Monday, March 25, 2013

"Fascism," Chris Hedges and the Politics of the "Christian" Right

Today while racing to find a good book before the library's closing time, I came across a Chris Hedge's book entitled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. As those who have read my last post can guess, the gutsy title was not the only feature that caught my interest, seeing as the malicious effects of so-called "Christian" politics have been on my mind as of late.

Chris Hedges is a wonderful journalist whose acuity and principled reporting have long earned my respect. You can then imagine that the choice of the term "American fascism"  by a writer of such caliber was personally striking. Hedges is not one to mince words but he does not engage in vulgar sensationalism for the sake of a buck. What does he mean by "American fascism" and does whatever loom behind this most unequivocal of terms merit such fire?

Though I have great respect for Hedges, I have several fundamental qualms with his analysis. The purpose of the text, i.e. uncovering the deceitful and dangerous ideas proffered by the "Christian" Right, is important and timely. However, his interpretation of Christianity as an independent corpus of beliefs is deeply flawed in parts, especially where the Bible is concerned. And while much of his commentary on the "Christian" Right is prescient, it is also at times vague or wrought with hyperbole.

I have decided to post this critique of American Fascism because the mistakes Hedges makes are rooted in common misconceptions of  Christianity and the Bible. These misconceptions must be addressed if American society is to become more tolerant -- the very purpose of Hedges' exposition.

Hedges begins the book by outlining his own worldview. Growing up in an nontraditional Protestant family, he sees life's meaning as real but impenetrable. The Bible is treated essentially as a literary text whose power lies in its ability to render the chaos and complexity of existence in lucid strokes. Humans must muddle through life within a "morally neutral universe," we are told, punctuating insanity and despair with acts of love and compassion (8). We must hope for a better day when the mysteries of existence finally unravel and a harmonious unity is at long last achieved. "Faith supposes that we cannot know," since any fullness of conviction poses the danger of intolerance or an ether-like pride that numbs the intellect, distorting the world into a series of captious blacks and whites (9).

There is much to admire about this worldview, particularly its emphasis on humility and tolerance. However, Hedges' vision is riddled with contradictions, several of which must be addressed. As we will see, these contradictions are deeply significant because they have the inadvertent effect of internalizing some of the intolerant views and perplexities of the "Christian" Right, albeit from a very different angle. 

To begin, Hedges' understanding of the Bible appears to be self-defeating. He initially praises it as an artistic text of the first-order, its authors having "understood our weaknesses and strengths. They understood how we are often not the people we want to be or know we should be, how hard it is for us to articulate all this, and how life and creation can be as glorious and beautiful as it can be mysterious, evil and cruel" (7-8). Yet, before this, he asserts that thematically the Bible has "enough hatred, bigotry and lust for violence in the satisfy anyone bent on justifying cruelty and violence" (5).

These conflicting judgements reveal a profound interpretive tension which Hedges never satisfactorily resolves. His desire to view the Bible purely as an ingenious work on human nature and existential crisis clashes with the contemporaneously held notion that it is a manifesto to engage in licentious violence.Why is this the case?

Ironically, Hedges appears to succumb to the interpretive mistakes used by the "Christian" Right, in other words, the very group whose reading of the Bible he attacks with vigor. In one part, for example, he critiques the book of Revelation, whose apocalyptic imagery supposedly grants "sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian right" (6). What makes this so ironic is the fact that he previously challenges the tendency of the "Christian" Right to employ a mono-dimensional, or "literalist," interpretation of these scriptures; but in critiquing these scriptures he too adopts a literalist approach to the text.

If he had read the book of Revelation from a non-literalist standpoint, he would have realized that extremist interpretations of this text -- the interpretation which he unwittingly adopts -- depend on a shallow reading of the book, and one which conflicts with central biblical themes. It takes a very pointed and politically motivated reading of Revelation to construe it as a paean to violence. Such a superficial reading, as well as Hedges' dogged assertion that his is the singularly correct interpretation, precludes the possibility of allegorical depth, nuance and artistry. These are the very qualities that make a literary work worth reading and ostensibly the reason why Hedges earlier (and contradictorily) praises the Bible as the literary work par excellence.

To put this differently, Hedges delivers a damning rebuke to "Christian" Right over its tendency to assert a single interpretation of the Bible, especially one which justifies intolerance. Then, without a moment's hesitation, Hedges criticizes the Bible upon the assumption that his own interpretations are authoritative, that indeed Revelation can be interpreted only one way. His vision of the Bible as a complex tableau of the human experience is suddenly tossed out the window in exchange for one that sees it as an unambiguous entreaty to violence. In attacking extremists for their "literalist" interpretation of the Bible he adopts a literalist critique of the Bible himself. Its content is no longer seen as a compelling narrative about the human condition but, rather, anachronistically read in light of current political interests -- his own interests included. 

This ahistorical perspective is seen not only in Hedges' understanding of the Bible but American history more generally. One of his greatest concerns is over "logicide,"or the formation of an Orwellian language whose words are imbued with dangerously simplistic and irrational meanings (14). While the perversion of language to suit political ends is a worthwhile topic, he complicates the discussion by inserting his own slanted understanding of terms. Instead of recognizing the tenuous and negotiable nature of language, he projects an exclusive "rationalist" understanding of words which is divorced of nuance and complexity.

