Monday, July 12, 2010

Ban the Burqa!

Veiled Threats? - Opinionator Blog - "that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─ is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity. And we add one further premise, which we might call the vulnerability premise: this faculty can be seriously damaged by bad worldly conditions. It can be stopped from becoming active, and it can even be violated or damaged within. (The first sort of damage, which the 17th-century American philosopher Roger Williams compared to imprisonment, happens when people are prevented from outward observances required by their beliefs. The second sort, which Williams called “soul rape,” occurs when people are forced to affirm convictions that they may not hold, or to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.)

How important are "conscience" and "dignity"? They aren't. They're luxury items for rich sentimentalists that don't have anything real to worry about. Questions about "life's ultimate meaning," to the extent that they're intelligible, are of no interest to the vast majority of the human race--nor, arguably, should they be.

Maybe we value these high-falutin' items because of our historical memory of the Church "built on the blood of martyrs." More likely we value them because we're too rich and comfortable for our own good. We evolved to do hard, physical work and deal with adversity. If we don't do strenuous manual labor, we need to exercise instead. If we're materially well-off, without real worries, we conjure up concerns about conscience, dignity, and life's ultimate meaning. And instead of viewing rich hobbiests who are concerned about this bullshit as the silly asses they are, we valorize them.

As the the burqa, conscience, dignity and religious commitment are not what is at issue. In Western countries Muslim costume is a symbol of non-assimilation. In addition to marking wearers as ethnically diverse it makes ethnicity more salient and so sets back the interests of others who prefer to assimilate.

We have a narrative, of ethnically diverse individuals, pressed by the dominant culture to assimilate who would prefer to retain their ethnic identities. In fact the real story is one of ethnically identified individuals who are not allowed in to the dominant culture--not only by hard racism which excludes them outright but by the new soft racism that promotes ethnic diversity and demands that they identify with ancestral cultures.

There is an irreconcilable conflict of interests between a cultural-preservationist minority, which wants to retain ethnic distinctiveness, and an assimilationist majority. The wearing of distinctive costume and other markers of ethnic identity looks prima facie like a purely self-regarding practice, that has no serious consequences for anyone but those who choose to engage in it. But it isn't. It makes ethnicity more salient and so affects all members of the ethnic group, including those who want to assimilate.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Religion of Privilege

New Age Religion and Western Culture

[A]ll forms of New Age Holism have in common a rejection of dualism and reductionism...It may be noted that the rejection of dualism, in all its forms, is directed principally against dominant forms of Christianity, while the rejection of reductionism is directed specifically against modern scientific rationalism. Thus New Age holism emerges as a reaction to established Christianity, on the one hand, and to rationalistic ideologies, on the other...[T]he New Age movement is indeed a heir of the 'counterculture' of the 1960s...

In 1976, the sociologist Robert N. Bellah speculated about the future. Concentrating on American culture, he perceived three possible options: a 'liberal' scenario according to which society 'would continue as in the past to devote itself to the accumulation of wealth and power...a 'neo-fundamentalist scenario according to which a complete breakdown of society would be followed by a 'relapse into traditional authoritarianism,' most probably dominated by Right-wing protestantism; and an unlikely but perhaps not impossible 'revolutionary' scenario according to which the alternative movement would succeed in renewing society and actually bring in a new age...The New Age has not arrived, but the alternative movement increasingly shows symptoms of being annexed by liberal utilitarian culture...It may be legitimately doubted whether a New Age movement which has become increasingly subservient to the laws of the marketplace is likely to provide a viable alternative to a culture of liberal utilitarianism.

Why on earth should we want an alternative to a culture of liberal utilitarianism?

Ironically, in spite of the popular notion that this liberal utilitarianism, wrapped up with the quest for wealth and power, is hierarchical and inegalitarian, it is the New Age alternative that is elitist.

It's no accident that New Age preoccupations are largely restricted to the elite. The rejection of dualism and reductionism, and the mellow 'holism' of the New Age, are a luxuries only the elite can afford. For the rest of us Nature is not benign, and neither is the social world in which we live. Our lives are a fight--against the institutions that constrain us, the individuals in positions of power who impose their will on us, the elites (including New Age devotées) who are contemptuous of us, and Nature itself which thwarts us. The elite, the people whose lives are easy, can afford to be mellow: we can't. Nature is good to them: they can afford to kick back and enjoy. For us, life in the state of Nature is nasty, brutish and short: to get decent lives for ourselves we have to subdue Nature, which thwarts us at every turn.

The elite can afford to shop at Whole Foods. The elite in affluent countries can afford not to have their children vaccinated because they can count on herd immunity. Elite men can do their share of 'parenting' because their work schedules are within their control and because they aren't fagged out after a day of hard manual labor. Elite women can afford to breast feed, make their own baby food and use cloth diapers because they can hire non-elite nannys to do most of the grunt work. Elite couples can afford to garden, compost, and cook from scratch: they have the money and leisure.

Elitism though isn't only, or even primarily, a matter of wealth, power or class. It is a matter of social worth. Even before there were the social institutions that created wealth and class, there was the elitism of personal qualities: there was the elite of the young, strong, beautiful and socially competent. In the State of Nature, the elderly get shoved off to die on ice flows and ugly little toads like me are throwaways.

The whole purpose of the traditional moral rules that New Age elitists regard as irritating, irrational constraints is to promote the interests of the rest of us--the non-elite. These rules constrain people who are better off in order to provide more opportunities for those of us who are worse off. We are of course "dualists" because life for us is adversarial, trapped in bodies we hate, fighting against people who despise and thwart us. The dualistic message of Christianity is for us. It tells us that we are not our bodies and that the social circumstances that put us at a disadvantage are irrelevant: in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free.

The New Age sensibility is opposed to both "dualistic" Christianity and "reductionist" science. This should hardly surprising because they're two sides of the same coin. By embracing radical dualism and rejecting quasi-naturalistic deities, Christians made room for science--indeed, for reductionist science: for the mechanical universe. Pagans might conjecture that heavenly bodies were conscious beings, that the sun, moon and stars were gods, but not Christians. The Christian God was strictly transcendent--wholly incorporeal and not identified with the material world or any part of it. For all the trouble Galileo had with the Church, his theory wasn't a serious threat to Christianity and neither was Newton's. The idea that the sun, moon and stars were inert lumps of matter operating according to mechanical principles was one that Christianity could easily accommodate, in a way that astral religion could not, because it was outside of the realm of Christian theology.

Fortunately, Bellah's third alternative, the ''revolutionary' scenario according to which the alternative movement would succeed in renewing society and actually bring in a new age" will not come to pass. Like the 60's faux counterculture, New Age was instantly commercialized and will figure only as a package of status symbols for the elite, busily pursuing the neo-liberal dream of wealth and power.

But it will displace Christianity for the elite, and that's what bothers me: the end of intellectually acceptable religion bearing the great art of our culture. Christianity will shrink to the vulgar, stupid white trash religion of conservative evangelicals--no liturgy, no art. Meanwhile the minority of the elite who don't become completely secular will support this hodgepodge of superstition, sentimentality and bad taste--crystals and essential oils, New Age elevator muzak, middle-aged ladies treading labyrinths, and endless self-help products. Vulgar, ugly, boring, stupid slop.