Monday, September 29, 2008


My friend Nathan was trying to put a video on his Busoga Shining Light Association blog. He mentioned this on an IM just as I was about ready for bed. I mentioned to him that I thought the easiest way to do it was to sign up to YouTube and post the video there and they would make the code for it. He was trying something else, and I went to bed. Then this afternoon he messaged me and asked if I'd seen the video. I hadn't. He told me to check the link at his blog, I scrolled way down to see a link in the sidebar under the heading Drama. I also noticed that he added a link to this blog.

I'm delighted by the video which is a short presentation as part of the BSLA Drama Group. The Group provides HIV and living with AIDS messages. I had seen photographs earlier, but to actually hear what's going on adds a whole new element. I'm also delighted that my suggestion was useful to Nathan. The best way to learn about all these Web tools is just playing around with them and I'm very happy Nathan is willing to do that.

Ethan Zuckerman posted a great post today with the text of a talk he gave at Mastermundo. Ethan Zuckerman has written quite a lot about xenophilia, even more important he's tried to encourage people to become xenophiles in many practical ways. Not the least of it by co-founding Global Voices. If you click that link consider signing up for the daily digests which go right into your email box. The digests are a great way to serendipitously hit on interesting stories you won't find elsewhere. Global Voices is a sort of Readers Digest of what bloggers around the world are writing about. Zuckerman in his talk points out that xenophilia is hard to promote because people tend ordinarily toward homophily. Homophily is summed up by "birds of a feather stick together." If you want to learn more about xenophilia and homophily read his great post from this spring: Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia. Read today's post Mastermundo, and the challenge of breaking rules, it will probably make you want to learn more, because Zuckerman is a great storyteller.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What We Make of It

The illustration was scanned from Babar And His Children by Jean de Brunhoff. Shamelessly ripped under the guise of fair use for discussion. The real crime here is that I clipped the illustration when scanning it so you can't see Alexander's--the elephant flying out the carriage--bemused expression.

I looked on the bookshelf to see if we had Barbar stories because in this week's The New Yorker Adam Gopnik writes about Babar in an article entitled Freeing The Elephants: What Babar Brought. The copy of Babar And His Children on the shelf is an old library edition. Many of the pages are repaired with tape. I also notice that signatures have been re-sewn to some brown packing tape to atatch the cover securely, which was surely my mother's handiwork. I loved Babar stories as a child. My favorite stories however were Rupert Bear stories.

We had books in my house when growing up. Many of them were rummage sale finds. My mother particularly liked library bindings and those books were often rubber stamped with the word discarded. I do remember asking about the word as a child, but can't remember the answer. I presume it was something like, "It's ours now." In fact many of the old library books still had the pocket for the library card, some even a card. I can remember taking the cards out when I looked at these books and putting it back when I was finished.

I don't know many other Americans my age who knew Rupert Bear books. Rupert is huge in England, having been serialized in the Daily Expresssince 1920. It's fortunate my mother picked used books for us, otherwise I would never have had Rupert stories as a childhood companion. Rupert Bear is one reason my disenchantment of nature is incomplete. The possibility of brownies and gnomes still intrigues me.

I've been writing lately about religion and American politics and somehow haven't gotten around to saying anything important about it. Last Friday Jeremy at Naijablog posted a short post A world without god... I've got Naijablog in my feeds, but was alerted to the post by one of Emeka Okafor's "Quick Hits." I hurried over to read because the comments at Naijablog are very often quite lively.

In a conversation a Nigerian friend recently off-handedly remarked that he didn't believe in God. Jeremy wrote:
I wondered: if this chap can make the route out of the forces of unreason, how come most others fall into its snares and stay trapped staring at shadows deep within Plato's cave...
I've got an atheist Internet friend in Uganda. Over the years we've talked about Humanism. I told him about Tai Solarian whom Jeremy mentions in his piece. But my atheist friend is like Solarian a fierce critic of religion. I've told him I don't believe in God, but every once in a while my friend will begin to tell me something with, "A Christian like you..." I think where the confusion comes from is that he knows I'm not one to throw out unreason altogether.

