Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Evolution of a Post-Secular State

In my random journeys through the World Wide Web, I just ran into a discussion by the Washington Post of liberal attitudes towards evolution in the current election. Specifically, the commentator was registering a certain dismay and disappointment at the way Democratic platforms have downplayed evolution - hoping that a combination of "education" and "science" will give their supporters the right idea while offending as few religious radicals as possible. This is similar to the irritatingly tentative way the liberal candidates have of approaching abortion issues - refusing to take a strong position, and emphasizing their respect for alternative belief systems and absolute moralities. Republicans, on the other hand, are not so shy about either issue - they cater to a demographic firm in its convictions, and willing to state unequivocally the difference between right and wrong.

To liberals, this begs one simple question: How did this happen?

The answer is not nearly so simple, to liberals or conservatives. From a very early age, we're raised in a mainstream culture brimming with 20th-century Postmodernism. "Liberal" thinking, we're taught, refers not to a set of conclusions about the world but to a way of reaching conclusions - a value system wherein two opposing views are given equal validity, and even the most foolish of notions is prized for the discussion it engenders. That's why when a good liberal says they're "pro-choice," they really mean it - pro-choice, and not necessarily pro-abortion. In fact, I know a substantial number of liberals who say they're against abortion personally - but are zealous advocates of the woman's right to choose. They argue for a right they hope nobody ever exercises.

The extent to which this brand of liberalism is born from secular moral relativism would surprise many Americans raised in the Post-Enlightenment world. This is because members of the secular community don't really get religion, even those who claim to believe in it. They see religious tolerance as the norm, secular government as an unquestioned political axiom, and faith as explicitly opposed to rational thought. They see religion as just one facet of a well-rounded life - to them, all extra-normal ideas can be corralled into a box labeled "Religious Beliefs" and set aside from politics, science and medicine.

They would probably be offended to be told that really religious people don't think that way - and never have, at more or less any other point recorded history. The truly religious see faith as a canopy over all aspects of human life - to say something is or is not "religious" would make no sense to the genuinely faithful. They believe in God the way we believe in gravity - absolutely, unbendingly, willing to live their lives as though a man who steps off the cliff will fall. I don't need to stick my hand in a circular saw to know it will be cut, and would see any claim to the contrary as mere semantic nonsense. That's the way they believe in God.

The problem is that if you believe in God that much, you're likely to take his instructions fairly seriously - so seriously, in fact, that it's hard to acknowledge any other authority whatsoever. After all, you've been given a user's manual to all Creation by the guy who made it so - what more could you possibly ask for? How could you care about medicine when you know it's God's will who lives or dies? How could you believe in evolution when you know it was God's word that brought us here? How could you allow behavior when you know it's immoral - and even worse, that immoral behavior by a select few could doom all of humanity?

That's the position of religious fundamentalists the world over, and especially the position of American Evangelicals - or Bible Believers, as they call themselves. A large majority of the Republican demographic see the Bible as divinely inspired law - cover to cover, word for word, no contradictions, no confusion. That this belief system strikes most liberals (or even socially conservative secularists) as totally nonsensical is just as totally irrelevant - the Believers relish the outcry from scientists, savor the scorn of liberals, and live for the stings and arrows of religious persecution.

Liberals would say the Believers are perpetrators of religious persecution, not victims - and this is, indeed, a very defensible position shared by the author. Again, however, this is because we are products of Enlightenment secularism - as well we should be, given that our nation's very existence is among the greatest expressions of that ideology. The very basis of democratic government is also the very basis of Postmodernism: that no one individual has unfettered access to the truth, and the closest one can come to it is a synthesis of multiple truths. Democracy is the admission that right and wrong do not exist in a way we can access, and any attempt to force one man's beliefs on another is tyranny. Not all believers in democracy would describe it that way, but take another look: if one man knew both right and wrong, and we could tell who that man was, why would it make sense to put anybody else in charge?

A little less than half of this country has considered that question and arrived at the logical answer: it wouldn't. They have the man: his name is Jesus. They have his opinions: they're in the Bible. They have the consequences of transgression: hellfire, damnation, Sodom and Gomorrah. If America permits wrongdoing - abortion, homosexuality, managed economy - God will make sure we all go the way of the dinosaurs.

