Sunday, December 31, 2006

Big Business

A Year to Suspend Disbelief - New York Times

AS 2006 recedes and investors ponder another round of amazing events in the business world, one theme keeps recurring. It was a year when truth was more audacious than fiction. A hedge fund loses $6 billion in a week. A chief executive receives an $82 million pension after his company loses billions in shareholder value. A board chairwoman snoops on her fellow directors and journalists. Authorities discover that a throng of executives have spent years shifting stock option dates to fatten already-bulging paychecks.

Not one of these scenes would have been credible had it appeared in a novel. Real life, however, is another matter. And in 2006, investors had to suspend their disbelief almost daily.

What's the matter with Kansas, again. Here are wasteful, incompetent, crooked CEOs with multimillion dollar compensation packages, bonuses, stock options and perks, trashing stockholders, spying on employees and looting their firms. But no one's down on Business as such in the way that they're down on Government as such. And no one takes Jeffrey Skilling, the Enron CEO who wiped out employees' retirement funds by his shenanigans as representative of business people in the way that they take Ward Churchill who, by comparison, got chicken-feed in salary and lecture fees for pretending to be an American Indian as representative of academics.

So why do Americans regard the corporate execs who raid the cookie jar as a few bad apples who don't reflect adversely on Business but jump on crooked politicians and academics as typical of the institutions they represent?

My conjecture is that it comes from a bias against institutions and expertise, and a fantasy picture of business. For all that Enron was in the news, and in spite of the fact that most Americans work for big businesses, when you say "business" to Americans they still imagine Jim Anderson's insurance agency and the little druggist on Main Street. That why W could persuade millions of working class Americans who had no chance of inheriting taxable estates, that the "Death Tax" was a plot against America. Jim wouldn't be able to pass his insurance agency down to Bud and Dobie would never inherit the Gillis grocery store.

Americans aren't pro-business--they're anti-big, anti-institutional and anti-bureaucratic. Even if they buy insurance online and shop at Walmart, "business" still immediately conjures up the the Anderson insurance agency, Gillis grocery and a live voice at the other end of the phone. Government immediately suggests legions of remote, faceless bureaucrats, red-tape, phone-trees, arbitrary regulations and impersonal treatment--the DMV. And politicians who are virtually logical constructions by groomers and trainers out of the data extracted from focus groups--photo-shopped and lip-synching.

Democrats gotta fix this.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Toward Freedom - Behind European Governments%u2019 Veil of Deceit

This poses a very serious question. Why are a marginal number of Muslim women wearing the burqa, being targeted for possible legal precedents?...This is racism in its simplest form. Such a ruling will undoubtedly have a domino effect across Europe, with Italy eagerly waiting in the wings. Although France and Turkey are infamous for curtailing religious freedoms, other European nations have not gone unnoticed...Buzz terms such as ‘assimilation’, ‘integration’ and the barrier to social ’cohesion’ are constantly being flouted to mask the media’s true motives of injecting the fabricated war of ‘us against them’ to the public, reminiscent of the George Bush school of thought.

Right now I'm writing a section of my book on veiling.

Here's a conundrum: do proposed policies banning or discouraging some of the more spectacular forms of Islamic dress promote segregation or undermine it? Do they curtail individual freedom or expand it?

The core issue as I see it is the conflict of interests between individuals who want to assimilate and those who want to remain separate, between cultural preservationists and integrationists. And there is no free ride. Women wearing veils make ethnicity more salient, they make it harder for individuals who are ethnically tagged by the color of their skin or other markers to be perceived as plain, generic citizens rather than members of a special cultural group. So veiling, and other practices that display cultural identity, set back the interests of individuals who do not want to be identified with ancestral cultures.

The bottom line is that veiling is voluntary but ethnic identification isn't: you can take of the veil but you can't take off the color of your skin. So veiled women and other cultural preservationists, by their voluntary actions, lock others who happen to look like them, into cultural identities that they can't avoid.

