Monday, April 28, 2008

America, the Frightened Fortress

Fortress America, one of the safest places on the globe with respect to external military threat, is presently embarked on a foreign policy overtly based on the notion that its very existence is imperiled by foreign enemies. Whether because the political leaders of the US truly believe that grave, existential threats imperil the nation or whether this is merely an appeal to those Americans who believe they are persecuted, one cannot deny that large segments of the US do feel threatened even though decades have passed since the US has faced any foreign enemy capable of inflicting serious harm by force of arms. Rather, the most serious threats to the safety of US come from within from homegrown terrorist and radical groups and a policy of exporting American soldiers to other countries where they make easy targets for those few groups that do want to kill Americans. The solution is difficult, if not impracticable. When a large segment of the population that makes decisions based on fear in a nation whose leaders are freely elected public officials, the only tenable solution is to offer a stronger, more powerful narrative in the marketplace of ideas.

This feeling, that of being insecure, that affects so many US citizens is somewhat baffling to me. Unlike other countries, like Israel, the US is bordered by friendly nations, counts most (if not all) of the most powerful countries in the world as its military allies, and has a military apparatus capable of reducing any other nation on earth to rubble. So I find it exceedingly odd to see sentiments expressed by American politicians, preachers, pundits, and citizens that could have come from the lips of an Israeli. In a recent interview with Israeli Novelist Jeffrey Grossman in The Atlantic, Grossman gave voice to part of Israel's existential dilemma, ``Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss'' [Goldberg, Jeffrey. Unforgiven. The Atlantic Monthly. May, 2008. Vol. 30. Nbr. 4. pp32-51. p.37]. In a country where only half of the bordering nations recognize their right to exist in a region where the popular sentiment seems to be remove Israel from the map, such a statement is made in the context of a very real threat. Yet, this statement could easily have been made by an American. Despite the fact that there is presently no country in the world that poses a serious military threat to the US and despite the fact that the US possesses the atom bomb and a delivery system capable of delivering it anywhere on the planet, large numbers of US citizens live their lives in the fear that an attack by foreign enemies is imminent.

But in reality, the largest threat by violence faced by Americans is other Americans. In the FBI 2002/2005 report on terrorism states that from 2002 to 2005, the overwhelming majority of terrorist incidents were perpetuated by domestic rather than foreign terrorists. It is not those outside our borders that threaten us but those inside our borders.

Twenty three of the 24 recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by domestic terrorists. With the exception of a white supremacist’s firebombing of a synagogue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, all of the domestic terrorist incidents were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements. The acts committed by these extremists typically targeted materials and facilities rather than persons. The sole international terrorist incident in the United States recorded for this period involved an attack at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, which claimed the lives of two victims. [FBI. Terrorism 2002/2005.]
Yet it is events of 9/11 and a handful of terrorist plots attributed to individuals allegedly associated with al-Quaeda that stands out in the minds of many Americans who somehow forget the long history of terrorism committed by Americans on their own: Eric Rudolf's bombing of the Olympics, Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murray Federal building in Oklahoma City, Theodore Kaczynski's mail bombings, the as yet uncaught culprit behind the Anthrax mailings in 2001.

Yet, 9/11 looms in political discourse in the US in a way that these domestic threats do not. A large part of this is undoubtedly the sheer magnitude of death that resulted from this heinous crime and the shock of removing a sizable landmark from the New York City skyline. But that the victims of Osama bin Laden's plot to fly airplanes into skyscrapers exceeded Timothy McVeigh's plot to build a truck bomb by an order of magnitude has more to do with the McVeigh's relative lack of access to funds and people willing to take part in a suicide attack. Were McVeigh a billionaire like Osama bin Laden, it is not unforeseeable that he could have constructed a plot as large and as damaging as 9/11. Further, 9/11 was a rather exceptional even that will not repeated in our lifetimes. Now that US citizens understand what could result from a plane being hijacked, never again will airline passengers allow a few men armed with razor blades to take over a plane. What is more important to focus on is that, despite his stated intent and the fact that he remains at large with apparent freedom of movement through the mountains that divide Afghanistan from Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been either unable or unwilling to organize another attack on American soil since 2001 while various domestic groups have launched dozens.

