Monday, February 14, 2005

Loathe, Actually 

That's how I felt about the British comedy, "Love, Actually." Cheap cuteness, facile sentiment, false sensibility, a tepid, tittering comedy that's in love with its own heart of steel and wants to make your flesh quiver with delight at your and its good intentions, and have I mentioned yet the colossal waste of major talents like Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Liam Neesam, Laura Linney, Colin Firth.

If you're asking yourself, why on earth is she going on about a year old movie, not only do I understand, I'm not sure I can make clear to anyone else the connection that exists in my own mind between my feelings about the film and my feelings about the on-going discussion on the left of values, morality, religion, passion, narrative, framing, re-centering, defining core beliefs, most of which can be subsummed under the general heading of "what's wrong with liberals, the Democratic Party, and "the left" and why is it continuing to lose so much ground to the right?" (For an entirely worthy example of the genre, see Xan's recent post on Dionne on Edwards HERE)

No, I don't loathe the discussion. Although it feels like it has been going on for decades, alas, it's still a necessary discussion, and I've been meaning to enter the fray. I do loathe some of what's getting said, which I often find confused, confusing, facile, smug, wasteful, bristling with false sentiments, preening with self-righteous moralism, or, often on the other ideological side, with attacks on ideological purity maintained at the expense of winning elections. Let me state my own prejudice immediately. Winning elections, always a good thing to be doing.

At this point, let me make clear that I loathe the right and what it has come to be and stand for to a degree far above any such emotion aimed at fellow progressives. But even aimed at the right, loathe is a heavy word, and as dangerous an emotion as is hatred, so easy is it to become what you loathe or hate, not that the copious employment of both emotions has seemed to put much of a dent in the right's ability to dominate this country's politics. Perhaps that's because the right is less self-critical than the left, and less likely, IRONY OF IRONIES, to engage in soul-searching. I supppose the current rightwing might counter, why should we; our telling political success is sufficient proof of the rightness of our dominion. To which I say, not so fast.

Most modern Americn conservatives, and certainly all neo-cons would have as much difficulty understanding what E.M. Forster meant when he wrote, "the inner life pays," as Mr. Wilson did in "Howard's End." I was a teenager when I first read that novel and those words. I took them to heart. I'll admit I've had occasion, since then, to feel that Forster might have added, "not all that well," but I still believe them and what they imply, not only that the inner life, conscience, self-awareness, compassion, empathy are admirable traits, that they are traits as necessary and as practical to living a human life as is food to maintain the body or a decent living is to maintain a family, and that an inner life must connect with an outer world for either to be meaningful.

Forster was the very essence of the mild-mannered liberal, but for all the apparent delicacy and ubanity of his belief in the primacy of personal relationships, of tolerance, in an "aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky," there is a hard, unyielding tough-mindedness in those last two novels, "Howard's End," and "A Passage To India," in his two but not three cheers for democracy, (because it admits diversity and allows criticism), his refusal of both despair and optimism, his belief that while "the human experiement on earth cannot be dismissed as a failure, it may well be hailed as tragedy," that present-day liberals, progressives, Democrats and leftists could learn from, as they scrape back to find the shape of their core beliefs.

What brought all this on was reading yet another helpful hint for Democrats in the virtual pages of The New Republic, by one Kenneth Baer, who is billed thusly, "former Senior Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore and author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm." His title suggests his premise: The Case Against Democratic Unity, United We Fall, argues that all the calls for Democratic unity, now that Dean has been annointed Chairman of the DNC, are wrong-headed; what Democrats need is division, debate, not a papering over of ideological differences. No doubt I'm being unfair to Mr. Baer's arguments, but you know what? I don't give a damn if I am. Although not explictly anti-Dean, implicitely, and from my point of view, inexplicably, it is. But it was a mere throwaway comment that got me seething.
To be fair, there has been some back-and-forth since the election about the party's stances on social issues, from its discomfort with religion to its positions on abortion and gay rights. Jump-started by a dubious reading of exit-poll results that found "moral values" to be voters' top concern, this discussion, though important, ignores the most pressing and glaring deficiency in the Democratic Party today: its lack of a coherent stance on what America's role in the world should be.
I'll admit I may have already been seething before I read that bit, having just listened to Cookie Roberts explain on NPR why Dr. Dean is such a bad idea for the Democratic Party, especially so because so many prominent Democrats are trying to temper the party's position on abortion, which Cookie pronounced as extreme. Oh God, isn't it time for Cookie to retire, or can't we get NPR to offer someone to rebut her predictable slams against Democrats?

See, I talk to God, too. And I'm not the least bit uncomfortable with religion, even though I do not go to synagogue, do not keep kosher, and do not consider myself religiously observant. I have felt completely at home sitting in a Quaker meeting, through a Protestant service, a Catholic one, and one more than a few occasions, Pentecostal services, visting a Mosque, travelling in India with a group of Muslims from Bangladesh who prayed five times a day, and attending a Hindu puja, to mention but a few of my experiences of religion. John Kerry has been a believing, observant Catholic his whole life.I doubt that he's uncomfortable with religion, either. The civil rights movement was suffused with religion, and no one was uncomfortable about it. That, of course, is often cited to accuse the left of hypocrisy, that we welcome religion when it's convenient, reject it when the other side invokes it. Note there is nothing inevitable about that conclusion; why isn't our readiness to accept religious dialogue in the service of ideas in which we believe an indication that we're not uncomfortable with religion, only with religion that seeks a special place for its ideas because they happen to be held by a majority, as in "this is a Christian country?"

