Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Eve, 2005: An E-mail Exchange With a Right-Wing Friend in NY

May you and your family have an enjoyable Thanksgiving, and remember to keep the troops in your prayers. -- Howie

Howie--I am sincerely thankful that we have a strong military, and that there are thousands and thousands of Americans, young and not-so-young, who are willing to give their lives for what they believe in. I am sincerely thankful that we are a nation founded on Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, sovereignty vested in the PEOPLE, and religious freedom. I am sincerely thankful that we have a tradition--a very Christian tradition, by the way--of sacrifice for the sake of the "tired, poor, and huddled masses" who yearn to be free. I am thankful for so many things, not just at this time of year, but always, and these things are constantly in my prayers of thanks to God.

I hold in utter contempt, however, "leaders" who abuse the sacred trust given them by the PEOPLE to use military force only when it is necessary to protect American values. I hold in utter contempt "leaders" who distort and in some cases ignore those very values in the name of "security." I hold in utter contempt leaders who put the needs--in reality, in most cases, the wants--of corporations and the wealthy over the overwhelming needs of the PEOPLE. I hold in utter contempt leaders who lie, manipulate, and break laws--yes, even international laws--to further the goals of global capitalism.

I am thankful, though, that I see evidence that my faith in America and my hope for its future is not "mere" naive idealism. I am thankful that my belief that the PEOPLE, fully informed about what is going on in the world, will choose the right course, that they may be persuaded, in contempt of their sacred trust, by lies, but that once in possession of truth, they will not maintain a rigid orthodoxy. I am thankful not so much for being an American (although I am indeed thankful for that), but for being a member of the human race, blessed by God, for no good reason, with human intelligence and critical reasoning abilities, and thankful that more and more human beings are ackowledging and using these gifts.

I am thankful, too, to God for the awesome gift of your friendship, and you and Maria and your family will be in my prayers of thanksgiving this year, as always.

But my prayers of thanksgiving this year, as always, will be tempered not by false patriotism, but by a clear view of reality. There is no free lunch--EVER. If we have inordinate gifts in America--and we do--it cannot be without the sacrificies of others, voluntary or involuntary. If Americans hold and control a disproportionate share of the world's wealth--and we do--this is an injustice that we should not be thankful for, and for which, if we leave the situation untouched, we will have to answer for to that same God we will thank tomorrow. It is sacrilegious, I think, to thank God for gifts won unjustly. Read John Paul II's 1987 encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis. Please read it. I also urge you to buy and read Jacques Ellul's The Presence of the Kingdom. I have used this text in classes many times. The students, after four weeks of reading, discussing, and arguing over this book, are always exhausted and down-hearted. They enter a state of utter denial. They are threatened, and feel the effects of disrupted and subverted cultural assumptions. This is the first step to real learning.

And I will say once again this Thanksgiving a prayer I say every day--many times every day--which comes from the Gospel of Luke (chapter 18, verses 9-14). Here is the passage. See if you can find the prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

I pray that you will be as good as your word (for you believe that America is a "Christian" nation) and take Jesus's words to heart. Read it. Think about it. Really think about it. We have a long way to go before we can ever legitimately call ourselves a "Christian nation."

I love you, Howie. Happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Welcome to the New Medieval Era

The late Neil Postman, in his 1999 book, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, stood with us at the threshold of a new millennium and advised us what ideas and institutions that arose during the age of the Enlightenment we might want to consider taking with us into the 21st century. Not a decade later, we find ourselves approaching not a new Enlightenment, but a new medieval era.

Consider the following propositions:

  • Democracy, based on the free and uninhibited flow of information, liberty of thought, and freedom of speech, is quietly being replaced by “Mediacracy,” a system whereby an elite group of people either control the media, or control enough wealth to make the media an instrument to achieve their goals. Like kings, princes, and their counselors, Presidents come and Presidents go, as do Senators, Congressional Representatives, and Governors; but the ruling Mediacracy of corporations and their stockholders remains. Without enough wealth to buy a stout bullhorn, anyone of the peasantry who clings to the notion of “freedom of speech” is just mouthing empty rhetoric.

  • Information is the province of the elite, not the masses. In the middle ages, only the elite were educated to be leaders; only aristocrats and nobility were taught the classics of philosophy – Plato’s “Republic,” Aristotle’s “Poetics,” “Politics,” “Ethics,” and “de Anima,” the works of Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas. The (narrow but constantly squeezed) “middle class” of bureaucrats and administrators were taught to read and write, but only in order to do their jobs – genuine critical thought was neither required not desired. The peasantry was entirely illiterate. What they don’t know, the elite mused, won’t hurt us.