Part of the view that US is under continued threat undoubtedly comes from the American experience. In large part the US was settled by those who fled religious and political persecutions. It is fair to say that the American experience, and the American religious experience, has been formed among other factors by the traditions of those who were killed for who they were and what they believed. From those who were raised in the Anabaptist tradition, persecuted in Europe both by other Protestants and by Roman Catholics, to the Puritans and Roman Catholics, quite a few of the original 13 colonies were settled by those fleeing persecution. Even though American style Christianity is now the dominant form of religion in the country and our very constitution warrants freedom of conscience, large numbers of Christians in the US believe that they are a persecuted minority and it is precisely these Americans who make up the largest group of those most likely to express fear of foreign attack and be willing ``to fight them over there so that we do not have to fight them here.'' Clearly, not all Christians in the US are maintain this belief. But many do and those that do seem to be controlling most of the discourse over war and terrorism in the US in this post 9/11 world.

This view is fundamentally paradoxical. On the one hand, it tends to lead to a Hobbesian style of political theory where the government is given the power to tread over virtually every other right in the name of security. But on the other hand, it sets up an inherent distrust of that very government which wants to take away the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Part of the dilemma can be seen in some of the very groups resorting to force of arms to act out their ideology: white supremacists and Christian extremists are both groups that argue that the US has very real foreign enemies capable of doing very real harm to the US and yet they are the ones attacking their fellow citizens, or even their own government. By promoting the message of fear, these groups are feeding the authoritarian trend in US politics that will lead to the very thing that these groups fear.

Worse, this situation is presently being exacerbated by politicians that appeal to fear. A good example is Hillary Clinton's `3 AM' television ad that tries to lock the viewer into thinking that his or her sleeping children are under immanent and immediate hostile threat. Ads like this serve only to reinforce the fear that is already far too widespread in US culture. We watch talking heads on the television explain how dire the current threats to the US are. We hear the radio addresses of the Bush '43 administration that talks about how the war on terror is a threat to our very existence. We hear justice department officials and members of the US Congress argue that it is necessary that we lay down our right to privacy so that the government can protect us from immediate danger. We hear these messages for one reason alone, regardless of whether the politicians in question believe it is the truth, it works. When people are scared, or even only subconsciously nervous, they turn to those who make them feel safe. An incumbent politician is easily able to position his or herself as the protector in a time of grave peril and create an astonishingly powerful image in the minds of voters. A challenger who is rejoining that it just is not true, that the danger just is not as grave as the incumbent portrays it, even if correct, is unable to compete with the powerful image of the would be protector. And in a society where ideas are formed freely in the marketplace, the power of an image is sometimes far more important than whether or not that image is accurate.

On the Science Progress blog, admittedly in a very different context, Chris Mooney made the very same point regarding the persuasive power of the narrative and images in the marketplace of ideas.

From Michael Crichton’s State of Fear to Stein’s Expelled, there is nothing to prevent the most awful, misleading drivel from reaching and influencing mass audiences. There are no standards. There is no filter. And the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas when the playing field tilts against it. [Mooney, Chris. Hearts and Minds. Science Progress. Accessed April 27, 2008.]
The key observation Mooney makes is that ``the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas.'' Various ideas bounce around in the heads of the American public and the ones that are true are not necessarily going to win simply because they are true. Rather, the ideas that win will do so because they are powerful images that tell a compelling narrative.

So, in the end, our best hope is for a generation of politicians, pundits, preachers and journalists capable of telling the American story from a position of strength rather than from a position of fear. Those who would use the rhetoric of America being under siege need to be crowded out of the marketplace of ideas by a powerful narrative of a strong US which at present has no enemies capable doing it serious military harm. With strong allies along our northern and southern borders and oceans to the east and to the west, those few countries and organizations that do want to do the US harm face a large logistical problem of even getting to the US, let alone doing serious harm when they get here. We have no real reason to fear for our very existence. And while the future is always uncertain and we may someday once again face a military foe who does threaten our way of life as Americans, for the present, in the words of Walt Kelly, `we have met the enemy and he is us.'

