Thursday, October 9, 2008

the pomocons, Freddie, and god

Nicola Karras has written a long explanation of her political identity. I don't think Karras calls herself a postmodern conservative. But her piece has finally crystallized some vague dissatisfaction with pomo conservatism that has been kicking and pawing in the back of my mind for some time. And, truth be told, it's brought to the forefront a lot of pretty deep feelings I've been dealing with for some time.

What I find so notable in Karras's piece is not what's in it but what isn't. I read it twice, quickly, because I was sure I had missed something: where was the resolution to Karras's existential crisis? Where was the moment where she found her access to the truth that frees her from the spiritual emptiness that pure intellect had left her with? I couldn't find it, and can't. I find instead her (very understandable) sense of loss at the dissolution of real authority and real certainty, and the choice to embrace foundationalism and its political child, conservatism. Karras, of course, notes that foundationalism was part of the problem. She is bright enough to know that the studied rejection of the studied is a bridge to nowhere, and so her conversion narrative is rescued by the epiphanic.

As she says,

I can only describe the moment as an epiphany, with all that that implies. “An age of prudence” was my own age of rationalism. There was no reason to exist. But I did: not because I could prove it, or because I knew, but because in that utterly human moment of terror and sacrifice that gave meaning, I recognized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need a good reason to love. But I did.

And yet I don't think this epiphany, however profound for her, carries nearly the revelatory weight she thinks it does. It leaves her in the same uncomfortable place all postmodern conservatisms do: her changed mind is a chosen mind. Her anti-philosophical philosophy is not a rhetoric of "it is true"s but one of "it is better"s. Look at her language.

If we cannot understand ourselves as meaningful participants in something, we regard ourselves as fundamentally other; if all we can truly establish is our own existence as “things that think,” we have nothing to do with our fellows. Language and logic are not enough to bridge those gaps: it requires something more. In opposition to that liberal, rights-based worldview, I looked to love and to tradition.

She looks to it, because she needs it. She accepts it, because it nourishes her. Her ethic is an ethic of necessity, not of truth. I'm sure she would say that the point is that she has no ethic at all. But have one she does, and the studied rejection of philosophy is of course a philosophy of its own. (Once again, forced to be free.) This is a willed belief in tradition, a knowing choice of old institutions, the inherently meta rejection of the meta. "I had been drowning, and looking back I saw how easy it would have been to latch on to something murderous to save myself." Not, "the life raft was the reality of Christ/community/tradition/etc". Instead, the pure pragmatism at grasping at whatever piece of driftwood happened to float by. This is postmodern premodernism, and it has become kind of popular.

This acknowledgment of the missing foundation for the foundational (or the inability to deny the same-- no difference) is, I think, at the heart of postmodern conservatism. No one likes an outsider to try and define their beliefs, and I won't do the pomocons the violence of saying I know what they think. But it seems to me that this frank admission that one believes in the old ways because one chooses to is near the heart of their mission. The first problem is that, as she comes close to saying, Karras's way requires (in that studied way!) the rejection of the studied approach to political philosophy. And if the pomocons are anything, they are studied.

I'll tell you true: James Poulos, the godfather of the pomocons (or the subset I know) has a generosity in his intellectual mission that is rarer and more valuable than most anything else in the discourse. James has an open and expansive rhetorical style, and while I can't name more than a few matters of policy on which we agree, I find myself vigorously nodding my head when I'm reading his stuff more often than when I read anyone elses.

And yet his project is not my project, and as with Karras I sense a turn (within the portion of his political ethic that is open to me) that doesn't make sense. Because this, to me, is a simple fact: the chaos of meaning kills conservatism.

How can you have the foundational without the foundation? Where can the bedrock come from, if you acknowledge that you've chosen your preference for it? How can traditionalism survive, when you know that mere human subjectivity is the source of tradition? Conservatism has tradtionally been suspicious, even hateful, of postmodern skepticism towards meta-narratives. I think many of the pomocons believe that they can have the destabilizing nature of postmodernism and yet still knowingly choose the stability of classical forms, traditional mores. But the old school conservatives abhor the postmodern for a reason. They know the limits of willed obediance to the past, they recognize the fragility of any conservatism of choice.