  • Warfare is rampant and irrational. Medieval wars were fought over expansion of “turf,” over control of resources, or over religious differences. There were no wars fought, like the American Revolution, like the US Civil War, like World War II, on the basis of transcendent ideas, like “liberty,” “justice,” “equality,” or “popular sovereignty.”

  • One pledged one’s allegiance to no particular flag, constitution, or transcendent value, but to whoever kept you alive. In an age of constant fear and existential uncertainty, security was valued far beyond transcendent principles, because there were none. Torture and public executions were the norm (see medieval woodcut of waterboarding, above), and widely supported by the people. Who cares about the essential liberty of the human person when you fear for your life?

  • Armies belonged not to nations, but to aristocracies. There were no constitutions that demanded civilian control that was ultimately answerable to THE PEOPLE. No soldiers held allegiance to a nation or idea; all instead swore fealty to their overlord. That is to say, they were essentially “independent contractors.”

  • The nobility led lives of profligacy and hedonism, but made sure they were crowned and anointed by the Church. They thwarted true spirituality at every turn for the benefit of military and political advantage and, to be fair, the Church played along with the game in order to keep the protection of the sovereign.

  • Science floundered. The world was flat.

We seem, in the last seven years, to have built a bridge to neither the 21st nor the 18th centuries, but to the twelfth.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Postmodern President

Postmodernism is a peculiar thing.

There is no reality in the postmodern mindset other than my reality (or yours, or yours, or yours). All perception is subjective; all opinions are personal. Truth is not only impossible; it is counterproductive, oppressive, and intolerant. Who, after all, is to say what is true and what is not true? If something is true for me, it is true for me; your truth is your truth. As long as no one gets hurt, “it’s all good.”

Words, postmodernism tells us, are illusory and cannot express the truth. To expect that is to expect the impossible. The value of a word (or a phrase, or a sentence, or a text) cannot reside in its ability to embody truth; rather we measure the value of words by what they can accomplish, who they help and who they hurt.

Absolute values are an illusion. There can’t be absolute, universal values because objectivity is an oppressive social construct; otherwise, I might have to admit I’m wrong or take responsibility for my error.

“Grand narratives,” those mythic stories cultures tell themselves to explain who they are and why they believe the things they believe, are hurtful. They define us, and thereby limit us. They infringe on our fundamental freedom to grow, to change, to be who we want to be.

In the postmodern world – in the postmodern mind – everything is “real” and nothing is real.

And so it is in this context that we have encountered the Presidency of George W. Bush, our first postmodern President. Examples:

Science? Well, postmodernism says that scientific knowledge is nothing more than a function of the symbol system used to understand it, and therefore rejects the notion of a scientifically knowable reality. The Bush administration has been right on top of this, rejecting Kyoto, hiring industry-sponsored “scientists” to challenge global warming, championing creation “science.”

Truth? Well, being entirely personal and subjective, truth is whatever you say it is, right? For something to be “true,” it only has to make sense to me, to have meaning for me, to be useful to me. The Bush administration’s got subjectivity covered. Saddam had WMDs. Forget what the International Atomic Energy Agency, former US Weapons Inspectors, and US intelligence Agencies said. He had them. Links to al Qa’ida? They were there. Yellowcake uranium from Niger? Bingo. Nuclear program? You betcha.

Grand narratives, like the Enlightenment narrative upon which the US is founded, and which is enshrined – precariously – in our Constitution? Sovereignty vested in the people? Sure – but let’s make it difficult for some of the people to vote, or even to register. Privacy? Absolutely. Except right now, and for the next few generations, while we fight this “long war.” Due process of law? Yep. Except right now, and for the next few generations while we fight this “long war.” Protection from illegal search and seizure? Oh, yes! Except right now, while we fight…but you get the picture.

You say you don’t agree with the Bush administration? You’re intolerant. You object to wars that are based on forgeries, cherry-picked intelligence, and fabricated conspiracies? You hate America. You think that there ought to be a clear boundary between science and faith? You’re an elitist trying to maintain a privileged position of power by oppressing the weaker masses. You believe in liberty, justice, equality, truth, and the rule of law? You’re a mindless “Bush hater.”

Postmodernists, beware: as you sow, so shall you reap...