Archive for category Christianity

The Conservative Critique of Capitalism

To Limbaugh even a conservative critique of capitalism is "Marxism"

To Limbaugh even a conservative critique of capitalism is “Marxism”

While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”

The charge is absurd.

Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced.   Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions.   Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions.   History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity.  I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.

When the Church built the new St. Peter's it used an early capitalist method: selling indulgences (time off from purgatory).   That had an unfortunate side effect for the church: the reformation

When the Church built the new St. Peter’s it used an early capitalist method: selling indulgences (time off from purgatory). That had an unfortunate side effect for the church: the reformation

Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas.  The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism.  He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.”   He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering.   Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.

The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible.   Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder.   Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.”   Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE

The Argentinan Pontiff knows poverty – and is becoming very popular among Catholics

The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal.   Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing.   They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture.   It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption.  It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility.   Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.

Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals.  It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring.   The culture maintains social stability and order.  Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything.   Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe.   That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.

For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values.  That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.

Count Karl Marx as one of Adam Smith's fans!

Count Karl Marx as one of Adam Smith’s fans!

Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic.   While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context.   If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era.   Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly.   Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.

To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes.   Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom.  Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship.   Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare.  A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas.   Custom has been replaced by fad.  Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”

Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters.   That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist.    The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works —   So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.

4 Comments

Augustine, Machiavelli, and Petrarch Conversing

One place for the conversation: in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, where Giotto’s frescoes mixed the old religious themes with a new humanist perspective

The assignment closing out the first unit of my honors first year seminar was straight forward: imagine a conversation between Augustine, Petrarch and Machiavelli.   Have them talk about the issues that dominated their lives, react to each other, and bring up others we read or talked about (Aquinas, Dante, Giotto and Boccaccio).   The results were spectacular.

I gave students freedom to tackle the assignment however they wanted.   One took the voice of Machiavelli, describing the conversations and his internal thoughts — polite to Augustine in conversation while ridiculing him in his head.   Another had them all in purgatory, some had them in heaven, one had them in a rather rowdy bar (Augustine sipping fruit juice), while one had them in the equivalent of zoo, having been snatched from earth and brought somewhere outside space/time.   One put herself in the role as translator of the conversation, giving her reflections on what they said, which worked really well.

Augustine (354-430) developed the spiritual philosophy and theology that would define the medieval world view – this world is an illusion, designed to tempt and test, but exists only as symbols of a deeper reality.   Do not pursue worldly delights or ambitions, those only lead you away from Christ.  With that view dominating, it’s not surprising that the Europeans spent nearly a thousand years with little progress!

Petrarch is often called the “father of humanism.”   Humanism means taking the human experience seriously.   Petrarch, along with others such as Giotto, Boccaccio and Dante, were rediscovering the classics from Rome and Greece, and thereby opening the door to a past that Europe had long forgotten.   They were enthralled by the classics, a world where human emotion and practical knowledge mattered — where life wasn’t only about preparation for the after life.

Petrarch expressed humanist love and emotion, but never approached his muse Laura – he loved from afar

Art became more realistic, human emotion invaded literature and poetry, and the material world started to matter again.   This led to the renaissance and an expansion of knowledge and wealth.    It also meant growing corruption in the Church as the spiritual became secondary to the practical.    Niccolo Machiavelli (1649 – 1527) took that humanism to its pragmatic ends justify the means conclusion with his book The Prince.

What’s most impressive is that the students  captured the essence of what these three people  symbolize.   Augustine is the other-worldly mystic who warns about the corruption of the flesh and power of a love for God.  Petrarch has his feet in both the Augustinian world and the new world of humanism.   He writes stirring emotional poetry to a woman, but one he loves from afar.    One student has the two of them reflecting on their similar experiences.   Augustine’s most powerful moment was when opened the Bible at random and was touched by something written by Paul.   Petrarch had done the same with Augustine’s Confessions atop Mt. Ventoux.

Florence at the time of Machiavelli – the wealthiest city in Europe, yet surrounded by strife, corruption and discord

Machiavelli is the anti-Augustine.   He is a humanist and a realist.   Of course the Church and God is important, but one has to live in this world with humans who are, as all three agree, base in their nature.   Humans are wicked, sinful and unclean.