I think this is the elementary issue behind Rod Dreher's brilliant piece on nostalgia for the '50s and '60s. This is something I've been trying to say myself. (Dreher's great facility in explaining my thoughts so perfectly, where I myself have failed, is another in a string of defeats that has me thinking.) He quotes Alan Ehrenhalt

"We don’t want the 1950s back.... What we want is to edit them. We want to keep the safe streets, the friendly grocers, and the milk and cookies, while blotting out the political bosses, the tyrannical headmasters, the inflexible rules, and the lectures on 100 percent Americanism. But there is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end. This is a lesson that people who call themselves conservatives seem determined not to learn."

No tradition without authority, no authority without oppression. And this oppression ate the '50s, and eats away at all traditional forms, even without any of my pie-in-the-sky resistance to the meta-narratives that under gird conservative philosophy. Dreher writes

It focuses on a time when people became aware that the old social customs and forms had been hollowed out, and were on the verge of collapsing from their own dead weight. Had American culture been as solid at its core as it seemed on the outside, the Sixties’ rebellion wouldn’t have and couldn’t have happened. “Mad Men” is a chronicle of a revolution foretold.

I put it to you that the realization of the the human construction of human systems ensures the inevitability of the collapse of social systems, the social contract.
This is why it's strange to read Dreher's conclusions, and juxtapose them with his conservatism. Dreher says

For unreflective liberals, “Mad Men” is only temporarily tragic. It has a happy ending. Deliverance from all this sexism and repression and cigarette smoke draws nigh. It’s always darkest before the dawn, as the saying goes....Conservatives, though, appreciate the fullness of “Mad Men”’s American tragedy, because we know what’s really coming next. It’s not the promised land, but rather a wasteland, a desert of dislocation and despair in which we’ve been wandering for over 40 years.

This is absolutely true, and if I leave you with nothing else, I want you to know that I understand it, and that my politics, my philosophy, is a product of my agreement with this. Yet I can't understand how Dreher can say this and maintain his conservative identity. Dreher seems to describe a choice, in this piece, and-- like Karras-- chooses the more comforting, valorizing and humanizing side. No one can blame them. I can't, I won't. But I'm afraid there's a creeping incomprehensibility to it all: You cannot choose to be premodern. As Walter Truett Anderson said, the act of choosing means you are postmodern. If you are aware that you've made a choice to embrace the traditional, you can't possibly accept the traditional in the same way that those heady champions of "the '50s" simulacra did. For them there were not choices of identity, there was the way the world was. A person in those days would be baffled at the notion of "exploring the traditional." Explore what? There's no need for exploration if what you've lived is really what is.

This is why Karras's chosen unthinking, her choice of not considering, carries and must carry so much water for her. Recognizing the degree to which traditionalism is chosen utterly undermines traditionalism. But even she can't escape. Michael Berube skillfully described the Habermas/Lyotard conflict in his own book. As he said, the tie goes to Lyotard, to antifoundationalism. If you throw up your hands and say that you can't choose, or that the divide can't be bridged, or that you don't want to choose, you've effectively chosen the antifoundationalism. This is why, I think, even at their moments of greatest triumph, there is a small though scratching and clawing within the brain of conservatism that they are always at a disadvantage. These are the same questions, and this is the same phenomenon, within Matt Frost's recent ruminations.

So who can restore faith? Who can rescue Nicola Karras from her existential crisis? Who can tell conservatives if they should go back or go slow, and reassure them that asking that question doesn't undermine their project.

Sadly, only God.

I said before that what Dreher said was true, that the collapse of the traditional social order is no cause for celebration. This is what the existentialists knew; this is why I'm an existentialist. As you know, I'm an atheist who can't stand conventional atheism. And it's for this reason: only God can rescue human life from meaninglessness, if not me, if not the ego and the I. Atheists love to say that most religious people actually think like atheists. I think most atheists think like the religious, because they have not yet begun to imagine the wasteland of meaning that the death of God has left us in. (I think of Bill Maher and his stupid sneering face, and I see a man who wields the truth the way a chimpanzee holds a gun.) Both Dreher and Karras imply that the cult of the individual has meant profound damage for the civic psychology. As Karras says, she was"troubled by the decay of the traditional institutions that gave us meaning. The results were just as Arendt had diagnosed: alienation, isolation, susceptibility to totalitarianism."

