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Michelle Goldberg in the Empire State
By Hannah Eaves
September 5, 2006 - 12:18 AM PDT

"To see that kind of thing in America!"

The Republican Party's decision to hold their 2004 National Convention in New York City was greeted with indignant cynicism by many people around the world. Could there be a more blatant way to exploit a national tragedy for political gain than to bring conservative Republicans to the very city they so often cite as being a den of evil cosmopolitism? Indignant New Yorkers and others from around the country flocked to NYC to take part in a mammoth, often-thwarted and grossly under-represented protest.

Filmmakers Gabriel Rhodes, Keefe J. Murren and Michael Galinsky were there to record their take on events for August in the Empire State [site], a documentary following the stories of several participants. Cheri Honkala leads a small group of homeless protesters through the streets of New Jersey in a little covered march for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, culminating in a well-attended, peaceful show of strength. Paul Rodriguez is a New York City Young Republican running for a seat in the US House of Representatives in New York's 12th Congressional District and Michelle Goldberg is a journalist covering the convention, including Honkala's involvement in it, for Salon and Rolling Stone.

Michelle Goldberg has since published Kingdom Coming, an examination of the Christian nationalist movement in the United States. Goldberg, who had been covering the religious right for several years, visited mega-churches, conventions, meetings and courtrooms. Though her conclusions are measured, she does little to hide her fear that this movement, often so antithetical to democratic values, is gaining great political power with little regard for the philosophies of freedom and equality safeguarded in the Constitution.

Kingdom Coming focuses on several key controversies in the contemporary religious push to the right (as well as some issues that should be controversies, but are instead often ignored). There are chapters on evolution, the abstinence industry, Bush's faith-based initiatives, the repression of homosexuality, the war on the courts and the idea that the US is a Christian nation first and foremost with democracy being an optional secondary to Biblical law. Phew, and if that isn't enough for you, Goldberg is not averse to throwing in the lurking fear most of us have that we're idly tripping along towards totalitarianism.

How did you first become involved in August in the Empire State? Were you already covering the Republican National Convention for Salon?

I was covering the protests both for Salon and Rolling Stone and so I met them [the filmmakers] at one of the planning meetings. In the run-up to the protest, there were a bunch of planning meetings that the different activist groups had.

What were your impressions of Cheri Honkala and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights protest?

I found what they were doing really, really moving. I think Cheri Honkala is this incredible character. What's interesting is that when you're with them, and they're kind of doing this march and undergoing these hardships it feels as if - it's very intense and, I don't know how to put it - it feels like it should be an event. It feels like it should be garnering some kind of attention because they put themselves through so much. But what was interesting to me, and kind of sad, is that barely anybody paid attention to it. They're out there suffering in some kind of run down neighborhood in New Jersey, but if nobody's there to photograph them, then it might as well not have even happened. Part of it, too, was that there were all kinds of much more glamorous protests going on. There was Billionaires for Bush and different kinds of anarchist groups and all kinds of things. I found it really inspiring. I thought that what they were trying to do was really, really important, especially how [Cheri] was trying to train people to become leaders and become activists.

Had you been filmed before, doing your work as a journalist?

No, this was the first time. It was strange, but it was kind of fun.

Did you feel like your subjects ever reacted differently because they were being filmed?

I'm trying to think. I can see how that might happen in a different kind of story, but not really in this story. The only time that maybe that would have happened was in a scene where I'm talking to the cops in New Jersey. I think maybe I could have gotten them to talk if it had just been me.

What was the atmosphere like generally in New York during the RNC?

It was really a siege. Having the convention in New York City was such a slap in the face to the people who actually live here. Here is an administration that took New Yorkers' tragedy and manipulated it and capitalized on it to push policies that are loathed by the vast majority of people in the city. So then, for them to exploit 9/11 for the convention was such a profound insult. There was so much anger and so much energy, these massive protests.

But the police response... you know some of the protests that were planned barely got off the ground because the police response was so disproportionate. You can read my article on this stuff, which was mostly what I was reporting on. They had tanks and helicopters, strobe lights and undercover people posing as anarchists in the crowd. They were arresting people disproportionately and holding them until the end of the convention and all of those charges ended up getting thrown out. It was really this ugly display of the militarization of the police.

To see that kind of thing in America! I mean, they would see a group of people and put up these plastic barricades around them and just arrest everybody who was caught up in these dragnets. They actually arrested a Republican delegate who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Were you in Seattle during the WTO protests? Do you think that had something to do with the police organization at the RNC?

No, the WTO was part of it, obviously, but it really had a lot to do with this crazy crackdown on dissent since 9/11. There are so many examples of the administration with the FBI and the FBI working with local police through joint terrorism task forces, spying on people, spying on activist groups, eavesdropping on people, and we don't even know the full extent of what's happened. It's really quite a change from what this country was like even just six or seven years ago.

What you were saying about New York City citizens and how they felt about the RNC ties into the end of your book and your conclusions about how urban centers are being ignored or shunned by the folks in power.

Yes, there's this whole rhetoric of the "real" America, the "authentic" America and this lionization of the heartland. There's this language that treats the cities and even the kind of coastal states as these decadent enclaves. You could hear it in the campaign in the way Bush would say, "Oh, well that's how they do it in Massachusetts." As if Massachusetts is some kind of enemy country instead of part of the country that he's supposed to be the President of. He's not just the President of Texas and Alabama. And this kind of anti-urbanism and really ugly anti-intellectualism is, I think, characteristic of this broader darkness that has spread over America.

For me and other readers, could you put what you call the "Christian nationalist" movement in context as far as American history is concerned?

It's not normal. This radical right wing language was not part of mainstream political discourse a decade ago, or two or three decades ago. America has always been extremely religious, compared to many other Western countries and it's had these "Great Awakenings," these periods of religious fervor, but the difference is that the [Christian nationalist] movement has been conceived from the beginning as a political movement that works as an adjunct and goad to a specific political party and is a program for gaining power. That's not how the other "Great Awakenings" functioned.

Several things have changed. There's been this ideological polarization of the two parties, the Southern takeover of the Republican Party, the conservative takeover of the Republican Party. There used to be such a thing as a liberal Republican. So you now have this very, very ideological movement.

This is a movement that was conceived by three veterans of the Goldwater campaign as a kind of tool to recruit disaffected blue collar whites away from the Democratic Party. Again, as I write, I don't believe that everybody involved in it is cynical. I think there are true believers and it's not just a way of duping people into voting against their economic interests. I think it has much more in common with previous right-wing populist movements in America like the radio priest Charles Coughlin or McCarthy and the red squads or the John Birch Society than it does with previous ecstatic religious movements.

American politics had been much more pragmatic for the last 100 years, or at least for our modern history, and now we have this sort of radical political movement that substitutes its ideology for any kind of empirical reality. It happened in response to the civil rights movement, and Brown v. Board of Education. A lot of this language about judicial tyranny and judicial oligarchy and court stripping came about in response not to Roe v. Wade, but it came about in response to Brown v. Board of Education.

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"To see that kind of thing in America!"
"Totalitarianism is a social phenomenon before it comes close to taking over."

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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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