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Archive for December 2016

Dec/16

24

Christmas in Jablonovka

Furlough in Jablonovka by the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) includes a description of Christmas just behind the front lines of the Eastern front during Roth’s time with the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War (the translation is by Michael Hoffman, and comes from The Hotel Years, a fine collection of  some of Roth’s writing):

The sky glitters overhead, the snow glitters under our feet. It’s as though the sky is a reflection of the snow. There’s no point following the village street, which is all trampled. The snow was so seductive that it would have been a sin not to walk there, where it lay crisp and deep, noble, virginal, crystal and singing. So as not to encounter our comrades and to enjoy the night and the stars and the snow, we walked up the lane behind the houses. It was peaceful, no war anywhere. Ten or twelve times a searchlight crossed the sky, but even that seemed to be a kind of strolling, a peaceable pedestrian, paler than its brothers whom I knew better in the luminous sky.

The boys came in with their pumpkin lanterns. They sang. Stable and manger and donkey were nearby, if you could follow the singing. If you could believe them, the Saviour was born in Jablonovka, not far from Josefova Gargas’s hut, and not two thousand years ago, but sixty at the most, and the oldsters still remembered the event. You could practically see the footprints of the Three Kings in the snow. The star was graspable. The Podolian plain was swaddled in faith, God was in Podolia, and Bethlehem was a hop and a skip away, much closer than the front.

Lights went out one after another, and the huts went dark. Only the sky and the snow were still gleaming as the village traipsed up the hill to the church. Its double doors were thrown open, and it was as though the altar was coming out to meet you, to welcome the visitors in its splendour. There were no pews. People stood and knelt. Although the doors were left open, it soon grew warm, it was as though the furs were warming me, and the candles, and the fervour and the Gloria after the Introitus: Dominus dixit ad me: filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te. Quare fremuerunt gentes; et populi meditate sunt inania? What are the heathens purposing? What folly are the peoples pursuing? — Et pastores erant in regione eadem vigilantes — And there were wakeful shepherds in that place — they were here next to us, next to Rainacher and me. We took the widow Josefova Gargas home between us. The door wasn’t locked, no door in the village was ever locked, even though strange troops, Hungarians and Bosnians were furloughed here. There were wakeful shepherds here.

We sat down at the table, and ate our borsch with wooden spoons. Then we cut up the meat with our bayonets. We drank slivovitz from tea-glasses and canteens. My atheistical friend Rainacher stretched comfortably on the chair, flung wide his arms and sang: Gloria in excelsis deo. He wasn’t blaspheming. At three in the morning, we kissed the widow and the twins, gave them our four parcels, and went off to sleep. You take the bed tonight, Rainacher told me, I’ll go on the floor. It’s my present to you. And that’s how it was. We were roused at six with marching orders.

Furlough in Jablonovka was written by Roth in exile in Paris in 1939. It first appeared in an émigré newspaper in that city, just a few months after his death the same year, a death accelerated by alcohol and despair over the deteriorating situation in Europe.

Dec/16

11

Pope Francis and “Fake News”

It was perhaps not that surprising that Pope Francis would look to involve himself in the controversy over ‘fake news’. The terms in which he did so were, however, unexpected….

The Guardian reports:

Pope Francis has lambasted media organisations that focus on scandals and smears and promote fake news as a means of discrediting people in public life. Spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do”, the pontiff told the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio. It is a sin to defame people, he added.

Using striking terminology, Francis said journalists and the media must avoid falling into “coprophilia” – an abnormal interest in excrement. Those reading or watching such stories risked behaving like coprophagics, people who eat faeces, he added.

The pope excused himself for using terminology that some might find repellent. “I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into – no offence intended – the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” he said. “And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, a lot of damage can be done.”

He also spoke of the danger of using the media to slander political rivals. “The means of communication have their own temptations, they can be tempted by slander, and therefore used to slander people, to smear them, this above all in the world of politics,” he said.

Now let’s scroll back to a passage in a speech that the pontiff gave in Bolivia last year:

“The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor…”

As I observed in the course of a post on the Corner:

 Not for the first time with Pope Francis, we see traces of conspiracism (a demagogic standard, I’m afraid to say) in his use of the phrase ‘anonymous influence’ and the suggestion of dark works by ‘corporations’ and ‘loan agencies’.

Not for the first time….

During the course of his notorious Lampedusa speech on immigration in 2013, Francis conjured up images of dark forces at play.

Writing in Law and Liberty not so long after, Anthony Daniels had this to say:

The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Losotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words…

And then there were Francis’ comments (reported by ABC) in the wake of the murder of an elderly French priest by Islamic terrorists earlier this year:

Pope Francis says the world is at war, but is stressing that it’s not a war of religions.  Francis spoke to reporters on the papal plane en route from Rome to Poland, where he began a five-day visit Wednesday. Asked about the slaying of an 85-year-old priest in a Normandy church on Tuesday, Francis replied: “the real word is war…yes, it’s war. This holy priest died at the very moment he was offering a prayer for all the church.”

