Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cross Purposes

I wasn't aware of this freaky asshole until just the other day, and right away you wish you didn't know about him. It's at least some consolation that his small congregation has lost more than 80% since 2007, so it's more like a black Westboro, an insular claque run by a closet-case nutjob and supported by family members and assorted dead-enders. The story and dynamic of James Manning and his silly circus draw some interesting parallels (at least to me) about cultural norms and expectations, and our responses to religiously inspired bouts of lunacy.

No doubt you are aware of the recent kerfuffle involving Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, and UC Berkeley. Maher had been invited to speak at Berkeley's December commencement, but was disinvited after he and Affleck (along with professional atheist author/provocateur Sam Harris) got into a shouting match over Islam on Maher's HBO show. The issue was that Maher had defamed Islam with his comments, which were certainly strident to say the least, and he got called out on it yet again just last week with Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal.

(Gratuitous sexist editorial note:  Rula Jebreal is smokin' hot, and really sharp, which of course just makes her hotter. I don't agree with every single thing she says, but good grief, she's beautiful. Even if she is married to a Goldman Sachs heir.)

It takes some unpacking, and perhaps some extra attention -- along with the acknowledgement that Maher, in his bluster, is broad-brushing a bit with his portrayals of Islamic fanatics -- but the fact is that the core of Maher's contention is correct:  Liberals (meaning Western liberals, Americans and Europeans) don't do a very good job of acknowledging and decrying not just the video atrocities of the fanatics, but of the day-to-day oppression people endure under putatively Islamic regimes.

One thing I think Westerners don't quite get about Islamic societies is how interwoven religion and culture are. The most-cited "big distinctions" between Christianity and Islam are that Islam has not had a Reformation or Enlightenment type of large-scale adjustment, nor does it have a centralized authority or hierarchy. On the one hand, that latter factor allows for more dissenting voices; on the other, it makes it tougher to crack down on the violent wingnuts that spring up. But the church-state separation that we take for granted -- even if it is with a wink and a nod in the south -- is practically non-existent in the belt of Islamic countries.

Stretching west to east from Morocco to Indonesia, it's not exactly a continuum or spectrum, but at least in those two bookend countries one finds a more secularized, even liberalized (compared to some of the more infamous countries in between) co-existence of religion and government. Even poor Tunisia recently had a step in the right direction, and Jordan has long been a bastion of moderation in a sea of fanaticism. And it's not as if the greed for oil in the west hasn't played a huge part in stoking said fanaticism. There are no clean hands here.

But liberals, whatever their ecumenical aspirations, need to more forcefully acknowledge that they would not want to be female in most of these countries, would not want to be gay in these places. The things they complain about the most when it comes to American Christian goofballs -- which, while annoyingly routine, are not quite normative -- are commonplace and worse in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan. Your average Duggar-smacking limo-lib would not last two weeks in Yemen, or any country whose official name begins with "The Islamic Republic of". Bokay? That's just how it is, and false pieties about cultural imperialism and such like don't change that fact.

Either you believe that women should be allowed to drive, or not have the shit beaten out of them for going to the store alone, or not be buried up to their waists and have rocks thrown at them until they die for "adultery," or that homosexuals shouldn't be hung by cables from cranes, or you don't believe those things. Or hell, just that women need to spend their entire adult lives sweltering in a fucking beekeeper suit, because it's the seventh century or something. That's the stuff that goes on and on, every goddamned day, whether it gets reported in the corporate media or not.

I refuse to acknowledge the feasibility of societies that repress their people in such ways for such picayune things. I'm not gonna pretend that it's not bullshit, that more generations of the people who live in those countries need to just wait it out, and hope that their great-great-grandchildren won't be butchered for throwing away a Qu'ran or teaching girls to read. If we call bullshit on our homegrown loons, we have to do the same with those abroad.

Don't get me wrong. I do not in any way wish to impose western values and mores upon any of these societies, beyond the universally obvious ones of basic human rights. Western societies certainly have their flaws to answer for, but violent over-reaction to nonsense is not one of them. We do not riot and kill people for writing books, not even shitty books. (I don't mean that The Satanic Verses is shitty, I mean that we have an overabundance of crap in general.)

As far as I'm concerned -- and I believe that Maher has made himself clear that this is where he's coming from on this -- is that to the extent one needs to voice their support or disapproval of various comings and goings and deeds of seven billion fools heading in almost as many directions, there should be some consistency as to what sort of things (that is, actions) one disapproves of or supports. Again, soon as you start parsing whether it's "one of ours" doing something awful as opposed to "them," you've lost the thread. It's the action that's horrible; frequently it's the person committing the deed as well, but the focus should be on the deed itself. The world never runs short of morons and assholes doing and saying stupid things, change the things and you hopefully change the people doing them. Eyes on the ball, son.

Nor would I advocate for a complete abolition of religion. Sure, there are countless examples of it poisoning the proverbial well, substituting for critical thought and motivating violent action. But there are just as many examples of it providing comfort and solace to the desperate and hopeless. The religion itself -- whether Islam, Christianity, Scientology, whatever -- is not the problem, the problem is absolutism, the problem is seriously thinking that violence is the best solution to transgressing that absolutism.

To be sure, I have given the cafeteria believers a hard time, but certainly a more syncretic belief system, however much "outside" the club rules, is preferable to the lunacy that pervades the Wahhabist strains of what was once a scientifically and intellectually innovative system of thought. And as Jebreal points out in the Salon interview, liberal Americans who support Israel (and I'd count myself in that group) also need to be critical of Zionist actions that oppress Palestinian lives heedlessly and needlessly. It is what it is, as the kids are fond of saying, but the corollary is that it usually doesn't have to be the way it is.

The truth is that the most virulent adherents of all three Abrahamic religions routinely excuse or ignore their transgressions and vicissitudes, and even their more moderate co-religionists will squint and wince rather than protest. So it is with any belief system, or more precisely, any power bloc. Because that's really all any religion is.

Which brings us back to "Pastor" Manning, and more specifically the anti-gay tirades that his church and other black churches have indulged in over the years, and encouraged their congregants to vote on. Considering that much of the anti-gay-marriage rhetoric in general has echoed the arguments fifty years ago against blacks and whites marrying, it would seem that black organizations and black individuals have perhaps an emphasized responsibility to speak out forcefully against such discrimination. And to their credit, the NAACP, other black organizations and politicians, and individuals black Americans have said exactly that.

But you're never going to get 100%, for a variety of reasons, just as you're never going to get 100% of Muslims around the world protesting the actions of ISIS, or the Saudis, or the Iranian mullahs, or whoever. They have lives to live, and sometimes the best they can do is just to stay out of it, and at least not even tacitly endorse it.

And the more we drone-bomb "terrorist" areas, without troubling ourselves much to ensure that everyone -- or even anyone -- hit by the strike is actually a threat to us or anyone else, the more we radicalize the Muslims in the area who are already on the fence, and the more we risk alienating the moderate Muslims who live and work in western countries.

But people of whatever race, religion, sexuality, etc., who profess to uphold liberal ideals of basic human rights and social justice, have a principled obligation to decry all of those things. Is it racially or culturally "insensitive" to insist that human beings should be treated well and as equally as possible, that treating women like farm animals and using gays as scapegoats is unnecessary and regressive? So be it.

As for the campus groups that tried to remove Maher, and have removed speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they need to keep in mind that freedom of speech is also a putatively liberal ideal, and that it is only important when it protects people we might not agree with. Intelligent adults should be able to hear things they don't agree with and take them into consideration, weigh them against their already-held principles. Only children and demagogues need to hear the soothing amen choir every single time.

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