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.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Are we rational self-interested choosers?

Essays: 'The world after Bush' by Michael Lind | Prospect Magazine November 2006 issue 128

The fact is that most of the people engaged in political violence today—from the Basque country to the Philippines—are not fighting for individual rights, nor for that matter are they fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate. Most are fighting for a national homeland for the ethnic nation to which they belong. For most human beings other than deracinated north Atlantic elites, the question of the unit of government is more important than the form of government, which can be settled later, after a stateless nation has obtained its own state. And as the hostility towards Israel of democratically elected governments in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon shows, democracy can express, even inflame, pre-existing national hatreds and rivalries; it is not a cure for them.

Well, I've gotten the book on multiculturalism, for which this blog has been a sketch, accepted for publication by Prometheus, my first choice! Check out their list and buy their books!!! I'm now working on the next draft so I'll be reflecting more on material for the book. I am always grateful for discussion and comments.

I've linked a nice article from the current issue of The Prospect on the end of, what the author calls, the neo-conservative and neo-liberal dreams of the 1990s. Most of his analyses and predictions seem plausible and much of what he predicts seems ok. The unipolar world envisaged by neo-cons, with the US running the show, he predicts is not going to happen. I'm ok with that. Laissez-faire capitalism will not take over. I'm definitely ok with that.

It's the suggestion that the ethnic-based nation-state will remain the aspiration for most human beings "other than deracinated north Atlantic elites" that sticks in my craw. Clearly this is currently the case. But one hopes that eventually it will not be so. At least the line I'm running is that deracination is the ideal for which we should strive so that, ideally, everyone will approximate the idea of this north Atlantic elite.

Now the question becomes: given that most of the world's population has very different aspirations from us, the deracinated, cosmopolitan elite, on what grounds can we argue that they ought to become more like us? Why not de gustibus: they like ethnicity--we like deracination; we're individualists--they're communitarians; they say "tom-ay-to"--we say "tom-ah-to"? Here is an argument though.

There are no communitarians--at least not on the ground (as distinct from the Ivory Tower). Everyone is after individual rights. It is just that in most circumstances the only way people can secure individual rights is by getting a national homeland for the ethnic nation to which they belong. Most people are tribal: they live under a social contract according to which everyone takes care of their own and no one is expected to take care of anyone else. They expect their tribes-mates to provide hospitality, hire them, provide patronage when in power and charity if need be and recognize an obligation to do the same for tribes-mates. They don't recognize any obligation to look after "strangers" in this way or expect "strangers" to look after them. Indeed, treating outsiders like family or putting the interests of others ahead of the interests of your own breaks the social contract. Once an individual breaks his contract he's no longer trustworthy: his tribes-mates can no longer assume that he'll meet his obligations to them and so no longer have any compelling reason to take care of him.

Among the north Atlantic elite, it doesn't matter very much whether the nation to which we belong has its own state because we recognize an obligation to take care of everyone and expect others to take care of us through impersonal social mechanisms. The state will provide benefits to us, regardless of race, creed or color; employers will hire on the basis of merit--or at least this is the official view--and those who discriminate will be dealt with by the state. When it comes to patronage, politicians will take care of their constituents, whether or not they're members of the same tribe so these days ethnic bloc voting has largely disappeared: we don't have to vote for tribes-mates to insure that our interests will be promoted.

It is very different in tribal societies like Iraq, Kenya, or Northern New Jersey--at least when I was growing up. There, it is essential for your well-being that your tribe have turf or, failing that, power. If you are a member of a minority tribe on someone else's turf you will not be taken care of by members of the dominant tribe who control government, business, unions, the Mob and other amenities. If your tribe is sufficiently powerful there will be log-rolling and deals will be cut--political positions will be reserved for your tribes-mates who will dispense patronage to their own. If members of your tribe own businesses you may be hired; if they control unions you may be apprenticed. If however your tribe has no power or if such deals aren't cut on behalf of your tribe then you, as an individual, will not be taken care of because everyone takes care of his own unless deals are cut. Of course this means that you have to vote in and otherwise support your tribes-mates to see to it that they have the power to pull for you. However it's best for you as an individual if your tribe has its own turf since, in the tribal system, only tribal power and turf can guarantee individual rights. Therefore as a rational self-interested chooser, in the interest of securing individual rights, you support your tribe.

The problem is that the tribal mechanism for supporting individual rights is inefficient. Unless we want to revert to a world of isolated hunter-gather bands, or at best, isolated self-sufficient villages, it isn't practical for every tribe to have its own turf, the wheeling-dealing involved in tribal log-rolling is very expensive and lots of people fall through the cracks. Moreover, tribal warfare is always a real and present danger and demagogues can exploit it to gain power--like Southern segregationists in the bad old days turning working class whites against working class blacks, Kenyan politicians conjuring up "tribal clashes," or nativists pumping up anti-immigrant sentiment to promote their own interests. Tribalism is self-perpetuating--people get caught in an evil net--but when people have the choice most prefer deracinated, cosmopolitan societies.

That last is an empirical claim and a claim about what MOST people prefer. There will always be Romantics, nostalgic for tribalism, especially for idealized versions of tribalism that never existed and the progress from tribalism to universalism is uneven--ratcheting up, and falling back--but overall, the trend is from tribalism to universalism, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from smaller to larger social units. Very few people want to go back and and people who've had it both ways almost always prefer modernity to tribalism. I grew up in a tribal society and I can vouch for that. I can also vouch for the fact that of the many Romantics I know who fantisize about the joys of tribalism, not one of them has experienced it first hand from the inside as I did. It's all very well to sentimentalize about "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding," Samoa as misdescribed by Margaret Mead, the Middle Ages, the hunter-gatherers of the Amazon or any of the other tribal societies, real or imagined, that are part of the public mythos. Those of us who've known tribal societies from the inside and gotten out know just how completely awful they are and would never, never want to go back.

That is why, I argue, it would be better if tribalism were obliterated: if it's feasible for people to live like the deracinated north Atlantic elite, ceteris paribus, that's what they prefer. Modern societies, non-tribal arrangements, are just a lot better at getting people what they want.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Oh, happy day!

Fall of the house of kitsch |
The cultural style of the Bush warriors is the latest wrinkle in one of the most enduring modes of antimodern aesthetic expression. "Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas," wrote art critic Clement Greenberg in his seminal essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in 1939. "Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times."

Kitsch is imitative, cheap, sentimental, mawkish and incoherent, and derives its appeal by demeaning and degrading genuine standards and values, especially those of modernity. While the proponents of the faux retro style claim to uphold tradition, they are inherently reactive and parasitic, their words and products a tawdry patchwork, hastily assembled as declarations against authentic complexity and ambiguity, which they stigmatize as threats to the sanctity of an imaginary harmonious order of the past that they insist they and their works represent. Kitsch presumes to be based on old rules, but constantly traduces them.

The Bush kitsch warriors have created a cultural iconography that attempts to inspire deference to the radical making of an authoritarian presidency. These warriors pose as populists, fighting a condescending liberal elite. Wealthy, celebrated and influential, their faux populism demands that they be seen however as victims. Having risen solely by association with sheer political power and economic force (News Corp., etc.), the cultural charlatans become the arbiters of social standing.

