add preventable workplace deaths and the casualties of the elite’s imperial wars, the body count is not even close.

And what about this passage?

Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.

Bridget Hall’s family was so poor they could only afford canned food, and Tad Friend found that hilarious. It was equally disgusting to call Bridget Hall a “Lolita,” a charge that Friend connects closely to poverty.

This is a clear case of an over-privileged white guy calling a 16-year-old girl a slut for being born poor. It makes a sickeningly creepy spectacle. Where were feminists when this article was published? Where are they now?

I thought someone should ask Friend about the views he expressed in “White Hot Trash!” So, a couple of months ago, I e-mailed The New Yorker and asked if I could interview him about that piece. When I didn’t get a reply, I e-mailed my questions and asked the PR department to pass them on to Friend. The magazine’s PR coordinator, Adrea Piazza, wrote back and asked, “What publication are your writing for?” I had already mentioned that I worked freelance and did not have an assignment for the piece I was writing. I explained that again.

Time passed and I didn’t get a reply. I wrote: “Since you work in the PR department, would you like to answer one or more of my questions? Take your pick.” I included a link to “White Hot Trash!” and wrote: “Here is the article that prompted my questions. What do you think of it?

Piazza replied: “Thank you very much, but unfortunately Tad is not available.” He’s apparently also indefensible, because The New Yorker’s PR coordinator did not venture an opinion on “White Hot Trash!” I’m beginning to question the work ethic of my betters.

If you work for a major media outlet, and you feel like challenging bigotry and practicing journalism, here are the questions I tried to ask Tad Friend. Feel free to ask any or all of them. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you might also ask Adrea Piazza and New Yorker Editor David Remnick why they apparently don’t see any problem with Friend’s views. Let me know what you find out.

1. In the article, you warned that white trash were having a destructive impact on America. But haven’t subsequent events (George W. Bush’s presidency, Wall Street’s depredations) as well as previous events (George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Wall Street’s depredations) shown that the real threat to America comes from rich, white, Ivy League preppies—i.e. your social group?

2. Discussing fashion-model Bridget Hall in “White Hot Trash!” you wrote: “Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.” It seems that, in addition to mocking Hall for coming from an impoverished family, you also implied that Hall’s poverty made her a “Lolita.” Would you care to comment?

3. Many of your examples of typical “white trash” behavior involve rich people: Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Menendez brothers, and “men in ties and suspenders” who frequent strip clubs. Here is your explanation for that apparent contradiction: “A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier.” Another explanation would be that posh people like yourself tend to blame poor people for bad behavior by members of your own social group. Isn’t “White Hot Trash!” an example of that phenomenon?

4. I would characterize your article as class bigotry. Am I wrong?

5. One of the underlying assumptions of “White Hot Trash!” is that immorality is hereditary. For instance, you explain the Paula Jones scandal with these words: “Our president’s family tree has bubbas on every branch.” Isn’t your attitude on that point very close to those who advocate eugenics?

6. Has anyone at The New Yorker commented on “White Hot Trash!” during the time you have worked at that magazine? Do you recall any specific reactions?

Eminent Class Bigots: Tad Friend and The New Yorker, Part 1

A few years ago, I wrote this piece about class bigotry in elite media. The subject was Tad Friend and his 1994 article for New York, “White Hot Trash!” Friend blamed “white trash” for America’s decline, though the real culprits were obviously his old prep-school classmates in the top echelons of business, government, and media.

That exercise in scapegoating was the politically correct equivalent of right-wing theories about the genetic inferiority of racial minorities and the poor. It is a staggering indictment of elite media that Friend, now at The New Yorker, has never been called to account for his hate-writing. More on that in Part 2.

The White-Trash Scapegoat (Razorcake, August 29, 2011)

The financial elite are stealing America. Under Democratic and Republican administrations, the rich seize ever more of the nation’s wealth—especially during Wall Street-created crises. In fact, the economic cycle now consists of a series of recurring scams. At its core, the present crisis is a repeat of the Savings & Loan boondoggle of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Both followed the same trajectory: deregulation, banker fraud, stock-market nosedive, insider bailout, recession.

The scale of the theft is no surprise when compared to similar cases in history, but the lack of opposition is remarkable. Why don’t the American people unite against the rapacious elite? The answer: “scapegoating.” When confronted with populist anger, the rich and their allies simply direct it toward other, much more vulnerable targets. There has been useful reporting on the practice of blaming the country’s problems on racial minorities, non-Christians, immigrants, and gays. Even so, the media consistently ignore one group of scapegoats—except when scapegoating them—working-class whites, or “white trash” in elitist terminology.

The best way to understand the crusade against working-class whites is to look closely at a celebrated expression of it: Tad Friend’s New York magazine article “White Hot Trash!” Widely reprinted, the 1994 piece fit neatly into a pervasive media campaign that drew public attention away from business scandals by demonizing workers and the poor. Such tactics paved the way for the (Non-Corporate) Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Surveying the national scene, Friend saw an army of vicious white trash on the attack: “white trash best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun both rural and urban America,” (italics original). When he described these enemies of decency, his words struck a familiar tone. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling characterized the western empires’ colonial subjects as “half devil and half child.” For his part, Friend wrote: “White-trash behavior is defined by childlikeness and the headlong pursuit of easy gratification—quite often, sex.” Throughout the article, he mixed moralizing with voyeurism and treated character as a function of social background. Weighing in on Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton—the tabloid news item of the day—Friend turned the case into a question of lineage: “our president’s family tree has bubbas on every branch.”

The New York writer produced a long list of offenses and invariably found white trash at the root of the evil. Whether it was crimes against high fashion (“candy-apple lipstick, chipped cherry-red nail polish, fishnet stockings . . . tattoos”), going to strip clubs (“places like Stringfellow’s, where a table dance costs $20 and where men in ties and suspenders watch topless women crawl around”), altercations with the police (“consider slaphappy Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor”), or even murder (“Any vestiges of our expectations about guilt . . . vanished with the Menendezes”), one gang was behind it all.

Many of the specifics in Friend’s bill of indictment are absurd, but there is a more fundamental problem with his analysis. Why do the rich feature so prominently in his rogues’ gallery of white trash? The Menendez brothers grew up in a wealthy (not to mention Hispanic) family. Zsa Zsa Gabor also came from a well-to-do background. Ties, suspenders, and $20 table dances also don’t fit the white-trash profile. The writer explained: “A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier.” Watch your step, rich people. You might slip and start acting like white trash.

To support his claim that a light-skinned, proletarian horde was razing the civilized world, Friend cited the worsening poverty rate among whites in the U.S. and offered quotes from “scholar Charles Murray.” (Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s fatuous book The Bell Curve, in which the authors labeled African Americans and the poor genetically inferior, was published less than a month after “White Hot Trash!”) “White trash’s connotations increasingly describe America,” Friend summarized. “The country is becoming underclass-laden, illiterate, promiscuous, and just plain fat.” He evidently believes that poverty and illiteracy are personal choices, on a par with overeating. “The country is becoming underclass-laden” is a revealing statement. According to Friend, poverty is something that the poor do to the nation rather than the other way around.

Friend’s attack was wide ranging, but he never strayed far from the topic of sex at its most lurid. This passage demonstrates how closely poverty and depravity are linked in his mind.

“[Courtney] Love’s delight in looking like ‘a 14-year-old battered rape victim,’ a ‘kinderwhore,’ [Friend did not provide the source(s) of those quotes] is a nutshell of white-trash chic. So, too, are the suggestively named Tease-brand baby-doll T-shirts, which evoke a Lolita-at-the-Dairy-Queen thing. (Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.)”

How did Bridget Hall get to be a “Lolita”? Are all young, female models Lolitas, or just those whose parents could only afford canned food? There is certainly room to criticize the photographers, clothiers, and advertisers responsible for producing sexualized images of models who resemble (or are) children, but why denigrate the model herself? An honest treatment of the issue would require investigation of the fashion industry, the posh snobs who run it, and the customers who pay colossal sums for its wares. Then there are the magazines that devote obsessive coverage to the details of models’ lives. For instance, New York now offers an online profile of Bridget Hall, including the names of celebrities she has dated and a list of her key characteristics as a model: “Body, Cheekbones, Hair.” It is easy to see why Friend preferred to place blame for the fashion world’s Lolita fixation on the narrow shoulders of a girl from an impoverished, rural background.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Friend resorted to this film reference: “Like the urbanities in Deliverance, we have found ourselves in the grinning clutches of sexually predatory backwoodsmen,” he bellowed. “White-trash culture commands us to ‘squeal like a pig!’ And we’re oinking.” There is no stopping the white-trash war on society. By Friend’s lights, even white-collar crime is a blue-collar problem: “Whitewater, though numbingly complex, is at bottom a pure good-old-boy scam.”

