Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

I have mixed feelings about Rebecca Solnit. I like her when she's writing critically, as she does in her essay "Men Explain Things to Me Facts Didn't Get in Their Way" or her contribution to The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle. I'm not so pleased when she starts getting spiritual. Take her new and important book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009). Her project there is to counter the myth of people reverting to "savagery" when things get tough -- you might call it the Lord of the Flies myth. The corporate media dusted this one off right after the earthquake in Haiti, partly to support a US military occupation but also because media people believe it, as most elites do. That's probably projection, because it is elite groups who live in a constant state of Hobbesian war of all against all. The myth also did yeoman's duty in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the media tried to depict black residents of New Orleans (rather than white Blackwater operatives) as violent looters.

Anyway, early on in her book Solnit writes:
Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible. The ideal societies we hear of are mostly far away or long ago or both, situated in some primordial society before the Fall or a spiritual kingdom in a remote Himalayan vastness. The implication is that we here and now are far from capable of living such ideals. But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time -- at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell? These flashes give us, as the long ago and far away do not, a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become. ... The door to this era's potential paradises is in hell [page 9].
Eeeuuuw. I'm sorry, there are just so many things that I object to here. I'm not interested in an "ideal" society, which almost by definition is a society that exists only in ideas. Yes, a man's reach should exceed his grasp and blah blah blah, but I think that in trying to imagine a society worth living in, we must also attend to what is possible. (I think Paul Goodman said something to that effect once.) The good news of Solnit's book (and others like it -- see also Alfie Kohn's The Brighter Side of Human Nature) is that solidarity, consideration, empathy, kindness and generosity are possible, are workable.

But y'know, it isn't just "now" that paradise is used to refer to something far away or long ago. It has been used that way for a couple of thousand years. Ultimately it comes from a Persian root meaning a walled garden, which tells you something right there: it's a hiding place, a refuge from the unpleasantness outside. Luke's gospel says that Jesus assured the good thief on the next cross over that "today you will be with me in paradise," presumably meaning Heaven -- which is something remote and impossible if anything is. But I also see from the Wikipedia article that in contemporary secular use the term refers to "'a society (whether it be hypothetical or otherwise) whose organizational features serve to render, and are fully calibrated towards, the harmonious luxuriating development of the psychological, physiological and creative natures of mankind. As such, a society, continent or planet so constructed, naturally provides a suitably nourishing and convivial social and educational formulae apt to bring about unconditional joy and happiness within that populace'."

An old friend, who was in Philosophy before she switched to Political Science, took a similar stance, which now that I think of it helps me understand why that last sentence I quoted especially sets my teeth on edge. We were discussing the problem of suffering (or the problem of evil, as it is more commonly called), the dilemma which asks how an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good god could permit so much misery in the world. My friend argued that this world is Hell: it's a test, or a purgatory, or something. Apparently she believed that when we die the testing will be over and we'll go to a better place. I've run into numerous people since then who've said the same thing. But according to the standard justification of Yahweh's relation to suffering, we suffer here because it's the best of all possible worlds: as the conservative Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga put it, God could not create a world with less suffering in it. That doesn't mean this world is perfect, only that it is the best that poor, helpless, bumbling but well-meaning Yahweh can provide for us. This argument has troubling consequences for belief in a paradisiacal afterlife, because it means that this life is Heaven -- it can't, or at any rate doesn't, get any better than this. If that is true, we're in deep trouble, but I don't think it is true; and I don't believe in other worlds or an afterlife anyway.

Oh, maybe it does no real harm to use words like "paradise" and "hell" in connection with human societies, but it still makes me put my guard up. I know that it's probably impossible to avoid the use of symbols and metaphors, but these strike me as notably ill-chosen. "Hell" is particularly troublesome when applied to disasters, natural or artificial, since Hell is a place made by Yahweh for the punishment of the wicked; I don't think Solnit wants to suggest that the residents of New Orleans or Haiti were wicked and merited horrific punishment -- that's the attitude she opposes. As for "Paradise," I would like to live in a world where people had enough to eat, had suitable shelter, received adequate and acceptable medical care, were encouraged to educate themselves and provided the resources to do so; where conflicts were resolved without violence, where people renounced vengeance, and treated one another with empathy and compassion. But I don't think it would be Paradise -- for one thing, I suppose that in such a world there would still be conflict, still illness, accident, and ultimately death.

there would be conflict. I don't think a world without conflict would be a good place to live. So we must learn to live with conflict, not to fear it, even to welcome it as a way to learn from others and from ourselves. So I reject that secular definition of an earthly paradise which requires that such a society would be "harmonious" with "unconditional joy and happiness" in its citizens. Even if such a society were truly "ideal", it's not my ideal. But neither is the kind of society I just briefly outlined; I submit that it would be better than ours today, that it is possible and could be worked toward if not fully achieved. (How to work toward it is another question too complex to address now; I'll try to begin to address it some other time.)

And I had better concede right away that I haven't yet read all of A Paradise Built in Hell. It might be that at some point in that hefty volume she addresses questions like these. I've put the book aside for the time being, however, because I realized Solnit didn't need to convince me of her primary thesis about human cooperation during disasters -- I already believe it -- and I didn't feel like wading through her supporting evidence yet. I have too much else to read right now.

P.S. Solnit has a pretty good article at The Nation this week. I hope I'm not being too hopeless when I say that I think I'm actually pretty hopeful about human possibilities, even though I remember that Hope was the final evil to emerge from Pandora's box, and that the word "Hope" was co-opted by the Madison Avenue election campaign of our current President. Don't let him have it.