April 28, 2006

Systems of Obedience: The State, Culture and Ideology -- Introduction

This is the first of what I expect to be a lengthy series of essays. The subjects I will address encompass many seemingly disparate areas, everything from philosophy and the history of ideas, including the development of the Judeo-Christian doctrines that serve as the often unacknowledged foundation of many of our views (and even the views of those who sometimes criticize those doctrines on narrower points), to the role of the state and/or religion as central organizing mechanisms for human activity and belief, to racism and sexism, to our insatiable desire for war and the destruction of life in a manner that would be astonishing if we did not assume this to be the inevitable and "natural" state of the world, to current films such as the retrogressive and deeply unfortunate Brokeback Mountain (and Crash to a somewhat lesser degree), and to novels which throw certain of these ideas into high relief.

I am intentionally deferring the broader theoretical discussion of my general theme to subsequent installments. I do that for several reasons, not least of which is the daunting complexity of the issues that I want to explore. What concerns me is the critical ground on which politics, culture and psychology meet, and the countless ways these factors (and others) inform and interact with each other.

Let me offer a couple of quick comments about the meaning of my title, with the longer explanation to come. When I refer to the "state" in this series, I refer to any state at all, from the most minimal and least intrusive form of government to the most brutal totalitarian regime. For any government to function, it must command obedience to its laws from the majority of its citizens, even if those laws are few in number. As the number of laws multiplies and as government extends its control over more and more areas of life, the scope of the activities demanding adherence to that society's rules similarly increases.

By "culture," I intend the term to be understood in the commonly accepted manner: the prevailing views that dominate a particular society at a particular time. These views cover all the major aspects of our existence: the nature of man, whether happiness or suffering is to be expected in the course of our lives, the relationship of man to the state, whether and in what form our lives hold "meaning" and, if so, under what conditions, the relationship of women and men and the roles they should play, our views of sex and whether it is inherently good or evil, and many more. Very often, these kinds of issues are revealed most clearly and in an accessible manner in works of art, which is why I will be analyzing certain films and novels.

The most common form of "ideology" to which I refer is undoubtedly religion. An especially stark example of religions that place a premium on obedience to an endless series of commandments is fundamentalism of any variety, whether Islamic or Christian (or any other kind). But ideology in this sense need not be religious in nature: the combination of tribalism with shared political belief also falls within the phenomenon that I will be discussing (and that is true on both the left and the right, as those terms are commonly used). I have discussed the secularization of religious ideas before, in an essay examining the "Idea of Progress" and how that idea influences our thought today (and our foreign policy, in particular). I will be examining this secularization again in this series, beginning with my discussion in the next installment. Here is a brief reminder of one of Robert Merry's main points, in his book, Sands of Empire:
Once again the Bury-Nisbet debate illustrates an important point about this persistent Western Idea of Progress. Bury is clearly correct in saying that the medieval mind never conceived, much less embraced, the Progress Idea as it later developed in European thought, whether in conjunction with Christianity or in entirely secular garb. At the same time, Nisbet has a point worth pondering--namely, that elements of Christian theology were later incorporated into the Progress Idea as it emerged in an increasingly secular culture. This is an observation of profound significance--that as Providence waned as a powerful idea holding the Western mind in thrall, it was replaced by its secular counterpart, Progress, which in various guises has manifested its own capacity to hold the Western mind in thrall.
I have to ask for your patience as I explore these themes. It is not simply that they are unusually complex, and that this complexity is multiplied by the complicated ways in which many of these ideas interact with and affect each other. The problem I face is much deeper than that, and it goes to the fundamental manner in which we confront the world: our basic stance is a warlike one. It is a perspective that splits the world into halves engaged in endless battle. In this sense, the wars we perpetually fight across the globe are only the external sign of the psychological and emotional conflicts that precede and give rise to them.

