Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Look Back at the Great Books

My mother was one of those one million Americans that bought the Great
Books (and let me tell you, she had to do without a lot to scrape
together the $$$). I wouldn't have survived my high school years
without them; they were my friends. It's a sad commentary on the
postmodern dumbing-down of America (the entire West, for that matter)
that no one can talk about the Great Books without putting those
infuriating "air quotes" around the word "Great". The fact is, they
are great, and they'll be great long after "Desperate Housewives" and
Eminem (see below) have stopped being the kind of sad, degrading
memories that makes you feel just a little bit soiled knowing that you
ever devoted a single brain cell to thinking about them. Kant, Hume,
Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and even that annoying and consistently
wrong Athenian elitist named Plato, whose Great Books volume still has
a place of honor on my bookshelf, where I take it down every year or
two to write yet another screed attacking yet another aspect of
Plato's wrong-wrong-wronnnnnnggggggg thought. (my personal feeling
about Plato is this: if Plato doesn't infuriate you to the point where
you stand up and kick furniture, then you really haven't understood
him ...).

The problem with the internet is that it is so bloody
indiscriminate. A young person online has no way of knowing that an
online version of Plato's Phaedrus is better for him/her to read and
learn from than an online screed from some tinfoil-hat wearer going on
about missiles taking down Flight 800. The idea that the internet puts
everything out there, and the person reading it has to apply his/her
discriminatory powers to culling the wheat from the chaff, dodges one
crucial question: where the hell are young people supposed to have
learned these "discriminatory powers"? The Great Books project did
something that's considered "rude" and "elitist" in this low, degraded
post-Western age. It dared to say: "look, kid, it's like this. Here
are the Great Books of Western Civilization. We probably missed a few,
but these are pretty much the best of the best. They've stood the test
of time -- in some cases, millenia of time. So just take our word for
it, and get reading!" I wish we as a civilization still had the courage and
faith in the best parts of our shared heritage to be willing to
dictate to our young people like that. These days we're more concerned
with pumping up their all-important "self-esteem." Twenty years from
now, I believe our young people will hate us for betraying them that

Saturday, November 22, 2008

An obscure internet radio station led me to American symphonic composer Gloria Coates, creator of some of the most relentlessly bleak music I've ever experienced. On the page for one of her symphonies I saw a "listmania" item on the left side of the page. This is a user-produced feature of Amazon, sort of "If you like this, you're gonna love the items on my list!" It was the title of the list that got the hook in me and kept gnawing away at me for the next several months.


This glib and self-consciously ironic collection of words seemed to carry the freight of more meaning than their creator could have ever intended. Nietzsche claimed that we need chaos in our soul to give birth to a dancing star. I believe we need bleakness in our soul to give birth to a dancing god. Most people don't need the experience of bleakness; most people couldn't stand the raw, uncut experience of bleakness, and do everything they can to keep it at bay -- through booze and drugs, through frenetic social activity, and of course through that most popular defense mechanism, regular visits to their local houses of worship.

I recently listened to Ingram Marshall's "Three Penitential Visions," as bleak in its way as anything Coates ever composed. But after playing Marshall's piece through a couple of times, I realized something: Coates' bleak vision only got it half right. She captures the bleakness like no one else can, but she never understands that there's something beyond the bleakness. She stopped at the half way point; she turned coward at the critical moment. Ingram takes his bleak vision and turns it right on its head, transforming it into a joyous "Yes-saying" in the epilogue, Hidden Voice. This epilogue, the last three minutes of which can almost make me believe in god or gods, rises triumphantly as both the confirmation and refutation of the empty bleakness.

There are very few things more bleak than the unplugged acoustic torch songs of Tracey Thorne; her despair and yearning and hopeless need give us a vision so bleak that we are only left with one genuinely philosophical question: slice lengthwise, or across the wrist? But then her husband, Ben Watt, had one brilliant, unforgettable idea: take her hurt, bleeding songs and lay a demanding techno dance beat on top of it. Her songs of doomed love and tainted hurting became something that got into your head and your body, and told you that sure, the world and life and love and just being human was unimaginably bleak, but the backbeat wove it into something that not only told you what was on the other side of bleakness, it also told you what the cure was.

Which brings me to my point, finally. We find uplift and something resembling meaning not in despair, but on the other side of despair. I believe it's no coincidence that this important philosophical issue keeps finding its way back to music, because I believe we humans have some important unfinished business with music. Because, you see, we've forgotten what music is for. Music is what we get instead of God. Maybe it's our "consolation prize," in every sense of both those words.

On the other side of despair, beyond the bleak times and the bleak places inside us, waits a god who dances. A god promised by Nietzsche and so many others, and some may call him Dionysus and others may know him as Dancing Shiva and to some he is Pan and in the big continental sprawl of America he goes by the name of Kokopelli, but they are all the same and they all continue to hand down just one simple commandment:

Shut up and dance.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Crime of Indecision and the Crime of Indifference

"There are moments when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has its price, when nothing is neutral anymore."