Yes, Jesus, yes! Alleluia!!! What a good election day! Here we have the tumblers falling into place, the cadence resolved, the other shoe dropped, the end of a good proof: these stinking shit bags have been given a kick up the ass.

Fair and square: after bawling about gridlock and complaining that their policies were failing because they didn't have free hand to pursue them whole hog, they got what they wanted--and failed. These Republicans had 9/11, goodwill and a consensus that should have carried for a decade, and squandered it. After 9/11 the Great Ayatolla or Grand Poo-Bah of Iran sent his condolances. Within two years we were in there slugging away at the Axis of Evil.

Maybe Americans have finally got it. You got the whole thing. You got the retrogressive, superstitious pseudo-redneck jackass of your dreams. You got a $300 check in the mail as "tax relief." You got a jolly war to show the world just how tough we were. Are we having fun yet?

Maybe this is the tipping point. Also, today I beat a major rap at traffic court: no fine, no fee, no traffic school--case dismissed! A good day!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Cat meat

Australian Muslim leader compares uncovered women to exposed meat | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited: "Sheik Hilali was quoted as saying: 'If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [the headdress worn by some Muslim women], no problem would have occurred.'"

Demeaning to women, offensive to cats...but also insulting to men. The idea is that men have no real intentionality, that they will of course pounce reflexively at the first piece of red meat they see and that they are so far from being rational, autonomous agents that they cannot be blamed. Without external constraints men will of course run amok.

Where does this come from? It's at the heart of traditional "shame cultures where there are no internal forces governing behavior, where people merely respond to external constraints and social approbation. This works fine in the village where most people play by the rules most of the time and see to it that their neighbors do likewise, where everyone is caught in a net of kinship and mutual obligation, shame and honor. In the anonymous city, without the village watching you at every turn, in a world of strangers, there is no reason why you shouldn't run amok. Of course if a tempting piece of meat comes your way you will pounce. The only way to stop you is either to restrain you physically or to hide the meat.

The gears grind whenever villagers move to the city and wherever the Third World meets the first. When people who are bound and constrained break free there's crime, corruption and social chaos. It happens to colleges too, when students away from their families and childhood rules, drink themselves sick because they can and don't show up for class because no one is taking the roll. Most figure out how to behave in a year or two, sometimes longer if they don't wash out first.

Lakoff is wrong: the cut isn't between the Strict Father and Nurturing Parent--code for the stereotypical masculine and feminine. It's between those who believe that men are cats and women are meat or, more generally, that people will run amok if not embedded in family and village, bound by custom, constrained by shame, honor and the fear of God, and those of us who believe that left to their own devices people can, and will--even if after harsh experience--grow up. I guess really that's why I got into philosophy--beyond the taste for fighting and puzzle solving, I do believe in reason, sweet reason, splendidly powerful and always benign.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Yup. We Lost

The Observer | World | How Iraq came home to haunt America: "For months doubts over Iraq have risen along with the death toll. Last week a tipping point was reached as political leaders in Washington and London began openly to think the unthinkable: that the war was lost"

It was tough to admit during the war in Vietnam and it's tough to admit now: we lost. We took out the local tin pot dictator and prised the lid off a cauldron of cultural diversity. Now, predictably, the tribes are beating up on one another and warlords who can muster street gangs of lower class youths from the urban slums, dignified as "militias," are having the time of their lives.

However all is not lost: I have a plan.

(1) Declare an independent state of Kurdistan and promise Turkey admission to the EU if they'll recognize it.

(2) Require the independent state of Kurdistan to recognize a right of return for Kurds outside its borders comparable to the right of return Israel recognizes for Jews. If Turkish Kurds, affirming their ethnicity, prefer living in a Kurdish state to living in an EU country jolly good--I doubt that the Turks will miss them.

(3) Give educated, middle class, non-tribal Iraqis green cards and airlift them out to the US. We trashed their country and destroyed their lives--we take responsibility.

(4) Leave the tribal, lower class Shiites and Sunnis to fight it out amongst themselves over oil, land, women, goats or whatever it is they traditionally fight about until they manage to kill one another off.

How's that? Remember, you heard it here first.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

David Kuo's Tempting Faith

It's hard to believe, but Bush does disdain evangelicals: Kuo's book creates cognitive dissonance for liberals. Conspiracy theories about theocracy have haunted liberals for the last few years, and, if you believe that religious conservatives lead Bush around by the nose, evidence to the contrary is impossible to absorb. Everyone on the left 'knows' that the faith-based initiative is a slush-fund, a jackpot for religious conservatives. If it turns out instead to be a political sham that produced only 1 percent of the new funds it promised for faith-based organizations, liberals need rethink their theocracy-phobia...Evangelicals have become increasingly disillusioned with the Bush administration and the Republican Party in general over the last two years. While 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for Bush in 2004, only 57 percent approve of the job he's doing now, and only 52 percent say they are likely to support Republicans in the November elections...evangelical support has plummeted in large part because they, along with other religious conservatives, have begun to suspect they've been played by Republicans--used for their votes and then ignored.

Hard to believe??? Of course elite conservatives are as contemptuous of conservative Christians as elite liberals are. The American elite, whether conservative or liberal, is secular and most members have little sympathy with the socially conservative agenda that the current administration has pretended to promote. No surprise here.

The difference between liberal and conservative members of the elite is that conservatives have lied to lower class conservative Christians, played them for fools, taken their money and used their support to promote policies that are contrary to their interests. Somehow Dubya managed to persuade hoi polloi that he was just a regular dumbass, inarticulate guy with a bad accent who cut brush on his "ranch," and to persuade everyone that he really thought that "the jury was out" on evolution. Really? After Andover and Yale--even though his daddy had to buy him into both?

Nothing new. Renaissance Popes frolicked and made their "nephews" cardinal archbishops in their teens, while the pious Catholic peasantry worshipped holy bones. Henry opined that Paris was "worth a mass," while Protestant peasants were convinced that the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Everything changes, everything remains the same. The Republican elite giggled about Mark Foley's silly little flirtations with youths and covered it up lest their redneck supporters on the ground find out.

I don't know how the Democrats could play this one. What should they say to these lower class people who keep the Republicans in power--"look these guys despise you just as much as we do, and are exploiting you to boot"? What should these people do? Pull out of the Republican party and support genuine populists from amongst them--splitting the conservative alliance and guaranteeing a liberal win? Somehow the message has got to be put across: everyone with any money, education or power thinks you guys are stinking shit; anyone you could vote for--Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green--anyone sufficiently educated and articulate to get on any ticket--detests you. So you may as well vote your economic interests--so that if not you, at least your children can become upper middle class latte-drinking liberals.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Fundamentalism Lite

I debated a fundamentalist minister from a local branch of The Vineyard last Wednesday.
I was supposed to be debating a professional "youth evangelist," one Alex McFarland, on the topic of his talk, Truth Exists--Absolutely!. I'm not altogether clear on the story but apparently, when McFarland found out, the day before the event, that a real, live professor would debate him, he backed out.

So I was left to debate the local guru, the very model of a modern neo-fundamentalist as described in a remarkable NYTimes Magazine story about the Radiant Church of Surprise, AZ some time back.