With that claim, he went too far. Between overeating, the headlong pursuit of sex, command performances on Cops, and forcing businessmen to frequent strip clubs, there hardly seems to be enough time in a white-trash day to devise new ways to evade financial-industry regulations. At the least, Friend should have admitted that his stereotype of the lazy, white-trash slob was inaccurate.

Of course, Whitewater amounted to only a small sidebar on the Savings & Loan crisis, which was still siphoning off billions of tax dollars when New York published its screed against white trash. Come to think of it, the chief perpetrators of the S&L bailout, President George H.W. Bush and his treasury secretary, Nicholas F. Brady, hail from the same old-money background as Tad Friend. As a matter of course, all three attended posh prep schools and Ivy League universities. The grandson of a famous industrialist, Brady went to Yale, where the Bush clan has been a fixture since the 1840s. Friend’s family tree has Ivy aristocracy on every branch: one of his ancestors was the first president of Yale. It is not surprising, therefore, that he decided to give it the old school try and tell his readers that society was rotting from the bottom rather than the top.

Though the article was syndicated nationally at the height of political correctness, no one in the media seemed to notice anything wrong with it. Friend became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1998, and he included “White Hot Trash!” in a 2001 collection of his magazine pieces. Had he chosen just about any other group as the target for his blunt expressions of hatred, his tenure as a writer for top magazines would have been cut short in favor of a challenging new career as Michael Savage’s on-air sidekick. Class bigotry, on the other hand, is considered perfectly respectable.

When it comes to scapegoating working-class Americans for the sins of the elite, Tad Friend is one example among many. After the billionaire-funded, corporate-shilling Tea Party emerged, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, and other liberals called the group’s members “rednecks” and “hillbillies.” Some liberals still apply the “hillbilly” epithet—and other disparaging terms for low-income whites—to the Tea Party, even though an April 2010 CBS/New York Times poll showed that the typical Tea Partier has a higher income than the average American and is more likely to possess a college degree.

Liberals’ contempt for right-wing “rednecks” caused a mighty outcry at Fox News Channel: Conservatives are always ready to pose as defenders of everyday folks against liberal smears. Pretending to like working people (of any race) is a tough task for right-wingers, especially when Republican politicians need fall guys. In 2004, published photos revealed the grisly results of the Bush administration’s systematic use of torture against prisoners of war. The president, vice president, and defense secretary were directly responsible for the brutal policy, but not according to Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. In the pages of that newspaper, rightist pundit John Podhoretz blamed Bush’s torture program entirely on low-ranking soldiers. He also condemned a large segment of society, calling the soldiers “white-trash ghouls.” Conservative would-be populists, usually so easy to enrage, remained silent when Podhoretz and Murdoch showed what they really thought of working-class whites. Contempt for white trash is a point of bipartisan agreement.

For decades, the country’s elite has thwarted populism by making scapegoats of the powerless. Our economic nightmare will never end unless Americans learn to see through that tactic—even when the scapegoats are working class and white.

History versus Religion: The Case of Pontius Pilate

Inscription stone from the ancient city of Caesarea with part of Pontius Pilate's name.
Inscription stone from the ancient city of Caesarea with part of Pontius Pilate’s name.

My posts on religious issues have been popular, relatively speaking. So here’s another. It’s from way back. In the spring of 2000, I wrote a review of two books about Pontius Pilate. It was rejected for publication, so here it is for the first time. I believe the review offers a close look at the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.

“Whence Art Thou?” (April 2000)

Pontius Pilate had an especially high profile this Easter. In a widely publicized move, the directors of the Oberammergau passion play revised the script to emphasize the Roman governor’s guilt in Jesus’ execution, distancing the production from Gospel accounts that blamed the Jewish people. Toward the same purpose, makers of the CBS miniseries Jesus gave Pilate some additional, unflattering scenes, loosely based on the writings of the first-century historian Josephus.

Easter also saw the U.S. release of Ann Wroe’s biography, Pontius Pilate, after a successful run in the U.K., which included a Samuel Johnson Prize nomination. Interest in Pilate appears to be at flood tide, at least among publishers. Helen K. Bond’s Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation preceded Wroe’s volume, and two novels, one about Pilate himself and one about his wife (assuming he was married), followed soon after.

Ann Wroe starts with an odd declaration: she intends to discover “all our Pilates,” the historical figure and subsequent representations of him. Her use of the possessive is striking, if not alarming, and throughout the book she seems unusually close to her material. She is also diligent, surveying a wide range of art and literature to supplement the sketchy historical record.

Pilate served as governor (his official title was “prefect”) of Judea from 26-36/7 CE. The only hard historical evidence of him—some coins, an inscription, and brief accounts from the Jewish authors Josephus and Philo—reveals an ambitious and sycophantic politician. Josephus and Philo recounted the governor’s conflicts with the Jewish population, but the actions that got Pilate into trouble suggest that he wanted to be noticed in Rome, if not in posterity.

He commissioned an aqueduct for Jerusalem, triggering riots when he used Temple funds for its construction, and his other unpopular initiatives aimed at the greater glory of the emperor Tiberius or smacked of Romanization. In Jerusalem, he set up military standards with Tiberius’ (graven) image on them and, later, votive shields dedicated to him, removing both only after intense pressure. Pilate’s introduction of coins depicting items used in Roman religious ritual seems a more subtle attempt to place the stamp of Roman culture on the province, just as his construction of a “Tiberium”—it is unclear what sort of building it was—at his headquarters in Caesarea offered a less controversial means of celebrating his boss’s greatness.

Guiding the reader through such evidence, Wroe’s impressive command of classical history and literature allows her to place Pilate in his cultural context, and to speculate fruitfully about his upbringing and early career. Wroe is at her best while writing about the pre-Good Friday Pilate, but the closer the story gets to the trial of Jesus, the more she adds melodramatic touches and tenuous links to current issues. Is a police captain at an Operation Rescue protest like Pilate? The ways in which the officer is and is not like the Roman governor receive a full airing, in which no observation comes unexpected. Wroe’s preferred Pilate turns out to be the one who symbolizes humankind in the presence of God—touched by the divine, but drawing back from it:

There had been potential in Pilate at that moment [Jesus’ trial] for darkness or light far beyond the routine experience of a Roman prefect. Even he seemed to sense it. The tiny seed had lodged in his heart or his mind, suggesting infinite possibilities. He could take untraveled roads, open hidden doors, escape the bounds of earth and flesh, exceed himself. Or he could stay as he was: shrug, scratch his ear, write another memorandum.

He stayed as he was. As most of us do.

Of course, that figure is a romanticized version of the Pilate who appears in John’s Gospel, and the portrayal hinges on the belief that he was a reluctant executioner. But scholars such as John Dominic Crossan have asked why we should accept the Christian stories of a conflicted Pilate, harried by a Jewish mob into killing Jesus. They point out that Josephus (a pro-Roman source) depicted the prefect as a hot-tempered ruler, with a penchant for excessive force and capital punishment.

For instance, Tiberius recalled Pilate to Rome to face charges from Samaritan leaders that he had been too harsh in suppressing a potential insurrection. Josephus does not report the outcome of those proceedings, except to note that, by the time Pilate arrived, Tiberius was dead and Caligula was emperor. We do know that the episode marked the end of Pilate’s tenure in Judea. That does not mean he was found guilty. But the fact that he was recalled at all indicates that the charges initially seemed to carry some weight, even by the brutal standards of Roman imperial rule.

Had Jesus staged a one-man riot in the Temple just before Passover, as the New Testament records, would the governor have needed the Jewish authorities to coerce him into crucifying the troublemaker? Could Caiaphas, the high priest, have exerted such pressure on Pilate, considering that the former held his office at the latter’s pleasure?