-- Albert Camus

During the most uncompromising and dangerous years in the 20th century, Camus threw down the gauntlet. There were people in France and around the world who wanted to sit on the fence, think about the best course of action, weigh their options, and hide behind the endless alibis for refusal to make a decision and then act on that decision. We all try so hard to hide, to wait out the crisis, hoping that events will move quickly and thus deprive us of the curse of choice, hoping that events will make the decision for us. It is human nature, it is an understandable cowardice. But still, it is cowardice.

Here is a parable for this moment and for all the moments in history when every choice has its price and nothing is neutral anymore:

The semi-mythical Athenian leader Solon made it a law that anyone who refused to take sides in a revolution would lose all civil rights. That way, people could not stand aside and hope trouble would pass them by while they waited to see which side would win.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book Review: Piety and Politics

Figured I'd start things off with a review I wrote several months ago ...

Barry Lynn is angry. Furious, in fact. And the object of the man’s fury is the politicized, evangelical religious fanaticism that has seized control of America’s moral discourse. As a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Lynn is an unlikely figure to be standing in the front ranks against the tide of militant Christianity that threatens the United States. Unlikely or not, Lynn seems to be hitting the right keys and pressing the right buttons: he has incurred the wrath of right-wingers like Jerry Falwell and Patrick Buchanan, and Lynn has the distinction of having once been described by Pat Robertson as “lower than a child molester.” If one can be known by one’s enemies, then I like the guy already.

Lynn does not waste any time, wading right into the middle of the battle almost from the first page. He takes an almost boyish delight in going toe-to-toe with the Religious Right on some of their favorite obsessions: public education, religious symbols, the church in politics, censorship and sexual politics. Lynn believes that the Religious Right has it all wrong, that their Bible-based worldview is an unacceptable basis for approaching the question of how America should be run. He demands that American politicians stop their pandering attempts to use the Bible to justify their actions and instead put their faith in the document that they are all sworn to defend: the U.S. Constitution. But Lynn is no wide-eyed naïf; he knows the history of his country, and he understand how tenuous the separation of Church and State is, especially now.

“When, in the history of the world, has a union of church and state ever been a good thing?” With these words, Lynn attempts to reason with the fundamentalists, posing a question that they are unwilling to consider and ill equipped to answer. Unlike the Religious Right, Lynn knows the true history of his country, and is able to describe religion’s long struggle to usurp America’s secular system of government. Those Americans who believe that the current spasm of fundamentalism is something new, or even exceptional, will perhaps take comfort from Lynn’s insightful analysis of the history of a fanaticism that has always been embedded in the fabric of American culture, and his explanation of how America has (so far) survived the ill effects of this fanaticism.

Quite simply, there was never a time when some form of struggle between secularism and fanaticism was not taking place. We must remember that the first colonists in New England came to the New World seeking religious freedom because their fanatical brand of religiosity was too radical for the Europe of the time. Mind you, we are talking about a Europe riddled with religious wars, a Europe where witches were burned along side heretics who dared to claim the Earth was not the center of the universe. And yet America’s “Puritan forefathers” were too radical to be tolerated in that environment. If we keep this thought at hand, we have no problem understanding the eruptions of bizarre religiosity that litter American history with almost monotonous regularity.

In the 19th century, “tensions over religion in public school rode so high ... that in 1844 a riot erupted after rumors circulated that schools were going to remove Protestant religious exercises.” An organization called the National Reform Association (the Moral Majority of its time) engaged in a protracted campaign to have an amendment to the Constitution declare that America was “a Christian nation,” and propagandized at the local level to write into law the idea that commerce and revelry should be curtailed on “The Lord’s Day” (an idea that continues to enjoy wide support throughout many areas of the U. S. to this day).

Very little changed in the 20th century, except that the Religious Right became more sophisticated and clever as they struggled to infect the Constitution with the virus of religiosity. Lynn reminds us that the seemingly immutable slogans “one nation, under God” and “In God We Trust” are relatively recent innovations, driven by the decision in the 1950s to recruit God “in the battle against juvenile delinquency and communism.” The propaganda campaign to portray secularism as “some amoral, libertine perspective on life” also gained enormous traction in the second half of the 20th century, and not just among those who were obvious fringe cases. One cannot help but think of Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign, making the truly alarming claim in his stump speech that “faith is necessary for good behavior.”

Lynn oscillates between sadness and ill-concealed amusement when he discusses the fact that, in the United States, “secularism is mandated by the government, but religion still pervades the culture with a strong and vibrant voice. In much of Europe, there is no government mandate of secularism, but the cultures are effectively secular.” This is no exaggeration: I have driven through much of Europe, from the Spanish border to Bavaria, and it is only in Italy that one sees even a faint echo of the old religious madness. For the most part, the old churches of Europe, from the grand cathedrals to the most humble village church, are now nothing more than museums. As Lynn observes, the churches of Europe “lack for only one thing: congregants.”

