Summer Snow

“Restoring Honor” seemed like a strange theme for a mass rally on the National Mall in the year 2010.  In the absence of some very particular, widely perceived grave national dishonor as obvious referent, the title came across to me as peculiarly anachronistic and arbitrary, and otherwise vaguely ominous.  For Glenn Beck and the flock he summoned together last Saturday, it ended up functioning as a place-holder or cover for politicized religion, sacralized politics – a revival meeting featuring politicians and activists, a religious demonstration to be argued over by pundits, bloggers, and political junkies.  The very words were therefore already somewhat dishonorable, because dishonest and misleading, even before we consider the Monday through Friday Beck:  a TV and radio shtickster who, when not flattering or frightening his audience, holds their attention and channels their emotions through insistent and incessant defamation of others, exaggerated assaults on the characters and reputations of political and historical enemies.  In the age that Beck and his followers in Revolutionary attire imagine themselves to be restoring, he might have been called out a long time ago under the code duello – presuming that any gentleman made the mistake, did him the undeserved honor, perhaps after an accumulation of insults, of treating him as someone who could matter: As a self-described “rodeo clown,” in other words a fool, Beck often asserts the right not to be taken seriously – precisely not to be treated as a man of honor.  Those who gather around him and under his banner seem happily unaware that every value he raises up before their eyes is by this same standard inverted.  He makes a fool of himself, he makes fools of them, and they make fools of themselves twice over.  In seeking creative excuses for supporting him, conservative intellectuals do the same trick yet again, sacrificing their honor as arbiters of public discourse for the sake of supposed greater truths and purposes.  It is at this moment that they punch their ideologue’s ticket, openly announcing a readiness to accept any foolishness, falsehood, or comically ignorant forgetting if it helps them get the job done.

29 comments on “Summer Snow

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  1. Let me stipulate here that my comments here are based on current neuroscience, but that I problably take it further than many in the field would find comfortable.

    In other comments, I have made a distinction between religion and spirituality. They are distinct (but only recently recognized as such) phenonomen neurologically. The spiritual brain is closer to the atheist brain than to the religious brain.

    It is possible to be both spiritual and either religious or athiest. Certainly relgions have spiritual components, but to define them mainly in those terms is I think inaccurate.

    The religious brain is functionally similar with the brain processes concerned with in-group identity and in-group altruism, and with how to deal with out-groups.

    That is to say, the religious brain is political.

    Even further, I think an interesting hypotheses is: Politics is religion by other means.

    I probably have more to say here, but, Owl – Cognition – Dusk.

  2. @ bob:
    In most pre-modern societies, it would have been almost an absurdity to imagine politics and religion in separate realms, or to imagine any part of life separate from religion, so to that extent I think you’re correct. That also makes politics a constant temptation for religion, since the two realms intersect in civil society, in economics, in the persons of politicians and activists, and in the moral systems and spiritual experiences and outlooks that precede and often guide, and sometimes are affected by policy and political commitments.

    We operate with a taboo on explicitly religious politics, because we wish to protect religious/spiritual freedom from politics, and sense that breaking that taboo will set us on the path to religious patronage, favoritism, persecution – and policies based on unquestionable truths rather than on the furtherance of consensual values (which may have a religious basis at some remove, but which are not tied to a particular sect, sacred text, ritual language, etc.).

    More later perhaps, but my Owl of Having to Ship Some Collectibles is flying.

  3. What I really want to say, or to examine further, is the notion that American constitutionalism provides a kind of bridge between religious untruth and irreligious truth.

    Non-establishment of religion was the establishment of non-religion: Over time it tends toward atheism by the deceptive encouragement of a free market in faith. It treats sectarian differences, which in Europe up to that time and in the world at large up to the present day have been matters of life and death, temporal and eternal life and death, as secondary matters, never to be granted primacy for the society as a whole. This perception undermines the very basis of religion: It makes every member of society a supporter of heretics and therefore of heresy, and a traitor to his own sect and to his own supposed certainty. This was already true for every member of a minority sect in every other society, but America makes it explicit, converts it from a difficulty into a precept.

