Thursday, June 23, 2011

Faith and Reason, Treason and Blindness

When I was a child, I idolized two historical figures: Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman. I suppose that, even then, I was in awe of people who, despite their perceived insignificance, pursued what they thought was right in the face of deterrents and derogation. I was a skinny kid, and I admired these brave, unshakable women. So, it saddened me to see a political cartoon clothing Michelle Bachmann in the military armor of the maid from Lorraine. Perhaps, to artist Victor Juhasz, any figure claiming religious motivation is equally harmful. Perhaps, he would consider Tubman, the Moses of her people, no less a demagogic megalomaniac than the Congresswoman from Minnesota. I can't make myself accept that equivalence. (And, looking again, Juhasz does have Bachmann moving in the opposite direction of a God pointing her to the Left. She is too mesmerized by the Bible in her hand to heed the true instruction).

The theme of the accompanying Rolling Stone article is that when educated elites from the coasts laugh at Bachmann, they simply make her stronger. Although journalist Matt Taibbi does an excellent job documenting Bachmann's rise, he never offers any evidence for his primary thesis--namely, that her supporters like her not because they agree with her on specifics, but because they identify with her experience of being laughed at by haughty intellectuals. It would not have been difficult to substantiate this idea by visiting states where candidate Bachmann has appeared and asking Republican supporters what appeals to them about her. So, while Taibbi may certainly be correct, the article's central claim remains, at present, a tantalizing hypothesis.

However, this hypothesis leaves us with a conundrum. If laughing at Bachmann's misinformed statements and quixotic quests strengthens her prospects as a candidate, what are people opposed to her ideas and political vision to do? Are we supposed to patronize her, go easy because some people share her factually mistaken notions? That is, are we supposed to avoid being intellectual bullies to a political bully? I would think not. To pity them would be to fall prey to the same opportunistic thinking that suggests that Bachmann and Palin, by virtue of their sex, are automatically at a disadvantage in a conversation with any male. The Mama Grizzly, I think we all know, gets in more than a few swipes of her own claws, all the while protesting she's just a beset wife and mother. (On this matter, I'm with Chris Rock. I won't hit a woman who has hit me but I'll sure as hell shake her!)

Bachmann has also used her sex to her advantage. Take, for example, her confusion of past and present tense when claiming, ten years after her last child left the house, that she rushes home to cook for a large family every weekend. If the statement is untrue--and uttered merely to misrepresent herself as not a full-time politician but an everyday working mom--then why should political opponents not be able to call it out?

While silence can be an effective rope-a-dope move (see Obama's long silence and delicious victory in the Birther matter), it cannot be the only strategy--especially when your opponents have gained political power and implemented state and national policies that one thinks are wrongheaded and unjust.

After all, no one can say that Fox News (for example) goes easy on President Obama because, say, black people, Ivy League graduates, or immigrants identify closely with him. It does not seem reasonable for the Left, in the era of Fox News, to take a "go easy on em" stance. Besides, figures like Palin and Bachmann would continue to cite "lamestream" media bias against them even in its absence. Despite the fact that they are political bullies, they pretend (like abusive spouses) that they are the persecuted ones. God knows it is unbearably difficult to be a white Christian mother in these United States. The number of lynchings alone (committed, ostensibly, on their behalf) would keep me up at night.

So here's how the switcharoo plays out. Remember the Katie Couric interview with Palin? Certainly, Couric is not known as a hard-hitting Marxist critic. She's the same woman who (no lie) asked Condoleezza Rice if they could be girlfriends during a 60 Minutes interview. This moment is not part of the transcript here, but I recall it vividly from the broadcast. "You just seem like you'd be so much fun to be friends with," was the tenor of the gushing compliment. Is this a sleepover or an interview with the Secretary of State at a time of war?

