Monday, September 01, 2008


In the September 10th issue of ‘The New Republic’, the marvelous philosopher and commentator Martha Nussbaum has a meaty piece on Roger Williams (“The First Founder”,

We may not think it’s worthwhile spending much time on philosophy or on the thoughts and actions of persons long dead (and white and male and – the horror! – religiously inclined). After all, We are sore bethump’t and there may not be too much time left. Necessity might seem to demand Our being ‘practical’; once, it is said, that was what We were famous for.

But this is the equivalent of not wanting to take a quick for-dummies primer on sailing as the ship slows almost to the point of unmanageability and starts to fill. Granted, an only slightly precocious 9 year-old might point out that people shouldn’t put to sea unless they sorta have a working knowledge of what makes vessels work, and how best to care for and handle them. We had reposed Our trust in ‘the government’, or at least those gentlepersons whom We had elected to represent Us … they were supposed to keep an eye on things and keep this marvelous if not altogether perfect ship of state afloat and in business.

But now it appears time for Plan B. High time.

But in the best spirit of the Marines’ ‘every Marine a rifleman’ (‘rifleperson’) it’s not a bad idea for all the citizenry to have at least a modest understanding of how things work – just in case the official crew jump ship or maybe lock themselves into the first-class saloon with the swells, leaving the rest of the passengery to shift for themselves. Which in this case is Ourselves. You see how quickly the political can get personal. Even more so the philosophical.

“Mutual respect” is absolutely essential for a democratic politics, for a democracy, to survive. This doesn’t mean a tactical tolerance for the sake of some temporary alliance-for-gain. That’s merely a mutual shrewdness. What those hardy if sharp-edged first souls of the 1600s grasped before they even waded onto these shores was that a community embarked on a mission so grandly tenuous needed to draw upon each of its members in order to muster the strength and skills to see the job through.

Whether through temperament or variously distributed quanta of fortitude – the courage, to see clearly and to consider carefully under pressure, and then to take the best conceivable and possible action - a split developed in early New England. There was the Mather approach: that religious conformity must be enforced by the civil power of the community for the sake of public order and – the Indians having been most sharply treated with insufficient regard to consequence, let alone to their dignity and any mutual respect that might be due them – simply for public survival.

It can get to be a vicious circle: for lack of respect for limits, boundaries, or for the necessary honesty due in relations with other human beings, a community takes actions that engender consequences that put said community in grave danger; thus fear-ified, the community attacks itself in order to expel any hesitation, and thus fortified, it goes forth to ferocitize afresh. Which in turn creates more baleful consequences, which in turn … and so on.

There was in the midst of 17th century New England a man with another approach to things. Based on three particular elements of his thought (and he did a lot of thinking before acting, even in matters that to the less-matured eye might have seemed far too urgent for such an otiose plan as ‘thinking’) Williams evolved a far different modus operandi in regard to setting up shop on these primeval shores; and when New England – Mather country – refused to countenance his methods, he took himself as far south as what is now Providence, Rhode Island, which he founded – named after that thing God does – and deployed his methods with no little success and far less blood-letting. (At which point in the story the average 9 year-old might feel a bit let-down; but that goes with the territory of being that age, and adults are – it can only be hoped – available to teach the tyke a perceptive patience that will serve as far more effective a tool in the building of a self and a life.)

First, and without bringing religion into it (and Nussbaum is a philosopher, not a theologian) Williams grounded his entire take on being human in the observation that all humans have a capacity for conscience. This conscience is defined as the “seat of emotion, imagination, and ethical choice through which each person seeks meaning in his or her own way”. And it is this capacity that constitutes for Williams “the source of our equality, and it is worthy of equal respect wherever it is found”.

And “political principles must be based on that equal respect”. I don’t know how many of Us, especially the generations that have joined Us in the past forty or so years, have ever really been given the opportunity to take that observation to heart. It should be carved in stone on public buildings, and leave the Ten Commandments – may they be revered – for carving upon churches. Perhaps the fundamentalist brethren and sistern, famously averse to large stone houses of worship, might be assisted somehow to own or build a few, so that they can then carve the Commandments thereupon to their heart’s and soul’s content.

On the other side of the national divide, the equally fundamentalistic secularists (or secularistic fundamentalists, if you prefer) might be well-advised that when such vital mutual respect is for all practical purposes nullified in the service of creating monsters to destroy out of this or that small or very large segment of the national community … then they need to re-visit their complaints, plans and agendas. If the community called ‘American’ – for all its imperfections, and their name is Legion – is not granted primacy by any group, then that group has to consider to just what extent it has seceded from the American Experiment. And haven’t We been down this road before?

In the second place, “Williams believed that equal respect for conscience entails protecting an extensive sphere of freedom around the individual, and that this protection must be impartial, imposing no orthodoxy”. This might be construed as overtly religious orthodoxy or as that secularist equivalent masquerading as ‘political correctness’ (a phrase and a concept borrowed from a certain 1917 revolution that finally succumbed to its own outrageousness in 1991, only to be resurrected in an amended form in 2008 – which might be to some a ‘proof’ that George Bush, as he has always claimed, is acting on God’s authority ... Pray, pray for your lives).