    My friend GWF didn’t believe that a state could prosper if divided by religion. He thought a nation needed to be unified in faith, though a healthy state could afford to be tolerant of divergence. I think he was right, but only if we understand that modern creed to be syncretic agnosticism, which in turn tends toward atheism over time, as his own concept of Christianity has less and less to do with any particular Christian practice or tradition, and more to do with the philosophical and spiritual concept of Christianity – the dialectical form as much as any particular substance of Christianity.

    Kahn’s view of America as a Christian nation and familiar conservative insistence that American ethics are Judeo-Christian at some point cease to be instructive. Judeo-Christianity isn’t a “religion,” or, if it is a religion, its doctrine is difficult to distinguish from secular humanism at its most inclusive (including even various pantheistic, trans-humanist, and materialist systems). It’s the sort of “different paths to the same truth” that the conservative from HotAir wanted to excommunicate Obama over.

    All of this was inherent in the Lockeian understanding of natural rights, as embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution, resting on freedom of conscience, and defended itself against the religious establishment by its assertion that reason would find the good and true, and that the good chosen freely was the only good from the perspective of salvation. What Locke and most of his fellows (some saw ahead) didn’t and couldn’t acknowledge is that reason could discover a different truth than the one they as faithful Christians presumed – or that it would lead to a transfiguration of Christianity so fundamental as to render it incomprehensible to most Christians.

    In this sense America was, from the founding, and contrary to the boosters of revealed religion, an atheist nation or at least an atheistic state, and Beck, Palin, Graham, Robertson, and the rest represent a regressive and un-American step backwards. They are free to be so, but that doesn’t make them any less so.

    (to be revised and extended)

  4. @ CK MacLeod:
    Strange as it may seem, I agree with you. Freedom of religion violates the unique truth that religions feel about themselves.
    At this moment in history, Islam is trying to teach the world what faith means. Nobody is learning.

  5. @ bob:
    Islam and Marxism, as I always say, are the only two doctrines nowadays that people accept with blind faith. Despite what the Bible tells us, Jews and Christians have no desire to execute witches and homosexuals. Faith no longer rules Judaism and Christianity, although some people think it does. If faith still ruled, Christianity would be as bad as it was during the Inquisition and the religious wars of the 16th century. Judaism would be as bad as in the world described in the Book of Leviticus. Our faith has fizzled out–thank God.

  6. @ George Jochnowitz:I strongly suspect that there are in the world today, possibly just in the United States, more people who accept Christianity with “blind faith” (if it’s not “blind,” is it faith?) than there are people in the world following Marxism with blind faith. It’s questionable at this point whether faithful religious Marxists exist outside of a few fringe groups in the West, though admittedly there are many, many people who remain under the influence of aspects of Marxist thought – as for all of the other merely myopic or otherwise merely ophthalmologically challenged/challenging faiths.

    Given the sheer numbers involved, and the vagueness of the definitions, we don’t really know… much of anything about how many adherents of whatever faiths are “blind.” What we do know is that for some reasons we’re in violent contact with a relatively tiny number of motivated Islamists. If a huge portion of the world’s oil was concentrated in and around Thailand, and we performed a few other geopolitical adjustments, maybe we’d be engaging in a war on Buddhist Terror, or Catholic Terror if it was South America that won the petroleum booby prize.

    There are certainly other factors involved in the Christendom-Islam clash going back many centuries, but broad historical and religious generalizations run out of value and turn counterproductive fast. 500 years from now our descendants may look at us as blind faith democratic capitalists, and may be right to do so.

  7. We don’t intervene in Venezuela, which is a threat in the ‘near abroad’
    considering what is happening in Mexico, we don’t act against Mexico.
    It’s just a ridiculous notion that we are an unreligious nation at heart,
    from the Pilgrims to the Great Awakening to the Abolitionists, very silly.

  8. @ George Jochnowitz:

    Islam and Marxism, as I always say, are the only two doctrines nowadays that people accept with blind faith.

    I don’t know what this means. Do all Muslims and Marxists accept their doctrines “with blind faith”? Are there no Christians, Jews, Unitarians, Wicccans, Republicans, Democrats, vegans, who accept their views on “blind faith”? You seem to equate “blind faith” with the worst elements and impulses, is this accurate?

    Is there no room anywhere for Augustine’s “I believe in order to understand”?

    I just don’t find the phrase “blind faith” terribly useful. There are no uncaused events or phenonomen. Everything anybody does is embedded in a matrix of causes and conditions. What these are may or may not be clear to those involved, but I have faith that it is true.

