Monday, October 31, 2011

Early American Dreams

Daniel J. Boorstin.  The Americans: The Colonial Experience.  New York: Vintage, 1964.  ISBN: 0394705130.

This book tells the story of the early European settlers in the thirteen British colonies that eventually became the United States.  Four things stood out to me as I went through the book.

(1) Americans are historically individualists.  Historically, we tend toward an egalitarian view of the world, even as this view becomes more and more a relic of realities that exist no more.  It was much truer back in the day that Boorstin describes, when there was no professional American army, and European barriers of caste and culture carried little or no meaning on this side of the pond.  (Everyone had to know a little about farming, medicine, and fighting.  We didn't have the means or the interest to separate professionals into rigid castes governed by outdated rules that didn't work at all on the wild frontier of Western civilization.)  Over and over again, Boorstin comes back to the same ideal early American, a jack of all trades who never let his book-learning get in the way of practical experience.  Americans were amateur farmers (having plenty of land to experiment with and no reason to husband it as intensively as their European counterparts), amateur doctors (having plenty of disease to look after, little formal medical schooling to speak of, and no ironclad respect for book learned expertise), amateur scientists (having plenty of new flora and fauna to classify, not to mention geographical discoveries to make), amateur priests (especially in areas where multiple sects existed), and amateur warriors (since they were constantly called on to defend themselves and their families at a moment's notice from Indian attacks).

Reading this book helped me see how, in a certain way, the moral attitude that I have adopted (more like stumbled into)--and tried only too imperfectly to implement over the course of my life so far--is historically American.  I don't like being trapped in a rigid profession, with non-negotiable rules and a fixed hierarchy (of practitioners and of knowledge).  I tend to think that such professions are largely bullcrap, no matter who makes them.  Politicians, professionals, businessmen, and clergy all sound remarkably similar when you strip away the particulars of their speech and look at the generalities: "We are God's gift to the world.  Pay us or risk losing everything worth anything in life.  There is no happiness without conformity to our rules.  Too bad they don't work out for all of you as well as they do for us: God must not like you as much."  Such professions exist to serve values that I find tendentious, artificially narrow, and (ultimately) dangerous.  Most of the time, they make a point of avoiding issues that I find important (like integrity, sustainability, and quality), passing the buck for difficult decisions on to some nebulous higher authority (God, the common weal, or some lesser avatar, e.g. the almighty dollar or a charismatic CEO) whose humble agent (some bureaucrat) has the unfortunate duty of serving the public by playing the role of Divine Inquisitor (or mafia enforcer: pick your own evil metaphor).

(2) Americans are historically idealists.  Many of the first American colonists were religious zealots looking for a place to be the city on the hill that they felt Christ was calling them to be.  They were often seriously, dangerously nutty.  Puritans tortured and killed people who didn't fit the mold that their standard of righteousness demanded.  Some of their victims were Quakers, who were as adamant about courting martyrdom as any Puritan was about dishing it out.  Seriously, what do you do with someone who keeps coming back to your settlement begging that you either accept his (or her) preaching, or at least have the decency to kill the messenger?  Not having learned that passive non-interest is the most effective way to deal crazy Bible-thumpers, the Puritans became the cruel partisan establishment that they had fled.  The persecuted were reinvented as persecutors (and the groundwork was laid for myths like those in the Book of Mormon, which talks a lot about rival preachers with a penchant for going to unreasonably hostile villages where they and their outnumbered followers run the risk of being killed).  Of course, American idealism had positive expressions as well.  Rhode Island was a haven of tolerance for those non-martyrs unable to make it in Massachusetts.  Pennsylvania too welcomed members of many different faiths, who managed to get along with each other remarkably well.  Virginia cultivated a relaxed, practical attitude to religion that ultimately nourished the Deism of several original Founding Fathers (e.g. Thomas Jefferson).  In the end, Congregationalist Puritan craziness backfired, and the sect ultimately became much more practical (eventually giving birth to Unitarianism in the nineteenth century!).  Ironically, the American Quakers became mired in the very kind of narrow dogmatism that their creed explicitly rejects, leading them to a cultural dead end from which they are still trying to resurrect the original divine spark recognized by George Fox.

