Sunday, May 2, 2010

Inappropriately Touched by God

I recently saw a new book by Marilynne Robinson, the novelist and essayist who wrote a good (though uneven) dissection of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. (The review used to be available online, but now you can only see it if you're a Harper's subscriber.) The new book is called Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self; I hadn't seen the subtitle until I looked the book up on Amazon, and it looks like something you'd see in The Onion, but apparently she's serious. The book is apparently based on her Terry Lectures, just like Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which I finally found embarrassing and unreadable. Robinson appears to be a more careful, rigorous thinker than Eagleton, but I'm not ready to spend money on the new book, and it's not in the library yet.

So I took one easy way out. Robinson's earlier book of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Picador, 2005) was in at the public library. The last essay, "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," looked interesting. And so it was. Robinson is concerned with the courage to express dissenting opinions, which she seems to think is in shorter supply now than in younger, happier days. "Physical courage," she writes (255), "is remarkably widespread in this population. There seem always to be firefighters to deal with the most appalling conflagrations and doctors to deal with the most novel and alarming illnesses. It is by no means to undervalue courage of this kind to say it is perhaps expedited by being universally recognized as courage. Those who act on it can recognize the impulse and act confidently, even at the greatest risk to themselves." Those who act on it, I'd add, can also expect respect and praise for doing so, unlike those who say or write unpopular things.
Moral and intellectual courage [she continues] are not in nearly so flourishing a state, even though the risks they entail -- financial or professional disadvantage, ridicule, ostracism -- are comparatively minor. ... Indeed, consensus is so powerful and so effectively defended that I suspect it goes back to earliest humanity, when our tribes were small and vulnerable, and schism and defection were a threat to survival. But it should never be forgotten how much repression and violence consensus can support, or how many crimes it has justified.

It is true that in most times and places physical courage and moral and intellectual courage have tended to merge, since dungeons, galleys, and stakes have been extensively employed in discouraging divergent viewpoints. For this reason our own society, which employs only mild disincentives against them and in theory positively admires them, offers a valuable opportunity for the study of what I will call the conservation of consensus, that is, the effective enforcement of consensus in those many instances where neither reason nor data endorse it, where there are no legal constraints supporting it, and where there are no penalties for challenging it that persons of even moderate brio would consider deterrents [256].
Whew! She does run on, almost as much as I do. Anyway, she then offers an example of what she's complaining about:
Here is an instance: for some time the word "bashing" has been used to derail criticism of many kinds, by treating as partisan or tendentious statements that are straightforwardly true or false. To say that the disparity between rich and poor in this country exceeds any previously known in American history ... is to say something falsifiable -- that is, for practical purposes, verifiable, and in any case arguable. But such statements are now routinely called "Bush bashing." In other words, something that is objectively true or false is dismissed as the slur of a hostile subgroup. Perfectly sensible people flinch at the thought that they might sound a trifle Jacobin, and they are shamed out of saying what they believe to be true in the plainest sense of the word "true." Nor is it the critics alone who lose their bearings when these strategies are employed. Those who identify with the group toward whom the criticisms are directed -- in this case, the present administration -- can hear irrational attack where they might otherwise hear a challenge to their values or to their theories and methods.

So the exchanges that political life entirely depends on, in which people attempt in good conscience to establish practical truth and then candidly assign value to it, simply do not take place [257].
As I read this, I couldn't help wondering if Robinson has ever read the writings of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman on the ways in which dissenting views are muffled in a society which does not use violence to suppress them. Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 1998) also addresses this problem, as did George Orwell's preface to the original publication of Animal Farm, which was not published until 1972. Quite a number of people have noticed and studied conformism, self-censorship, and the ways in which such behavior is produced, encouraged, and enforced. The "exchanges that political life entirely depends on" rarely take place, and it's an uphill battle to make them happen at all.