Lynn seems to recognize, at least implicitly, that America’s tribal and atavistic religiosity will never wither away the way it did in Europe. There is something unique about the tightening grip that religion has on America, something toxic and not a little bit mad. Yet even within this historical context, Lynn is forced to admit, “I’ve never seen the situation this bad.” The disease of religious fanaticism has mutated, growing ever more dangerous as it turns the tools of modernity against modernity itself in a struggle to undermine America’s secular foundations.

Lynn has no illusions about the nature and ambitions of America’s new crop of fundamentalists. “I’ve studies the tactics of these groups for more than thirty years. I know what they want. They want to run your life, mine, and everyone else’s as much as they possibly can.” While these Christian zealots always portray themselves as oppressed and marginalized, “members of the clergy walk the halls of Congress ... pressing their views and often being warmly received. You see them in the senators’ dining room. I’ve been there myself.” These influential members of the clergy – effectively, lobbyists for the Christian fundamentalist worldview – have admirable persistence and remarkable message discipline. Everything wrong in this country, without exception, can be laid at the feet of the godless and dubious plot by secularists and their lackeys to promulgate the separation of Church and State. Whether it is rampant immorality, plunging SAT scores, the epidemic of unwed motherhood, gay marriage, or the scourge of drugs in our urban ghettoes, all of it is the fault of the separation of Church and State. If only America could go back to those halcyon days when religion was the basis of every aspect of American life, all would be well.

This is a seductive message, perhaps because of its simplicity, perhaps because it appeals to the seemingly universal yearning for a Golden Age that never was. America’s Golden Age was brought to ruin when “that mean old Supreme Court, prodded by an atheist, intervened and threw prayer out” of the public schools. Within this context, an “activist judge” is “simply a judge who writes an opinion the Religious Right doesn’t like.” As a proudly “God-centered” Bush administration loaded the American judicial system with judges who held the “correct views,” the leaders of the fundamentalist movement, never noted for their timidity, shook off the last of their inhibitions and began to speak more openly about their grand vision of what a God-besotted American future would look like. Lynn cleverly allows fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to reveal themselves – and betray themselves – with their own words. They really do make it almost too easy for Lynn to mock them and then dispose of them.

We are dealing, after all, with men who genuinely believe that “God punishes communities that displease him with hurricanes, floods, and meteors; who assert that demons control major U.S. cities and who think Harry Potter books lure children into practicing witchcraft.” As he offers us up a seemingly endless smorgasbord of choice tidbits from the mouthpieces of the Religious Right, Lynn gives us a feel for the deeply strange beliefs of America’s fundamentalists, an archaic, tribal view of the world that would seem more at home being articulated by some shaman crouched around a Neolithic campfire, or by a priest standing atop an Aztec sacrificial pyramid. The fact that this deeply uncivilized way of understanding the world finds millions of adherents in the world’s sole remaining superpower should do more than give us pause – it should scare the hell out of us.

What Lynn gives us along with his analysis of the thinking of the Religious Right is a deep and disturbing sense of how radically opposed to America’s freedoms these people really are. They want to control what all citizens do, and they are perfectly willing to enlist the government, the courts and law-enforcement if that is what it takes to rid themselves of the burden of a freedom that they are unwilling to embrace. Lynn, to his credit, continues to believe that the American people are too smart to stand for this, and that most Americans want a government that is free of religious dicta. Those of us who share his deep concern for the influence of the Religious Right in American life can only hope that he is right. I for one do not share his optimism.

Lynn tells us that “a get-along philosophy ... will increasingly prove disastrous” and that we will end up “whistling past the graveyard of our Bill of Rights and religious freedom if we take that road.” Yet, having said this, Lynn continues to preach restraint and an insistence on “sweet reason” as the best approach for dealing with the predations of the fundamentalists. Relating an anecdote about a televised confrontation with a member of the Religious Right, Lynn recalls that the host told him off-camera, “your side isn’t as passionate as his side.” Therein lies an enormous problem, and therein lies the reason that in America today, the Religious Right marches on, rampant though not (yet) completely triumphant. The forces of common sense and reason continue to lose ground to the forces of religious bigotry and intolerance. And in a country where every candidate for public office feels compelled to outdo the others with ever more over-the-top proclamations of personal religiosity, the problem is not going to go away when a new tenant moves into the White House.

While Lynn remains a strong proponent of a rational, even-handed approach, one occasionally gets an exciting sense of the rhetorical power that Lynn must deploy when he is in the pulpit and the spirit moves him. I found myself wishing for more of the sort of fire that Lynn displays when he shouts – and though they are only words on the page, I had no problem imaging him shouting them -- “I am weary of their gay bashing. I am weary of their crude attacks on nonbelievers. I am weary of their constant effort to sneak their bogus “creation science” into our schools. I am weary of their meddling in the most intimate areas of our private lives. I am weary of their attempts to politicize houses of worship. I am weary of all that they do.”

Preach on, Reverend.

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The blog for Stephen J. Gallagher, philosopher and playwright, is open for business.