Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Evil In the Absence of Conversation

Not a day passes without each of us confronting the problem of evil.  We witness human beings in the name of their particular brand of religion commit atrocities and then acts of nearly incomprehensible altruism.  Both sorts of behavior are routinely attributed to religious motivations, ideas, and doctrines.  To say that those acts for worse are not truly religious or true to religion is but another religious claim that religion is only about being good.  Write over the human shadow whenever you can and religion will suffice to explain that evil is deviance and goodness our true project.  How’s that working out?

That people portray themselves as religious and as acting for religious reasons is enough evidence that we should take their version of religion seriously.  I am not unsympathetic to President Obama’s defensive admonitions that ISIL and other Islamic terrorists do not represent “true” Islam, especially in light of the demagogues of the Right who would use religion and their religion as a justification for their own barbaric claims and punitive “remedies.”  The President is incorrect about his parameters of “true” and “false” religion but let us not give any more succor to the incendiary forces than is necessary.  Senator Cruz last night advocated “patrolling” Muslim neighborhoods.  Mr. Trump concurred 100%.   (You can’t make this up so there is no particular reason to pause here to cite their specifics.)

If you are not appalled, I think you’ll find in your religion a reason to agree with them.  You wouldn't need to be religious to be appalled.  But surely religion provides every reason we need for nearly anything we want.  We’re still left struggling to explain the facts of evil and by that we mean the contumacious intention to inflict suffering on others.   When religion is posited as the remedy rather than the cause of such infliction we’re just as liable to dismal results as we are to saintly responses.  We needn’t be religious to enact either but religion more often than not comes into play.

Fewer people are asking me, the University Religion Professor, how millions of Americans take the likes of Donald Trump or Senator Cruz to be persons with the seriousness, judgment, and temperament to be President of the United States.  We all seem to know that people can be that angry, embittered, and willing to act punitively and violently against our fellow humans.  Last night hundreds of thousands voted again for Mr. Trump and for Senator “Patrol the Neighborhoods” Cruz for the leader of the “free” world.  Putatively sober politicians, like Jeb Bush, have now endorsed Cruz in an effort to stop Trump.  It’s hard to reason but not difficult to believe.  Belief is nearly always an impediment to better thinking.

I’ve written before about this and defer to the many fine pieces of political punditry addressing historical circumstances and our political failures.  But few have waded into our religious ineptitude as contributing to the failure to explain our selves.  In America we can simply be religious, our failures to explain sensibly can be devoutly riveted to theological stupefactions protected by 1st Amendment speech.

We are free to be as invincibly injudicious about religion as we choose to be within the confines of secular law.  And too often rabid sanctimony decides that particular religious postulates can preclude and preempt secular law, the kind where we the people are supposed to agree to govern ourselves.  Calls to round up the usual suspects provide news ratings that the 4th Estate seems unwilling to denounce and makes for “good politics” among the rabble.  What is left to offend any shard of remaining decency in an age where freedom means freed from and free to say anything?  We wouldn’t need religion to create any self-restraint either but does anyone think religion is not as much a part of the problem as it would be any remedy?

Religion providing the reasons people act not merely believe is not only real, it is often dangerous, and almost always difficult to discuss in America.  Without a serious conversation we humans are left merely to feel.  And that, as I will propose later, is no small part of the problem.  We’re not very good about taking about peoples’ religions or their religious motivations without falling into the usual impotencies of our unshared discourse.  A brilliant colleague of mine once jested that we need a Dr. Ruth Show for religion because the rest is pornography: people just doing it bereft of more serious reflections of value or worth.

I might further suggest that religious explanations have similarly failed us, not only because we Americans have such a desultory attention span for the subject of religion or because it is sequestered under the privacies insured by the 1st Amendment.  (Are they really?)  It is also the hollowness of our favored historical religions’ discourse that provides such inadequate explanation.

Let me be plain about what I just said in case I failed the usual tests of philosophers and theologians to be transparent.  But first: a thought-twister.  Never has so much been written about so little that is so important and has still failed us.  The ‘much written’ is theology, the ‘so little’ that is ‘so important’ is evil in the name of religion, and that theology has failed us is simple enough: its explanations for evil are not only anachronistic but further crippling our ability to think about the problem.  Western religion particularly is approaching insolvency in lieu of more modern abundant, can we say, honest understandings of our human origins and what lies within our nature.  And this is not for the lack of exuberant, copious rhetoric.  I am professionally aware of how many books are in theological libraries and how poorly the theologians serve us.  An ever-so brief review here.