Recently my friend and I were talking and the clans of various people we know came up. Talking with Ugandans on the Internet there are so many subjects with a common frame of reference, but an American like me can talk long without discovering differences which are hard to translate and to understand. How clans work is one of the topics for me. Here is a page listing the Clans of Buganda. The Buganda are the largest ethnic group in Uganda. I learned for the first time which clan my friend belongs. My friend sometimes will rail against tribalism, but in fact he seemed to relish telling me about the clans. His relationship to Buganda culture perhaps is a bit like my relationship to Christianity, in that for each of us there is a refutation of the tradition yet still tradition has its sway on us.

Google Book Search is cool. In looking for more information about Buganda clan totems I stumbled upon James G. Frazer's 1910 Totemism and Exogomy. Frazer's theories belong to history rather than main currents in anthropology today. Still I was struck by his descriptions of the Buganda clan totems ad by how the totems together created a cultural fabric.

In his article about Babar Gopnik addresses how Babar is controversial literature. In particular he mentions Ariel Dorfman who wrote The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. In brief here's Gropnik on the controversy:
Babar, such interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the "good" elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission.
Gropnik finds those who would burn "Babar" have missed the true subject of the books. For Gopnik the books are not colonial propaganda but rather;
a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its close relation to the French domestic imagination.
If Babar was a part of your childhood, or perhaps you have introduced Babar to your children, Gopnik's article is really worth reading.

Jeremy really is a master at getting conversations going on his blog, shortly after his first post World without god.. he posted a second The God particle and the comments are superb. We in America would be better off if we made an effort to talk more about religion in politics. It's hard to do because so often such talk can seem attacks.

As my Ugandan friend has noticed, my position seems a bit wishy-washy. On the one hand I say that I don't believe in God, but on the other hand talk about how important stories are to our understanding of things. And there's no doubt that religious stories are among my most favorite. Jeremy's wholesale rejection of God is ironically less likely to cause offense. Either way, it seems a willingness to suffer a bit of offense is necessary for discussion.

Much of what we Americans seem to think of as religious are stories with a different origin. Babar in translation offers a cross-cultural exchange and through that makes our stories more visible to us. If Americans of differing religious and non-religious views would talk more, we would become better aware of the stories we use to navigate through life. It wouldn't hurt either for more Americans to listen to what people around the world are talking about too. We miss out by making our religious views too private.

I notice that Republican presidential candidate has caused a minor international incident. In an interview with Spanish press he suggested he would not be willing to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero. According to Talking Points Memo reporting most Spanish observers believe that McCain simply had no idea what Spain's head of state's name is and got confused thinking Zapatero must be a bad guy in Latin America. One would expect that a presidential candidate would get some sort of briefing prior to speaking with the foreign press. So some in Spain figure McCain must know who Zapatero is and is signaling frosty relations. My take is that surely McCain was confused and did not intend the insult. My opinion stems from observing McCain's bellicosity and a worldview of enemy's all around.

Pardon my French: Jesus! McCain scares the crap out of me.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Who am I?

The great Nina Simone: Drawing by Marcel Flaubert Creative Commons 3.0

Once on the road with a couple of friends nothing seemed to be on the radio, so I pointed to the cassette player and said, "Does this thing work?" My friend answered, "Yes, but I only have a few cassettes in the car, see what's in the box." I stuck a loose tape in the player and a strong, clear voice from the speakers rang through:
Do you believe in reincarnation
Do you believe in reincarnation
We arched our backs as if at attention: Who was this? The voice continued:
Were you ever here before
Have you ever had dreams
That you knew were true
Some time before in your life
Have you ever had that experience
So you must question

All the truths that you know
All the love and the life
That you know and say
Who am I
I haven't found any reason to believe in reincarnation and yet who hasn't felt a feeling of astonishment on being alive? In the Bible encounters with heavenly hosts were responded to with awe, a close kin to terror. There are quite a number of videos of great performances by Nina Simone at YouTube. Like a few artists Simone could inspire awe. Consider this performance of Feelings--yep that song. Who Am I? was composed by Leonard Berstein as incidental music for a 1949 production of the play Peter Pan.

Early in the week I visited an old friend of mine, in town to assist her father who was having a medical procedure done in Pittsburgh. It was great to see her and to get her take on the presidential election season. She doesn't like politicians, so views it all slightly askew and without any favorites. Her position on voting: "Why encourage them?" I feel more invested in the outcome, which causes feelings of dread in me. Nonetheless both of us think the selection of Sarah Palin makes things interesting and I mentioned my fascination with her involvement in Pentecostal churches. She commented about how many people think Barack Obama is Muslim, but that, of course he is a Christian.

