Saturday, February 20, 2010

De, Da, Dum

I have written before about how, once we announce that we are offended and that we must be appeased, we have achieved the ultimate power, because the power to take offense exists independently of anyone giving offense. When our goal is harmony, instead of peace, then the most offended and most displeased person has power over the whole of the group.

Consider the United States Senate today. Its paralysis over the "notification to filibuster" is not only troubling because it says that the least happy have power to stop all things without having any necessary reasons or programs. The Republicans have not actually had any ideas for reforming health care. Their idea has been, pretty much, to stop malpractice law suits. That, needless to say, has nothing to do with health insurance. However, they feel perfectly justified in stopping all efforts at extending insurance, even efforts that they had once sponsored, under threat of filibuster, because they are not in charge.

Harmony and unison are not identical, and peace and harmony are not the same thing. Having all sides agree is not only not necessary, it is not beneficial. Having all sides cooperate is desirable, but they never will until they understand that they must honor an overriding rule that is above their individual good.

It's like pluralism. Pluralism is not relativism. Pluralism and inclusiveness is not the same thing as indiscriminate inclusion. Pluralism is a positive ideology, and it has within itself a principle of exclusion. "We allow in all groups, so long as they accept the idea of including all groups that are themselves open to inclusion" is the philosophy of pluralism. Democracy is not merely "the people vote," but rather "the people always vote to determine their government." Therefore, a democracy cannot vote to get rid of the democracy, and any vote to abolish the democracy is not democratic.

I feel like I have to point these things out, because too few people seem to know them. I feel that I need to state them rather than finesse them out philosophically because they are both axiomatic and elementary. One could take the time to work through examples and reason quietly over days and weeks to make the propositions likely, but these are, in fact, a priori within the concepts themselves. My only stretching is extending to the idea of consensual behavior. It isn't axiomatic or elementary, but I have come to believe that it is likewise inescapable that consensus means agreement when all sides understand that they cannot have their way. I.e. consensual politics, consensual corporations, consensual kindergartens, consensual communes, and consensual online editing communities are all possible only when each person gives up striving for her or his pure vision. "Consensual" is therefore an antonym to "pure" or "revolutionary" or "orthodox." The orthodox, pure, and revolutionary exist only with the application of unequal power.

I needed to do that quickly, and with none of my verbal playground stunts, because I want to talk about the auto de fe, the auto da fe, and how stupid people get when they're stressed out.

A number of conservative organizations are embracing purity tests, oaths, and other declarations these days. It has long been a feature of the conservative impulse, incidentally, as the very idea of 'return to glory days' means that one has the mindset that there is a largely invisible but inherent threat in the present, and 'return America/England/Australia/Canada/Sweden to its glory days' means that one believes that the present citizenry may be contaminated with beliefs that destroy the greater good. When this is combined with religious principles, the desire for a declaration is oddly unchanged. Many organizations associated with the Southern Baptist Church are now moving toward oaths, and this is merely the latest step in a curious evolution for a church that was once known as "the Independents" and criticized for having no unity at all. However, the way the oaths come in and the way they are organized is quite like the conservative "purity test." Instead of "creeping socialism" or division over Ronald Reagan, the presumption is that Satan is working inside those who will not sign or swear, as inward doubt is a mark of an absence of perseverance of the saints and grace (I suppose). Additionally, the institutions in question (mainly colleges) believe that they are "mission" oriented and therefore must convert, and conversions can only be performed by those who are "called" to be missionaries.

We need not dwell very long on the effectiveness of these instruments. It is self-evident that they do not work. They are like a net designed to keep the very large and the very small, while the middle sized get away. They succeed in keeping only the feckless and the fools, while the conscientious and convicted flee, and this is true whether they are applied in religion, in politics, or in culture.

What I think is worth talking about is why they do not work, and yet why people keep reaching for them, year after year, making the same historical mistakes, the same psychological mistakes, and the same cultural disgraces.

Does anyone here remember the hubbub of the flag pin in the presidential elections last year? It was all about wearing a pin showing the U.S. flag. Only patriots wore them, and anyone who didn't wear one was no patriot. Before that, there was a furore about the "Pledge of Allegiance." Back in the late 80's and early 90's, politicians vied with one another to say it loudest. They also made sure to sing the national anthem, or bits of it. It prompted me to think that the ministers of Lilliput, who had to dance on a high wire to get elected, were chosen on a more rational basis than conservative politicians in the U.S., because the public was more entertained by a high wire walker than these old white men trying to sing or look grave without looking dead.

