Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (3)

Wow! I have five days of media extravaganzas to catch up on. OK, I need to retrace my steps to Saturday 25 April, when Jeremiah Wright appeared on Bill Moyers Journal.

First, for more background on black liberation theology, see:

Bill Moyers' Interview with James Cone, November 23, 2007.

Now, for the good stuff:

Bill Moyers' Interview with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, April 25, 2008.

Let us disassemble the ideological basis of this presentation step by step. First, we have a review, replete with video clips, of the course of Wright's career with his church, emphasizing the social services provided to the working class black community and political agitation against injustice. Then, we are introduced to Barack Obama, who began his association with Wright as a religious skeptic, with a purely pragmatic political motive to join up with Wright, but later allegedly becoming a religious believer. And then we are introduced to yet another ingredient: a clip of black children dressed in dashikis, with a voice-over indicating Wright's inculcation of allegiance to the "black value system" and and to black Americans' alleged African roots. And here is where the wool begins to be pulled over our eyes.

What is wrong with doing this in the current period, say 1989 or 1999 or next year in 2009 as opposed to 1969 or 1959? What is different about de facto segregation in post-apartheid America compared to the rigid segregation imposed by the state and civil society in the period during what we call the modern civil rights movement revved up in the '50s, reached a turning point with the landmark legislation of 1965, and mutated to a new level of militancy as the civil rights legislation failed to alter the intransigent economic and social institutions that kept black America down? Before the protean black power ideology came to the fore in the late '60s, any "black value system" that existed was not a metaphysical entity but a system of social arrangements imposed by white violence and black strategies of both adaptation and resistance given the conditions imposed. As such, the situation fostered the affirmation of both cultural particulars and universal values. This was the mental universe in which Martin Luther King, Jr. moved, with all the expansiveness and limitations that his historical moment embodied, to become a leader of a real movement and the symbolic representative of the greatest political expression of human dignity the world has ever seen.

The nebulous ideology of "Black power" also reflected a historical moment, and MLK grappled both with this mutation in the movement and the objective conditions that engendered it. On the 40th anniversary of his assassination, the media opened up to the point where the average person today could delve further into the depths of King's courage and greatness than the mainstream media would ordinarily foster on such occasions. Had King not been cut down in Memphis the day he readied himself to lay down his life for black garbagemen, he surely would have never been allowed to survive the Poor People's Campaign then in the planning stages. The Poor People's Campaign was not about the maintenance of a separate "black value system" but multiracial class warfare on the march to smash through the ghetto walls of economic, social, political, educational and cultural segregation, grinding them to dust beneath a blitzkrieg on institutional privilege and intransigence. In comparison to this, the prospective of black liberation theology is a petty-bourgeois piss-ant.

All the documentation of all the politicized black churches that provide social services cannot evade the essential duality of the role of petty bourgeois preachers who minister to the underprivileged. Their role is to firm up their power base and their position atop their power base, ideologically bolstered not merely by a rational rationale and function, but via an irrational and essentially authoritarian legitimation via religion turned provincial and nationalistic, which gives us black liberation theology.

Thus the "black community" and the "black value system" become metaphysical entities, and the black political preachers who survived King, whatever good works they do, have never risen and never will rise to his level but rather ideologically decay and ultimately stink once the historical moment that vivified them has passed and their mode of adaptation is drained of growth and life.

Stay tuned for more to come!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (2)

Given Obama’s situation, he handled the Wright “scandal” well. Obama's speech on race tipped me in his favor, but only out of alarm at how easily he could be jimcrowed out of the presidency. Obama’s speech was not one for the ages, but he delved deeper than the average politician, declining to relinquish an aspect of his previous social identity, while pandering to white people more than they deserve.

This was not enough for Caucasian talking heads concerned with whether Obama had sufficiently distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright. A few were put off by his reference to his grandmother exhibiting the questionable attitudes of a "typical white person". Imagine that! And then there was the question of Wright himself. White journalists grappled with the allegedly shocking and horrifying remarks of Wright, apparently never having before witnessed a black man in a dashiki spouting off.