And fair enough. My intellectual parents created a philosophy of emptiness and lack of meaning. This is existential incompleteness, and it's why existentialism is not so much a philosophy as a critique of philosophy. Man giving meaning to man is no gift. It's nothing to celebrate. It's agony, the pain of being completely unmoored. It's harsh. It's also, I think, why Dreher can look at the consequences of knowing the origins of tradition and want to go back to not knowing. Karras may not like the cult of I, but if not the I, who gives life meaning? Only God.

But there is no God, part of me objects. I tell you from the bottom of my Martin Buber-loving agnotheist anticlericalist heart that I don't say that with glee, or derision. I am a little creeped out, to tell the truth, by Culture11's diaries and user groups; the overt religiosity disturbs me. But it also makes sense. If you want to be a conservative, a real conservative, it's hard to get there without God. Many of the people who claim to be atheist conservatives, I suspect, just haven't thought their way far enough down.

"Precisely!" my imagined pomocon might say. The pomocons, of course, are a religious bunch. And yet I find God as inimical to postmodernism as I find postmodernism inimical to God. What purpose anti-foundationalism, if the Foundation is present and real? Why bother examining the history of tradition, if you're confident that, somewhere at its ends, you will find the Creator? What need is there for a taxonomy of truth if there is the Truth? It's something I can't get past. I know this may be unfair, but it seems to me that there is belief or there is the end of belief, and one seems to flow away from the other.

Not that I don't think you can have theistic liberals, and I haven't entirely closed my mind to the notion that there is such a thing as a real conservative atheist. We're pretty deep into the weeds here, and policy has a way of rendering these things moot-- thus the liberation theologist, the Catholic whose heart is consumed by suffering, might say to Karras "whatever deficiencies of the state, whatever vulnerability to totalitarianism, whatever we have lost, there are the suffering; your ethic elides them because it must, mine centralizes them because it must. There are the suffering, and charity and religion and community have not always provided for them, and will not always, and so I will look to the state to soothe them, whatever the cost."

And there are theistic existentialists, of course, who will tell you that the fact that we are removed from God makes it so that we give our lives meaning. You don't need nonexistence when detachment tells the same story. Perhaps the pomocons can craft a meaningful metaphysics out of this space; they are brilliant people, the crew James has assembled. But there is a very basic way in which I keep coming back to the same suspicions. Why postmodernism, with God? What use language games, with God? Why are they search for that presence beyond the reach of play, when they feel the Presence? It's a question only they can answer.

I found Karras's story, I must admit, deeply annoying. The "once I was a teenage liberal" conversion narrative is always a cliche, and the kind of cliche that is exacerbated by imagining itself novel. I am struck by a narrative of existential loss and directionlessness that can declare "[m]y burning hatred for both major Presidential candidates." Really? The depth of this loss, the pain of this chaos of meaning, and you can feel burning hatred for anyone? If the death of the concrete and the real give us anything, by god, let them give us compassion. I may be a cruel, inarticulate, preachy and hypocritical leftist nag, but after staring into the same abyss Karras has stared into I swear I will keep a kernel of compassion for every other human, as they all ultimately face the same thing. For all of our failings, we existentialists have an understanding that comes from really believing in the human animal lost at sea.

And I extend that to Nicola Karras, of course. Annoyed as I may be, I understand what she thinks very well, and I won't begrudge her the grasp she seems to have made towards some kind of workable construct of the truth. It's an odd thing, for a philosophy so dependent on not looking too closely to be thrown up onto the Internet for political geeks like me to comb over and cruelly dissect. But she put it best herself: "I wanted human connection to be easier, closer, more meaningful, so that rationalism wouldn’t seem such an appealing option in the future. I wanted to encourage compassion and community, but I didn’t know how." That's a project that I wish her well on, while asking her to consider extending that compassion beyond the purely philosophical and to consider the cold physical reality of suffering and of loss. That's why, though I might not love her conversion narrative, I don't want to fire the most powerful bullet in my gun: the bullet of postmodernism, of antifoundationalism. I know the wounds they leave myself.




