Sunday, March 1, 2015

Enlightenment and Spirit of Jihad

The ideas and principles surrounding the enlightenment start-up of a “more perfect union” and the philosophical articulation of “We the People,” are notions of an American version of the Civil Society organized around the idea of Freedom, an idea handed down to subsequent generations, and finally to this present generation, from the Enlightenment philosophes of the 18th century. We Americans have been wearing these hand-me-down ideas, with some tweaking and amending, for almost 300 years. Now, though, it would seem that recess is over, and that we must once again take up our studies about civics and history and philosophy with some degree of due diligence; because if Jefferson is correct:
The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny],” are to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes” (Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779. FE 2:221, Papers 2:526).

Yet it is not enough for civil society, however composed, simply to celebrate its cornerstones of civil freedom without also guaranteeing the ongoing relevance of those cornerstones as civil values. To do this, Jefferson encouraged the creation of a specific type of education, which even today constitutes the bedrock of a distinctly American program of liberal education—namely the study of politics, and history, and of philosophy for virtue.
“The value of [general knowledge] to a republican people, the security it gives to liberty by enlightening the minds of its citizens, the protection it affords against foreign power, the virtue it inculcates, the just emulation of the distinction it confers on nations foremost in it; in short, its identification with power, morals, order and happiness (which merits to it premiums of encouragement rather than repressive taxes), are considerations [that should] always [be] present and [bear] with their just weight. (Thomas Jefferson: On the Book Duty, 1821).”

I have written elsewhere that if ‘We the People’ desire to continue enabling a Jeffersonian vision of a civil society, which must be anchored in the ongoing intellectual improvement of democracy’s gatekeepers, then we who teach in the Liberal Arts “must continue to insist upon the study of those subjects that keep our eyes riveted upon Power of all sorts, and upon the subtle permutations of power into tyranny. We need to study history, and politics, civics and current events in order to keep before our eyes the (…) institutions whereby Men define and govern themselves; and we need to study foreign languages, philosophy, religions, mythologies and literatures, and all the sciences in order to understand that it is through various and diverse languages and “stories” that we as a people initially begin to frame, and then to flesh out, our political and social institutions, which in turn become reflections of the intellectual life of the American demos.
            Why do we do this? Because, ‘[i]f the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education’ (Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818. FE 10:99).”

So today’s versions of the civil society stand now at a fork in the road of the History of Civil Society, as so many before us have stood, where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” On the one hand is the road “less traveled by,” the Civil Secular Society, which was taken by the American enlightenment philosophes, which they also sought to protect for posterity by articulating and then transmitting the freedoms of enlightened [read: non-religious] education and the open society [read: freedom from religion]. On the other hand is the return to some form of a religious or sectarian expression of Theocracy—to an unenlightened and closed model of Society that is autocratic by every definition.
            Let me state for the record books of History that, “as the night the day,” it necessarily follows that within the paradigm of the Civil Society as an idea the Spirit of Enlightenment must finally oppose the Magical or Religious Spirit, which is replete with Neanderthalic mores (to borrow a rather felicitous expression from a recent Salon article). We must not lend credibility to the Spirit of Religion in the civil space because “Doing so lends credence to faiths that, by any humane standard, long ago discredited themselves and should certainly not be legitimized with Washingtonian pomp and reverence.”
The American version of the civil society is framed around the foundational ideas of the freedom to express, and the freedom to believe or not and to practice or not, religion; but that New Colossus, which was once fresh and original but which is now somewhat tarnished and dinged, no longer necessarily stands beside the “golden door” to light our way—Lady Liberty and her torch, to the degree that She has become too tolerant of the Spirit of Religion, may have become the anchor dragging us to our philosophical deaths. The outcome depends entirely upon our response, as representatives of Civil Society, to the various autocratic interests, among which is certainly religious jihad in all of its forms, that are seeking to gain control of western societies’ free and open thought life.