Augustine’s solution is to go to the mountains and live separate from the depravity and ruin, in monasteries where life is devoted solely to the spiritual.    Petrarch admired Augustine but fantasized about living in classical times.   He would carry on conversations with Cicero and others from the past, wishing he could be in a world where knowledge and culture were advanced and developed.   Machiavelli compartmentalized the spiritual in order to focus on the practical.

What impressed me is how the students got into the mindset of the era, be it the dilemmas of humanism, the impact of Aquinas and Aristotle, or the inherent tension in the methods of the Scholastics.   They managed to mentally put themselves into that time frame just before the reformation.

That’s important.  It is so easy to think “oh, they didn’t have science yet, they were backward…the Church is controlling everything, that’s wrong.”   That’s a view of someone in the present imagining those structures of thought imposed on the here and now.

If we judge history through a modern lens we fail to understand the fundamental questions and dilemmas that the people at the time grappled with.    We wouldn’t appreciate how their dilemmas were similar to issues we face now; these were intelligent people whose thinking was not so unlike our own.    Moreover, once we endeavor to understand the past in context, it’s easier to see the imperfections of our own reality.

When we get to the end of the course students have an assignment to write about the present the way an Honors class 400 years from now might see it.    What do we do that will be seen later as barbaric and ignorant?   War?   Chemicals in food?  Eating meat?

How will religion and science change?    Is the history of western civilization — and all other cultures — starting to merge into a global discourse?   Might the intellectual history of the West be bracketed — ending at some year when cultural merging makes such cultural distinctions impossible to maintain?

The goal of the course is for students to see their academic journey and their place in the world as part of an unfolding story.   How we think is shaped by our cultural past.    Even an atheist has views and understandings that can be traced back to thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther.    Instead of being in the present looking at a past whose sole purpose was to create this moment, we are part of an exciting unfolding of history, connected to the past and part of a future yet undiscovered.

And if one sees life that way, learning is not a chore, it’s fun.   Learning does not end when college ends, but one is motivated to continue exploring and understanding the exciting and riveting history unfolding.   Traveling to a city like Rome is not just visiting another place, but traveling through time as we connect with history.   We are not in a world of stress, distractions and emptiness, but are part of the most exciting story ever told — being told by voices across time and space, each voice as loud and important as our own.

That sense of wonder has shaped how I look at life and my place in it.   It provides a sense of wonder and awe that transcends daily routines.    As a teacher, my goal is to provide opportunities for students to make that same discovery.   These papers show evidence that these honors students are doing just that.

 

3 Comments

Pussy Riot – Russian Heroes

Their names are Nadezhda “Nadya”Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina.   They are on trial for disturbing the peace (or ‘hooliganism’!) in Moscow.   “I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom,” Maria Alyokhina said. “No one will take my inner freedom away.”

The women symbolize the divisions in Russian culture and politics, and as such their trial has come under intense focus.   They are part of a punk a group called Pussy Riot, which formed in 2011 as a collective of about ten members who perform provocative songs in provocative locals, usually masked with colorful balaclavas, and using pseudonyms when giving interviews.    As they put it:  “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”

On February 21, 2012 members of the group went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow with short dresses, colorful balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to make Putin go away.   The Orthodox Russian Patriarch Kirill, who had already urged believers to vote for Putin, called the President when he saw the video to make sure the women be arrested.   They have been held in extended detention since March, and will be sentenced August 17.   Two of the women have small children, and they have gained support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Pussy Riot’s performances are provocative and they rely on social media and the internet to get the word out

Pussy Riot was formed as part of the anti-Putin protests that emerged last winter, and represent a Russian youth angered by the return to authoritarianism that Putin represents.   They want an open and free Russia, and Pussy Riot reflects an audacious in your face attack on politics as usual.   In a country where traditional taboos are still strong — sexism remains rampant and anti-LBGT feelings are intense, for example — they’re the new generation demanding change.

The response of the Russian Orthodox church has been one of anger, with demands that the women be punished for blasphemy and an assault on the Russian soul.    That sounds silly — and, to be blunt, it is silly — but there is a segment of traditional Russian society appalled by what the women did.   The Orthodox Church is still a powerful institution and Putin needs to make sure it stays on his side.