The guru, big and genial, wouldn't fight and wouldn't bite. He began by asserting that if there was one thing we knew it was that Truth was "relational" and also that Truth was "dynamic." I couldn't fathom what he was talking about but the audience seemed to be following--and approving. The questions from the audience were equally incomprehensible. Somehow, however, he and they had an understanding, though I couldn't grasp what it was about, beyond some vague idea that Truth=Jesus=Love and that loving Truth/Love/Jesus made people happy and morally good.

I was disheartening, not only or primarily because so many of these decent kids were hooked on fundamentalism but because of why they and others were hooked--and not only on fundamentalism. It was the appetite for empty sentimentalities and uplift without content, the boosterism, the unshakable faith in slogans, "training" to teach leaders recipes, pep rallies to "energize" the base, and the vacuous blandness of the whole thing. That I think is characteristically American, and that is why American-style neo-fundamentalism takes hold. It isn't puritanism--long dead. It isn't Elmer Gantry, the promise of heaven or threat of hell--it's the glad-handing, boosterism and sloganeering of Main Street, the slicked up sales pitch, the inflated pseudo-technology of group dynamics, pedagogy, and management. It's the hegemony of Business: salesmanship, marketing and management--professionalized, refined and applied to everything, including education, religion and politics.

What bothers me is the intolerance for anything gritty, unconventional, combatative or simply difficult, the obsession with slick, smooth, and bland, the utter tedium of the whole thing and the waste--the energy people could spend on learning real technical skills wasted on these elaborate techniques of social interaction: management, marketing, "leadership," cultivating the art of likablity so that in the end neither technical skills nor intellectual content matter. That, it seemed, was the draw of this neo-fundamentalism--religion without ritual, symbolism or intellectual content beyond a few theological nuggets swallowed painlessly because to adherents they didn't matter: what mattered were "relationships"--to Jesus, to the affable pastor, and to the "community" of fellow-adherents.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Guardian Unlimited Film | News | Mel Gibson apologises for anti-semitic outburst

Last July, the Braveheart director was arrested on a Los Angeles motorway on suspicion of drunk driving, after being caught speeding. A three-quarters-full bottle of tequila wrapped in a brown paper bag was found on the floor. According to portions of the arrest report that became public, Gibson launched into an anti-semitic tirade, accusing Jews of starting all wars and demanding to know if his arresting officer was Jewish. The incident sparked international headlines, drew condemnation from Jewish leaders and led to speculation that Gibson's Hollywood career had been irreparably damaged. Within days of the incident, Gibson had entered a rehabilitation clinic and undergone treatment for alcoholism.

Oh, and he also had some choice remarks for the officer's female partner whom he called "sugar tits." Not to mention the fact that he was speeding down the freeway dead drunk, endangering the public. But who's counting? In the words of my favorite quote from Ghostbusters, when the Central Park horse-cab driver is accosted by a demonically possessed tax accountant in full flow: "what an asshole."

These days alcohol rehab is the respectable way out. So, when Mark Foley got caught flirting with youths, it was only natural that he sign on for alcohol rehab and, for good measure, claim that he was a victim of priest abuse. Clearly priest abuse will become de rigeur in all subsequent cases of this nature. Then there was Ellen Cook, the treasurer of the Episcopal Church who embezzled 2.6 million dollars and made the case that it was a consequence of the intolerable stress of male chauvinism that she faced in her position as the Church's highest ranked layperson. Is it possible that anyone actually takes these excuses seriously?

Why can't ordinary slobs like me (and you, dear reader) get away with this? So sorry I haven't shown up to teach my logic classes for the past week--I was flat on the floor in a drunken stupor--I need a paid vacation in rehab. Holy cow, two years ago a screwy part-timer reported me and my next door colleague for smoking in our offices. I managed to get rid of the evidence, but the dean caught my colleague with an ashtray on his desk and there was hell to pay. Why don't we think of these things--alcoholism, priest abuse, male chauvinism? I suppose that's why we aren't celebrities.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Veiling: Thanks, Jack

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Dangerous attack or fair point? Straw veil row deepens:

Muslim opinion on the streets was not unsympathetic to Mr Straw, but hardly anyone put other communities' feelings before the religious right - duty in the eyes of a sizeable minority - to wear the full veil. A self-employed electrician waiting for the end of lessons at St Nicholas and St John infant and junior school - which is overwhelmingly Asian - said that the roots of social division were much older than veil-wearing.'It's all to do with the way we were treated in the Seventies - I was regularly chased along here when I was a kid by white lads. Other communities just didn't want to know about us - funny that they're all so interested now in things like veils. I was a soldier in the British Army for 11 years and I can tell you very clearly how I couldn't get anywhere because I wasn't white but brown.'

The electrician knows best.

In all the stuff I've been reading for my current project on multiculturalism, with every conceivable theory and speculative fantasy concocted by journalists, pundits, politicians and academics on the table, the remarks of people on the ground--when they manage to be heard above the noise--point in the same direction. Immigrants and people of color face discrimination and exclusion. They can't get into the mainstream so they cluster together. Their children, who expect more than second-class citizenship, take up cultural affirmation and identity politics with the blessing of multiculturalists: better to be Other than under; if you lock us out pooh on you--we've got our own club.

Then along comes Jack--fretting because he can't read the emotion on his constituents' veiled faces. Of course this isn't the issue, any more than Islam, female modesty or female subordination is. The issue is people publicly asserting ethnicity, cultural identity and otherness. That assertion of otherness makes group identity more salient, promotes further discrimination, and sets back the interests of most Others who just want to assimilate, be regular plain vanilla citizens and, most importantly, to be treated as such.

Fat lot of good it does to get women to take off their face veils or otherwise encourage those Others to dress and behave like regular guys if the color of their skin still marks them as Other and they're treated as such. It's not the bus--it's us.

The response to discrimination helps perpetuate it. Bigots who wouldn't dare to say they didn't want brown people around can point triumphantly to veiling and other forms of Otherness to make the case that the problem is the refusal of those people to integrate, their commitment to radical Islamicism or their rejection of mainstream cultural values. There are, of course, Those Counterfactuals: if all those Muslims dropped their veils and converted to industry-standard CofE agnosticism, the bigots still wouldn't want them around. It's reminiscent of anti-semitism in Christian Europe from the get-go to the Holocaust. "We don't want you Jews around because you dress funny, talk funny, reject our culture and reject Christ. Oh, you've assimilated and converted, and don't dress funny or talk funny? Well, we still don't want you around."

Still, it's the state that hasn't kept it's part of the bargain--or at least what I believe the bargain should be: "we'll see to it that you're treated in the same way as other citizens if you behave like other citizens." Shifting the burden to minorities accomplishes nothing. Immigrants and their children can't avoid discrimination and exclusion by assimilating any more than the Jews in Nazi Germany could. Only the state can break the vicious circle by aggressively promoting integration and equal treatment, by affirmative action, by every available means.

But such policies are expensive and unpopular. It's cheaper and easier lob the ball into the Others' court, and then complain that they won't play the game.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Freedom, Security and Good Red Herring

American Prospect Online - Centered Right: Something odd is happening in Scandinavian politics. Or rather, something normal has stopped happening. Everybody knows that for the better part of a century, social democrats have been building Keynesian welfare states in Scandinavia. The news is that economic liberals ('liberals' in the classical, continental sense of the term) have basically ceased to attack them. In fact, Scandinavia%u2019s center-right parties now actively embrace the welfare state. And suddenly -- and not coincidentally -- voters like them

I'm not sure I understand how a center right party can embrace the welfare state, much less an improved an expanded one, since I thought that the criterion for being "left" or "right" was precisely acceptance or rejection of the welfare state. What on earth else is there?