Some black commentators, for their part, attempted to contextualize Wright’s “inflammatory” soundbites, in many cases defending him tout court and placing him solidly within a black tradition of political “prophetic speech”. In several instances, Wright was legitimated by a linkage to the civil rights movement and even to Martin Luther King, Jr. One typically obnoxious example is:

Ralph E. Luker, Jeremiah, History News Network, March 17, 2008.

Before we examine any specific linkages, let us note the objectionable assumption that no one in the news media (mainstream or “progressive”!) has questioned: why should the theological interpretation of secular social issues be considered legitimate under any circumstances? It is one thing to use cultural or symbolic metaphors as ingredients in one’s rhetorical appeals; it is something more to convert a political argument into theologically legitimated metaphysics. Luker, for example, is blind to how thoroughly ridiculous it is to argue politics on a theological basis.

True, Luker’s defense is not quite as ludicrous as the overblown white response to Wright, who exemplifies a fairly commonplace social type and hardly a shocking novelty. To be shocked and scandalized reveals how poorly white Americans still apprehend the social reality of their own society. The black response is disappointing in a different way. It too is "mainstream"—or maybe I should say conventional—in another sense. This is a highly anti-intellectual country and one with a very restricted ideological discourse, a discourse which excludes not only the left but freethought and secular humanism (i.e. Obama's mother!). As such, the real problems with Wright's rants and with the defense of them cannot be publicly discussed, because in so doing one would have to challenge the current theocratic temper of American politics and the entire tradition of Protestant preaching, black and white.

The problem is not with this or any preacher's specific comments, but of the very genre of prophetic discourse, especially in the mouth of a religious leader with a claim to a special authority. Like it or not, a “civilian” may damn America as he pleases, but by what right does a clergyman claim divine authority to utter such a pronouncement? That is the authority to be challenged, denied, and ultimately obliterated.

Theology and liberation have been intertwined since slavery days, but does this imply that every black preacher that has combined the two has participated from the same perspective in the same category—a construct known as black liberation theology? The blowhard pop intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on Meet the Press lumped Wright and King together in the same tradition, evidenced by the fact that at the time of his assassination King was scheduled to deliver a sermon about America being damned to hell. I would like to read the text of this sermon, if it has been preserved, to determine just what he planned to say and how he planned to say it. Even the similarity cited fails to convince me that King’s message was at all the same.

What kind of authority did MLK claim for himself? Was his invocation of religious language identical to that of his contemporaries or of ours? How did he see the role of religious discourse in a society presumed to be more secular in the '60s (at least outside of the South) than ours is today? Did King resort to demagogy and mystification in making his political points?

These are the questions that no one has posed, as they lie outside the boundaries of the visceral thoughtlessness and ideological superficiality that saturate every corner of the popular media.

Furthermore, is it valid to classify MLK under the rubric of a socially recognized ideological movement known as "black liberation theology", formulated by McCone and others in the '60s and after? King’s engagement with theology should by all means be studied so that his precise commitments can be ascertained, but the liberation theology of the black power movement strikes me as fulfilling a purpose not envisioned by King. Black liberation theology does not merely exploit religious metaphors, it squanders much mental energy in the construction of a racial metaphysics, which I can’t see as being useful to King. Black people are like the children of Israel, but then who isn’t? King was aggressively militant and became ever more so after the initial aims of the Southern civil rights movement were attained, but while solidly rooted in his Southern black heritage, he remained a universalist to the end. That is a principal reason he is not with us today. He was not the first militant black preacher and he won’t be the last, but few are of King's caliber.

Now, here are a few essays on MLK’s relation to black theology:

Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Theology—Black Church” by James H. Cone, Theology Today, Vol. 40, No. 4, January 1984

The Word That Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Richard Lischer, Theology Today, Vol. 46, No.2, July 1989

Preamble to A Critique of James Cone” by Stephen C. Rose,, April 2, 2008

Is Reverend Wright a Black Liberationist?” by Clare L. Spark, History News Network, April 7, 2008

Cone, an architect of black power theology, argues that King belongs to the tradition as he construes it, Cone does raise an interesting point about a putative difference between King's pitch to black and to white audiences, but otherwise I find his argument unconvincing.

