Sunday, July 25, 2004

New, improved Enlightenment!

You're advocating a policy of inaction on the basis of cultural equivalency? According to the "Prime Directive" we shouldn't interfere in the Middle East? Just sit on our hands and do nothing? Am I missing something?

Actually, what I’m saying is a tad more subtle.

And, yeah, you're missing something.

The far Left reacted against messianic American triumphalism by demonizing America; the far Right holds on to the America-is-God’s-hand on earth position. The truth is in the pragmatic middle: Not everything America does is right by definition – but the possibility of doing something wrong doesn’t remove the responsibility of doing what’s right. We need to intelligently figure that out, then do it.

Some response against terrorism was certainly the right thing to do. We’re facing a legitimate threat, and it’s only logical that we’d have to deal with it, granted the way the world has been changing. Like it or not, we're rapidly turning the planet into the Third Mall from the Sun. To the rest of the planet, America is the obvious face of an emerging global marketplace that trumps absolutist ideologies. America’s the threat, if you’re one of the absolutists being pushed to the sidelines.

I.e.: We're doing what's right from our perspective. They are too. The reason they think we're a threat to them is because we are.

So, the "Islamists," having realized that we’re a direct threat to their once-and-future theocratic rule, have decided to destroy us before we destroy them. They bloody well want to take over the world and think (with the unshakable conviction the West once had) that God is on their side when they kill people, and that in fact God told them to do it. Starting with us.

So yeah, uh. We gotta do something about this shit.


What we do and how we do it is another thing. That boils down to the cold equations of strategy and tactics. It’s legitimate ground for reasoned public debate.
Reasoned my ass.

In the current political climate, American debate is muddied by (A) Right-wing team players who defend any action Bush takes because Bush takes it. (B) Right-wing ideologues who think any criticism of presidential policy is unpatriotic. (C) Left wing ideologues who replace the article of faith that America is absolutely good with the article of faith that it’s absolutely evil. (D) the fact that – in the face of A, B, and C – the Vulcan logic of pragmatic discussion just ain’t sexy. And the partisans just ain’t listening.

To complicate matters, there’s the external audience listening to our internal debates. Here’s what they hear …

The extreme right-winger scorns the extreme left and its demonization of America. Many rightthinkers still hold to the notion that America can do no wrong – Wounded Knee, Dresden, all the shit we’ve pulled in central America, killing Allende – hey, fuck the world, we’re America. But many who come to this conclusion would never say “Fuck the world” because they come to the conclusion religiously. They’re fundamentalists, mostly Christian, who see America as God’s hand. But the shock jocks don't have that problem. They're openly calling for carpet-bombing and nukes. Kill 'em all, let God sort it out. Hey it worked in WWII.

Openly or not, this faction thinks they're ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. And they want a war with Islam. They want total war.

Which means they hold a fundamental impatience, if not contempt, for public policymakers who proclaim, “This is not a war against Islam.” They despise the relativism and moral relativity of it all. The hypocrisy of America’s public face. They burn to take that mask off and say, “Yes, you fucking heathens, as a matter of fact we ARE trying to destroy your way of life. You’ve got your jihad, we’ve got our crusade. This IS a war against Islam.”

Shining righteousness aside, it’s tactical idiocy. The underlying far-right assumption (giving hardons to redmeat rightwing radio listeners everywhere) is that the most vicious of head-sawing terrorists are not aberrations from the “Religion of Peace,” but the purist expression of it. I.e.: this faction is CONCEDING THE POINT that Osama and Co. are the legitimate representatives of Islam.

Of course you can make a case for this, if you go back to the original texts. But Christians can make a case for gouging out their own eyes and cutting off their hands when they’re tempted and Jews can make a case for stoning witches and adulterers to death – or any number of bizarre things. We don’t, generally, because most of us apply sweet reason to the sacred texts. I.e.: aside from the odd tent meeting or militia in Montana, we’re all products of the Enlightenment.