Am I living in personal despair? No. No, I'm not. Things are pretty great, actually. That's the other reason. For all my clever criticisms of Karras, and Dreher, and the pomocons, I don't live my despair the way pure intellect perhaps insists I should. That's the laurel that my pragmatic approach to human life has rewarded to Karras and her inconsistent, but humane, refusal to live in the mind. She will, I suppose, have this last laugh. This is also, by the way, why the intellectual love of my life will always be Simone de Beauvoir, who crafted a livable existentialism, far thorougher and more compassionate than anything approached by Sartre and Heidegger. She recognized the existential death at the heart of living life too seriously. I do leave here convinced of the ultimate failure of mutual intelligibility, and of the ultimate meaninglessness of many of the conservative traditions that some would return to.

But I also leave here in the same spirit that I hope Rod Dreher and Nicola Karras and James Poulos and the pomocons and all the rest of our people share-- alive, happy, free.

34 comments:

individualfrog said...

I guess this is where we most disagree, that the breakdown of the old order is no cause for celebration and that we've been living in a wasteland of agonies for 40 years or whatever it was. I just don't see anything so terrifying or horrible about there being no God and no meaning. On the contrary, it comforts and excites me. The only problem I have is that the old order has only been broken down superficially. We've got a lot of breaking down left to do.

Maybe this is related to our disagreement about allegory in fiction, too. When Virginia Woolf was asked about symbolism in To the Lighthouse, she said, "I meant nothing by The Lighthouse...directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me." That's exactly how I feel, about the universe as well as fiction.

Matthew said...

There is one problem and one solution. The problem is the general loss of faith, and the solution is the resurrection of the faith. Whether or not God exists, the faith, especially among Catholics and Orthodox, is the secret which held society together. When most of the people refuse to do anything that would harm society, even secretly, for fear of Hell or love of God, preferring even death to sin, then the society will thrive. When most of the people are willing to sin secretly or even openly, then such a society will either find the faith or is doomed. No amount of policing can replace the christian conscience, although you can't really blame the government for trying to hold things together by force. Politics really are meaningless for the most part; a people of faith will not succumb to an evil government (although they may be massacred like at La Vendee), and a faithless people will not be saved by the best of governments. Societies without respect for Natural Law are unsustainable.

X. Trapnel said...

Very nice. I've been mulling this over for awhile, how the pomocon seems to basically be "a conservative who should know better."

But, look: maybe the solution is to read a little less from the gloomy-Gus traditionalists and a little more from philosophers of action, cultural sociologists, and queer theorists. Choosing meaning, choosing to proceed as if it exists, just is what agency's all about, and luckily, homo sapiens does it naturally. Just because we can't give an answer to why there's something rather than nothing doesn't give us reason to ignore the something there is. So, sure: MTV consumerism isn't such a great milieu for meaning-making. But if you want to see meaningful communities, it's not just the religious sects and the farmers, it's the SF/NYC queers and artists and radicals, too.

bcg said...

Poor Freddie, opening up philosophical amateur hour ...

I have a problem with all of the people who despair for lack of meaning. C.S. Lewis (settle, settle, I am going someplace with this) talked having eyes if we live in darkness - if there was no light, there would be no darkness.

He was making the point that there must, therefore, be a God, but I took it in the other direction - maybe we don't have "eyes."

If there is no vast, eternal Meaning to Everything, then we would have no reason to be looking for it, so I assume we're not - we're not looking for meaning in our lives, but for safety, friends, influence, sex, and children.

And to me, that makes sense. I don't know many people who have all of those things and still care much about Meaning to Everything. So this strikes me as a much better strategy to maximize happiness while I have consciousness.

Freddie said...

No influence and no children, but 3 out of 5 ain't bad. Still interested.

william randolph said...

Freddie, I think you've helped everyone who reads in the Pomocon circle with this post. It's going to make everybody a lot sharper and clearer about the project. Thanks! And keep up the good work.

Matoko said...

Here Freddie.
This is my definition of pomoconservatism, just for you.

--An attempt to reconcile concurrent membership in two antipathic tribes, the contemporary GOP and the upper right tail of the bellcurve.
;)

Anonymous said...

Ah. Norm Geras tossed me in the middle of all this, and it's taken a while to work around and figure what it's all about.

You may dismiss "pomocons" entirely. They are the more-or-less equivalent of Wiccans -- delayed-adolescent academic bigots quite, quite like yourself, who are trying to do something outrageous enough to be noticed in the bland sea of vaguely leftoid Che-worshippers. I am reminded of a long-ago Mad Magazine cartoon showing hippie parents twenty years later, aghast at their son, who is turned out in a natty suit and tie, with polished shoes and Brilliantined hair in a part.

