Tuesday, October 06, 2009

In the Desert of the Fathers

Howard Zinn likes to tell audiences that governments lie. This is, for him, an important lesson, one citizens need to learn. There is another lesson, though. A lesson exemplified in the life of Max Cleland, as I realized this morning listening to NPR. You have to listen to this story to get the full impact. The summary won't do it justice. Because the lesson here is a deep and painful and profoundly troubling one.

Max Cleland is as well known now for the campaign Saxby Chambliss ran against him (unnamed in the audio story). If you listen to the story, you hear the incredulity, the bewilderment, almost the accusation, in Renee Montagne's questions: "How did they do that?" (Paint him as "unpatriotic.") "How did it stick?" (A man with five deferments made a triple-amputee Vietnam war hero the villain)." It's almost like it's Cleland's fault that the lies were believed. It's almost like he did something, or, just as bad, failed to do something, and the fault is his, not Karl Rove's or Saxby Chambliss's (she never names any of Cleland's political opponents from that race), nor even the voter's fault.

It is clear that the loss in 2002 destroyed Mr. Cleland's world, and in that there is a warning about where you put your treasure. But how did they make it stick? How did they "do that"? They lied. And people believe lies.

There's the awful lesson. Not that governments lie, or politicians lie, or even that political operatives and political campaigns are run on lies. It's not that people lie. It's that people believe lies. They believe lies, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about that.

The popular view, of course, is that people individually are smart, and people collectively are stupid. "A person is smart," Tommy Lee Jones tells Will Smith in Men in Black. "People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." It's sort of how we balance Jefferson and Madison, and say our democracy works: because people individually can be trusted, but collectively, they can be a little scary. But the truth is simpler and darker than that. People are not smart, and a person is not smart. They are dumb, panicky, and dangerous, collectively or individually. And they believe lies. They accept them. They swallow them hook, line, and sinker, and do so personally, not as some kind of vaguely collective Id. They do it themselves, for themselves, by themselves. They do it because they want to. They do it because it benefits them. They do it because lies are so much easier to take in than the truth. They do it because people lie. Not governments, not groups, not corporations, not congregations, not assemblies, not agencies, not councils: people. They are the only ones who can lie, and the only ones who can believe the lies. No one believes because everyone else does, or because everyone lies or accepts the lie: they believe for themselves first, and as part of a group later. It's the inescapable conclusion of Sartre's existentialism, of the idea that we are individuals first, and members of a group second. We are the ones who accept the lies: us, individually, personally. We accept the lies, and then a group accepts the lie, and then a city, a county, a state, a nation. If those things collectively are dumb, panicky, and dangerous, it is because we individually are dumb, panicky, and dangerous. And it doesn't take much at all to make us believe any damned fool thing someone wants us to believe.

Why do I bring this up? Partly from experience; I've gone through the kind of shattering loss Max Cleland went through. Our experiences differed in many ways, but fundamentally they were the same. Picking up the pieces is damned hard, and making sense out of a world where you were sure people would understand if you explained yourself to them, that at least they would be reasonable, is also damned hard. The alternative seems to be cynicism, the belief that people are no damned good, that they are panicky beasts best manipulated like cattle, rather than treated like persons. If you think Barack Obama presents the positive counter-example that proves such cynicism bitter and crabbed and narrow, consider just how many people continue to castigate Barack Obama for being too bi-partisan. These same people are astounded at his attitude, even though he wrote a best-selling book about his political philosophy which, my wife says (she read his book, I haven't) he is following to the letter. Yet we are still astounded. We prefer our own lies to the truth of what he has told us, and despite being a best-seller, apparently no one in America (at least among bloggers and the chattering classes) has read it.

So it goes. People believe lies. Especially the lies they live by.

But partly I bring it up because I read this at Fr. Jake's place, and it provokes a response in me.

