Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Appropos my last post ...

To go along with the passage I quoted from Berger, James Wolcott fires hard against cause celebre spectacle and hypocrisy in his latest blog post, railing against the usual suspects - Peggy Noonan, Tom Delay - quoting liberally (no pun intended)(...no, honest!) from Alexander Cockburn and Paul Craig Roberts, and including this passage from The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris:

Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists will maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc). And yet where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc). This inversion of priorities not only victimises innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics.

Harris' book was recently skewered in a review on reasononline, and perhaps justifiably: bad enough this comment is flatly anecdotal - which is okay when I do it - it's also, I think, flat wrong. This might be fixed by a little qualification: "Faith tends to drive a wedge between ethics and suffering..." or "The faith of some - maybe even most - people tends to drive a wedge ..." Something like that. I think this is why Wolcott includes this passage in his post; he means to be saying "The faith of scum like Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum never seems to succeed in anything but driving these wedges..."

Taken as such, the passage makes its point. Speech about morality sounds always empty to me when it is busy naming pariahs, creeps, freaks and dangerous characters; when it is busy circumscribing "family values" and declaiming outsiders and degenerates to that hallowed version.

To me, individual morality would consist in never- or seldom-flagging humor ... love, patience, curiosity and tenderness to all (or all possible). Social morality must probably consist in the old, forgotten liberal values: eradication of poverty, respect and protection for the least among us ... that kind of thing.

So, for now at least, I guess you can count me out. I'm crabby, not very patient, not fighting to alleviate the scourge of want and constant social care. These beliefs of mine, if true, only include me in the number of those who recognize something like the extent of their own depravity, and to a small degree, among those like, in this case, Wolcott, Roberts and Berger, and among those like the good people at Sojourner's (check out The Budget is a Moral Document) who want, I think, not only to say, "hey! we're moral too!!" but to kick over the tables in the temple and clearly call the money-changing moralists immoral.


At 11:44 AM, Blogger Dave said...

this blog rocks times eight.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger J. Goard said...

A couple of days ago, I caught Harris' UC Irvine talk from January. Although he's responsible for the content of the book itself, and I haven't read any of it unmediated, his presentation and responses to questions left me with some qualms about the aforementioned Reason review.

For one thing, Harris made it abundantly clear that his anti-religious thesis is meant to apply in full force to many "secular" belief systems which differ (in his view, inessentially) from "religions" only in lacking a clearly divine element in their respective ontologies: he cited the obvious Leninism/Stalinism, Maoism and Nazism, but also went into some depth on the particularly unblinking form of Zen philosophy with which most Kamikaze pilots were imbued. Given this acknowledgement, the old "secularists did much worse" argument against Harris doesn't fly. Again, I need to read the book myself -- but for now I can at least note that the title is "The End of Faith", not of "God" or "Heaven" or some such exclusively supernatural notion, and thus can prima facie be taken to include the 20th Century's great atheistic tyrannies as "religious" in the relevant sense.
Second, I find it highly implausible, based upon the speech that I heard, that Harris in his book "...identif[ies] all Islamic beliefs with extreme Islamist terror," or that he treats broader Christianity similarly. What he seems to believe is that the militant and the everyday Muslim are part of an integrated system, thus in many unseen ways mutually supportive. Think of the panther metaphor: its belly is soft and warm, and can't hurt you; however, the belly's existence and function is inseparable from the function of the teeth or claws; operating together, they are what makes for a dangerous panther. Now, it is of course highly debatable whether this metaphor is appropriate for Islam, Christianity, or some specified division within either, but it is undoubtedly far more reasonable than the individual equation of believers with terrorists that Chris Lehmann alleges in his review.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger Scott M. said...

Not only the "great atheistic tyrannies of the 20th century" but, like I've been carping over recently, the everyday sort of lukewarm variations on agnosticism and pc humanism of folk with horribly low thresholds of outrage regardless, who seem to love disapproving of this behavior or that.

It goes on quitely and mostly unmarked - insidiously all around, undermining relationships, driving all of us apart, and if I may be so bold, making tyrannies of all sorts possible.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger J. Goard said...

"Low threshold for outrage" toward others seems to nail part of the phenomenon; the other critical component is avoidance of self-analysis as a means for dealing with potential feelings of guilt or irreconcilable moral ambivalence. As we lash out so easily at others, we're busy keeping out qualms about the harms we allow to happen or even openly endorse. When we evade the appropriate self-imposed responsibility for something only kinda bad, this can easily result in a shifted goalpost for our treatment of others, and under certain conditions constitute a feedback spiral of guilt-evasion that ends in concentration camps, torture, and censorship by muzzle.

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