I'd also point out that the tactic Robinson deplores is ancient. The Romans dismissed the early Christians as atheists, and the Bible (both Testaments) is among other things an anthology of bad arguments against opponents, be they "pagans" or other Christians or Jews. Jennifer Wright Knust's Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia, 2006)
describes how,
From biblical tradition, to Greek invective, to early Christian polemics, "the opponents" -- be they gentiles or slaves or barbarians or heretics -- were universally said to devote themselves to sexual excess. Though there may have been licentious gentiles, slaves, rulers, philosophers, barbarians, heretics, or Christians, the sources I have been exploring will not help us find them. Instead, these sources indicate a widespread attempt to employ moralizing claims regarding sexual behavior and gender deviance to validate authority. Still, there is a sense in which all this sex talk was actually about sex: by strategically claiming superiority on the basis of a strict sexual morality, early Christians were under tremendous pressure to display the sophrosyne they had defined for themselves. Therefore, all of this highly charged sex talk was necessary. Christians had to be convinced to live up to sophrosyne, displaying it for all to see. Moreover, the content of in-Christ self-discipline required frequent renegotiation and reiteration in light of the changing circumstances of the first Christians. Charges against the heretics provide further clues regarding the contested claims of Christian sophrosyne as well as the imagined constitution of the group [160].
On the other hand, many of Bush's liberal critics were more obsessed by his Texas accent and his inability to pronounce "nuclear" the way they thought he should, as well as his often-incoherent speaking style, than by his actual crimes. They welcomed the advent of Barack Obama because, as so many said, it was such a relief to finally have a President who wasn't an embarrassment as a public speaker! If anything, this was a convenient way of ignoring Obama's actual stated policies, and those who criticized Obama from the left were also accused of bad faith by his devotees, just Bush's critics were. But I've dealt with this issue often before.

I suppose Robinson is aware of all this, and is only citing instances from the Bush II administration as a contemporary example rather than a novelty, but some acknowledgment that she's not a lone voice crying in the wilderness would be nice.

Which brings me to my next point. No doubt some people were inhibited from criticizing the Bush administration by the fear of being accused of "Bush-bashing," but many more were not. There was no shortage of criticism and attack during those long eight years, though admittedly not as much, or as substantial, as one might have liked in those media we call Mainstream. What actually happened (another verifiable, or at least arguable, claim about truth) was that many critical voices were excluded by the corporate media, but 1) there were probably more alternative venues for criticism than at any other time I can remember in my lifetime, especially on the Internet, but even so there was plenty of criticism of Bush at a personal level, in letters to the editor, and elsewhere, undeterred by the accusation of "bashing"; and 2) the corporate media have never been friendly to critical voices; I think there was more rational political discussion going on during the Bush years than there was during the 1960s on Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement. You don't have to read Chomsky and Herman's writings to know this, but they're convenient, well-known (and therefore frequently misrepresented and demonized) and well-documented; many other students have covered the same ground, with much the same results.

But Robinson is really aiming at something else, I think: the claim that what one is doing and saying, though many other people are doing and saying it, is in fact hardly being said or done by anyone, and therefore one is speaking out at great personal risk, if only risk of being accused of Bush- or Obama-bashing or of Political Correctness.
This is a time when it actually requires a certain courage to declare oneself a liberal, even among presumptively like-minded people. That might seem a minor act after the instances I have just cited, in which people defied prejudice, custom, and law. But the purely arbitrary nature of this little coercion isolates the impulse to enforce consensus, even when absolutely nothing is at stake for the enforcers and the one subject to coercion risks no penalty -- except the embarrassment of seeming not to know that a word is passe, that posture is, well, as of now a little ridiculous [260].
Does it "actually" require a certain courage to declare oneself a liberal, "even among presumptively like-minded people", in these troubled times? I don't know, since I'm not a liberal. Nor, living as I do in a college town among the presumptively like-minded, have I needed much courage to declare myself gay, atheist, and of leftist opinions. But I have often noticed people, like Robinson, telling the world how courageous they are for stating their views, often in front of audiences of the presumptively like-minded. And I'll bet you can guess what comes next.
To illustrate this point, I will make a shocking statement: I am a Christian. This ought not to startle anyone. It is likely to be at least demographically true of an American of European ancestry. I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed [260-261].
Parenthetically, I'd like to point out that much of what Robinson says here is true of me, and I'm an atheist: I also have a strong attachment to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, etc. and they (along with the other cultural products of Western civilization -- which would be a good idea, as Gandhi quipped) inform the way I think. (See, for example, the poems I wrote using the Bible and Christianity as source material.) But then, I could say the same of Greek and Roman "narratives and traditions," and I daresay so could Robinson. The philosopher Walter Kaufmann said the same of Judaism, which he contended with even long after he'd ceased to be observant or to believe in Yahweh. If I'd grown up in China, the same would be true for me with respect to Chinese narratives and traditions. What Robinson is doing is sort of like bragging that she's attached to the English language, simply because she grew up in an English-speaking country.