In the previous post that wandered around the issue of "authority," I spoke about "networks," which is but one shift in the way humans are perceiving reality today. I now want to add two more shifts that I think the Church must recognize, if we are to effectively continue our mission. These three shifts are:

1. Networks - relationships are formed through complex webs of networks, often formed around leisure activities, family and friendships. Geography often plays a minor role. Network societies can both connect and fragment, as well as include and exclude.

2. Mobility - as the "local" gives way to the "global" perspective, new options regarding where we put down roots have opened up. In some cases, the concept of "roots" (home) has been completely redefined, with "place" being given a lower priority. This can provide more freedom and opportunity, but also undermines long term commitments. It is also cause for some tensions between those who have the means to be more mobile, and those who feel "stuck" in a particular place.

3. Consumer societies - previous generations found their identity in what they produced, but we now find our identity in what we consume. The core value of society has moved from ‘progress’ to ‘choice.’ We are moving towards a “personalized scale" in which ”it must fit me exactly” is an essential value. Among other things, this will affect the way people evaluate truth claims. “Truth” will be treated as a commodity. Consumer societies provide more choices, while also reinforcing the illusion of individualism.
I'd first say that "networks" as a perception of reality is no more than a metaphor, the way "processor" is now the metaphor of choice for what the human brain is. In medieval times, the brain was a gear case of watch parts. Now it's likened to semi-conductors, mostly by people who have no real idea how a computer works, but like the metaphor of "hardware" (the brain cells) and "software" (the ideas in the brain, or perhaps even "consciousness."). And I'm not sure there's anything new or insightful in "networks." I think I can still learn as much about human society, in other words, from reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or watching Shakespeare's plays, or perusing Dicken's novels. Even Beowulf and the lesser known "Exile of the Sons of Uisliu" tells me a great deal about how people get along. "Network" would just be a buzzword I could apply to any of those pictures of human society. I'm not sure it's even a new lens.

But that's a familiar gripe, coming from me; and I'm not interested in griping with Fr. Jake. I am intrigued, however, by his assertion that "previous societies" (how previous, and where the line of demarcation is drawn, is a bit vague) formed their identities around what they produced, not what they consumed. It's a bit idyllic, that notion; raising images of happy shepherds watching sheep safely graze in pastoral landscapes, while French herders produced unique forms of cheese and wine and British writers created plays and poetry and novels, and German composers produced music while Italian artists wrote operas and sculpted statues, none of it with any eye it would be used, just that they would take pride in their production of such things. Which is all bosh, of course, when it's put that way.

The Roman Empire collapsed because production could not keep up with consumption. It spread because consumption demanded ever newer sources of production to feed the need of Rome. All roads led to Rome for a reason, after all. And the few who consumed rested heavily on the many who produced for their consumption. There is a reason there were so many poor in Palestine for Jesus to walk among, and it wasn't because of poor middle management or a lack of entrepeneurial spirit. No, those aren't the traits Fr. Jake mentions, but they lie behind an assumption that human life fundamentally changed in the Industrial Revolution (which is the technological break-point where production could finally increase to the point that more people could consume than were needed to produce, a fact created by the use of non-animal forms of energy, and which set us on the road to our current global-warming/energy depleting dilemma.). Human society didn't really change with the advent of the factory; only the tempo did. The song remained the same.

The British Empire, like the Roman, drew resources from around the globe to England. The American Empire (such as it is), and the European (again, such as it is), or what we call the "First World," rests heavily on the resources of the "Third World," in a pattern of consumption and exploitation unchanged since the time of Solomon (to choose a Biblical figure). What is different is the scale of the consumption, not the fact of it. All we have done in America is convince ourselves we are deserving of this grace, but that attitude is as American as apple pie. When Sarah Palin says God put the national resources of Alaska in Alaska so Americans could exploit them, she's not saying anything that would have sounded out of place in an 18th century New England Puritan pulpit, long before the Industrial Revolution hit these shores. Same as it ever was, in other words.

