Recently, I had the chance to see a sneak preview of the new documentary about Jack Abramoff called “Casino Jack and the United States of Money“. Directed by Alex Gibney, it profiles the man whose corruption now defines the pinnacle of Newt Gingrich’s “Contact With America“.
Rising through the ranks of the College Republicans in the 1980s, Abramoff believed in the evils of government regulation and the power of capitalism. After the 1994 election brought Republicans to power in Congress, he became a lobbyist (for Preston, Gates, & Ellis) and the journey began. The Republicans who were elected that year quickly forgot about the promises they made to eliminate corruption and instead used their new-found power as a mechanism to enrich themselves.
The documentary details how Abramoff helped businesses in the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) run sweatshops with captive labor. The CNMI became a strategic locale for American businesses because – as a U.S. territory – clothes made there could have a “Made in the U.S.A.” label. Abramoff was successful at directing money made from these sweatshops towards Tom DeLay and others in Congress in order to keep the CNMI from falling under the same labor regulations as the rest of the United States. The result was that large numbers of imported workers came to the CNMI and were forced into indentured servitude. The film includes California Congressman George Miller describing how one laborer offered to sell him his kidney in an attempt to pay his way back home.
I also recently saw the HBO docudrama “You Don’t Know Jack“, the story of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan doctor who assisted terminally ill and severally disabled individuals who wished to end their lives on their own terms. It retold his story from when he first started helping out patients in the early 1990s to his quixotic attempt to challenge the assisted suicide law at the national level, which ended with him being sent to jail for 8 years.
As a student at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s, I attended a speech on campus with both Dr. Kevorkian and his attorney Geoffrey Fieger. This was at a time when they’d already won several legal victories and it didn’t seem that any prosecutor would be able to stop Kevorkian from continuing to assist new patients who wanted his services. After both men spoke, they opened up the floor for questions. Following a few uneventful questions, a man in a wheelchair approached the mike and launched into a fearful tirade against both men. He was furious that Dr. Kevorkian wanted to end the lives of disabled people. Kevorkian tried – unsuccessfully – to explain to the poor man that he was grossly misinformed about his work. By this point in my life, I was already familiar with how religion can exploit fear to deceive people, but it was still jarring to see this poor man railing so furiously against an imaginary demon.
Kevorkian was hounded by the religious right throughout the 90s. In the minds of the self-proclaimed “pro-life” movement, he was interfering with God’s will. In reality, those who believe that an individual should suffer for the sake of another person’s religious convictions are the farthest in the world from having any claim to moral superiority. This should be obvious even without historical comparisons, but highlighting the contrast between Jack Abramoff and Jack Kevorkian provides an even clearer view of the moral bankruptcy of the religious right and the detrimental effect that it’s had on American society.
One of the most interesting chapters in the Jack Abramoff story involved his dealings with various Indian tribes. His bilking of millions of dollars from native Americans is what led to his eventual downfall, but it was an earlier scam with his old College Republican colleague Ralph Reed that I found more fascinating:
Abramoff’s work for the tribes included rubbing out competition to their casinos from neighboring tribes or other forms of gambling. It was for this service that Abramoff hired Reed’s Century Strategies. Reed’s job, as Abramoff’s partner Michael Scanlon put it, was to “bring out the wackos” – to create the appearance of overwhelming popular opposition to rival casinos or other forms of gaming.
This dynamic was always at the heart of why the Republican Party built up the religious right. They knew that the fearful and gullible could be manipulated in order to discredit more moderate politicians. The folks who were whipped up in opposition to gambling had no idea that their opposition was being used merely to protect the market share of a different tribe’s casino.
By the time Abramoff was indicted, he was just skipping the middleman and manipulating the fears of Indian tribes directly. He was taking millions of dollars from several tribes, promising access to powerful people in Congress, but often delivering nothing.
This legacy continues today with the Tea Party movement, which is just an updated version of that dynamic adjusted for today’s politics. The teabaggers have absolutely no idea what they actually believe – other than that Democrats and progressives are evil and need to be stopped. And because of this, they can be easily duped at every turn.
This isn’t an indictment of all conservatives or all religious people, it’s just a realization that our collective moral compass has been thoroughly out of whack for a long time. Most people who have rallied to the cause of the religious right are genuinely good people who’ve been exploited. But the success of this exploitation has turned unfettered capitalism into a religion and actual Christianity into a quaint anachronism.
In the end, Kevorkian spent more time in prison than Abramoff will. The man who was never a threat to anyone was locked up longer than the man whose entire career was about exploiting the powerless for money. And during the 1990s, while Jack Abramoff was enabling an entire U.S. territory to become a haven for slave labor, the folks who called themselves “pro-life” and claimed to have moral superiority over us heathens were far more concerned about an old doctor who was merely allowing people to have greater control over their own life and death.
It’s easy to be overly cynical about what the religious right has done, and how gullible its members were (and still are), but this movement has certainly had a profound affect on the health of our nation. At the heart of the religious right is control. And the strong desire of many religions to exercise greater control over our moral choices has long been exploited by those who want greater freedom in making economic choices. The end result is a society where those of us who advocate for greater control of our moral choices are punished more than those of us who make economic choices that result in the lack of freedom for many.