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Problem with a Loving God in Neoplatonic Monotheism

This past Thursday I had the pleasure to attend a talk by Reverend David Meconi, SJ titled Traveling without Moving: Love as Ecstatic Union in Plotinus, Augustine and Dante. Father Meconi, assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University, delivered a very nice speech that began with the classical Greek idea of love as presented in Sappho and then moved through how that idea influenced three very notable thinkers, Plotinus, Augustine, and Dante, and how that idea of love was deficient in each of the earliest presentations do to their incipient Neoplatonism in a manner that was corrected by in the poetry of Dante. In Plotinus, love is defined as traveling without moving, the human being becoming defied by love for love itself. Augustine picks this up by defining saying that we move not by walking but by loving the other but only to the extent that our love for the other is love for the other because of the divine principle within that other. Dante perfects this notion of love being true motion by saying that the human heart is where love really occurs and where this motionless motion deifies the lover by his or her love for the beloved, changing both lover and the beloved in a new kind of person, a unity of souls. For those interested in the history of ideas, the talk was certainly intriguing. Yet it itself overlooked two key factors: the rediscovery of Aristotle in western Europe and the influence of Islamic mysticism, especially with regards to the Sufi interpretation of Persian love poetry.

Meconi began his talk by describing the Greek understanding of love epitomized by the poet Sappho. This understanding of eros understands love to be simultaneously both sweet and bitter, consisting of the lover desiring the beloved (the sweetness) combined with the understanding that the lover is not the beloved (the bitter). The lover, in this view, desires to be the beloved as an epic line of Sapphic poetry says that in the sun the lover melts and oozes into the pores of the beloved. To love something, according to the Greeks, is then to desire to be that something while, at the same time, being frustrated that one is not that something.

Plotinus, the third century founder of Neoplatonism, took Sappho's understanding of eros and applied it to the Platonic tradition by which God and the divine forms alone have real existence. Love, in Plotinus, is the motion of an individual soul to its source and reality in the divine. The divine, in the Platonic tradition, is the only real good. What is material can never itself be good but can only be like what is good. Consequently, as Meconi pointed out in his talk, Plotinus necessarily divides eros into two types: heavenly and worldly. Heavenly love is a chaste love, is beauty itself. Worldly love, satisfied with emotion and complacent with the beauty in the images of forms rather than the beauty of the forms themselves, is a secondary sort of love that weighs down the soul and prevents it from becoming deified.

In this view, we seek love because we are not content with ourselves. Those of us that seek out worldly love, however, are deluded as we look for love in individual beings rather than seeking out love itself. The true lover must be alone to seek out true love qua love rather than being distracted by materiality. Material eros, at best, can only be like love but can never be love. As such, it can only serve to bind us further to material existence rather than help us to return to God. Love itself is a good, but love of another material being obscures from us the vision of God. In the end, love in this system leaves us with the inability to love our neighbor. Love for one's neighbor, a central part of Christianity, becomes a hindrance to salvation rather than salvation itself.

The next step towards an authentic view of love according to Meconi lies in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, who according to his own memoir was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, translated the ideas of love presented by Plotinus into a system with a trinitarian God and, in doing so, allowed for a very important expansion of the idea of what love is. Whereas Plotinus viewed God as a single person, Augustine viewed God as three persons. The prototype of love, the triune Godhead, then, admits of a love of persons for other persons that cannot be admitted to in a purely Neoplatonic system where God is a single monad. Love in the Plotinian system is necessarily an auto-erotic love, God can only love Himself. But if God consists of three persons, as in the Holy Trinity of Augustine, the love of the three persons of the trinity for each other allows for a genuine love of one person for another. More specifically, the trinitarian system of Augustine breaks down love into three parts: lover, love, beloved. The lover is the Father; the love is the Holy Spirit; the beloved is the Son. All three parts are necessary for love to be complete.

So, as Meconi points out, our love can only be true if it is between persons rather than for an abstract form of love qua love as in Plotinus. Rather than the love of created beings being a mistake, Augustine thought that love of the other person was a rung on the ladder to to the love of God himself. But this is only true of the love of certain beings in Augustinian thought. If a created being loves a created being below itself on the divine hierarchy, it will draw itself down. The love of earth, for example, will make the lover into earth. But the love of other persons, persons created in the image and likeness of God, makes the lover into God. Love of the other, according to Augustine, deifies the individual rather than weighing the individual down.