Lischer downplays the influence of the thinkers King studied in seminary and argues for the primacy of the oral tradition rooted in black culture. Lischer nonetheless admits that King balked at fundamentalism and expanded on the traditional repertoire of black preaching. King’s amalgam of different influences was pitched to all of his audiences, not neatly segregated into black and white, but a different mood can be detected in his relationship to black and white audiences. In the wake of the landmark civil rights victories, as a rift grew between political strategies and the possibility of a transracial political consensus, King’s synthesis of diverse elements was strained to the breaking point. King’s preaching becomes more visibly “blacker” in the last phase of his life. Lischer, however, does not extrapolate the implications of this logic beyond a celebration of King as black America’s prophet. However “black” King’s discourse, it seems to me from this description that King did not aim at constructing a metaphysical doctrine for black people, but that he combined improvisation tailored to circumstance (a practice, incidentally, much explored in the work of Zora Neale Hurston) with ideas borrowed from the world beyond the segregated culture in which King was reared.

Suppose King’s ideology died so that Cone’s could live. Is that a good thing? If we are all the products of historically delimited circumstances, what are we to say for ourselves when we run up against our historical limitations? Cone outlived King physically, but suppose he failed to elevate himself ideologically? Whose path is then a dead end?

Rose claims contact with both MLK and Malcolm X, claims that both moved beyond race, and argues that Cone’s theology, which purports to synthesize both, is entirely misguided. As a theologian himself, he should know that much.

Spark’s underlying agenda as well as several particulars of her exposition are questionable, but let’s focus on the relevant points: Spark distinguishes the universalist claims of MLK from the particularist world view of cultural nationalists and the irrationalist basis of Cone’s ideology in particular (i.e. the rejection of logical reasoning and accountability).

Can any theology withstand the test of critical thought? There is another permutation in the domain of black liberation theology—that of religious humanism, most notably exemplified in the work of William R. Jones (featured in two blog entries here). Religious humanists work within a theological framework though they dissent from established theism and theological traditions. It’s an odd enterprise but useful as far as exploring the logical possibilities and implications of various doctrines goes. A black religious humanist more recently on the scene is Anthony Pinn, author of Why Lord? and other books.

Now that Jeremiah Wright in the flesh has the media spotlight, I shall continue to explore these issues in a follow-up entry.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Science, Jews, & Secular Culture

My knowledge of intellectual history was pretty sketchy when I first encountered David A. Hollinger, in 1980 at a lecture he delivered on John Dewey, at a time when I became most suspicious of the irrationalism seemingly engulfing academia. That was long ago and far way. Then, in July 2001 I read this collection of essays:

Hollinger, David A. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Ch. 1 Introduction 3
Ch. 2 Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century 17
Ch. 3 The "Tough-Minded" Justice Holmes, Jewish Intellectuals, and the Making of an American Icon 42
Ch. 4 Two NYUs and "The Obligation of Universities to the Social Order" in the Great Depression 60
Ch. 5 The Defense of Democracy and Robert K. Merton's Formulation of the Scientific Ethos 80
Ch. 6 Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States 97
Ch. 7 Academic Culture at the University of Michigan, 1938-1988 121
Ch. 8 Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States during and after World War II 155
Index 175

See also: Publisher's description, and:

Gad Freudenthal . "Review of David Hollinger, Science, Jews and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History," H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews, March, 1997. URL:

Here is what I wrote about the book on 31 July 2001:
This book purports to fill in a gap in US intellectual history, on a generation of intellectuals that came to fruition in that interval sandwiched in between those legendary constructs known as "The Fifties" and "The Sixties" and not limited to the cohort of the "New York Intellectuals" or to people in high-profile areas in the humanities. The question is, what was the influence of secular Jewish intellectuals on academia and American intellectual life, helping to redirect the intellectual consensus away from Protestant hegemony and Catholic influence, towards a secular cosmopolitan ideal? This fellow has a number of interesting things to say in his introduction alone. He begins his first chapter with the contrast between the fascist T.S. Eliot's views (including his anti-Semitism and scandalous alliance with the segregationist Southern agrarians) and the Jewish secular cosmopolitanism he proposes to discuss.

