Monday, November 08, 2004

Forget 2008 -- Vote Atheist in 2108!

The United States will never be a truly free, just or tolerant society until an atheist is elected president. (I suppose we could settle for an agnostic.)

Why? Consider the converse: If an atheist cannot be elected president, the United States is not a truly free, just or tolerant society. Any religious test for citizenship or leadership, whether de jure or de facto, is a form of tyranny.

Notice that I did not say, "Until an atheist can be elected president." Political "can be's" are a currency that buys very little in the Wal-Mart voting booth aisle. Blacks have been full de jure citizens of the United States for about 135 years, and it's now been about 40 years since the civil rights movement opened the door for serious talk about how "anyone" could grow up to be president, but there has never been an African-American candidate on a major party national ticket. Similarly, American women have been full members of the polity for almost a century, but there has been only one woman on a major party national ticket, and that ticket was trounced. We will know that a Black, a woman or an atheist truly can be elected president when one actually is elected president.

So, perhaps 2108 isn't far enough away. The point is that the United States, along with other western democracies, is moving (more slowly in our case than in others) toward a bipolar religious world: on one side implacable fundamentalists and other determined dogmatists, and on the other a freethinking coalition of atheists, agnostics and watery, undogmatic believers of various stripes, such as Unitarians, ultraliberal Christians, largely secular Jews, Buddhists, neo-deists and the like. The moderate center will disappear. This does not mean that today's dominant sects will become extinct, only that people who may be nominally, say, Roman Catholics, will gravitate toward one pole or the other. They will become either religious reactionaries like today's fundamentalists, or quasi-humanists having much more in common with unbelievers than with the hardcore faithful.

The process of slow migration toward two opposing positions has been ongoing for centuries. Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment; Copernicus, Darwin, Freud. Every chink in the armor of the institutional church simultaneously accomplishes three things: (1) Reduces the pressure on people to be "conventional" church members who bow before social propriety and tradition more than an actual supreme being; (2) Liberates some disgruntled members of the flock, who become free to head for the hills of unbelief; (3) Encourages some worried believers to adopt more hardline positions out of fear that their rock is crumbling.

Today, the migration appears to be accelerating in the United States. Mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopalians, are rapidly approaching schism over the issue of gay rights. In fact, however, the real fissure in these sects is along familiar conservative-liberal lines; even if an accommodation were reached on gay marriage, the groups would tear themselves apart soon enough on another issue similarly pitting the past against the future. Fundamentalists hold more power than ever and are increasingly able to drown out the voices of centrist believers in national debates on "morals" or "values." Nonbelievers, once a tiny, despised minority, are now merely a small, despised minority.

There are two main reasons for the current trend toward increasing polarization. The first is social and pragmatic: Moderation is an ineffective weapon against extremism. Gandhi's policy of nonviolent resistance ousted the British from India because the Brits, though imperialist to the core, were not prepared to launch a genocidal campaign to retain a colony. Similarly, the American civil rights movement succeeded because in 20th century America, for a variety of reasons, firehoses were an acceptable weapon for racist lawmen to use against demonstrators, but machine guns were not. But neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King would have achieved anything but a speedy execution in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

In today's America, tolerant religious centrism is the ideological equivalent of passive resistance or civil disobedience. It is effective only if the fundamentalists have little power. Once the reactionaries have achieved a critical mass, centrism wilts. Ripostes such as, "Yes, we should follow God's law, but we shouldn't force it on others," or "True, Jesus said he is the only way to salvation, but he also said to love your neighbor," are useless against adversaries bolstered with the certainty of fundamentalism. Eventually, it becomes easier, and more powerful, to simply declare, "There's no such thing as God's law," or "I don't care what Jesus said and we are not going to run our country on it."

The second reason is more theological: It is logically and emotionally difficult to maintain a somewhat mushy middle position against two adamant extremes. Disbelief is indeed corrosive, as the fundamentalists charge (though this is a good thing, not a bad one). As faith becomes undogmatic, it is often difficult to find a stopping point before reaching agnosticism or vague deism; for many people, the only alternative is to put a stop to the slide by prohibiting all skepticism and enabling dogma to reign supreme. It is a fairly well-known phenomenon that clergy from liberal denominations are sometimes much closer to atheism than their congregations would suspect. Years of study at places like Harvard Divinity School leave such preachers with the conviction that most of the traditional Christian edifice of faith is a mixture of myth, superstition and addled history, just as freethinkers have always maintained. For example, consider the teachings of controversial Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die and other works. His brand of "Christianity" rejects the divinity of Christ, may even reject the historical reality of Christ, and is just a small step away from asserting that the very notion of "God" is empty. His successors may have the courage to take that final step.