The defendants have used their case to gain a level of support and attention they’d otherwise not receive

The women have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not trying to be offensive.   They were responding to Kirill’s instructions to vote for Putin.    The Courtroom prosecutor Nikiforov told the Judge that by swearing in church the girls had “abused God.”   But the girls claim that not only is Russia a secular state, but that they want dialogue.   “I’m Orthodox,” said Maria, “why does that mean I should vote for Putin?”   Kirill who has called Putin’s rule in Russia “a miracle from God,” yearns to rekindle the old Czarist era connection of Church and State.

In the Capital of Moscow there is general support for the group.   The trial has gathered large crowds who often cheer the defendants or laugh at the prosecutor.   At times the Judge had to plead for quiet, telling those gathered that “this is not a threater.”   When they laughed at some of the claims the prosecutor made, courtroom observers were told this was “no laughing matter.”

Nadia Tolokonnikova, 22 years old with a four year child, signals the women’s strength of commitment

Ultimately Putin will decide the fate of these women — it’s his country, and his court.  That’s part of what they are protesting!   In London to watch some of the Olympics he said he thought they should be “treated leniently.”   But no one doubts that the sentence depends on what he wants, not the judge in the case.

The case is important.   Russia stands at a cross roads.   Putin, having weathered the winter protests against his re-election, would like to see Russia return to business as usual:   Power in his hands and a partnership with the Orthodox church to keep the public in line.   Profits from oil and gas going to give the people enough largesse to keep their support, and some market openness to make it worth the while of the middle class to support the regime.

And the youth?   They’ll get older.   They’ll realize that it’s not worth rocking the boat.   But women like Nadia, Katya, and Maria reflect a youth that sees the wider world, and understands what a free Russia could become.   They don’t want post-Soviet Russia to continue the slide into Czarist like leadership and control.    Putin apparently had enough, and decided to use a show trial of the three women to strike terror into would be protesters to force the youth into submission.

Now 54, Madonna demonstrates her support in concert

A successful show trial requires the authorities to control the show – to script it and make certain the public learns about it in a way that achieves the desired result.    That’s not happening.    Public interest in the trial has made it a sensation.   The world watches, while Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of musicians and human rights activists world wide speak out.   The Russian youth follow on Facebook and Youtube, and the trial has become a symbol of the stark division between the traditional world of the Orthodox church and the globalized modern ambitions of Russia’s young people .   Quite possibly Putin won’t be able to keep all these things under control.

Maria Alekhina, an Orthodox Christian herself, apologized for offending and in her responses to church witnesses made them look petty and small

The trial originally was video streamed to make sure other would be protesters could see what might happen to them if they anger the authorities.   But that backfired; the women refused to be docile, they and their attorneys asked tough questions and helped make the witnesses for the church look ridiculous.   Video streaming was stopped, but it was too late – the trial had become a farce.   The judge moved to a smaller court room, and to wrap the case up more quickly the proceedings were dragged on for over 12 hours a day with the women getting little water or food while in their glass “cage.”   The result was to amplify the inhumane treatment of three young women.

Katya Samutsevich, a computer programmer very into art and its social role, is 29 – the oldest of the three – and active on LBGT issues

So the world watches, Russia watches and Putin squirms.    This case shows the regime’s vulnerability.   The fact they so misjudged the impact of this show trial makes it clear they don’t understand the forces they’re dealing with.   They have a late Soviet mentality in a world that is much different than that of the 20th Century.

The bizarre almost comical testimony of the church witnesses show a miscalculation of immense proportions.   They were meant to create a sense of anger at the women for defying honored Russian religious traditions; instead they made the church comes off as petty, the state as authoritarian.   The show trial actually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Putin regime.

No one knows for sure what direction Russia will take moving forward.   Putin controls the media, the courts, the military and the police.    Russian history suggests the state will prevail at the cost of human liberty.  But this is a new era.    Globalization and the social media led information revolution are changing the rules of the game, as long time dictators like Mubarak, Gadaffi and Assad have learned.    Right now three heroic young women refuse to back down and have come to symbolize the desire for an open, tolerant, free Russia.   Perhaps their actions can inspire others to join.

 

5 Comments

Mistakes and Forgiveness

Today is Easter, a day Christians celebrate due to their belief that a Jewish spiritual teacher named Jesus was actually the son of God, was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby granting Christians a promise of eternal life.

While I am not a Christian (I do not subscribe to any organized religion, though I try to show all of them respect), the emphasis Christians put on forgiveness is very powerful.  If people could learn to actively forgive the world would be a much better place.   If  you want happiness in life a good first step is to embrace the principle of forgiveness.