There is also a curious footnote down the line claiming that contemporary multiculturalists are unaware of . . . the ethnopluralists of the immigrant generation [of a century ago]. . . .
Three of these essays, which I have just re-read, reveal implications for the value and limitations of the idealization of science. While this book does not explicitly mention freethought or humanism, obviously the valorization of the "scientific method" in the atheist/humanist literature must be related to the overall intellectual history regarding the purported value system of science. This material must be factored into an historical perspective on the ideology of secular humanism. I will comment on the relevant essays, citing their original journal publication.

First, a note on chapter 2:

Hollinger, David A. "Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century," in New Directions in American Religious History: The Protestant Experience, ed. D. G. Hart & H. S. Stout (New York, 1996).

Also accounted for here is the general influence of the 1880-1924 mass immigration of various European ethnic groups, including the role of Catholicism in the WASP / immigrant /Jewish / secularization nexus. Hollinger claims that Jewish intellectuals exerted significant leverage and that they inspired progressive Protestants in the secularization process. The footnotes are especially valuable, esp. on the historical, sociological, and political dimensions of religion in the USA.

Hollinger, David A. "The Defense of Democracy and Robert K. Merton's Formulation of the Scientific Ethos," Knowledge and Society, 4 (1983): 1-15.

Merton's seminal 1942 essay "A Note on Science and Democracy" was inspired by the fight against fascism, but it was depoliticized with successive reprintings and citations. Merton, conscious of the Nazi hostility to democracy and science, formulated fundamental principles of the scientific enterprise: universalism, communism (i.e. common, public ownership of scientific knowledge, vs. secrecy), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Merton's emphasis on institutionalization of these values was a significant innovation, in contradistinction to other thinkers' linkage of science and democracy--e.g. Sidney Hook. Merton was also familiar with the work of the British Marxists on science, e.g. J. D. Bernal. Reference is also made to the formulations of Mark A. May at the April 1943 "Conference on the Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith." Note also C. H. Waddington's 1941 The Scientific Attitude. How democracy related to socialism and particularly the USSR was a matter of dispute. Hollinger summarizes Merton's innovations (book, p. 91)., among which I will single out the notion of the "scientific community".

Hollinger, David A. "Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States," New Literary History, 21 (1990): 897-919.

The popular presentation of science in the USA was as a detached, individualistic enterprise until the explosion of a sociological conception of science in the 1960s. Vannevar Bush's writing on science in the 1940s was imbued with the language of individualism, reflecting the still-dominant discourse of laissez-faire capitalism and the popular characterization of science of earlier decades. The entanglement of the scientific research enterprise with big government in the wake of World War II would ultimately undermine this characterization. Bush saw the potential danger of centralized planning during the war as a threat to basic research.

Alfred North Whitehead saw science as driving history. Hans Reichenbach and the logical positivists fostered an individualistic conception of science. John Dewey, however, was unhappy with the notion of isolating science and society, but he was not equipped to grapple with the planning issue. The British Communists of the 1930s (Bernal, J. G. Crowther, et al) were advocates of planning, but they were as idealistic about science in their own way as others and their ideas were compatible with the notions of Dewey and Merton. Michael Polanyi opposed Bernalism and the practice of science in the USSR. (Note his essay "The Autonomy of Science".)

The notion of the autonomous scientific community can be traced from Merton to Polanyi to Edward Shils. Through this notion, laissez-faire and government-funded planning could be harmonized. The advancing notion of a virtuous, autonomous scientific community (a model of democracy in itself) was the precursor to the science studies of the '60s--enter Don K. Price and Thomas Kuhn.

Hollinger, David A. "Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States During and After World War II," Isis, 86 (1995): 440-454.