My friend then related that because she's an atheist they both seem crazy to her. The one disqualifying characteristic of a presidential candidate in America is being an atheist.

Questions of identity are tricky. This week the press has spent many, many column issues on John McCain's outrage over remarks made by Barack Obama. The accusation boils down to:
Obama called Palin a pig.
McCain has been posturing himself as a Maverick to Obama's calls for change. All this animal talk has my head spinning. Clearly none of the candidates are anything other than human beings, why then the totemic public identities?

For McCain identifying as a maverick, an unbranded, that is, a wild horse, which can be the property of the first to burn a brand in its hide, it is perhaps a way to turn his reputation for extreme disagreeableness into an asset. We might say to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.

The McCain campaign has been running ads to introduce Sarah Palin as a maverick too. But in her convention speech accepting the Republican Party nomination, she donned a different animal metaphor:
She's A 'Pitbull With Lipstick'
So when Obama tied to wrest the mantle of change back from the McCain-Palin campaign ads portraying Palin and McCain as the "true mavericks" in the campaign,Obama said at a campaign appearance:
You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig
It seems clear to me from the context of Obama's remarks that he wasn't calling either Palin nor Mcain a pig, clearly the references were to policies. But I'm not so sure that the subsequent outrage to his remarks by the McCain campaign was "phony" as Obama suggests. There's a ferocity to it which suggests sincerity. So strong is their identification as animals, a horse and a dog, that any talk of animals better be sure to pick the right ones--shades of Orwell's Animal Farm.

McCain's campaign is run by "former" lobbyists. His campaign manager Rick Davis has proclaimed:
This election is not about issues.
Apparently it's about animals and what sort of animal makes for a good president.

Metaphors obscure as much as they reveal. And metaphor is not analogy. Reincarnation looses its sense when one proceeds by saying: It is as if once I were a dog. No the power in metaphor is to be once a dog, even a dog wearing lipstick. But dare not say aloud the plain implication of Sarah Palin's metaphor: "I am a bitch." These animal coats our politicians are covering rather exposing their humanity. Rick Davis perhaps right that the election will be decided by voters perceptions of the candidate's personalities. Dressing up as animals serves to disguise rather than reveal John McCain and Sarah Palin's humanity. But that in itself seems revealing. They are cunning, and hiding themselves from view.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Struggling with myths and metaphor

Photo: Azusa Street Group Picture

Myth and metaphor are surely related; I'm just not sure how. The history of my school career was to skate by avoiding as much of the hard stuff as I could. As a consequence math is impossible and my knowledge of literature quite primitive. I've tried not to let my lack of education get in the way of my curiosity. But writing online about things I know little about can really show my ignorance. It's funny too how permanent what is put up seems to be. I know just wehre to look for evidence of my own ignorance. Ignorance one can hope is a temporary state of affairs, yet all of us will be forever ignorant of more than we know. I'm certain of which political candidates I'll vote for in the coming election. My purpose for thinking about religion and politics isn't to persuade anyone. I'm writing more as an attempt to become a little less ignorant about political matters all around me.

In the article in the LA Progressive about Sarah Palin I linked to yesterday she was attributed as saying upon Barak Obama's securing the nomination of the Democratic Party:
So Sambo beat the bitch.
I'm quite willing to accept the word of Lucille the waitress the reported has attributing the remark to Palin, but perhaps Palin never said it. What captures my attention about the quote is how charged the words “Sambo” and “bitch” are by virtue of the history of them. Any parent knows about how strange it is when their two or three-year old discovers profanity. Certain words are charged with a particular magic quite evident to children. Whether Palin is quoted properly or not the words attributed are magic.

As I say I'm a bit out of my element trying to figure out religion, politics and culture, at least with regard to academic discourse about them. So yesterday Keguro comes to my aid in a post by introducing me to the concept of metaphoricity. Keguro by way of explanation of the term offers: Metaphoricity pits allegiance against attachment. Googling metaphoricity, it's evident that the concept is not so simple that I'll grasp it quickly.

I wrote in my last post a little about Walter Wink and his studies of redemptive violence. The fact of the matter is that I haven't read any of his books. Nor have I read any books by Rene Girard whose ideas about violence and religion are very influential. Both Wink and Girard's ideas seem quite important to developing the idea that Pentecostalism is not inherently a vehicle for reactionary right politics. But it seems that myth and metaphor have to be drawn out a bit more plainly before that.