However that's a semantic issue. The substantive point is the realization by Rasmussen, the leader of Sweden's center "right" party, that "the welfare model is a necessary condition for the goal of liberalism, defined as a maximization of individual freedom and self-reliance....concerned with freedom to as freedom from."

From this perspective, government is not a categorical infringement on individual rights; on the contrary, government can and should expand individual freedoms by providing opportunities for citizens. Thus the accessibility of a quality education is a freedom issue, as is the availability of affordable health care, day care, paid maternity and paternity leave, etc.

It's surprising that this should be news in Sweden--or anywhere else. We're constrained, thwarted and hemmed in in innumerable ways--by the brute facts of nature and by the refusal of others to cooperate in supporting our most important interests. Without that cooperation, we can't get what matters most: interesting work, leisure and the avoidance of drudgery, opportunities for travel, the use of technology, novelty and variety. It's hard to imagine any life more meager or constrained, or less free than the life of a self-sufficient survivalist scratching out a living in some remote outback if freedom in the sense that matters means having a wide range of options.

In affluent Western countries, particularly in the US where libertarian sentiment is most entrenched, the government is the least of our worries. It's hard for me to think of how the government restricts my freedom in any serious way or prevents me from getting anything I want--apart from imposing speed limits with which I find it hard to comply. The government of course taxes me and to that extent restricts my options--since money is nothing other than the permanent possibility of preference satisfaction. But if I had that money in hand it wouldn't expand my options for all practical purposes because, in order to see to it that I wasn't backed into a corner--old, poor, with few options and at the mercy of others--I would have to save that money or use it to buy into private insurance schemes of various sorts.

So why, one wonders, are most Americans convinced even now that government is the problem rather than the solution and, more fundamentally, that there's a trade off between freedom and security? Security, safety nets and the knowledge that we will never be backed into a corner with few opportunities or choices, is precisely what liberates us from scrounging, skimping and perennially saving to preserve our freedom. Why in particular is it that people who are less secure and so less free than we are, those rural and exurban working class voters who could benefit from the welfare state, are most adamantly opposed to it: the old question again--what's the matter with Kansas?

At bottom I think it's a lack of imagination: they cannot imagine what it would be like to have a wider range of more desirable options--better access to education and training, a wider range of job options, shorter hours at work and longer vacations, affordable child care and good schools for their kids. They're constrained and financially insecure, stuck with mega-commutes from remote semi-rural areas because cities are unlivable and inner suburbs are unaffordable, stuck working 8 hours a day and overtime, 50 weeks a year and quite reasonably afraid that the few options they have will be taken away. Conservatives, whose policies have backed them into that corner, exploit that fear.

This is standard Third World practice, the policy of tin pot dictators whose policies keep the peasantry impoverished and then, at election time, win their votes by dispensing little bits of money. And they vote for the guy because the only alternative to a crumby life with patronage from the Big Man is a crumby life without patronage. This is Walmart giving Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor and promising employees from its New Orleans stores flooded out by Katrina equally lousy jobs in other parts of the country. This is Roger Hedgecock, the local conservative radio call in talk show pundit telling low-wage non-union workers that they could of course see that unions were out to do them wrong to benefit rich, greedy politicians: unionized labor jacked up the price of food. And these low-wage workers, judging from those that got on the air, they bought it--after all it was they who most needed cheap food given their low, non-union wages. The logic is the same as the logic of arguing that we shouldn't oppose the war in Iraq because if we if we weren't fighting there we would be in danger of terror caused by anger over the war in Iraq.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Hezbollah Rules--Not OK

Lebanon%u2019s Future: Bending Toward Hezbollah or Leaning to the West? - New York Times: Pro-Western Lebanese politicians have watched with dismay as Iranian influence has spread across the region, largely with the help, they say, of American foreign policy....There is an Iranian empire slowly but surely being erected, said Walid Jumblat, a weary, aging Druze warlord cloistered in his ancestral castle deep in the mountains of the Shuf region.Mr. Jumblat has emerged as Hezbollah's most vocal opponent among the American-backed pro-democracy movement that holds a slim majority in Parliament today.

What a bloody nightmare!

So this is our advertisement for Westernization: the US promotes "regime change" to install puppet dictators who will serve America's interests while Israel burns, bulldozes and carpet-bombs any country that won't cooperate. No wonder they hate us; no wonder they want no part of "freedom" and "democracy" American-style.

I just saw a short piece on the BBC news about Romanian orphanages, storage facilities during the Cescascu regime when the state encouraged people to have as many children as possible and abandon excess kids whom they couldn't support. Now that the euros are rolling in, the state is making an effort to reunite them with their birth families, find foster homes for them or put them into family-like group homes. But according to one social worker, it's still commonplace for women to abandon their babies at the hospital after giving birth because it's become a "habit." It's remarkable how quickly a habit like this, which overrides what must be a hardwired compulsion to see to it that one's children survive and contribute to the gene pool, can be established.

When do we get out of the Cold War habit of behaving as if we lived in a bipolar world where the only way to assure our safety (we thought) was by installing puppet regimes, where we assumed that any nation we couldn't dominate was a threat? Here we are, standing on top of this dung hill, whacking down anyone who tries to climb up because we're convinced that anyone who isn't prepared to eat our shit is out to get us.

Of course the pictures of bulldozed villages and dead children bother me. But it's a miserable world out there where life is nasty, brutal and short. Tribes are always beating up on one another; women are always beaten; children always die. What the US and Israel do is just more of the same--it hardly matters whether it's us killing, maiming, torturing and destroying property or the tribes doing it to one another. In the long run the real damage is the resistance to Westernization that our behavior promotes and perpetuation of the primitive, violent, tribal cultures in which most of the world's population is trapped.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bush 9/11: Tasteless and Formulaic

I watched Bush's 9/11 speech on PBS, introduced by Lehrer who noted that the President had said that his speech "wouldn't be political."

Within 2 minutes it seemed, Bush had introduced the Iraq theme, associating the war in Iraq with 9/11, making the usual noises about protecting America from the Bad Guys and bringing "freedom" to the people of the middle east. These themes meandered through the speech like fat marbling red meat--the speech was carefully crafted.

My first impression, politics aside, was that it was in bad taste. I wonder how many other Americans thought that? This was the time to talk about heroic firefighters, to console the widows and orphans and to talk about us pulling together as a nation--not to manipulate public sentiments in support of the Iraq war.

The rest of the speech was the usual malarkey about spreading freedom and democracy, enhanced with allusions to the fight against fascism and nazism during WWII and Communism during the Cold War. I wonder how effective this appeal is given that few Americans remember WWII and that many don't remember the Cold War.

The analogy in any case isn't apt. For those of us who remember Communism, or Fascism, the image that horrified us was the picture of masses marching goose step, working in grim satanic mills or waving their Little Red Books during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was the horror of group-think, of individuality submerged, the oppressiveness of impersonal technology and individuals marching in lockstep to the Great Leader and to the Machine. Islamicism just does not plug into this template and so the rhetoric of "freedom" doesn't ring true.

