6 October 2010
Lately I have been studying How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. Notice that I do not say that I have “read” the book. This is a book to which I have paid close attention. First I acquired it from the library as a book on CD, listened through it twice in its entirety, then I got the book in book form and am re-reading passages of particular interest to me. Needless to say, the idea of a “cosmic war” is an obvious instance of what I have called the eschatological conception of history, and this makes the book particularly interesting to me. But today I am not going to deal with the main thesis of the book, but only mention it in passing on the way to another topic.
There is a certain poetic or (if you like) dialectical appropriateness that I should write about anger today, since yesterday I wrote about love in Two Loves: Human and Divine. There is a thin line between love and anger, as there is a thin line between love and hate, since they are complementary states of consciousness, apparently dialectically opposed but nevertheless closely related. When love lapses, it often gives way to anger, and anger is often the response to unrequited love.
In any case, in going through Reza Aslan’s book again today I was reminded how he quoted the well-known George Marsden line that, “A Fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something.” (p. 88) In this, they are following a tradition as old as Protestantism. Kenneth Clark mentions a letter from Erasmus to this effect: “At the end of Erasmus’s letter in which he describes the surly Protestants coming out of church, he adds that none of them, except one old man, raised his hat.”
Aslan also relates in his book the consciously cultivated siege mentality among Fundamentalist Christians in the US, citing the more unpleasant and well-known sources such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and even the disgraced Ted Haggard. He goes on to say:
“As the sociologist Christian Smith has noted, the evangelical movement’s vibrancy, its ability to sustain a distinctive religious subculture, is owed precisely to this constructed sense of siege. Without it, Smith writes, the movement would ‘lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless’.”
Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, p. 91
An angry outlook upon life is not something exclusive to Protestants, Fundamentalists, or to the political right. There is plenty of anger on the political left as well. And the angry left, like the angry right, paints itself into a corner and cultivates a siege mentality in order to keep the community stirred up and motivated. This anger on the left is frequently expressed in intellectual if not scholastic terms.
A few years ago the book Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization made a splash by trying to systematically demonstrate that everything we think of as the cultural heritage of western civilization, especially our Graeco-Roman heritage, can be traced farther back to non-western sources. The book was a piece of angry scholarship, representative of an institutionalized anger over what is perceived as the imperialism and impunity of the traditional representatives of western civilization. It was supposed to take this tradition down a notch by ascribing its greatest contributions to earlier, non-western sources. But there is nothing at all new about this thesis. It was, in fact, the traditional position of archaeology at the beginning of the discipline.
Recently I have also been studying Colin Renfrew’s Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, in which he recounts the doctrine of ex Oriente lux, or light out of the east, which was expressed by the great philologist and archaeologist Gordon Childe as follows: “The sole unifying theme of European prehistory is the irradiation of European Barbarism by Oriental Civilization.” That the thesis is not new is no surprise, but that it has be reintroduced in an angry, accusatory tone is a novelty. And this trend has only escalated since Black Athena was published.
Both the political left and the political right cultivate anger as a means to political action: angry people can be organized to take action on behalf of a cause that they believe to be just, and which they also believe to be under threat by the outside world, of which they do not count themselves a part. But the cultivation of anger is not exclusive to this US political dichotomy between left and right. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion goes into some detail about how rabble-rousers in the Muslim world sought to whip up anger about the now well-known cartoons depicting Mohamed in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten. When the campaign of agitation began, almost no one knew of the cartoons. After the campaign of agitation had done its work, several people had died in riots and a great deal of property damage had occurred.
Ortega y Gasset in his The Revolt of the Masses, titled his Chapter VIII “THE MASSES INTERVENE IN EVERYTHING, AND WHY THEIR INTERVENTION IS SOLELY BY VIOLENCE.” This chapter title sums up much of the thesis of the chapter. Ortega y Gasset expands on the theme of violence thus:
“Man has always had recourse to violence; sometimes this recourse was a mere crime, and does not interest us here. But at other times violence was the means resorted to by him who had previously exhausted all others in defence of the rights of justice which he thought he possessed. It may be regrettable that human nature tends on occasion to this form of violence, but it is undeniable that it implies the greatest tribute to reason and justice. For this form of violence is none other than reason exasperated. Force was, in fact, the ultima ratio. Rather stupidly it has been the custom to take ironically this expression, which clearly indicates the previous submission of force to methods of reason. Civilisation is nothing else than the attempt to reduce force to being the ultima ratio. We are now beginning to realise this with startling clearness, because “direct action” consists in inverting the order and proclaiming violence as prima ratio, or strictly as unica ratio. It is the norm which proposes the annulment of all norms, which suppresses all intermediate process between our purpose and its execution. It is the Magna Charta of barbarism. It is well to recall that at every epoch when the mass, for one purpose or another, has taken a part in public life, it has been in the form of “direct action.” This was, then, the natural modus operandi of the masses.”
Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, Chap. VIII
What we are seeing here, with the cultivation of anger by political pressure groups of all descriptions and orientations, is the implementation of a mass political culture formulated to appeal to mass man. And mass man as homo politicus a nearly mindless cipher. Ortega y Gasset, in the same chapter of The Revolt of the Masses as quoted above, also wrote, “The individual finds himself already with a stock of ideas. He decides to content himself with them and to consider himself intellectually complete.” This type has become all-too-familiar today, and indeed I recently noticed the term “political sock puppet” as an entry in the Urban Dictionary that captures the spirit of Ortega y Gasset’s description.
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