For comparison consider this: suppose women demand extended maternity leave. That's a choice on their part. But it's a choice that sets back my interests because it leads employers to believe that they will have to make expensive accommodations for women who are likely to demand maternity leave. I can't dissociate myself from these women--being female isn't voluntary--and their behavior reflects on me. Their freedom impinges on my freedom and restricts my opportunities.

It would be nice if everyone treated everyone "as an individual" but that isn't the way it works. The religious freedom issue is pure bs. There is no fabricated war of "us against them." The war is between those of us who want to join the mainstream, and those with whom we're inextricably linked by unchosen characteristics--by sex or race--who don't and selfishly pursue their interests at our expense.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Episcopalians Are Reaching Point of Revolt - New York Times
It’s a huge amount of mess,” said the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, who is aligned with the conservatives. “As these two sides fight, a lot of people in the middle of the Episcopal Church are exhausted and trying to hide, and you can’t. When you’re in a family and the two sides are fighting, it affects everybody.

”It's more of the usual--now 8 churches occupying prima real estate in the Diocese of Virginia are pulling out because of the current dispute over the ordination of active homosexuals. And there will be mega-litigation. And women will be the big losers in this one. Most Americans by the end of the 20th century had no objections to women's ordination. But the Episcopal Church insisted on packaging women's ordination together with together with gay ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions and a whole host of other revisionary doctrines and practices that were part of what, for convenience and in the spirit of bitter irony, might be called The Liberation Agenda, in which there is something for everyone to hate.

Now that the sexuality issue has become a cause to rally the troops, and various ultra-conservative third world bishops have taken up the cause, people who had no objection to women's ordination are getting on board with the opposition. People who had no objection to women's ordination will join this consortium. Most gays in the Episcopal Church will also lose out because of the split too. When it happens, neither of the churches that survive the fission will be viable.

On the one side there will be a church that's been religiously gutted, a generic liberal Protestant denomination led by politically correct atheists catering to a religiously indifferent clientele for whom the church is no more than a community center or civic organization. Like all such churches, it will continue its genteel decline--in this case pushed onto the fast track by legal expenses, loss of revenue and bad publicity. On the other side the malcontents' rainbow coalition will form a church too conservative for most of its members' tastes which, like all rainbow coalitions unified only by opposition, will fall apart once it is no longer in opposition.

Why did this happen? Every liberal, mainline denomination as been dealing with sexuality issues for decades and isn't experiencing this meltdown. What's the difference? I think it's deep in the structure and fundamental theology of the Anglican Church--to the extent that it has a theology. The Anglican Church at its root and in its gut is Catholic in the most important sense--not in virtue of costume or liturgy, but in its hierarchal structure and in roles assigned to clergy and laity. There is no tradition of the priesthood of all believers. There is a bright line between clergy and laity, and no recognition of lay intellectual leadership or participation. Because of the historical structure of the Anglican Church, clergy are set up as intellectual leaders and moral teachers, called to instruct the laity in matters of faith and morals, and to set them straight. For the past 40 years liberal clergy in this capacity they have pushed the Liberation Agenda, pigheadedly pursuing it, in the unshakable conviction that they have got it right and are called to correct the laity. Listen to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church:

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in an e-mail response to a request for an interview [with the NYTimes] that such splits reflect a polarized society, as well as the “anxiety” and “discomfort” that many people feel when they are asked to live with diversity.“The quick fix embraced in drawing lines or in departing is not going to be an ultimate solution for our discomfort,” she said.

The bishop doesn't get it. Like other liberal clergy, she understands dissent as an expression of "anxiety" and "discomfort" rather than principled disagreement--a matter to be sorted out by sympathy, pastoral care and therapy. She, and they, do not understand that even apart from substantive disagreement this patronizing treatment by itself is enough to infuriate dissenters. And because she, and they, are convinced that their opponents are either naive or perverse, that she and they have a divine mission to correct them and that their agenda will inevitably triumph, they will pursue their iron-fist-in-velvet-glove program until the Episcopal Church is screwed into the ground.