I don't think Bush has either helped himself or hurt himself with this speech. I'm waiting to hear what cleverer bloggers and journalists have to say.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Other...and the other Others

Mr Multicultural shows his teeth - Sunday Times - Times Online

Two of the founding grandes dames of British multiculturalism got into a cat fight this week. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has been “pandering to the right”, spat Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London...Livingstone had a hissy fit and accused Phillips of selling out black people. “He’d had a brief sort of black power fling,” said Livingstone, “dissing” Phillips’s past activism, “and ever since then he’s gone so far over to the other side that I expect soon he’ll be joining the BNP.” It seems that Trevor ain’t been “keeping it real” enough for he’s calling new Labour’s No 1 homeboy a coconut. Maybe Trevor should get some gold teeth and grab his crotch more often...

Britain’s irony is that the person profiting most from exploiting racial tensions is not a glamorous funky demagogue but a white middle-aged nerd. But K Diddy is savvy to the way race is skilfully employed in America and has imported those techniques here.

The one nice thing about the War on Terror is the exposure of the Other with all its warts--is if this were some surprising novelty. Suddenly it's become almost fashionable to note that those paradigmatic Others, heroes of the left counterculture (in which I came of age), brown third world males, are violent, misogynistic religious bigots and racists who hate other Others even more than they hate even more than they hate materialistic Western decadence, American militarism or any of the other left-countercultural bugaboos.

Why did it take so long to figure this out? Why hasn't everyone figured it out yet? And, most interestingly, why are those who haven't figured it out, so selective about Otherness?

We see Red Ken, who happens to be white, hissing and spitting at Trevor Phillips for not being black, or red, enough. Skin color isn't sufficient for Otherness--or necessary: Ward Churchill still has followers. Race as such only confers potential Otherness and white partisans reserve a special place in Hell for people of color who don't meet their expectations. There is, in any case, a hierarchy of Otherness: race trumps gender, sexual orientation and disability; cultural alienation trumps race; and third-worldism, currently at least, is at the pinnacle of Otherness. If culturally alienated, underclass black males beat up on women, good leftists go with the guys. If third world Muslims are misogynistic, anti-semitic and homophobic, the politically correct, including self-described feminists and Jews, go with the Muslims.

I'm still trying to figure this out. There is an interesting piece on Foucault in the Chronical of Higher Ed that gives me some idea in retrospect of what was going on when all this got started. It seems that c. 1970 Foucault got the idea that the power that oppressed us did not emanate from individuals at the top of some hierarchy but from a network of impersonal forces embedded in the culture which enforced conformity through various forms of soft power. Again, one wonders why anyone thought this was a new idea. But I recall that at the time it caught fire.

We were convinced that we were caught in that evil net--spun by the military-industrial complex, Western rationalism and materialism, Academia, the suburban bourgeoisie, the advertising industry--the whole fabric of mainstream culture or, as we called it, the Establishment. The aim of the counterculture's political wing, I remember, was not to fix things so that Others like me could get in, but to dismantle it. Others who were excluded, actively resisted and, if necessary, did violence to disrupt it were icons of the Revolution that we imagined we were fighting. By the same reasoning, Others who managed to get in, middle class blacks in particular, were traitors hardly worthy of Otherness, and excluded Others who didn't cause trouble, in particular women, were at best, low priority Others. At the time, the paradigm Others, those who were most disruptive and so most "transgressive" were the big, brutal, crotch-grabbing underclass black males with gold teeth of whom Trevor Phillips is very definitely NOT. Nowadays it's Islamicists on jihad--more brutal, more transgressive, and genuinely alien.

As an excluded Other, all I ever wanted was to get in--and to revise the membership rules so that everyone could. I'm sitting here at the table in my IKEA kitchen, in my suburban home, this Labor Day weekend, sipping Corona and mellow. This is the life I always wanted--the life of an upper middle class white male from which we Others used to be excluded, and from which most of us are still excluded. I got all I ever dreamed of. I don't have to do pink-collar shit work; I have a husband, kids, cats and a chocolate lab, a grand piano, laptop, fast internet connection and wifi. [another sip of Corona--it's damn hot here] This is the summum bonum and the life that most of the human race would choose--if they could get it. I struggled and fought, and lived in fear for half of my adult life, to get this--and the whole of my political agenda is directed to fixing things so that everyone, here and abroad, can--so that all us Others can get into the Establishment and stop being Other.

'Nuff blogging. It's Labor Day Weekend and my last gasp of freedom for the year--I go back to teaching in three days. I'm actually kind of looking forward to it--I like teaching, and like students generally. I'm also looking forward to sitting in on a math class: I like math even though math doesn't like me. Happy Labor Day! Keep the Red Flag flying! Drink beer--be happy!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Iran and the Art of Political Judo

If America Wanted to Talk, Iran Would ... - New York Times

JUST imagine. President Bush phones up Iran’s president, thanks him for his thoughtful letter, and asks to sit down and discuss social, political and economic challenges facing the two nation...what might happen if Washington suddenly decided, in a high-level public act, to follow Don Corleone’s advice to keep one’s friends close but one’s enemies closer?...Many political analysts, Western diplomats and reform-minded people here say a gesture from Washington to Tehran, or more precisely a gesture that demonstrates some degree of respect and openness to Iran, might well be seen here as far more threatening to the leadership than the threat of economic or political sanctions.

“Radicalism has always been supported and strengthened by the West,” said Emad Baghi, a former cleric from a highly respected family who heads a human-rights organization here even as he retains good contacts with the judiciary.

In Iran, the term hard-liner is part of the political lexicon, less a pejorative title than a label along the lines of liberal or conservative. In that vein, many Iranians refer to President Bush and his administration as hard-liners. And the conventional thinking here is that hard-liners help hard-liners, with their hard-line policies.

It does look like we're getting thrown every time--goaded by Iran and other hostile regimes into making a lunge and then tripped into a painful back twist that lands us flat on the mat.

It's hardly surprising. Nothing is more effective in getting the populace to rally around the flag, support an oppressive regime and put up with violations of civil rights than the threat of invasion by a foreign power. We should know that. Warrantless wire-taps and female dress codes are minor inconveniences compared to getting blown up or having your town bulldozed.

I'm not sufficiently sophisticated in these matters to understand exactly what the US would risk if Bush had sent a polite, carefully crafted response to Ahmdinejad's 18 page letter or invited him to a sit-down Corleone fashion apart from support by his "base" at home. However it's pretty clear that the minority who support his policies wouldn't stand for it. At the last go-round the W-team picked up on Kerry's unfortunate remark about the desirability of fighting a "smarter," more "sensitive" war and ran with it. Ahmadinejad may have impressed his base by representing himself as the voice of reason, challenging the US to discussion and debate, but Bush's base is convinced that anything other that brute force and ignorance is a sign of weakness. This is probably why W makes a point of representing himself not only as more brutal than he is but also as more ignorant.

