Tuesday, January 13, 2009

History 112: Who are these Folks? (How Religious People are Part of the Modern Narrative) Part I

Intro: Prop 8: the Musical

Forgive me if today’s lecture veers off into modern politics. I justify it to myself, one, because I hope it will illustrate how the concepts we are discussing are relevant to how we understand the world around us today. Two, I am not taking any sides in regards to the issues of our day. So I hope I will not cause anyone offense.

One of the major forces in the popular understanding of the medieval and early modern periods is the Whig narrative. One of the weaknesses of the Whig narrative is that it relies on loaded terminology. For example the word fanatic; what does it mean to call someone a fanatic? In practice a fanatic is simply someone who has strongly held beliefs that the speaker does not approve of. It is simply a means to knock off ideas without seriously engaging them. To understand someone you need to understand them as they understand themselves. This does not mean that you agree with them. No one thinks of himself as a fanatic or as a bigot. The people who supported Proposition 8 do not see themselves as motivated by hate. So calling them haters does not get us anywhere. It is simply an act of prejudice on our part. This does not means that the supporters of Proposition 8 are right. You can be wrong and still not be a hater or a bigot. Using such terms tells us nothing about the people in question; it is simply us sticking our own values and judging them. Words like fanatic should be viewed as dirty curse words to be crossed out. Another major problem, and what we will be focusing one here, is that the Whig narrative underplays religion in history. When religion is discussed it is dealt with in simplistic and fairly derogatory terms. This has practical implications as we are left with a culture that underplays religion both as a historical phenomenon and in terms of how it plays out within the context of modern politics.

Last time I mentioned my Jewish fundamentalist relatives. The common term used for such people in the general media is ultra Orthodox. Ultra orthodox is a problematic term because it implies fanatic. In contrast the word Haredi, from the Hebrew word meaning to be fearful, is a far more useful term. It is a term they use and it describes how they see themselves. They do not view themselves as bigoted fanatics trying to bring back the Dark Ages; they see themselves as people who fear God and strive to do his will. I am willing to use the word “fundamentalist” as well, in a very narrow sense, despite the fact that it is often used as a pejorative, For me fundamentalist simply refers to the ideological position that takes a set of doctrine as the foundation of thought and argues that therefore these doctrines are by definition unchallengeable by science, scholarship or any other form of human wisdom. For example the Bible or the Koran; if the Bible or the Koran is the word of God than it cannot be challenged by human reason. Let us say there is a contradiction say with science than science is automatically wrong. I am not here to criticize such a position; it is a position that is coherent in its own terms.

Where do my relatives fit in terms of modernity? I would contend that they are not outside of it, but are in fact part and parcel of the modern story. What do I mean by this; wouldn’t these people have been better off say in 1950s America when there was more “family values,” before the rise of feminism and the gay rights movement? As counterintuitive as this might seem to you, 1950s America and early 20th century America as a whole was an absolutely toxic environment for Haredi Jews. You were up against a WASP dominated culture. Everyone, even blacks, wanted to be white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. This was not a culture where one could afford to swim against the current. Come the 1960s and multiculturalism and all of this changes. WASP hegemony had fallen in the wreckage of segregation. There was no longer just that one model of America that everyone aspired to; now there are many Americas. As a friend of mine once said: “free to be you and me means free to be Haredi.” Liberal multiculturalism means that everyone, even those who would seem to be as far as possible from liberal multiculturalism can now stand back and thumb their noses at the general culture with impunity. Furthermore, the 1960s produced the welfare state. While, when we think of beneficiaries of government programs, we are used to thinking of single mothers and racial minorities, Haredi Jews have also benefited. Government aid has served to effectively bankroll them as they have created their own alternative society in opposition to the general culture.

If you are interested in reading further about this issue of fundamentalism I would recommend Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. She talks about religious fundamentalism in its various forms, Jewish, Christian and Islamic and places them within the context of the modern narrative. For Armstrong, religious fundamentalists do not stand outside of modernity but are active products of it in the same way that secularists are.

(To be continued …)

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