Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Face of Modern Hatred in the US

While waiting at O'Hare recently, I made the mistake of walking into a bookstore to spend some time. (I don't have gold status with any frequent flyer program, since I fly so little, so I can't wait in a lounge.) I call it a mistake, because I'm almost incapable of walking into a bookstore without buying anything, but I usually promptly forgive myself for splurging on books with such a small budget, because the books I buy were very important. This time I walked out with Christian Fascists by Chris Hedges and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. Blink was very intresting (and explains why I am unable to explain consciously why I do not want to be alone with a co-worker, but feel very strongly about it), but Christian Fascists triggered some third-culture associations between America and European Neonazis. Hedges is what I think of as a "normal" Christian, the kind that one can have as a neighbor without further complications. The kind I have no problem with. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and actually recieved his first warning against religiously clad totalitarianism there, from a German professor who had seen the rise of National Socialism (funny how der Nationalsozialismus pops up in my head there, along with images of "NSDAP" spraypainted on walls) first-hand. Hedges is a moderate Christian who does (or at least attempts to) what Sam Harris says in The End of Faith is not possible: attack religious extremism from within.

Perhaps Harris writes from the point of view of someone who has lived in a place of mired in religious literalism and authoritarianism that imagining a culture where interpretation of religous texts is culturally mandatory. Harris is probably right in saying that religious moderates have taken values and ideas that are not strictly speaking religious when they interpret their religion. However, I think that in practice what matters is the cultural force of the value, not strictly speaking where it came from. However, here in the US, "primacy" of religious ideas is an idea with tremendous cultural force. Culturally speaking, trying to make an argument here for why literalism and conservatism (in the original, literal, general sense) are not good approaches to religion is as futile as trying to make an argument about the benefits of lowering taxes in Sweden. Forget it. You may find individuals who will admit, in private, that you at least have a point worth considering, and occasionally even someone who agrees. But public admission of such ideas is socially unwise, except in very select company. But swap the arguments between the two cultures - and you will instantly have broad support. Truth is socially - and therefore culturally - constructed. Harris's argument may well be functionally correct for the US, where a cultural change is probably necessary to allow religious moderates freedom of religion without also sanctifying religious extremism. It would have to become truth that literalism is incoherent, even from a religious point of view. This doesn't seem likely. But perhaps globally speaking, one can have faith without extremism, but only in cultures where truth limits religious fundamentalists from gaining legitimacy. Harris can certainly be forgiven for missing this; even I find it difficult to remember sometimes, in the middle of being flustered.

Anyway, back to the original subject. Hedges writes explicitly and clearly about a feeling I've had, and I believe a friend of mine also has had: that the American Christian Right feels a lot like the European Far Right. I get the same cold feeling from both. Of course, accusing people of being pseudo-members of the Far Right is very serious. Very serious indeed. I've dismissed it consciously, because they seem rather different in many ways. Fascism is part of Europe's past, and its past imagery and circumstances feel very different from the US. How can you say "Auslander raus!" when the country is built on immigration? How can you appeal to pastoral images of national dress and national music when there are none, at least none that are seen as such? These features of the US would even seem as guarantors of that fascism cannot rise here. But Hedges points out what should have been obvious: if fascism were to rise outside Europe, it would appeal to local traditions. He cites Robert Paxton (from Anatomy of Fascism): "[The language and symbols of an authentic American fasicsm] would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans, as Orwell suggested. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens. No swastikas in American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy."

Right in the beginning of the book, Hedges has a short text on Ur-Fascism by Umberto Eco. It's a simple list of what fascists have in common, with some explanations and examples. Here is the list.

1. Cult of tradition - truth has already been spelled out once and for all
2. Rejection of modernism and above all reason
3. Cult of action for action's sake - thinking is a form of emasculation
4. Disagreement is treason, because you have to think to disagree, and thinking falls under 3.
5. Exploits and exacerbates fear of difference - racism is built in
6. Derives from individual or social frustration
7. To those who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is to be born in the same country - nationalism + obsession with a plot against the country by people with insider/outsider status (Jews are the eternal favorite, but perhaps Arab-Americans could work?)
8. Followers feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies - but construe their "enemies" to be at once too strong and too weak
9. Life is lived for struggle - pacifism is trafficking with the enemy - life is permanent warfare
10. Popular elitism - every citizen belongs to the best people in the world
11. Everyone is educated to become a hero/martyr - the Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die, but in his (gendered pronoun intentional) impatience, he often sends others to die instead.
12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters - playing with weapons becomes a phallic ersatz exercise
13. Individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People are a monolithic entity with a Common Will.
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Hedges goes into deeper discussion of these points in the book, of course, but I recognize just about every one of these qualities in the American Christian (Far) Right. He argues that the movement is not yet revolutionary, but if a disaster happens to increase individual or social frunstration, it may cross the line to becoming so.

