Monday, January 26, 2009

Religion, Education, and the Desire for Superiority

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about superiority and how many of our social problems and political paralysis stem from a seemingly universal need to feel superior.

James Baldwin* wrote that when he heard people talk about equality he always wondered, equal to what. People don't want to be equal. They want to be superior. And we humans have invented all sorts of way to feel superior.

Throughout the colonized world, we inherited European ideas of the superiority of one race over another. In the Republic of Congo, it is height that makes Bantu feel superior. Superiority of gender is ubiquitous. And lets not forget classism. The U.S. may like to pretend that we are a classless society, but in a classless society one would not be judged on the car they drive, how big their McMansion is, or which designer's name is written on their ass

The current financial crisis may cure us of some of our obsession with labels, bling, and the "real housewives" of the obnoxiously rich. And discrimination based on some accidents of birth is slowly becoming less socially acceptable, but other illusions of superiority stubbornly persist.

The antagonism between the "liberal elite" and the religious right is all about feelings of superiority on both sides. And the defensiveness of our discourse has everything to do with the implicit claims that, whichever side you are on, the other side considers you inferior in fundamental ways.

"Liberal elites" think they are better educated, more worldly, less racist, and more humane. After all, we have diversity. We have degrees. We speak other languages. Some don't even eat meat. We are tolerant (of homosexuals, freaks, and premarital sex...evangelicals and conservatives, not so much).

"Heartland" people believe they are more hardworking, down to earth, family-oriented, self-sacrificing, god-fearing, and humane. After all, they join the military and lay their lives on the line for their country. They give their time and money to their church. They don't go to the government for handouts. They take care of themselves, their families, and each other.

Our views of each other are the exact converse of all the things we think make us special. If we "elitists" think we are superior for our degrees and our diversity and our worldliness, we look down on those people in the "fly over states" as being backwards, uneducated, and ignorant.

Case in point, while I was at the University of California Santa Cruz, one of my teachers referred to conservatives in the middle of the country as people with the "bubba syndrome." Mind you, this was a Latin American Latino Studies program. If anyone had suggested that any homophobic, anti-abortion, Latin Americans were "bubbas" (or the Spanish equivalent) a shitstorm would surely have ensued.

Meanwhile, what Sarah Palin refers to as the "real America" looks down on us coastal people as being pretentious, lazy, criminal, immoral, and selfish. Most of all, they point out, we look down on them. In fact, Republican House candidate Robin Hayes said that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God."

Steve J. Sterns wrote a book called Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru. The book is about Sendero Luminoso (the Maoist guerrilla group that terrorized Peru for years and is now, reportedly, in the midst of a resurgence). In the book, he describes the rift in Peruvian society, saying:

They also believed that ‘superior’ persons were marked by their benevolence toward inferior classes (a benevolence that liberals attributed to education and conservatives to religion).
Isn't that a perfect description of the rift in our society as well? Conservatives believe that their religion makes them morally superior, while liberals believe it is their education that makes them morally superior. Conservatives give money to their church. Liberals give money to Amnesty International. Each thinks their choices are superior.

I'm not naive enough to believe that people will ever be rid of their desire to feel superior, but it would be nice if we challenged people more. The next time that some twenty-five year old snot implies that their degree confers wisdom, remind them that George Bush has an ivy league degree and it didn't do him much good. And the next time someone implies that religion is the only source of morality, remind them that some of our greatest moral philosophers - from John Stuart Mill to Albert Camus - were atheists.

And lets not forget that the more strongly we feel superior to another group of people, the more we need them in order to define who we are. An educated person can only feel superior when there are other, less educated, people. A churchgoer can only feel superior when there are non-churchgoers to compare themselves to.

And now, for your amusement, is a concise description of our differences from Dave Barry.


* I can't for the life of me remember which essay this was in, so if anyone could help me out with that I would be eternally grateful.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Religion and Politics: Making Peace with Obama's Peacemaking

I knew I was going to vote for Barack Obama as soon as I saw his 2006 Call to Renewal speech (video below).

I am one of those secularists he spoke of who "dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant." I cringe at the mention of god in speeches and roll my eyes when athletes thank god for a touchdown. So for a politician to speak positively about religion and make me want to vote for him is astounding.

It was the reasonableness of his speech that impressed me.

The majority of Americans, Obama pointed out, are religious. Ninety percent of Americans believe in god. Morality, for many Americans, has a religious basis. And as "law is by definition a codification of our morality," he argues that it would be impossible for a religious person to completely leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.

And while I am wary about anyone who suggests even the slightest opening for religious morality in the public square, I was comforted by Obama's statement that he does "not believe religious people have a monopoly on morality." That may seem like an obvious thing, but it is a hard fought point with many religious people.

I believe strongly in democracy, as frustrating as it can be when you are in the minority. I agree with Obama that democracy requires dialogue. Democracy requires that people with wildly divergent views find common ground and Obama outlines a blueprint for finding that ground. Confront the differences head on. "Speak to people where they are at." Do not concede difficult territory to "those with the most insular views."