All of us grow up in a culture that takes this state of war as the given, and we very rarely question it to any extent at all. This is one of the reasons I often grow impatient with much narrower political struggles (including the endless fights between the liberal and conservative parts of political blogging, where each side frequently views the other as made up of demented, deluded lunatics, incapable and probably unworthy of redemption). I may take the part of one side more than the other on particular issues but, in the end, most liberals and conservatives share the same most basic assumptions, as I will detail later in this series. And my primary complaint about most liberals and progressives is that, while some of them may view themselves as radicals to some degree, almost none of them is nearly radical enough. They are engaged in variations on the paradigm -- but they will not challenge the paradigm itself. This is why, as just one example, you find many liberals praising a film like Brokeback Mountain, apparently oblivious to how profoundly negative and damaging the film is, not only in terms of its view of gays, but in its views of women as well, and of sex more generally. I will examine that particular example in some detail.

These ideas will (hopefully) become clearer as I proceed through these essays. For the moment, and to give an indication of the kind of questioning in which I will attempt to engage and which I hope to encourage in others, let me offer an excerpt from Jamake Highwater's Myth and Sexuality. As is true of art, sex often captures the essentials of our deepest views of ourselves, and of the world in which we live. As Highwater discusses, how we think about our bodies reveals how we think about the world. For us in the West, this is not good news:
As mythologist Barbara C. Sproul observes, myths "involve attitudes toward facts and reality." As such, the questions they raise are most effectively answered by the metaphoric mentality which is at the heart of mythology. Myths constellate our grasp of reality. Whether we adhere to them or not, the myths at the foundation of our societies remain pervasively influential. I believe with Sproul that myths "deal with first causes, the essence of what their cultures perceive reality to be ... So it is no accident that cultures think their creation myths the most sacred, for these myths are the ground on which all later myths stand. In them members of the group can perceive the main elements of the entire structure of value and meaning ... But because of the way in which domestic myths are transmitted, people often never learn that they are myths; people become submerged in their viewpoints, prisoners of their own traditions. They readily confuse attitudes toward reality (proclamations of value) with reality itself (statements of fact)." [See my essay, The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism, for more on the role of founding and creation myths; this essay has still more on this subject.]

Creation myths have strong religious significance, so we often think of them entirely in terms of sacred cosmogony. But creation myths also determine the shape of secular myths that function as the paradigms of nonreligious thinking in science, politics, and law. Social behavior and even fashion and etiquette are built upon a value structure indistinct from mythology. Our ideas about sexuality do not escape this mythic influence. For instance, the mythic basis of sexual attitudes in many societies is highly dichotomized. This dichotomy is especially strong in the thinking of the West. We are therefore inclined to take for granted that the Asian concept of Yin and Yang confirms our attitudes about the universality of opposite forces in nature, rather than seeing Yin and Yang as the expression of a different paradigm of Taoist tradition. But actually, Yin and Yang cannot be used to exemplify the pragmatic dualism of the West, for they are symbolic representations of the synthesis of opposites that exists at the core of a unitary Asian mentality. In the East, Yin and Yang, light and dark, consciousness and unconsciousness are in an active, dialectical balance. However dramatic their opposition, each opposite depends for its wholeness upon its counterpart.

