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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
11.4 (Fall 2011)
FAITH AND CULTURAL MELTDOWN
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Vox Populi, Vox Dei
I happened to read the previous piece shortly before 11.4 went online, and I asked to write a kind of addendum. I did so with the greatest respect for the view expressed above. I think it is substantially correct. It resonates with Eric Voegelin’s thesis about the resurgence of Gnosticism in our time–and, from the reverse direction, with a lot of starry-eyed drivel that vaporizes from the mouths of politicians and academicians themselves. But there is also a “chaos factor” very actively at work in human affairs which often sabotages the best efforts of our most thoughtful to make sense of life. In politics and in the academy, chaos takes the form of Public Opinion: not “public” as in the demos, the rank and file (whose will is largely a mystery to itself as well as to these, its worthy servants)–but “public” as in that group of warm bodies surrounding one whose approval one would almost die (and would most certainly kill) to achieve. To the extent that many of the ruling class have any god at all, it is this. The voice of their immediate public is the voice of God.
We who ponder life find this unacceptable. We lack the progressive’s arrogant self-assurance, and so we admit as an intial premise that the progressive’s professional followers must be of above-average intelligence. Why wouldn’t they be? They have received years of university training far exceeding the average, and the grades they made while in the ivory tower were far above the average. Therefore, as intelligent people, they must operate on the basis of some kind of system. Their thoughts must surely be organized. If they can say and do so much that flies openly in the face of coherent logic and common sense, then they must know something the rest of us don’t, see something the rest of us can’t. And maybe–very, very likely–what they see isn’t really there. Maybe they are delusional. Yet they must at least suffer from delusions known only to thoughtful, imaginative people. How could they be merely stupid? And what is chasing after the approval of one’s peer group if not definitely childish in a child, and downright stupid in an adult?
I do not write with an enigmatic nom de plume, because I am semi-retired and relatively secure in my position (or simply no longer give much of a damn, to be honest); but, because I am only semi-retired, I also do not divulge my institutional affiliation, or even much about my geographical location, when I write as overtly as I do now. (Hence I am forced to admit that I do give a small damn.) I shall say with the necessary obscurity, then, that I attended an academic gathering only last week where faculty members were being encouraged to download certain programs onto their computers as “free”: code for “purchased by the state.” We would have to pay for programs not included out of our own pocket. I observed to those sitting nearby that we were already paying for the “freebies” out of our own pocket. The gazes I drew were not suspicious or malign, but totally uncomprehending. These professional educators (all of them younger than I) apparently did believe in a god; for since the money to buy “free stuff” did not come out of our pockets, it must have come from The State, whose powers to create something from nothing can belong only to a god. Q.E.D.
Now, to be less facetious, what I have just illustrated is not that progressive intellectuals believe The State to be God–for none of the people gaping at me had gone through any sort of syllogistic reasoning that would have called my remark into question–but only that they sometimes don’t think well, or at all. They can be perfect fools. The massive shift to “computer literacy” under way on many campuses is itself further evidence. If we are to live a “greener” lifestyle so that a) we will stop raping Arab and other oil-rich nations, and b) we will stop raping the planet; and if we further posit that multinational corporations such as Apple and Microsoft are constantly lobbying politicians and bullying smaller competitors to achieve unfair advantages, corner lucrative markets, and pry into our lives; then we, as dutifully green, anti-corporatist intellectuals should resist the digitalization of our classrooms with our last drop of blood. Yet the quasi-official progressive position on anything digital or wireless in education nowadays is all gung-ho: after all, the latest high-tech upgrade IS progress (as we have let ourselves be programmed to define it). Are we too stupid to know that even the iPad 2 doesn’t run on fleeting little Ariel-like gnomes who chase through the air, or that parts contained in these paper-thin boxes remain non-biodegradable?
Answer: no, we are not that stupid. But we act that stupid, because we have not “wasted” sufficient time thinking about the causes and ramifications of the changes around us; and we would consider such time a “waste” because the important thing is not to get at the truth (“What IS truth?” ponder great minds like Pontius Pilate and Bill Clinton), but to fit in with the proper group. Most of the progressive academics I have known reason every bit as associationally as the “post-literate” freshmen described so well in many of this journal’s former issues. All they need to know about a certain issue is that Sarah Palin occupies this or that side of it, or that Rush Limbaugh has said this or that about it. Palin and Limbaugh are North Stars: everything they say must automatically and irredeemably be wrong. In the same way, a gang might shoot you because your shirt is the wrong color, or a tribe of cavemen might roast you because you don’t wear the right face paint. This is tribalism at its keenest: “kill the infidels… kiss the sacred stone or die… anything but Bush.”
And yes, there is most certainly a religious–or, more properly, a superstitious–dimension to tribal responses of this order. This is not the kind of religion, though, that was attributed above to the progressive, complete with a visionary destination and an act of faith that transforms reality. It is much more primitive. It is merely the desire to belong. Many academics have passed most of their adolescence and early adulthood not belonging. Now they have found their clique, and they will bow when the clique bows and repeat the clique’s mumbo-jumbo on cue, just to stay in the group. I cannot speak with such confidence of the scene in Washington, but I have good reason to believe that it works in very similar fashion. You go from being the winner of a hotly contested, universally coveted position to being bottom-guy-on-the-totem-pole. To your senior colleagues, you are nothing, a nobody, until you prove that you will play their game by their rules. Collaborators are quickly rewarded, but mavericks are airbrushed from the scene. They are mere ghosts, invited to no soirees, offered no committee appointments, included in no photo ops–and, of course, automatically refused if they ask for travel funds and resisted if they offer an amendment to a bill. The independent are non-existent. It’s called hard ball for some reason, but hard ball connotes the presence of guts in the victorious. Something like “bully and bushwhack” would be entirely more appropriate.
Do people in this condition have any realistic idea of the future, of the common weal, of the mathematical limitations brooding over their budget and the physical limitations overshadowing their “energy policy”? Why do they so successfully impersonate idiots? Some of them, perhaps one in ten, are progressive in the religious sense of truly wanting to mold the human race into a fleet of star travelers. But the others only follow. On Monday they ban the drilling of offshore oil. On Tuesday they alienate a major oil-providing ally. On Wednesday they approve a new transportation scheme that will increase energy consumption by a third. On Thursday they vote for “green” measures that will prevent Wednesday’s scheme from ever being built. And on Friday they take off early to a fundraiser. They don’t have time to think–and, in any case, thinking gets in the way of the courtship ritual. The key is to have one’s “R” or “D” lined up beside all those other “R’s” and “D’s.”
This is religion in the same sense as the Pharisee’s–the man who goes to church every Sunday to be seen, and who sings his denomination’s hymns and takes its kind of communion because… well, just because. Because he has worked hard to become admired within this small group of human beings, and he isn’t about to jeopardize that by asking needless questions. I would only point out that one might just as defensibly call this irreligion. If every human being worships a god, then perhaps most human beings remain atheists at heart. ~ Peter Singleton