He tells secularists to stop avoiding religion and to respect that many people's morality has a basis in their religious beliefs. To the other side he says that “democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific values…it requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason," that they "can’t simply evoke god's will.”

I was convinced. Here was a man who might actually believe in real democracy and who might have the ability to bridge some of those divides that paralyze our politics. He even made a rational case for why people are drawn to religion. He spoke of the desire for a "sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives." He spoke of religion as a source of hope. Hope is something even godless liberals seemed to have been looking for. We certainly voted for it.

I was convinced. But it is one thing to hear these ideas in a speech. It is quite another to see it in practice.

I saw not one, but three different christian clergy during the inauguration festivities. I hated the idea that our political changing of leadership came with such a strong christian component. For all Obama's talk in his 2006 speech about America no longer being just a christian nation, when it came down to it, he chose christ-times-three.

Most troubling was his pick of Rick Warren, a man who compared homosexuality to incest. I was incensed, especially coming off of the Prop 8 fiasco in California, a fiasco Rick Warren was on the wrong side of. But we should not have been surprised to find Warren there. After all, Obama mentions him as a friend back in his 2006 speech. Obama (ostensibly) disagrees with Warren on many issues, but he feels he has found an evangelical leader with whom he has some common ground.

So how much should we tolerate the intolerant? Can we take civility too far? If Obama is able to start a dialogue with the religious right, is it worth elevating someone with many deplorable views into such a prominent position? If that dialogue makes it so that evangelicals don't just automatically vote for whatever republican says they are anti-abortion and anti-homosexual, is it worth it?

Will dialogue moderate extremest views? When Obama says that he is going to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions I applaud his move towards diplomacy. Some of those leaders base their governance on Islamic law, kill homosexuals, and deny the holocaust. Yet, I sincerely believe that diplomacy is the best course of action.

When the Bush administration refused to talk to those leaders, because they did not want to give them credibility, I denigrated them as ideologues. But why is it so much easier for me to understand elevating Ahmedenajad than Rick Warren? Granted, Ahmedenajad was not asked to speak at the inauguration, but what if a grand gesture was the only thing that might have opened the door?

Perhaps the beginning of an answer can be found in how the three clergy responded to Obama's invitation. Openly gay episcopalian Gene Robinson was very careful not to make a christian prayer, using phrases like "every religions god." And he took his time to speak about poverty, disease, and discrimination against "refugees, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people."

Reverend Joseph Lowery also used his time to talk about social justice, saying “deliver us from the exploitation of the poor…and from favoritism toward the rich.” Lowery used language that was significantly more christian in tenor. Although ending with some humor helped, being at a political function where millions of people are calling out amen is uncomfortable for me to say the least. Still, he did make an effort to talk about “inclusion not exclusion” and referenced “our churches, our temples, our mosques.” He acknowledged those of other faiths, if not those of no faith.

But it was Rick Warren whose invitation caused the most controversy and it is evangelicals who always seem to be shoving their religious beliefs down my throat. So I was most curious to see what Warren would say. In the beginning, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. He used his time to mark the historic occasion of electing the first African American president.

He asked for Obama to have wisdom, courage, and compassion. He called for respect for "all the earth" and for a "peaceful planet." He even expressed that Americans are "united not by race, religion, or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all."

Yet although Warren prayed for all of us to have humility, he showed us the ultimate arrogance by bringing jesus into our presidential inauguration and then reciting the lord's prayer. This was disrespect, not just to nonbelievers, but to people of every other belief system.

I'm struggling to reconcile my philosophical beliefs in democracy and diplomacy with my intense feelings about the unjust and insulting views and manners of many believers. But I voted for Obama based on his ability to reason, to find common ground, to lead democratically, and to show all people respect - even those people who I don't think deserve it.

This does not mean that I will blindly accept what Obama does. I'm still pissed about the lord's prayer being recited and I will write letters and articles and scream from the rooftops when these things happen. I will fight that much harder for the rights of the GLBT community. I will fight that much harder for us nonbelievers to be shown some respect. I will fight that much harder for the arts and humanities, and other sources of non-religious morality, to be prioritized for a change.

But I'm also going to try and develop a little thicker skin and to respect the diplomatic efforts Obama is making. While the clergy did not mention us nonbelievers, Obama did. And as a man who was raised by a "secular humanist," I believe that he respects us.

Obama ended his speech in 1996 by recounting an incident. A doctor with strong feelings against abortion wrote to him to express his disappointment that Obama's website called all those against abortion extremists. Obama struck the doctor as being better than that. He gave Obama credit for being a just and fair minded person, despite this evidence to the contrary. Obama was impressed by the man's letter. He changed his website. He tries to "extend the same presumption of good faith to others."