There are certainly differences between the various forms of civil society that evolved in Europe, and Civil Society as it was philosophically articulated and constitutionally enshrined in the early days of the American colonies. Principal among these differences is the notion of pluralism as a philosophical value. In American civil society pluralism is neither a primary philosophical nor political value; nor, by extension, should it be construed to be a significant pillar of western civil society in general. Pluralism is a derivative or secondary value in America, because it is first premised on the deliberate intellectual assent to a certain set of core civil principles, which are of primary importance.
            When there is intellectual assent about the philosophical foundation, goes the American version of Civil Society, then the edifice of state can be constructed upon it. What is important in this American version of the story of pluralism is that Individuals came together from all over the world in order to build their lives around an idea. This, in fact, was the opportunity in the Land of Opportunity. The individuals were of plural origin, but the idea of We the People was always primary and singular; therefore it was predictable that while there would be disparity or plurality in public discourse among all the diverse opinions concerning deity and morality, politics, taxes, etc., it was philosophically untenable that there should be discord about the core values articulated in the Constitution.
            That premise, of course, was sorely challenged during Lincoln’s presidency by a fratricidal war among American brothers mutually grounded in a single philosophical premise, and he famously questioned, “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived (in liberty) and so dedicated (to the proposition that all men are created equal) can long endure.” Spoiler alert: the answer was Yes, but not without a fight. Thus the idea of a common philosophical foundation or premise –freedom, was reinforced in the American mythology: first comes assent to a philosophical idea, then comes trying to work out the particulars about how we who share that common intellectual foundation can live together practically and functionally within the confines of Freedom.

Civil societies in Europe, of course, each have their own unique history, and the evolutions of the idea of Civil Society among and between the various “European peoples” seems to have necessitated an early assurance guaranteeing the importance of material pluralism; this was in order to ensure the peaceful cohabitation of the various tribes, clans, ethnic groupings, or who- and what-ever else one might wish to stick in this category of ‘outsider’ living among ‘Us.’
            Even the umbrella document that acts as an ad hoc constitution for member states of the European Union, the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), identifies inhabitants of the member states as “the European peoples,” with the following values, which prevail in civilly defined western democracies:
Lisbon: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

However, it is insufficient to call pluralism a value where other and more fundamental “ideological,” or idea-based values do not also hold sway, where there is a philosophical vacuum, as it were. As a political value or idea, the European conception of pluralism simply cannot compete against the ethnically unalloyed society or the society that has been purged of religious diversity, which clearly stand stronger in their homogeneity than the state structured around plural groups with competing personal interests. In other words, a theocracy (or a monarchy or an oligarchy) is a stronger cohesive unit than a democracy.
            The historical virtue that backlights cultural pluralism, at least in America, which is the first State truly founded upon an “open” or freedom-based philosophy, is not that any and every material cultural group could go to America for the better life, but that All and Sundry flocked to the philosophical concepts that grounded the possibility of America as an Idea – to the freedoms that framed her as a land of opportunity. The world’s diversity was drawn to the American idea like insects to a light bulb; they were fascinated by the idea that it was possible to live in society as self-determining free men, and they voted with their feet, choosing to leave the various forms of autocratic, theocratic, totalitarian and authoritarian societies that were their homes, in order to participate in the new philosophical experiment that was America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

Obviously there will be many analyses of and responses to this crisis, where the idea of Civil Society stands at an historical fork in the road. Some, like French academic Didier Raoult, perceive the natural end of the idea of Civil Society and the promise of some future religious social reality:
“It is not all over; but the “peace and love” that illuminated my youth is certainly gone. One cannot allow the enchantment of a generation of “dunces” (to paraphrase J. K. Toole), which never grasped the failures of the Marxists and those of the Enlightenment (Rousseau’s universality), to lead us into a civil war by invoking an ideal that was never able to become a substitute for religion.”

