Wednesday, August 26, 2009

poor readers

We must now wed fact to rhetoric. We must appeal to reason and emotion.

-- Chris Hedges, “The Truth Alone Will Not Set You Free,” www.truthdig.com, June 29, 2009


There’s a scene in some old army movie. “Snap out of it, soldier!” Smack. “Thank you, sir. I needed that.”

Hedges says we progressives still “believe in the Enlightenment ideal of reason alone, and that’s why we are “helpless” against barbarians of unreason. But he has it all reversed. Enlightenment is not emotionless. It is not cold. And we have lost our faith in it. Faithless, we are ashamed not only of our faults but of our virtues, and that’s why, when we should be rising to our duty, we hang our heads. How convenient, for ourselves and for those we should confront!

Enlightenment” is, of course, the name of a European impulse an explosion of splendid sarcasm that upended the thrones and altars of Europe, killing kings and evicting priests. In the brilliant light of criticism there could be no mysteries – no divine rights and no miracles, but universal rights and natural processes.

Similar ideas may have arisen elsewhere, but Europe brought its own versions by force to other continents. All rising peoples have their own freedom-songs; but Europe’s freedom-songs – songs that liquidated divine rights and rites – were meant to be universal, and have proved capable of universality. When peace broke out for a while in Tienanmen Square, they raised a statue of liberty. When peace broke out for good in South Africa, they played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When Dr. King came peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial, he presented an uncashed check from Thomas Jefferson. Subjugated peoples, emerging from confinement into the open space of freedom, have turned assets of Enlightenment against the power that created those assets.

We progressives are heirs to a Betrayal, but also to the Thing That Was Betrayed. By liberating its people’s energies, Enlightenment made Europe powerful; but Europe used that power to instrumentalize the world, making of the “Orient” a means to Occidental ends, inventing new divine rights for her own people and new forms of enslavement for others; and that is the Great Betrayal of Enlightenment. The cure is not less Enlightenment but more. Enlightenment, returning to judge her own betrayal, will exalt every valley and make plain the rough places.

So a reader who can’t find passion in Voltaire and Jefferson, Hume and Locke and Rousseau, is a poor reader indeed. But then, we have become poor readers who confuse amnesia with justice, neglect of our prophetic story with virtue. There are diversities to which we should not aspire, causes that think themselves aggrieved but should not be comforted. There are cultures, not just across the world but around the corner, that say their cramped reading of scripture is not be questioned; that ask for your loyalty and seize your judgment instead; that say science is the devil and sexuality – particularly yours – is evil. There are pompous thieves who claim to own the labor, the bodies, or the body parts of others, as means to their own ends. We are not perfect. We do not know everything. But we children of Enlightenment are here to make afraid those who do daily violence in the name of God – or in the name of whatever they put in God’s place. And they will be afraid, striking back if they can, for to name them is to expose their mystification and dissolve their power.

So this is no parlor game, no soirée of brie and chablis – ask George III and Louis XVI. The “Enlightenment Ideal” was not, as Hedges describes it, “that facts alone can move people toward justice,” but that claims to authority now must pass the test of reasonableness, or face decapitation. Because I say so (or because I say God says so, or because I say the people say so) isn’t good enough any more.

This is no dissertation we are writing but an epic poem. If we progressives have “lost the gift of rhetoric,” that is our own betrayal; but it is an unenlightened betrayal. Jean-François Lyotard said that postmodernity is an age of renunciation, when “grand narratives” are exposed as shabby oppressions: “The narrative function is losing . . . its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.”* Umberto Eco meanwhile travels through irony toward recovery: a man and a woman, flirting without innocence in cheapened language, can “succeed, once again, in speaking of love,” restoring the capacity for “fantastic stories, . . . the telling of dreams.”** Well, my friends, freedom is a story, the grandest narrative of a dream.

Are you for the dream or against it? Liberation takes you from one place and deposits you in another, by a picaresque route that you did not anticipate. Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial didn’t read articles of academic sociology but told a story. Or rather, he told three stories at once: the Promise of America’s founding, the Promise of Yahweh to Israel, and the Day of God’s justice rolling down like waters.

Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment’s culminator, told us that we break oppression’s simultaneous irrationality and immorality when we “Act so as to treat man, in your own person as well as in that of anyone else, always as an end, never as a means.”*** It’s a universal, not a local, principle. Freedom that stays local is to that extent no freedom.

“Fear not the new generalization,” said Emerson. He himself was slow to draw the next circle around American tyrannies, but he gave us the instrument. What isn’t wrong in principle isn’t wrong at all. If it’s not at bottom wrong to use the peoples of Africa, Asia and South America as means to European luxury, or if it isn’t essentially abominable for colorless people to steal from people of color their labor, then slavery is only a fact and not a sin. Reductio ad absurdum.

Unitarian Universalists were put on this earth to exercise religious language back to health. Our particular duty as liberals, the specific obligation of our social and theological location, is to exercise Enlightenment back to health. Self-criticism is a means to that purpose, but it is not the purpose itself. Snap out of it, soldier. Though we are sinners, we are not our sins. The greatest sin would be to throw our baby, our sacred child, out with dirty bath-water.

When light breaks over the horizon’s circle, we see who are the lions and who are the lambs. One by one and now, all the lambs must be rescued. One by one and now, all the lions must be humbled. Logos alone is not enlightened – word only shines when it is made flesh.

Thank you, sir. I needed that.

*The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi)

**“Postscript” to The Name of the Rose (trans. William Weaver)

***Metaphysical Foundations of Morals (trans. Carl J. Friedrich)

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