Obama is extending that presumption of good faith to people like Rick Warren and, as much as I hate it, I guess I'm willing to see where it goes.

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 1 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 2 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 3 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 4 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 5 of 5

Inaugural Speech of Gene Robinson

Inaugural Speech of Joseph Lowery

Inaugural Speech of Rick Warren

Inaugural Speech of Barack Obama

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama, Bring Back the New Deal Arts Projects

Coit Tower Mural in San FranciscoArt isn't usually the first thing on the agenda in a crisis. It isn't fundamental to basic survival. But art is fundamental to addressing many of the issues that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.

In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration started several federal programs which provided funding for artists. On the most basic level, the programs put artists like Jacob Lawrence to work. It also promoted United States art and culture, chronicled life in different parts of the country, and sometimes sponsored projects which tackled difficult social issues.

Seventy years later, public buildings throughout the United States are covered with murals steeped in history. Archives are filled with photographs of American life taken by New Deal artists. Museums hold paintings reminding us of the struggles that took place in securing the basic safety net that we take for granted today.

Perhaps this legacy doesn't seem important to you, but hasn't one of the main themes of this election been breaking down the divides between red state and blue state? Haven't we been talking about the lack of understanding between different groups in the United States? Haven't we been talking about the lack of understanding between us and the rest of the world?

Art teaches us about other people by enabling us to see the world through someone else's eyes. Art appeals to the heart as well as the head and for that reason has the ability to transcend boundaries, to represent, to connect, and to mobilize. A Diego Rivera mural, a Bob Marley song, or an Almodovar movie help us to understand the worlds the artists are living in. They help us to create a dialogue. And in a world where so many problems require coordinated effort - poverty, environmental degradation, war - we need dialogue more than ever.

A new federal arts project would put American artists to work. It could document the road we have traveled to get here and the historic time we are in. Projects could show our common histories and values and help us visualize a new and better American identity for the future. It could help us share that vision with each other and with the rest of the world.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Revolutionary Road and the American Dream/Nightmare

If you haven't yet seen revolutionary road, go. It's a phenomenal movie.

Spoiler Alert!!

The movie follows a couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) who are falling into the suburban abyss - house, car, two kids, job he hates, housework all day for her. For a moment, it looks like they are going to break away and do something extraordinary. For a moment it looks like they might question the rules and be "unrealistic."

They plan to take off to Paris where she will get a job and he will figure out what he wants to do with his life. Their friends and neighbors are shocked. They want to see them fail. People who are too afraid to try something new, who are willing to live miserable, fearful lives always want to see you fail. You escaping is an indictment of their life.

The plan falls apart. They do not go to Paris. The hope and joy they had for a few brief moments dissipates. It dissipates, in part, because Kate Winslet gets knocked up (more on that later). The bigger reason that it dissipates is the dual trap of fear and success.

Leonardo's character is offered a promotion. He is offered more money and more prestige. He's offered a version of success that is socially acceptable, that meets the expectations his father had for him. His ego gets in the way. He is not strong enough to pursue what would make him happy, rather than admired.

I know so many people who complain about their lives. Yet, year in and year out, they continue living a life they hate in large part because they have been seduced by the money, prestige and admiration their position provides.

Is it really better to be a miserable lawyer or CEO or director of widgets? What if you could be a happier (if poorer and less envied) writer, bartender, or carpenter?

The other part of the equation is fear. It's scary to not follow all the rules. If you set out on a path not trodden by a million others, you are likely to fall down a few times. My favorite character in the movie is the (supposedly) mentally ill son of the neighbor. He is considered crazy because he refuses to play the game, because he tells the brutal truth. He is the movie's bullshit detector. He calls Leonardo out for being scared. "The hopeless emptiness is comfy," he says.

In the end, Leonardo gives up pursuing joy and resigns himself to the socially acceptable life. Kate Winslet succumbs to despair. She gives herself an abortion. She bleeds out and dies.

What is interesting about how the movie handles the abortion issue is that it does not explicitly talk about the illegality of it (although it is implied), nor does it talk about religion. The movie directly confronts only the idea that a woman who would want an abortion (or simply wouldn't want a child) is damaged, selfish, unloving, hateful, difficult, unmotherly, evil...

Leonardo may be miserable, but he has perks. He has the prestige of his job. He has the girl he is screwing on the side. He has his ways of getting off. Kate stays in the house all day cleaning. Sex last two seconds. Even when she has an affair, she gets no sexual satisfaction. She never gets to experience any joy. She's thwarted at every turn. And if she tries to break out, to live, she has to deal with the guilt of having internalized the labels of damaged, selfish, unloving, hateful, difficult, unmotherly, evil...

The movie ends with the couples neighbors in denial. One neighbor simply decides to never speak of them again. The other rewrite history in her own mind and claims that they were always difficult people.

I wonder if there are people out there who are really happy with their unquestioned, safe, suburban lives. I hope so. There are so many people out there living that way.

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