He went on: “I only want to clarify, when I speak of war, I am really speaking of war … a war of interests, for money, resources. … I am not speaking of a war of religions, religions don’t want war. The others want war.”

As I noted at the time on this site:

[A]s for the Pope’s claim that “religions don’t want war”, I can only suggest that he spend more time with the history books and, for that matter, some of the less benign passages in various sacred texts.

The final insult both to the truth and thereby to the victim is Francis’ resort (yet again) to conspiracy theory, with his references to some shadowy conflict over “interests, for money, for resources”.

Demagogues typically resort to conspiracism out of delusion or malice, as a device to mislead and, often, to draw the audience’s attention away from what is really going on.

Pope Francis is not in a position to lecture anyone on fake news.

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Dec/16

3

The Other “Identity Liberalism”

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Mark Lilla’s piece for The NYT, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” has been making the rounds lately, and for good reason. See passages like this:

For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.

But speaking of identity liberalism – and Europe – I’m reminded me of the work of Adam Tebble of King’s College in London, and his notion of an emergent “identity liberalism” on the continent with the jagged coastline. I became aware of Tebble’s writings after attending an Institute for Humane Studies event in my days as a student. And while his conception of IL – national identity centered around a shared liberalism, as opposed to a liberalism couched in terms of sub-national racial and gender identity – is different from what Lilla has in mind, it’s worth highlighting as the profile of European-style atheist (or agnostic) nationalism rises stateside.

For Tebble, identity liberalism “employs a progressive identity-based normative discourse typically considered to be the preserve of the multicultural left to defend a right-wing politics of assimilation.” He has in mind former Marxist Pim Fortuyn and his pro-gay but anti-Islam “far right” cohorts. Fortuyn was if you’ll recall gunned down in 2002, by an animal rights extremist who defended his act of shooting up by claiming Fortuyn punched down. One could also include the gay contingent of Marine Le Pen’s fan base.

You see cursory evidence of this kind of identity liberalism gaining respectability among liberal and left-leaning intellectuals. Think the upstart publication Quillette, or Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report, and likely many a fan of Sam Harris. Though far from outright nationalists, they’re at least willing to entertain the hard questions avoided by their SJW counterparts. And you certainly get the impression that efforts at assimilation are not frowned upon in this crowd. As libertarians have a rough year and the alt-right is basking in glory, the stock of this of old-fashioned-turned-new liberalism is performing somewhere in between.

Of course if the gullible editors at the Guardian are any indication, there’s little difference between the alternative right and these other identity liberals in the minds of the establishment left. Or at least its journalistic division.

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donald_trump_august_19_2015_croppedThis blog began in the fall of 2008 somewhat on a lark. This was during a period when the American Right was beholden in many ways to the Religious Right. By “many ways,” I mean more in symbolics and rhetoric than reality. The reality is that conservatism in the 2000s was a “three legged stool” where the Religious Right was fed rhetorical “red meat,” while the neocons were ascendant and the economic conservatives achieved some gains (and losses).

But the power of religion in conservatism was such that genuflection to Christian values and identity was normative, even among the mostly secular Washington and New York conservative intelligentsia. Of course, there were always libertarians, but the libertarian position within the Right has always been one of tactics rather than strategy. It was not controversial being a libertarian and an atheist. What was more atypical was a non-libertarian conservative admitting their atheism. In 2008 George F. Will declared he was an agnostic. By 2014 he was admitting to be an atheist. Will’s transformation from bashful to agnostic on the Colbert Report in 2008 to sanguine atheist in 2014 illustrates a change in American culture: secularization entered a new phase in the 2000s, and a much larger proportion of Americans are no longer Christian in belief. In the United States over the past generation the number of Americans who have “no religion” has gone from one out of ten to one out of four.

As if to portend these trends in Barack Obama and Donald J Trump you will have two presidents who are cultural Christians at best. Though many assert that Obama is an atheist at heart, I suspect that despite his lack of belief in most of the supernatural elements of the religion he does have some rationalization for why he is a Christian. Trump’s position is different, as he is from a Protestant background by heritage, and it seems likely that that heritage is what he would lean on to assert his Christian bona fides. But Trump is arguably as religiously disinterested in the confessional aspects of Christianity as Obama, as adduced by his public comments, as well as his sanguine attitude toward the conversion of his daughter Ivanka to Orthodox Judaism (Eric Trump was married under a chuppah, as his wife is Jewish, while Donald Trump Jr.’s wife has a Jewish father, though she does not seem religiously Jewish as evidenced by her wearing a cross at her wedding).

Trump’s attitude toward religion is not the aspect that it is notable. Many Republican politicians are not particularly religious in private. What is notable is that he made no attempt to not be transparent in his lack of strong religiosity when appealing to religious voters. Trump’s appeal to religious voters in the Republican party was that he would defend their rights and interests, not that he was truly one of them.  The Religious Right then has become part of the interest group constellation of the Republican Party, but it is not calling the shots on the optics and symbolic rhetoric in the same manner as before.

What is the future then? I don’t think anyone knows. The election was a close one, and trends don’t help. Social-cultural systems are sensitive, and nonlinear. Expect chaos before we settle into a new system and stationary state.

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