Forgiveness comes on many levels.  The first is to forgive others for causing us harm.  That’s the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first.   Some people have trouble with that.  When they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive.   Moreover, in most disputes both sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.

The secret is to let go and forgive anyway.   If one takes the first step and reaches out the other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture.   In some cases the other person can’t let go of resentment.   There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the emotions of the conflict.   If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s his or her problem.   That’s the power of forgiveness.   Once you forgive you cease to allow others to have power over your emotional state.

How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done?    People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment.   Yet what is gained?   That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation.  Forgiveness allows us to deny others that power.   We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive pursuits.    Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own self-interest.

The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes.   When someone unintentionally does something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset.   “He should have known better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.”   Yet if it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason to be angry.  If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced.    Forgive mistakes.

To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too many mistakes.   Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences for mistakes.  I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.

Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds.   This is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn.    People beat themselves up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.

Mistakes, though, are the way people learn.    Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving.   One also has to forgive oneself for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite.    I believe it’s only possible to accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself.  That is the first step.   Moreover, most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them.   The inability to forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do.   They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own unresolved inner conflicts.   Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.

Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal.   How often have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger?    How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends?   How any people engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?

Yet it is easy.   To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose.   Learn from it, but don’t let it add emotional weight to your life burden.   Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and acceptance of the past.   The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to make change.    We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in.   So while I don’t believe the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as the core of Jesus’ teachings.   To me Easter is a reminder of the power and good that forgiveness brings.

Don Henley’s Heart of the Matter has always been one of my favorites.  I especially like the lines

“These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness, how can love survive in such a graceless age
Ah, trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill I guess

There are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they’ve let you done, you know they’ve hurt your pride
You gotta put it all behind you because life goes on, you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside
Been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets week and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…”

4 Comments

The Anachronistic Candidate

 

Hearing Rick Santorum talk about contraception, religion, the separation of church and state, and culture in general I sometimes get the impression he was born in the wrong century.   For all the indignation and anger from women’s groups, gay organizations, and others incensed by his insensitivity, I’m struck by the fact he makes a cogent and logical argument — by 19th Century standards.

I don’t mean that as an insult either.    It’s just he’s fighting a culture war that has already been lost, and there’s not much chance to go back and refight it.    He’s channeling Pope Pius IX, who put forth the “Syllabus of Errors of the Modern World” – “the scourge of liberalism” in 1864.

Consider the following quotes from Santorum, the first threefrom this campaign:

1.   “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life. We have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible. But, nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.”

2.  “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

3.  “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American Left who hates Christendom. … What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers. What we’re talking about are core American values.”

4.  “In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don’t both need to. … What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else — or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon — find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism.”  (His 2005 book It Takes a Family)

5.  “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. … That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.” (AP 2003)

The worst quote in my opinion is number 3 – defending the crusades.   That’s historically wrong and given the times we’re in politically stupid.    Will he also defend Pope Alexander VI?

Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, was a vicious, greedy and promiscuous pontiff

Quote one arouses anger and disdain from most women who can’t imagine the violence of rape followed by being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then being responsible for the child after birth.  Even most anti-abortion women don’t think that way.   Yet it makes sense in the traditional Catholic world view about the sanctity of life being paramount.  The “rape baby” is a life, and killing it is wrong in that line of thinking.

Quote two says the only purpose of sex is reproduction (the ‘every sperm is sacred’ creed) and that with contraception immorality and lust abound without consequence.   To most of us that sounds hyper-prudish.    Most people think there isn’t anything really wrong with premarital sex; adultery and cheating are bad less because of the sex and more because of the betrayal and dishonesty.   But before the sexual revolution starting in the 60’s, that kind of moralism was common. People didn’t live to those ideals, but they at least felt they had to pretend to.

Quote four seems horribly sexist.   The idea women should stay home and men go to work reeks of the kind of family oppression women suffered for centuries.  He’s also wrong about his history.  The idea that children should be isolated to grow up with a parent staying in the household is a western invention.  Throughout history villagers, male and female, had to work to survive, and children in the villages were cared for by a group of women/mothers.   Day care is more natural to humans historically than isolation in the family unit.  By the 19th century male dominated society had become the norm, and women were expected to stay home and raise kids – in German Kinder, Kueche und Kirche – children, kitchen and church.    It’s only been in the last fifty years that women have started to achieve real equality in the work place — Santorum’s quote is anachronistic and sexist, yet until recently reflected what most people saw as normal and natural.

