Saturday, April 25, 2009


At the Polls, Icelanders Punish Conservatives -

With about a third of the final vote counted late Saturday, it seemed that the country’s leftist caretaking government would be formally voted into power, with the Social Democrats projected to gain 22 seats and their partners, the Left-Greens, appearing to gain 13 seats in the 63-seat Parliament. The conservative Independent Party, ousted after a wave of demonstrations in January, was projected to gain just 14 seats with less than 23 percent of the vote, down considerably from its total in 2007.

I spent 3 weeks in Iceland in 2002 when my husband had a heart attack flying back from England and the plane was re-routed to

It was September, and I liked the weather--cool, windy and unpredictable. But it was terrifically expensive and I thought the architecture was perfectly awful. I couldn't connect to it because it wasn't on my Culture Tree and, after 3 weeks, I got sick of fish. Tomatoes were more expensive than caviar: I hadn't realized before then how much I craved fresh veg.

I stayed at the Salvation Army Hostel-- --highly recommended! It was populated by backpackers and skinflints, mostly from Scandinavian and German-speaking places, and the showers worked! Hanging out in the smokers' lounge I got a intriguing picture of their views of Americans and, even more interesting, the British--like my husband. It was fascinating to discover that they regarded Brits sort of peripheral Italians: as one put it, "Nothing works, and they don't work." In my experience this is true--and I approve.

I did not approve of the Icelandic language. A book I got declared cheerfully that most Icelandic verbs were irregular. Also, they have case endings, which I detest. I thought that with English, a Germanic language, and a little German I might have a shot. But, forget it. I went to the University to see if I could make contact and do a little work but I couldn't even find the philosophy department. Even technical terms and the names of academic disciplines are strictly Germanic and completely unintelligible. I only found out later that philosophy was not "philosophia" or anything like that but "heimspeki"--very interesting, I guess it means "worldview."

Negotiating Reykjavic I realized what it must be like to be an immigrant in a place where one couldn't even read the signs--having to ask people everything, being dependent on the good will of others. Of course, they all spoke English. But I hated having to ask. In France and Italy I could get around, but this was perfectly awful. I only realized that English was really a Romance language when I went down to breakfast at the Salvation Army Hostel. There was coffee--good coffee--and a couple of pitchers labeled "mjolk" and "surmjolk." I immediately poured the surmjolk into my coffee making the perfectly reasonable inference that it was cream, the top of the milk--sur-milk. It wasn't.

There's no punchline to this story. I'm glad the Icelanders are keeping the faith and keeping the red flag flying. Having spent that time in Iceland I feel a connection--I know Rekjavic really well because I've walked all around it and follow Icelandic politics a little. Anyplace we go marks our souls, I think. But this place was seriously alien to me, even more so because it was so near yet so far--a first world country populated by white folk, where I didn't stand out, but in some way I can't even articulate more alien to me than Kenya, which I hated but where I felt in some strange way more connected.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Christian Political Activism

The FundamentaList (No. 77) | The American Prospect

The Times' Frank Rich, in his gloating obituary of the anti-gay-marriage movement, got a little ahead of himself on Sunday. Rich is right that, as Paul Waldman demonstrated last week, public opinion is trending toward legalization of marriage equality. Still, fundamentalist religious movements should never be counted out of American politics. Nor should their gentler cousins, whom the new president has embraced, be written off.

When I was doing theology, as an undergraduate, pietism was demonized. Authentic Christianity, we were told, was worldly, socially engaged and of its very nature political. Good liberal Christians recognized that true religion was a matter of acting politically in the secular city for the good of the other. Community organizing was a religious vocation and street demonstrations were liturgy. Conservative Christians, were wicked, irresponsible navel-gazers, obsessing about individual sin and selfishly cultivating a "personal relationship with Jesus" instead of working politically to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Then the conservatives went political. They captured the media, demonstrated in the streets and worked politically for social change. And liberals were horrified.

I used to be outraged by the endless moralizing about social engagement. Now I've mellowed out and suppose I understand the liberal moralizers' motives better. Churches are full of nice people who want to "do for" others, want to be useful and virtuous. Most have the idea that virtue consists in personal niceness and conventional charitable activities. Liberal clergy, surrounded by all these nice people, were trying to get across the message that there was no bright line between personal niceness and charity on the one side and political action on the other. Giving to charity and dispensing sandwiches to bums on grates is good but working politically for a more just society where there aren't any bums on grates is all of a piece with that and, arguably, more efficient. Working politically for social justice is a religious duty.

I'm fine with that but don't think that it's the essential business of churches to do either--particularly when it undermines the provision of specifically religious goods and services. Ideally churches shouldn't do either charity or political action: promoting the general welfare is the business of the state and political action is the job of political organizations. The poor are always with us, and there will always likely be dysfunctional people who hang around churches for both material and emotional handouts. But comes the Revolution most will be taken care of by the government and secular social service providers. To the extent that Christians are committed to "doing for" others, particularly others who are less well off, they should support that Revolution not only to establish more efficient mechanisms for making people better off but to relieve churches of the burden running do-good programs.

So now the fundamentalists are running, and financing, political campaigns to stop gay marriage and other social arrangements they find offensive, while liberal Christians are campaigning for gay marriage and a variety of other worthy projects. I agree with the liberals about the worthiness of these projects but don't think that it's the business of churches to promote them. Liberal churches' promotion of gay rights achieves nothing: no one cares whether the Episcopal Church blesses same-sex unions or whether liberal churches support any of the items on the menu of good liberal causes (which I myself support). No one takes their smarmy moralistic twaddle seriously--or should. All they've done is undermine their institutions.

On the bright side, the conservatives will sink themselves by opposing gay marriage and abortion and by taking the losing side on a variety of other social issues. They will not get their agendas through--the Zeitgeist is against them--and will only discredit themselves. Good!

The pity is that by campaigning for these moral and political agendas, liberal or conservative, churches will only undermine themselves and have fewer resources to devote to the provision of specifically religious goods and services.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Agnès Poirier: French students have reinvented the art of demonstration | Comment is free |

This beautiful square, right in the heart of Paris, opposite the city town hall, has been chosen by protesters to stage a ronde des obstinés, loosely translated as the hard-headed round. They've been walking in circles for two weeks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They may be hundreds, or just a dozen in the dead of night, but the walk keeps going round. They were the first surprised to see that it should keep going, that neither rain nor cold could hamper their newly set perpetual motion. What are they protesting against? The rushed and ill-conceived university reform wanted by the Sarkozy government which would, in the words of a university professor, transform knowledge into commodity, students into clients, professors into service suppliers and universities into enterprises seeking profits at all costs.

Let's do it here!