Sunday, October 4, 2015

Whom Would Jesus Curse?

I admire Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's work.  Their Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, originally published by Routledge in 1994, is the best book on post-colonial theory I've read and one of my favorites among those I've read in the last several years.  Shohat and Stam are very good at covering complex topics; while they understand the theoretical tools and concepts they're working with, they write accessibly and are often actually fun to read -- very unusual for academic writers.  Stam's Film Theory: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2000) surveys the history of film theory, giving a capsule account of each school or approach.  It's an excellent introduction because it shows that there's a wide range of doctrines and opinions about what Film is or should be.  The temptation for a beginning student is to suppose that the doctrine her teachers prefer is the answer; Stam's book shows that there are many answers, and the student must choose which ones she'll use.

So when I happened on their Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism (Routledge, 2007), I was ready to dive in.  (As you can see, I tend to lag several years behind them; they have a more recent joint work, Race in Translation: Culture Wars and the Postcolonial Atlantic [NYU Press, 2012], which I'm adding to my reading pile.)  In Flagging Patriotism they compare how the United States, France, and Brazil see themselves, each other, and their places in the world.  They draw on writings and popular media from all three countries, especially the literature of anti-Americanism in France, and generally work that isn't available in English.  (I was highly intrigued by a Brazilian film comedy they mention, O Homen do Sputnik [The Sputnik Man; 1958], about a Brazilian peasant who finds a fallen space satellite in his field.  The Russians, the Americans, and the French all want to get at it, and the French score with a Brigitte Bardot lookalike [played by a Brazilian Bardot lookalike].  Looks like it's on Youtube, but without English subtitles.)

Much of Flagging Patriotism is very good: Shohat and Stam ably navigate the difficult waters between one-sidedly condemning the crimes of the United States while overlooking the crimes of its French and Brazilian critics, and excusing the United States by pointing to the crimes of its critics' countries.  Their guiding principle is that no country or culture is monolithic or homogeneous, and they carefully lay out the contradictions in each of their subjects' histories and present.  This part of the book, roughtly its first half, will probably be useful to many people; I learned a lot for it.

But when Shohat and Stam discuss religion, they leave their guiding principle behind.
Although it is obvious why the Christian right sees itself as being on the right, it is less obvious why it thinks of itself as "Christian."  Perhaps the right is Christian in the same sense that the Crusade, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials were Christian.  But the right is clearly not Christian in the sense of "love thy neighbor" ... [253]
On the other hand, the right is clearly Christian in the sense of "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire"; or "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs"; or "You are of your father the Devil"; or "Ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"  These are also teachings of Christ, and liberal Christians are perfectly happy to quote them against those they don't consider their neighbors.  And why shouldn't they follow in the Master's steps?

Shohat and Stam go on to misquote Jesus, sometimes ungrammatically:
... his "politically correct" tolerance -- "judge not, lest ye be judged," "let he who is perfect cast the first stone," and so forth -- and ... his excessive love of peace ("Blessed be the Peacekeepers") ... [253]
I wonder if that last howler is deliberate, though it probably isn't.  Maybe in the Beatitudes Jesus was prophetically blessing the Peacekeeper missiles, which the Christian right would welcome.  Unfortunately, though Shohat and Stam have a pretty good sense of humor and made me laugh aloud a few times, I don't think they were being sarcastic in this case.  It appears that, like so many good, educated liberals, they don't know very much about religion.

In the last hundred pages of Flagging Patriotism, Shohat and Stam focus on the vileness of the Republican right, which is fair enough when you recall that the book was published in 2007, during the declining years of the Bush administration.  By way of contrast they mock the fecklessness of the Democrats:
The Democrats' mistake in 2004 was to accept the right-wing framing of the issue of patriotism and then offer a servile mimicry of "us too" militarism [236]
This is not so fair.  Democrats have shown themselves to be all too willing to shed the blood of dusky foreigners, and while Shohat and Stam couldn't have known what a warmonger Barack Obama would be, they tend to underplay Bill Clinton's horrible record.  From the occasional allusion it's clear they know about it, but they don't seem as eager to balance Bush/Cheney bloodlust with Clinton/Gore bloodlust as they are to balance American imperialism with, say, French imperialism.  They quote with approval the "When Clinton lied, nobody died" bumpersticker, which commits the very offense they ascribe to the Democrats in 2004: it accepts the Republican frame that the only Clinton lies that mattered were the ones he told about his sexual history, and not his lies about Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, Indonesia, welfare "reform," NAFTA, and other genuinely weighty matters.  Their analysis of media would benefit, I think, by taking the Herman-Chomsky propaganda model into account, but they never mention Chomsky and their discussion of media doesn't show his influence.  They do, however, mention Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart numerous times.  By the end of the book they're carrying on like any liberal Democrat, not the radical-left multiculturalists they claim to be.

I wonder what Shohat and Stam think about Obama.  A cursory search doesn't turn up anything, and though they don't seem to adulate him in this 2012 interview, the few references they make don't shed much light.  Maybe Race in Translation will tell me more; I hope to get to it this year.

But let me return to my main point.  It baffles and disturbs me that so many academics let themselves be sloppy and simplistic about religion in ways they would never tolerate in themselves on other issues, and certainly would not tolerate in their opponents.  It's not because they consider religion to be unimportant; it's easy to see from Shohat and Stam's condemnation of the Christian right that they consider it quite important. Christianity is no more monolithic than Americanism. (Of the errors and distortions promulgated by laypeople, the less said the better perhaps, but I have anyway.)  Christianity is much older, after all, so it could be expected to diversify; but even in the New Testament it displays the kind of internal contradictions one would expect of a much older and established cult.  This can be seen in the letters of the apostle Paul, the oldest surviving Christian writings.  Not only is Paul less than consistent, he refers to controversies with fellow believers that show rampant factionalism and disagreement about basic doctrines and practices less than a generation after Jesus died.  (Those interested might start by reading Galatians, which is one of his shorter letters and lays out the doctrinal rifts very clearly.)  The gay Catholic scholar Mark D. Jordan does a much better job of discussing historical and contemporary Christianity in all its contradictory messiness; it can be done.  See his Silence in Sodom (Chicago, 2000) for a good start.  Flagging Patriotism would be a better book if Shohat and Stam had taken the same care writing about Christianity that they did about politics and history.