The crusader

The other day, I posted about James P. Carse, a longtime professor of religious studies who reminds us that religions are not reducible to sets of beliefs, and who argues that the tendency to treat them as if they were is responsible for much evil in the world.  I was reminded of Carse’s arguments yesterday when I was looking up the latest links on my favorite filter blog, 3quarksdailyThere was a link to a piece by Richard Dawkins, “The Faith Trap.”  Dawkins considers the case of a clergyman who has ceased to believe inb the doctrines of his church.  Dawkins holds that the only honest course for such a clergyman is to give up his job and look for another line of work.  Non-theistic belief of the sort associated with writer Karen Armstrong won’t satisfy Dawkins:

To the trusting congregation, Karen Armstrong would be nothing more than a dishonest atheist, and who could disagree? You can just imagine the shocked bewilderment that would greet a ‘ground of all being’ theologian, if he tried that on with churchgoers who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.

Notice that clause, “who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.”  Apparently, Dawkins believes that acceptance of those and similar propositions is an essential condition for qualifying as a Christian. 

Further on, Dawkins writes:

What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

“Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?”  Some do, I’m sure, though not in the sense Dawkins wants to invoke.  If we define medicine as a set of beliefs to which one either does or does not subscribe, then it would be strange if a doctor were to cease to subscribe to those beliefs.  But of course no one really thinks of medicine that way.  Medicine is a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results.  There are indeed certain beliefs that come easily to people engaged in medicine, but those beliefs are at most one aspect of medicine, not the essence that makes it what it is.  The same description might be applied to farming or to astronomy. 

Taking up that description, we can revisit Dawkins’ question.  Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?  I suspect any number of doctors do just that.  One enters a profession because one has some idea of what the work of that profession is in itself and what results such work can be expected to achieve.  After some years in medicine, a doctor might very well discover that his or her initial ideas were unrealistic, and that s/he is not willing to continue with the practice of medicine.  So too might a farmer or an astronomer decide that s/he would be better off in some other occupation.   

If we think of a religion, not as a set of propositions to which certain people all assent, but a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results, then we might find that members of the clergy are not so different after all from other professionals.  For some people, belief in the truth of a particular creed or notion might be one of the goals of religion; it would be very strange indeed if this were the whole function of a religion for any sizeable number of its adherents.  However prominently particular beliefs may figure in debates between adherents of various religions, in attempts to defend particular religions, and in power struggles within religions, the vitality of religion does not come from agreement with any given set of propositions, but from the bonds it sustains between people.  I’ve come to know a great many deeply religious people in the last few years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of these who seem to spend any time dwelling on the dogmatic beliefs of their traditions.   

Dawkins provides a rather amazing example of what I like to call “the Academic We.”  This is a construction in which a professor-type uses the first-person plural to describe the state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.   Dawkins claims that “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.”  Do we really?  Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine pointed out that we believe a particular man to be our father and a particular woman to be our mother based on authority, not on evidence.  Readers of Augustine have had no trouble since coming up with any number of other vitally important beliefs that come to be widely accepted without any evidence whatever.  Vast numbers of people believe in racist ideologies, for example; on what kind of “evidence” could those beliefs possibly have been formed?

The “Academic We” again

From a brief interview with Martha Nussbaum on The Nation‘s website.  Speaking of various things people say when they are trying to come up with arguments against same-sex marriage, Nussbaum says:

Then there’s finally the argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will degrade or defile straight marriage. What’s that about? It looks something like the claim that admitting all these baseball players who use steroids to the Hall of Fame would degrade the achievements of the genuine competitors. It taints the achievement. But what can that be about? We don’t think that heterosexuals who are flaky, silly or awful, Britney Spears marrying on a whim and then divorcing almost immediately, we don’t think that that taints the institution of heterosexual marriage.

I share Nussbaum’s puzzlement that opponents of same-sex marriage have offered such a poor array of arguments to defend their stand.  You’d think that with all the financial and political resources on their side they might have come up with something that at least took some work to disprove, yet what they’ve come up with is simply preposterous.  My quarrel is not with Nussbaum’s position on this issue, but with the last sentence of the section I’ve quoted. 

That sentence here features what I like to call “the Academic We.”  I suppose everyone is familiar with the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people. 

Who exactly is in Nussbaum’s “we”?  Nussbaum gives so little detail about Britney Spears and her marriage that it is clear she expects the reader to know who Britney Spears is and to know the story of her marriage.  Moreover, her flat conjunction of  the words “silly, flaky, or awful” with her reference to Spears shows that she does not expect to hear from anyone who approves of what Spears did.  If everyone can be expected to know a story and no one can be expected to defend the behavior of one figure in it, clearly that story must have some moral force in the community where it is told.  To me, it would seem that the likeliest moral for a story in which a person who takes marriage lightly is represented as “silly, flaky, or awful” is that taking marriage lightly is an abuse of a valuable institution. 