I'll tell you why it's never presented in that light. Because branding as anti-religious anyone who believes that the establishment clause in the first amendment means that government should be relatively free of specific religious practice has become a cudgel in the hands of the right wing in this country with which to beat liberal ideas over the head.

Could we get something else straight, please? No one on the left is saying that religion must be banished from the public square. Nor, if you haven't noticed, is it absent from that public square. Is Jerry Fallwell's church not part of the public square? Is Liberty Uniersity not part of the public square? Are the creches many churches display, or individual home owners, for that matter, at Christmas, not part of the public square?

What the rightwing does constantly is to conflate that tiny part of the public square where is located government with the whole of the public square. Judge Moore was free to plaster his car, his home, even himself, with any version of the ten commandments that pleased him. All of those things, his car, his home, he himself, are part of the public square. The only part of the public square that he did not have the right to decide needed a large statute with his favorite version of those ten commandments chiseled into it was a public courthouse where Americans of all religions, or the lack thereof, have a right to expect that they will be treated as equal before the law.

For heaven's sake, would it be all right with Joe Scarborough if a Muslim-American judge decided it would be a good idea to order up a giant invocation of some aspect of the Koran and have it placed in the central rotunda of a state courthouse? Because unless he's willing to sign off on that one, he can't defend Judge Moore. The right loves to remind us that the establishment clause guarantees the free practice of religion. Yes, it does, but it does so for all religions. If it was okay for Judge Moore to decide the courthouse needed the ten commandments displayed centrally, then it would be okay for a practicing Hindu who becomes an American judge to insist that his court join him in a hymn to Krishna. I am uncomfortable with all three of these examples of "the practice thereof." How is it possible for an ex-congressman to be comfortable with only one of these, the one that honors his religion.

Nor does any of this mean that the ten commandments are not part of the public square. They are. They appear on the building that houses the Supreme Court, along with, please note, other examples of law givers. No one I know on the left was uncomfortable when Bill Moyers devoted a full hour and a half to examining the power of the hymn, "Amazing Grace." No one I know was uncomfortable when he produced a series that consisted of discussions by intellectuals and writers from various religious traditions of the Book of Genesis. Ken Burns documentary about The Shakers is among my favorites.

The assumption in so much of this discussion is that if you don't follow a specific religious practice, you are not a believer. Well, I believe in all kinds of things that aren't material. I believe in the promise of America, I believe in the Constitution, I believe in the Bill of Rights, I believe in the Golden Rule, I believe in the human spirit, I believe that evolution is both a theory and a fact, I believe that suffering can be redemptive, but don't believe that that belief is any reason to inflict suffering on anyone. Oh hell, who cares what I believe. Fair enough. Just don't try and tell me what I believe, or how I'm supposed to feel about religion because I'm a Democrat, or a liberal, or Jewish, or believe in the separation of church and state. Why are there so few media voices asking Joe Scarborough, or Pat Buchanan, of Chris Matthews why the hell they don't seem to believe in separation of church and state?

And what, in heaven's name, is wrong with a certain amount of skepticism about belief itself. Are we really sure we want to repeal the entire Enlightment, from whence was born our founding fathers and our constitution? Imagine the fuss if anyone prominent today were to echo what E.M. Forester was unafraid to say when asked by the BBC, along with a lot of other prominent figures, to sketch out their thoughts on a war-time credo for the British people. Under the title, What I Believe, here, from what I am able to remember (can't find my copy of the book) here is at least some of what he said:
I do not believe in Belief. But this is an age of faith, and there are so many militant creeds around that in self-defense one has to formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by by religioius and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy, they are what matter really, but for the time being they are not enough; they want stiffening, even if the process coarsens them. Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied sparingly. I dislike the stuff.. I do not believe in it for its own sake at all. Herein, I probably differ from most peole who do believe in Belief, and are only sorry that they can't swallow more of than they already do. My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St. Paul. My temple stands not on Mount Moriah, but in that Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted. My motto is: "Lord, I disbelieve, help thou my unbelief."
That was written in late 1939, when war with Germany was understood by anyone as bright as Forester to be inevitable.Despite his innate skepticism about belief, he manages in the rest of the essay to sketch a compelling version of a liberal credo. As I say, what's wrong with a little skepticism, what's wrong with invoking Erasmus or Montaigne? Maybe it won't play in Peroria, but that doesn't make it unAmerican, either. And frankly, I think a lot of the rest of the essay would play quite well in Kansas, if I could but find it to give further examples. What gets in the way of liberals being able to talk with Kansans, is all those liberals telling the good people of Kansas what jerks most liberals are.

corrente SBL - New Location
~ Since April 2010 ~

~ Since 2003 ~

The Washington Chestnut
~ current ~

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]


copyright 2003-2010

    This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?