For this thinker, the plurality that is France is reducible to a simple material-geographical state of being, which has no grounding in an idea or principle: “It is France’s language and her culture, which are constantly changing and being transformed, which unify [the French state].”
            For others, such as Inna Shevchenko, the leader of the topless, anti-religion activist group Femen,
  “Steadfast belief in the inerrancy of religious dogma, coupled with… convictions that the dogma’s many mandates are meant to apply to all humanity, clash with principles of secular governance and Enlightenment-era precepts that oblige us, at least ideally, to sort out our problems relying on reason, consensus and law.  (…) [W]e cannot “adapt” here, especially under threat of violence. We must unabashedly stand by reason, the rule of law, and secularism.”
The choice is actually quite simple: if a country wishes to represent the values of the Civil Society within its borders, then it must stand by the Civil cornerstone of secularism, which means that any religion, all religion, must relinquish its claim to the Public Space, and must finally yield to reason in Public Discourse and the articulation of Public Values. Civil Society will either oversee the decline of the Spirit of Religion within its boundaries, or it will be ultimately consumed by that Spirit and thereby cease to be Civil. We cannot travel both roads.

As an individual I can remember things from my childhood; but I cannot remember things from my father’s childhood, or his father’s, or his… For longer-term recall we need resources and education, and we need to study that past deliberately, to learn how to value a time and its ideas, which really belonged to someone else. As with individuals, so it is with nations. We tend to be born into our cultural soup, to learn the ‘ways’ of that soup naturally, then to forget that we ‘learned’ because it seems so natural to us. Then that cultural soup changes as new ingredients are added, as, over time, different chefs take over the tasks of spicing and cooking. With time the original cultural soup is gradually changed, sometimes augmented, sometimes diminished, sometimes on high heat, sometimes on low. Equally, and in keeping with the simile, the edges of an original national identity will necessarily become blurred with the passage of time and the accretion of new and diverse members with their new and diverse thoughts and ideas and ways of viewing the world.
            So it is inevitable that there will come tipping-point moments in the life of a society. It is also predictable that societies that have been framed around a materially porous national identity will confront, in the course of their histories, changes of a fundamental nature as their material compositions change through various immigrations. The idea of the Civil Society as it was created in the young America, however, is not grounded in any form of evolving historicism; rather it is framed around an unchanging core of ideas – it is a true ideology in the most positive sense of that term.  
So at this moment in the history of the American ‘We the People’, when the American national identity is being so fundamentally challenged, not by any form of material immigration, but by the malign growth within the Secular Civil State of the Religious and Theocratic Mind, which is pernicious to the very concept of the open Civil Society, the People, the e pluribus unum, needs to continue studying the ideas and the arguments that created the original national identity of the American People– otherwise that Unum is destined to become irremediably lost in the famous Santayanian aporia -- "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" [George Santayana (1905) Reason in Common Sense, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason]. Hence the absolute importance of a broad liberal arts education in the Civil, Secular Democracy, as opposed to a form of education that specializes in specializations—with a potential social yield of a “confederacy of dunces.”

There is no necessarily correct or right form for a religion. Each religion is ultimately authoritarian or autocratic in structure to whatever degree it is framed around some External Authority and not grounded in the values of the civil state—the individual. History shows that the Spirit of Religion will remain true to itself; this is the nature of the beast. So it is a media-driven Null Set {}, the nonsensical rhetoric of non-thinking minds, to say that some certain form of a religion, such as its moderate or its extremist expression, is more or less desirable than some other form of that religion. It is no more possible, or meaningful, to argue that moderate Christianity is the most desirable form of Christianity, than it would be to argue that an extremely liberal form of C. or an extremely fundamentalist form of C. is most desirable.
            However, it is possible to make the argument that only the moderate form of a religion, such as Christianity or Islam or Judaism, is conductive to all parties thriving in the civil secular democracy, and that it is therefore the most desirable form of that religion within the civil and secular society. Hence the philosophico-theological quandary when a Civil functionary, in the form of an American president, makes indemonstrable utterances on intractable religious issues (from Salon): “…Obama launched into what so riled conservatives — musings about faith being, as he put it, “twisted and misused in the name of evil.””  No matter the speaker, this speech is nothing more than a meaningless “tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing.”

In their expressions of the Civil Society, France and America share in having laws on the separation of church and state, which is certainly a defensible ideological foundation for the secular state. The French version was not legislated until 1905, some 125 years after the American version, and finally constitutionally enshrined in 1956; so it is the later variation on this theme. There is, however, an interesting nuance to note between the two different conceptualizations of separation of church and state. In the original American idea it is question of the ‘exercise’ or public practice of religion, but this is not so in France. In a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (‘Hobby Lobby’), for example, Justice Kennedy wrote:
“In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief . . . It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.”

