Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Q: What's the difference between a religion and a cult? 
A: Time. 

Jack Balkin on Santorum and interpretation of the law. Activists might not agree, but that's why they're activists and he's a law professor. And although I don't have much interest in his rather fuzzy interest in the I Ching, it connects with his approach to the law in ways I appreciate. It's the metaphysical implication, the need to base debate on something more than itself that doesn't interest me so much. I don't think one should need to create an artificial engine to foster indeterminacy and doubt, when argument itself will do. Rhetoric and skill should be enough; it was enough for Shakespeare, who seems to have been a secularist, why not the Constitution?

This is an esoteric point, but in a society, if it's to be more than a collection of individuals, problems are always resolved using some sort of formalized rhetorical structure considered to be neutral by the participants. To say that a certain form of intolerance was acceptable at one point but now is not is a form of relativism, but in the long run, or from the long view, it is the only alternative to fascism, which is to say to arbitrary absolutism - amoral because it is without structure [power is not structure] Obviously, the neutrality of a system of debate exists only within the limits of the collective whole, including, but ignoring, those who are not allowed to speak. But it is nonetheless a system and not merely an ad hoc fabrication. The difference, philosophically and morally, is something modernism has never dealt with. 

I think there is great moral weight in the religious discussions of politics and law in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, but I think there is little weight to such discussions here. If religion is a shared value, a set of laws, or indeed a language - languages are systems of rules that enable communication - then religious debate is a form of communication ABOUT OTHER THINGS. The debates in the Christian church were debates about moral responsibility, justice, and the state. They had weight in the past because Christianity was a central part of the community. It was a 'medium' as Islam is today in Iran and Iraq. Christianity is no longer such a medium in the US.

The rules for speaking a language are caught up with accident and circumstance. Why does German sound like German and French, French? Why is one guttural and the other spoken from the middle of a half closed mouth? Who knows? But there are connoisseurs of both, who love these details without wanting to explain them. There are connoisseurs of language just as there are connoisseurs of art. A connoisseur is not a historian; a historian does not fall in love with a surface, he compares surfaces to one another in what is more an intellectual than a sensual pursuit. Ideally in a speaker's mind there should be a tension between these two ideas. If a language becomes entirely formal it becomes merely a matter of taste, but if it becomes only ideological, nothing more than a means to an end, it becomes unsubtle and closed. Is it possible to speak French extremely well and be neither a dandy nor a pedant? Of course. Languages can have weight without pomposity because they have a purpose that makes them central to everything else. They are both a given and self-justifying. And most important, they can coexist. Languages don't contradict one another. 

But to ask that question about religion: Is it possible to be religious in the context of the modern world without having such a problem? I don't think so. Can religion ever again be seen as self-justifying? Once you have a choice, and we have many, disenchantment -from religion as such- has won. Without either obligation or doubt, what's the point? Without both, where's the strength? When one religion is as good as any other, the reason for all, except as simple comfort, is gone. 

Every morning when I'm not working I go to a donut shop in my neighborhood. Two years ago the Daily News said they made the best donuts in NY. I eat the bagels. The owner make about 4 dozen a day. Of course, they're the best bagels in NY. The owner is Greek. In Manhattan they say H&H makes the best bagels, and it's owned by Puerto Ricans; the Lubovitchers have an agreement with the owners that lets them park their 'Mitzvah Tank' in front of the store around the holidays to bring the less than ultra orthodox into the fold. In Greenpoint, I buy my bagels at the donut shop. 

Chris thinks religion is very important, and he's upset that I don't have one. It's good to have a community. But, he admits we make religion. "We make God. So what? That's not the point!" He laughs. He's constantly getting in arguments with his Egyptian helper, Muhammad, who's a devout Muslim. Chris loves Bush. He says Bush is just like Hitler or Alexander the Great. He loved Stalin. He says he doesn't know what went wrong in Russia; he looks at me and shrugs. Americans don't understand history or irony. Chris understands both. So does Muhammad, but he doesn't talk about it.