This list is like a vocalization of what about the Christian Far Right makes me feel so cold. It's the ideas that life is war, the prominence of guns, and fierce nationalism put together with soothing statements of that they are virtuous. God, guts and guns may appeal to many Americans, but that's exactly what makes that combination so potentially dangerous. I feel like I need defending from these people. And that may be why, much earlier in the Bush presidency, I had flashes of planning how to exit the US as quickly as possible if necessary. I've even felt better knowing that I am a foreign passport holder - if they try to stop me at the border, I have a better chance of making a stink about it than an American citizen. If the borders close, I have to be one of the few who make it out, one of the foreigners who ride out on their citizenship, leaving behind the poor citizens of Whateveristan to the cruel hands of their government.

It sounds rather drastic, I'm sure. I'm a bit surprised myself, that I've thought of this, and more than once. Justified or not, these thoughts are linked to the Nazi Germany, to the Soviet Union, the Revolution in China, and the invasion of the Japanese, in different ways. These modern people in the US make me associate to some of the darker moments in human history. When I was little, hiking in the Swedish mountains, my mother and father said that if the Soviets ever invaded, we could flee on foot across the border to Norway. Perhaps that idea stuck.

But if America has even some fascist leanings, it could have consequences far beyond even this current misguided so-called war in Iraq. I'd really rather not think those thoughts out all the way, because this country is sitting on so many nuclear weapons that I feel radioactive already just thinking about them in fascist hands. Perhaps I should learn a few Bible quotes, so I can masquerade as a proper "Bible-believing Christian" should they feel that the Apocalypse needs speeding up.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Religion, mythology and the forest

These past few days, I've been discussing religion with my mother. We've been talking about the cultural differences in how religion is approached in the United States compared to Sweden and Finland. She is Christian and I'm an atheist. However, what we mean - and especially the implications - aren't what they mean here in the States. Neither of us understand the cultural functions of Christianity here very well. However, both of us find spirituality in the forest. I realized that when I say I don't believe in God, I mean pretty much the same thing as when I say I don't believe in keijukaiset/älvor/elves or fairies. (I'll use the word fairy, since it has associations in English mythology closer to the 'form' of a keijukainen/älva. Fairies are translucent, female nature beings who dance in clearings in the forest, especially at dawn and at sunset. Their dance is incredibly beautiful, and they will invite you to come dance with them, but if you do, you will disappear and become a fairy too. So be careful, if you see the fairies dancing.) I don't actually believe that there are real, physical beings that are translucent dancing around in the forest, trying to lure me to dance with them. But when I walk in the forest, I feel connected to it. I feel like part of a system of life. I am not scared of the animals or plants, even though I know there are animals that could seriously hurt me there. I feel like we have a spiritual deal - I leave them alone, and they leave me alone. I make noise as I walk, so that the animals know I'm coming. I am, in fact, almost mystical about it. I feel like if you enter the forest with ill will, the forest is much more likely to hurt you. (As did the miners of old, who gave offerings to the mountain guardian/goddess before starting work, asking for her permission to mine her mountain.) But when you are at peace with the forest and everything in it, we can both prosper. Just as I know how fairies work, and know not to go near beautiful violin music from a stream or a creek (lest I be enchanted to drown myself by another mythological being, Näcken), I know the snakes can feel the vibrations of my footsteps, and I know the bears and wolves can smell my scent. Fairies, trolls, and other beings of the forest all play their role too, roles that are not cast in terms of good and evil. I do not feel afraid of the fairies, the trolls or Näcken, because although they could harm or kill me, they are only part of the life-system we live in. If I get hurt, it is because I have intruded somewhere where I shouldn't be in the first place. Perhaps I view them more as abstractions of general principles to life. But I do clearly feel that I am communicating with something. The forest has spirits that I can feel, but I don't have very strong urges to define them or roationally explain them. I think in China, people know the forest spirits as qi4. They are simply there. They always have been, and always will be.