Whether or not Sarah Palin would be a good Vice President is irrelevant in that context. If you discover a beautifully constructed discourse using an extended academic vocabulary to declare that that uppity snow-nigger and her buck-ofay husband need to be put in their place, you have a "post-modern conservative" on your hands. Likewise, if the individual thinks Andrew Sullivan is sane, let alone "conservative", it is diagnostic.

That being the case, your critique, good as it is, misses the mark. They aren't searching for a basis for their philosophy; they are searching for outrage from their reactionary Leftist professors and fellow students. In just the same way, my contemporaries wore tie-dye to church.

Regards,
Ric

Eve said...

Have you by any chance picked up Andrew Solomon's NOONDAY DEMON: AN ATLAS OF DEPRESSION? It's good in its own right (though not as good as I'd hoped) but I think it might interest you a) for the chapter on poverty, and b) for his discussion of depression as a lack of MEANING rather than a presence of SUFFERING. I think that's right, there's real philosophy there which anybody can use regardless of her politics or emotions.

...I'm about to post something ridiculously long at my blog, responding to this whole discussion, "affirming you in part and dissenting from you in part" as the courts would say.

I've very much appreciated your role in this whole conversation, even when I thought you were being too easy on yourself or otherwise off-base.

Matoko said...

Freddie, my Vamphyre in the House analogy is sound.
Pomo conservatism is just an attempt to live with vamphyres.
Palin is not a cancer, but the catalyst for the mental meltdown of the GOP, which was already schizophrenic from years of attempting to reconcile two antipathic positions--libertarianism and judeoxian mores and ethics.
The two are simply incompatible.
So all this talk of teamspirit and defectors, authority, tradition, all the twisting yourselves into intellectual pretzels is just a desperate attempt to rationalize staying in the house.
My advice?
If you can't get it back....and it doesn't seem to me that you have the intellectual courage to do that...then burn it down.

Matoko said...

my bad.
the house is is already on fire.

Will Wilkinson said...

Great post Freddie! Really really stimulating.

I think the nut of my disagreement with you is this:

"As you know, I'm an atheist who can't stand conventional atheism. And it's for this reason: only God can rescue human life from meaninglessness, if not me, if not the ego and the I. Atheists love to say that most religious people actually think like atheists. I think most atheists think like the religious, because they have not yet begun to imagine the wasteland of meaning that the death of God has left us in."

This last sentence sounds like noise to my ears. You sound to me profoundly bound up in the schema of the religious. If meaning, then God. If no God, then no meaning.

Rejecting this false choice strikes me as the essence of a mature non-religious worldview. God never had anything special to do with meaning. Religion was ALWAYS one of many more or less satisfying focal points for community, was always a more or less satisfying set of consumption opportunities. What has been lost, as you articulate very well, is the possibility of seeing these communities and consumption choices as NECESSARY or NONOPTIONAL in some sense. The issue isn't the death of God, it's our aliveness to the contingency of our choices. I'm very much an existentialist, too, in that sense.

Capital "M" Meaning is overrated. It is something you worry about if you are lonely or uncertain about what to do with yourself. An old professor of mine, Ray Martin, once wrote a great essay (I wish I could find it) called "A Good Woman and a Fast Car" arguing that if you're simply engaged with life, enjoying yourself, questions of "meaning" simply don't come up. The search for meaning is a symptom of something having gone wrong. Whatever is wrong is not made right by finding the really truly permanently transcendent noncontingent meaningful thing, because there isn't such a thing. Whatever is wrong is made right by simply forgetting about it as you cruise down the highway with the person you love. People who rag on loves and friendships of affinity and choice, and the pleasures of the things and experiences money can buy, constantly make the mistake of assuming that there is a better alternative. An ironist PoMoCon (Poulos?) make quaint consumption choices and know it. A divided PoMoCon makes quaint consumption choices and then desperately attempts to self-induce amnesia about having made them.

Anonymous said...

a conservative who should know better? you're aware, right, that conservatives tend to be happier? (religion and greater indifference to wealth inequality, among other things stereotypically associated with conservatives tend to make people happier.) so the person who chooses faith is making the right choice. and those who think you can't just choose things really haven't tried very hard. (that's the problem with lots of deep thinkers -- they seem not to realize you can just up and move somewhere sunny, get out of the house, and you'll likely be happier even if you still can't refute the demon or whatever other philosophical problem has you so down (and you'll be shocked to find it just isn't troubling).)

bcg said...

