Sunday, October 15, 2006

If wishes were horses

beggars would ride. The proverb raises a question: is George W. Bush a beggar, wishing for a horse?

President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable."

In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems "unacceptable," including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Bush's decision to lay down blunt new markers about the things he deems intolerable comes at an odd time, a phase of his presidency in which all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will: national security setbacks in North Korea and Iraq, a Congress that has shrugged its shoulders at his top domestic initiatives, a favorability rating mired below 40 percent.

But a survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.
Granted, this is the part Atrios and Matt Yglesias focussed on. But the more interesting part is at the end:

Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."

Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.
"Listen," in that second person voice of command, is the favorite trope of the self-centered. It's not quite the same directive as "Those who have ears had better listen!" It's much more selfish than that. It's a command to the audience to conform your view of reality to that of the speaker, so that his view of reality is confirmed. He's not telling you what you should know; he's telling you to agree with him, so that what he prefers, will be proved right.

Pardon me while I make an odd connection between that and Jean-Paul Sartre, Douglas Adams, and Julia Sweeney. Because it's all about Romanticism, Pietism, and the cult of the individual. Don't worry; like Eliot, "I can connect/Nothing with nothing."

The newest edition of McSweeney's Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 includes Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God," her "famous critique of religion." I have a vague memory of a Douglas Adams essay with much the same content as Ms. Sweeney's effort: a profound sense of liberation when they each, separately, finally let go of their notions of God and embraced...well, what? Their inner selfishness? Their freedom from responsibility?

We have to start this discussion with the acknowledgment that Kierkegaard was right:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man [sic], if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all--what then would life be but despair? If such were the case, if there were no sacred bond which united mankind [sic], if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if the one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw--how empty then and comfortless life would be!
Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, tr. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1973 ), p. 30. That language is a product of Romaniticism, but it draws a valid point: the abandonment of God means the abandonment of value. Value can, as Sartre did, be replaced; but the cost must be acknowledged. The Romantics were perhaps too willing to pay that cost; in a perversion of Romanticism, post-moderns are all too willing to ignore the cost in a blind fit of "it's all about me!" Sartre would later call the experience described here "the encounter with nothingess," and, far from liberating him, it would fill him with the angst Kierkegaard also diagnosed. For Sartre this realization was not liberating; it merely reflected the awful responsibility of the individual. For the post-modern individual, the experience doesn't exist, because that would mean the community has some claim on the individual; that the self can be invaded, intruded upon, indeed even defined, by the world. And that responsibility for being our brother's, or our sister's, keeper, is simply unacceptable.

Sartre's ethic arising from the rejection of God is easily explained, as he did himself in a lecture. If there is no God, explained Sartre, no ethical system sustained by an outside authority to which humanity must conform, then it is indeed every individual for herself. But far from being liberating, that realization is even more burdensome: because now your choice, is the choice for all humankind. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a two-way street. By choosing for ourselves how we will treat others, we choose who those others are. We are responsible, in other words, for the entirety of humanity, because ethics is the concern of living a human life among other human beings. When we choose how that life is to be lived, we choose for all human beings what they are, who they are, and how they, too, should live. It is the very opposite of selfishness: it is responsibility, wholly and completely. When we choose, we choose for all humankind. We must choose very carefully, then; but we have no choice except to choose.

So the relief of a Julia Sweeney or a Douglas Adams just reads to me like the relief of an adolescent who has finally moved out of their parents' house, and can do whatever they want to, because they are free! Sartre understood better than any modern thinker that freedom is not free, and he didn't mean a price paid in other people's blood to maintain a system of governance in a particular country. He meant freedom is not freedom at all; it is in fact greater responsibility. Just as "Religion is responsibility; or it is nothing at all." Call it the responsibility of adulthood, if you must. But is it the kind of responsibility George Bush refuses to accept.