In contrast, it is characteristic of Western viewpoint to think of sexuality in terms of binary opposites: male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, marital sex and pre- or extramarital sex. "And in every case, one of these pairs is privileged, is seen as the 'normal.'" ... In many other cultures the dichotomized value system does not advocate or even comprehend what we in the West mean by binary opposites. That fundamental difference in the ways in which we know and understand the world makes it almost impossible for us to see others in any terms except those that we use to define ourselves. Failing to see our own myths as myths, we consider all other myths false. Therefore, nothing challenges our factualized mythology as much as the values of other cultures which contradict those categories of privilege and normalcy which our cosmogony attributes to nature. To suggest any flaw in those things which are at the heart of binary opposites throws us entirely off balance. We cannot comprehend any congruity between what we have defined as "opposites" because our mythology has become the guiding principle not only of religion and moral conduct, but also of science and social behavior. Choices for us are strictly a matter of either/or: male or female, good or evil, light or dark, heterosexual or homosexual, natural or unnatural. We have even forfeited the purely statistical basis of terms like "normal" and "abnormal" in favor of a curious form of biological morality: normal-good and abnormal-evil.
Our inability "to see others in any terms except those that we use to define ourselves" is also noted by Robert Merry, in his discussion of the "Idea of Progress":
The other great contradiction centers on the concept that this Idea of Progress applies to all mankind--a legacy of the Augustinian heritage, as we have seen. And yet the actual progress that is the focus of this Idea has taken place almost exclusively within Western civilization. It is all about Western science, Western technics, Western methods of inquiry, Western philosophy, and, in the end, Western political and economic ideals. Nisbet offers a penetrating insight into all this when he notes that the Idea of Progress has always been essentially "Eurocentric." By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he writes, "the spell of the idea of progress--and with it the Eurocentric view of the entire world--had grown to such proportions that little if anything in the world could be considered in its own right. Everything had to be seen through the West and its values." Implicit in this was the view that other cultures were inferior to the West, and hence universal progress required that these inferior cultures embrace the Western heritage.
Despite the progress that we have made with regard to some narrower issues concerning sex and race, this dichotomized worldview -- the idea that all our activities and our nature itself are divided into pairs, the two parts of which are forever at war with each other but only one of which is "privileged" and "normal" -- still permeates our culture. It functions as an axiom that can never be questioned. Most of the time, it is not even acknowledged: as Highwater discusses in his book, we have transmuted our most fundamental views of the world into a statement about nature itself. We forget (or refuse to acknowledge) that this represents only one way of viewing the world.

In our own time, this kind of dichotomy is perhaps most famously captured in Bush's claim that in his purposely never-defined "War on Terror," you are either "with us or against us." Of course, Bush employs this dishonest formulation to demand acceptance of all the major components of the specific manner in which he has chosen to fight this war: unless you agree with his program of making war on countries that do not threaten us, of torture, of indefinite detention, even of American citizens, for years (or perhaps a lifetime) for reasons that need never be stated or examined, of similarly arbitrary and unexamined spying on Americans, and all the rest, you are "on the other side."

The terrible irony of this view is that, in fact and in history, fundamentalism -- either of our homegrown variety or of the Islamic kind -- arises from the same roots. This insistence on warring pairs has another tragic result: our own worldview results in the creation of enemies where none had to exist, as James Carroll discusses. This is true not only in a philosophic and historic sense: as I will be discussing in more detail soon, the foreign policy of the United States enlisted Islamic fundamentalism as an ally for several decades, in many ways about which the majority of people are entirely ignorant. Following the pattern we never see or learn from, we aid those one day who become our enemies the next. This worldview creates and depends on enemies and on perpetual war, as Matt Taibbi also notes (see the second half of this essay).

But in terms of this perspective in its broadest form, I must again emphasize that it is tragically not restricted to the political right or left. Bush and his supporters may represent a very extreme and especially dangerous form of this worldview, but it is a Western perspective. And Bush would never have been in a position to implement his policies, nor would he even now have almost no significant opposition, unless many others shared his deepest assumptions, even if to a (perhaps) less dangerous degree. The truth is even worse: even though some of them might deny it, most national Democrats actively support Bush's plans for the next war, the one on Iran, as their votes for stricter sanctions against Iran indicate. I will discuss that development in more detail shortly. For the moment, please note two facts about this prelude to yet another war: this is the same exact pattern that was followed with regard to Iraq, and only 15 House Democrats voted against this new legislation, while 182 Democrats voted for it.

Even in light of the ongoing catastrophe of Iraq, and despite the fact that the Bush administration has made unmistakably clear its plans to bomb Iran, almost none of us -- including most of the supposedly "antiwar" Democrats -- seem capable of learning one single damned thing. As I noted above and as I will be examining in much more detail, this is because all our national leaders, with less than a handful of exceptions, share the identical Western perspective. It is a worldview that weaves neverending war into its very fabric; its most notable legacy is devastation and death on an ever-widening scale.