Laws are important. We make laws, as we make gods. We use laws and language BOTH as a means to an end and as a buffer. Sometimes we defend an order just because it as a language we know. If the language is a given, is the the thing which gives us definition, what can we replace it with that will have as much depth? We choose the devil we know. And pride has gotten us in trouble in the past. [It's getting us in trouble now] Has there ever been a designed system as flexible as one made by history? Is Esperanto as beautiful as Russian or Farsi or English? Most people understand this without thinking about it. And they do do so without becoming either ideologues or dandies. They exist somewhere in between, like Chris and Mohammed. Scalia is unable to imagine this. When he hears language that is not sufficiently moored, he hears the chattering of dandies. Others are unable to understand it as well, hearing only ideologues when they are forced to listen to calmer heads.

It is hard to accept that what many consider obvious injustice -in other countries and sometimes even in our own- is something that we can not just remove at will. But for the purposes of the preservation of language, or the rule of law (which is not merely a matter of a respect for 'law and order') we need to limit our activities to what we can argue in the context of a group understanding. A language, like a set of laws is a stand in for a community, for a union. And if we are to preserve a union we have to compromise. I am not arguing against activism. Activism, is in a sense, part of the game. But at the same time, I am arguing for an appreciation of the idea of 'depth.' I still haven't quite gotten over the glibness that infused the comments made by otherwise serious people, on the destruction and looting of Iraqi museums.

I think that many people who are reading this -and I doubt there are many at all- would find it strange that an Islamic republic has produced some the most important pieces of modern cinematic art in the last 10 years. Why should Iran be in this position? In the Middle East, Israel is the only fully modern state. Why is Israeli cinema so vapid and shallow? My apologies to the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" but where was the flowering of culture under the Shah? The Iranian people are waking up, both from the Shah and from his replacement. The bourgeoisie are flexing their muscles, are asking questions they have not been allowed to ask before. And the government is weakening, slowly. [it should not weaken too fast] The definition of a renaissance is that it is a moment when the members of a community are both cemented together by common bonds—by rules—that they accept, and yet are each feeling and searching out their own freedoms. It is a moment when greed and curiosity are merged in the same figures: a moment of self contained contradiction. In this country it is reenacted in every immigrant community as it moves in. But it fades. As I 've said in the past I'm an un-unionized construction worker. I work with a lot of immigrants, and when I tell them their grandchildren will be empty headed assholes they nod their heads and shrug, or smile. 

What should we do in Iraq? Should we shove modernity down the throats of militant Islam? Should we start importing miniskirts? Should we create a safety zone for homosexuals in Baghdad? ( We have a hard enough time shoving civilization down the throats of born again Christians in Texas.) There are going to be calls from the left and the right, and whatever happens neither will be happy. The best we can hope for is that there is an independent order in the making, a harsh one perhaps, but living. [ Dilip Hiro has a good piece in The Times today on what we should do and why we probably won't do it.] Iran under the Shah was an artificial modernity. The democracy that is growing in Iran, and the new modernity in China as well, are not. If we had allowed the King to return to power in Afghanistan, rather than shutting him out, would we have begun a similar progression? It would have had a better chance than with Karzai.

Along with the understanding that every renaissance fades -and in fact fails- it is also true that the path to modernization, which is violent and destructive for every community, often fosters their violent and histrionic simulacra, their fascist imitators. The former was alive, and the other is dead. A renaissance is a bright moment of life, but afterwards, it ends in death as well. In homage to Jean Luc Godard I would say that I too am dead, but that I like to watch immigrants because they remind me of what it was to be living.

The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein wrote about the need for the revolution, and for his films, to create flesh and blood out of the cardboard cutouts of ideology, to create a world that would do justice to the complexity of people and events, that would be more than shadows. His favorite author was Dickens; he was amazed by the Japanese theater, and he knew that you could 'invent' neither language, nor law. Eisenstein was one of the few exceptions. The defenders and proselytizers of modernity, left and right, paid little attention.

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