So while the American government may not interfere in the free exercise of religion in the public space, the French state has simply chosen not to intrude at all in the question of religion.
            It would seem that the place of Religion in the American Civil Society is finally being taken to the next level of challenge, which is to say that John Locke’s original anti-religion argument, which he published in his 1689 Letter concerning Toleration, is finally being taken seriously. In his letter Locke argues for the complete separation of church authority from civil authority because, he says, a civil magistrate is not qualified by his civil office to make competent distinctions between competing religious authorities with competing claims. This argument was sufficient, at the time, for the framers of the American Constitution to separate the interests of state from the interests of church in the young republic.  
            Locke’s argument was recently resurrected in an essay at The Immanent Frame entitled “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom,” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, professor of law and religious studies, who follows Locke’s thinking, and then some, by making a vigorous and compelling argument against even the very possibility of Freedom of Religion, at least as a category under the law. “Big “R” Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.” Her conclusions are incisive:
“The legal and religious fictions of religious freedom have become lies designed to extend the life of the impossible idea that church and state can still work together after disestablishment. There is no neutral place from which to distinguish the religious from the non-religious. There is no shared understanding of what religion, big “R” religion, is. Let’s stop talking about big “R” religion.
                  What remains, as Clifford Geertz reminds us, is for us to work on creating new fictions together, political, legal, and religious…”

We must not delude ourselves: ‘keeping faith’ with the ideas of the Civil Society comes at a cost…. How much are we willing to yield up to some one else’s desire? How much are we willing to yield up our right to be offensive or offended, to be critical or to be criticized? Are we really willing to become all that the Other desires? What will happen when, not satisfied with western democracies’ principles of an open society, Others choose to take offense at the way we dress? At our access to consumer products and to credit purchases? At the gods we may or may not worship? At the cars we drive? How far can the open society yield to the closed society? How far will western civil democracies submit to the fatwas and other whims of clerics camping in Yemen?
            At some point, we either stand with the principles and ideas of Civil Society, or we must be prepared to yield our ideas and principles to the one who wishes to stand with his, and to impose them on us. The ideas and principles of Civil Society have defined the various countries of the democratic west for several centuries; but peoples have been moving and borders have become porous… some are forced to leave the country of their birth and culture, others choose to. And in the movement of peoples between countries, like Nietzsche’s camel, they enter into the west carrying cultural burdens that are, quite distinctly, not western. In and of itself, this very practical reality is neither a good nor an ill; but it is in this way that hard choices are imposed upon us – does the immigrant travel with his culture on his back, bringing his old home into his new, or does he abandon what he was in that other place in order to become something new in this place? And we, who were born in a democratic and open society, what do we expect from the visitors we receive – that they should cease valuing the ideas that held sway in their home, that they should become as us? So, to some degree, the religious questions that have begun to trouble the west should inform our thinking about immigration.

There are many kinds of jihad… a very physical jihad where one sweeps over the opposition to impose rule; and philosophical jihad, where one world-view attempts to impose itself upon another.
  What can we learn from the Charlie Hebdo massacre? The first edition after the massacre, depicting Mohammed, was already described by a British national Muslim cleric as an act of war. Just as many religious fundamentalists have been called to jihad by radical Islam, so Charlie Hebdo’s resolute and tenacious stance on the non-sacred depictions of Islam’s prophet, can be seen as a declaration of secular jihad, which is grounded in the idea that the open and secular society, as it is envisioned in philosophy, is a preferable political society to one grounded in an authoritarian belief, be it of Christian kings or individuals, or radicalized Islamic clerics, or any manifestation of the Religious Mind. The Spirit of Religion is, inherently, a variation on the colonizing themes of empire – it wishes to create a kingdom of God in the world of men.

Phrontisterion stands with Charlie Hebdo and the uncompromising Voltaire on the question of Civil Society: Écrasons l'infâme (Ecr. L'inf.)

No comments:

Post a Comment