"Science" was an ideological weapon in the anti-fascist ideological struggle, outside of a strict concern for scientific method in the conduct of science itself. Robert K. Merton and Mark A. May linked science and democracy, in opposition to reactionary American Catholic intellectuals and Mortimer Adler. Other leading intellectuals, including John Dewey, contributed to the ideological struggle. Note the ties of the Catholic Church to fascism and the anti-Semitic dimension of the notion of a Christian culture. The anti-fascist orientation expanded to incorporate Soviet communism into the notion of totalitarianism. Popularizers of the scientific spirit included Margaret Mead and James B. Conant. Conant, however, did not idealize the scientist. Conant did not advocate an imitation of the actual practices of the scientific community (in which individual behavior was incorporated into a system of institutional checks-and-balances) but rather a cultivation of the independent scientific spirit of inquiry among the general population.

Even William H. Whyte's 1956 The Organization Man preserved an individualistic notion of the scientific spirit. Hans Reichenbach rigidly separated fact from value, (note his work The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, 1951,) but once the value of democracy was presumed, everything else was to follow strictly logically, i.e. on the basis of scientific method. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger also promoted the morality of science in the struggle with McCarthyism.

In 1959 C. P. Snow was to enjoin the battle by highlighting a prevalent hostility in the humanities to the sciences in his controversial work The Two Cultures. Snow attacked literary modernism in particular as fostering political reaction and declared science as democratic and anti-racist. This was initially a British controversy, but humanistic intellectuals in the USA also grappled with the issues, but in a changed social context, in which traditional barriers--particularly anti-Semitism--were coming down in academia.

By the early 1960s the end of ideology and modernization theory were prominent themes. In this period seminal works on the historiography and sociology of science and the knowledge industry were produced. Hollinger mentions several individuals but devotes special attention to Don K. Price, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, and Merton. Popper, still fighting the old battles against totalitarianism and irrationalism, was unremittingly hostile to Kuhn and the sociological perspective. Merton, in a politically quite different context from the 1940s, became an inspiration to a new generation of sociologists of science.

Kuhn alone survived as a major voice in the "postmodernist" dispensation to come, and Michel Foucault provided ammunition for the anti-scientific revenge of the humanists reversing Snow's accusations and turning them against the scientists.

Hollinger does not avow a wish to return to the past, nor that the ideas of the 1940s through mid-'60s should survive unmodified, but while "science alone is not a sufficient foundation for culture", the heroic cosmopolitan scientific ideals of this now-eclipsed era would have to constitute the common language of any multicultural utopia.

I hope it is evident that the importance of work like Hollinger's cannot be gainsaid. These ideas in philosophy, sociology, the public advocacy of science, and related intellectual pursuits also interpenetrate the sphere of activity of freethinkers and secular humanists, who have much to learn from this history, and from intellectual history as an actual discipline. Atheists and humanists have advocated the scientific method for several decades, without specifying what it is and how it is to be applied beyond the natural sciences to all spheres of human knowledge and action, and without differentiating and accounting for the distinction between a set of scientific ideals and the actual institutionalized practice, politics, and economics of science. In this way the atheist/humanist movement itself becomes ideologically opaque.

Note also that white Christians and ex-Christians are not the only people in this society to be taken into account. A "Christian" nation has always been and must always be an anti-Semitic nation, and no infusion of Christian Zionism will ever make it otherwise, whichever political opportunists may wish to turn their heads. Nor can the tokenist fictitious construct of a "Judaeo-Christian tradition" obscure the underlying nastiness of a theocracy based on either of these components.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (1)

I could not be more indifferent, nay, even contemptuous, of the Obama-Wright “scandal” as a political football. Since John Edwards dropped out of the race, this campaign cycle has been devoid of content, reduced to the manipulation of the voting public on the basis of personalities and superficial symbolic issues. We are guinea pigs in a high-stakes experiment in electoral market research. The union of electoral politics and the advertising industry is hardly a novel subject for research, but the accelerated irrationality of American politics on the threshold of the final breakdown of American democracy is cause for even more alarm.

For those of you inclined towards social theory, here’s one reference that crosses this issue with the work of the Frankfurt School on the culture industry:

Adorno, Theodor W. "Opinion Research and Publicness (Meinungsforschung und Offentlichkeit)", translated with an introduction by Andrew J. Perrin & Lars Jarkko, Sociological Theory, vol. 23, no. 1, March 2005, pp. 116-123.

For a recent diagnosis of the American disorder, see:

Sargis, John. “The American Celebration of Democracy,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, vol. 4, no. 2, April 2008.