I've been reading Barbara Tuchman on The March of Folly--an account of folly on the grand scale, from the Trojan Horse to the War in Vietnam. Everyone makes mistakes, but folly on this grand scale only occurs when smart people who are actors on the world stage, who should know better, who have all relevant information, good advice, and the power set policy, pigheadedly march to destruction, dragging the people and institutions in their charge to destruction. Right now I'm reading about how the Renaissance Popes precipitated the Reformation--by setting up as Italian princelings, bankrolling their retainers and illegitimate children, playing politics and waging war. Julius simply didn't get the idea that it was, minimally, unseemly for a priest to lead the troops into battle and his Borgia predecessor, Alexander, just didn't understand that staging orgies at the Vatican for his pleasure and the entertainment of his children Lucrezia and Cesere was, at best, offensive. None of them seemed to get the idea that religion had anything to do with what they were doing. They were magnates, and that was the way big men behaved.

The Episcopal Church, for all its endowment, is a marginal institution--hardly comparable to the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation. It's the same story though: clergy don't get the idea that they were supposed to be doing is religion. Those who're politically active are convinced that they're prophets, charged with setting the rest of us straight. They don't believe the stuff and, when it gets down to brass tacks, they don't believe that Christianity is of any real importance. Their goal is to promote the Liberation Agenda. They believe that their position as clergy of the Episcopal Church puts them in the position to push it and that is that they are going to do. What a miserable sad, bad business.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas Wars II

Christianity as an Oppositional Identity

Let's not sleepwalk with the Christian soldiers | Comment | The Observer

The Italian journalist Antonio Polito defined what can happen when people with no religion worthy of the name feel their values are under threat. He invented the term 'theo-con' to describe secular and atheist Italians who nevertheless support the Pope as a defender of a Western civilisation which paradoxically protects their freedom to be irreligious...[T]hose who emphasise a Christianity so vague it doesn't extend to going to church, play into the hands of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. They make a 'clash of civilisations' a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are the Islamists on one side and 'the Crusaders and Zionists' on another and no middle ground in between.

"Dog bites man" isn't news so, in a strange journalist twist, Nick Cohen argues that the real bad guys in the current Clash of Civilizations aren't convinced fundamentalist Christians--or, presumably, fundamentalist Muslims—but the great mass of secular Brits who nevertheless identify themselves as "Christians" and fuss about revisionary packaging for Christmas, the suppression of Christian religious symbols in the public square, and the like.

Cohen's reasoning is an argument to the best explanation: 71% of the public in England self-identify as Christians even though church attendance is in single digits. Why then do those 60 some odd percent of the public who aren't, by Cohen's lights, religious call themselves Christians? This is his take:

[M]ilitant Islam was on the march in 2001 and anger about asylum-seekers was at its highest. The census-takers then presented the public with a form that invited them to tick boxes from a list that included Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu and Sikh. There must have been a temptation to tick 'Christian' simply as a way of saying 'we're white and not Muslim'.

Christianity, he suggests, is an oppositional identity for them: they call themselves "Christians" and push to maintain the public presence of Christian symbolism in order to distinguish themselves from the non-white Other and make the statement that the UK is still Christian territory--their turf.

Empirically, this explanation doesn't wash. Even before mass immigration and the march of militant Islam, it was the same: Christendom has always been full of religious slackers, agnostics who weren’t willing to repudiate religious belief outright and the great mass of the indifferent who maintained a minimal, sentimental attachment to various Christian denominations but otherwise weren’t very interested. My bet is that if the census Cohen cites had included tick boxes for CofE, Catholic, and other Christian denominations rather than "Christian" the figure for Christians overall would have been even higher, and would have included even more non-churchgoers. These days "Christian" suggests "fundamentalist" or, at the very least, "intentionally committed and observant."

The secular culture-Christianity of the unchurched that worries Cohen is, and always has been, the religious norm at all times in most places. Strong religion is a special taste. For most Christians, and I suspect most Muslims as well, religion is a matter of participation in a culture where religious symbols, ceremonies and myths figure and rites of passage are conducted under religious auspices. This is not only normal religion--it is religion as it should be: religion that enriches life and satisfies human needs without imposing burdens or serious moral obligations. It is the kind of religion that Kierkegaard despised as mere participation in "Christendom." And it is quintessentially Anglican.