Myths in one sense are stories which help to unfold our worldviews. Worldviews are built from interlocking systems of metaphors; metaphors which we're often quite unconscious about, at least unconscious about how they shape our perceptions of the world. Toddlers quickly appreciate the power of profanity, but are taught not to use them. So they learn to cordon them off. As a child the story Little Black Sambo was in the house. As I child I think Sambo's blackness didn't seem particularly important. The story was loved because it told how a child like me conquered fear and ruled the day. Yet the pictures were noticed of course and the meanings of those pictures cordoned off much as those magic profane words I'd learned were. Some of the meaning of the word metaphoricity it seems to me has to do with being unconscious about this cordoning off, so that words and stereotypes are thought, consciously, to be not so different from ordinary words and concepts.

Sambo as a racial slur has a history worth considering. Hardly any Americans identify as racists, but we are very often blind to our own prejudice. Exploring online the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University is eye-opening. The Jim Crow Museum also has a YouTube Channel which is a good entry point for relevant videos.

In the center of the photo is a black man with a Bible, that's William J. Seymour. Seymour. He guided a revival on Azusa street in Los Angeles in 1906. Many trace the birth of the Pentecostal movement to the Azusa Street Revival. The story is well known among Pentecostals. While there are many strands in the American Evangelical movement which are overtly racist, at its birth Pentecostalism has believed that the out pouring of the Spirit among brown, white and black was evidence of the authenticity of the event. However prejudiced an individual person within the Pentecostal movement might be, the story of Azusa Street Revival stands in opposition to their prejudice.

If metaphoricity is important by virtue of our somehow loosing track of the conscious awareness that “this” is a metaphor, it is also noteworthy that our systems of metaphors we live by are interlocking, but in a loose enough way to allow for contradictions. The story of a universal revelation of the Spirit at the foundation of the Pentecostal Movement doesn't prevent racist and sexist views, but does provide an opening for discussion and conscious examination.

It's a mistake to think Evangelical Christians are unstudied. I've often marveled at how Christians quote the Bible from memory. But Bible study is far more in depth than just memorizing the text. Much is made of the ways that the Internet is used by fundamentalist Muslims, but Christians are sophisticated users of the new Web tools too. I'm always impressed surfing around by the use of the Internet by religious groups. There's the extraordinary collective effort, there are millions of Evangelical Christian Web sites. Christians are also quick studies when it comes to networking. But there is also the content. On one hand are quaint constructions, such as “that which we percieveth,” and on the other competent usage of the jargon of philosophy.

Back in the mid 1980's I was studying for my degree in elementary education. Quite a lot of the work was in composing behavioral objectives for lessons. The idea is to have learning objectives which can be measured and are appropriate and relevant. In reading instruction there are hundred, perhaps thousands, of objectives. The Teacher's Edition of reading textbooks are fat, because they contain a map of sorts of objectives; phonics and decoding skills; dictionary and study skills, etc. etc. All these objectives are keyed to the text the children read. It can get tedious trying to imagine ways to relate these objectives to the stories children read and to their own experience of school.

On the nightly news around that time I saw video of a woman speaking in front of a school board about their decision to purchase a new set of reading texts in her school district. She demanded:
I will not have my children forced to read books written by homosexual deconstructionists!
I was flabbergasted partly from having spent quite a lot of my time comparing various reading textbooks I found it hard to imagine how any of the series could be deemed to have objectionable content. If anything to object to they seemed all too safe. Secondly literary theory and deconstruction seemed so esoteric, I wondered when the Bible ladies had the time for it.

Mary Catherine Bateson reflects on mother metaphors for Earth in an essay an encourages us to reflect on the metaphors we employ. In the essay she uses complaints about reading texts as an example:
Not long ago, in 1988, a group of parents in Tennessee brought a lawsuit protesting that their children were being taught the religion of "secular humanism" in the schools, and objecting to the use of fantasy and mythology in education. A picture from a reading primer that showed a little boy and a little girl sitting at a kitchen table, with the little boy putting a piece of bread into a toaster, was cited as undermining traditional concepts of the family. This may seem extreme, yet these parents were right in their understanding of how people think and learn. Not only does such a picture undermine traditional concepts of the family but it undermines traditional concepts of God, for male dominance over females has long provided a model for the relationship between God and humankind. They would also be right to resist the metaphor of the dryad, along with any other suggestion of sacred presence immanent in the natural world, as undermining the idea of God as transcendent, ruling from outside and above.