Nussbaum says that when we hear arguments about institutions being debased, “We can’t understand what’s being said without going back to some kind of magical idea about stigma or taint.”  While the antigay statements Nussbaum is considering may well be examples of magical thinking, no such thinking is on display in the debate about whether to include steroid users and other notorious cheaters in the  Baseball Hall of Fame.   To people who respect baseball and who see their values reflected in its rules, excellence in baseball can be a point of pride or a source of legends.  To those for whom baseball is a foolish activity and who find its rules alien to their culture, excellence in baseball will count for nothing.  Therefore, to admit known juicers to the Hall of Fame is to cheapen the achievements of clean players. 

Baseball is a very strange example for Nussbaum to choose to illustrate her point.  One might say that there are actions that have value in themselves, apart from any particular social institution.  Perhaps the creation of a monogamous sexual relationship between people who share property and a common social identity may be such an action.  Maybe there’s something inherent in the nature of things that ordains such relationships as a telos of human virtue.  In that case, even if the people who enact such a relationship are entirely isolated from any broader community, a self-sufficient entity called “honor” might still inhere in it.  Hey, for all I know, that could be true. 

But I do know that no action performed in a baseball game is of any value apart from the rules, traditions, and social standing of baseball.  The honor that baseball players earn is solely a function of baseball as an institution.   A swing of the bat that sends a ball to one side of the foul line may be an achievement; a swing that sends it to the other side is not.  Had the institution of baseball evolved to draw the line in a different place, swings that now mean nothing would become the stuff of legend, while swings that made history would have passed unnoticed.  Indeed, the idea that honor could inhere in the achievements of Satchel Paige or Babe Ruth even in a society where the institution of baseball had lost its moral salience is a pure example of magical thinking.

Left-wing conservatism

I’ve long been curious about the phrase “left-wing conservative.”   It’s a label that’s been applied to Christopher Lasch, for example.  And Jacques Delors once declared that “We have to struggle against the conservatives from all sides, not only the right-wingers, but also the left-wing conservatives.”  Though I’ve never gotten around to any of Christopher Lasch’s writings, I’ve always been under the impression that they were well worth reading.  And of course, any enemy of Jacques Delors is a friend of mine.  So one of my goals in life is to get a clear understanding of what the phrase “left-wing conservatism” might mean and to live up to that idea. 

In the 1 March issue of The Nation, Rebecca Solnit makes some general remarks that might serve as a definition of of left-wing conservatism.  Writing of the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, Solnit grants that for some participants those celebrations might reinforce the privileged positions they enjoy in the existing social order.  But even the conservative aspects of Mardi Gras don’t keep it from being something leftists should embrace.  Considering the ways that the African-American “Indians” and other groups use Mardi Gras to assert power against the local elites, Solnit writes:

The Mardi Gras Indians head out on their own without announced routes on Mardi Gras and a few other days every year, but making the costumes and maintaining the communities lasts all year. This is probably the very essence of Mardi Gras and all Carnival as I understand it: maintaining community.

Now, I believe that community is a subversive force. To understand what I mean by subversive, let’s go back to the defeatists. They, like much of our society, speak a language in which everything but a pie-in-the-sky kind of victory is defeat, in which everything that isn’t black is white, in which if you haven’t won, you’ve surely lost. If you asked them, they’d say we live in a capitalist society. In fact, we live in an officially capitalist society, but what prevents that force from destroying all of us is the social aid and pleasure we all participate in: parents don’t charge their children for raising them; friends do things for each other, starting with listening without invoicing for billable hours; nurses and mechanics and everyone in between does a better job than money can pay for for beautiful reasons all their own; people volunteer to do something as specific as read to a blind person or as general as change the world. Our supposedly capitalist society is seething with anticapitalist energy, affection and joy, which is why most of us have survived the official bleakness. In other words, that’s not all there is to our system. Our society is more than and other than capitalist in a lot of ways.

To say that Carnival reconciles us to the status quo is to say that it affirms the world as it is. Now, for people in Rex, their Mardi Gras probably reinforces their world, but for those in some of the other krewes and rites, the same is true, and the reinforcement of the survival of the mutual aid societies that emerged after slavery is not reaffirmation of capitalism, domination, etc. It reinforces, in other words, their ongoing survival of capitalism and racism. Carnival also reinforces joy and ownership of public space and a kind of confidence in coexisting with a wide array of strangers. New Orleans itself is the place where, unlike the rest of the United States, slaves were not so cut off from chances to gather and chances to maintain their traditions. Jazz and jazz funerals, second-line parades and more derive in many ways from this subversive remnant of a non-European tradition. They didn’t bow down. This is something to celebrate, and it is what is celebrated by some of the people in the streets.