Let us remember that prior to Super-Tuesday, focus groups, assembled by “experts” (most notably campaign consultant Frank Luntz, a Republican) in analyzing the minutiae of audience response to the slightest political gestures, showed a highly favorable attitude toward Hillary Clinton, including the response of black voters charmed by her rhetoric on race. Obama’s television commercials for Super-Tuesday constituted the most brilliant manipulation of political visual imagery I've seen since Leni Riefenstal. But look how the symbolic fortunes of both candidates have seesawed in only two months. The black electorate dropped Clinton like a hot potato and she and her supporters were forced to pander shamelessly to white racist sensibilities in order to stay in the race, irreparably damaging the Clintons’ reputation in Black America, a disenchantment long overdue.

This is not to downplay the fundamental fraudulence of Obama’s campaign, his obviously superior basic decency and progressive past notwithstanding. I am a firm practitioner of the depressing principle of the lesser-of-two-evils, so nothing I say here I think matters in the slightest in choosing a candidate. However, what seems to matter to a nation of brainless couch potatoes is another story, yet the underlying ideological structure of even that is a tabooed subject for public discourse. Both the detractors and defenders of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright have missed the boat.

There is, of course, a fair amount of cynicism about Wright and Obama not predicated on white America’s exaggerated outrage.

Obama Is No King” by Christopher Hitchens, SLATE, Monday, April 7, 2008
(Today, the national civil rights pulpit is largely occupied by second-rate shakedown artists.)

On April 7 Lenni Brenner ( circulated a hilarious put-down entitled “Obama's Constitution, His Pastor, & His Unbelieving Mom In Heaven”. It is not yet posted among his online essays, but hopefully it will be added before too long.

Brenner’s point of departure is this article:

Obama Suggests Jesus Christ Not the Only Way to Heaven” by Jennifer Riley, Christian Post Reporter, March 27, 2008.

The dominance of faith-based electoral politics is a bottomless swamp. The real questions cannot be posed, because both Obama's supporters and detractors have a vested interest in avoiding them—more fundamentally they do not even understand them. Obama is a middle class progressive community activist turned mainstream politician on the make in a neoliberal, i.e. anti-working-class, Democratic Party. The nature of this transformation is the fundamental question. While people fuss over his choice of a pastor, they can't and won't ask the more interesting question as to why the biracial offspring of a white atheist mother found Jesus and joined an Afrocentric church—let alone any Christian church, its political orientation notwithstanding. The sincerity of middle class progressive activism and this particular transformation may be impossible to determine sans telepathic access to personal motivation, yet there is enough to be disgusted by without impugning Obama’s personal or political motives. Perhaps, though, Obama as progressive community activist in the bosom of an Afrocentric Jesus is not so different from Obama as Democratic presidential candidate bending over backwards to placate white people in his effort to gain the top position in the management of the neoliberal political order.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Chris Hedges slurs 'new atheists'

Tavis Smiley interviews Chris Hedges
original airdate April 15, 2008

"I don't believe in atheists"
Foreign correspondent and intellectual provocateur Chris Hedges explains why New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens are as dangerous as Christian fundamentalists.
By Charly Wilder
Mar. 13, 2008

Note also this commentary from the Black Sun Journal (27 March 2008):

The Misanthropic Fury of Chris Hedges

The theocratic left is getting ever more irrational and dishonest. I need to compose an analytical response, but to put it briefly: Hedges is most dishonest in framing his attacks on the so-called "new atheists". The worst aspect of this is that he conflates their politics with their atheism and brands them fanatical fundamentalists as reactionary as the Christian right. He should be called out for this defamation. But also: most of the "new atheists" are politically bankrupt, but their political and/or sociological bankruptcy requires an analytical framework in order to render it comprehensible, whereas Hedges' fraudulent slanders just feed the right-wing onslaught.

What’s in a name? What’s in a movement?

(The following was originally posted on my blog on the Freethought Forum on 8 February 2008. Note comments there. I will reproduce my own follow-up comment on this blog.)