And – marvelously on the part of both Williams and Nussbaum – such orthodoxy Williams termed “soule rape”. It’s not hard to see why such rape has not been embraced by the Second-Wave-inspired sex-offense mania: the last thing Pomo deconstruction wants to do is give any public airing whatsoever to the concept of ‘soule’ (modern: soul) and all that the term might bear back into Our midst. It is harder to imagine why the churches have not been more steadfast in their proclamation of this particular variant of monstrousness over the decades and centuries since the Founding; tastefulness and a desire to be polite at the table could be one reason: A-list dinner parties, country club verandahs, and small-town church suppers all have this in common: too vivid a presentation of some truths and realities is simply beyond good taste. But, alas, ‘soule rape’ is still on History’s (not to say God’s) table. Boardrooms, of course, have always been averse to the concept; paying thus the compliment that vice always pays to virtue, but thereby piling up for themselves treasure not-in-heaven.

And thirdly, “civil peace among people who differ in religion [and secular fundamentalism is a religion just as much as Marxian materialism was] requires a moral consensus that is itself impartial, giving ascendancy to no creed more than any other”. But our modern American reality runs into that ‘abortion’ thing, and no ‘moral’ discussion is to be permitted; indeed, the non-moral is to be ‘privileged’. Is it me or is the Republic once again in the same type of ominous bind that bethump’t the generations before the Civil War (and in Williams’s time and up to the 1890s, in the matter of the treatment of the Indians). We have regressed, it seems. No therapist could leave that alone and still in good professional conscience submit a bill at the end of the month. Nor are We insured; no larger power is going to cover Our costs on this one. When it comes to Amairikuh, famously, there is no larger power. Except the one that We are assured is on Our side and has deputized Us to go out forthwith and make either democracies or wastelands. Sorta like those intergalactic prophets of believe-or-die on ‘Stargate SG-1’: the Ori.

Williams himself actively promoted friendship with the Indians. He was not doing this (as Jonathan Edwards and assorted Jesuits and other missionaries did) in order to convert them. He was acting out of “moral decency”. And again – it’s been a while since that term has been welcome around the official national hearth. No room for it, due to the reasons mentioned above. And sure as shootin’ – Our national decency, domestically and internationally, has got up and gone. Are We the better for it?

“The experience of finding integrity and goodness outside the parameters of orthodoxy surely shaped his evolving views of political principles.” Well, and what happens to those political principles when an unripe, primitive, regressed either-or pugnacity and hostility becomes the major key in the national discourse? I wonder if We had any right to expect some decades ago that We could excise all of those political principles and still retain the political structure – the Republic – which was built squarely upon them? The twin towers were finally taken down from the top (their tops, I mean); but the first attempt was to blow out their foundations. They may hold more symbolic truth for Us than had previously been considered.

Further, Williams's thought is far more perceptive in the tricky subtleties of the psychological dynamics of “both persecutor and victim”. A functioning lack of mutual respect belies a constructive (as the courts would say; or ‘de facto’) lack of conscience that makes ‘beasts’ not only of the designated monsters but of the designating community itself. I say this while thinking of Solzhenitsyn’s sharp observation, jabbed into the hyper-inflated balloons sitting before him at Hahvahd that day thirty years ago, that this country was on its way to becoming a prison, both for its many prisoners and for its even more numerous imprisoners. As if We are not all “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, as Edwards famously put it. As if Our prisons are God’s prisons and the rest of Us are ‘saved’ and may graze peaceably, sleek and fatted, at a better table. Henry Clay Frick, called from his New York mansion to come up the few blocks to his former employer Andrew Carnegie’s even grander mansion, when asked by that aging tiger of commerce and corporate engorgement to join in a soul-raising project of building nice things for the public while there was still time (a gambit taken straight from the playbook of dying and desperate Renaissance condottiere), replied that it was too late for that sort of thing now, taking his leave abruptly with the under-appreciated benediction: “I shall see you in Hell, Andrew, where we both are going”. They don’t make CEOs like that anymore.

“Truth is not the basis for respect … the faculty for finding the truth” is. And even ‘men’ have it. Oy. Nor does this term refer only to those men who seek to embrace their Inner Woman. “Everyone has inside himself or herself something infinitely precious, something that demands respect from us all, and something in regard to which we are all basically equal.” And nobody among Us has a warrant, from God or a ballot box or by viva voce acclamation from a shoal of pandering pundits and roadies or from any ‘base’, to ignore that equality: not in the service of Party or of great ‘visions’ of Progress and Change or in the haste to meet this or that ‘emergency’. This Republic and this People does things the right way, or not at all. Lest any or all incur that awefull punishment reserved for those who “have practiced ‘violence to the soules of men’”. And he’s not talking about gays or child-molesters here. And if the fear of committing such a sacrilege keeps Us from giving bad example to children, it must also keep Us from bombing, rocketing, or otherwise blowing them up, and flaunting such impious malefaction in the faces of the rest of the world’s peoples, and declaring it to be “God’s work”, in JFK’s short but rock-like phrase. I don’t think We quite grasp just what God-fearing means nowadays. Or why far more accomplished generations of Americans put so much store in it.