Explanations of good versus evil are imprints of Western religious and cultural history modeled on fundamental claims about human nature: we are disobedient of God’s law, we have “fallen” from original grace and now miss our mark, the more literal sense of “sin.”  Once we were good and now, not so much.  We have only ourselves to blame (this is the good news) but the remedy is the source of goodness itself: God has provided. There is an intrinsic goodness (even if it’s not us) but first we require redemption (Christians) or better yet, surrender (Islam), well, if we could only just follow the rules (Judaism).   My point is that there is no lack of reasons “explaining” why good people do bad things or why bad things happen to good people.  There are whole professions devoted to the subject, and with them their own traditions and institutions.  We are loathe to decry religions’ inadequacies because we might offend adherents or sound presumptuous because religions have been so durable.  The religious seem to have survived enough of themselves to perpetuate their explanations.  God help us.

The “problem of evil” (the fancy term is “theodicy”) is everybody’s problem while we professionals charged to propose the better reasoning have particularly failed.  The problem isn’t merely a lack of clear thinking, rather it’s working with models that assert claims about humanity rather than derive them from the evidence.  Lemme make this clear too by way of contrast.  Evolution is a true theory not because it begins with an assertion about nature but because the evidence leads us to the model of explanation, a theory that derives from the evidence.  Arguments “from design” are the other way around: first there is the assertion that there is a Designer (aka God) and things proceed from there.  This kind of “theorizing” can be similarly criticized even in historians of religions like the great Mircea Eliade who told us first there is this reality called The Sacred.  From that claim there is somehow shared empirical (repeated, verifiable, subject to revision in further assessment) evidence of The Sacred we can discover as the true source of all religions.  Why consider an alternative explanation when all you need is faith in The Sacred.  (I am not making up the Capital Letter Thing either.  Professor Eliade’s editors seemed to let it pass as less than a capital offense.)

Just how we study evidence makes all the difference.  Eliade, like his Protestant doppleganger Rudolf Otto before him, create religious models insofar as the assertion, the premise is taken to be a self-evident truth (there is, you see, This Sacred Thing), which the evidence must then invariably go on to verify.  Are we encouraged, nay, required first to doubt that premise?  And what are we to do with the evidence that does not fit the model other than secure some further reason to verify the model?  Could there be a more plausible alternative explanation posited?  One that might better explain the evidence?  Right.  I didn’t think so either.  Religions don’t take kindly to explanations that don’t accede to their assertions, their beliefs first.  Faith follows because reasoned contrariety is only admitted if you concede to faith as a category of knowing.  Really?  In the 21st century faith can be knowing?  None of this is news.  Much less good news.

For the sake of full disclosure and with a keen sense of my own self-validating participation in the long and storied failure of such theological enterprise to explain reality adequately, allow me another moment of glib overgeneralization about the history of religions and human nature. 

In some examples of south Asian religions ---and I am happy to overstate the case just for the sake of a few pages of thinking aloud--- the basic assumptions about human nature are derived from shared empiricism about nature itself.  The process of arriving at the shared assumption (what is called siddha in the argument) is no small matter but rather must be first stated.  (Sanskrit student wonks should look, for example, at the opening sentence of Shankara’s Brahmasutrabhasya.)   We have to have a common human experience rather than accede to a claim.  Crucial distinction.  We have to agree that all humans cannot refute the basic assumption.  Next, we are not asked what makes humans different from other sentient beings but rather what all sentient beings must share in common.  There will be plenty of time spent looking for the distinctive-feature of human-being-ness but we can forego that quixoticy for the moment because such claims are typically unhelpful.  However, there is something here that can, I think, actually help us with our need to explain ourselves, especially because we feel and believe and then behave very, very badly.

The common assumption that directs our explanation is simple enough: sentient life desires and all information about being human flows from that fact.  Should we begin here in desire rather than in goodness, sin, law, or God’s plan, we begin to create an alternative explanation for our least edifying selves.

Desire is no mere slippery slope.  Rather it defines our embodied sentience as a persistent state of crisis.  Catastrophe is but a few sleepless nights or missed meals away.  On the heels of the ever-impending crisis of desire is fear and with that the precipitous devolution into anger, hatred, greed, delusion, and the rest.  We get what we want and it’s not enough, or we don’t get what we want and that’s too much bear.  But either way, as the Buddhas, Siddhas, et. al., have reminded us, desire is not a strange feature of sentient nature that causes us to fail or succeed, it is our very nature.  We live as imminent, even menacing, expressions of the crisis of desire.  Of course, the religious will then offer up some or another form of Ultimate remedy and solution.  (NB in the form of gratuitous advice: it is best to run away as fast as possible from any such capital-letter charlatans and their dozy elixirs.)  But notwithstanding how the chimerical and romantic impulse interjects itself into the messy business of “solving” the human condition to offer Ultimate solutions (liberation, nirvana, etc.), I would suggest that these traditions ---in stark contrast to the mainstream Western religions--- have indeed nailed the diagnosis. 