The Gospel writers would have found it tempting to have Pilate affirm Jesus’ innocence, thus giving early Christians a defense against the charge that they worshipped a rebel against Rome. Shouldn’t we read the trial narratives in that light? Wroe offers reasons to doubt the Christian accounts, but, when she speculates about Pilate’s feelings during the trial, she assumes that the Gospels are accurate reports. By that point, the first-century Roman of the book’s early pages is long gone, and Wroe’s use of Roman literature and philosophy to explore Pilate’s view of Jesus merely underscores that fact.

Wroe’s desire to humanize Pilate causes her to miss the fact that in recent retellings of the story he actually appears less human and more a part of the background. It is true that Sergei Bulgakov made Pilate the centerpiece of his take on Easter in Master and Margarita. But then Bulgakov was offering a critique of Stalinism, and the Roman governor fit easily into the role of an apparatchik haunted by his actions.

Late-twentieth-century writers have often focused on Jesus’ humanity, and, conversely, reduced Pilate to a stereotype of Rome or corrupt authority. Pilate became more than ever a one-dimensional figure, thereby highlighting Jesus’ emotional depth and the novelty of authors’ explorations of the Son of Man. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis portrayed the prefect as a hissing fop whose desire to release Jesus stems solely from spite for Jewish leaders.

When he wrote The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer left Pilate with roughly the words assigned him by the New Testament. But he described Pilate’s actions as an attempt to secure the largest possible bribe from Caiaphas. In his play Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally likewise preferred Gospel accounts of Pilate’s words, but assigned him only two lines. He did make one significant change, however. He substituted the word “queer” for “King of the Jews”—a move that hardly makes the speaker more sympathetic. Far from being a spiritual Everyman, “our Pilate” is an inhuman man faced with a human god.

Helen K. Bond disavows any hope of finding either our Pilate or the historical one, and concentrates instead on the motivations behind the various first-century depictions of him. In a series of self-contained set pieces on Josephus, Philo, and each Gospel, she shows how Pilate served writers’ agendas. Josephus’ viewpoint was colored by his support for Roman rule and his desire for concord between Jews and Romans.

In his historical works (Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War), he tried to show that violent uprisings were futile and peaceful lobbying was effective. His description of Pilate’s actions fit that goal: the governor crushes the riot caused by his appropriation of Temple funds for the aqueduct, but removes the imperial standards from Jerusalem after the populace engaged in passive resistance. Josephus’ other reports of Jewish conflicts with Roman authority followed a similar plot.

Bond also finds argumentative goals paramount in the case of Philo, who claimed that Pilate’s actions in the dispute over the votive shields were deliberately provocative. Philo viewed Romans from a theological perspective, idealizing those he regarded as respectful toward Jews and their religion (even Tiberius received a positive gloss), while describing less understanding Romans as uniformly evil. It is therefore uncertain whether Pilate sought confrontation as aggressively as Philo indicates.

Bond explains the Gospels in terms of polemical objectives as well. The crux of her interpretation is that she regards Pilate’s pronouncements of Jesus’ innocence as ironic, except in Luke’s version. Roman practice for dealing with messianic and kingly claimants was well established, and Roman law mandated conviction if the accused declined to offer a defense, as the Jesus of the New Testament did. Bond argues that the Gospels’ contemporary readers probably would have known such facts, and that Pilate’s apparent reluctance is best explained as an effort to avert reprisals against Rome by implicating the Jewish people in Jesus’ death.

In her view, “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” was a loaded question designed to elicit exactly the response it received. (Since Pilate was accusing the people of regarding Jesus as their king, anyone who spoke up for Jesus risked sharing his fate.) Likewise, “What evil has he done?” was a coy question aimed at getting the crowd’s assent to the prisoner’s sentence on record. Bond reinforces her point by demonstrating that such tests of loyalty and displays of false reluctance were standard tactics of first-century rulers—especially, she might have added, Tiberius.

Following Mark’s Gospel, the oldest, Matthew and John placed the Jews in a harsher light, reflecting the increasing rivalry between Christianity and Judaism. Their characterizations of Pilate, however, differed little from Mark’s. Luke is the odd one out: his Pilate did want to release Jesus. Bond credits the friendly portrayal of the prefect to sharp conflicts between Christians and Jews in Luke’s social context (probably the 80s CE, possibly Antioch). But would that Gospel’s author(s) have been so much more anti-Jewish than the creators of the other, roughly contemporary, New Testament books? If not, then Luke’s sympathetic account of Pilate strengthens the case for a literal reading of the governor’s lines in the other Gospels.

Either way, Bond demonstrates the absence of solid facts behind the different authors’ portrayals. Her work implicitly endorses the script changes at Oberammergau. There is little chance that we today could be more biased about Pilate than writers from the governor’s own era.

End Discrimination Against Working-Class Students at American Colleges

Dartmouth College, circa 1834
Dartmouth College, circa 1834

After decades of ignoring under-representation of working-class students at elite colleges, some politicians and media-makers have finally taken notice. But discussion has been vague and action has been lacking. We won’t bring about true social diversity at top colleges until we address the problem of discrimination.

In January 2014, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama launched a new initiative to increase college access for low-income students. The president said that the initiative had the backing of “college presidents—from state universities and historically black colleges to Ivy League universities and community colleges.” He noted that “more than 100 colleges and 40 organizations are announcing new commitments to help more young people not only go to, but graduate from college.” To document these new efforts, the White House released Commitments to Action, with pledges from individual institutions. (See that and more on the initiative here.)

Unfortunately, the promises offered by top private colleges were either vague, paltry, or both. The only Ivy League college that made a specific, numerical commitment to increase low-income enrollment was Yale. That university’s officials promised to intensify their work with QuestBridge, a national, non-profit organization that seeks to match talented low-income students with leading colleges. According to Commitments to Action, Yale pledged to increase “the number of QuestBridge Finalists it enrolls in its freshman class by 50 percent. Yale has traditionally enrolled 50-60 [QuestBridge] students per year, and is now committing to enrolling 75-80 students who apply through this program for entry in fall 2014 and fall 2015.”

But if the “traditional” baseline for measuring the increase is set at the upper level of 60 QuestBridge students per year, then enrolling 75 such students would constitute only a 25% increase. Enrolling 80 would only amount to a 33% increase.

Yale’s commitment to a 50% increase did not survive the next sentence of the report. At most, Yale is promising to admit 30 more QuestBridge students per year than before. According to the latest federal statistics, 30 students equals 0.5% of Yale’s undergraduate enrollment. When it comes to elite, private colleges, President Obama’s initiative is little more than a public-relations effort.

What would a real campaign for social diversity look like? It would define the problem, demand substantial, measurable improvements, and provide credible sanctions for institutions that fail to comply.

The problem is discrimination.

Politicians, journalists, and “experts” are remarkably consistent in attributing low enrollment of economically disadvantaged students to those students’ own failures or, at worst, innocent oversights by college administrators. But working-class students are so severely under-represented at elite colleges, particularly the most prestigious private ones, that such excuses are insulting.

Private colleges are not required to provide data on social diversity. So our best measurement is the percentage of a college’s undergraduates who receive Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low- and middle-income students.

As shown by U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of economic diversity at top national universities, only a few elite institutions have percentages of Pell Grant recipients higher than the ’teens. There is an enormous gap between the two leading University of California institutions and all the others on the list. (Columbia University is somewhat more diverse than the other Ivies, but I discovered that its percentage of Pell students is greatly exaggerated, due to an error regarding that institution’s enrollment. The figure should be 23%, not 30%.) UCB and UCLA have achieved Pell percentages in the upper-30s without compromising academic excellence. What excuse do the other 23 colleges have?

The Southern Education Foundation recently reported that the majority of U.S. public-school students are low income, as defined by participation in free- and reduced-rate school-lunch programs. The majority, and most likely a large majority, of public-school students would qualify for Pell Grants, if they went to college. Yet only a small fraction of students at most elite private colleges receive Pell Grants.

Likewise, education scholar John Jerrim has concluded that low-social-status students are under-represented at U.S. colleges, and that the “access gap” between them and high-status students cannot be explained by academic achievement. The disparity is worst at top private institutions. Differences in academic performance account for 60% of the access gap at “elite public sector colleges,” but only 48% of the gap at “elite private sector colleges.” (That study, “Family background and access to ‘high status’ universities,” is available here.)

That is to say, merit, as defined by grades and test scores, cannot explain even half of the social-class gap at top private colleges in the U.S. The barriers facing low-status university applicants are actually lower in England, where academic performance explains 73% of the access gap. I thought England was the country with a class system, not America.