As for this:

2. Mobility - as the "local" gives way to the "global" perspective, new options regarding where we put down roots have opened up. In some cases, the concept of "roots" (home) has been completely redefined, with "place" being given a lower priority. This can provide more freedom and opportunity, but also undermines long term commitments. It is also cause for some tensions between those who have the means to be more mobile, and those who feel "stuck" in a particular place.
It's a vague and glittering generality that in no way comports with my experience of the world. I've seen people try to enter a community and bring to it a "global" perspective, or at least a perspective that they think is broader than the "parochial" perspective of that community. They are ejected like a watermelon seed between pinched fingers. I have yet to see anyone who has completely given up on "place" as a source of identity, or "roots" as something "completely redefined," except the elites who can afford to jet around the country or around the world, and who truly think the nation or the world is their playground. I'm not being condescending to say that, I'm trying to describe the same attitude toward "the locals" that led Pontius Pilate to build the walls of his governor's palace so high his gaurds could easily peer into the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, the better to keep an eye on "the locals" there. Pilate's attitude toward the "place" and "roots" of the people of Palestine was so disdainful that he was finally removed from his position because of his cruelty to them. Jesus of Nazareth was neither the first nor the last person Pilate crucified unjustly.

"Place" is given a lower priority only by people who can afford "Place." Those who can't, who have to make do where they are, find "place" to sometimes be the only thing in their lives that matters. It is true that mobility seems to have obliterated "place," but T. S. Eliot said as much almost 100 years ago:

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.
And yet I have found profound parochialism in Eliot's home town of St. Louis, as well as in the suburbs of Chicago, and even the environs of Houston, Texas (what is parochialism if not a profound sense of place?). I find even the placeless places such as Houston, give people a sense of "roots" and "place" that is not reflected in the writers of books who assure me that, en masse, people no longer care about place. To which I respond: no one lives a life en masse. They all live lives individually, sometimes lives, as Thoreau said over 150 years ago, of "quiet desperation." And place very much plays a role in such desperation. (The placeless place of Plano, Texas, briefly held the dubious honor of being the second highest teen suicide rate in the nation. The root cause was the lack of "place" and "roots" that life in Plano required.) There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Indeed, in Houston, Texas, there is a neighborhood known for its gay community, and it's no accident a very gay-friendly UCC church out of Dallas has established a new church in Houston, in that neighborhood. "Place" and "roots" have a lower priority? If they do, it is because they are disdained by the machine. If they do, it means we have lost something valuable and potent which we must regain, rather than accept this change as part of some "natural order."

Why do I link together Fr. Jake's post with my own reaction to Max Cleland's interview? Because both rely on an aversion to the particularity of individuals, and with the seeming homogeneity of groups. Groups don't live in communities, or networks, or places, or vote: individuals do. But it is very hard to speak of individual motivations and make a coherent picture, and very easy to speak of mass responses and "trends" and "megatrends" (the term is long dead, but the idea is still with us). Consider how easy it is to read and misread the lessons of mass data about large groups: it all depends on what data you are looking at:

Tickle issues a clear call to acknowledge the inevitability of change, discern the church's new shape and participate responsibly in the transformation. Although Tickle's particular focus excludes the dynamic forces of Asian, African and Central/South American Christianity, this is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the face and future of Christianity.
That's from the Amazon page Fr. Jake links to for Phyllis Tickle's book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Put simply, as any scholar will tell you, what you find depends very much on what you go looking for. I don't much like the Christianity emerging in Nigeria, especially as it has played out on the global stage in The Anglican Communion; but that, too, is part of "The Great Emergence," and analysts of change in Christianity would ignore it at their peril. Indeed, the battle in the Anglican Communion would seem to indicate a battle of ideas in Christianity that is just beginning, and that will not soon end with cooperation and agreement and acceptance of how Christianity should change, and why, or even whether what results is Christianity at all.

It's still the same old story; and all is vanity, and striving after emptiness. But it's also still a case of do, or die. The fundamental things apply. But which things are fundamental; and how, and to whom, do we apply them?

Aye, there's the rub.

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