What is most depressing is that his claims in support of the current policy are unfalsifiable and so there can be no denoument. We will "stay the course" because if by leveling Iraq, or (by proxy) Lebanon we haven't succeeded in installing toady pro-American regimes throughout the Middle East or eliminated the threat or terrorism, it just shows the haven't fought long enough or hard enough, wasted enough money or personnel, or delivered a good enough walloping. I'm no dove, but the prospect is one of an endless cold war that goes hot periodically when the US recovers enough military capacity to invade and flatten yet another Middle Eastern country that someone imagines is a base for terrorists. War without end, amen.

We will blast one country after another into the stone age, ruin the credibility of their educated, cosmopolitan elites, destroy their middle classes, empower demogogues who rally the idiot peasantry and set off tribal warfare to finish the job--starting with the US.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Challenge declined: the Bush/Ahmadinejad nondebate

White House rejects Iran debate | | The Australian

THE White House today rejected outright an offer from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hold a televised debate with US President George W. Bush...Mr Ahmadinejad overnight offered Mr Bush a live television debate as he shrugged off the threat of sanctions ahead of a looming UN deadline for Iran to halt sensitive atomic work.

"I suggest we talk with Mr Bush, the president of the United States, in a live television debate about world issues and ways out of these standoffs. We would voice our opinions and they would too," he told a news conference.
The debate "should be uncensored, above all for the American public," said Mr Ahmadinejad"

President Bush yesterday declined an invitation to a TV debate by Iran's President Ahmadinejad. This was probably a wise move since Ahmadinejad, in addition to being quite a sharp politician is, apparently a pretty smart guy--indeed an engineering nerd prone to nose-bleeds. As he himself notes on his blog.

Even though I was very playful those days, but was aware of my school & education. I was a distinguished student. From that time, I was interested and attached to teaching. I used to teach my friends and others in their houses. The last year of my high school, I prepared myself for university admission test-conquer. And later on that year, I took the test. Although I had nose bleeding during the test, but I became 132nd student among over 400 thousand participants. I was admitted for civil engineering major in one of the technical universities in Tehran. That was three years before the revolution. Even though the revolution was taking place and I was involved in certain activities against the illegitimate regime of the monarch in Iran-the mercenary & puppet of U.S. & Britain- but I was aware of my education and did not give it up.

Reading Ahmadinejad's blog, a political item directed at his base, was illuminating not so much about Ahmadinejad's own psychology as it was about the motives and interests of the "base" to which he was aiming to appeal, in particular "why they hate us." The picture he paints is of a body of people oppressed by a Westernized elite under the Shah, and subsequently humiliated by Western powers, the US and UK in particular, intent on forcing Western culture on them while depriving them of access to Western technology. Iran's nuclear program, he argues, will put Iran on equal footing with world powers as a force to be reckoned with.

The appeal to national pride and the rhetoric of communal honor isn't surprising or unfamiliar. It's the same jingoistic line demagogues everywhere, and in the US in particular, take to command the loyalty of the peasantry. I suppose it appeals to some urge for transcendance--identification with some cause beyond oneself, whether a nation, a football team, a religious tradition or a street gang and a gut level commitment to promoting interests that go beyond, and even conflict with individual interests.

That quest for transcendance, and for "dignity" and "honor" through identification with a nation or people, is one of the dividing lines between educated, cosmopolitan elites and the masses. The Iranian masses care intensely about getting nukes--not, as far as I can see, because they want to blow up Israel, or even because they believe they need them to defend themselves, but because they are after dignity, honor and national recognition, just as the American masses care about the US's position as "leader of the free world."

It all seems childish and wasteful, but not entirely pointless I think. Most people have little opportunity for individual achievement: they work to eat and eat to work, sleep, excrete and copulate. Their only chance to get beyond the brute business of survival and procreation, to achieve "dignity" or "honor," is through identification with the nation, the church or the football team, by identifying with their achievements, stature and status. Maybe that's one of the things that privileged people, who take opportunities for personal achievement for granted, don't get.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The End of Libertarianism / Comment & analysis / Comment - The unmourned end of libertarian politics

The most epochal event in world politics since the cold war has occurred – and few people have noticed. I am not referring to the conflict in Iraq or Lebanon or the campaign against terrorism. It is the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution.

Here's a nice article from, of all places, The Financial Times and I hope to God that it's true. To be honest, for me international politics is just a side show. The central political issue from my perspective is the establishment of a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Why? Because I am simply terrified of being in a situation where I'm trapped and have no room to maneuver, without options. I can't handle long plane trips. I don't go to concerts, movies or any events where I have to sit in an audience without an escape route. At papers, I sit in an aisle seat next to the door or just stand if I can't get one. I am terrified of being bored and trapped. I am terrified, even retrospectively, of the possibility of working at a boring job where I'm physically trapped--behind a check-out counter scanning groceries, at a terminal inputting data, in a carrel taking phone orders. I am terrified of being forced to do work where there's no possibility of learning or achievement--the drudgery of routine clerical work, waitressing, child care, retail sales or any of the default jobs for women which, in addition to being boring and physically constraining, involve people contact which I find almost as bad as boredom and constraint.

I can't cast the first stone. I wouldn't want an arrangement in which people who didn't luck out as I did were forced to do that kind of work--which de facto is the only option most women have. When Clinton abolished "welfare as we know it" I was scared because welfare to me was the ultimate safety net, insuring that if I were prepared to live minimally I wouldn't have to do that kind of work. I was, and am--retrospectively, in spite of being tenured--scared. That's why I have a stake in the Left--in affirmative action so that women aren't restricted to those miserable, boring jobs and, as a fallback position, to welfare so that regardless of what happens there's always an escape route. I have to sit in the aisle seat next to the door.

Ages ago, before I got tenure, I saw a woman go spectacularly mad in public. We were in the pedestrianized town centre in Swindon, just outside of Debenhams, and there was a woman rolling around on the pavement screaming while her carers tried to calm her and take her away. I wondered at the time if that could be an escape route for me. If I didn't get tenure and got fired, would screaming and rolling on the ground in public get me onto some disability program that would pay enough to live on so that I wouldn't have to work, or finance a course in drafting or appliance repair so that I could get a tolerable job, or just get me into a decent looney bin where I could do basket weaving? (I've always liked crafts) When I see beggars at freeway exits and supermarket entrances I wonder if that would be tolerable. It seems pretty bad but I imagine I could read. It beats typing anyway.

I am scared, scared, scared. It amazes me that my fellow Americans are so frightened of violence, of terrorism and plain crime, because the odds of being affected are so low. My oldest kid back from Baltimore and I were talking about this. When we lived there, my home as I still think of it, I walked uptown to Hopkins from the train station, through the bombed out no man's land, and never though anything of it. I got hassled, and didn't like it, but it seemed pretty trivial. In any case, you're unlikely to get killed--at worst they'll take your money and credit cards--which you can cancel. A fortiori, if you live in a leafy suburb the chance of getting hurt is negligible. Why this obsession? The odds of being impoverished, getting stuck working at Walmart, having no options and no room for maneuver, spending every day at this drudgery without any chance of accomplishing anything, are much, much greater and much, much worse.

I just don't get it. Why are people so scared of unlikely, episodic violence but not of very likely chronic misery--poverty, financial insecurity and lousy work?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bush/Blair Press Conference: Piled Higher and Deeper

Bush Sees a Chance for Change to Sweep Mideast - New York Times:
President Bush, vowing to turn conflict in the Middle East into a %u201Cmoment of opportunity%u201D for broader change, said today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be dispatched to the region on Saturday with a plan for a multinational force that would help Lebanon%u2019s army take over from Hezbollah in the southern part of the country.