We want just like all living things want.  And that slope is not so much slippery as it is steep and then steeper until the crisis of our desire becomes a willingness to act in ways that satisfy those desires.  The other emotions and experiences follow from that first feeling: towards or away, attracted or averred, we want something.  Can we solve the crisis of desire?  Only at the cost of being human, of being alive.  Can human beings desire to inflict pain on others?  Do we really need a justification of evil to explain that?  What we need is to recognize (again) that our wants write over our needs as a matter of fact.  Religion, like politics, is more often the triumph of ideology over reality for the worse and occasionally too for better.

Monday, March 21, 2016

No Matter What Time It Is, It's the Dark Night of the Soul Somewhere

This afternoon I took two hours off to celebrate my mom. It’s five months to the day since she passed. I'm a mess and I’m sure I will never “get over” this loss.  Why should I?  What would that mean?  I give myself permission to feel everything and every single day I miss her more.  But we talk, meaning I talk out loud to her.  And I do things that make me love her memory and think about our lives.  Without the slightest conception of an afterlife, I remain centered on the things we shared. There is nothing heroic about these feelings but for the fact that vulnerability is never something we can transcend.  This being human has its own terms.

So I took out a beautiful cast iron skillet that mom only used for preparing eggplant parm---our very favorite dish--- and that her mother, my feisty little Italian gramma Anna Marie Giordano, used for only the same purpose.  My grandmother was a member of the United Ladies Garment Workers Union, she worked as a seamstress her whole life, made it through as a single mom excommunicated by the Catholic Church in the 1930s with three little girls, and, oh my, could she sing too.  She chain-smoked Pall Mall filterless and worked in a factory that I still remember vividly --- I would go running through aisles and aisles of sewing machines in Paterson, New Jersey to find her.  I knew right where gramma held forth amidst her friends and apprentices. She was a profile in courage, real courage.  Imagine living in a cold-water flat, evicted every three months during the Great Depression, and living as a divorced Italian woman in New Jersey.  What sort of strength and decency do you need just to survive?  And my mom was very much the same. Where do people find such inner character?

To bring a sensory memory to my day of tears, I made the eggplant for supper while my wife Susan was busy in her art studio.  I played hooky from University today but I am happy to report that I’ll soon be back to reading a real page-turner called Scholastic Sanskrit.  You can skip it if you like.  We all have our jobs.  But I did have a thought about why this Trump Thing has caught on with a certain constituency of Angry White Americans, especially men.

Frying up the breaded eggplant in olive oil (slow, low heat), I watched John Ford’s 1959 civil war movie The Horse Soldiers starring none other than John Wayne and William Holden. I think both are indeed brilliant in this campy love story about death and devastation that is without much real blood or, for that matter, any realism---it was 1959 and this is the movies. There were a few opportunities to very indirectly raise the issue of slavery but nothing too serious.  Holden at one point says something like, “I would help but you Southerners apparently have your own help.”  It was about as clear and direct as this John Ford western could allow.  You take what you can get from such a sordid past of denial, false adjuration, and phony solicitations of decency.  How badly it fails, how corrupt and inept that effort is to address these real issues of American history and the exploitations of society cannot be excused or overlooked, but that it was then and is now still so feebly and careless addressed is essential to my point---which is coming.  Are you still there with me?

Somewhere not far below ordinary awareness, not even in my subconscious, I saw in The Horse Soldiers the Trump Phenomenon, like déjà vu all over again.  A friend this morning pointed me to an article in The Washington Post about how Secretary Clinton can convincingly win the Presidency (because she will be the nominee, no matter who you are rooting for...), without a majority of white men. (‪ She can even do worse than Democrats did in 2012 and still win decisively, even easily. Political science is a helpful thing, albeit sobering like much else that involves coping with facts. Reading this article, thinking about the difficult lives of the powerful women in my life ---my grandmother, mom, my wife Susan who I can still hear working away down in that studio---I thought again about the power, the inevitability, the need for the heroic narrative.