Coming back and reading my comment, I think it could be misread as saying Freddie's post is amateurish, which is NOT what I was saying - I prefacing my own comment because of how good Freddie's was. Maybe everyone understood what I had meant, maybe not, but when I read it now it's ambiguous. So I just wanted to clarify.

An Onyx Mousse said...

I love that Anonymous (at 1:26 PM) and Will Wilkinson (at 1:18 PM) both prescribe basically the same approach - get on with your life, already! Don't sweat the meaning! -from opposite philosophical viewpoints.

I think this strange agreement may actually get at the nut of Freddie's appreciation of Simone de Beauvoir, and his disagreement with Helen Rittelmeyer. In Freddie's mind, neither one takes her philosophical choices to their ultimate conclusions. But that's not a bad thing in either case.

What I think a lot of people outside of "traditionalism" miss, including Will and Freddie, is that, for the person who makes it, the choice of traditionalism seems truly aesthetically superior to the other "consumption choices" on the menu, to borrow Will's phrase. The choice feels compelling, in the same way that the choice between Michaelangelo's David and a pile of bricks isn't really a choice at all. I understand that the root of the argument is that not everyone agrees that the thing before us is really beautiful, it might just a strangely shaped rock.

If choosing beauty is ultimately inconsistent with foundationalism, so sue me... If you can love Simone de Beavoir, because she is humane in the face of everything, you can come to love a beautiful tradition, for the same reason.

Anonymous said...

Will Wilkinson and his professor ("Whatever is wrong is made right by simply forgetting about it as you cruise down the highway with the person you love") should read some Pascal. The fact that we stop thinking about capital-M meaning when we are diverted doesn't make Meaning unimportant; if anything it shows its importance. Let the great man speak:

165. If our condition were truly happy, we would not need diversion from thinking of it in order to make ourselves happy.

171. The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries.

- Joe Magarac

bcg said...

Joe - wouldn't it would make sense that we're programmed to get off our asses and get busy, and that not having a) friends and b) something to do would make us unhappy?

ben said...

I followed a link here from Megan McCardle.

I enjoy wha you have said here, but I think you are being too hard on Karras. I went to read the post you linked to and what I think she has arrived at is some form of traditionalism as natural religion, sort of a western confucianism. I suspect that God, who is hiding in the background of her life will soon make more of an appearance. College is a time of change.

I sympathize with your predicament. My existential crisis resolved itself in roman catholicism.

I do not believe that rue compassion is at home in atheism. Certainly the atheist can empathize with the suffering of others, but the suffering of the ohter is necessarily as rootless and meaningless as your own is it not? Ultimately, the consistne atheist will become a nietzschean of one form or another. The eternal recurrence must be faced. It is either overcome through contempt, like nietzsche, or remains a crisis avoided through some form of diversion.

Contempt, even as it manifests as a will to power, is a form of dispair.

God will throw you a life-line. Look for it.

Thrasymachus said...

I'm not quite following all this, but who said traditionalist and religious = conservative? The traditionalists I grew up around were all New Deal to McGovern liberals. The traditionalism was the mean, stupid superstition of the Catholic working class. Another big kind of religious traditionalism in America is the pacifist Protestantism of the northern tier, also very liberal. "Conservatism" in the US is really classical liberalism or libertarianism. An American conservative would much rather rely on his gun to set things right than God.

Michael W said...

Thank you Freddie. Only in middle age did I admit to myself that "I" am the only one which can define my existence and from that day forward I understood how religion, society, friends, family, and work were all competing to define the purpose and worth of my existence. From that day forward my choice of friends, relationships, work, and all the more mundane facets of existence became extensions of me. My friendships are deeper, my relationships more lasting and my actions have more meaning. I suddenly also, counter-intuitively, became more compassionate and aware of the suffering of those who recognized the need to also take control of their lives but could not for all the myriad reasons you've pointed out in your writings. There was nothing glorious in suffering and religion provided no meaning to the suffering. To be self-aware and compassionate are my weapons against foundationalists and anyone else that insists I must know some 'truth' in order to be accepted.

brooksfoe said...