War brings out the worst in me, and probably everyone else. I've been following the events in the Middle East and in my gut I hope that Israel beats the crap out of Hezbollah, destroys Hamas and levels the surrounding territory. This is the Clash of Civilizations--not a war of Jewish Zionist and Christian Crusaders against Muslims, but the war of Modernity against Barbarism.

Religion isn't the issue even if Islam fuels the conflict. Other barbarians recognize that their cultures are inferior and quest after Modernity. They just want in. But for some (not all, and probably not most) Muslims, Islam provides an ideology that promotes cultural pride and provides justification for those who, because they cannot join us, want to beat us.

But we brought this on ourselves because we locked them out. Palestinians, living in stinking mud brick refugee camps could look over the border and see the settlers who forced them out living in American-style suburbs. Israelis congratulated themselves for creating passageways in the Wall they were building so that Arab peasants could haul their olives on donkey-back along dirt roads--while they commuted on paved highways. Even the Palestinians and other Third World people who couldn't look over the border could see the life we lived on TV--and recognize that they were locked out.

No one knows what to say about 'those counterfactuals.' If they could get in, and not merely as colonized people or as second-class citizens, but enter our culture wholly, as equals and full members--would they? Or would they prefer to preserve their tribal, misogynist, barbaric cultures, live in hovels, haggle in bazaars and haul their produce to market on pack animals? I can make an educated guess.

It's a moral dilemma. This isn't a war against terrorism or, as Bush asserted over and over, a war for "freedom" and "democracy.' It isn't at bottom a war about ideology--not for the masses, who don't know anything beyond plowing the fields, herding goats and cooking cous cous, and simply see it as our tribe beating up their tribe because that's what tribes do. It's about a way of life. And the West must win--to send the message that traditional cultures will inevitably be crushed and modernity will prevail.

But the damage is horrific and the sheer injustice of it is intolerable. We locked them out, by commission and omission. A fraction of the money going into this war, and an approaching infinitesimal fraction of what has gone into all these wars, could have provided the education, medical care and basic social services Islamicist groups provide for their constituencies. If we weren't intent on shoring up the regimes corrupt dictators and pashas who kept their people ignorant and poor to stay in power and enrich themselves, we could have rebuilt the entire place.

There was a feature on TV last night about rebuilding New Orleans, where some of the worst slums and old-style housing projects were leveled by Katrina showing pictures of some of the beautifully designed mixed-income housing that was being built to replace them, to house the people who lived in those slums affordably. Compared to the price of war, the cost of such urban renewal projects is negligible. Bush talked about rebuilding Lebanon, but will he? Will we do anything comparable to what's being started in New Orleans? I'd like to see that happen, but I'm deeply skeptical about whether it will. Even if we've got the idea that poor Americans would prefer living in pretty townhouses, with central air conditioning, modern appliances and manicured lawns to human storage facilities, we resist the idea that poor Arabs would rather not live in mud-brick hovels with their goats and chickens.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Importance of Atheism

Secular Web Kiosk and Bookstore

In a national survey, part of a broader project on multiculturalism and solidarity in American life that we call the American Mosaic Project, we found that one group stood out from all others in terms of the level of rejection they received from the general public. That was atheists. And not by a small margin, either.

This was a surprise to us, at least at first...How does such a small group pose such a threat to a large majority? The more we explored this finding, the more we came back to a simple answer for it. Like it or not, many (possibly most) Americans see religion as a marker of morality,,,

Should this have been a surprise to us? Maybe not, but the fact is that people tend to talk mostly to other folks who are like them, and academics can be as sheltered as anyone. Academics of course are by and large a secular bunch. If anyone approximates the European model of the Godless secular humanist, it is the academic. Our colleagues were genuinely interested in our finding, but many also had a hard time accepting it.

I have a suspicion that respondents might have been equally negative if asked about "feminist" or any other ideological tag that carries countercultural baggage. Most people declare that they are "not feminists but" they are on board with with all the central goals of feminism as historically understood--equal political rights for women and equal access to education and jobs. Because feminism has become mainstream there is no real work for the tag "feminist" to do, so it now suggests left-wing belligerence and flakiness. That is why I think it may be time to retire the F word.

"Atheist" has been a countercultural tag for much longer than "feminist" and carries much of the same ideological baggage: people who self-identify as "atheists" have axes to grind and reject normal standards of civility; they campaign against hilltop crosses, creches in public parks and all manner of harmless cultural practices; they are even against Christmas, so the story goes.

Most Americans however have nothing against non-churchgoers or even people who, by ordinary criteria, don't believe in God--so long as they don't use the A word. When I give anonymous surveys to new freshman in my critical reasoning class, modeled on gallup polls canvassing belief in the paranormal and supernatural--including ESP, UFOs, alternative medicine, haunted houses and the like--approximately 70% profess to believe in God. The remaining 30% are about equally divided between those who say they don't and those who say they don't know--that is, between atheists and agnostics. However on their student records, which I have since they're my advisees, almost all put a religious affiliation--about 2/3 Catholic since my college is Catholic. This isn't surprising: I can't find the reference now but amongst the general population only 70 some odd percent of individuals who consider themselves Catholic, a smaller percentage of self-identified Protestants and a larger percentage of those who identify as Jews, say they believe in God.

These Catholic, Protestant and Jewish non-believers aren't liars or hypocrites. Their statements reflect the fact that for many Americans--particularly those who identify as Catholic or Jewish, religious preference is a matter of cultural or ethnic affiliation rather than ontological commitment. Moreover Hoge et. al. in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers note that about half of Protestant churchgoers are "lay liberals" who are indifferent to theological claims and hold that "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right." They have no theological or atheological axes to grind: they simply aren't interested in these matters. If pressed they may say that they're "spiritual but not religious" or that "there might be something there" but they are, at most, agnostics--thought they would never dream of using that term because they are, of course, by religious preference and social affiliation Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists or Lutherans.

Self-identifying atheists are another kettle of fish. Most are more reflective and clear about what they believe, more interested in theology and much more knowledgeable. Who wouldn't rather deal with Dennett or Dawkins, for all their ranting, or with Flew, Ayer or Russell? So, apart from a widespread distaste for active ideologues (which I don't share) it takes some explaining to understand why atheists, apparently, get such a bad rap.

In large part it is because Americans do indeed "see religion as a marker for morality." This should hardly be surprising since religious leaders promoted this view, particularly in the US when they sought to engage a population that was highly practical, impatient with philosophical abstractions and largely uneducated. From the fire-and-brimstone preachers and promoters of the Prosperity Gospel to Norman Vincent Peale and other purveyors of generically religious self-help literature to contemporary megachurch gurus peddling the "purpose-driven life," the pitch in the US has always been practical: religious belief (in whatever) and good behavior will improve your life.