  9. miguel cervantes wrote:

    It’s just a ridiculous notion that we are an unreligious nation at heart,

    Yes, that would be a ridiculous notion – except in the sense in which I indicated, though I didn’t say “at heart,” and I didn’t say “unreligious,” and it would depend a lot on how you defined those terms and on how you defined “nation” for that matter.

    Though the more I reflect on it (as I re-edit this comment), the more I think that the statement “America is an unreligious nation at heart” is pretty close to supportable. That’s not at all the same as saying, for instance, that America has proved a hostile territory for religions in general. The influence of the Abolitionists or other religious groups or the existence of religious fervors doesn’t contradict the statement at all. It would be America’s atheistic tendency, as described, that would enable America to host so many conflicting religious outlooks. This is actually rather close to the conventional understanding of what freedom of religion has meant. The conventional understanding doesn’t, however, get to the “heart” of the matter.

  10. @ Bob:
    I believe faith is inherently wrong. The world is an enormously complicated place, and we are constantly trying to learn more about it. We learn through exploration, experimentation, reconsideration, and hearing what others tell us. When we close our minds, however, and simply accept something because our doctrine tells us to do so, we stop learning.
    As far as Augustine is concerned, we can believe in order to understand if we read or hear something that seems to be reasonable or researched. We can’t believe in order to understand becuase we accept an idea as given by a higher power. If we do, believing is inhibiting our understanding.
    God gave us brains so we could use them.
    Accepting the word of God as true is spitting in God’s face.

  11. We have an incredibly diverse religious heritage, as befitting the reason for our founding, but that doesn’t mean atheism, unless words don’t mean anything anymore. To leave out that there are forces that can’t be quantified, is as ignorant as total faith. DEfine conscience and/or soul, as something other than a flash of neurons.

    OT, what is that cretinous pack of lies, from Conde Nast, most from anonymous, probably nonexistent sources,m doing in the Rec Brow,

  12. miguel cervantes wrote:

    that doesn’t mean atheism

    It means, or tends toward, atheism for the reasons stated and in the manner stated. The overthrow of theology – or theologies – is a process. In that respect, the Beckians and comedians like Ann Coulter are right, that secular liberal society is “godless.” What they’re wrong about is that any number of awakenings or conservative upsurges can arrest or reverse the process by means acceptable within the American tradition, in keeping with the American concept. It’s conceivable, I think, that that the American concept might die in America, at which point almost anything becomes imaginable – with God, everything is permitted.

  13. miguel cervantes wrote:

    OT, what is that cretinous pack of lies, from Conde Nast, most from anonymous, probably nonexistent sources,m doing in the Rec Brow,

    How do you know that it’s a “cretinous pack of lies”? It’s in the RecBrow for the reasons stated: It’s a landmark article that I would think even Palin fans will be familiarizing themselves with, if only to position themselves to rebut the main avenues of attack. My reading is that it presents a coherent take on the Palin phenomenon that’s believable, but obviously biased. It would probably be a more effective “hit” if it was more charitable.

  14. It is virtually impossible for them to get a proper read on her, it makes the previous attempt by Purdum, like Johnson’s “Life of Boswell”. It’s like Mar Jacobsen’s post election look at Wassila, the man who found
    humanity in Frank Lucas, and integrity in the truthers, could find neither for her. It’s probably an epic fail, much like the adventures
    of their up and coming cover model, Lindsay Lohan, I mean getting
    Blow, Weigel, Smith and co, to denounce it, is a reverse hat trick

  15. @ miguel cervantes:
    Weigel and Smith both suggest that the Levi-Bristol wedding anecdote is bunk, or, at best, a highly embellished tidbit from the campaign, akin to her supposedly not knowing Africa is a continent. It does put the writer’s bias and his apparent credulity in perspective, but neither Smith nor Weigel “denounced” the article. A brief Google search suggests that you’re adopting C4P language (although at least you left off “race-baiter” when identifying Charles Blow). A biased observer adopts a biased reaction and passes it off as fact… hmmm… do we have a problem with that or not?

  16. whatever she is matters little as long as she continues merely to pose as a politician as a means of lining her pockets.
    if she decides that enough of the sheep are taken in by her celebrity spokespolitician act for her to get elected to something and tries running a real campaign, she’ll get popped quicker than a toy balloon on a stovetop.
    if somebody figures a way for her to get elected to something without ever having to answer honest questions from hostile questioners, then the witch is a danger.