But, as Meconi points out, certain affinities between Augustine and Plotinus remain. For Augustine, while every opportunity to love the other is an opportunity to love God, every opportunity to love the other is also a temptation. Unless the love of the other points to God, it is the love of creation rather than the love of the Creator. Augustine himself wrote that it was not his mother who cared for him but God working through his mother. Consequently, it is not the love of others as individuals that points to God, but the love of God in other individuals. A man who loves his wife for who she is as anything other than the image of God has fallen into temptation and, loving the creature rather than the Creator, has become an idolater of sorts. In the Augustinian version of Neoplatonism, created beings are still unable to love other created beings except inasmuch as they are loved because they reflect God. The love of one's neighbor as one's neighbor, in this way of thinking, is an invitation to idolatry rather than an echo of the love of God.

The antidote to this way of looking at the love of creatures, according to Meconi, presents itself in the form of the poetry of the early fourteenth century poet Dante Alighieri who defined love, amore, as the union of the soul between the lover and the loved. In this view, not only do we all desire to be love, but we all long to be loved `the most' as it is only where we are perfectly loved that we find our own perfect individuation. It is our very love for other creatures qua creatures that transmute us into saints and our love for particular individuals is transmuted into universal love. This is most clearly seen in that it is Dante's love for Beatrice, not his love for God, that gives him wings. Here Dante takes a step not taken by Augustine or Plotinus, the human person participates in his own salvation.

But Meconi also observes that Dante clearly warns that this creaturely love needs be chaste. In the second ring of hell, populated by courtly lovers whose sole damning crime is to love each other, at first presents a puzzle to Dante. Only once Dante begins to grasp that these lovers are traitors to true love because their love is not truly for the other but turned inwards. These lovers don't desire the other for the sake of the other but because of the way that the other makes them feel. True love, the unity of the soul of two persons, isn't merely becoming the other but becoming a new kind of person with the other. The deification brought about this love isn't to cease being a human person as it is in Plotinus and Augustine but is to become a new kind of person.

Unfortunately, I don't think the line from Augustine to Dante is as clear as the line from Plotinus to Augustine. As mentioned above, Augustine himself admits to Neoplatonism prior to his conversion to Christianity and it is clear from his writings that there is a sense in which he never abandoned that school of thought. But while it would be a very difficult argument to make that Dante was unaware of Augustine, it also isn't clear that Dante is either any sort of Neoplatonist or that Dante drew heavily on the work of Augustine. Admittedly, I may not see the connection due to my relative ignorance of the Dantean corpus. But it is also possible that Dante drew on sources other than Augustine and that if there is a connection to Augustinian though it is a negative connection. After all, unlike most of the Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Dante, Augustine does not appear in the Paradisio.

One possible missing link can be found in Thomas Aquinas. Writing in the midst of the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle by the west, Aquinas inherited an Aristotelian system of metaphysics rather than the Platonic model that underlies Augustine. In Aristotle, what is material can, itself, be good as it reaches the fullness of its final form. This closes the tremendous gap of the Platonic model of Plotinus and Augustine where what is created can only be like what is good. Even though Augustine, as a matter of dogma, accepted the goodness of creation, it seems to me that his theory of love betrays something of an inconsistency. The love of others, in Augustine, is only genuine inasmuch as it is directed not at the individual but at the divine within the individual. Augustine's metaphysics puts his acceptance of dogma at odds with his writings on love.

But this same inconsistency isn't found in Thomas Aquinas or the other late medieval writers who followed Aristotle other than Plato. And in fact, Dante appears to echo Aquinas in some places. For example, Aquinas didn't consider beauty to be a formal (or, consequently, final) cause. In his talk, Meconi observed that Dante taught that while the forms extend from God (the first cause) that beauty extends from secondary causes in the divine hierarchy. This understanding of beauty, along with the appreciation of created beings qua created beings being valid objects of love, seems more in line with the Aquinean understanding of Aristotle than it does the Augustinian understanding of Neoplatonism.

