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Ira Chernus
Ira Chernus
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

What Ever Happened to American Regionalism?


by: on July 23rd, 2013 | Comments Off

I spent several hours last week driving around New York City. For a guy like myself from the wide open Rocky Mountain West, it was rather hellish. I plan to drive in NYC again approximately when hell is covered with a thick sheet of glacial ice.

It could have been worse, I suppose. I’m not a native Westerner . I grew up in the suburbs of New York. So I had a good idea of what driving in “the City” might be like. I knew that, if you live in the tri-state area, “the City” (and indeed each of its boroughs) is a distinct region, far different from its suburbs.

And I knew that my wife, a native Midwesterner, made a terrible linguistic faux pas when she told someone that she had business meetings “on” Manhattan and “in” Long Island. She got the prepositions exactly reversed. There’s no logic to it. It’s all just local knowledge.

I had already been thinking a lot about the power of locale and regionalism in America before my trip to New York. I had just read Ira Katznelson’s recent study of the New Deal, Fear Itself. Katznelson’s main theme is the immense power of the Southern bloc in Congress in the 1930s and 1940s, a power wielded primarily to maintain the harsh cruelty of segregation. Southerners were happy enough to support the New Deal in its earliest years, he argues.


Who Says Conservatives Are More Patriotic?


by: on July 8th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

As we were celebrating the 4th of July in traditional American style — barbecue, flag, fireworks, and all — a question popped into my head: Are conservatives really more patriotic than other Americans? If you were a foreigner spending some time in the USA, getting news from the mass media and just talking to people, you might easily get that impression — especially around the 4th, when conservatives seem to be the ones most likely to display those big American flags.

In fact you might easily get that impression on any day of the year, when conservatives seem to be the ones most likely to put their love of country on display in all sorts of ways, aiming to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about their patriotism.

But what’s the truth behind the display? Are conservatives actually more patriotic? Well, it depends on what you mean by patriotism.

And there lies the heart of the matter: Conservatives appear to be more patriotic because they have so much control over the very meaning of the term. Most of the time, when anyone uses the word “patriotism,” it turns out to mean what conservatives say it means.


On DOMA, Right-Wing Justices Got It Right — And Wrong


by: on June 28th, 2013 | Comments Off

Justice Antonin Scalia. Credit: Creative Commons.

No one has ever accused Justice Antonin Scalia of timidity. So it’s not surprising that his opinion in United States v. Windsor, the case that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), fairly screams: I’m not a bigot. I’m not. I’m not.

“The majority says that the supporters of this Act acted with malice,” he claims in his dissent. And of course by dissenting he became a supporter of the act. So he must defend himself against the charge that he harbors malice toward gays and lesbians. “I am sure these accusations are quite untrue,” he retorts flatly. “To defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements… To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution.” In other words, “It demeans me!”

And I don’t want to demean anyone, Scalia clearly implies. I’m “simply supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence — indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history.”


The Neverending Morality Play of the Deficit Hawks


by: on June 21st, 2013 | Comments Off

When I left the country back in April for an extended sojourn in Europe I made myself a promise and a prediction. I promised that I would not look at a newspaper or any news source — cold turkey, for a news junkie like me. It actually turned out to be easy, a pleasant vacation from the world’s troubles.

I predicted that when I got home and fell back into my old junkie ways, the news would be very much the same as when I left home. It’s a lot like a soap opera: You can skip the news for weeks at a time, and when you turn it back on you feel like you’re picking up right where you left off; you’ve haven’t missed anything important at all.

My prediction proved prescient enough, if I just looked at the leading news stories. Of course I assumed that new, important events had unfolded. They just didn’t make the headlines.


Obama’s Risky Mideast Fantasyland


by: on April 5th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Barack Obama came to Israel and Palestine, saw what he wanted to see, and conquered the mainstream media with his eloquent words. U.S. and Israeli journalists called it a dream trip, the stuff that heroic myths are made of: a charismatic world leader taking charge of the Mideast peace process. But if the president doesn’t wake up and look at the hard realities he chose to ignore, his dream of being the great peacemaker will surely crumble, as it has before.