Quote five on gay marriage is similar.   Sex not in line with normal social norms was weird, perverse, and scary.   Two men having sex, sex with pigs or chickens, polygamy, that all got lumped together as sexual perversions.   The cultural shift on the issue of homosexual rights and gay marriage has been dramatic over the last fifty years, and very evident if you talk to young people today.   Young conservatives are not as closed on this as their elders – the culture has changed.

Pope Pius IX’s argument was that liberalism (at that time that meant democracy and free market capitalism) was destroying cultural norms, traditions, and the moral authority of the Church.   It would bring decadence, perversion, atheism, and nihilism.   Without something strong to believe in, without the moral authority of God through the Church, he argued, the material world and reason can give no sense of moral purpose – anything goes.   That would be chaos, anarchy, and ultimately destruction.

When you look at Santorum’s defense of his statements, it’s clear that’s what he’s seeing.   His world view reflects that of Pius IX, it’s not just petty bigotry against gays and women, but a principled (if misguided) view on the nature of society and morality.

But Pius lost that war.   He was right in some ways, of course.   Without tradition and a strong sense of Church authority  humans have done horrid things — communism, the holocaust, etc.    I myself have been a critic of runaway materialism, consumerism and a sacrifice of the spiritual for a mundane and ultimately dissatisfying materialist notion of the meaning of life.  Pius IX correctly saw the dangers and the potential emptiness that a path of individualism and radical freedom would lead to.

But that’s the path we took.   Most of us don’t want to go back.    Yes, there are real challenges in dealing with uncertainty, no clear guidelines to truth, and the lack of the social cohesion and community that once protected our mental health and self-esteem.   We’ve chosen a path that is psychologically, politically and spiritually very difficult.   We choose the path of freedom and knowledge, we partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and reason.

We can’t go back.   The world of Pius IX and by extension Santorum is gone.   I don’t believe Santorum is psychologically a bigot or homophobe, I think he’s reflecting a set of traditional beliefs that had such things embedded within them.    We had to work to show that those things were wrong and did harm to people, Santorum never learned that lesson.

This has been a weird political year.  There’s something surreal about such an anachronistic yet apparently honest and principled politician making it to this level in the year 2012.   It’s symbolic of the nostalgia that seems to have gripped the Republican party as it realizes the country has undergone radical cultural and demographic shifts in the past decades.   He will fade; he has to.    But what does it say about the state of the GOP that he can rise to such prominence, even with values so contrary to the social progress made in the last century and a half?

9 Comments

Disgusting Islamophobia

TLC is doing a reality show called American Muslim,  following five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan.   The show follows average Muslims living every day lives as cops, coaches and consumers — typical Americans.

Not for the Islamophobes!   Islamophobia is similar to the anti-semitism of the Nazi party in Germany before World War II.  It wants to posit Muslims as a different kind of people, not truly American – just as Jews were not truly German to the anti-semites.   They want to spread myths about Islam, making it sound like Sharia law is always some kind of horrific set of barbarian practices, that women are treated horribly, and every Muslim secretly wants the Taliban to come to power.

Not everyone who is concerned about Islamic extremism is an Islamophobe.   Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of Islam, usually present when people become convinced that Islam is an inherently anti-western anti-modern religion that can never co-exist with Western values.   Such a view is absurd when taking into account the history of Islam and the reality of Islam in America (or Europe).     Yes, there are extremist and irrational Muslims too — and it’s right to oppose them, and when a filmmaker is killed in the Netherlands or a terror act occurs in London, the religious element has to be dealt with openly and clearly.

However, true Islamophobia is as dangerous as anti-semitism was in Germany in the 20s and 30s and must be fought just as fervently as any of us would fight anti-semitism if we were transported to Germany in 1930.   It is the stuff of vile bigotry, a kind of evil that is fundamentally anti-American and ignorant.   Alas, it still has clout.