Unlike religious or spiritual experiences in the United States, these feelings are intensely personal. My mother and I feel the same about the forest and its spirits. I can see that my mother doesn't care that I don't believe in the Christian God, and I don't particularly care that she does. We don't need to, because we can share spirituality about the forest. It is an experience of exchange between you and the forest. A congregation would only destroy it with its noise and human activity. That doesn't belong in the forest. It is disrespectful, in fact. When we move in the forest, we do so on its terms. Silence and respect are appropriate behavior. Talking and thinking about it, it seems like people who live physically close to nature often regard the forest as almost sacred space. Here in the US, I conspicuously lack culturally appropriate respect for the church and Christianity. But I cringe at people shouting in the forest, people walking too broadly, in a too imposing kind of way, or people taking things from the forest without thanking the forest, and a host of similar behaviors that just feel irreverent. The guardian-goddess of the forest (Metsänhaltija) will punish you! Can't you see that her wrath could be devastating? Without nature and the forest, we will be reduced to nothing!

This last line of reasoning is perhaps a spiritual formulation of the need to protect the environment. But to me, it isn't just an intellectual argument, it is an emotional one, too. If the trees and the animals are dying, we will be, too. Our fates are the same, because we belong together. In the forest, there can be no doubt of our oneness. Conversely, Christianty doesn't mention those feelings of oneness. In the traditional mythology (that in the Nordic countries has been mixed with Christian beliefs, but never abandoned), both male and female entities exist. That feels natural. Androgyny and/or a mix of genders is the only normal state. Simultaneously, it feels natural that the guardian-rulers are almost all female. (Perhaps this is a leftover of the original Goddess worship?) I have never been able to feel a male-only deity. I tried, but I just can't feel it. It feels... alien. God just cannot be a man. She can't. What is considered 'male' (aggressivity, domination, etc) isn't the forest at all. Power flows through all circuits of life, and life is not aggressive. Life is a flow, a complex web of life and death, pain and joy, loss and gain. To pick one strand and say "Look, how viciously the wolf is killing the deer! Life is brute force and aggression!" is misguided. The spirit of the forest is not like that. She/it is wiser and calmer and nearly eternal. (It may not be surprising I find Buddhism a great deal more approachable emotionally.)

Going back to more practical apsects of this, the hippie imagery here is also difficult for me to understand. I don't understand the connotations of 'treehugger' very well. What moral person isn't? That's not about politics. That's about the basic truths of life. I know what it's supposed to connote, but I don't think it can for me. Without the forest and nature, arguing about politics and clothing choices are moot, because we will disappear.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Multiculturalism" and women

Most of my mental capacity at the moment is going into being mad about and trying to understand the sexist behavior of someone at work. A fact that I think is highly relevant - and is currently being suppressed - is that the man in question is from a society that is generally known to be much more sexist than the country in which I am now, which in turn is more sexist than at least one of my other homes. (Not just from my personal observations, mind you, from studies and reports as well.) Susan Moller Okin has written an essay entitled Is Multicultralism Bad for Women? that raises a number of good questions about group rights and women's rights. I think she's right - there comes a point where the interests of women in a minority group are not commensurate with the interests of the men in it, and that can't be ignored. Furthermore, therecomes a point where the interests of men in a minority group are opposed to, well, ALL women. You can't give people carte blanche to oppress women (or homosexuals, or any other group) just because they're a minority. To my partial relief, I have heard multiple people respond with "When in Rome..." to that he may not have a coherent picture of what a professional relationship is, or may carry with him ideas about women and their place that are not acceptable even here in the US. However, I've also gotten quick warnings not to be racist.

I do not think that for me as a woman to be suspicious of people, but especially men, from cultures widely known to have oppressive ideas about women is racist. It simply doesn't have anything to do with skin color, it has to do with culture and cultural-societal constructs. I'm a bit suspicious of, frankly, all men on this count. However, with 99% of the men I encounter, they do not give me any indication that it is anything but suspicion, and I drop it and proceed with business. With partners that aren't from the handful of countries that have reconstructed social reality to the point where a dad who doesn't do half of the housework and pick up the kids at daycare is a deadbeat dad, I have always worried about how they will behave as a partner. At any rate, no matter how delicately you have to handle cultural imperialism, positing universals where there may or may not be any, etc - this isn't a general case of a woman in one country getting pissed about how sexism another country is. I'm pissed about how an expatriate to one of the countries I'm from is applying cultural norms from another country to me, much to my detriment. My heart tells me that a woman from his country has all right to be pissed for the same reasons I am and probably more that she might know and I don't, but that's for her and her sisters-in-arms to fight. However, I cannot see why this man ought to be allowed to break all kinds of (at least supposed) norms of this society that we're both in and oppress me because I'm a woman simply because he's an expatriate and part of a racial minority. That makes no sense whatsoever. I've spent my life adjusting to cultures, and this is what I get? Imported, sanctioned oppression?