Like most myths, this one has elements of truth. Obama did say some important things. In a speech to young Israelis, he insisted that their nation’s occupation of the West Bank is not merely bad for their country, it is downright immoral, “not fair… not just … not right.”


Obama Brings His Theology to the Middle East


by: on March 27th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

The real Barack Obama was clearly on display in his quick trip to Israel and Palestine. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, he always gives you something you want with one hand, while he takes away something equally important with the other hand.

When Obama spoke in Jerusalem, I cheered as loudly as the audience of liberal Jewish students who shared my views, which the president voiced so eloquently: The occupation is really bad for Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must lead his nation to a just peace with an independent, viable Palestinian state.

I cheered most when I heard Obama say words that I never thought I’d hear an American president say in Israel: The occupation is not merely harmful to Israel’s national interests, it’s downright immoral: “It is not fair that a Palestinian child … lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. … It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands … or to displace Palestinian families from their home.” Bravo!

But Obama is no starry-eyed idealist. He crafts such idealistic words for practical political purposes. In this case he was pushing Israeli liberals and centrists further toward the peace camp, widening the gap between them and the Netanyahu-led right wing. Down the road, he can use the political tensions he stirred up to move Israel toward the kind of peace agreement he wants.


“Debt Crisis”: The Myth Behind the Myth


by: on March 14th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

While the two major parties plot strategy for the next battle in the federal debt-reduction war, another war rages among economists over the question, “Is debt really the federal government’s biggest problem?” Some insist that unless Washington cuts spending substantially to reduce the debt quickly, we are headed for disaster. Others insist with equal fervor that growth is the number one priority: Aggressive pro-growth policies will reduce the debt in the long run with far less pain.

If the pro-growth economists could gain public support they would give liberal Democrats a powerful weapon to resist the Republican’s budget-slashing ax. But the pro-growth faction makes little headway in the public arena because the political wind is blowing so strongly against it. Why should the wind blow that way?


“War on Terror”: A Ticking Time Bomb


by: on February 25th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

I saw Zero Dark Thirty a few weeks ago and then consumed the whole first season of “Homeland.” Don’t tell me what happens in season two. I love the suspense.

I also love those brave (fictional) CIA analysts, Maya and Carrie. They see a huge danger ahead that everyone else is blind to, and they insist on crying out a warning, regardless of the risk — just like the biblical prophets. What’s not to love?

In fact they’ve inspired me to cry out a warning of my own. It’s not the threat of “another terrorist attack,” but the threat of America being seized once again by “war on terror” fever. I know that seems crazy, because hardly anybody worries seriously about the “terrorist” threat any more. In the last year, when pollsters asked about the single most important issue facing the nation, they usually didn’t even list “terrorism” as an option. When they did, it consistently showed up at the bottom of the list.

But Zero Dark Thirty and “Homeland” reminded me that one sector of the American populace ranks “terrorism” right up at the top, way above any other national concern, and obsesses about the “threat” night and day.


The State of the Union and the State of the “Homeland”


by: on February 14th, 2013 | Comments Off

In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old “Homeland” episodes. We’re finally catching up on the first season of the “CIA versus terrorists” drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.

The incongruity of watching the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. “Homeland” would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.

That’s not to say Obama’s “war on terror” policies are very different from W.’s. The depressing similarities are all too obvious and well known. But the tone of American life has changed noticeably now that we have a “hope and change” president instead of a “war president.” And that does make a difference. In the long run it could make more difference than we now suspect.

“Homeland” takes us back to the dramatic world that W. invited us into: a world where evildoers lurk unseen beneath the surface of American life, a life that is constantly (if sometimes only slightly) on edge, because no one knows for sure where and when sudden death may strike again, as it did on September 11, 2001. W. fit easily as an actor in that world. Indeed he gave himself a leading role in the drama.