Family systems, the organization of institutions, the way we run our country, the way we respond to other cultures and races, and the uses of political and military power--all these things are based on interlocking sets of metaphors. Our many relationships are isomorphic: they have the same form. There is a pattern that connects, and it is a pattern of dominance and exploitation, taught again and again in the most ordinary human arrangements. That pattern is expressed in the fierce and ultimately self-destructive attack on this planet that we cannot rule because we are a part of it.
Sarah Palin's candidacy provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect not only on sexism, racism, but on the system of metaphors which sustain them. Palin's religiosity brings forward myths which can help us to see our worldviews more clearly and to approach contradictions we've left unexamined.

Friday, September 05, 2008

An Offering

Photo by mknobil Creative Commons 2.0

A friend was talking the other day about the Internet and putting stuff online. He remarked that it makes all the difference if one proceeds as if placing an offering on an altar. I love seeing new pictures when Mark Knobil posts them, oh and the pictures posted by all my contacts. Everyday postings at social networking site and blog posts enrich my day. The fact of the matter is that there are some very talented people, but they're rare. Talent isn't descriptive enough because what makes some blog writers so worthwhile is depth of scholarship.

Keguro Macharia is home in Kenya and writing about it. Kegurao is a scholar. Gukira is one of my must-read blogs. He has introduced to me cultural studies, and more particularly an outsider's view of American culture. That's a picture that's hard for me as an American to get clear focus. So after studying long in the USA it's great to read his posts from home.

In thinking about American politics and religion the last few days, I've got far more questions than answers. Sarah Palin has made things interesting to me because so many of my questions are not ones easily answered.

At a social network I haunt a question in two parts was asked: First, Was Gandhi an anarchist? Second, How does the rule of law fit into Gandhian theories? I enjoy ongoing social discussions both for great questions like that, and for the contexts surrounding such questions. I don't have informed views on either part of the question. What I have is just a bit of collected knowledge about Gandhi, enough so that I can make some sense of articles posted online. Searching around I found an essay in The Hindu by Anil Nauriya Gandhi on Secular law and state.

Nauriya's essay about Gandhi brought to mind a best selling book in the 1960's, The Secular City by Harvey Cox. I read the book in the early 1970's and still have the paperback. Skimming over the book I was impressed how relevant it seemed to the questions about religion and politics Palin's vice presidential candidacy has brought to the fore in my mind.

Many of my African friends are quite religious and I've found myself describing myself as a "secular humanist." One of my friends is a devote Evangelical Christian and Kenyan. He studied for a while at University in the USA. And I appreciate that even while we "talk" by typing he gets there's a slight twinkle in my eye and wry smile when I say that. Secular Humanism for many on the political right is assumed to be a part of "the axis of evil." My good Christian friend has sophisticated views about his religious faith, so there's a ease to our arguments that's very often lacking with fellow Americans. In the Introduction to The Secular City Cox wrote:
Pluralism and tolerance are the children of secularzation.
There are many in America in 2008 who would respond to this assertion saying pluralism and tolerance are bastards. They insist that Americans is a Christian nation and as such our enemies are easy to find--Those bastards!

My Evangelical friend in Kenya makes a distinction between seculariztion and secularism. He certainly is quite eager for pluralism and tolerance in Kenya. A headline in yesterday's LA Progressive reads: Alaskans Speak (In A Frightened Whisper): Palin Is “Racist, Sexist, Vindictive, And Mean” (hat tip: The Editors). On reading the headline the sarcastic voice in my head sputtered, "Yeah, and those are her good points!" Many love Palin precisely because she's so good hacking red meat. Sarah Palin's selection is widely viewed as a sop to the Evangelical Christian base of Republican Party politics. I wonder what is it that make "mean" so appealing to this base?

We in the West believe strongly in self-interest, or more broadly that people act in terms of their self-interest. Richard A. Epstein, a libertarian scholar, observes:
That self-interest can manifest itself in one of two ways when dealing with strangers; through either aggression or cooperation.
Palin represents the aggressive choice, but that still leaves the question why aggression seems so overwhelmingly thought the right choice among so many Evangelicial Christians in the USA.