So much for major network media selectively dragging conservative Christians through the mud. (It should not be forgotten that Rice, like the majority of the Bush administration, is an evangelical). What we're really dealing with, then, is a persecution complex. Palin still asserts that a journalist asking her what news sources she reads is playing "gotcha journalism" and exhibiting liberal bias against a beleaguered conservative. And this martyr complex travels: I recall sitting next to a very nice white woman from Tennessee who informed me that she loved Palin, who was then a candidate for the Vice Presidency. "Katie Couric has always been prejudiced against white people," she sniffed. Come again? So now we can just invent a whole archive of Katie Couric interviews bashing white people? I don't think you get to be "America's Sweetheart" by making it a habit of tearing down white people--and only white people--on television. I mean, she could have just said, "I don't think Katie Couric likes white people." But I guess that would have been somewhat close to what other English speakers mean when they use words to correspond to things in the world.

Now, according to Taibbi's article, I should not laugh at this woman (and I didn't, until the first time I told someone else the story and every time thereafter). But should I reason with her?

Cognitive social scientists say no. There may be some validity to this caution. People don't like to be wrong, especially in a public forum in which they can lose face -- and, yes, even a one-on-one conversation can be public, if you fear losing stature in the other person's eyes. Cognitive social scientists are putting forth the idea (not unfamiliar in post-structuralist literary theory) that reason is not an independent tool but a servant of the powerful. That is, whoever has the most social or institutional power can set the first principles that guide the subsequent discussion.

Elegant statements of logic, such as "if x, then y," all hinge on who gets to stipulate the if. "If God wanted gays to marry" is one sort of proposition. "If all citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law" is quite another. Where you reason from each of those is not solely up to your own free-ranging mind but, actually, somewhat prescribed by that all-important first stipulation.

As I think of how to confront political opponents like Bachmann, I find a serious challenge. Confronting them appears to be futile.

To borrow from philosopher Linda Alcoff, such confrontations are a battle between opposing modes of reasoning. The classical Greek model identified reasonable statements based on their content. If a lunatic said that the sky was blue on a clear day, then he (always he) was rational, no matter what process he used to get there. The model of Descartes was entirely different: the conclusion did not prove reasonableness; rationality was evident by the plausibility of the steps one took to get from assertion to assertion. Descartes might be seen as the originator of the idea that reasonable people can differ. The older, Platonic, version insists that all reasonable people must agree. Politicians of Bachmann's or Palin's kind, it appears to me, believe that certain conclusions are the only reasonable ones. If you conclude that environmental regulation is a necessary thing, then you must be wrong--no matter your reasons for coming to that conclusion. To differ (from them) is to be irrational, treasonous, and heretical, all at once.

It appears to me that there have been two effective ways to confront them: first, to agree to their stipulations but show them that their terms can lead to other outcomes than they expected or, second, to argue for a different set of stipulations (say, that the Constitution and not the bible should be the guide for national law). The broad left coalition seems to revel in the latter, insisting (for example) that the Bible should be mute in discussions of public policy. I tend to lean toward the former. Too often this has been taken to mean conceding to right-wing interpretation of the Bible and the Constitution. The more appropriate strategy (for those so inclined) would be to argue for different outcomes on their very ground. Maybe this would indicate "not laughing at them" while also not patronizing them with silence. I can't recommend ignoring what they wish to do -- from defunding the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminating labor protections to rolling back the clock on racial equality and enshrining gender and sexual inequality in stone. In that battle, Bachmann et al can play the Dauphin, I'll be cutting my locks to play Joan.


  1. My friend Crystal wrote this:

    She is a liberal Christian, and I think she would agree with your view that you take their instrument, and use it against them. Except, you're not really using it against them, you're jus showing them a different way to use it.

    Dealing with the non academics has always been an issue. You have to face strong opinions, regardless of the merits of those opinions, and it's difficult to prove them wrong yet easy to do so at the same time.

    A method which I've attempted, but haven't really honed, is to not really make statements, but to jus ask seemingly innocent questions that force them to fully explain their ideas. In doing so, the hope is to have them vocalize their contradict themselves, and to have them hear those contradictions.

    Very good read.

  2. Thank you, as always, BG. You saved me the trouble of having to go back and make this point myself. I was just about to add an addendum to this post about questions as a method. (The revelations I have in the shower).