Many of the the various names for what we do are packed into the title of my web guide:

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Ethical Culture / Rationalism / Agnosticism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Still, I omitted other terms in use or historically related, such as ‘irreligion’, ‘naturalism’, ‘deism’, and ‘godless’. Some of these terms have meanings outside of our central area of concern, some have distinct agendas (e.g. skepticism), and some overlap or appear to be synonymous. I was never particularly preoccupied with terminology, but the history and distinction of these terms are relevant to my current research.

I note, for example, that in my current environment, people in our groups customarily refer to themselves as atheists or humanists. I do not meet people who have adopted the label “freethinker” or refer to “freethought”. While this term persists in other English-speaking countries, none of the extant national organizations in the USA have “freethought” in their name. (I think some of the local and regional organizations do.) The organ of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is Freethought Today, which is the most prominent usage of the term I can think of in the USA today. I assume that the title “Freethought Forum” was chosen because of the obvious affinity to FFRF. I note that its mission statement includes a dedication to ‘social activism’, though what that means beyond activism for irreligion and secularism is not specified. As FFRF embodies a concern with feminism, it appears that this forum is similarly inspired as well.

I hardly gave the distinctions among these terms a second thought, except for some impressions about their acceptability in mainstream society. Since the word ‘atheism’ is anathema in American society, I assumed that this was the boldest term, and since American Atheists had the history of greatest stridency, I assumed that ‘atheism’ is socially more confrontational than the more restrained if also hated (secular) ‘humanism’. Only recently, when I made a survey of my personal library in pursuit of some research, did I realize I had simply not paid attention to something very obvious. All of my books on the history of atheism as a movement and atheists as social reformers carry the word ‘freethought’ in their titles. All of my books on the history of atheism with ‘atheism’ in their titles are not about movements or organizations but ideas. (Wikipedia follows this pattern as well.) For all practical purposes, ‘freethought’ is historically the fighting name of a fighting movement, while ‘atheism’ seems to have come into organizational use with American Atheists. Also, freethought has a history of linkage with other social reform movements not strictly connected to irreligion or secularism. I read a number of books on the subject without thinking of ‘freethought’ as anything other than an antiquated term. Now, though the word ‘freethinker’ still sounds quaint to me, I think I’d much rather be known as a ‘freethinker’ than as an ‘atheist’ or ‘humanist’. It’s a history to be proud of, especially since it embodies a social consciousness that seems much scarcer among America’s atheists today.

These musings are actually by-products of a different focus. My original intent was to research the histories of secular humanism and the skeptical movement as distinct topics, because I have found that these categories embody certain ambiguities and ideological undertones in both their world-views and institutional histories that invite scrutiny in a way not required by the other main terms in use, whatever their organizational histories might be. I have only begun this project, but I want to call your attention to two new web pages:

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress


Humanism—100 Years of Freethought by David Tribe

The latter is a section of David Tribe’s 1967 100 Years of Freethought. This chapter, on ‘Philosophical Outlook’, covers the histories of freethought, secularism, ethicism, rationalism, humanism, atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and determinism. The survey is global, and the emphasis is decidedly British rather than American, which means that the political purview is much more progressive than one often finds here in the USA.

‘Humanism’ apparently grows out of the liberalization of religion, and the secular or atheistic variety only becomes sharply defined with time. There is also a political and organizational as well as intellectual history, but the strongest social histories can still be found under the rubric ‘freethought’.

My esteemed colleague Fred Whitehead, cultural activist, co-editor of Freethought on the American Frontier and editor of a marvelous bulletin Freethought History, took steps to revive the old-time activist tradition of freethought, but could find no takers.

As for the social perspective of contemporary atheism, a comparison of the so-called ‘new atheists’ and the freethinking agitators of yesteryear might well be in order, perhaps yielding a different perspective on ‘change we can believe in’.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Chris Hedges & left theocrats today

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges, New York: The Free Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Gregory Zucker
Logos 7.1 - winter 2008

Note some telling statements from this review:
"While providing a few insights and interesting anecdotes, he never moves beyond description into the realm of solid analysis."

"Each chapter begins with a tone-setting quote from a political thinker on the appeal of fascism or else from a theologian espousing the Christian beliefs that Hedges argues represent the true essence of Christianity in contrast to its widespread right-wing perversion."