The big retail chain Lowe’s caved to pressure from an Nazi Islamophobic organization called “The Florida Family Association.”    Like the Nazis, this group’s irrational fear and hatred is not limited to Muslims, they are also homophobic, warning of a gay and Muslim “agenda”.  From their website:   “TLC’s “All-American Muslim” is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values. ”

Get that – seeing Muslims as average Americans is dangerous because it hides the “Islamic agenda.”   Just like how the Jewish agenda in Germany was put forth when Jews were seen as normal shopkeepers, scientists and artists.   It is morally equivalent and Lowe’s is doing the moral equivalent of caving to Nazi pressure.   According to the neo-fascist website for the Florida Family Association, Sweet-n-Low is also withholding sponsorship, as is Home Depot.

One might be tempted to cut them some slack because they are a Christian organization.  But the world view they espouse does not differ much from any fascist world view.   Hitler said he was fighting to save Germany from anti-German elements — not just Jews, but liberals, socialists, pacifists, internationalists and homosexuals, all of whom stood against traditional German values.   Fascists portray themselves as promoting strength, virtue, and wholesomeness.   They defend their violence as saying it is the true strong German (or, in the case of this group they’d say American or Christian) is unafraid to speak the truth about threats to society and willing to do what is necessary to counter them.  Violence and intolerance is to them a virtue.

For Hitler the battle in the 20s was a culture war for Germany’s soul, promoting fear of the diversity emerging in the 20th Century in order to get people to embrace what was sold as a return to strong German values.   The world view of this “Florida Family Association” is similar.  They want to protect American culture from Muslims, gays, liberals, and secular humanists.   The core of their ideology is fear of difference, and even though they are not yet espousing violence, once a group is defined as a danger to society and something different and even evil, the line to violence is much easier to cross.

But even if it doesn’t go as far as Nazism did, such fear-based bigotry is fundamentally anti-American and enables discrimination, prejudice and abuse against others.  It is fear of people based on the essence of who they are — their faith, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity.  As such it’s an anti-human ideology, one that must be countered.

The best way to do that is to contact Lowes, Home Depot, and Sweet and Low — and whoever else refuses to advertise on that show.   Tell them that their support of an anti-American boycott is despicable and unless their policy changes you’ll shop elsewhere.  Moreover, one should speak out and condemn this kind of organization and the fear that underlies its mode of operation.  Having studied German history in the 20s and 30s, I know that apathy — or a belief ‘well, they’re a bit extreme but they have a point’ — is extremely dangerous.   Finally, watch the TLC show and support advertisers who don’t cave to extremist pressure.

Most importantly, however, is in our every day life to support tolerance and mutual respect for all people.   Disrespect and opposition should be based on actions people take, not who they are or even what they believe.   This includes groups like the Florida Family Association.

One has to focus on the specific actions taken by that group, and not use their actions as an excuse to be bigoted against Christians or even those whose personal belief system is one that does not support Islam, gay marriage or homosexuality.  There is room for all kinds of beliefs in this country, and we can’t respond to bigotry with bigotry in return — that simply reinforces and deepens the intensity of bigotry.   Instead the focus has to be on countering their message and offering a positive alternative.

We have come a long way in ten years.   The country understands and accepts Islam far better now than it did then, and groups like this are on the periphery.   Let’s keep it that way.

33 Comments

On a Roller Coaster

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

In our honors course we discussed a few intriguing minds over the last week.   Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza and Blaise Pascal were to of the most fascinating, each dealing with the power of the unleashing of human reason in the 1600s alongside the loss of authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Baruch "Benedict" Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza (1632-77) was a determinist and philosophical monist, who died when he was only 45.   Pascal (1623 – 1662)  was a fideist and Jansenist who gave up his amazing scientific career at a young age to devout himself to religion.  He died when he was only 39.   They both lost their mothers when they were young, both lived in ill health, both were on the margins of their religion (Spinoza rejected by the Jewish community while Pascal’s Jansenism was ultimately branded heretical by the Pope).

Though each were responding to the Meditations of Rene Descartes, they went in different directions.   Spinoza maintained a strong rationalism, even while rejecting Descartes dualism of mind and spirit.  Pascal was the ultimate skeptic, noting that even contradiction did not prove something untrue (nor did lack of contradiction indicate truth).

Pascal without a doubt had the more impressive intellect.   His early scientific discoveries are amazing.   He is said to have invented the first computer, pioneered work in probability (he lived in a community where gambling was very popular), and once when we had an energy audit at our house the auditor measured air pressure in “Pascals” — a remnant from his early work on barometrics.  There is even a computer language named in his honor.