  17. It’s the thing that made them doubt much of the rest of the article, Blow criticized more of the tone of the piece, from his twitter, is that not a good enough source, Smith made the point, that practically
    anything can be written about her, with truth not being a consideration. Maybe they will learn before they go the way of Portfolio

  18. George Jochnowitz wrote:

    Accepting the word of God as true is spitting in God’s face.

    Locke wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but that’s actually a rather Lockeian/natural rights sentiment that, translated into a more acceptable idiom, many of the Founders would have recognized.

  19. @ George Jochnowitz:

    I believe faith is inherently wrong. The world is an enormously complicated place, and we are constantly trying to learn more about it. We learn through exploration, experimentation, reconsideration, and hearing what others tell us. When we close our minds, however, and simply accept something because our doctrine tells us to do so, we stop learning.

    My objection is the equation: faith = closed minds.

    Your model of rationality is irrational because it is not possible to apply your standard to everything. Faith in all kinds of untrue things is simply needed to function.

    Your confrontational style prompts people to close their minds prematurely to to the wonderful things you have to say. Then you lay their closed minds on them. Then you do not learn about them. This is irrational.

    I believe relgious faith is the result of a combination of biological and social evolution. For much of the history of humanity it was quite functional.

    It may be that we as a species need to not rely on it so much. But that is a different discussion.

  20. @ miguel cervantes:

    Lovely introductory article, captures her so well. Excellent idea, interviewing her ratcatcher parents.
    Lovely ending as well, quoting that sweet and sincere woman.

    “Right now, I’m just so grateful to be serving out this term.”

  21. bob wrote:

    For much of the history of humanity it was quite functional.

    I think a more precise statement, reflecting a seemingly subtle but possibly quite crucial distinction, is that for much of the pre-history of humanity it was quite functional. Wherever received faith rules, there is no history: There’s nothing for people to do except to follow the holy instructions. History exists only to the extent that there’s something for human beings to think and do today different from what they thought and did yesterday – beyond mere functioning. That requires use of the faculty George pointed to.

    Also, it’s not just the existence of faith that matters, but both the relationship to faith and the actual content of faith. Faith that the tree spirit appreciates my prayers is different from faith that the refrigerator light really did go off when I closed the door. Belief that a big human-like dude is watching over us, working miracles, and preparing to punish transgressions can have very different effects, and reflects a very different approach to the world in every sense that matters, compared to believing that it’s up to human beings to create their own possibilities.

  22. @ CK MacLeod:

    The content of faith absolutely matters. But that content always evolves – otherwise we would still believe in “tree sprits”. Some content moves us forward, some leads us to muderous chaos. But the function is the same, and think necessary.

    I’m not talking about faith in terms of ordinary utility. Rather, I think some kind of ontological faith is necessary for cognition to operate.

  23. bob wrote:

    otherwise we would still believe in “tree sprits”.

    I made the comment about the tree spirits, but I confess that I’m also the kind of person who apologizes to the ants before I kill them and to the tree before I trim it. And I agree with you that without an ontological faith, a faith that what we do can and must matter, then it makes no sense to do or say anything. Nihilism has nihil to offer on its own terms.

  24. @ CK MacLeod:

    Yeah, in that comment I skipped a more complete discussion of the tree spirit thing.

    The spirit concept is pretty impervious to reason. But after my brain injury (as a more dramatic example) I worked with a shaman. Her methods required a certain degree of faith in “non-ordinary reality”.

    Maybe other, more rational methods would have also worked, but that’s how I found a way out of the post injury bubble. It worked because I was able to, not suspend, my rational beliefs, but to allow the non-ordinary to exist in its full manifest subjectivety.

  25. @ bob:
    I’d never try to suggest choosing the irrational – not yet consciously rationalized? – isn’t sometimes the rational choice. Maybe more often than not. Maybe at the most crucial junctures of life. But the irrationality of the irrational is sometimes if not usually if not always merely appearance. “The heart has reasons that reason hardly knows,” and so on. That implies that “reasoning” does not only occur in a readily externalizable form, but I think it also implies a fundamental susceptibility to reason, if we find a reason and will to apply it.

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