Today’s hip, rationalist pragmatist wants to extend the Enlightenment to Islam.
But, in his heart of hearts, the reactionary rightwinger isn’t comfortable with the Enlightenment in America.

Because the price you pay for it is a division between public and private morality. It’s a muddy, artificial division at best – but it allows our society to function. Religious Americans, to a certain degree, get to express their political will in the public arena, but they’re held in check by what they see as arbitrary interpretations of the constitution. So we’re endlessly in the shit with wrangles like abortion, gay marriage and Can-the-no-neck-high-school-quarter-back-pray-over-the-dumbass-football. A mess, yeah, OK.

But the alternative is some version of somebody standing up like Moses and saying, “Behold, sinners. Here is God’s law and you don’t get to vote on it!” No work on the Sabbath (Sunday), no drinking, no evolution in the public schools. I.e.: Christian Shaira. And maybe you're right ... and maybe not.

The basic assumption of the Enlightenment is that just because you think God’s talked to you in your head or sacred book, that means absolutely squat to me. You’ve still got to debate it, make a case, sell me on it. The argument of authority doesn’t play in the public square.

So, God (or various competing versions of God) become part of the marketplace – a DVD of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” over here, some porno over there – you choose. This drives fundamentalist types nuts. (It drove me nuts when I was a fundamentalist type.) But it’s the best alternative to, say, a global version of the 30 Years War.

Internally, we’re not entirely sold on the Enlightenment. The far Right’s ag’in it for religious reasons. The far Left claims to be all about openness and dialogue, but I they’re as dogmatic as the other side — only their religion is a romantic, Manichaean struggle between the carnivorous Babylon Amerika (a hideous, giant Uncle Sam eating little 3rd world babies) and righteous, oppressed brownskin people everywhere. The center holds, but just barely.

And, in all this internal yapping, we forgot that the Islamists are listening in on us.

Externally, the American Right is telling the Islamists, “We want a holy war,” while the Left is telling them “You’re right. America is evil. You should destroy us,” and the center’s pragmatic message just too damn complicated to sum up in a pithy phrase.
What the center’s trying to sell the Muslim world is Enlightenment.

But the Enlightenment is an unsexy, complex, hard sell.

It’s no crusade, no war against Islam, no, no, no. We’re not trying to destroy their religion. But we do want to put the DVD of Mohammed on one aisle, with porno right next door. We are reducing the absolute authority of their religion to a private opinion with no legal teeth. We’re undercutting Shai’ra. We’re saying Allah can be the private law-giver in their heads – but reason must be the law of the state. We’re saying people have the right to debate, to pick and choose from the Koran, to publish “The Satanic Verses” and not get shot, to drink, to convert to Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, anything. So, if they take our advice, Mullahs change from religious authorities to religious advisors. You obey if you feel like obeying. And women can drive, hold jobs and look you in the eye.

I.e: Let’s see who still wants to be a Muslim fundamentalist once we take the sword away from everybody’s collective throat.

The sword is mostly gone in the West. Nobody here gets burned for heresy or jailed for scorning the Sabbath. There are still Christians – and other sorts of believers – because some people choose to believe without coercion. Ah, freedom. It sounds like a beautiful thing, when you put it like that …

What you don’t want to mention to the external audience is that the price of all this is “Piss Christ” – or “Piss Mohammed.” The dirty secret we need to hide is there's a reason for America's religious peace and pluralistic tolerance. Aside from a minority, most of us don't take religion that seriously. That's what Enlightenment means. But we shouldn't put it on the label.

The Enlightenment is a tough sell – a sell with maybe a tad of bullshit in it. (As Jake Blues once said, “It’s not lies, it’s bullshit.”)

If the alternative is open holy war or cultural suicide, a little bullshit’s fine with me.

This is not to say you can’t vote your conscience

Without a prior assumption of infallibility, America needs to intelligently consider what’s right, then act. I.e.: pride goeth before a fall. If you're humble, you know a fall is possible. You stand a better chance of avoiding it.

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