I'm all for it--and I am not being ironic. To reject Christianity as a source of serious moral obligation is not to reject serious moral obligation: ethics is independent of religion. We admire Bonhoeffer and Pastor Neimöller for resisting the Nazi program on Christian grounds. On the conventional view this is a recommendation for strong religion, committed Christianity, over mere participation in Christendom: a mere culture-Christian wouldn't have had the motivation or the backbone to stand up to the Nazi regime. Is that so? I would bet that there were quite a few mere culture-Christians and even flat-out atheists who resisted the Nazi agenda out of pure human decency. There is simply no empirical evidence that religious commitment makes people braver or morally better. Decent, courageous people who are committed Christians appeal to their religious convictions as the source of their moral commitment and behavior. The Church cheers them on as martyrs and confessors, advertisements for the ethnical benefits of religious commitment. But is there any reason to believe that they wouldn't have done their good deeds if they weren't religiously committed? There are certainly secular martyrs and confessors whose good deeds and courage are equally remarkable.

I am, in any case, for culture-Christianity. What worries me is that strong religion, religion that imposes burdensome rules, tight constraints, and tough moral obligations will drive out culture-Christianity. In the US this is already almost a done deal because here Christianity is already perceived as an "oppositional" identity: Christian symbols and ceremonies have become so tainted by association with strong religion, in particular conservative, evangelical Christianity, that we can't enjoy them as cultural amenities any more.

During the last anti-crucifix crusade at my (Catholic) university I asked one of the leading crusaders why she was ok with buddha statues in Chinese restaurants and the earth-god shrine at the entrance of our local Vietnamese supermarket, but not with crucifixes in classrooms, creches in the park or crosses on mountaintops. She asked, rhetorically, whether I would be comfortable as a Christian living in a place that was full of Buddha statues or Hindu idols (comfortable? I'd be thrilled--I like all religion and the more the better!). Like Cohen, she viewed Christianity as an oppositional identity and Christian symbols in public, or semi-public places, as a way of marking territory--sticking it to religious minorities that they were on Christian turf, on sufferance, that they were at best dhimmi. She claimed that students who were not Catholic, some 40% of our undergraduates, in particular Jews and members of traditionally persecuted minorities, were upset and felt threatened.

I find this hard to believe. I've never met a member of any religious minority who had this reaction to crucifixes or Christmas cribs--and it seems unlikely that anyone who felt this way would sign on at a Catholic college. During the Crucifix Wars at Georgetown, non-Catholics, including Jews and other non-Christians, were active on the pro-crucifix side. They argued that these religious symbols were part of the identity of the university, part of what they were attached to as students and faculty. It is, however, a preoccupation of secularists with axes to grind, which hardly endears them to the general public while supplying ammunition to the religious right.

Maybe I don't get it because I was brought up as a pagan. It used to surprise me, until I got used to it, that students who were generally credulous and sympathetic to various flavors of "spirituality" dismissed Christianity out of hand. When I asked them why they wouldn’t give Christianity a fair shake their answer was always the same monosyllable: "rules." They did not merely find the Christian "rules" inconvenient--to their credit, they objected to the rules they imagined were constituitive of Christianity because they regarded them as arbitrary and unmotivated. It took me a while to realize that we were not on the same page, and that the disagreement wasn't about what the Christian rules were or whether they were reasonable, but about the importance of rules of any kind in religious traditions, particularly Christianity. They saw the rules, primarily moral rules but also rules regarding religious observance, as the essence of Christianity—with all the symbols and ceremonies as a little bit of sugar to make the medicine go down. I saw the essential business of religion as myth and metaphysics, symbolism, art and cult--ethics optional.