Another possible missing link is the Sufi interpretation of the Persian courtly love tradition. While the hand of Plotinus lies heavy on some of the earliest Sufi poets, by the tenth and eleventh centuries, the courtly love poem with the unrequited love of a lover pining away, never to be sated, for his beloved was frequently used as an image for the desire of the individual to be made one with God. That the love of a created being could point to the love of God seems much closer to Augustine's reformulation of Neoplatonism than the pure Neoplatonism of Plotinus. And with the growing interaction between western Christendom and Islam by Dante's age, it is quite plausible that Dante was exposed to a good deal of the Sufi tradition of love poetry. But again, my own personal lack of knowledge concerning Dante's life prevents me from developing this possibility further. And, to be fair, it would seem that Sufi mysticism necessarily must run into the same problem as Augustine inasmuch as it remains Neoplatonic. An unmoving God that has a singular person (or perhaps it would be better to say a single God that is beyond all personhood) does not make sense as a prototype for love, especially in the Greek tradition where love is the desire of the lover to become the beloved. But on the other hand, the Christian east through which Muslim thinkers discovered Plato never lost Aristotle and by the Islamic thinkers of the tenth and eleventh century such as Ibn Sina and al-Farabi were, indeed, heavily influenced by Aristotle.

But in the final analysis, despite the problem of possibly not showing the entire chain linking Dante backwards through time to Plotinus, Meconi does do a very nice job of pointing out the incompatibility of the Christian idea of love and Neoplatonism. If Meconi is correct, Augustine, in being such an influential figure, put western Europe on the wrong track for close to a millennium with his misguided Neoplatonism. And despite Dante's corrective influence within the Church of Rome, Augustine's influence is still heavily seen in the Calvinism and Lutheranism of the Reformation that, at times, seems to reflect a very Neoplatonic view of matter. (Consider the principle of the total depravity of man outside of the Church that underlies classical Calvinism.) Having accepted the rule of the Holy Scriptures alone, Calvin and Luther still interpreted those same scriptures very much in the tradition of Augustine. Consequently, their understanding of the love of creation is closer to Augustine than to Dante and, like the Church of Rome, they failed to understand what it means to love their neighbor as their neighbor.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Whatever Happened to Shame?

I have always found that one of the more interesting aspects of Plato's Laws to be his suggestion that some matters are better controlled by shame than by written legislation. And while from time to time, various states do attempt to use the power of shame, it is usually in conjunction with the coercive force of the state rather than by shame alone. And, indeed, in a pluralistic and democratic world, it would seem to be very difficult to mount a national campaign over certain activities being shameful as the various factions, interests, religious groups and political parties all define for themselves just what things are shameful. Hence, the state loses the power of this tool and is left with only the sub-optimal tool of coercive force which may create more harm than good in the attempt to enforce moral behavior.

Speaking specifically of certain types of sexual activity Plato argued that custom and unwritten law were better at preventing the acts in question than promulgated laws which carry the coercive force of the state.

For if shame made their indulgence rare, the infrequency would weaken the sway over them of this mistress. So let it be the custom laid down in habit and unwritten law, that among them it is noble engage in these activities if one escapes notice, but shameful if one doesn't escapee notice--though they are not to abstain entirely. Thus our law would come to possess a second-rank standard of the shameful and the noble, a second-rank correctness, and those whose natures have been corrupted--whom we proclaim to be ``weaker than themselves''--being one tribe, would be surrounded and forcibly prevented from disobeying the law by three tribes.

Which are these?

Reverence for the gods, and also love of honor, and being desirous not of bodies but of the beautiful characteristics of souls. These things that have now been said, perhaps as if in a myth, are prayers; if they should come to pass they would bring about by far the best effects in all the cities [Plato. The Laws. Trans. Pangle, Thomas. University of Chicago Press. 1980. cf. 841b-c-c].
My intent here isn't to argue for the code of sexual ethics presented in this passage and the context in which it is found. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the way that Plato is condescending to human nature here with the implicit admission that some things will be done regardless of whether or not they are licit and that the best way to combat these things through public policy is by mores, religion and tradition rather than through making the acts in question illegal. Understanding that it is more important to have the people at large respect the law, Plato is declining to make a crime out of an activity that a large portion of the people will undertake regardless of its legality in the hopes that this activity can be curbed through the three societal pressures of religiosity, honor and the love of what is beautiful.