I am definitely an idealist.  I believe in truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  I dislike lies.  I dislike compromise.  I dislike all the dirty, messy realities that inevitably come up when people organize and treat with each other in official, officious ways.  But my faith crisis has taught me to tone it down.  There is a place for compromise.  There is a place for letting sleeping dogs lie.  And there is even a place for lying (as the nun hiding Jews from the Nazis would know).  But it is really too bad, because I would like to have everything out there in the open.

(3) Americans are historically naive.  The first Americans had all kinds of crazy ideas about life that did not really pan out as advertised.  We believed that we would establish a religious utopia: instead, we have a secular republic (which is in some ways, many ways, a much better thing).  We believed in our European way of life; we thought we were doing the savage wilderness a favor by trying to civilize it.  Even if we were, it was definitely not the kind of favor we thought we were doing it, since our Greek gift of civilization brought a lot of bad stuff (e.g. smallpox) whose real import escaped us entirely.  In many ways, our history reads as a continuous series of brilliant ideas that imagine heaven (utopia, the American dream) only to end up raising hell (civil wars, slavery, industrialization, globalization, Wall Street).

(4) Americans respond to circumstances, valuing empirical functionality over theoretical perfection.  The saving grace of our naivete historically has been that it comes with a healthy dose of practical skepticism.  We start with pie-in-the-sky, but when this fails to materialize, we change the game-plan.  We learn from our mistakes.  When the Indians showed us new ways to raise crops, treat illness, and wage war, we learned (and to this day, many of us still think of fighting as a life-and-death struggle between free men, rather than some kind of organized game for noblemen and professional mercenaries; we still prefer Cincinnatus over Caesar, at least in our mythology).  This is the principle of continuing revelation in Mormonism, and it is an important part of my personal creed as a human being (and an American too).      

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Heretical Testimony

I know that I do not know very much, and that I doubt pretty much everything I think I know.

I know that absolute truth is dangerous, and that it makes no sense to me.

I know that reality is out there, that it is larger and more complicated than I can ever perfectly understand.  I don't know if it has a name by which it refers to itself.  I doubt that it does.

I know that theory without practice is bad, and faith without works is dead.  I believe in continuing revelation.

I know that myth is a permanent fixture in the human landscape: we all tell stories, all the time.  I know that I cannot believe in the absolute, literal truth of any one of our stories.  By the same token, I do not think that any of them is absolutely false.

I know that Jesus Christ is as real as Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas).  I know that Joseph Smith spoke for God as much as Martin Luther did.

I know that organized religion does a lot of good in the world.  I know that it also does a lot of bad.  I know that I cannot put complete trust in any group of people: every corporation is a mafia; every mafia makes some really terrible decisions.  Some mafias are better than others, but that does not mean that any of them deserves uncritical loyalty.  I respect them (and myself) too much to give them what they do not deserve.

I know that I was born a Mormon, and that I remain a Mormon (even if I choose to add prefixes or caveats: these just confirm the fact that the leopard cannot change his spots).  As I cannot delete or deny my Mormonness by word play, so the authorities of the LDS church cannot: after twenty years, I am a member of the flock whether the shepherds want me or not.  I wish they did not feel threatened by people like me.  I wish I did not feel threatened by them.  Maybe one day we can all get along.


Flogging Molly. "Screaming at the Wailing Wall." Borstal Beat Records, 2004.

Here is a musical prayer that neatly summarizes my study on terrorism.

So, God, how come every wrong's been done?
With deals no Christ should allow
Once the communist now the terrorist
With blood as thick as yours
Now a caravan of clouds
Warns us all of winter showers
Then rattle comes the rain
With each bullet, it screams your name

So how come this gatherin' storm
Pours little on the truth?
Where the smokin' gun's a familiar
song let loose
With the bombed out cars
Come the falling stars
From a heaven we'll never know
And the nameless names
On the misspelled graves grow tall
We're still screamin' at the Wailing Wall

I'll liberate your peoples' fate
Spoke the Burnin' Bush
But the songs of beasts
Grow with oil soaked teeth
Their dollar is mighty and true
Now the eagle soars the sky
Over refugee and child
And to all there is no end
Another day in perfect Hell

So how come this gatherin' storm
Pours little on the truth?
Where the smokin' gun's a familiar
song let loose

All Hail!