One of the reasons to link to the Amazon page on The Secular City is there are two reader reviews, a two-star and a five-star. The author of the two-star review is Gary Scott. The review is well crafted with his thesis statement right at the start: "Basic liberal Christian apology." With mainstream attention on rightist Christian politics, it's tempting to take "liberal Christian" as an oxymoron. But Barak Obama's abiding Christian faith reminds us not to be too hasty.

When we think about it, it's easy to come up with plenty of examples of liberal Christians. "Liberal" as a "brand" has become unpopular lately, and the term "progressive" seems more current. I'm afraid either label doesn't really do justice. In part because to most religious convictions are personal, and the partisan politics in the secular realm. The Christian right form a deliberate political movement, distinct from progressive Christian movements in the USA in the close alliance with and even forming the base for the Republican Party.

Theologian Walter Wink has written about the "myth of redemptive violence." Wink provides as one of the sources of the myth of redemptive violence in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish. Wink writes:
Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.
That sounds close to the world view I hear often expressed by the religious right in America today. It also seems in accord with George Lakoff's "strict father" frame of conservatives. With the centrality of the war in Iraq to Palin and McCain's campaign, Winks connection to the Enuma Elish and their world view is ironic.

I still want to look more closely at Pentecostalism and its relationship to the religious right, but that will have to wait for another time. For today what I wanted to establish was an idea that Christianity does not necessarily equate to Republican Party politics. In addition that secularlization is not inherrently opposed to religion, nor are religious people necessarily opposed to secularlization.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Contradictory Ideas

Church doctrines which prohibit woman from assuming authority in church affairs has a long and nuanced history. I can't claim any expertise about this history. But I've made the observation that one of the things which sets Pentecostalism apart from other manifestations of Evangelical Christianity in the USA and elsewhere, as well of course many mainline denominations, especially the Roman Catholic Church, is a willingness to allow women to lead.

Evangelicals in the USA often align themselves with cultural conservatism, and “traditional values.” The virtues of the the 19th Century “cult of true womanhood” were listed as: piety, purity, submission and domesticity. Back in the 1980's a long effort to enshrine equal protection for women in the USA Constitution was rebuffed. Many women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because they believed that equality was a diminution of their special rights. There is so much data confirming inequality of women in almost every aspect of our lives in the USA, it's hard to imagine the opposition to equal rights. The ideology which dictated separate spheres which Barbara Welter and other historians have documented provides a way to understand this view.

Ivan Illich wrote a controversial book called Gender. In it Illich argued that industrial society imposes certain unisex assumptions. Labor is seen as a commodity, for example it can be “off-shored” in a global economy. In some sense one worker is as good as another and both women and men are made for the same work. Colleagues cautioned him early on in his study that “in the present crisis of feminism, talk about women is not for men.” I feel trepidation about this discussion for that reason. But it seems useful to state another reason colleagues sought to dissuade him in his study. Illich writes:
I came to see that most of my interlocutors felt uneasy because my reasoning interfered with their dreams: with the feminist dream of a genderless economy without compulsory sex roles; with the leftist dream of a political economy whose subjects would be equally human.
Illich's book provides a critique of industrial society, putting that aside, the idea of a genderless society with equality for all is a powerful and pervasive metaphor. Speaker after speaker at the Democratic National Convention spoke about the demand for women's equality and in particular called for “equal pay for equal work.”

Illich observes:
Up to now, no goodwill and no struggle, no legislation and no technique, have reduced the sexist exploitation characteristic of industrial society.
Whether conservative or liberal, who could miss this? I temperamentally prejudiced against Sarah Palin's politics. But my impulse to cry "Hypocrite!" at her uneasy synthesis of reactionary calls to a mythic past with the demands of industrial labor where work is neither women's or men's work, is tempered by questions whether a genderless society can ever be truly non-sexist.

After listening to Palin's acceptance speech last night, it seems to me that she is primarily reactionary. The distance she places between her Pentecostal upbringing and then placing herself within the Evangelical non-denominational camp of American Christianity points to a contradiction in the systems of metaphors she uses to navigate through life. But the question remains whether Mike Davis is right about Pentecostalism not being a reactionary movement? So I want to explore that question further.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Political Metaphor

That illustration has little to do with anything I'm about to write. It's a Wordle of my Delicious tags. Wordle is a cool toy, and surely this tag cloud says something about me, I'm just not sure what.