Well, the thing about all such pledges is that they allow the certain to seek out a set of magical words, a set of words that, if spoken by the unbeliever, will cause the cursed tongue to burst into flames. They therefore represent a wish rather than a tool. They testify to the desire of the affected group, not the social coherence of it. A group can be entirely uniform in belief, completely loyal, entirely certain, and yet it can reach for the formula of the loyalty oath, the pledge, the confession of principles that all "real members" must sign or say or sing or dance (really, in some societies it's a dance). In each case, the invocation of the magic is a demonstration that the group feels like it is impure, is fearful that it is infiltrated, is nervous that its ideas or ideology haven't strength enough to survive a test (whether the test is foreign trade, education, free speech, open assembly, or discussion varies group to group and place to place).

When the Republican Party goes after a Purity Pledge, swearing to pure Ronald Reagan, they not only grant Reagan the apotheosis that Christian fundamentalists within the party really ought to object to, but they also seem to say that they are afraid that these principles are not capable of surviving in their party without such oaths. Particularly, the device is aimed at "accountability." A politician who "passes" the purity test (with its connotations of sexual inexperience being simply another troubling aspect, given that this is a party most dogged by closeted politicians and hidden pedophiles currently) can then be "held to account" when he or she casts a vote that presumably violates the pledge or test later. What's implied is that the pure principle cannot survive the jarring of practicality or negotiation. What is actually stated is that the demand is for inflexibility and "pure" or nothing.

It is this latter principle that ends up slashing the throats of those who devise such tests. The institutions, whether they're church affiliated colleges or businesses or political parties, that institute oaths and pledges for purity are stipulating a "not them" as the definition of "a good one of us." This is, first of all, an identity built on opposition, which is guaranteed to be absurd or tragic. Secondly, though, it means that the person who devises the oath is subject to the same examination by the next test giver. "Are you Baptist enough, friend," the test giver asks the test maker. "I see that you ask them to swear that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but you do not make everyone swear that it is the inerrant literal Word of God." In turn, that reformer is challenged, later, by another who can say, "I love the oath that you have devised, but you did not have the statement of principle say anything about how we all affirm the sanctity of unborn life, and we certainly don't want any baby killers around!"

Once an instrument of purity, or Puritainism, is in place, "purity" goes on indefinitely. Our friends the Menonites are pure. To them, the most fundamentalist protestant churches are hopelessly corrupted by man. Each element of a defining principle can become exaggerated to become an identity, and then a test question, and all in an effort to sort out the good from the bad on the assumption that the bad cannot speak lies and the good will never hesitate to swear.

"Auto de fe" is the original of what we now know as the "auto da fe." Originally, it was an act of faith. If you were sorry for your sins, you would show it in an act of faith. No one would tell you to, and no one would tell you how. The confessor would simply watch to see if you did something that showed that your faith was back so that he could be sure that you weren't paying lip service to the oaths. You see, the old church folk actually knew that people could be forsworn, that bad people had no problem swearing that they were good, that people without conscience would gladly swear to whatever was convenient. The auot de fe was not a test imposed by anyone, but rather a sign manifested by the will of the person.

Well, we all know what happened. Once the institutionalized fears came in, once the Roman Catholic Church became convinced that its ideas might not stand up in free interchange, they adopted tests of faith. Then came hunts for heretics. Then came increasingly elaborate tests to prove that a person was or was not serving Satan or Martin Luther. Then come the Inquisitors. After a person was tortured, that person would sign or say a grand confession in public, and this was the auto da fe. What had been a sign from the person became a testing outcome for assessment.

It's sad, amazingly sad, to see tests come in like this -- tests of the soul, of the heart, of the mind. It's sad, deeply sad, to see Christian schools, particularly protestant ones, adopting, increasingly, oaths, as if unbelievers will not sign or that they will somehow demonstrate their non-belief. It tells us that the groups at the helm are afraid that their faith is not strong, that their ideas cannot survive free exchange, that they believe that prosecution is better than construction. What's more, it tells us that they are, in their fear, willing to forgo looking at a person's expression of faith in favor of demanding a formulaic satisfaction of a ritual.

If the Republicans want to be a party again, they need to have dissent, debate, and discussion, and not purity. If protestant churches want to triumph, they need to have faith -- faith in the power of Christ, power in the Word that conquered the world -- faith in life's diversity and the glory of God who creates not in one type, one model, or one mold, but in endless variety.

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