Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Yesterday all the past...."

You know, the "thing" about fundamentalism is that it isn't medieval.  It's as modern as the "New Atheism."  It isn't a return to Gone Away or Never Was, which is a peculiarly American affliction.  We are a nation of immigrants, which means we have memorialized the "Old Country" even as we fled it because of its "history."  Charles Dickens has a wonderful passage in Martin Chuzzelwit where the eponymous hero comes to America only to be told what's wrong with Europe (England in particular) and what precisely is happening there at the very moment he's set foo in America after the sea voyage.  The Americans he encounters can't possibly know, of course, and their "view" of England is distorted by their ideology, but the contrast with "pure" America, shorn of history and its entanglements, is too compelling a mythos to set aside.  We are obsessed with it even as we denounce it to announce our superiority.

Just as we imagine America a shining city on a hill set apart from all that foofaraw that is European history (and so complicated, too!  Italy and Germany weren't countries as we know them until the 19th century!  Principalities!  Border wars!  An entire monarchy of cousins from England to Russia!  Dukes, earls, viscounts, vicomtes, regents, barons, kaisers!  Who can keep it straight?), we idealize the Europe our ancestors left behind, and preserve in amber the culture we want to remember:  cuckoo clocks and lederhosen and snails in garlic butter and Christmas trees and snow (most of Europe is north of the northernmost parts of America), and oh how happy the peasants were in their quaint cottages of yore!

We have always swaddled ourselves in nostalgia, so much so we idealize the "Founding Fathers" as men of one voice, one heart, one mind, one purity of vision and purpose.  The South has it's glorious "traditions" which were mostly nasty and brutish and best indicated by scenes in "Django Unchained" than by "Birth of a Nation."  All the traditions of the South were borrowed from some imagined England and fed on French ideals of chivalry that came to England by way of stories of King Arthur, a king England cared not a bean for until the French did.  Any lingering nostalgia for the "Old South" is for a place that never existed except in memory, but America is all about the memory of what we used to be, and will be again one day, once we recover the true vision of our "Founding Fathers," and run government (which means our lives) the way they meant for us to.

And so fundamentalism arises in the early 20th century, a reasoned response to an Age of Reason; a rational rebuttal to modern rationalism, a rationalism itself doomed to go smash in the violence of World War I, the ashes and ruins to be battered into rubble and dust and forged into a new and even more rational age in the industrial forge of World War II (the U.S. won that war with industrial might no country in the Axis could match; the Germans created the Holocaust with a nightmare use of industry no other country in the world could imagine).  Fundamentalism took modern reason as its standard, insisting interpretation was a lie, that everything was just what it said it was and was meant to be.  To this day "freedom" is as America defines it; as are the words "justice" and "Democracy" and even "Good" and "bad."  Any attempt to interpret those words according to context or culture or history, is an act of treason against the Holy American Empire.  Such talk is barely countenanced and usually roundly denounced.  Try speaking of Muslims as human beings who have the right to their own definitions of those words and see how many people react with cries of what the Koran "says" or how not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are clearly Muslims.

Muslims do not get to define themselves; we alone have the power of definition, and we will not give it up.  Definition, after all, is interpretation; and the Enlightenment has taught us there can be but one interpretation of every event, and that interpretation must be the right one.

We are all fundamentalists, now; or at least, we want to be.

If we don't like someone else's fundamentalism, we denounce them as "medieval."  But read a medieval work, like Chaucer's or Dante's.  Read "The Pearl" or "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" or  "Piers Plowman" and marvel at the complexity of the world they reflect, the subtly of understanding of the human condition.  Study the visions of Julian of Norwich, where God is father and mother, where Jesus assures Julian that sin is small rather than insurmountable, that God's mercy indeed means "all things shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well," that even sinners will be redeemed.  There is no simplicity of interpretation in these works, no "fundamentalism" that is to be taken as the final and authoritative word against which not questions can be put.  The rigid certainty of fundamentalism is modern.  It is post-Enlightenment.  It is today.

The desire to distinguish religion from reason; to denounce religion and expunge it from the earth; to drive religion into a "private" enclave from whence it can never escape and where it can bother no one?  Modern.  Post-enlightenment.  Western.  Today.

Yesterday all the past....and we still insist we can learn nothing from it.  Yet if the "Bronze Age shepherds" could walk among us now, they would wonder at how blinkered and ignorant and sad we were, for all our hooting about our "progress."  We insist we no longer have souls that need any care, but we equally insist we have "minds" which can be "downloaded," through some inexplicable process we are sure is coming, into computers, granting us immortality.  "Soul" is a chimerical medieval fantasy, but "mind" is....reasonable?  Why?

We can pile up the examples of how much more we are than they were, our imaginary time-traveling shepherds, but they would look at us and ask:  "How?"  What do we know that they didn't know, about getting through each day; about doing the job in front of us; about being a small player in a very large social order; about staying alive until it ends for you?  We have made it possible for so many of us not to do any hard labor; but so many of us still do.  And like those shepherds in their Bronze Age, or in the 1st century, our laborers are just as invisible; our society tells them they are just as unimportant.

So why is it we still remember those shepherds?  We still point at them, and laugh, and say "They knew nothing!"  How much progress is that?  They knew nothing, because they didn't know what we know.

And there is nothing more defining than that.  You can't be more certain of the boundaries of the acceptable, of the fence place around the heilige, the pure, the holy, the wall that keeps the unscathed unscathed, and the rabble out, that defines "good" and "bad," "us" instead of "them," than with a definition, than with control of the concepts and the power to be sure you maintain control of the concepts.

Indeed, it's fundamental to modern discourse.

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