Now a caravan of clouds
Warns us all of deadly showers
Then a-rattle comes the rain
With each bullet, it screams your name

So how come this gatherin' storm
Pours little on the truth?
Where the smokin' gun's a familiar
song let loose
With the bombed out cars
Come the falling stars
From a heaven we'll never know
And the nameless names
On the misspelled graves grow tall
We're still screamin' at the Wailing Wall

Oh I'll liberate your peoples' fate
As we scream at the wailing wall

I think this song makes a fair bid to express all the irony, suffering, and idealism that characterize the so-called War on Terror on all its fronts.  God speaks.  His servants obey, and we keep waiting for the ensuing Armageddon to induce a glorious Millennium of peace and prosperity.  Meantime, all hell breaks loose, over and over again, causing some of us to question our ideals that are too high to admit any compromise. 

Violence and Fragility, Summarized

Here is a metaphor that occurred to me as I finished my last post.

Violence is to the body politic what inflammation is to the body.  In critical moments, it may save us from acute danger, but as a chronic condition it is utterly ruinous.

Violence and Fragility

This represents a continuation of my thoughts about terrorist violence.

Violence is a bad long-term solution to moral problems because it creates more trouble than it solves, eventually doing injury to the cause that it is invoked to protect.  (Despite the fact that it existed nominally to protect Irish Catholics from Protestant violence, the IRA ends up being responsible for more Irish Catholic deaths than any other organization in Ireland, North or South: read Shanahan's book for references.)  But the real problem is something different.

When do people get violent?  Is it not when they have run out of other options, when they are "backed into a corner" (as the saying goes)?  One thing that holds true across all of the terrorist groups I have looked at (Muslim zealots, Basque and Irish nationalists) is that they feel trapped: they are "oppressed" by powers to which the only sane response (in their eyes) is violence (up to and including suicide, whether by detonating themselves in public or going on hunger strikes in prison).  The vision that gives meaning to the life of a terrorist gives him freedom (to think, to find meaning in life), but that freedom comes at a terrible cost, because it is inherently fragile.  It depends on other people having feelings that they may not (and in the case of modern terrorists, do not) have.  It demands validation that history appears very loathe to give (as the overwhelming majority of Muslims, Irish, and Basques continue to reject the visions of utopia that their less inhibited comrades proclaim).  The fanatics, inspired with the holy zeal of absolute truth, cannot admit this.  Even if they do, they promptly cast themselves as prophets who will "lead the way" in spite of their people's backsliding ways.  If enough of us play the bloody hero, they seem to think, surely the cause of Allah will prosper, and the nations of Euskadi and Ireland will shake off Britain and Spain to become heaven on earth.

As for those who actively oppose the terrorists, they are pond scum, orcs with no real motivation backing up the mindless cruelty they inflict on true Muslims, Irish Catholics, and Basques.  You don't treat with pond scum.  You don't compromise.  You do whatever it takes to get the orcs off your land and out of your life.  If that means blowing up some of their ill-favored children (or the children of others too blind to see them for the irreparable cancer that they are), well then, so be it. 

There is an important common thread here between terrorist reasoning and the ongoing financial collapse of the Western world.  Banks are failing because the way we do business in a modern world is too efficient: there is only one true way to do things, the cheapest way that maximizes profit.  Ideologies are failing because they are likewise too efficient: there is only one true way to exist, and that is the way of Allah (as preached by Osama bin Laden).  When maximizing profits creates snafus, true believers in the modern market economy cannot think of a new way to do business: like an alcoholic who has drunk all the gin in the house, they start raiding the medicine and cleaning cabinets, grasping for anything to keep their drunken dream of happiness alive.  Just so, when the violent way of Allah creates hell instead of heaven, the terrorists respond with more violence, hoping that the ideologically driven crusade that is in many ways the cause of their problems may magically turn into a solution.  When Coriantumr kills Shiz (Ether 15), they may finally have their way.  If there are no people left in the world, then there will be no sectarian violence!  But is that the best resolution we can come up with?  What is the point of heaven anyway, if the only way to have it is to raise hell?

