Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lilla believes that there is something called "the West." Worse, he thinks that within this alleged "West" there is a "We"

Mon, Aug 20, 2007 3:48pm EST ... and I saw my devil. And I saw my deep blue sea ...
Hi. Siva Vaidhyanathan here...I am a big fan of Lilla's work over the years. That's why I am a bit worried about his forthcoming book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. I have only read the excerpt that ran in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday. But I see already that the book builds on one of the gravest misunderstandings about global cultural history.
Lilla believes that there is something called "the West." Worse, he thinks that within this alleged "West" there is a "We" that conforms to the core tenets of textbook history: "We" were once burdened by superstitions and irrationalities until somehow "we" became enlightened.
Now, I think the enlightenment is a great thing. And I keep waiting for it to show up and triumph here in the United States. I just don't see how one can claim that what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad derides as "liberalism and Western-style democracy" has dominated anywhere for any significant period of time. Heck, this country had a functional democracy (with almost all adult citizens enfranchised and the state generally reflecting the will of the electorate) for a very brief period of time: either from 1965 through 2000 (Voting Rights Act through Bush's unelected takeover) or 1971 through 2000 (starting with the adoption of the 26th Amendment).
Any construction of an intelligible and enlightened "West" must elide all of those messy contradictions within it: Nazism, Francoism (Catholic royalism), Stalinism, radical Serbian nationalism, Jerry Falwell, etc. But mostly, it must ignore the diversity of thought and practice among real people who inhabit "the West." And it must ignore the omnipresence of materialism, secularism, consumerism, rationalism, and even atheism as major traditions in places that could not easily be described as "Western" such as India, Iran, and China.
Basically, East is West. Yet England ain't Ireland ain't Scotland ain't Finland ain't Haiti. There is too much diversity among neighbors for there to be binarity among hemispheres. We willfully misunderstand the world by bifurcating it, as if the entire population of humanity were the subject of some hastily written David Brooks column.
The biggest problem with Lilla's argument is that he assumes that what he calls "political theology" somehow ceased to be a political force in "the West" some time after World War II.
I, for one, am not "puzzled" by cries of theological radicalism from Iran or Saudi Arabia. I have heard them in this country for years. Spend some time in any conservative Baptist church in Texas and you will here the code words, if not the outright proclamations, of political theology. This is not just theologically infused politics like one hears from Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter. This is hard-core millenarianism. And like it or not, it is perhaps the most powerful strain of political thought in the United States today. Catholic versions of it play a role in "Western" places like Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Mexico. As recently as the multiple campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, political theology dominated the rhetoric of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it is the chosen lens through which George W. Bush views the world. That's why Ahmadinejad reached out to him with a letter. He knew that Bush would "get it."
I don't mean to undermine the claims of political liberalism and liberal theology, both of which have had profound effects from Vienna to Vancouver. But I cringe at claims that immersion in such ideologies somehow blinded us to the limits and weaknesses of their historical influences.
Now, to be fair, Lilla acknowledges the revival of political theology in the West. But he links it most strongly to the growing presence of Islam in Europe.
Look, Islam is not some strange and different thing. To those of us raised outside the three major monotheistic religions of the world, all three pretty much demand the same things from their adherents and predict the same things for pagans, kafir, or whatever you want to call us.
The best way to examine the influence of political theology is to acknowledge its common power within radical Islam, radical Christianity, and radical Judaism. It's there. It killed 3,000 New Yorkers in 2001. But it also blew up a bunch of abortion clinics in the 1990s and assassinated Yitzak Rabin. (Update: There was an attempted bombing in April of an abortion clinic in Austin, Texas. So it's not just the 1990s.)
Enlightenment, or the ability to raise one's political consciousness beyond the provincialism of whatever religious text drives your decisions, is a recent and fragile thing, as Lilla explains very well in his article. But it ain't just a French, German, English, and American thing. A fuller examination of this global struggle would acknowledge that Iran is just as thrown by the recent (1979) emergence of political theology as we are. Persian culture has deep traditions of tolerance and rationalism -- what we would recognize as liberalism. And India was once ruled by enlightened despots like Ashoka and Akbar. India practically invented religious tolerance (although you would not know that to look at it today).
The conflict between political theology and political liberalism is, as Lilla claims, the central conflict of our time. I would add that it is the central conflict of all time. And it ain't just Americans and Europeans who have to deal with it. The front lines of this struggle run through Jakarta, Bombay, Karachi, Cairo, and Lagos. That's where the real story is.

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