American men, white men, maybe all men, maybe all human beings need their own heroic narrative.  We need to feel and be part of a story that takes us not only to our nobility but also to our anger and our rebellion against the forces, any forces that thwart us.  We must stand up and stand for something that speaks to our power--- not to virtue but to power--- and so beyond our real helplessness.  We need to feel like we can do something about “it,” no matter how much of the problem or the solution is rooted in fantasy.  We need to fantasize assertions of self-stature and expressions of personal pluck, to defeat fears of diminishment, failures of procurement and protection, and the very real loss of power. For America’s white men centuries of dominance, privilege, and victory have given way to the subconscious recognition that all of those prerogatives, entitlements, and charters are fast disappearing. The Washington Post article makes it perfectly clear that by the numbers, these former alphas are now flaccid remnants of masculine power and largely irrelevant in the present and to the future.

The crush, the bitter pill, the ensuing ego-fiasco that this is precipitating as declination gives way to childhood JohnWayne-esque memories, those Horse Soldier Days when men were men, when it was “morning in America” remaking the fantasy of Reagan's No Apologies, No Regrets Phony Palaver.  And that, that too is gone because it was always the chimera of hero’s narrative whose fabrication is now played out in fantasy scenarios and Cliven Bundy Scenes from a Real Bad Western. Trump's ludicrous inanity is irrelevant, much like Wayne's bombast dialogue in The Horse Soldiers: what is important is to feel like the hero again.

There’s a new Geico commercial playing during the current season of The Vikings on The History Channel that captures the ludicrous objectification of the Heroic Narrative Syndrome. Three men ---one with a football jersey beneath his getup, another with a garbage can lid on his back to look like a Viking shield--- are raiding the refrigerator. The commercial starts with them making Viking-esque roars, their faces all painted, one even emulating Floki's eyeliner. The wife busts them, turning on the kitchen light, and exposing their jejune vagary.  More importantly there is the diminished narrative. White men again in diminished masculinity mode, being here Silly Boys, but nonetheless cut down to size again. Even if you have never seen the blood and guts of The Vikings replete as it is with faux-Scandanavian English inflections and powerful women being powerful, look here for this commercial.  It is yet another nail in the coffin of the Heroic Narrative Syndrome:  ‪  You won't be disappointed.

We all know that the Old John Wayne Bullshit would have never assented to such a comic makeover or allowed itself to be registered as a chucklehead, but since the '80s the Bumbling Inept Father As Seen On TV has produced a steady stream of revisionary male identity. And now the White Man is in revolt. He has found his hero: The Trump.  Not as a person, but as a voice, a fantasy to act out, a President of the United States?  It has devolved to that.  And turning to The Trump is indeed a way of reacting to the need for bluster, swagger, putting on yer inner rebel yell.  We are all rebels when we fear our power is beyond our authority and rather than cower, we humans act out, much like children in meltdown.  And if you think there's no parallel on the other side, I suggest that the BernieBurnouts, especially among certain white millennials, are now proclaiming their willingness to fall on their Bernie Light Sabers because the Evil Empire Equivalent of Republicans is none other than Senator Clinton.  Alas, more infantilized reveries of Principle At Any Cost to make up their narrative needs in yet another version of Heroic Narrative Syndrome.

To fall into the Syndrome is to not only to believe your fantasies, delusions, and memes, it is to act them out, first in social media or some other interactive virtual reality and then, if you can, somewhere in the real world.  Trump rallies are perfect scenarios.  Republicans see this without much recognition of the beast they have created in their own political base: unable to control them from acting out the proverbial HNS, cultivated and nurtured since Saint Ronnie, but with plenty of JohnWayne precedents.   The principal actors in this emotional opera are White Men buying more guns and suing for concealed carry while even going to the Post Office, declaring that the 2nd Amendment trumps all others because carrying a gun is a real world way of feeling heroic.  Unconcealing nascent racism is another version of castle protection and marking territory (re: the wall, the Oregon bird refuge fiasco), and yet another form of pissing on fire hydrants when you are losing power.