See how quickly their view makes sense if you accept their most basic premises? See how quickly secular tolerance becomes ridiculous in the face of moral absolutes? See how quickly one must admit uncertainty and adhere to subjectivism in order to justify any measure of true religious (or even moral) tolerance?

Conservatives see this, and liberals don't, and that's why they can't stand us. We sit up there and waver back and forth, arguing less about what we believe and more about the nature of belief. Conservatism is about right and wrong, truth and falsehood; liberalism is about which wrongs, if any, the government is empowered to right - which falsehoods, if any, the government is able to correct.

That's why we say pro-choice and they hear pro-death; we say pro-science and they hear pro-evolution. They live in a world where black opposes white, abortion is murder, and belief carries the weight of fact - or even law. Ours, by contrast, is a gray and shifting planet. We say pro-choice instead of pro-death because we're not sure when life begins; we say pro-science instead of pro-evolution because sciences are known to overturn themselves from time to time. Our beliefs aren't just uncertain, they're beliefs about uncertainty.

Film, literature, and academia have all been comfortable with this situation for so long that most people take it for granted; take, for example, Jack Cafferty, a liberal commentator for CNN. Recent events at Saddleback prompted him to call McCain "intellectually shallow" for sounding off so confidently about the nature of faith, when "Great scholars have wrestled with the meaning of faith for centuries." Everyone knows moral questions are hard, maybe impossible, right? Simplistic one-liners are a mark of stupidity, right?

Not for a Bible Believer, as McCain seems to know quite well. When you think even children know the truth - the whole truth, every important bit of it - the stupid man is the man who won't say it; the man who dances around, who acts like it's tough when it's the easiest question in the world. Didn't he read the stuff? Wasn't he listening?

He wasn't, and if you think America's fine with that then you don't know America. Not right now. The right wing isn't just religious, it's anti-secular; it's not that they missed the Enlightenment, it's that they rejected it. They want to make America a post-secular state, and we're closer than you might suspect to letting them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Straight Marriage Must Be Abolished

The gay marriage debate is one of many, many areas in which liberals have misunderstood the argument they're supposed to be making. The mere mention of gay marriage tends to send liberals into rhapsodic tales of "two people whose love the government refused to acknowledge, simply because their sexuality deviated from the norm." I can understand what you're doing there, but the fact is that two people's love is irrelevant. Much more relevant, from a legal and traditional standpoint, is whether they are capable of engaging in intercourse and procreation.

Don't think the marriage laws reflect this view? I'd urge you to take another look. An unconsummated marriage remains one of the only grounds for annulment in the United States today; to many citizens of your country, a marriage is an explicit agreement to have heterosexual intercourse for the purpose of reproduction. Keep in mind the definition of annulment: the marriage is not ending, it is considered to have never existed. No sex, no marriage: a childless couple are either victims of ill fortune, or perpetrators of a good-faith violation.

This seems like a totally ridiculous view to most secular liberals, who see marriage as a public expression of love. It's understandable, however, for many religious people and social conservatives (I'll do the former group the courtesy of not assuming they all belong to the latter) to assume certain things about marriage as a result of its history. We are, after all, probably in the first age of the world wherein secular life is even possible: separation of church and state was not a huge concern for premodern governments, most of whom had an implicit or explicit state religion. Whether marriage was a religious ceremony or not (and let's not forget - it almost always was), it existed within the social and cultural framework of religious life. Put simply: the word "marriage" has more cultural/religious connotations than secular, and liberals who think otherwise are kidding themselves.

The problem, of course, is that liberals almost all think otherwise. I recently watched an episode of "The Daily Show" where one of the correspondents was grilling an RNC delegate about gay marriage. "Gays already have the right to marry," he said calmly, "so long as they marry a person of the opposite gender." The audience laughed, jeered; how cruel the Republicans are. You have the right to do whatever you want, they say, as long as you do it our way.