Ultimately he sacrificed his scientific career to use his intellect to use reason to destroy reason.   He was one of the first who understood that reason itself cannot be a path to truth and that ultimately it could undercut any argument.   He seemed to sense that Christianity’s embrace of reason might come to haunt it later.    He took Descartes skepticism but, while Descartes escaped it through his “first principle” (cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am), Pascal was unconvinced.   Overwhelmed by the absurdity of life, the superstition and pettiness of human nature, he decided that the only way to truth was through the heart.

Consider his rejection of the principle of contradiction.   That seems straight forward, if two things are in contradiction one of the two cannot be true.  I cannot be both human and not-human.  But Pascal’s skepticism extended to even the observations and logic that allows such linguistic constructions to be built.   You can never know through reason, reason devours itself.   But, he argued, through God’s grace you can know in your heart God’s love, and that will give one the perspective and understanding to live in an absurd world.   The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.  Fideism was faith, and faith alone, with a commitment to an Augustinian notion of grace.

Spinoza, on the other hand, rejected the notion that there was anything different about mind/spirit and body, and saw reality as being all the same stuff, positing a deterministic world decades before Newton’s physics provided the clockwork universe (though keeping with Descartes’ view on universal laws.)    Perhaps an atheist or maybe a pantheist, Spinoza saw of all reality reflecting God’s will unfolding by necessity in a path already perfect and predetermined.   Free will is an illusion; reality is.

Good and evil become relative for Spinoza, something is only good or bad relative to your experience of it; as part of the whole neither good nor evil exist, all is perfection.   Humans can drive themselves crazy worrying about what will happen next, what their life has in store, or fretting over some mistake or threat.   But all of that is pointless, nothing can be changed.   Perhaps the only thing one can do is train oneself not to be shaken or disquieted by how reality is unfolding; one must just accept it with the knowledge that it is as it must be.

It strikes me that the two very different philosophies have one thing in common: they want to make the ride of life more bearable.   For each, life is like a roller coaster.   For Spinoza it’s a ride that you cannot alter.  After you’re strapped in and the roller coaster starts going up the first hill, there is no way you can change your experience.   Every curve, dip and loop is pre-determined, you cannot stand, move or do anything until the ride stops.   What you can do is enjoy the ride, scream, be scared, hate the ride, be mad, or whatever — all that you control is how you respond.   For Spinoza life is like that, to experience life to the fullest one must accept it is as it must be.

Pascal sees the absurdity of human existence in the tumultuous 1600s, as well as the roller coaster ride of reason.   Reason can prove anything, given the right assumption and definition.   Yet it can destroy any proposition, no truth claim can be made in the abstract through reason; all empirical claims can be questioned.   Skepticism may annoy philosophers, but it’s powerful, especially if one extends it to being skeptical of even skepticism itself!

So absurd, humans using this tool “reason” to try to figure life out, yearning for the “right answer,” or a “first principle” upon which to build some edifice of knowledge.   Doomed to fail or be locked in delusion, the absurdity of the whole effort overwhelms Pascal who decided that faith alone is the key.   God’s grace saves us from this trap, the heart can understand clearly what the head cannot comprehend.   Faith provides meaning where reason is helpless.

It’s easy to dismiss these brilliant thinkers now.   Quantum mechanics throws Spinoza’s determinism for a loop (though it creates a capacity for free will to exist within Spinoza’s framework — we may be playing out one path in a pre-determined set of possible paths).    Pascal’s faith in God can be seen as seeking emotional solace.   Moreover Pascal’s famous wager (a metaphor used because of all the gamblers of his era) is thrown a curve by the existence of many potential Gods to believe in.

Yet the roller coaster ride is still here.   Pascal criticized the way people lived through distractions, afraid of asking the question “who am I” and “why am I here.”   He certainly would recognize the same tendency in our modern hectic consumer society where distraction is a way of life.    Looking beyond the distractions and asking those questions leads many to the same kind of solution Pascal embraced: faith.   It may not always be Christian faith, but its a belief in the heart that life matters.

It’s a shame that we so rarely take the time to think about our intellectual history and how philosophers and thinkers handled the changes that have been sweeping western civilization for a millennium, and which now confront other cultures and peoples.  Understanding Pascal and Spinoza — and others — gives us insight on core dilemmas we still face, and how people worked through them in the past.  It won’t answer the timeless questions, but will help us get insight into various ways the nature of our world can be understood.  It is enriching and enlightening.

5 Comments