Saturday, May 30, 2009

What I Learned from Talk Radio

Yesterday I found myself in an undesirable situation. For a little over one hour, I had to drive a car which had no satellite radio and no capability to project music from a CD player or an iPod. This left me with no choice but to listen to talk radio (I can't stand playlists on FM music stations, and I'm burned out on sports talk radio after having worked in the industry).

So I tuned into the biggest news/talk station in the state of Wisconsin, and heard discussion on primarily two topics:

1. The attempt by a Wisconsin atheist group to force a public high school to move their graduation from a megachurch (despite a lack of viable alternatives for the high school and the absence of any religious component to the graduation ceremony).
2. The attempt by a homeowner's group in Texas to force a disabled Vietnam vet to remove Marine bumper stickers from his automobile (under the provision in the homeowner's contract that barred vehicles that display advertising, and despite the fact that all other bumper stickers are tacitly permitted).

The host of this show was not at all stupid. These are what I referred to a couple weeks ago as "hot topics." The phone lines were jammed, to the point where he had to apologize to and disconnect callers on hold, informing them that time was up. This was probably not a great loss, since the callers were pretty much of the same mind and had probably exhausted the number of ways of saying the same thing. The consensus was that A) the atheist group is ridiculous B) the homeowner organization is ridiculous.

And another observation I made: despite the fact that none of the callers were personally affected in either of these situations, many of them spoke as if they were. Many spoke passionately of religious heritage, while in the latter segment more than one caller observed that the homeowner's organization would not exist were it not for the military. And these are variations of assertions you are guaranteed to hear whenever any issue about "church and state" or the relationship between the military and civilian society arises.

The explanation for this phenomenon is not all that complicated: these are elements of identity, both personal and national. It's not really about theology, and it's not even (at the core) about politics. These responses are a reaction to a real or perceived threat--a threat not necessarily to how we live, but about how life is defined, or what it means to be alive. This is why many people may go days or weeks without thinking about "God and country," but will emotionally recoil at the suggestion that a nativity scene be taken down or a military recruiter not be allowed on a college campus.

A conclusion to be drawn from listening to this radio show is that direct attacks on identity are doomed to failure. Even if the atheist group succeeds in its lawsuit, it will be a Pyrrhic victory; they will have succeeded in re-entrenching those who seek to blur the boundaries between church and state, and in all likelihood they may alienate many who otherwise would be sympathetic to their general cause. If one is committed to decreasing influence of religious institutions in the public sphere, an attempt to unilaterally impose public policy seems counterproductive.

And this got me thinking about what they could have been talking about on this talk show: foreign policy. They could have been talking about North Korea, and how hard it is to convince a poor country to give up its weapons program when it serves as a point of pride in building a national identity. They also could have been talking about the resurgent Taliban, who are now wreaking havoc in Pakistan, and how hard it is to defeat enemies who believe they are fighting a jihad.

Perhaps if this had been the conversation, a caller might have suggested the Achaean method of warfare. Maybe the Taliban or the North Koreans could be vulnerable to a Trojan horse. And just maybe, the callers who are so passionate in their derision of homeowners associations and obscure atheist groups would be more on guard against more subtle (and more potent) threats to their identity.


Blogger Nicki W. said...

Hi Azor,

Not to belittle North Korea or the Taliban or equate home owners associations with them, but HOA are the very heart of suble (and potent) threats to identity. They control the very essence of your identity by dictating the rules of your home. Nowhere near as big of an issue as North Korea and nuclear arms, but that is the very reason why they are so suble. Who thinks twice about moving into a group of home owners because you might have a bumper sticker on your car? But, if you don't "get along" with the group? You've now given them a reason to change your behavior. Insidious. And yes, I know I've proven the point of your blog, but sometimes it's the percieved insignificant in our lives that becomes significant.

11:43 AM  

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