This is the way I believe most people, most of the time, have viewed religion and it is why advocates of strong religion have almost always been isolated malcontents and prophets. This is the religion of Christendom that got Kierkegaard's knickers in a twist, the religion that the Reformation and all religious reformations were supposed to clean up, the religion of the masses--the religion of happy slackers. This is my religion though, it seems, only as a romantic fantasy--the fantasy of syncretic Hellenistic paganism: the libations and sacrifices, the mystery cults and the treasure-laden Ship of Isis (as described by Pater) floating out to sea. This is not mere aestheticism and does not trivialize religion: the core of religion is ineffable, or at the very least, highly controversial, like all metaphysics. The cultural packaging is all we can get a hold of. Apart from a very few orthodox theologians and philosophers of religion who spin out the doctrines, most educated practicing Christians are, effectively agnostics who believe that “there may be something there” and regard their cultural religious package as a way, however inadequate, of representing it and enjoying it.

Fundamentalist Christians and crusading secularists between them have all but destroyed the remnants of Christendom—a casualty of Culture Wars, in which ideologues with competing sets of rules fight for power and turf. We are not going to have the shrines and cults of 1000 gods happily coexisting, with people sampling their wares as it takes their fancy. We are not going to have those innocuous and lovely displays of public religiousity that everyone can enjoy as they please. New holidays and myths, symbols, ceremonies and shrines have replaced the old ones. They are genuine—Superbowl Sunday, Halloween and the Fourth of July, parades, block festivals and shopping malls—as rooted in the culture as religious processions carrying statues of local patron saints in Catholic Europe before it became rich and secular. I like Fourth of July fireworks and shopping malls too, but I like religious displays more—and they are doomed. That seems a pity.

It may be that even if Christian symbols and ceremonies hadn’t been tainted, and weren’t doomed to be casualties of cultural turf wars, the kind of religiousity that I enjoy might still be unsustainable. There are very few high church romantics like me who enjoy religious symbols and practices for their own sake. Most clients who keep the shrines in business, who engage in ceremonies which are appealing to me largely because they are gratuitous expect to get something out if their efforts—a normal pregnancy and easy birth or seasonable rains to make the corn grow, health, prosperity and a better shake in this world or the next. Most religious people who aren’t in the game for the rules are in for the magic: for them religious practices are no more interesting than balancing their checkbooks or going to the dentist. Religion is just more of that stuff you have to do to keep your life in order, stay healthy and get various material benefits. Without them, pilgrimages and icon-kissing would be nothing more than a vulgar, sentimental display—the childish game of self-conscious Anglo-Catholics like me—and churches would become museums or mini-themeparks. We high church junkies piggyback on the superstition of the naïve who give these rituals authenticity.

What a foul trichotomy if that’s true. Who is religious? Conservatives who want restrictive social rules promulgated and enforced; peasants who want the corn to grow; and a few silly asses, like me, who just plain like religion—cult, symbol, myth and custom.

In any case, I seriously doubt that Christianity is as yet an oppositional identity, much as both militant fundamentalists and equally militant secularists want to make it one. Laodician Christians are not interested in capturing territory or defending turf: they are simply sentimental, like those non-Catholics at Georgetown who campaigned to get the crucifixes back up. We want crosses on the hilltops and crèches in the park, along with chestnuts roasting on the open fire, Frosty, Rudolph and all the secular symbols of Christmas. We like cathedral evensong and the San Gennaro Festa. Thousands of happy tourists go to cathedral evensong to hear, and see, the boy choirs in ruffs without even realizing that they’re participating in a religious service. Thousands celebrate the San Gennaro festival, in honor of the annual (alleged) magical liquification of St. Janarius’ blood, at which a statue of the saint is trotted out and paraded around New York City’s Little Italy. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy that event any more than you need to be Italian to eat spaghetti or Jewish to love Levi’s Real Jewish Rye, as an old TV commercial had it.

So where is the beef? I suppose the problem is that lots of people simply can’t imagine liking religion as such either because they’ve been brought up in a strong religion that killed any pleasure they might have gotten out of it, or because they’re so remote from religion that can’t fathom what there could be to like. More’s the pity. The altars have been stripped, the churches are closing, the ceremonies and processions that remain are becoming mere tourist attractions, and the religious symbols, ceremonies and sentimentalities surrounding Christmas—the Star of Bethlehem, the ox and ass in the stable, the angels singing Gloria, the carols, candles, and hymns, the midnight mass—are slipping away and the world will be poorer, colder and duller for it.