The more I think about moral conflicts, the less useful violence seems to me.  It has its place, of course, and it will not be denied.  But that does not mean that that place is necessarily where past generations have put it.  And there are differing degrees of violence.  I can kill someone actively, or I can passively make their lives so miserable and impossible that they kill themselves.  I can hurl bombs, or I can hurl insults.  (Note that polite insults are still insults.)  If the choice is necessarily between one and the other, I naturally prefer the insults and the passive aggression (whether I am on the giving or the receiving end).  But I would actually like to maintain my distance from both kinds of violence.  I want my way of life to be as nonviolent as possible.  Ironically, this requires that I admit some violence, since to deny it entirely would merely lead to its appearing under some clever disguise (like the "re-education camps" employed by certain high-minded regimes).  Pretending that I am utterly harmless is as silly and as wrong as indulging every opportunity I have to do harm.  I have to admit the real harmfulness that is in me.  I have to know it, and I have to develop real means of dealing productively with it.  This is tough stuff, requiring a lot more moral fiber than many of us seem to think (to judge from our public discourse).

More on this later.  For now, I'm tapped out.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Irish Republican Army

Timothy Shanahan. The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.  ISBN: 0748635300.

Richard English. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.  ISBN: 0195177533.

Both of these books tell much of the modern story of the Irish civil war and its ongoing bloody aftermath.  English's book is more historical (offering evidence and trying to interpret events with an eye toward understanding what really happened), while Shanahan's is more philosophical (going beyond what happened to inquire why it happened and whether it should have happened, i.e. how it can or cannot be justified).  If you want a timeline (from the nineteenth-century Fenian movement to the 1916 Easter Rising to the 1969 schism that produced the Provisional IRA), English is good.  If you want a discussion of moral positions, English is still good, but Shanahan is better.

Reading these books piecemeal, distracted by my real life, I cannot claim to have digested them thoroughly.  But I know enough to articulate better some of insights from my study of terrorism.  I am going to go through these quickly here.

(1) Terrorists are people, too.  There was a point in my life when I thought of terrorists the way other Tolkien characters think of orcs.  Terrorists were pond scum, whose human form was just some kind of disguise.  In English and Shanahan's books, however, you see that the IRA are just people: they live, long, believe, suffer, and die the same way the rest of us do.  They don't like blowing up babies.  They don't do it for fun, but like many of us, they can be suckered into doing stupid things "for the greater good."

(2) Terrorists believe in absolute truth.  The most frightening insight into the terrorist mind that my research has revealed is its obsession with the one "true" way of being.  All terrorists are dedicated to a cause that is bigger than they are, a cause which they see as the work of God, a cause before which every knee must bow and every tongue confess.  This insight is frightening because of my former belief in absolute truth.  Now that time has worn off some of the initial shock of learning that absolute truth stokes some very dangerous ideological fires, I can see that the mirage of absolute truth offers some benefits too (along with stultifying mental rigidity and the occasional bomb).  It helps people (especially those with truly miserable lives) find purpose and meaning in their suffering.  In the case of the Irish revolutionaries, it redeems their feelings of helplessness in the face of coercion, whether from the British military (who outgun them), or from their own countrymen (who outnumber, hate, and fear them).  It gives them a means for exerting some influence over the course of their own lives.  Their lives are not just wastes of time and space: they are contributions to a glorious Irish destiny, which the soldiers of the IRA see as a republic uniting all the counties in perfect harmony.  This harmony is entirely unhistorical and impossible, of course, since a significant number of Irish people do not believe in it.  As with the Basques, so among the Irish there are deep ideological fissures separating members of a single culture.

(3) Violence is never a good long-term strategy.  The real problem that terrorists consistently run into is that their way of finding meaning in life brings them into violent conflict with other people.  Their meaning requires that other meanings submit or die.  They cannot compromise (because their truth is absolute).  They cannot back down.  They cannot change their minds.  What is it that gives them this impossible rigidity?  It is the power of conviction.  Faith in their absolute truth leads them to do and say things that cause their fellowmen significant (and even irreparable) harm.  As a result, they are naturally feared and hated.  Their cause falls into disrepute among non-believers, who denounce them as monsters and/or crackpots and even (in the case of the IRA) mount armed counter-resistance against them.  Uncompromising hatred breeds uncompromising hatred, and the terrorist dream of heaven ends up creating hell on earth.  Instead of an Ireland divided but civil, we get an Ireland divided, blown up, and extremely angry.    