I think the basic problem here, Freddie, remains your willingness to cede to the conservative postmodernists the identification of the 1950s as the locus of tradition and the self-sufficiency of meaning. That's ridiculous. People who lived in the '50s didn't see that world that way. It appears so in retrospect as recreated in a TV show like "Mad Men" because the worlds created inside TV shows always have self-sufficiency of meaning; all fictional realities do, none more so than the self-proclaimedly meaningless universe of "Seinfeld".

To those who lived through the '50s it was a world of profound destabilization of the locus of identity by advertising, mass media and politics. Traditional community was being annihilated by its suburban simulacrum. It was the world of "The Lonely Crowd". God, if not dead in Nietzsche's 1880s, was most certainly dead after Auschwitz. We have inherited an artificially complete and "meaningful, traditional" vision of the '50s because of the power of the version of history bequeathed by the large and immensely energetic '60s and '70s generation, for whom the '50s was childhood. And childhood is always self-sufficient in meaning.

But let's generalize. The self-conscious turn towards tradition which Karras and Dreher make errs in that it conceives of a complete, lost world of "traditionalness". That world never existed. But what has always existed is tradition, the body of cultural accretions and threads which links a community (intellectual, religious, national, cultural, local, political, whatever) to its past. And that is always something one can consciously turn towards, without hypocrisy. For a Jew like myself, I know that it is never wrong to believe that I can turn towards a millennia-old body of tradition to connect myself with the lived experience of people with whom I share the very thread of that history. I must not imagine that the world of the shtetl was some kind of hermetic essential monad of Yiddishkeit, forever sundered by emigration the the US. But the shtetl is a route through which an aspect of the human experience has been passed down (all the way from the walled villages of Canaan and further), and I am in part formed by that tradition and can get a lot out of a turn towards it. And everyone, every competent speaker of a language, is formed by some kind of traditions. To turn back towards those traditions is always at least an attempt to understand where you come from and to engage with the roots of your own set of values and connections. Which is great, and does not require any mourning of lost innocent worlds of traditionality, or despair about the absence of belief in God depriving the world of meaning. If you are reading this sentence and understanding it, then the world is not bereft of meaning.

Anonymous said...

I am an athiest "conservative", although I wonder if part of the problem here is defining "conservative".

If you take the empirical view that evolution is (usually) better than revolution, that the state cannot save the individual from himself, and that strong families, private property and the rule of law are the bedrock of successful and resilient societies, you are drawn to many "conservative" political positions.

You do not need to believe in God to think that experience shows us -- broadly -- what works and doesn't work in terms of overall human happiness and success.

Frankly, my problem with introducing God into the picture is that the proponents usually take the argument too far, and start to insist that the state should be promoting or protecting religious doctrine -- or that relgious doctrine tells us what choices to make at a national level on issues like abortion or stem-cell research.

I am prepared to tolerate religion and even acknowledge its benefits for individuals and communities. But I don't think it's the foundation of political or economic thought.

Casey said...

Wow. This is one of the most interesting blog-posts I've ever read, and I've read too many. I can't remember how I stumbled here (it involved an email from a friend recommending a blog that linked to yours, or something like that).

And I apologize for not reading your previous posts, where, it's very likely, you address this question -- but because I so sincerely sympathize with your description of your discomfort with conventional atheism, because I have absolutely "been there," I want to ask:

What is it you think you don't believe in when you say you don't believe in G-d? Or, in other words, what do you think people who do believe in G-d believe in?

Does that question make sense? Does it (I hope not) seem like a "po-mo word game?"

Nicola Karras' autobiographical essay was a great discussion starter, in any case -- I think I'll compose my own over the next week or so. That may ultimately explain my reason for asking such a bizarre question.

You've gained a regular reader!

Anonymous said...

"I am struck by a narrative of existential loss and directionlessness that can declare "[m]y burning hatred for both major Presidential candidates." Really? The depth of this loss, the pain of this chaos of meaning, and you can feel burning hatred for anyone? If the death of the concrete and the real give us anything, by god, let them give us compassion. I may be a cruel, inarticulate, preachy and hypocritical leftist nag, but after staring into the same abyss Karras has stared into I swear I will keep a kernel of compassion for every other human, as they all ultimately face the same thing. For all of our failings, we existentialists have an understanding that comes from really believing in the human animal lost at sea."

Let us remind ourselves of this, today, and again tomorrow.

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