The problem is hardly new---The Vikings makes the point just fine in that fantasy-is-reality way--- but it is indeed tragic and dangerous. That John Wayne movie this afternoon was all too instructive.  There is little chance that this generation of Newly Disempowered White Men will adjust to a far different world than their youthful imaginations have already provided.  But it is just as true that we will all need a new narrative of Heroes and Heroines.  What will they do when Secretary Clinton is President Clinton?  I think of my grandmother and mom and my wife when I ask myself what that narrative needs to look like for me.  I'm pretty sure we humans can't live without a heroic story about ourselves, however vain that may be.  We came into the world that way: needing a story that provides enough vanity to buffet the indignities of our true vulnerabilities.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Prisoner's Dilemma, Or Why the President's Still Got Game

There is nothing between civility and anarchy but the law. And that is at best a mere gossamer of hope.  One can argue that American culture in its most inspirited expression is defined by our willingness to create legal justice.  We have a long way to go, no doubt.  But without the law, what are we?  Who are we but for the law?  As a “people” Americans are too diverse, too complex socially, religiously, and culturally to be any one people but for the law.   What we share is the political and what we are as Americans depends wholly on the ways we are protected and defended by the law.  Today’s comment on politics and the Supreme Court follows here. 

Yesterday during a 12 hour car ride I heard plenty of progressive radio voices roiling in speculation that the President had cut a deal with Republican Senators to have Chief Judge Garland confirmed to the Supreme Court during the lame duck session.  Today ( Senator McConnell made clear no such confirmation would happen and so gave the President yet another important political victory.  The President played a brilliant card: Judge Garland is not the choice of most progressives but his chances of even getting a hearing are now zero, as is his confirmation.  It is officially a case of the sacrificial lamb and Judge Garland’s dignity and decency will remain in tact, perhaps even elevated given the way his dismissal reveals further the insipidity of the Republican’s judgment.  Judge Garland is obviously the best any conservative Senator could hope for. And he will not be on the Court. Senator McConnell today said no to any confirmation under this President, furthering only their stated policy that everything President Obama does or says must be rejected outright.  But alas this may yet come home to roost more than a few of their chickens.

The new President-elect will withdraw Judge Garland's nomination. Bet on that. So why has Senator McConnell taken to this particular hypocrisy?  He has said the people’s voice needs to be heard ---has it?--- while Republican leadership means to thwart their own people’s voices who have given the majority of delegates to Donald Trump.  The sound of treacle you hear here is more than simple hypocrisy.  It has wrapped itself in an alternative universe governed by casuistry and delusion.  Does Senator McConnell really think that the current debacle of Presidential nominees stands the ghost of a chance come November?  Of course he does.  Living in the phantasmical bubble is the norm.  Do remember Karl Rove’s panicked disbelief on Fox News when it was announced last time that Romney had lost Ohio and the election ---and went on to lose the popular vote by 5.5 million.  There is no limit to the way a human narrative of conviction can overwrite reality.  One might say that politics is, like religion, the triumph of ideology over reality.

So of course McConnell is caught in an ideological double bind. Having stoked nothing but Obama illegitimacy for seven years, McConnell must feed the beast that is the Republican base. That same base if voting for Trump and Cruz and, having been feasted on the memes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck and Co. for the past twenty years suffers from incurable misapprehension.  Thus the pure politics of not riling the now uncontrollable base makers requires this level of further obduracy. However, such a Republican refusal to act stands to hurt only the Republican Senators seeking re-election in WI/NH/PA/IL, the most purple/blue of States that are up this year. So while McConnell seeks to preserve his power in the Senate by pandering to his base, he puts the most vulnerable Republican Senators in further jeopardy.  McConnell saves himself and his Red State pals but hangs the “liberal” Republican Senators out to dry.  Senator Kirk meet newly elected Senator Tammy Duckworth, ‘cause you are now a Tea Party footnote.  And so on.

Thank goodness the Majority Leader is so easily gamed by the President. By rejecting a lame duck confirmation in advance, McConnell makes another mistake by putting progressive minds at ease.  There is no conspiracy and President Obama gets the self-satisfaction of being the guy who always wants to appear in his own reckoning as the fair one.  So rather than choose a person of greater social diversity and more liberal, Mr. Obama gets to have it both ways.  He can appear ever the conciliator ---this is what former community activists and Harvard Law Review President do---and stick it to the Republicans knowing that they will invariably do the imbecilic thing.  The next President, be that Clinton or Sanders (note bene: it will be Clinton), will surely nominate a far more liberal justice(s) when the Republicans could have had Garland. They can see this coming but still live in the delusion they might win the Presidency? Only if Democrats don't vote for their nominee, no matter who it is. All that is left is to get out the vote in these Senate races and demonstrate that Republican claims to being “Constitutionalists” is only more legerdemain. The Supreme Court is the single most important issue for the next 25 years ---and we could have a liberal majority if the people simply vote.  Well done, Mr. Obama.