I think there are many important lessons to learn from terrorism.  For me, the most important lesson has been that I need to make a conscious effort to find ways of dreaming and believing that do not put me on the warpath with other people.  I do not want my dreams of heaven to make life on earth hell.  I am not interested in fighting wars (whether the "cultural" wars we talk about today in the USA or actual shooting wars like the one fought by the IRA).  In the context of Mormonism, my study in terrorism is one of the reasons I refuse to be a bitter ex-Mormon.  I don't think that would make anything better, really, for me or for anyone else.  It would just pile more fuel on the awful fire of uncompromising emotional enthusiasm that has destroyed so many good things in this world (including much of modern Ireland).  My studies are also part of the reason I cannot ever have the faith I once had, either.  I cannot believe in something so fervently that I become closed to compromise, to doubt, to mercy.  I cannot believe in absolute truth.  I find it immoral.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are Mormons Christian?

I wrote this for some friends.  I liked it enough to save it here.

My two cents on the perennial argument about who is really a Christian.  It is a bad question.  It is like asking, "Who is a real human being?"  "Who is a nice person?"  "Who is a true Scotsman?" (for the atheists and logicians out there).  You cannot own a descriptive adjective.  Constantine and the bishops at Nicaea tried really hard to create a monopoly on the meaning of the word Christian throughout the Roman empire.  They failed.  The Catholic church then attempted to maintain a monopoly on the meaning of the word in Europe.  They failed.  Now various Protestant sects want to claim a monopoly.  And they are failing.  Christians are scattered all over world, believing all kinds of things, and practicing all kinds of different rituals.  There is no such thing as an objectively true Christian.  There are only people who use the word Christian to describe themselves.  If you want to say something meaningful about yourself, you cannot be content to say, "I am a Christian," and leave it at that.  Are you Catholic (what rite?), Orthodox (what rite?), Protestant (what sect?), etc.?  What do you think Jesus taught?  (Surprise!  Christians do not agree about the nature of Christ.  There are degrees of deviance, with some people being more alike than others, but we are all different.)

Mormons run into the same problem with their own descriptive adjective when they get mad at splinter groups (including the polygamist churches) who call themselves Mormons. "We aren't those people!  They cannot steal our identity!  Blah, blah!"  Historically, those groups have every bit as much right as the LDS to the adjective Mormon.  When we get mad at them for using it (and daring to use it differently than we do), we only reveal our pettiness.  (Is religion about words for us?  Do we really care that much about adjectives, for Christ's sake?  What is the New Testament really about, people?)  The only moral position is to let our actions speak for themselves.  If you want to get a message of goodness out into the world, you have to be good.  You cannot waste time fighting about stuff that (1) doesn't really matter and (2) that you are never going to change by fighting.  The fact of the matter is that historical Christianity has always given birth to heretics, much to the chagrin of the orthodox.  Many Catholics would expunge the Protestant Reformation if they could.  Many Protestants would expunge the Mormon Restoration.  Many Mormons would expunge the schism that produced the FLDS.  But history isn't about what we would do.  It's about what other people already did.  Historically speaking, Mormons (including the FLDS) are clearly a Christian offshoot, different from other offshoots but not categorically separate.  (The Mormon vision of Jesus, particularly in the Book of Mormon, is recognizably Protestant, with a few tweaks that drive Nicene believers crazy, though I had a professor at BYU who showed us how Mormons could embrace the Nicene creed, if we were willing to get creative with the meaning of the deliberately vague Greek words used to craft it.)