To me, these paragraphs make sense of the revolutionary rhetoric and destabilizing policies that have long characterized the American Right.   For Marx and Engels, the wild churning of capitalism was proof that the system would eventually shake itself apart, generating a proletarian uprising and ushering in communism.  For Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, that same wild churning is the proof that capitalism is destined to reign forever and ever. 

And Gingrich and Romney may well be right.  A labor market in which the highest rewards are reserved for people who are willing to move frequently and move across continents will tend to produce a large population of atomized individuals, unconnected to any community of equals, dependent on their employers not only for their income, but also for their identity.  The flux and churn of hypercapitalism dissolve every relationship not based on monetary exchange, smashing every social refuge in which working people might look for shelter.  Isolated from each other, those who do not own capital are helpless to resist those who do. 

Solnit’s words about tradition and community imply a defense, not only of Mardi Gras and of Carnival, but also of narrative.  A tradition allows us to feel connected to people at other times and in other places because we are all part of the same story; a community takes people who share this sense of connectedness and puts them to work together.  Hypercapitalism drains narrative from life.  Narrative concepts like tradition, community, meaning, endings, seem artificial to people whose lives are largely bounded by markets and machines.  Markets fluctuate, and may in time dissolve.  Machines operate, and may eventually stop.  However, neither system reaches a conclusion.   The forces that drive them into action at one moment are the same forces that stop them at another moment.  To the extent that my life is bounded by markets and machines, therefore, narrative seems to me like an artificial convention imposed on experience.  But how do we know that history is not in some real sense a grand narrative, that our lives are not in some real sense narratives nested inside it?  I can’t see why one of these views should bear a heavier burden of proof than the other.     

Perhaps “left-wing conservatism” is not an oxymoron, but a tautology.  If we are to resist the power elite, whether to overthrow them or simply to put limits to the power they wield over the rest of us, we cannot do so as solitary individuals, but only as communities.  Communities need cultivating and defending.  It takes multiple generations to cultivate and defend a community; so, community is an inherently conservative value.  If leftism means opposition to the power elite, it therefore is an inherently conservative project. 

One conservative thinker who would have reacted with horror if he had ever been described as a leftist was Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt taught French at Harvard from 1894 until his death.  His name is often mentioned these days by American academics of a traditionalist conservative bent.  Babbitt and his friend Paul Elmer More were  the founders and guiding lights of the “New Humanism,” a school of thought that made a splash in 1930 when it protested against the attempt of another, quite different, group of American thinkers to appropriate the same label. 

Babbitt and More identified themselves as fiercely right-wing.  Babbitt’s political testament, his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership, was widely criticised as being all leadership and no democracy; More, as editor of The Nation, responded to the Ludlow massacre by proclaiming that “To the civilized man, the rights of property are more important than the right to life” (in an essay collected in Aristocracy and Justice, page 136.)   Yet I would argue that the emphasis Babbitt and More place on tradition, gentility, transcendental belief, and historical continuity puts them in need of a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism.  These things simply cannot coexist with the demands of the modern market economy.  Tradition counts for nothing against the new new thing; self-restraint and well-curated taste count for nothing against the tides of fashion; transcendental belief counts for nothing against the need to appeal to youthful demographics; historical continuity counts for nothing against the need to impress the shareholders today.  Babbitt acknowledged as much on several occasions.  For example, in Democracy and Leadership Babbitt quoted Henry Ford’s remark that the prohibition of alcohol was a necessary consequence of mass production, that “Liquor had to go out when the Model T came in.”  Babbitt’s responded was that Americans had become so craven a people that they would degrade the Constitution for the sake of mere things. 

Another article in this issue brought Babbitt and More to my mind.  That was William Deresiewicz’ essay about Tolstoy.  Deresiewicz uses a construction that Babbitt and More labored to avoid, what might be called the “Academic We.”  There is of course the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.    Deresiewicz’ essay includes a splendid example.  Tolstoy’s later writings are:

Not a body of work the contemporary reader is apt to find congenial. Leave aside the religiosity. We have learned to distrust the story with a message, any message. We disdain the writer who comes to us bearing ideas or ideologies. We don’t like a moralizer, don’t want to be preached at, don’t believe in answers, in endings. We put our faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt. Life isn’t that simple, we think. It doesn’t happen that way. But that is exactly what Tolstoy believes.

The Academic “We,” even when I hear myself using it, always leaves me with a desire to quote Oscar Brown, Junior’s song about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”  Who is this “contemporary reader” who has learned all these attitudes?  Deresiewicz’ description fits my habitual impulses fairly well, I admit.  But that may just be because living among markets and machines has inclined me to disbelieve in narrative.  Perhaps there are “answers” in the world.  Perhaps there are “endings” to be reached.