“What does he mean by saying that “persecution takes ‘the world out of the world’? I think he is expressing the view that the spirit of love and gentleness, combined with the spirit of fair play, is at the heart of our worldly lives with one another. Take these things away and you despoil the world itself. You make it nothing but a heap of confusion and pain.” Reading a passage like this lights anew the hope that universities still provide something of more-than-tactical value to the young. And gives rise to the darkling intimation that Rome in her worst aspects has returned, making a desolation and calling it not just ‘peace’ but God’s will. And thence gives immediate rise to an expansion of Vachel Lindsay’s thought: Neither Lincoln nor any of the Founders can rest upon their hillsides now – they must be among Us as before. But only among Us: no matter how white the heavenly horses upon which they might ride, they cannot do for Us what We, even We here, must do to keep faith and to keep Our rendezvous with destiny.

“Peace and stability” are purchased at too terrible a price if they are purchased at the price of bringing wholesale violence into the lives and ‘soules’ of human beings. There must be ‘order’; but an order that deflowers the respect each is owed by all, and that each owes to all, violates an Order that is rooted in the foundations of humanity itself. The consequences of introducing such iniquity into the human realm, already sore beset, will be positively Greek in their utterness. And who would dare to boast that History cannot raise up barbarians to punish the barbarity of a civilization that has lost its savor? In a hell-hot irony, the barbarity itself breeds the barbarians who will avenge the impiety. We have seen it before.

“Williams is keenly aware of the danger of religious establishments as threats to both liberty and equality.” Yes, although Williams does not say – and I don’t think Nussbaum implies – that ‘religion’ itself is thus in essence only a danger and not potentially a 'good'. “Established” religion is, privileged by the government either formally or constructively. Eisenhower was on to this in a schoolboyish way with his insistence that the country couldn’t survive unless the citizenry were religious, and he didn’t care what religion. Of course, he didn’t quite appreciate – or never let on that he appreciated – just how grave the responsibilities a vital religious spirit must discharge: especially to stand in judgment over the doings of government.

But also: to speak with the authority of God does not mean that one is possessed sufficiently of God’s wisdom and knowledge so as to unsheathe the sword of righteousness and start whacking away according to one’s particular illuminations. I sort of think that John Brown still had to stand before that final awefull Court and face the consequences of those killings at Pottowattamie Creek. And that implies no disrespect to his burning anger at the outrages of slavery.

And I say again that the current ‘establishment’ of the ‘secular fundamentalism’ during the last forty years qualifies quite fully as a de facto ‘establishment’ of religion on the part of the government, and – alas – the Democratic Party. And We cannot escape the awefull symmetry: the fundamentalism of the Left ignited the fundamentalism of the Right. And now the ship of state is pulled lethally to both a port and a starboard list: no hull and no keel can withstand such pressure for long.

And finally, Nussbaum draws upon a third character who joins Truth and Peace in Williams’s ‘The Bloudy Tenent’: “’But loe!’, says Peace, ‘Who’s here?’ Truth replies, ‘Our Sister Patience, whose desired company is as needful as delightful.’” Patience, as I’ve said in earlier Posts, is not a hallmark of youth or of revolutionaries (and among the latter I number those impatient revolutionaries of the Identities who have found scant use for a democratic politics these past biblical forty years). There is a price to be paid for trying to court youth and revolutionaries: they have no patience for careful building – or careful renovation or reconstruction, for that matter. Patience is not what they do. But it most certainly is what We need and how We must proceed, if We are not to run amok among Ourselves and among all nations.

These be dark times, and such light as there is sheds a thin and lurid illumination that cannot enlighten. We must light a few lamps. It’s grown-up work. And We indeed must be a beacon, unto our own children if not – for a while – to the nations.

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Blogger David said...

The founders were a flinty bunch. Roger Williams was no hippie (advocating biblically as he did capital punishment for sins against public order in the wilderness such as adultery) but one wonders what it would have been like if his writings did not have to wait 330 years to see the light of day. There still is no critical edition after all this time. He appears nowhere among the icons enshrined by the 'Library of America' series. His is the very definition of a 'minority voice' in our great tradition.

Williams certainly had theological interests but they would not extend to the use of the ideological epithet "evil-doers" in public discourse in a way that calls for the destruction of enemies as if they had no redeeming social value. If 'soule rape' were an impeachable offense, how different would our political landscape look today!

I wonder whether we could deconstruct such national symbols as the 'cowboy' - a drunken, ignorant, rootless, often murderous peon in the employ of international capital and replace him with a multicultural 'mountain man' like the Haitian mulatto founder of Chicago, JB Pointe DuSable who spurned the racist conventions of urban life, learned indian languages, married an indian woman and made capitalist hay as a subtle mediator between cultures in wilderness trading.

Instead, we have been and are being led by mad buckaroos for whom the only good enemy is a dead 'evil-doer'. Our majority tradition has been allowed to degenerate into this now: harassment even anonymous mass slaughter of consciences which seem strange to our eyes and ears. God help us.

6:11 AM  

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