And certainly, history teaches us that when the state criminalizes an activity which most citizens think just, the result is to both make lawbreakers out of ordinary citizens and to breed disrespect for not only the legislative body which passed the law but also for law itself. This is precisely the lesson of the Prohibition era in the US. While the consumption of alcohol on a per capita basis had been steadily declining during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, largely as the result of preaching and temperance leagues unaffiliated with the state, consumption remained flat through the years of Prohibition and only began to decline again once Prohibition was over. The numbers plainly show that Prohibition did not have its desired effect of reducing alcohol consumption. Worse, were it not for Prohibition, a vast number of US citizens would not have turned to organized crime as vendors of first choice and organized crime would not have been further legitimized in the minds of the everyday citizen. A similar, but not identical, incident took place in South Dakota in late winter of 2006. The state legislature passed and the governor signed into law the most sweeping ban of abortion in the US since Roe v. Wade. But by the following fall, the measure had been put on the ballot as a referendum and was overwhelmingly voted down by the people of South Dakota. The citizenry, as it were, appeared to feel that abortion, no matter how morally wrong, ought to be legal. The end result of this attempt by the state to legislate morality was only to weaken respect for the governing authority.

If criminalization of immoral acts, then, is self-defeating as Plato suggested and history seems to confirm in some situations, it seems as if the state has little recourse. After all, Plato's idealized regime in the The Laws had an advantage that most governments of liberal democracies do not, complete control over religion. Whereas Plato could suggest that the ruling regime dictate the tenets of the various religious cults, modern liberal democracies necessarily do not get involved in the affairs of any religious institutions organized by the citizenry. This presents a very large obstacle to use of shame by the government as a social tool to implement policy. A democracy, a veritable city of cities where there is the presence of every possible moral system, does indeed lack a mechanism by which the state can effectively use shame alone as a tool to alter the behavior of its citizens. The citizens alone, to the extent to which they belong to different religious sects or cultures, decide what is shameful and what is noble. The end results is a large pool of different understandings of what constitutes shameful behavior. From very traditional morality in conservative blocs to the promotion of hedonism and profligacy as being manly or virtuous rather than shameful, one can find every definition of shame imaginable in a large democracy. And in many cases, those behaviors which the state has an interest in defining as shameful can be found being exulted as noble behavior.

But it also true that the US, and many other nations, have made widespread use of shame in conjunction with (rather than in lieu of) criminalization. From the public stockades and tarring and feathering of early America to more recent efforts such as plastering the faces of fathers who are delinquent in paying child support on billboards, there has certainly been an effort to use shame to good effect in conjunction with criminal law. And while there have been some successes on this level, there have also been notable failures such as the media campaign to link drug use with terrorism shortly after 9/11 and the ''this is your brain on drugs'' media blitz of the 1980s that mostly served as fodder for parody and satire. The use of shame on its own has been remarkably absent from public discourse. The only campaign I can think of is the `buy American' campaign sponsored largely by labor unions rather than the state in the late eighties and early nineties which sought to use societal norms to support American workers over the workers of foreign nations. Government involvement with this campaign was largely absent.

Consequently, outside of permutations of the use of coercive force, the state in a modern liberal democracy has very limited potential for the use of shame as a tool to shape its citizens. The state does not have control over a singular national religious cult for in a real democracy, a large number of religious cults exist independently of the state. The state does not have control over public opinion of what deeds are shameful, for in the marketplace of ideas there exists a multiplicity of various notions of what acts are noble and what acts are shameful. The state is limited to spending money on advertisements in the hopes that its plea will be heard above the cacophony of voices pushing and pulling the citizens towards one end or the other. The only times where the state is unequivocally heard above the din of competing voices are those places where the state uses its power of coercive force or in those rare situations where the state is able to design a marketing campaign that is superior to the various campaigns designed by the multitude of factions, sects, cultures, subcultures.