YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 13, 2013

Culture wars, religion, and the (neurotic?) historian

modernity1One reason for the endurance of the American experiment is cultural and religious pluralism as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. And yet, every year about this time, renewed angst and outrage is expressed that “secular progressives” are out to remove the Christ from Christmas. I have written endless blogs on the culture wars; see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/02/index-to-blogs-on-culture-wars/.

But I have not always spelled out in plain language how a historian differs from an organic conservative or a leftist whose ideology is a substitute for religion. [Note: this blog is not intended as an attack on either religion or leftism as such. It is about the tools in the historian’s tool box, and what may not be used in our analyses. I admit that the writing of history is an enlightenment science.]

First, a historian may choose to write a history of a religion or of religious conflict. But if that writer is making judgments within a particular religion, and defending that religion against competitors, that person is not a historian, but a special pleader or advocate. Such a one is Bill O’Reilly, one of the most popular and prolific of the would-be “moderates” and healers, but whose world view is possibly tempered  by Rerum Novarum (see the encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, 1891), by his desire to maintain his audience ratings, and the protection of his own considerable wealth. It is no accident that O’Reilly becomes especially heated when “atheists” attack Christmas.  Or, for another example, see my essay on “cultural historian” Nicholas Boyle: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

Second, a religious framework may implicitly deny human agency and institutional structures, relying instead on “Providence,” “God’s plan,” or any other superhuman force (e.g. “dialectical materialism” or any other telos) that determines the destinies of humans and planets. There are some deep ecologists who view “Nature” within a religious framework, hence tend to be allergic to facts that contradict their often apocalyptic predictions.

Third, as in the case of Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle, such an organic conservative in historian’s clothing may refuse to mark turning points in world history: historians call this marking of “change over time”  “periodization.” Current organicist/mystical examples are nostalgic for the Middle Ages, when troublesome challenges to authority are believed to have been alleviated by the Good King or “the King’s touch.” See https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.

Another feature of the Middle Ages was the absence of feminism, for birth control in its modern forms was unknown at that time, and women were lucky to live beyond child-bearing age. Television pundits or even fictional characters in the media may view themselves as good Kings, uniting warring factions/taming the wild man within, as Good Kings were imagined to do. For instance, the episode of Blue Bloods broadcast December 13, 2013, served the multicultural agenda by showing sympathy for a disaffected Muslim, who had already bombed his local mosque and was determined to bomb thousands of fellow Muslims in a big parade. Why? Losing his job as a computer technician had alienated the terrorist from God and Allah’s plan for his life. But the good King, in the guise of a NYC Catholic policeman, returned him to peace and tolerance by showing him his daughter, a symbol for all the other innocent children who would be harmed were the Muslim not to divulge where he had planted the fatal bomb. Order and inter-religious comity was restored to interchangeable persons of “faith.” (For a related blog emphasizing the power of “family” rhetoric, with the family/tribe headed by the charismatic leader see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/07/charisma-and-symbolic-politics/.)

Modernity is a distinct period in world history, and remains hotly contested. Why? Because technology has wrested control from the old elites, who are now routinely criticized by dissenters.  Historians are, or should be, professional dissenters. It is our role to unearth materials that change our view of past and present.  We do not throw up road blocks to such adventures into the unknown, nor do we claim that earthly knowledge is inevitably distorted and unreliable, nor do we fail to identify terrorists as a sop to the levelers of multiculturalism. That does not mean that it is child’s play to assign causes and effects, or that there is no ambiguity in separating human agency (free will) from structural imperative. Indeed, Herman Melville wrote a classic book about just that subject: see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/ That is why (necessarily secular) historians are troublemakers, and must face public and often professional obloquy, for many powerfully placed historians are protecting their jobs, and, sad to say, the early work that got them tenure. It is they who usually control academic publication. And many a ‘modern’ artist resents the “mechanization” they see everywhere. For that reason, I call them primitivists. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/04/16/blogs-on-anarchismpunkprimitivism/.) modernlife Reconfiguring the past is not yet classified as a personality disorder, but it is a source of very objective anxiety. And such kaleidoscopic new looks may have nothing to say about “progress.”

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2 Comments »

  1. […] To conclude this short blog, a materialist historian looks at the evidence of this world, although with a skeptical eye, for we understand that we are capable of misreading primary sources, and that primary source materials are themselves sometimes wrong or distorted by diarists, the records of courts, etc. (Or primary source materials may be hidden by secretive tyrants, an ongoing problem for historians and the better journalists.) We also tend to look to similar material interests as a route to social solidarity, not to mystical bonds that are posited by the organic conservatives (e.g. populists/progressives asserting “the public interest” over the ever-selfish “individual”). And the latter mystics are found all over the political spectrum.  To see “things as they are” is no easy matter, and beware of those experts who abuse “evidence” to please a client or an institution or a political party. For more on this point, see (https://clarespark.com/2013/12/13/culture-wars-religion-and-the-neurotic-historian/.) […]

    Pingback by What is a materialist? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 14, 2013 @ 7:46 pm | Reply


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