Friday, July 30, 2004

I've been futzing with this since thursday. The paragraphs below are written in response to questions raised by two posts: by Brian Leiter on conservative Christianity, and at Crooked Timber on moderating forces in contemporary Islam. See "Fun with Ophelia Benson", below. I'm a better editor than I am a writer.

I have more faith in American vulgarity than I do in American enlightenment, though of course I don't have much faith in either. Intellectuals no longer pretend to lead but they still believe they should. They once maintained the fiction of being foreigners in their own land (this applied to the US more than anywhere) but in the end alienation failed both as romance and as ideology. My parents lived off the intellectual remnants of the old left, cut off from working class politics and surrounded by hippies -their students- for whom they had a studied contempt. They were left wing academics of the sort one rarely sees today, both committed and superior. My awareness and my cynicism mean I'm more bothered today by the arrogance of their ex-students -now rump modernists and technocratic liberals- than I am by the conservative faithful.

Modernism argued that social transformation could begin with an intellectual awareness; it doesn't. Social change has always generated intellectual change, not the other way around. A Marxian analysis does not cure a Marxian reality. Economic factors cannot be made to follow because we now understand they lead. The successful civil rights movement was not led by intellectuals, though they followed along with pads and pencils, but by members in full of the community they represented. Martin Luther King was a preacher, and a popular one. My parents, who epitomized the contradictions of intellectually snobbish but committed leftism, always preferred the more marginal, but also more intellectually serious-read: modern (and isolate)- Malcolm X.

It's all too easy to conflate the authority of any process with that of an individual, as in the subtle rhetorical transformation that allows a policeman to say, "I am the law." It's always the reactionaries who 'are' The Church, as it's always radicals who 'are' the revolution. And authoritarians, or more often their willing servants, are often unable literally to understand just how they twist logic to insulate themselves, to keep their sense of their own morality intact regardless of their crimes. Never mind Saddam Hussein, witness the current farce in the Austrian church, and the strange psychology of Tony Hendra.

The people aren't getting any smarter, but they know more Pakistanis and lesbians than they used to. And truck drivers are eating sushi for the same reason they eat it in Japan, because it goes well with beer. I worry about religious -Christian, Islamic, and Hindu- fundamentalism. But I worry more about the response to all of them by the intellectual and technocratic elite. Protestations of logical and moral clarity by the partisans of modern society ring dangerously hollow.

Change preceeds an awareness of change. You learn to play the piano by practicing; understanding appears after the fact. Modernism posits a dichotomy between logic and faith, under which any unintellectual heuristic is seen as suspect, as undermining the primacy of consciousness. But what are the implications of our having to learn by doing, by flexing a muscle, by performing the same mindless action over and over again? And what is it precisely that we learn? Modernism has no answer, and it refuses even to ask the question, leaving it in the hands of hippies and the faithful. What about those of us who are neither Modernist nor religious? What about those us us who observe without Belief?

Where is the secular intellectualism that takes this form of learning into account, that takes into account this 'silence'?

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