Thursday, January 17, 2013

The NRA and finding Rev. Ezekiel Bittery

Way back in 2005, when it was the Republican President George W. Bush pushing to cut benefits on Social Security and not a Democratic President, I recalled a story from one of Sinclair Lewis' less well known novels, Gideon Planish (1943), about the Rev. Ezekiel Bittery.

I was reminded of it this week, seeing people express surprise at the blithering fanaticism being articulated so proudly and publicly by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Joan Walsh, for instance, asks in Salon, Has the NRA lost it entirely? 01/16/2013 (or at least the headline-writer asks it). She explains what she means:

On the eve of President Obama announcing his gun control agenda, based on Vice President Joe Biden's task force recommendations, the National Rifle Association needed to go big: to remind Americans that the organization protects their gun rights, and to remind politicians that they’re a smart and formidable political force they’d be unwise to cross.

Instead, they showed us the truth: They're part of the vast and increasingly incompetent right-wing conspiracy that's sacrificed its own effectiveness for the pleasure of hating Democrats generally and our first black president in particular.
But, as Steven Rosenfeld explains in The Suprising Unknown History of the NRA Alternet 01/13/2013, the NRA went off the political deep end in 1977. And they've stayed there ever since.

Which brings me to the Rev. Bittery. Plagiarizing freely from my 2005 post here, Sinclair Lewis use the good Reverend to illustrate "Research", which he calls "[o]ne of the most important activities of any liberal educational organization." The example, set in the late 1930s, is the Rev. Ezekiel Bittery. Apparently he had some problems with his formal credentials, because the narrator refers to him as the "ex-Reverend."

The first step in Research is to gather a bunch of stories from newspapers about Brother Bittery and then write him to get some of his pamphlets. Then you have a few people go listen to his speeches live. With this procedure, it becomes well established that:

... Brother Bittery is a flannel-mouthed rabble-rouser who used to be charged not only with stealing the contents of the church poor-box, but of taking the box itself home to keep radishes in, and who at present if he isn't on the pay-roll of all the Fascists, is a bad collector.
After considering the matter for a couple of years, a Congressional committee proceeds to investigation, establishing for the record that "Mr. Bittery used to be a hell-fire preacher and is now a hell-fire Fascist."

More Research ensues, with scholars applying themselves to the phenomenon, which reveals "that Mr. Bittery used to favor lynching agnostics and now favors lynching socialists."

And during all this time, the Reverend Ezekiel himself will, as publicly as possible, to as many persons as he can persuade to attend his meetings, have admitted, insisted, bellowed, that he has always been a Ku Kluxer and a Fascist, that he has always hated Jews, colleges and good manners, and that the only thing he has ever disliked about Hitler is that he once tried to paint barns instead of leaving the barns the way God made them.

That is Research.
We're still rediscovering Rev. Bittery.

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