Except they don't think it's their way; they think it's the only way, and there is absolutely no precedent for seeing it otherwise. What does it matter that you wouldn't enjoy exercising your right to a straight marriage? You have the right to set yourself on fire, and nobody thinks that's much fun. Almost never in history has marriage had anything explicit to do with celebrating love - in most premodern cultures, marriage for love was considered socially irresponsible and possibly immoral. Marriage is a cultural institution designed to legitimize procreation and divide family units according to social norms. Our social norms are religious, even the seemingly secular ones. Deal with it.

Deal with it how, you ask? Well, that depends on if you really want separation of church and state - don't forget, by no means has the nation agreed on that particular principle. If you do, however, there's only one way to eliminate all the confusion: get rid of civil marriage altogether. Stop allowing the government to legitimize a religious ceremony; divorce civil from religious union, and eliminate the legal basis for discrimination. The notion that the nuclear family is the basic unit of society became outdated decades ago; if you agree, fight to spread a new one.

Because, of course, we haven't; liberals have not fought to spread the notion that single parents, and adoptive parents, and gay parents are legitimate members of society. As usual, we have looked around us, seen nothing but other hippie progressives like ourselves, and concluded that the world has moved on - except for a tiny, yet puzzlingly influential group of Mean Little Men.

They're not tiny, their influence should not be puzzling, and they aren't all trying to be mean. History is not on your side; logic is. Stick with that.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Complaints and Grievances: Sympathy for the Superman

Thanks to www.cracked.com, I've just recently been exposed to Elaine Radford's essay on the parallels between Ender Wiggin, protagonist of Ender's Game, and Adolf Hitler. The author makes a number of solid points, and the comparison is certainly food for thought; nevertheless, I felt that both Radford and the critic to whom she links, John Kessel, misrepresent a couple of details in the book to belabor their points about the iniquity of Card's morality. This would offend me considerably less were it not for Radford's reply to her readers' most common protest. When asked why it must be true that Card drew the Hitler comparison intentionally - why the book cannot just be science fiction, with nothing but innocent coincidence to tie in the Fuhrer - Radford replies that she has done Card the courtesy of assuming he's not an idiot. It follows, then, that she feels her evidence so complete - her argument so convincing - that Card must really have been a moron to miss it. The book must be read the way she has read it, and if it was not meant to be so, the author is grossly incompetent.

I'm far from thinking things are so clear-cut as all that, and at risk of defending Card - whose long-standing views on gay marriage have served to expose serious problems with his morality - I feel obligated to temper criticism of Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead along these lines. I'm not much of an internet detective, and so have not been able to track down Card's rebuttal to Radford's original essay - if (as I have regrettably little reason to doubt) she is representing it more or less accurately in her own retrospective, he acquitted himself poorly and may not deserve my assistance at all. I firmly believe, however, that one can read these texts more innocently than Radford and Kessel have, and arrive at a more positive moral conclusion.

My complaints have much more to do with Radford's essay than Kessel's, and so I'll begin with the Hitler comparison that Radford feels she has drawn so conclusively. The problems with her analysis of the books begin right away, in "The Formative Years" - wherein she labels Ender's relationship with Valentine as "quasi-incestuous" and notes that "Card makes us wait until well into the second novel before he tells us that Ender hasn't consummated his love for Valentine." This is a particularly misleading piece of writing, intended to make us assume that Ender - like Hitler - consciously attempted to commit incest and was later revealed not to have been successful. In truth, if Card waits until the second book to make this fact explicit it is because there has never been the slightest reason to assume it - "quasi-incestuous" is about the strongest phrasing one could reasonably use, and I've never met a single reader who believed at any point in the reading that Ender and Valentine's relationship was sexual. It is perhaps closer than one might expect, but it's difficult to fault Ender for that - given his difficulty believing that anyone else in the universe understands him.

Likewise, "Ender's chastity until his marriage at the age of 37" is not puzzling - not at all, to anyone really familiar with the book. By the time of the events in Speaker for the Dead, Ender's life for two decades has been private and nomadic, with no more than a couple of years spent on each individual planet. Through relativistic faster-than-light travel, he has passed about three thousand years in this fashion, and any prospective mates would have to be willing to travel the universe with him, forsaking all other serious human relationships - as would any children of the union. The necessary state of secrecy in which Ender lives precludes any serious intimacy - not to mention that there may simply be some Christian disdain for premarital sex at work here. A marriage has not at any point in Ender's life been a serious possibility, and any premarital relations would pose problems both for the logic and the story and for Card's Mormonism (which is not the topic of our current discussion). No puzzle whatsoever.