It is absurd to suggest that the staggering social divide in U.S. higher education is caused entirely by working-class students performing poorly or refusing to apply to colleges that would happily admit them. In fact, class bigotry is deeply ingrained in the practices of elite institutions.

Nearly all of America’s top private colleges, and many of the top public ones, grant large admissions preferences to “legacies,” children of graduates. Or, to be more precise, children of rich graduates. In his 1991 study of applicants to Harvard, education scholar David Karen found that legacies who request financial aid when applying lose most of the legacy advantage. (You can read more about that and legacy preferences in general in Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admission.)

more about that and legacy preferences in general in Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admission.)

Let’s look at a hypothetical case involving two white, male applicants to an Ivy League university. Applicant A is the first in his family to apply to college. His parents are manual laborers and his family’s income is under $30,000 a year. He hopes that a degree from a prestigious college will afford him a better career than either of his parents have. He also hopes to benefit from Ivy League universities’ “no loan” financial-aid policy for low-income students. All the public institutions to which he is applying would require him to take out student loans. He attended an under-funded public high school and worked part-time jobs to help his family pay the bills. Even so, he scored a 2100 on the SAT and achieved a grade-point average of 3.7.

Applicant B is a fifth-generation legacy. His parents do not work, due to their investment income, which is valued at over $10,000,000 annually. Applicant B does not need a career and he will be better off financially than his parents as long as his family’s investments continue to rise in value. Applicant B attended a top private high school, scored 1700 on the SAT, and achieved a grade-point average of 3.5. He did not have a job during high school. The admissions office rejects applicant A and admits applicant B.

Do something like that once and you are a bigot. Make a policy of doing that and you are an especially low order of bigot. That hypothetical is hardly an exaggeration. In their 1998 book, The Shape of the River, former Princeton President William G. Bowen, former Harvard President Derek Bok, and four other authors wrote about legacy preferences in admissions at elite private colleges. They reported that white legacies who scored in the 1100 range on the SAT (using the old 1600-point scale) were nearly as likely to be admitted as white non-legacies who scored 1300-1600. The former had a 22% chance of admission, while the latter had a 24% chance. (Don’t get the idea that such inequities caused the authors to oppose legacy preferences, however.)

The feudal absurdity of legacy bias is not an isolated issue. Like other destructive behaviors, discrimination gets easier with repetition. Legacy advantages are proof of a system of thought that treats the rich and well-connected as more deserving than others. That bias inevitably affects all admissions decisions. No government policy has confronted it directly, though all elite private colleges are tax-exempt.

Discrimination against working-class whites is also discrimination.

In their 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, education scholars Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria W. Radford analyzed the impact of class and race on admissions at selective colleges. Looking at applicants with the same academic qualifications, the authors found that “for white applicants to private institutions, there is a low SES [socio-economic status] admissions disadvantage.” Whites who described themselves as “lower class” were about one-third as likely to be admitted as equally qualified whites who described themselves as “upper class.” They were also much less likely to be admitted than equally qualified African Americans and Hispanics from their own social class. (There is more detail on Espenshade and Radford’s findings here.)

Invidious discrimination in favor of rich whites and against working-class whites is worse than Espenshade and Radford’s statistics suggest. They compared applicants with the same academic scores. But that ignores the pronounced advantages of wealthy students, which include attending the best schools, being able to obtain private tutoring and test coaching, and having parents who are likely to be familiar with the admissions criteria of elite institutions. If you come from a working-class or low-income household, and you achieve scores that match those of wealthy applicants, you are actually more qualified than they are.

Though few in the media have noticed, discrimination against working-class white applicants reveals that elite college administrators have a warped definition of diversity. Let’s create a better definition.

To end discrimination, abolish preferences for legacies and donors’ children. At the same time, expand affirmative-action programs to include social class.

There is no excuse for hereditary privileges such as those offered to children of wealthy alumni and donors. Likewise, in The Chosen, a study of the history of admissions practices at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Jerome Karabel showed the value of affirmative-action programs. Those three universities’ percentages of black students did not increase substantially until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why then? Because that was when all three institutions implemented aggressive programs of race-based affirmative action. Likewise, gender-based affirmative action proved essential for increasing gender diversity at American colleges. To solve the problem of social exclusion, it is vital that we add social class to existing affirmative-action criteria.

The government must require that institutions provide detailed statistics on social diversity, among graduate and professional students as well as undergraduates. Pell Grants are an inadequate measure of the percentage of working-class students on campus.

To make affirmative action work, the government needs to obtain reliable statistics from colleges on the social backgrounds of students. Private institutions are not required to supply such information. Consequently, the only verifiable measure of low-income students at any private college is its number of Pell Grant recipients. But Pell Grants are normally only given to undergraduates, and eligibility for that program is no longer a reliable indicator of low income.

Writers on education policy have long followed the rule of thumb that being eligible for a Pell Grant places a student in roughly the bottom half of the U.S. income scale. In most cases, that would be an accurate assumption.

However, the Pell program has expanded dramatically since 2007. During that time, the number of Pell recipients has risen by 73%, and the number of recipients with family incomes above $60,000 per year has risen by nearly 900%. In fact, the most recent government statistics show that more than 2,000 students from households with incomes over $100,000 per year obtained Pell Grants. If admissions officers worked the numbers right, the eight Ivy League colleges could easily quintuple their number of Pell recipients without admitting a single applicant with a family income below $70,000 per year. That would still leave tens of thousands of Pell students in the over-70,000 income category, allowing other elite colleges to do the same.

The Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession muddied the issue further. Many investors and professional/managerial staff lost wealth or even jobs as a result of the crisis. Some of them are now working lower-paying jobs or relying on savings, factors that could make their children newly eligible for Pell Grants. Students from such families may not be as well-to-do as they were previously, but it is misleading to place them in the same category as first-generation collegians whose parents are low-paid, manual laborers. If a college’s increase in Pell recipients is slanted toward students in the former category, exclusion of working-class and genuinely low-income students may be as bad as ever. We need to know if that is the case.

There is a similar problem with regard to recruited athletes. If even a few Pell recipients at a particular college were recruited by the athletic department, that school’s Pell statistics will exaggerate social diversity among students who are not sports stars. But there is now no independent means of determining how many Pell students are recruited athletes.

Nor is income the only indicator of economic disadvantage. There is evidence that having parents who did not attend college is a larger obstacle to college admission than low income. In a study of admissions at 19 selective colleges published in 2005, former Princeton president William G. Bowen and two other education scholars found that those institutions were less likely to enroll first-generation college students than students from the bottom income quartile. They reported that 6.2% of students were in the former category, 10.8% in the latter, and only 3.1% in both. We require data that pertains to all categories of class disadvantage—low income, first-generation college student, child of manual laborers—in order to end admissions discrimination based on class.

Likewise, social diversity is essential in graduate and professional schools, as well as undergraduate studies. Recent discussions of that issue have largely ignored students at the post-bachelor’s degree level. That omission is unacceptable.

For colleges that fail to achieve social diversity, penalties must include a loss of tax exemptions, rather than Pell Grant cuts. We must also amend laws against educational discrimination to take account of social class.

The Obama administration has called for federal funds to be “steered toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value.” The president wants to create a federal ranking system for colleges. Criteria for the rankings would include affordability and access, with the latter measured by “the percentage of students receiving Pell grants.” Obama has promised to propose legislation that ties federal funding to the rankings, but has not yet released a detailed plan for ranking colleges. According to a White House press release from October 2013:

The Administration will seek legislation using this new rating system to transform the way federal aid is awarded to colleges once the ratings are well developed. Students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans. 

The language (“could receive”) is tepid. But the president’s proposal holds out the possibility of funding cuts, or at least smaller funding increases, for colleges that rate low on access and affordability.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to expect that implicit threat to have any impact on admissions at the most socially exclusive colleges. Given that the president was impressed by the vague and small-scale promises offered by elite colleges in Commitments to Action, there seems to be little danger of institutions getting into trouble with this White House over lack of access for low-income students. But even if the president and Congress started cutting Pell funds to colleges that fail to improve social diversity, that action would achieve nothing.