Part of this problem is the assumption of a clean dichotomy between secular and religious spheres, an elite Western construction which has never fully pervaded the social order. The assumption that the 'right' usage of a terms is determined by what it "mean[s] in the secular world" erroneously assumes: one, that everyone in the secular world has arrived at an agreeable meaning for ambiguous terms like "liberty"; and two, that there is a distinct "secular world" to begin with (14).
Hedges seems to imply that terms such as "liberty" or "life" did not have religious connotations until of late, and this because of those in the "Christian" right. It seems safe to say, however, that as long as religious practitioners have lived in the U.S. their understanding of these words has been contoured by their religious viewpoints. Considering the fact that words like "wisdom" and "love" have existed for at least 1000s of years and a "rationalist" view of the world which attempts to exclude religious connotations is a modern development, it seems silly to say that the true meaning of these words has nothing to do with religious ideas. To say that religious people have historically chosen to not view language from the vantage-point of their religious beliefs, or to insinuate that this was even possible for religious people who were not aware of the potential for a distinction between the secular and holy, just does not make sense.

Contemporary "secular" connotations of word like "liberty" or "justice," for example, are generally linked to the synthetic ideal of the nation-state. Man-made borders, constitutional courts and the abstracted idea of a "nation," which are part and parcel of these terms, are all concepts which have only reached their present form in the past 100 year. And we still argue about their meanings. 

If Hedges simply scrutinized the ways in which certain terms are employed to incite violence or intolerance then his section on "logicide" would serve its purpose. By choosing to push his own slanted understanding of the proper definition of words and their origins, however, he introduces an unnecessary and complicating element to this task. In doing so, he synthetically demarcates the world into secular and religious spheres, and ahistorically excises religious inflections from language in past eras. These personal innovations prepare the grounds for the possibility of his own form of newspeak, one robbed of historical context, authenticity, plus the stifling of definitions' natural ebb and flow.

Hedges' reading of the Bible is also complicated by plain factual errors. During the introduction he writes that the four Gospels, or books of the Bible which directly deal with Jesus' life on earth, are "filled with factual contradictions" (3). He goes on to say that Luke, one of the four Gospels, supposedly "asserted that John [the Baptist] was already in prison" before Jesus' baptism, while the other Gospels claim that John himself baptized Jesus (ibid.). 

This reading of Luke is just wrong. Right after the section on John the Baptist's (who baptized people) life, Luke writes that "When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too" (from Luke 3:21). Contrary to Hedges' erroneous recollection, Luke explicitly recognizes that Jesus was baptized by John. Those whom Jesus was baptized with are the exact same people baptized by John and referred to in Luke 3:15. Plainly put, Luke recognizes Jesus' baptism by John. Hedges' reading of the Bible again proves to be highly selective.

More significant, however, is Hedges argument that the Gospels are flawed because they offer "differing accounts" of Jesus' life (3). This, according to Hedges, means that the accounts are contradictory and hence should not be taken too seriously. 

The idea that the Gospels should not be trusted because they do not address Jesus' life using the exact same subject matter is pretty ridiculous, seeing as the whole reason multiple accounts of his life are included is because they are different. (Can you imagine how frivolous four exactly identical, that is, rhetorically verbatim accounts of Jesus' life would be?) Each author was concerned with different aspects of Jesus' life, wrote with varying audiences in mind and had divergent writing styles. 

This does not mean their accounts are mutually antagonistic or do not support each other. Rather, the authors varied the content of their Gospels because each was written from a different perspective, capturing what they believed to be the important details of Jesus' life for their particular audience. Consequently, not all of these books contain the birth of Jesus or the exact same stories, for example. Yet when they do overlap, the content is substantively the same. 

If anything, what makes the Gospels interesting is the fact that there are no appreciable differences in content when they do overlap. Like a group of witnesses before a judge, their testimony varies but this does not mean it is inaccurate, merely different. One witness may recall the sound of event, the another the smell, and, still another, the weather. This does not mean their stories conflict with each other -- they just talk about different aspects of the same situation. The fact that these are the most salient discrepancies between the four Gospels that Hedges can find, and, what's more, that these differences were either misinterpreted by Hedges nor nonexistent, is incredible. If anything, it would seem to confirm the veracity of their accounts. 

The next major problem with Hedges' work is its equation of the "Christian" Right with "fascism." He writes that unless serious measures are taken to counter the rise of this divisive ideology it will engulf American society with catastrophic effect. In order to ensure the maintenance of a pluralistic and tolerant order he suggest direct action, citing Karl Popper who believed that if intolerant groups got out of hand "we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force" (1).

Hedges' fears over the potential of the "Christian" Right becoming a "fascist" force commanding the reigns of government policy are unnecessarily inflated. Such prognostications rely on the exclusion of important variables which make the rise of these extremists highly unlikely.