Liberal clergy were especially keen on the idea that religion was at its core ethical and that theology was, at best, peripheral. Concerned to promote pluralism and tolerance, they had the notion that whereas theology was divisive, ethics was ecumenical: theology, which launched crusades, inquisitions and holy wars, should be minimized, fudged and made generic in the spirit Pope's Universal Prayer: "Father of all! In every age, In every clime adored, By saint, by savage and by sage, Jehovah, Jove or Lord!" Moreover, since the Enlightenment, metaphysics and theology in particular had become something of an embarrassment, and there was a sense amongst liberal clergy that if churches were to survive and appeal to educated people they needed to get into some other line of business. Ethics was, in any case, more salable than metaphysics--as philosophy course enrollments consistently show.

There is however a deeper, less parochial reason for the identification of religion and ethics--the idea that morality has to be metaphysically grounded and externally enforced. This idea becomes especially compelling at times and places where there is mass migration from villages to cities or when large groups of people accustomed to living in homogeneous, face-to-face communities find themselves is impersonal, heterogeneous, cosmopolitan societies. In these circumstances they run amok: think of the world of Gay's Beggars' Opera, Hogarth's Gin Alley or contemporary Nairobi--reminiscent of London during the Industrial Revolution, replete with street urchins picking pockets.

This is hardly an original observation. In the village people behave themselves because there are external constraints: custom, kinship, publicity, fear of social disapproval and fear of the gods keep people in line. Villagers don't "internalize" moral rules or councils of prudence because they don't need to--like the kids in the math class I'm taking, clicking away at calculators because they can't do even simple arithmetic in their heads since they don't have to. In the Secular City, where they're anonymous and the constraints are loosened they see no reason to behave themselves: these people are strangers--why shouldn't I steal from them or beat them up? No one is going to stop me or even notice--why shouldn't I just stay drunk all the time? These credit cards are free money--why shouldn't I spend until I max them all out?

These are bad life strategies--not only, or primarily because they they promote anti-social behavior but because they individuals who adopt them get mired in poverty, stuck in debt, and wasted. Strong religion fixes that. Conservative churches provide trailer trash with scenarios for successful living; they encourage them to look more than a day ahead and set goals; they preach horse sense, give external, theological reasons for good behavior, impose discipline and provide face-to-face communities in lieu of the village and kinship group. Puritanism is the royal road to social mobility. People who buy in find that their lives are improved: they sober up and get their acts together, pay off their debts, work harder and get ahead--and discover a kinder, gentler, more organized, and altogether more pleasant world. They infer that they've been saved by the grace of God and, further, that without without religion most people will behave as they would if they hadn't been saved.

They simply haven't got the idea that people can reliably exercise prudence and self-discipline without external constraints--provided by the fear of God, the stern father and the cops. The Lakoff hypothesis--stern father vs. nurturing parent is correct as far as it goes but it isn't a deep explanation: preference for the strict, patriarchal family is just a special case of preference for external constraint. Religion provides such constraint for the masses. This is an old idea too, reminiscent of the notions of Victorian freethinkers who went to church to set a good example for the servants--convinced that even if they knew better, the lower classes needed religion to keep them in line.

I'm more optimistic. People can and do learn: most, within a few years or a generation, acclimate to anonymous, urban living and get the idea that they should behave themselves even when no one is looking. But lots of Americans--not only the few who have been saved in conservative churches but a great many more who assume that religion, however minimal, is the basis of morality--are not convinced. They don't realize how many well-behaved educated people--not just academics--are secularists and in any case assume that, even if there are good people who are not religious believers, secularism is risky: like the Victorian freethinkers, they believe that without religious constraints lots of people (not themselves of course) would run amok.

For them, "atheist" does not simply mean one who does not believe that God exists: it means a crusading ideologue who aims to undermine the religious beliefs, institutions and practices that keep people under control and maintain social order. This is also an old idea--Dostoyevsky's dictum that "without God all is permitted." Even if there are a few skeptical but conscientious intellectuals like Ivan Karamazov--or members of the American professoriat--who are, by themselves, harmless, their views if propagated can only lead to violence and chaos: Raskolnikov's senseless crime or the anarchist schemes of The Possessed. How do you convince people otherwise? That's the key to ending Culture Wars--getting it across that people can be civilized: that you don't need churches or religious regulations, guns, get-tough policies, harsher punishments, more external discipline, more jails or more cops to have a decent, pleasant, safe society.

Popular misconceptions aside, self-identifying atheists are by and large people who believe that atheism is important. Given the literal, strict constructionist definition of "atheism" as nothing more than disbelief in the existence of God it is hard to see why: beliefs about controversial metaphysical issues have no practical import and there is no reason why disbelief in God should be of any more importance than disbelief in Platonic forms.

One reason I suspect that some atheists think atheism is important is the assumption that belief in God is a symptom of a more general soft-headedness and irrationality--like belief in the power of crystals or herbal medicines and various occult phenomena. This isn't true--in general, views about controversial matters of ontology have little or nothing to do with hardheadedness or rationality. I know some very smart philosophers whose ontological views are bizarre: one believes that there are no people and has argued for this in a famous article; another believes that there are people, and organisms, but no inanimate objects other than "simples"; yet another believes that all that really exists is Stuff and Platonic forms.

Mainly though I suspect atheists think atheism is important because like most religious believers they imagine that religion is inextricably linked to morality--though, they believe, the wrong morality: they note the assumption of many religious believers that morality requires external constraints and their propensity to promote oppressive, conservative social and political agendas. If that's the problem though atheists should work to break the association between religion and ethics instead of campaigning against metaphysical theses, religious symbols and cultic practices. And that may not be as hard as many people imagine. The association between religion in the narrow sense--the belief in supernatural beings or states of affairs, myths, fetishes and cultic practices--and morality is a relative novelty. The Greek gods didn't give two hoots about morality and generally behaved badly themselves.

If atheists are serious about the importance of atheism they should stop preaching metaphysics to the choir, stop crusading against religious symbols in the public square and drop the pretense that harmless religious customs and practices are the thin end of the wedge driving in fundamentalist theocracy. Certainly it is important for atheists, and everyone else, to fight against the introduction of "intelligent design" in public school biology classes and work to stop fundamentalists from imposing their socially conservative agenda on the rest of us; it is however impossible to understand what good waging an expensive, long-running legal campaign to move the cross on Mount Soledad does for atheists or for anyone else.

During the heyday of American civil religion in the 1950s, Peter Berger, a conservative Christian though no fundamentalist, complained that Americans were inoculated with a weakened form of religion at an early age and so were ever afterward immune to the real thing. As a liberal Christian I'm for Christianity in it's weakened form--for the myths, symbols and practices people enjoy and for the cultural practices of other religions as well. I like Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants and the little earth god shrine at the entrance to the Vietnamese supermarket where I shop. I'd like it if public schools celebrated Hanukah as well as Christmas, and holidays of any other religions as well, and if public parks featured midsummer celebrations for Wiccans and naked pagans dancing around the maypole. I'd like to live in a world where religion was broad but shallow, where churches, temples and shrines were thick on the ground, where everyone knew the myths, observed the holidays and enjoyed the music--but no one imagined that religion provided a basis for morality, looked to it for rules to guide their lives or attempted to impose those rules on others.

Atheists who believe that atheism is important should consider supporting religion in this weakened form to inoculate people against more virulent strains. You can't get rid of religion--there are too many people who simply like it too much. You can only de-fang and civilize it so that people can enjoy it without being harmed or doing harm to others.