It also seems premature to leap to Hitler's life again when Ender's choice of wife presents a mystery. First of all, allow me to say here that I hate Novinha - I find her a repulsive, frustrating character and deeply regretted Ender's love for her. With that said, I'm not sure it's my place to fault Card's writing just because I question Ender's taste in women. In fact, I'm forced to conclude that their compatibility makes a certain amount of sense - Novinha's self-destructiveness, after all, comes from immense guilt. Nobody understands the lengths to which people will go to erase guilt better than Ender.

Further problematizing the accusations of misogyny is Radford's misreading of the Marcao eulogy. First of all, in the full text of Ender's speech, it is clear that it's not the Victim that is to blame for Marcao's psychology - it is the entire community, which has treated him like an animal. Second of all, the intention of Speaking for the Dead is not to demand forgiveness for their actions - it is to demand sympathy for their motives, and to demonstrate that all people are understandable to themselves. Given a strong enough voice, Card argues, even the worst offenders could explain their actions in a way that would give us pause. Not forgive, not justify - explain.

This, indeed, is my primary criticism of Kessel's essay, which I nevertheless consider by far the stronger of the two. Indeed, Kessel's description of the book's probable appeal to adolescents strikes me as largely accurate - it was certainly my reaction to first reading Ender's Game in seventh grade, and the reaction of many of my peers. There are, however, two reasons that the situation may not be as dire as Kessel claims.

The first reason is that, while they may certainly idolize Ender, few if any adolescents are going to confuse his reality with their own. The intelligent, introspective people that make up much of sci-fi fandom are unlikely to conclude that their situation is the same as Ender's - Ender lives in a world where adults undoubtedly abuse him, his peers unquestionably want to kill him, and his actions have certainly been obfuscated, their true ramifications unknown until they are irreversible. While this may, as Kessel points out, be stacking the moral deck unfairly in Ender's favor, that very fact renders the book Mostly Harmless - its world is too far removed from our own, even if its psychology is not. Children may all want to be Messianic Supermen in Battle School, but few seriously believe themselves to be.

(Aside: this may undermine my earlier point, but the deck is also not stacked quite as radically as Kessel thinks. For example, writing about Ender's fight with Bonzo Madrid, Kessel argues that "Ender’s enemies don’t care about the human race, all they want is their own revenge." In fact, the passage he describes is much clearer in context: Ender's enemies do not want to believe he is the savior of the human race. They are not merciless demons bent on world destruction; they are blinded by envy.)

The second reason is that, as stated above, I feel the same texts can be read in a more mature light by reasonable adults (and young adults, many of whom in my personal acquaintance have successfully reached an insightful stage of moral development). Taken together, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead make a convincing case for the internal logic of human morality: that all people think they are right, and you would too if you were them. The Speaker's role, in Ender's universe, is not to exonerate evildoers - it is to present morality as a truth about which there can be many perspectives, each with its own validity if properly understood. Note that Ender's penance, after he commits genocide, is not to write in his own defense - it is to write in defense of the Buggers and Peter, to make human beings out of both his faceless enemies and his greatest tormentor. It is to prevent human beings from practicing unconditional hatred against anyone, no matter how seemingly vile. The two books, taken together, represent Ender's eulogy - written, in a sense, by his Speaker for the Dead.

The notion that human motive can have no bearing on absolute morality may well be the correct premise on which to base an ethical or legal system - it is, however, nothing with which the majority of human beings can sympathize, and the broadness of Card's appeal may well lie in the tolerance and empathy these books preach. Whether Card himself is tolerant or empathetic is a discussion for another day; the interpretation I have outlined here is possible either way, and is shared by a majority of readers in my acquaintance. The bottom line: all human beings believe their actions are correct, and could tell you why. That this applies to those we hate as well as to those we revere is no reason to discount its clear validity.