At last federal count, Harvard’s endowment exceeded $30 billion, while Yale’s was over $19 billion. It is ridiculous to expect administrators at such institutions to be frightened by the threat that some of their students might lose federal grant funds, especially since that occurrence would furnish an excuse for admitting fewer low-income students. The loss of tax exemptions is a far more effective sanction, and effective sanctions are long overdue. It would be doubly useful if the proceeds from taxes on elite (and elitist) institutions were channeled into need-based scholarships and funding for public education in general.

Our ultimate goal must be to end class-based educational bias by making it illegal. There are areas of the economy (home-buying, for instance) in which it would be impossible to ban discrimination based on social class. Education is not one of those areas. (For more on that issue, see this article.)

It is up to the people to fix America’s socially segregated system of higher education. That task cannot be left to college administrators.

Officials at top colleges have repeatedly declared mission accomplished on social diversity, and they have not been swayed by evidence to the contrary. In 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a list of the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at the 50 richest colleges in the U.S. The three most eminent Ivy League universities, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, each ranked in the bottom ten, with percentages in the single digits. Harvard ranked the lowest of the three, 49th, with only 6.5% of its students receiving Pell Grants.

William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, and Sarah C. Donahue, Harvard’s director of financial aid, wrote a letter to the editor stating that their institution “has played a leadership role among colleges and universities to attract a diverse array of students, including those eligible for Pell Grants.” Consequently, Fitzsimmons and Donahue were “disappointed” by the “misleading” 6.5% figure. That percentage is only accurate, they wrote:

if you count both students attending Harvard College, the institution that comes to mind when most people think of undergraduates attending Harvard, and also the thousands of nontraditional students who took even one undergraduate class at the Harvard Extension School that year.

The two administrators explained that the majority of extension-school students were not eligible for Pell Grants because they were not enrolled in degree programs. If all extension-school students were excluded from the sample, Fitzsimmons and Donahue argued, Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients in 2008-09 would rise to 12.8%.

The Chronicle responded that it was not feasible to exclude Harvard’s extension school because “to do so would have compromised the analysis by basing it on data that institutions had submitted individually, excluding some students, rather than on national baseline data collected and policed by the U.S. Education Department.” The editors added that “the article noted that the enrollment figure for Harvard included its extension school.”

The Chronicle was on firm ground, but the main point is that the difference between the two percentages—6.5 and 12.8—is less significant than Harvard officials pretend. Under either measure, Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients was lower than its percentage of students who were legacies, as reported by Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal in 2006: 13%.

Harvard’s dispute with The Chronicle of Higher Education continued in 2013, when that journal published another article listing percentages of Pell Grant recipients at top colleges. The Chronicle placed Harvard’s figure at 11%. William Fitzsimmons wrote another letter to The Chronicle’s editor stating that, if Harvard’s extension school were excluded from the statistics, Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients would be 16.9% in the year used for The Chronicle’s study (2011) and 17.2% the following year. Fitzsimmons wrote: “This represents an 81-percent increase in the number of Pell Grant recipients since 2004, when we launched a targeted initiative to encourage talented low-income students to apply to, and attend, Harvard College.”

However, Fitzsimmons neglected to note that the latest federal data then available showed an 80% increase in Pell Grant eligibility nationwide since 2007. He also failed to note the nearly-900% increase in Pell Grants to students with annual family incomes over $60,000 during the same time frame. How much credit should Harvard receive for increasing its percentage of Pell students by a rate that almost exactly matches the overall national increase in eligibility for that program? Like Fitzsimmons, other administrators at elite colleges have boasted of recent, dramatic increases in enrolling Pell Grant recipients. Those assertions must also be weighed against the expansion of the Pell program nationwide.

Back in 2004, William G. Bowen corresponded with Fitzsimmons about social diversity at Harvard. The dean informed Bowen that Harvard was in the midst of a campaign to recruit low-income applicants. Summarizing Fitzsimmons’s letter to him, Bowen wrote: “A large part of this outreach effort is directed toward what Fitzsimmons calls ‘non-traditional’ families. Major efforts are made to demystify the application process and to emphasize the much greater availability of financial aid today.”

Those must have been some efforts. Harvard earned The Chronicle’s ranking of 49th most socially diverse college among the 50 richest four and a half years after Fitzsimmons’s reassuring missive to Bowen. A constant feature of debates about higher education is Harvard officials’ unshakeable conviction that they are doing a great job of increasing social diversity.

Harvard is by no means alone on that score. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court heard legal arguments in Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the plaintiff sought to end race-based affirmative action. Eight top colleges—Brown, Chicago, Dartmouth, Duke, (yes) Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—joined to present a friend-of-the-court brief in defense of the policy. The authors of the brief depicted preferences based on race as just one of many categories of admissions advantages granted by college administrators. Responding to a suggestion from the plaintiff’s lawyers that social background should replace race as a category of affirmative action, the lawyers for the eight colleges wrote:

Although petitioners suggest that universities should consider factors like economic circumstances and personal hardships, the truth is that those factors are already taken into account in the typical selective admissions process.

That is a remarkable assertion. Lawyers for the eight colleges replied to a suggestion that they apply class-based affirmative action by stating that institutions already practiced some form of that policy. Specifically, they implied that their institutions practiced class-based affirmative action. Then there is this passage, in which class-based affirmative action is given equal standing alongside preferences for legacies and recruited athletes.

Admissions officials give special attention to, among others, applicants from economically and/or culturally disadvantaged backgrounds, those with unusual athletic ability, those with special artistic talents, those who would be the first in their families to attend any college, those whose parents are alumni or alumnae, and those who have overcome various identifiable hardships.

It is beyond doubt that recruited athletes and legacies received—and still receive—preferences. In 2005, William G. Bowen published a study of admissions data (from 1995) at 19 selective colleges, including the eight that submitted the Grutter friend-of-the-court brief. He reported that being a recruited athlete improved an applicant’s admissions chances by 30 percentage points. For legacies, the advantage was 20 points.

For low-income applicants, however, Bowen found “no perceptible difference in the chance of being admitted.” Other evidence tells the same story. In 2004, the Century Foundation published a listing of the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at leading colleges, based on data from the 1999-2000 academic year. At the University of California at Berkeley, a leading institution that practices a form of class-based affirmative action, 32.4% of undergraduates received Pell Grants. At the eight colleges that filed the Grutter brief, the percentages of Pell recipients ranged from 6.8% to 12.4%, and five of the eight institutions were in single digits. If those latter colleges “gave special attention to” economically disadvantaged applicants, there was no evidence of that in their enrollment statistics.

An extremely charitable interpretation of the eight colleges’ Supreme Court brief would be that officials at those schools simply forgot that, while they granted preferences to legacies, recruited athletes, and under-represented racial minorities, preferences for “economically disadvantaged applicants” remained a theoretical concept on their campuses. A less charitable interpretation would be that those officials misled the Supreme Court of the United States.

Despite the secrecy that shrouds admissions practices at top private colleges, it is easy to discern a pattern of deceit. Administrators at those schools are quick to proclaim commitments to social diversity and just as quick to support those claims with false assurances and misleading statistics. They have every motive to distort the reality of their institutions’ practices, and—so far—no reason to fear consequences if they do.

Most of America’s elite colleges have long histories of class discrimination and equally long histories of covering it up. Genuine reform will begin only after we acknowledge, and take action against, discrimination. Action starts with the end of tax exemptions for wealthy, socially exclusive colleges, those that fail to meet UC Berkeley’s standard for enrolling Pell students (36% of undergraduate enrollment).

Then we must demand detailed information on social diversity from colleges, and craft new laws to address discrimination revealed by such data. However appealing their rhetoric of inclusion, politicians, journalists, and other authorities who reject those measures are opponents of social justice in American education.

Another Dire Election Result

I’ll have a post tomorrow on ending class-based discrimination at U.S. colleges. It’s a post that just kept growing, and it brings together a lot of research.

But tonight I wanted to mention the British election results. At this point, it looks like another Conservative-led government, though that party lacks an overall majority. (Update, next day: 331 seats in the Commons and an overall majority.) It’s extremely disappointing to see that gang of superannuated hooligans back in with increased representation in the House of Commons.

There are lessons here for the allegedly progressive parties. First, it’s good to see the utter rejection of the Conservatives’ partners in crime: Captain Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. On current projections, they are expected to go from 57 seats to 10. (Update, next day: 8.)That’s what you get when you abandon all your promises and spend half a decade acting as human shields for the Tories.