Call us bad Christians, deviant Christians, heretical Christians, anti-Christ Christians, or whatever you want, really.  It doesn't really matter, and it won't really change anything (except insofar as it contributes to emotional sectarian feeling on both sides).  And that exclusivist streak that you find in us, that arrogance that presumes to judge other Christians and find them wanting?  That is vintage historical Christianity: Joseph Smith took it from the Christian movements around him.  (Read some of the proselytizing pamphlets from the era: slandering the other guy was the way to preach back then.)  Not only that, it goes all the way back: as far back as we are aware of groups of people calling themselves Christians, we find them at one another's throats (literally or figuratively) over the fact that they cannot agree about stuff.  (Read the New Testament, especially Acts.  Notice Ananias, Sapphira, and the fight between Peter and Paul.)  Christ came to bring a sword, didn't he?  But it is ultimately unfair to make partisan craziness uniquely Christian: we find it all over human history, before, after, and outside of Christianity (as well as all through it).  People separate into groups and fight about whose group is best.  If we're lucky, we just call each other names.  If we're not, we end up with wars.  C'est la vie.  I wish it weren't so.  I used to think that Christians should be different.  But historical research has entirely wilted my naive optimism.

Penn Jillette's Take on Atheism, Libertarianism, Terrorism

I was getting ready to write something like this for my next essay on terrorism.   Like Jillette, I too believe that I do not know what is best for other people, and that it is categorically wrong for me to dictate to them (unless I am telling them to please avoid blowing my head off, vel sim).  I also really like what he said about reserving the right to change his mind about something as his experience with it evolves.  For me, that is what good faith is (and always has been)--not accepting a single answer as true no matter what, but remaining open to new truth (even when it destroys the old).

Secret Combinations

If even a little of this is true, my distrust of government, corporations (including churches), and the media is not misplaced.  The worst enemy is always the one who makes you entirely dependent on him.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Atheist Agnostic Believer

Chuck Borough has produced a great podcast over at Mormon Expression.  I agree with just about everything the man said, and have repeatedly reflected that my own status as a Mormon is best described with the adjectives atheist (since I doubt the existence of a personal deity), agnostic (since I don't know for a fact), and believer (since I believe in community, including family and friends and the values that sustain these relationships).

Contrary to what someone prominent implied recently in a large gathering of LDS, I am not some kind of fascist who wants to force others to deny God so that we can all go on a wild crime spree together.  Borough's Santa Claus analogy is perfect.  When I realized that the jolly old gent was not a real person residing on the North Pole, I did not suddenly lose all respect for Christmas: I still like gathering with family and friends, singing, sharing food, and even exchanging gifts (though I am sometimes embarrassed that my offerings are a little meager).  Christmas is still Christmas for me, even if I don't anticipate flying reindeer on my roof come Christmas Eve.  Just so, Mormonism did not lose all its meaning for me when I realized that I have serious doubts about the existence of a personal God and the moral authority of those who represent him (whether gods incarnate like Christ or inspired prophets like Joseph Smith).  I still believe in the importance of being a moral person.  I believe in community, including the community of believers.  Unfortunately, they seem not to believe in me.  Judging from Elder Christofferson's recent talk, LDS church leaders think I am a fascist, a nihilist, and (to sum it up) a pretty rotten excuse for a human being.  While I can sort of understand where they are coming from, having spent a little time in that place myself, I cannot accept their caricature of me.  It is wrong, and I resent it.  If anybody asks, then yes, it offends me.  But I can be offended safely: I am not going to drop my morals and lash out at them violently (as Nehor did to Gideon).  Instead I am going to reach out and ask them to realize that many of us "atheists" are people too, that we love our families, that we read scripture, that we believe in and desire many of the same good things that they do.

Sometimes I probably speak too harshly against religion.  That is just the pain of my subjective personal betrayal speaking.  It is not objective reality.  Many religious people are absolutely fine.  Their faith nourishes them in what I would call (in my saner moments) a perfectly fulfilled human life.  But the same is also true of many "secular" people, i.e. people whose religion certain sects (not just the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) fear and seek to denigrate.  Why deny this?  Why pretend that happy and fulfilled atheists don't exist?  Why make us all out to be Satan?  Why drive a wedge between us and our believing friends and family?  Are you really willing to make a man an offender for a word?  Do you think the fate of the universe really hangs on accepting a certain narrow construction of reality, a construction that has no room for doubts about things which are (to be frank) easy to doubt?  Why would a loving God do that?  I wouldn't do it.  I refuse to write all believers off as fanatic members of the Inquisition: I know too many who aren't that way at all, and I am not committed to a worldview that makes it necessary for me to deny their reality to have mine.

Anyway, back to work I go.  Thanks for listening to the rant, Internet world.