Sunday, March 28, 2010

Another quick one

I was just standing there, pooling water in the sink to hold hair that I mowed from my face, and the BBC WorldService was going into its segment "The Interview," and they were going to repeat a segment I'd already heard, with the mayor of Jerusalem. I had just gotten back from fetching a biscuit, and I had considered blogging a thoroughly mopey observation about the differences between dogs and their vertical but shabby and stunned and melancholically prideful owners on the morning walk, and I was contrasting these and my own mood to the day.

You see, it's Palm Sunday. This is the day when the followers of Jesus got what the literal minded expected. This is the day when Jesus conformed to their expectations -- the expectations people like Nir Barkat would have -- of being King of Israel and Judah. Christians, who know the whole cycle, are in a strange moment of prolepsis and memory, and this has been one of the most intriguing parts of worship for me: we are to celebrate occasions as if they are isolated from what follows and yet as if they are fully in communication with what follows. We celebrate triumph today, and we know, at the same time, what follows.

Anyway, I thought about how, in comparison with something unimportant to the first generation of Christians, like birth days, the date of Palm Sunday is very carefully recorded. The timing of Holy Week is quite precise. We can be sure that this is the same week of the year, even though we have no guess about something like Christmas. The reason is that it occurred during Passover.

That led me to an observation that someone else must have made. Passover must have been an extremely major holiday for Israel and Judah at the time of Christ. If all of the early Christians knew it exactly, and if it was the centerpoint of the year, then it was not simply some holiday or holy day. That led me to thinking that a nation like pre-diaspora Israel must have taken the liberation from Egypt as something like a point of national foundation day (Fourth of July) plus a holy day plus a day of the Law.

The way that I work, I began to think -- largely because of the dramatic increase in hate speech and hate groups in the USA this year -- of what freedom from slavery, what emancipation, would mean for a people. Juneteenth was once a major celebration, we're told, but it has faded out almost entirely. (Yeah, it's on the web, but so are Norse fertility rites, and notice that the first thing is, "What is this?") The Emancipation Proclamation, I hope everyone knows, did not "free the slaves." It freed slaves in Confederate territory. I.e. it freed slaves beyond the reach of the proclamation itself, and it did not free slaves in the Union. It would take later action for there to be real emancipation -- hence Juneteenth.

I thought, "Gee, people ought to have a Passover-style celebration," but then I stopped.

I stopped for two reasons. First, there is nothing divine involved. A nation that ceases to do evil is not actually doing good. When a nation ceases to be legally wicked, it's a pretty piss-poor party we'll throw. Also, the deliverance was judicial and legislative and contentious. The second reason, though, is the question of who would celebrate? All descendants of formerly enslaved persons should celebrate, of course, but do those descendants know who they are? Our histories are vague. Our ancestries are treated, in the U.S., as quaint matters for D.A.R. and cotillion manque dames. Skin color has nothing to do with it, of course, and both "white" and "black" people can find enslaved ancestors and enslaving ancestors, if they have ancestry going back far in the continental United States. (Many of the people now sprouting neo-Confederate tufts of gray are curiously newly arrived, in that respect. They talk of how nice slavery was, and yet they don't seem to want to be enslaved, themselves. I, on the other hand, have the ancestral taint, and I see nothing in it to boast of or expiate on the individual basis.)

Finally, I wondered about celebrating Passover in Egypt. Our situation is quite different. It may be historically unique. We are a society that is striving to integrate and redress. This is peculiar, and it is worthy of celebration. It is perhaps worth shouting about that we did not pass over, that we folded in, that we admitted to membership and admitted to ourselves.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Self destructing phrases

Certain phrases are false if they're true and true if they're false.

We know this from the old liar's paradox. I can give it to you in the Cretin version, but I'd rather give you a cretinous version of it: "Everything I say is a lie." You see, if the statement is true, then it's false, but, if it's false, then it's true. These are not, I would argue, paradox at all, because they do not seem to be true.

"Literal reading of the Bible" is a self destructing phrase. No one, no matter how stupid, and I mean that, reads the Bible literally. Any person who took the Bible literally would have to be Roman Catholic, to start with, due to "Take, eat, this is my body given for you," and then he or she would have to be a Catholic from before the 2nd Vatican Council. Additionally, though, such a person would read the Revelation of St. John and expect exactly what it says, a dragon with ten heads, for example, and would never, ever say that that "represents" something like the E.U. Such a person would also think that the builders of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem were incompetent, as Nehemiah said they "built with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other." That person would also think that David was not a king of Judah and Israel, but, in fact, a sheep, since the Lord was his shepherd.

No one, least of all the people who talk most raucously about how they want a "literal interpretation of the Bible," reads the Bible literally.

"Government spending" is a self-destructing phrase. I was polled recently and asked how much of a voting issue it was for me to "stop government spending."

Government spending? Which government? I presume the U.S. government is intended, but which level of it? Is it important for me that my city stop spending funds? Of course I am supposed to assume that the phrase refers solely and exclusively to the federal government, but if I am "against government spending," I can only make the phrase have meaning by thinking in an analogy to a human being. If I am against my child's spending, it is because I want my child to save for college. Is that what I want, then? I want the U.S. federal government to build up a bank balance?