The Labour Party is losing seats, mainly due to being crushed in Scotland by the Scottish Nationalist Party. Voters there rejected independence just last year, so this is pretty clearly a vote against austerity and right-wing policies in general. Labour lost credibility on those issues during the Blair-Brown years, and they clearly haven’t won it back under Ed Milliband.

It’s a similar lesson to the one the Democrats are in the process of failing to learn since last November. Right-wing economic policies don’t work, and many who hate those policies have become disaffected. Democrats and Labourites have not succeeded, economically or politically, by following conservative prescriptions.

Open Letter to St. Louis Media

Dear St. Louis Media Professionals:

Hi. Remember me? I wrote to local media outlets a few weeks ago to announce that I had resigned my job as an archivist at Washington University to protest class bias in admissions. My open letter of resignation provided a detailed account of that problem. But no one here in St. Louis decided to do a story on the issues I raised. So I thought I’d do you a service by telling you why the public would be interested.

Dating back months before my resignation, I talked to many people here in St. Louis about Wash. U. and its lack of social diversity. These are well-informed people who have lived here many years and, in some cases, all their lives. Almost all of them were unaware of these facts:

1. Wash. U. discriminates in favor of applicants who are “legacies,” children of rich and, in most cases, white alumni.

2. Wash. U. is ranked last in social diversity among top national universities by U.S. News & World Report.

3. Wash. U. is a tax-exempt institution.

When the people I spoke to learned those three facts, they were outraged. When I noted Point 3, most initially thought I was joking.

In other words, local residents were shocked and angered upon hearing basic facts about the third-largest employer in the region, an institution with (according to the latest federal data) a $5.3 billion endowment that is subsidized by taxpayers. I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I would say that constitutes a failure on the part of St. Louis media.

When I reached out to local media, most simply ignored me. Two reporters did call, however. One interviewed me for about a half hour, but failed to write a story. The other lost interest as soon as he realized I was not a professor. I’m not sure how he formed that false impression. But I would suggest that, at some point, some of you might want to consider deciding newsworthiness based on the facts and their relevance to the public, rather than the social status of the person stating the facts. I wish I could get a rich, famous person to tell you that.

Attendance at a prestigious college confers lifelong advantages, so the stakes are high. For a working-class person who lacks high-level connections or the financial means to work unpaid internships, a degree from a highly rated university is often essential for a successful career. Discrimination in college admissions has devastating, permanent consequences.

Let’s look at a hypothetical case of two applicants to see how Washington University discriminates, and how taxpayers foot the bill. Student A is working class and the first in her family to apply to college. Student B is a wealthy legacy, and her parents donated substantial money to Wash. U. Student A has the better academic record. But Wash. U. rejects her and admits Student B, based on legacy preference.

Student B’s parents made donations to Wash. U. to ensure that their academically deficient offspring got admitted instead of someone more qualified. In other words, they paid bribes. Since Washington University is a registered non-profit, Student B’s parents got to take tax deductions on their bribes.

Likewise, when Wash. U. accepts such bribes, the university does not pay taxes on them: federal, state, or local. When the university invests money on Wall Street, the proceeds from those investments are also tax-free. And, finally, when Wash. U. uses some of that money to make purchases, it does not pay sales tax.

Who pays for all those generous tax breaks that subsidize discrimination? Student A’s family and everyone else who pays taxes and does not benefit from legacy preferences. If Student A’s family lives in St. Louis, the system is especially unfair to them, because they pay state and local taxes from which Wash. U. is exempt.

I think about such families often. You should try thinking about them once.

You’re not concerned about the effect of Wash. U.’s discriminatory policies on working-class St. Louisans. But there are other angles you could take on my story. For instance, I challenged The New York Times about errors in the paper’s coverage of Wash. U. and social diversity. At first, Editor Jane Karr refused to make the more important changes and also resorted to elitist insults. Then she made the corrections.

That’s right. I got The New York Times to correct one of its articles. That’s a big deal: it’s the closest a working-class person like me ever gets to writing an article for the NYT. Normally, you’re interested in stories of local people who get noticed by members of the elite who live on one of the coasts. Normally, you’re on the lookout for cases in which coastal elitists express condescending attitudes about people in the region. But not in this instance.

Are you really too scared of Wash. U. to take on this story? What else could be the problem? All the assertions I made in my resignation letter were based on publicly available sources, linked in the letter itself. I realize that my claims may have seemed shocking, but that is only because no one had put all the facts together before.

If you had any questions about me, my letter, or my motives, you could have asked. I told both reporters I spoke to that I would be happy to provide copies of my excellent work evaluations from supervisors, lest they think my resignation was somehow about my job, rather than the reasons I stated in my letter. Neither was interested.

I don’t expect this letter to change the minds of you media-makers who ignored this story. But there is one more question I’d like to ask. Over the past few weeks, many have commented on the case of Rob Kuznia, a reporter who received a Pulitzer Prize after he had already quit journalism for a job in public relations. If that happens to you (a PR job, not a Pulitzer), do you think your work will change much?

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

The Committee on Intelligent Design

Giotto, portion of the Baroncelli altarpiece, circa 1334.
Giotto, portion of the Baroncelli altarpiece, circa 1334.

Recently, I was thinking about conservatives’ efforts to pass “religious freedom” laws that allow discrimination against gays. The debate surrounding that issue reminded me of comments Republican political candidates have made about rape, abortion, and Christian teaching. We’ve also been hearing a lot lately about intelligent-design theory. I wondered how all these different strands of Christianity fit together.

Well, late last night, I had a vision of God planning the creation of the world. As recounted in certain versions of the story, he was assisted in this task by archangels. In my vision, there were four archangels present with the Almighty at a meeting of the Committee on Intelligent Design. (I know that was the name of the Committee because it was written on a cloud behind the meeting table. It also said “Tuesday.”) The Committee specifically addressed those sexual issues that have been debated so intensely of late.

In case Megyn Kelly or anyone at Fox News wants to know, all the Committee members were white, though maybe “alabaster” would be a better word. God had a white beard, blue eyes, and a well-to-do English accent—which you should have expected if you saw his Son in Jesus of Nazareth. The archangels who spoke had American accents.

I felt inspired and wrote down everything I saw in my notebook. I’ve typed it all up below. The vision seemed real, but I remain skeptical, chiefly because I was very tired and I’d had a couple beers. Whether or not my vision was divinely inspired, I believe it provides a fair account of Biblical teachings on sexual morality. I believe it also offers a view of what intelligent design must have looked like, if the Bible is correct.

Meeting of the Committee on Intelligent Design: Tuesday, circa 4004 B.C.

Present:

God Almighty, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

The Archangel Michael

The Archangel Raphael

The Archangel Gabriel

The Archangel Uriel

God: Any questions about my plans for the reproduction of man and the institution of marriage?

Raphael: Well, Lord, I wondered about possible misuse of the sex faculty.

God: Such as?

Raphael: It seems that some males might seek to place their members into females when the females do not wish for that event. Now, recalling your earlier presentation on the senses and emotions, it seems as if such an occurrence would be unpleasant to the female. Perhaps we might adjust the design of mankind somewhat to prevent such incidents.

God: No. I’ll just make a rule against it.

Gabriel: Perhaps, Lord, you could put it on the list of “thou shalt nots” you mentioned to me earlier.

God: No, I’m saving that for the really big offenses, like taking my name in vain. I don’t want every idiot who stubs his—um, one of those appendages that goes on the end of the foot—yelling my name afterward. It’ll make me seem cheap.

Others: Yes, Lord!

God: And they’d also better make sure to observe the Sabbath day, which will commemorate the rest I’ll take after I finish making the world. I’m an omnipotent being who exists beyond space and time. I won’t have puny mortals failing to respect how hard my work is or my need to rest after doing it.

Others: Yes, Lord!

God: Now, where was I?

Raphael: A new rule for the sexual function, Lord.

God: Right. (Closes eyes, thinking.) The rule will be this. If a man takes a maiden by force, he must marry her. And pay a hefty fee to her father. Oh, and he can’t divorce her, either. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29.] That’ll make ’em think twice!

Raphael: But, Lord, I’m not sure that will help the victim.

God: What do you mean? The victim gets paid a nice fee and he gets to marry off his daughter. That’s fair compensation.

(Long pause.)

Raphael: Lord, you could just design mankind so that it impossible for a male to penetrate a female unless she is willing. That would settle the whole issue.

God: We don’t need that. I’ve made a rule!