Note that I am not advocating an aggressive campaign to persuade religious moderates to leave behind the remnants of their faith as we prepare for the election of 2108. Each conscience must find its own way in its own time. Barring a catastrophic collapse of western civilization, or a furiously oppressive crackdown by the neo-feudal Bush administration and its fundamentalist partisans, people will continue to move in both directions of their own accord. However, there is certainly no point in Democrats' moving toward the center on religious issues in a misguided attempt to appease the hard right. The center is being slowly deserted; it will eventually become a ghost town. Better to make the freethinking zone as welcoming as possible to the citizens who will inevitably arrive.

Terrorism? Blame Alexander

Alexander the Great never conquered the Arabian Peninsula. He died of illness in 323 BC before he had gotten around to executing a campaign against Arabia.
But suppose he had lived a little longer, enough to invade and, in all likelihood, conquer Arabia? Let's do a quick alternate-history inventory of the possible long-term consequences:
  • An at least partially Hellenized Arabia brought into the orbit of the Mediterranean world
  • Arabia as a province of Egypt or another Alexandrian sub-state after Alexander's death
  • Roman control of, or influence over, Arabia as part of the Empire or a pacified ally
  • The introduction of Christianity into Arabia through the Roman Empire, filling the monotheistic vacuum among the Bedouins
  • No rise of Islam
  • No clash between Christian and Islamic civilizations
  • No 21st century Islamic grievances, or Islamist terrorism.
I admit that this is a stretch, but that's the fun of alternate history. Of course, I haven't sketched all the possible consequences of this change -- there's also a plausible "no Islam = no preservation of Greco-Roman learning = no European Renaissance" chain of reasoning that should discourage those of you with time machines from acting precipitously.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Share a Borscht with Karl Rovevich Rovesputin!

Bushkin campaign strategist/masseur/muppetmaster Karl Rovevich Rovesputin agreed to an interview with this reporter shortly after the concession from John Kerry. Clad in his customary flowing black robes, Rovesputin shared his thoughts while enjoying his noonday meal of borscht, turnips and a cat's head. Following are his observations on the campaign, the election results and what America can expect from the next four years of President Bushkin.

We Wrenched Our Necks: Tell us about the mood in the White House on election day when early exit poll results favored Senator Kerry.

Rovesputin: At first, Czpresident Gyorgy seemed a bit rattled by the reports, and it took three Secret Service agents and a dollop of Crisco to pull his head out of the Oval Office goldfish bowl. But the Czpresident quickly stopped sobbing when I explained my three-point plan for seizing victory: (1) Wait for the actual vote counts; (2) ritually slaughter a thousand black goats; (3) e-mail a software "update" to the voting machines.

WWON: What happened when the tide turned and Florida fell to President Bushkin?

Rovesputin: Jubilation naturally ensued. The Czpresident pulled a flask from between his shoulder blades and enjoyed a copious draught of the finest vodka, or perhaps lighter fluid. When he regained consciousness, I saw him reach for the Czpresidentina, but she demurred, noting that she had not yet recovered from her bad 1997 headache.

WWON: Was Vice President Cheney on hand for the victory party?

Rovesputin: Da, da, the Vicious-Czpresident was celebrating most furiously with a wet towel and one of my incense burners. Later, I found him in the White House kitchen dancing naked to the "1812 Overture," but he stopped when I denounced the composer of that scandalous work as a known deviant and harborer of serf-on-serf phantasies. At that point, the Vicious-Czpresident's wife, who had been luxuriating in the walk-in freezer, threw a rock-hard meatloaf at me and expressed her outrage that I had dared to speak of what should not be spoken of concerning Pyotr Ilyich. She then inquired whether I perhaps had his telephone number, which she might pass on to her daughter, who needed a man. When I replied that Tchaikovsky was long dead, she asked simply, "And?"

WWON: You've been accused of masterminding a dirty campaign against Senator Kerry -- lying about the issues, distorting his record, terrifying the electorate. Do you think those tactics are legitimate?