Most practicing Christians do not extend unquestioned fealty to demagogues like Pat Robertson who lead the "Christian" Right. In fact, a considerable number of Christians, myself included, believe these people are unscrupulous hacks whose messages are incompatible with the teachings of the Bible. If such figures sought to attain high office it is almost certain that they would be vociferously opposed by such Christians. When Pat Robertson tried to secure the Republican nomination for the presidential elections in 1988, for example, he fell flat on his face, garnishing less than ten percent of the votes during the Republican primaries. And this only concerned some Christians who were Republicans.

Furthermore, the suggestion that direct force should be used to stop these crazies could not be more counterproductive. We should instead let them sneer and rattle their sabers to their hearts' content. When people see with their own eyes the warped political programs, take full whiff of the movement's sanctimonious stench, and pay witness to its leaders' inarticulate blustering the "Christian" Right will damn itself to political obscurity.

Using force to quell the movement could lead to violence, which would only serve to lionize the movement's leaders and grant the movement a sense of prophetic legitimacy. Since they see themselves as the vanguard of righteousness in an apocalyptic era, any persecution by the state would be interpreted by its members as confirmation of their eschatological vision. To forcefully suppress them would be to play into their hands; nothing could be more counterproductive.

What makes Hedges' vision particularly dangerous, however, is his division of the world into "those who embrace reason" and those ostensibly lost in the "mythical world of intuition" (36). This stern dichotomy is painfully ironic since he also recognizes that a distinctive mark of "fascism" is its tendency to divide the world into us v. them, with no possibility for mediation.

This is where his selective reading of history, concerns over the "logicide" of language, and touting of a loosely-defined "rationalist" framework for existence dangerously collide. It is also why he can swoon over the ideal of "tolerance" while advocating the forceful suppression of the "Christian" Right. Hedges' certitude is just as dangerous as the certitude of the "Christian" Right, and most forms of complete self-conviction for that matter.

If truly concerned about "logicide" (the simplification of language for political ends) then he should be wary over the possibility of himself turning "toleration" into a term which does not mean respect for differing views, but, rather, respect for the right "rationalist" view (whatever that means) to the brutal exclusion of all others.

And if worried about "logicide" he should equally be concerned about employing the term "fascism," which has come to mean anything and nothing at the same time. Hedges writes that he uses "fascism" in technical sense, implying that this frees him from the charge of engaging in intellectually impoverished histrionics. Yet he goes on to note that the criteria for fascism is so loose and contradictory that fascists can only be judged by their acts. If this is the case then "fascism" is most certainly a useless word and too susceptible to "logicide" for insertion in meaningful discourse.

The real problem, I would suggest, is not utter self-conviction but what this conviction is about. For a Christian to be convinced that there is a good God who wants to fix the world is not dangerous so long as this person acknowledges their flawed humanity. What makes the "Christian" Right nasty and Hedges' alternative vision self-defeating is the assertion of their ability to completely divine either "God's will" or the "rational" world.

If one realizes the fundamentally limited nature of their understanding then belief in God and the teachings of the Bible are compatible with tolerance. A person can believe that, contrary to Hedges' assertion, absolute good and evil do exist. However, they would also recognize that good and evil are practiced by all people, and, furthermore, that because of humankind's finite intellect it is difficult at times to make correct judgements between the two.

They would recognize that because of humankind's finite intellect we are unable to completely divine God's will. Their decision to not impose their interpretation of God's will on others would be conditioned by their understanding that there is a God, and thus their ability to make such judgements is foolishness when their finite intellect is compared to God's omniscience.

Above all, they would be have absolute self-conviction, but it would be a conviction to recognize their mistakes and learn from others. It would be a self-conviction that believes poverty, suffering and racism are clearly evil, and that people should not stand passively mute but address these issues. It would be an absolute self-conviction that recognizes the humanity of the "enemy" and the "friend," realizing that hatred and intolerance are the root enemies, and cannot be combated without working to elevate the humanity of the personal "enemy" trapped in hate's terrible logic.

In other words, it would be an absolute conviction to love and forgive tempered by an equal commitment to acknowledging one's own foolishness.

Everybody lives according to a set of convictions and some sort of framework for understanding this crazy world of ours. Even Chris Hedges' refutation of absolute conviction confirms this. While denigrating such convictions as holdovers from a less enlightened time he offers his own: a "tolerance" which reserves the right to suppress heterodoxy, and the necessity of a "rational" framework for existence -- whatever that means in an insane world.

The problem is not self-conviction but convictions which refuse to acknowledge the possibility to error, the humanness of our humanity. Belief in justice, love and truth are not bad, but when someone believes they have the god-like ability to completely distinguish all these qualities and impart judgement on them then their conviction is truly dangerous. Above all, a conviction of love can never be reconciled with a conviction of hate, especially hateful violence.

Giving into the temptation of force is a last surrender to the basest instinct when not done out of immediate self-defense. And speaking of "fascists" will not make the world a more peaceable and tolerant place, but can only serve to accentuate manmade chasms.

Let's acknowledge our silliness before we make an even greater mess of this beautiful, scarred world.

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