Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Who Do You Say I Am?

One of the major concerns of the world has become the rise of "fundamentalism," something that seems to be closely linked to the "religions of the Book" (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), but is not necessarily limited to them. But is there a similar rise, again, in racism? And if so, why? Are these things connected?

Romanticism was a direct response to the Industrial Revolution and its treatment of labor as servants to the machine. But where nature was cruel, capricious, harsh, and difficult to live with, the machine was relentless, dispassionate, uncaring, and unceasing in its demands. At least nature rested at night; the machine never needed to rest. This radical shift in human life prompted a radical shift in human understanding. It prompted a spiritual crisis: "Great God! I'd rather be a pagan suckled on a creed outworn!," Wordsworth cried, putting at the center what became the most important aspect of being human, which was, being a spiritual being.

Fundamentalism, which arose after Romanticism had come to dominate European thought, was of a piece with this, although it was a reaction to scholarship and growing secularism. The root, however, was in Romanticism: the importance of the individual, especially the individual against the world. That central figure of Romanticism, the beleagured artistic soul buffeted by an uncaring human society, became the central figure of Fundamentalism: a God-fearing soul in the midst of an increasingly God-less world. It became, in other words, an issue of identity.

The heart of racism is the issue of identity, too. Individuals have to have the strength of character to create themselves from something not ultimately dependent on anyone else. That is the existential lesson from Kierkegaard through Sartre to Camus. It is the lesson from Romanticism, absorbed by now by all the (culturally) European world. But that effort, as Kierkegaard and Sartre and Camus, et al., also understood, is incredibly hard. And such an incredibly hard effort is one few people want to make.

So where to cast about to find a pre-manufactured identity? Fundamentalism offers one answer. Racism offers another. Identifying ourselves as individuals is a difficult and frightening task. Identifying ourselves as members of a group is not only a fundamental principle of sociology and, probably, biology; it is also a fundamental need. When we are members of a group, any group, it is easier to know who is "ours," and who is not "ours". And then the problem is: we begin to act on it.

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