"Hedges’ treatment would have benefited greatly by bringing in Marx, Durkheim, Weber, or Freud, to name only a few preceding analysts of this sort of angst or anomie. These thinker understood that modernity decimates religion’s capacity to explain or ‘enchant’ the world. At the same time, modernity increases religion’s appeal as a shield should society fail to shield people from harmful repercussions. Unrestrained capitalism, social fragmentation, and bureaucratization are only a few of modernity’s products that, in the absence of social forces buffering their effects, might drive people back into the eager arms of the priest, rabbi, or mullah."

"Rather than undertake a critique of religion, Hedges compares the religious right to non-religious movements."

"Ironically, Hedges does argue for upholding the Enlightenment values that engendered modernity, but is unclear exactly what aspects of the Enlightenment need to be upheld. The religious right’s success is due in no small way to the fact that it embraced two legacies of the Enlightenment: capitalism and liberalism. It aligned itself with capital and used liberal language to defend the right of its flock to doctrinaire belief. What it vehemently opposes is the Enlightenment’s ethical vision and devotion, if that’s the word, to reason. These legacies are problematic for Hedges too since part of his program for confronting the religious right is a renewal of progressive Christianity. The rub is that the Enlightenment, and the modernity it helped usher in, poses a challenge to faith in general, not just to one specific politicized manifestation of it."

"Hedges is not only a journalist, but a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. So perhaps the book might offer an immanent critique of the movement. There is an argument to be made that modernity and faith can be reconciled, that is, if Hedges had given progressive theologians like Niebuhr more attention. But Hedges doesn’t bother to expose internal contradictions in evangelical arguments. Instead, he tells readers to accept that “God is inscrutable, mysterious and unknowable.” (p. 8) Recommended is the Christianity that Hedges’ says informed his father, a progressive pastor, in support of the Civil Rights Movement, homosexuals, and opposition to the Vietnam War. "

"Hedges is correct to fear the threat that the movement poses to democracy. But, sharing anecdotes and describing a few features of the movement does little to help. The real task is to provide viable solutions for confronting the movement, which Hedges fails to do. This cannot be done without more studies that explain why this socio-historical moment has produced a successful Christian fundamentalism and requires a multi-leveled analysis that engages the history, sociology, politics, and ideology of the movement. Of course, the most difficult part is providing reasons for why these faithful should embrace a progressive political alternative instead."
This is a rather polite critique of Hedges' faulty perspective. I attended here in DC Hedges' book talk on American Fascists. He conspicuously omitted any mention of secular humanists and atheists as part of an anti-fascist coalition. He's making the rounds again with his new book I Don't Believe in Atheists, basically a defamatory assault on the "new atheists" such as Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., labelling them "fundamentalists" as others are now doing.

Here's a slightly edited piece I wrote on his crowd in the wee hours this morning:

In re:
"God's Politics?" by Katha Pollitt

The religious leftists of today are quite different from their forbears: today's crop consists of frightened, opportunistic theocrats exploiting the collapse of liberalism and radicalism and attempting to capitalize on the hegemony of theocratic discourse instead of contenting themselves with adding a religious voice to a secular conversation as happened in yesteryear. I will have more to say about other such ideological charlatans as Chris Hedges. It is important to understand the distinction I've made as we approach the 40th anniversary of the heartbreaking assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, a man of quite a different caliber than the characters prancing around today.

Pollitt points out the lapses in Wallis' argument. It is also important to note the authoritarianism of Wallis' politics. There is, for example, a difference between MLK who injected religious metaphors and imagery into secular arguments in the public sphere and today's religious left who arrogate to themselves the right to order us around based on their version of scriptural authority, telling us what God commands, and predicating public policy and governmental action on a theological basis.

I should add that as obnoxious as devotees of other religions are, such as the Jewish liberal blowhard Michael Lerner, minorities are not majorities. Many Jews retain the psychology of a persecuted minority, while these Christian "progressive" ideologues embody all the arrogance of a majority assuming the right to cow everyone else. But all these m-f's deserve to be put in their place.