In reality, I am against spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative. This anti-ballistic missile treaty defying program has sucked out $3,000,000,000,000.00 of our tax money to protect us from the Soviet Union's intercontinental ballistic missiles. It doesn't work. It can't work. It can't work for that, at any rate. No American citizen's health is improved by it, and no American citizen's poverty is relieved, and no American citizen's drug habit is reduced, and no city's infrastructure is bolstered, and no wetlands are protected, and no rail systems are built with it, and no broadband is laid, and no smartgrid is built. It sits there sucking, and no one seems to question it. However, the people "against government spending" will not be up in arms about it. No. They'll be furious about Welfare -- the thing that accounts for less than 0.01 of our domestic spending. They'll be furious about museum funding. The phrase "government spending" is not "government" or "spending," but "domestic spending on the poor and needy and culture and cultural products not your own."

"Taxes" is not self-destructive as much as it is empty political calories. It's a symbolic link, in Internet terminology. When you click on that verbal icon, it redirects you to another concept. Instead of taking you to "taxation," it takes you to "individual income tax." The people out there with signs and turning purple with rage are all about "taxes," but they do not mean taxation: they mean the income tax, and that is the only form of taxation they mean.

"Public health" is a self-destructive phrase. I know that I am more likely to use it than the people I've been railing at, but it's a phrase that takes itself apart. Health is individual, not public, and public is necessarily unhealthy.

Recently, the governor of the state I am in justified continuing banning alcohol sales on Sunday only on the grounds of public health. I watched youngsters try to argue for or against his position. Inevitably, they all argued for his position, but they found themselves, being under twenty-one, arguing his logic rather than his position. They argued that the public is healthier without alcohol than with, and therefore alcohol sales should be prohibited at all times. (In fact, my own view is that the ban on Sunday sales is a bit of left over religious bigotry. I suspect that it was originally aimed at Catholics, not sobriety.) The reason that this governor felt no compunction in making such a weak and stupid argument was because he had "public health" to hide behind. A phrase without meaning, a phrase that disassembles in the mind, is a phrase that can hide an elephant.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In the works, but it's so haaaard

What's up next?

Unlike the serious-minded, personally affecting post below, which took a long time to write, I have one that practically writes itself, except for finding the time. My next topic and theme is
The Laziest Generation
(it's yours).

I've been asked to keep the forgiving, reflective, "we're all sinners" tone out and to go for the throat, and I'll try. I must say, though, that BBC deciding to run "Super Power Season" has certainly been a major help in pulling out the knife and putting away the bandages. Every time some "Internet entrepreneur" comes on to say, "Like, we have to look at things from the perspective that things themselves ask for," I want to grab a garrote.

Back as soon as I can find the time. It shouldn't be long.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Auto de, Auto da, Auto dum (revised)

[Note: I had originally written this in pieces, and the results were uneven. You can read them, below, in "De, Da, Dum."]

I work at a place where there are rumors that a statement of faith is coming. It's not so remarkable. Many, many, many parochial and non-parochial institutions have things like that. Heck, entirely secular places have these statements of belief that employees have to sign, but they're called "statements of principle" or "memos of understanding." It got me thinking, though, about why a group that has given absolutely all credible evidence of belief in behavior needed to be sent through a signed confession.

There's a lot of it about.

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. Oh, my European readers will not believe anything so trivial really happened, but it was an encouraging improvement. 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. (The fact that this came from Lee Atwater is not surprising, really.) When they were all singing and pledging and swooping their arms over their hearts with greater and greater passion and stage tears at the mention of soldiers, 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 look grave without looking dead. The flag pin, in comparison, didn't bite down.

The idea was that by his pin shall ye know him. By his pledge shall he be known. FoxNews has been convicted of passing along an e-mail slander about candidate Obama in 2007-8 that claimed that he "refused to say the pledge of allegiance." This is part of the portfolio they were building of proof that he was secretly a foreign agent.

Think about that. Do you not wonder now why no one ever made Robert Hanssen say the pledge?

You see, the thing about all such pledges and tokens is that they represent a search for 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). Indeed, the groups that employ these devices frequently are quite homogeneous.

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 an ideology that exists in and emerges from the framework of war.

If a religious institution makes its priests swear to agree to the dictates of dogma, it is presumably because the institution is in a struggle not among, but against all other religious organizations. If it has them swear to be religious, then it is at war with non-religion or with Satan. If it has them swear to be exactly in the model and mode of a particularized list of things and thoughts, then it is at war with conceptual interchange and fearful of that enemy. Oaths, in other words, create and announce their own enemies. If a political group has its members swear to the founding idea of the party, then it is against the opposing position. If it has its members go to a list of particular points, then it is against discussion and modulation and negotiation (against, in other words, civil exchange). No harm comes to a society if people are at war with evil, or Satan. Considerable harm comes if a society is in civil war. Considerable harm comes to a group if it is in intramural war.

(not my photo)
The purity pledge, the idea of cleanness, 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 auto 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 -- attempted tests of the soul, of the heart, of the mind, as if some combination of syllables could be an ascultation of the inward self. 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 of their members is better than construction of their ideology. 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.