As I write the TV is quiet in the background, tuned to the Republican National Convention. My Dad is upstairs watching, and quiet as it is, I wince occasionally. As the speakers are quick to point out the issue is not so much Democrats and Republicans but different ways of imagining ourselves. George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist with a theory about how we make sense of the world through metaphors. Lakoff has much more to say about metaphors beyond politics, but he's well known for talking about metaphors in the American political context.

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust is a compact, yet thorough exposition of his ideas on the subject. Lakoff contends that whether liberal or conservative Americans view the nation in terms of a family metaphor. Lakoff contrasts a conservative conception of this metaphor as "a strict father" model against the liberal "nurturant parent" model. In popular press this way of looking at American politics is rendered as "The daddy party and the mommy party." In the last presidential election cycle Frances Moore Lappe wrote an essay urging progressives to be wary of this framing. I think France Moore Lappe is brilliant and her points about the downsides of the liberal model within the nation as a family metaphor quite sound. But I'm less persuaded that we can quickly change the metaphors we live by; that, it seems to me, is a slow process.

The religious controversies within Christianity often revolve around the place of women in society. In my last post I pointed out that Mike Davis observes the dominance of women in the Pentecostal movement in the developing world. Indeed, the prominence of women within the movement here in the USA is a source of much dispute with other streams in the Evangelical movement. Many in the movement believe that women are prohibited from exercising authority over men in the Church. Actually this is the pervasive doctrine among most Christian denominations, not just the Evangelical movement.

From my agnostic perspective, it seems to me that Christian's often raise the argument of "Biblical orthodoxy" when in fact the orthodoxy they actually refer conforms to their world view which is rooted in sets of interlocking ideas having little to do with the Bible. So I hardly predict that the theological disputes between Evangelicals will impair Sarah Palin's appeal to Evangelical Christian voters.

The funny thing about thinking in metaphors is how impossible or unlikely different metaphors used by others seem. Our metaphors point what particulars out of the flux of events to attend. The old parable The Blind Men and the Elephant captures well how metaphors shape our views:
"When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?'

"Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.
People are aware of the hazard and the importance of multiple views, even if we fail to be cautious. And we are able to hold multiple contradictory views at the same time. So while our world views are sets of interlocking the fit is often quite loose.

Gender roles changed with the rapid industrialization of the Industrial Revolution. Among upper and middle class women in Great Britain and the USA a separation of spheres which historian Barbara Welter called The Cult of True Womanhood developed in response to the Industrial Revolution. And what we tend to think of as Victorian values in the USA are closely related to this development. Welter wrote:
The nineteenth-century American man was a busy builder of bridges and railroads, at work long hours in a materialistic society. The religious values of his forbears were neglected in practice if not in intent, and he occasionally felt some guilt that he had turned this new land, this temple of the chosen people, into one cast countinghouse. But he could salve his conscience by reflecting that he had left behind a hostage, not only to fortune, but to all the values which he held so dear and treated so lightly. Woman, in the cult of True Womanhood presented by the women's magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature of the nineteenth century, was the hostage in the home. In a society where values changed frequently, where fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity, where social and economic mobility provided instability as well as hope, one thing at least remained the same - a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found. If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex of virtues that made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic. It was the fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had - to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.
The four virtues of women in this construction are: Piety, Purity, Submission, and Domesticity.

In many ways the entry of so many women into the industrial labor force has upended this conception of womanhood. Sarah Palin's nasty speech accepting her nomination as vice presidential candidate highlighted the contradiction between the her reactionary politics and her ambition. Even her masterful rhetoric portraying John McCain as a strict father worthy of authority highlights it. McCain has had four recurrences of his cancer, his health is an issue. She cannot simply run as a help-mate, but must also show herself capable of the presidency.