The reason this tactic annoys me, I think, is that I associate it mainly with bigots and other reactionaries, like the people on Facebook who declare that they are Christians and dare you to copy the same declaration to your status, only a few will have the courage -- will you? When I declared that I was an atheist in response to one of these, they attacked me for denying their right to believe. I guess they didn't have the courage to declare their faith in Christ unless absolutely everybody around them agreed with them. (Given their beliefs, they should worry, considering what the gospels show Jesus saying about those who will not acknowledge him before men.)
Over the years many a good soul has let me know by one means or another that this living out of the religious/mystical/aesthetic/intellectual tradition that is so essentially compelling to me is not, shall we say, cool. ... Now, I do feel fairly confident that I know what religion is. I have spent decades informing myself about it, an advantage I can claim over any of my would-be rescuers. I am a mainline Protestant, a.k.a. a liberal Protestant, as these same people know. I do not by any means wear my religion on my sleeve. I am extremely reluctant to talk about it at all, chiefly because my belief does not readily reduce itself to simple statements [261].
Again: Hey, most of this is true of me too! Robinson's claim reminds me of an exchange I once saw between William F. Buckley and Malcolm Muggeridge on Buckley's TV show, where Buckley said basically the same thing as Robinson says here, and Muggeridge said that he found that people were intensely interested when they found out he was a Christian. (Hey, here it is! Starting at about 2:55; Muggeridge responds at about 4:30.) Maybe the reaction you get depends on your own attitude? (Muggeridge suggests as much, very tactfully.) But I'd never invite Buckley to a dinner party in the first place, and I'm having my doubts about Robinson.
The question has been put to me very directly: Am I not afraid to be associated with religious people? These nudges would have their coercive effect precisely because those who want to put me right know that I am not a fundamentalist. That is, I am to avoid association with religion completely or else be embarrassed by punitive association with beliefs I do not hold. What sense does that make? What good does it serve? [261].
This is also familiar to me, especially as a gay man. I've often been asked whether I'm not worried about being judged by those crazy Gay Pride Marches, for example. But it is also familiar in the context of the "New Atheism." As I've written before, many of my fellow atheists are an embarrassment to me, and I'm still not always sure what to do about it. (Except, I guess, to keep on learning, and take pot shots at my fellow atheists when they say especially stupid things.) But as Robinson wrote in her review of Dawkins, “The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule.” And as I wrote of her remarks, the question then arises of how to tell which are the best elements and which the worst, both in Christianity and in atheism. I suspect that one reason why Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett have gotten so much media attention is that they are clowns and yahoos, which the corporate media love. A more informed and nuanced discussion of the issues is too boring for the corporate media, which prefer soundbytes to analysis.
This is only one instance of a very pervasive phenomenon, a pressure toward concessions no one has a right to ask. These are concessions courage would refuse if it were once acknowledged that a minor and insidious fear is the prod that coaxes us toward conforming our lives, and even our thoughts, to norms that are effective markers of group identity precisely because they are shibboleths, a contemporary equivalent of using the correct fork. ...

The present dominance of aspersion and ridicule in American public life is a reflex of the fact that we are assumed to want, and in many cases perhaps do want, attitude much more than information. If an unhealthy percentage of the population gets its news from Jay Leno or Rush Limbaugh, it is because they are arbiters of attitude. They instruct viewers as to what, within their affinity groups, it is safe to say and cool to think [262].
"The present dominance"? I see no reason to think that what Robinson is talking about is anything new. It was true when I was young, and seems to have been true long before that. (I'm presently reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which shows the same processes of aspersion and ridicule being used very effectively in English life at the end of the 18th century.) But what baffles me is that Robinson is writing as though she only just figured this out, and she's eight years my senior. Well, maybe she did. Maybe she spent most of her life sheltered in "mainline Protestant" circles, and never had to try to have a discussion with people who differed with her on basic issues. But if so, that undercuts her stance as a longtime observer of the American political scene, distressed by its degeneration into aspersions and attitudes.

And finally, is it just me, or is there something of the very attitude she deplores in her own reaction to those silly billies who are so shallow as to disrespect "the religious/mystical/aesthetic/intellectual tradition that is so essentially compelling to me"? Don't they see that she's the one who's really cool after all? But I'm sure it's totally uncool of me to point that out.

Hey, Robinson is going to be teaching a workshop on theological writing at Princeton this summer. That's what happens when you make shocking statements about your faith in today's attitude-ridden secular society. For those who want to be in with the in crowd ...