Rovesputin: America said nyet to Kerry because he is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver, not because of our lies, which were steadfast, resolute lies that showed the Czpresident's leadership in the war against truth. Americans respect a man who knows where he stands, even if he does not always know whether he is standing. Our campaign was based the values of the American heartland: death to deviants, death to infanticidal liberals, death to benighted atheists and death to those who would dare to stand against, or in front of, our holy guns. Excuse me, could you pass the tabasco sauce? I've got a hairball. Believe me, this was an exhausting campaign. I can't tell you the number of Black Masses I had to say just to win Ohio.

WWON: What is the Bushkin agenda for the next four years? Will the President continue to govern from the right, or will he move toward the center in an effort to heal the country's deep divisions?

Rovesputin: Czpresident Gyorgy will unite the American people by reaching out in a spirit of fellowship to all those who will prostrate themselves before him utterly. Of course, there can be no compromise with traitors, Bolsheviks or those who would read books in defiance of the Czpresident's example. The Czpresident prays daily for guidance in fulfilling his mandate, and when I'm not too busy combing out my beard, I answer him.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Seeking Solace in Soviet Music

Thoughts on the election result, number 2.

Springsteen, aging '80s bands, folkies and hip-hoppers are OK for firing up the base before the big event, but when the base is weeping post-event, stronger stuff is called for. Listeners looking for hope that the coming dark years can be endured can do no better than opening their ears to the great music written by Soviet composers during the era of totalitarianism.

Sergei Prokofiev is my favorite composer of all time, and Dmitri Shostakovich is in my personal top ten. These two Russian geniuses lived and worked through the hideous repression of Stalinism (and beyond, for Shostakovich; Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin). Somehow they managed to produce many sublime works that combine great abstract beauty with veiled yet deeply felt indictments of the murderous regime under which they toiled.

Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich made their share of artistic compromises in order to avoid the gulag -- Prokofiev's first wife, sadly, actually was sent away -- but the existence of their rabble-rousing works should not discourage anyone from exploring the profound sentiments of their acknowledged masterpieces. Listen to Prokofiev's tragic, ghostly Violin Sonata No. 1 or Shostakovich's savagely bitter String Quartet No. 8, for example. This is music that understands, that expresses, that feels the grief of an absurd, insane, violent world.

Both these composers were supremely gifted in the delicate art of musical satire. With just a few phrases, a single distorted traditional form, they could convey the raging stupidity of an oppressive bureaucracy. Shostakovich's specialty was the deranged waltz; Prokofiev's, the pompous march. No composer in history was more adept at musical mockery.

I also strongly recommend Prokofiev's War Sonatas (Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 and 8) for their brilliant and beautiful depiction of a brutal, mechanized world. Although these works are commonly associated with World War II (hence the nickname), they were in fact begun before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and are probably "about" the idiocy of Stalinism as much as, or more than, the horrors of the war.

In February, as part of our mini-subscription this season, my wife and I will be attending a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony that will include Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6. These are sorrowful, devastating works. The purpose of the program is to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, but I will use the occasion as a lesson in how to wrest meaning from an era of absurdity. If those artists could work through Stalinism, we can work through Bushism.

Welcome Back to the Middle Ages

Thoughts on the election result, number 1.

Many historical comparisons have been made to illuminate our nation's dismaying slide deeper and deeper into Bushdom. The case for the religio-conservatives' takeover constituting a type of protofascism is plausibly made by Orcinus, among others. The transformation of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, with its subsequent decline, is another common analogy.

My view is that America is in the process of changing from a modern, secular, information-age republic to a kind of anachronistic, high-tech medieval republic, and perhaps eventually to a high-tech medieval kingdom. Just consider all the elements from the glorious middle ages that, thanks to the G.O.P. and its fundamentalist base, we have reinstituted in the 21st century:
  • A society in which the throne, the church and the military are the most important institutions and are closely intertwined.
  • A ruler chosen by dynastic succession whose "legitimacy" rests not on his abilities or deeds, but on perceived divine anointing.
  • A small class of extraordinarily wealthy and powerful property owners -- the nobles -- who enjoy the favor of the ruler and who control the lives of the rest of the populace.
  • A huge group of subjects -- peasants, serfs, etc. -- who toil for the property owners, have little say over the way their lives are run, and face economic conscription to fight the ruler's wars, yet accept their lot willingly because they believe it is divine will.
  • A militaristic, crusade-oriented approach to foreign diplomacy.
  • Deep, unthinking religious devotion and a powerful disdain for rationalism and learning except when confined to cloistered corners of society.
So, welcome back to the middle ages! Time to start work on a cathedral, I guess. Need some stone?