    The question route is hard, too, right? You want to ask the kinds of questions that force others to examine the implications and contradictions of what they're saying. On the other hand, no one wants to be led into an alley. I was just watching Chris Matthews interview John Stewart, and it was very clear that Matthews was not asking fair questions. For example, he tried to equate Comedy Central with Fox News. Of course, the major difference between the two is that Comedy Central does not pretend to be a news organization and, therefore, does not have to provide reliable news. Fox News, however, does (under FCC guidelines and based on long-held journalistic standards). So every question along those lines was dishonest, a foregone conclusion posing as an open-ended question.... So how do we ask honest questions?

    And, yes, I realize our blog affair started with my blasting you over some "honest questions"? I thought they could have used some more thought before asking, but I guess everything turned out between us, eh? (grin)

  3. Hey, my questions were intentionally naive. Because let's be honest, the only way for a guy like me to even broach the subject was to make an honest fool of myself. Keep in mind, that I was encouraged to blog about sexual orientation, or else I probably would not have. And like I emphasized, I appreciated all feedback, even if it was attacking me because quite frankly, I expected it. But as you said, it's clearly all good. And yes, my questions could have used more thought. I'm ignorant about that subject. Sue me :)

    As for the question route, it is difficult. I haven't honed it. I think the key is to not act like an alley or an enemy. Don't state your stance. Consider every opinion (as ridiculous as it may be) as legitimate, and pose a question like, "hmmm, that's a good point, but have you thought about...." whatever. Force them to explain themselves without defending your position.

    At the same time, these tactics don't really work in the media. It's funny, because the media is kind of it's own media. You already know the results even before the interview, so whas even the point? But, for a one-on-one basis, I think this tactic is useful.

  4. Bengemin, your friend's method:
    "A method which I've attempted, but haven't really honed, is to not really make statements, but to jus ask seemingly innocent questions that force them to fully explain their ideas. In doing so, the hope is to have them vocalize their contradict themselves, and to have them hear those contradictions."
    has sometimes been called "the Columbo method" after the TV detective's method of getting the suspect to explain the alibi they were using. (RIP Peter Falk!) I heard it recommended for evangelical college students to use on liberal profs who were trying to discredit Christianity, ridicule them before classmates, tear apart their faith, etc.. So that sword cuts both ways! Of course the mature Christian should be able to answer such questions "with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt" and "always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lives within you", especially when one is maligned by unbelievers. Courtesy of Sts. Paul and Peter, respectively.

  5. Correction to my post of June 23: I misspelled Jon Stweart (there is no H in his first name). And the disingenuous interviewer was Chris *Wallace* of Fox News, not Chris Matthews of MSNBC.

  6. Wow, I just came across this piece doing a Google search for something else. I have to say there is some serious over-interpretation going on with my illustration. It's a satiric piece. The connection is pretty simple. Joan of Arc heard voices from God. Bachmann hears messages from God. The expression on her face should pretty much let you know she's a whacky take off of Joan of Arc. And how did Harriet Tubman get dragged into this?

    1. To answer your question, Victor, Harriet Tubman also heard voices from God. I forgot to include that bit of background knowledge. I also should say that I admired your illustration very much, actually. When I say I felt "sad" to see Bachmann in Joan's clothes, it was just that I have admired her for so long that I don't like to see her compared to Bachmann, even in an obvious satire. That's a highly individual response, not a criticism of the artwork or its message.

      There is a tendency among some liberals and/or atheists to say that anyone who is driven by religious motivations is evil. The triangle of Joan, Tubman, and Bachmann was my way of continuing a point from an earlier series of blogs: that there is nothing inherently oppressive or bigoted about religion, it's all in who uses it and to what ends. Out of curiosity, do you believe that religion leads to no good?

      As for "over-interpretation," that's not a fear of mine. I do talk about what is there (such as the hand and Bachmann moving in the opposite direction) and my thoughts about what is *not* there (my individual responses) are distinct from talking about what is there. Even though we want it, no artist or writer has the power to control interpretation and make sure it doesn't go to a place we think of as "over-." Sharing or publishing work is a continuing conversation, an offering and then a response. I thank you for yours, as it helped me clarify something missing--that Tubman also heard voices. And it allowed me to ask whether or not you think every person who heeds a religious calling is going to wind up harming people.