Raphael: Yes, Lord, of course, but, well, how about you make it so that a female cannot be penetrated until she is of age for reproduction?

God (waving right hand dismissively): No need. Rule!

Raphael: Well, Lord, could you at least make it so that a female who is of age and is taken by force cannot become with child as a result? Perhaps some physical reaction that prevents fertilization of the egg.

God: That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!

Raphael: Lord, I just—(God glares at him.) All right. I was wrong, Lord. I’m sorry. I have another question, though. (God looks at Raphael with impatience. The other angels lean back in their thrones warily.) Lord, what if a man penetrates another man?

God: That’s disgusting!

Others (except Raphael): Disgusting!

Raphael: Well, yes, Lord, of course. But what I mean is, maybe we should make that sort of thing physically impossible, or make sure no man wants to do that, or—

God: No, I’ll just make another rule. If any men do that, kill them! [Leviticus 20:13.]

Others: Yes, Lord! Kill them!

God: Anything else?

(All look at Raphael, who wears a blank expression. Long pause.)

God: All right, I think we’re done for now. Sing us out, fellas.

Archangels: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. (Repeat, repeat, repeat.)

Professional Christians

Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants War in Germany, 1524-25. The peasant revolt was crushed with the support of both Roman Catholic and Lutheran authorities.
Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants’ War in Germany, 1524-25. The peasants’ revolt was crushed with the support of both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities.

Happy May Day. When I think about America’s refusal to deal with the problem of social-class hierarchy, a lot of reasons come to mind. Religion is at the forefront.

I thought this would be a good time to publish, for the first time online, a piece I wrote for The Progressive in 2007. It was a review of two books, David Kuo’s Tempting Faith and Chris Hedges’s American Fascists. I believe the piece offers a close view of the ways and means by which the religious right manipulates its followers.

This is the last version I sent to the editor. As I recall, she made a few small edits before the print version came out. I didn’t do a comparison, so this version is probably a little different from the published one. Think of this as the “writer’s cut.”

Professional Christians (The Progressive, March 2007)

Two recent books analyze the explosive mixture of politics and religion that governs American conservatism. In Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, David Kuo reports his experiences as an evangelical Christian and Bush White House staffer responsible for faith-based charity initiatives. Chris Hedges, a veteran journalist, finds totalitarianism under the banner of faith in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.

Tempting Faith has received a great deal of attention due to Kuo’s argument that cynicism governs the Bush Administration’s relationship with evangelical Christians. A born-again evangelical, Kuo worked for a number of conservative groups in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, he was growing increasingly uncomfortable with partisan politics and desired a better, more Christian policy for the poor. In 1998, Governor George W. Bush interviewed him for a speechwriting job. The governor spoke so passionately about fighting poverty that Kuo was bowled over like “a 1960s girl who had just seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show,” as he puts it.

In 2001, Kuo became an assistant in the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. That’s when nothing happened—except for the staffer’s gradual realization that the other Administration officials never intended to meet candidate Bush’s promise of $8 billion per year in faith-based anti-poverty funding. By Kuo’s second year on the job, less than 0.5 percent of the promised money was forthcoming. The only initiatives that sparked the interest of senior figures in the Administration were “faith-based conferences” with charity groups around the country. Those took place in key Congressional districts and served mainly to improve the GOP’s image and electoral prospects. Kuo finally gave up and resigned in disgust in 2003.

He attended a speech by the President a few months later. Bush announced $1.1 billion in federal money for faith-based organizations, but Kuo points out that the number was the result of an accounting trick. Even at that late date, he had expected better from George W. Bush: “I was surprised by the brazen deception and I was crushed by it, too. That same passion for the poor I first heard in Austin was in [Bush’s] voice and in his eyes.”

Tempting Faith is a useful exposé of the GOP’s deceit, but it illustrates the credulity of the faithful even more clearly, and Kuo himself is the prime example. Even as he criticizes the Bush White House, he desperately searches the upper echelons of the religious right for authentic heroes, who either keep their integrity in the face of Republican manipulation or who at least sincerely believe in a Christian policy toward the poor.

Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader, maintains sufficient standing with Kuo to provide advice about the evils of Washington. “Reed once told me that political power both ‘ennobles and corrupts,’” he recalls. Reed must have meant “enriches” rather than “ennobles,” if his lobbying work for Jack Abramoff is any indication. When casino owners in Louisiana wanted to prevent the opening of rival gaming establishments nearby, all they had to do was funnel a few million to Reed, who quickly marched his evangelical followers into an anti-gambling campaign. The casino owners kept their monopoly and Brother Ralph pocketed a nice chunk of their money. It remains unclear what the average evangelical churchgoer got out of the transaction. When it comes to using religious followers for ulterior motives, the Bush Administration has nothing on Reed. Why doesn’t Kuo point that out?

In his search for positive stories about religious conservatives, Kuo performs a sort of ecumenical outreach, portraying some far-right Catholics as upstanding Christian statesmen. “[Rick] Santorum would stand alone as the only Republican senator to support a ‘pro-poor’ agenda.” Why the quotation marks around “pro-poor”? Did Kuo suddenly remember Santorum’s votes for the new bankruptcy law and against raising the minimum wage? Likewise, Kuo’s good friend William Bennett pops up to offer some of his patented deep-sounding homilies, a recurrence that provides the book’s strongest comic moments.

Despite Bush’s duplicity, Kuo remains certain that the President is a sincere Christian. However, Bush offers little proof of religious sincerity besides verbal pieties in public. For a born-again evangelical, he certainly swears a great deal, as in 2002 when he said “Fuck Saddam,” to Condoleezza Rice and a group of senators. More fundamentally, the President’s obvious lies (about Iraq especially) put him at odds with the passage in Proverbs where a “lying tongue” is listed second among things that God views as abominations.

Tempting Faith is structured as a spiritual autobiography of the sort popular among Christian writers since Augustine’s Confessions. Kuo frankly describes instances in which he compromised his beliefs to serve his political masters. His bluntness in detailing his own flaws—and those of the Bush Administration—makes a striking contrast to his reluctance to acknowledge fraud and manipulation in the religious right as a whole. Kuo remains convinced that “conservative Christian faith [does] not mean Christian theocracy.”

Chris Hedges’s American Fascists contradicts that assertion. In his survey of evangelical extremism, Hedges details many instances of bigotry and fleecing of the faithful. He focuses on a doctrine called “dominionism” that is popular among many evangelicals. Based on Genesis 1:26, which states that God gave humans “dominion . . . over all the Earth,” the doctrine holds that the Almighty has commanded his followers to impose godly rule on the rest of society and, ultimately, on the rest of the planet. “Dominionism preaches that Jesus has called on Christians to build the kingdom of God in the here and now,” Hedges writes.

He finds a blueprint for just such a theocracy in the writings of R. J. Rushdoony, whose 1973 book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, calls for a Christian government. Rushdoony prescribes the death penalty for such crimes as blasphemy, homosexuality, and (if the perpetrator is female) “unchastity before marriage.” Those who resist conversion to Christianity are to suffer the same punishment.

Coupled with explicit calls for the mass execution of unbelievers are fantasies of torture and genocide. Hedges discusses the Left Behind books, Timothy LaHaye’s best-selling series of novels, which detail the apocalyptic visions contained in the book of Revelation. LaHaye exults in vivid descriptions of non-Christians being burned alive, covered with boils, and butchered by demonic creatures—and that’s before they even get to hell. Belief in an imminent war of extermination is a touchstone for many of the ministers quoted in the book. Some readers will object to the second word in Hedges’s title, but such examples make it difficult to reject his terminology.

Neither Rushdoony, who died in 2001, nor LaHaye can be dismissed as marginal figures. Rushdoony was a longtime member of the Council for National Policy, a group founded by LaHaye to plan and organize rightwing activism. The council combines corporate bosses such as Joseph Coors and Amway founder Richard DeVos with professional Christians like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The organization has hosted numerous Republican leaders, including George W. Bush in 1999 and, more recently, Vice-President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Unlike Kuo’s Christian charity workers, this group commands the respect of the Bush Administration.

Hedges surveys a religious right agenda—puritanical, anti-labor, and militaristic—that looks all too familiar after six years of the current Presidency. He displays a sharp eye for unfounded conservative shibboleths, quickly dispensing with the myth that the “red” states are less sinful than “blue” ones. Rates of violent crime tend to be higher in red states, Hedges points out.