The contradiction is not one felt only by women and men with conservative politics, it's a contradiction which dogs liberal women and men too. There is so much great writing on the about sexism and Feminism, that it's daunting to engage in the subject. I'm sure I'll screw up as I try. Yet these issues, often discussed in the press as "the culture wars" are too important not to address and to try for better understandings. So I prattle on in my next post.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Religion and American Politics

Screen shot of Lonnie Frisbee captured from YouTube video from a Katherine Kuhlman broadcast uploaded by wam957.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate for the Republican ticket. Palin was raised as a member of an Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal denomination. Palin described herself as a non-denominational Christian in a Time Magazine interview. I'll certainly take her word on that. It's not at all surprising to imagine that she doesn't want to get into the contentious area of Fundamentalist Christianity, preferring a claim to broad unity. Certainly Pentecostals consider themselves Evangelical Christians, but there are real fissures especially in regards to ideas about the place of women in the scheme of things.

I'm not religious. I am a baptized and confirmed Christian, which has some theological significance. But in my adult life my views can accurately be called agnostic. I want to be quick to say that I'm not hostile to religion, at least in any deliberate and overt way. Indeed my religious training in the Episcopal Church permeates my views in many ways, often surprising me. Another part of my growing up was becoming a Jesus Freak while in high school in 1970.

Once a secular Jewish friends reacted to my saying that I wasn't a Christian: "You can no more chose not to be Christian than I can chose not to be a Jew." I have to give him that point. What he was talking about is something bigger than just ourselves. In fact, he added that by virtue of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town where almost everyone called themselves Christian, that even he couldn't chose not to be Christian. This is a far different idea from what many Christians think, but there is something to the idea.

Following along with this weak meaning, America is a very religious country, a very Christian country. Oh, but what diversity! And this diversity is built into the fabric of the American Experience. It goes back much further, but take for example my own family's denomination, The Episcopal Church in The United States of America. That's a long name with a story. The Anglican Church was The Church of England. The American Revolution caused a bit of a problem for members here, they worked the problems out and suffice it to say The Episcopal in The United States of America is not The Church of England. But part of the blame or credit for the diversity of Christian expression in the USA has to go to The Church of England. They never were able to send enough priests and Americans got used to not having Church authorities tell them what to do. So even the Anglicans were restless, not to mention all the break away religions that found a home in this bastion of empire.

Punctuated over time there have been several periods of intense religious interest, often referred to as Great Awakenings. Great Awakenings are "great" because they're on a national scale. But these periods of awakening owe a great deal to more modest and local movements whose influence isn't always more broadly felt, only sometimes are. Pentecostalism in the USA is relatively recent, with it's beginnings in the early part of the 20th Century. Few mid 20th Century predicted how big it would grow, but it surely has.

Pentecostalism is a rapidly growing religious movement in the developing world. Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums points to Pentecostalism as an important religious movement in the masses of rural people moving into the mega cities of the 21st Century. In an interview with Davis at BLDGBLOG he makes the point:
I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.
Pentecostalism is less identified as an urban phenomena in the USA, nevertheless the self-organizing movement of poor people which Davis describes holds in the American experience. As does Davis's observation that it is "overwhelmingly, a religion of women." The Wikipedia article on Pentacostalism provides a short overview.

Sarah Palin is clearly an ambitious Republican politician and very much politically right. Sarah Palin's preference is to be called a non-denominational Christian rather than Pentecostal leads to a branch more gentrified and tamed than the broader movement. The Evangelical Movement has been gentrified, or associated with middle and upper class interests through millionaire media giants like Pat Robertson and James Dobson along with the rise of suburban mega-churches. Evangelical Christianity has become tightly entwined with Republican Party politics.

I do not think that the very politically right wing connection with populist Christianity is inevitable. I certainly don't think it reasonable to paint with a broad brush Evangelical Christians as a lunatic fringe. Although on that second part my thinking is that humanity in general suffers from our crazy beliefs. People stand on the threshold of destruction of life on our blue planet. How can we be so crazy? To some extent the political spectrum reflects personality and temperament, but all of us question how come we're so crazy and try to invent ways out of it.

The flash points in American politics can often be traced to views about reproduction. The arrangements we make for our children shape society in powerful ways. Palin's connection with Penetcostalism is interesting to me because women are so important in Pentecostalism. Their role is a fundamental difference and area of great contention among the other myriad of religious points of view in the Evangelical Movement.

I chose the picture of Lonnie Frisbee to illustrate this post first to remember that Christianity can be a counter cultural force. Second to show that the roots of the Christian right in the USA are more diverse than religious agnostics like me like to imagine. Sarah Palin's selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate brings many interesting issues into the spotlight which I hope to explore in future posts.