The world as seemingly imagined by a Julia Sweeney or a Douglas Adams, is the world of the hippies of the '60's: children of privilege who never had to work the land or in a factory, imagined life could be sustained on peace, love, and Woodstock, with never a thought to the sweatshops that made the denim jeans they wore, or who mined the metal for the guitar strings, who drilled the earth for the plastic guitar bodies and picks, who farmed the land for food and stores against drought and want. It's a bit of John Lennon's "Imagine," in which the world is perfect when everybody thinks like we do. Except the God Sweeney and Adams cast off is the god of religion, the god of Sunday school lessons, the god of the comfortable middle class who worry only about their place in the world and who, occassionaly, like Ivan Ilych, are forced to wonder why life includes suffering and even death. The god they reject is not the God of Thomas Merton, or Dorothy Day, or Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Maura Clerk, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel, or the Berrigan brothers. The god they reject is the god of comfort and illusion and assurance that life for them is good, and is supposed to be good. Fed on such pap, who wouldn't object when the world refuses to stop being unacceptable? Who wouldn't want God, or someone, to listen, and consider the individual more important than the whole, this person more deserving of a bit more comfort, a bit better explanation, a little more happiness and some better explanation?

Except, as Ilych found, explanations are not easy to come by. Not in Christianity; not outside Christianity. As Ilych found, there is no explanation for suffering, except that it is. "These are the conditions that prevail." What more explanation could we hope for? One that would make suffering make sense? Or go away? Only adolescents wish for such things. Even children are wiser than that.

It is an interesting problem: to critique God is to engage in theology. To abandon God and critique the very idea of God, is to reject religion and engage in the discourse of philosophy of religion. To do either is fine, but never imagine you are unique or brave or noteworthy for doing so. As Ecclesiastes said, there is indeed nothing new under the sun, and disbelief is as old as humankind. I am frankly bemused by attempts to make life still more comfortable for the extremely comfortable. We have a president who has never been forced to take public responsibility for anything in his life, who has wandered from business failure to business failure sustained soley by who his father is, now reduced to public foot-stomping and virtual temper tantrums. And yet, as ever, no one really seems to notice. We are more concerned with whether or not it is safe to publicly condemn religion and question the existence of God, as if it were faith that were not the courageous stance, but disbelief. Faith, however, has always been the challenge; proof always the desire:

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Isaiah 64:1-3Oh, that it were so easy! Oh that God would just overwhelm our doubt and destroy our unbelief and conquer our enemies for us and rout the forces of darkness!

Instead, God makes us responsible. And when I hear of people who have shucked that responsibility, and declare themselves courageous for doing what we dare not do, I wonder who they are talking to, and what they are talking about. True, religion is mostly about avoiding responsibility for the poor. "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."--Dom Helder Camara, Gutierrez, it seems to me, is absolutely right, but how many of us who call ourselves Christians come to God through that commitment to people, and how many of us come through a commitment to our own comfort and security? If that were the religion Adams and Sweeney are rejecting, then I would stand with them. If they were rejecting the religion of George W. Bush, the perversion of Pietism that came down through the Wesleyan movement to the United Methodist church, I would stand with them. Pietism grew out of Romanticism and Protestantism: an emphasis on the experience of the individual, which experience would first be emotional (because experiential) and only later, "recollected in tranquility," become the basis for theology and reasoning as to how we should then live. Modern Christianity has perverted that message into "We Believe In You!". If that were what Sweeney and Adams were rejecting, I would be four-square with them.

But rejecting religion does not make us less responsible to our fellow human beings; if anything, it makes us more responsible, because we have no one to share the burden with, and now we are wholly responsible, individual and alone, for all of humanity. "Religion in responsibility, or it is nothing at all." And it is justice, or it is only about just-us. The hardest thing a lawyer has to do is try to convince his client that the justice system exists to enact justice, not the client's wishes, and that it is complex and cumbersome precisely because other people are involved, and their needs must be considered, too. The world has far less to do with Lennon's "Imagine" and far more resembles Jagger's "Sympathy for the Devil."

Pleased to meet you; hope you guess my name.

But for now, I don't want any more lectures from self-righteous evangelists about the state of my immortality because of my tolerance for other people. And I don't want any more bragging from self-satisfied atheists convinced they've taken a courageous step because they've dropped belief in a Sunday-school version of deity most adult believers abandoned years ago. Both groups sound too much like George W. Bush demanding that everyone "listen," and declaring what he cannot control and has ever controlled is "unacceptable."

As if anyone asked him; or cares what he thinks. He's not in charge of the world. None of us are. But we are responsible, one for the other. Whether that responsibility comes from the encounter with nothingness; or the personal experience of God.

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