Using a term coined by William Sloane Coffin, Hedges characterizes Christian rightists as “selective literalists” who fixate on the most bigoted passages in the Bible but ignore other parts of scripture. However, he could push that case farther than he does. The Bible indeed supports hatred of gays and a rigid form of sexual morality, but it is also militantly opposed to the oppression of the poor. Likewise, there is no basis in scripture for evangelicals’ obsession with abortion. The rule of “a life for a life” appears in Exodus 21:23. The verse immediately preceding that one states that a man who attacks a pregnant woman and causes her to have a miscarriage owes financial compensation to the woman’s husband. The passage illustrates the Bible’s cavalier treatment of violence against women, but it also demonstrates that the author(s) of Exodus did not consider a fetus a person. If the fetus were considered a “life,” Exodus would mandate that the woman’s attacker be executed rather than fined.

Given the perverse version of Christianity that lies at the heart of the religious right, how does the movement maintain sway over so many followers? Hedges interviewed rank-and-file members to find out. Their stories reveal desperate people who turned to Christian extremism after succumbing to guilt, and fear that God was punishing them. When Arlene Jacques found Jesus, she was a divorced mom living on welfare in a run-down apartment with two young children. “I had never been a working parent. I was scared to death,” she told Hedges. After watching some televangelist programs, she began praying. “I cried for three hours. I saw a slide show in front of my eyes. It seemed like every single wrong thing I had ever done flashed before my eyes and I was truly sorry.” Soon thereafter, she began donating money to the Trinity Broadcast Network, the home station for a number of dominionist preachers.

Many of the evangelicals interviewed by Hedges cite their financial hardships. Hedges does a good job of using economic statistics to connect their stories to industrial decline—and the dismantling of social services performed by the evangelical movement’s political heroes. He also finds that many poor Christians, even those who have been on government assistance, subscribe to the stereotype that poor people are lazy.

Hedges offers this explanation: “The movement allows marginalized people the pleasure of denouncing others, of condemning those they fear becoming. The condemnations give them the illusion of distance, as if by denouncing the indigent they are protected from becoming indigent.” It is a sharp observation, and that particular dynamic is similar to the racist tactics of conservatives like George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, who managed to turn some poor whites against anti-poverty programs by offering stereotypes of lazy, black welfare recipients. Hedges should have explored that connection further. He highlights ties between dominionist leaders and white-supremacist groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, but racism and religious fanaticism are more closely fused than he indicates.

Racial and religious extremism also merge in more contemporary settings. For instance, Hedges describes an exhibit at the Creation Museum that depicts a dimly lit street in a poor urban neighborhood. The adjacent sign reads: “A walk through an inner-city alley is the backdrop for a virtual and auditory display of the horrors of a culture that had made man’s opinion the final authority in life.” Hedges cites the display as proof of the unscientific, irrational approach of creationists.

However, it also reveals how far Christian rightists will go to deflect blame for social ills away from racism and the class system. Likewise, for white visitors to the museum, the “inner city” setting of the exhibit is meant to conjure fears of black criminals lurking out of sight. The display combines all the elements of the distorted worldview that the American right sells to its followers.

American Fascists is filled with chilling, powerful stories of religious extremism. However, Hedges relies too much on academic writings about fascism and not enough on his own experience, given his work as a journalist covering religious and ethnic militants in the Balkans and the Middle East. Too often, quotations from scholars become the launching point for a series of strongly worded but vague statements against totalitarianism. Many of the author’s policy prescriptions suffer from a similar vagueness: “Programs to protect or establish community, to direct federal and state assistance to those truly left behind . . . are acts of faith.”

On the other hand, he makes a very useful suggestion when he recommends legal challenges to the tax exemptions of “megachurches that promote ‘Christian’ candidates.” When dealing with a religious movement in which God has long taken a back seat to mammon, it is a good idea to focus on the money.

Despite the two authors’ different approaches, their books both capture the essence of today’s evangelical politics. Kuo (accidentally) and Hedges (deliberately) reveal the cardinal rule of the Christian right: Genuine faith is what distinguishes the followers from the leaders.

Elitist Shills for the War Machine: Judith Miller and Fareed Zakaria

You may have seen Jon Stewart questioning Judith Miller on The Daily Show. I’m glad that her attempts to claim to be a journalist are receiving criticism, if not quite enough.

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece titled “War and the American Elite,” in which I discussed war-promoters like Miller. I focused on the close class alliances between elite politicians and elite media-makers.

Here is what I wrote about Miller.

Liberal writers and media outlets also played an enormous role in building the fraudulent case for war. In fact, Bush & Co.’s preferred means of planting false information in the public mind was The New York Times—and, specifically, reporter Judith Miller. Here is a short list of bogus claims presented as true in Times articles either written or co-written by Miller.

1. Saddam Hussein was seeking components for nuclear weapons.

2. Saddam already had an array of chemical weapons, including anthrax.

3. The Iraqi military was attempting to make a biological weapon, using smallpox.

The Bush gang’s puppeteering of Miller was so tightly controlled that on September 8, 2002, when another set of their planted lies appeared in the Times under Miller’s name, Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press to tout the article. “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” Cheney said, wearing his somber face. “And I want to attribute the Times.” Say “Times” again, Dick.

For her part, Miller later looked back on her false reports and said this: “If your sources are wrong, you’re going to be wrong.” Actually, the last time I checked, journalists were supposed to assess the credibility of their sources.

Why did Miller align herself so closely with the administration? Also, how did someone with so little understanding of how journalism works rise to a top position at The New York Times? While you’re pondering those questions, allow me to mention that Miller is a graduate of Barnard College, an expensive, private women’s institution in Manhattan, affiliated with Columbia University. She also obtained a master’s degree from Princeton.

After Miller’s reporting was exposed as a sick joke, NYT management initially defended her. But criticism of Miller grew so widespread that she ultimately resigned and took a job on Fox News Channel. Sources at the Times stated that Miller had been specially protected by the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who inherited that post from his father. Doug McGill, a former reporter at the Times, said in 2005, “Arthur’s social closeness to Judy is making it hard for him to see things clearly.” I like that word choice. “Social closeness” sums up not only the politics of the NYT but the larger problem of corporate media’s cozy relationship with the Bushites.

Another shill for the Iraq War, Fareed Zakaria, recently appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher to lecture the host about Muslims. Zakaria is not so much an expert on Muslims as he is an expert on getting Muslims killed by the hundreds of thousands in imperial wars. Why is this guy still considered any kind of expert? If you understood Foreign Policy 101, you knew better than to invade a deeply divided Muslim country such as Iraq. If you had paid attention to the careers of the gang around George W. Bush, you knew better than to believe the WMD stories they were peddling. Zakaria didn’t know better, in either case. Why does anyone now care what he says?

Because he’s a member of the club. Here is what I wrote about Zakaria in “War and the American Elite.”

When Fareed Zakaria endorsed Bush’s invasion plan, he lent credibility to the argument for war. Zakaria was less stridently conservative than the usual parade of right-wingers on Fox News Channel. He also possessed greater cosmopolitan credentials than many other war-backers. An immigrant from India, Zakaria had edited the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs and met numerous world leaders.

In an interview with New York magazine shortly before the start of the war, Zakaria explained why he agreed with Bush. “[Iraq] is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.” In other words: Oh, what the hell? Why not? Just stir the pot and see what happens. Zakaria’s words do not spring from a careful weighing of the consequences of war—for the soldiers who fight it or the civilians who become “collateral damage.” They are the words of a rich kid haphazardly deciding to place a bet at the roulette wheel. To Zakaria, Iraq was just a game, a puzzle of dysfunction that the U.S. elite might be able to solve by tossing other people’s lives and money into it.

Like George W. Bush, Fareed Zakaria inherited his place in the game. His father was a high-ranking politician and his mother was a newspaper editor. After graduating from prep school, Zakaria received degrees from Yale and Harvard. Referring to his privileged upbringing, he told New York “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible.” “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time,” he added. “Nothing seemed out of your reach.” That was the problem. Coverage of the war debate would have been better if the media’s anointed “experts” had come from a world of limited possibilities or had experience dealing with the consequences of destructive policies.

You can read the full article here.

I keep hearing that things happen in threes. If so, we are due for another spate of breathtakingly stupid comments from Bill Keller. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.