Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fort Bragg, Rock Beyond Belief, and the taxpayer

Regardless of one's theistic preferences or political leanings, everyone should be outraged about the recent decision by military brass at Fort Bragg to put crippling restrictions on the planned Rock Beyond Belief festival, leading to its cancellation. Even if you are an uber-conservative Evangelical Christian Tea Partier, you should still be pissed off about this indefensible decision.

One paragraph of very brief background for anyone who is not aware of this: Fort Bragg recently hosted a Rock the Fort music festival, an Evangelical Christian event which was expressly for the purposes of obtaining converts, for which the military shelled out over $50,000 and which was explicitly endorsed by the military as part of its controversial Spiritual Fitness program. Concerned about the questionable constitutionality of this activity, Sgt. Justin Griffith, backed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), applied to host a similar secular event caled Rock Beyond Belief, taking advantage of a DoD regulation compelling the military to provide similar accommodations to groups of differing viewpoints whenever it sponsors an outside organization. It looked like everything was proceeding smoothly, until last week when it was abruptly announced that the Fort Bragg brass were going against the advice of their legal team, and refusing to provide any funding for the event, confining it to a smaller venue than originally promised, and demanding a special disclaimer on any promotional materials for the event stating that it was not endorsed by Fort Bragg.

Now, many people may ask why the military ought to be compelled to shell out $40k+ to host a pro-secularism event on a military installation. Indeed, it rather seems like the military shouldn't really be in the business of doing that, eh? I agree! Better would have been for Fort Bragg to stay out of this altogether, and fund neither the Rock the Fort nor the Rock Beyond Belief event. But it's too late for that now, and both the constitution as well as DoD regulations are quite explicit about the next steps. You can oppose both events, but you can't support the first and oppose the second.

Another fair objection might be that while the military is bound by their own regulations to support Rock Beyond Belief, the level of funding and accomodations should be proportional to the expected audience. It turns out this argument fails on a technicality, since the relevant DoD regulations specifically mandate the same level of support, but I am willing to entertain this argument on a pragmatic basis. The Fort Bragg leadership's decision still fails when exposed to a numerical analysis.

In 2001, Christians comprised 71% of the active duty military. This includes Catholics and other denominations, so it is not really fair to use this number to represent potential interest in an Evangelical event, but I'm going to be extra generous here. Those who identified as atheist or as having no religious preference weighed in at 21%. (Note that, contrary to the pernicious "No atheists in foxholes" myth, this is slightly higher than among the general US population. I guess something about seeing little children get shot in the face has a tendency to diminish one's belief in an omnipotent omnibenevolent being... but I digress!)

If we were to argue that the level of financial support for a given event should be directly proportional to the number of potentially interested participants, by my calculations the military should have offered around $16,000 to Rock Beyond Belief. Now, as I said, this would still be a violation of the DoD's own regulations, and in any case it is clearly unethical to act like you are going to give someone $40,000 and then very late in the planning stages cut the funding by more than half. But even by this very lax standard of behavior, the Fort Bragg brass looks really bad: They are offering Rock Beyond Belief a grand total of zero dollars and zero cents.

The Fort Bragg leadership have offered a few other excuses for refusing to finance the event, e.g. they claim the smaller venue is acceptable because none of the musicians or speakers that have been lined up for Rock Beyond Belief have widespread mainstream appeal (never mind that the same was true of the Rock the Fort lineup...). But the point is, even if you buy these arguments, to offer no financial support at all, and then, adding insult to injury, to demand that all promotional materials for the event carry a notice disclaiming any implicit support by Fort Bragg whastoever -- this is just not justifiable based on any sort of practical argument.

There is one more argument, an ideological rather than practical argument, that one might make for the decision to scuttle Rock Beyond Belief: that, simply put, Christians are Good, and atheists are Bad. To that, I would first like to say, "Fuck you," but I would also like to point out that Fort Bragg's own legal team advised that the original plan be accepted without modification. There is just no way that the military will prevail in the forthcoming lawsuit, and the legal costs are going to be a hell of a lot more than forty-grand. Not only are their actions clearly unconstitutional, but DoD regulations impose an even stricter standard than the Constitution, eliminating any ambiguity of interpretation about what the military was legally bound to do.

In particular, the bizarre decision to demand the disclaimer pretty much guarantees that the military is going to get their asses handed to them in court. One has to ask what they even thought the point of this requirement was. Clearly, when the funding was denied, Rock Beyond Belief was already cancelled as a practical matter. You can't take a fourty-thousand dollar event and then cut its primary source of funding just weeks before it is supposed to take place, and expect the Show to Go On. The disclaimer requirement was utterly unnecessary, because in practice it was never going to come into play. It is almost as if they were asking for an unwinnable lawsuit.

I think there are only two explanations that make sense here: Either a lone zealot in the Fort Bragg leadership (most likely Garrison Commander Colonel Stephen Sicinski, if this is the case) was so offended by the idea of Rock Beyond Belief that he embarked on a quixotic quest to spit on the First Amendment rights of 21% of the active duty military; or else this was done on the orders of some higher-up(s) who is/are looking for an opportunity for political grandstanding, and couldn't care less what the results of the lawsuit turn out to be, since a defeat for the military would only bolster their martyr posturing.

In either of the above cases, this is being done on the taxpayers' dime, who, make no mistake, will end up paying through the nose for excessive legal costs, and almost certainly for an expensive settlement. If you aren't outraged by this, I just don't know what to say....

1 comment:

  1. Jay, Florida's governor gave his budget address from his church, my congressman West has his town hall meetings in a christian evangelical school. The christian right is a serious problem.


    "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross" Sinclair Lewis