Amor Mundi: Getting Religion

Getting Religion

William Deresiewicz has published a version of the talk he gave at the Hannah Arendt Center’s Fall Conference “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion.” Deresiewicz argues that orthodox political correctness is the new religion on campus.

“Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.”

Authority On The Couch

Frank Furedi argues that the therapeutic culture of academia is a result of the loss of elite authority.

“Since the 1960s, universities have been in the forefront of promoting theories and practices that encourage people to interpret their anxieties, distress, and disappointment through the language of psychological deficits. Until recently, however, how students and faculty coped with their existential problems remained a personal matter. Today, the therapeutic outlook pervades campus culture so thoroughly that it influences how courses are taught, which topics are discussed, and how verbal exchanges are regulated. Teaching, some educators believe, can be trauma inducing, and so they have adopted an explicit “trauma-informed perspective.”

Outside of hospitals, the university has arguably become the most medicalized institution in Western culture. In 21st-century Anglo-American universities, public displays of emotionalism, vulnerability, and fragility serve as cultural resources through which members of the academic community express their identity or make statements about their plight. On both sides of the Atlantic, professional counselors working in universities report a steady rise in demand for mental-health services.

Among academics there is widespread agreement, too, that today’s students are more emotionally fragile and far more likely to present mental health symptoms than in the past. There is little consensus, however, about why this is so. Marvin Krislov, the president of Oberlin College, has more questions than answers on this score:

I don’t know if it’s related to the way we parent. I don’t know if it’s related to the media or the pervasive role of technology—I’m sure there are lot of different factors—but what I can tell you is that every campus I know is investing more resources in mental health. . . . Students are coming to campuses today with mental-health challenges that in some instances have been diagnosed and in some instances have not. Maybe, in previous eras, those students would not have been coming to college.

To help President Krislov answer his own question, let me suggest that perhaps the most significant development that accounts for society’s estrangement from its own traditions today has been the reluctance of its elites to uphold their own authority. It is difficult to imagine how profound cultural changes such as the wholesale rejection of tradition and the embrace of therapeutics can take place without at least the acquiescence of the elites. Among the seers of the Sixties, it turns out that Rieff is the one whose argument focused on the triumph of the therapeutic as an expression of the crisis of cultural authority.

The ruling elites, Rieff claimed, were suffering from a failure of nerve, that “the death of culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” A lack of self-belief, enhanced by a profound mood of disorientation, undermined the capacity of Western political elites to transmit their narrative of cultural traditions: “Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith.”4 Not only did the elites cease being supportive, they also became critical of traditional culture as a “moral demand system.” This rejection of tradition, Rieff believed, represented a cultural revolution with far reaching consequences.5

It was in the university that the unresolved tension provoked by cultural conflict has since acquired its most acute manifestation. As David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale, noted, “most of the conversation about culture in America now is carried out in universities.”6 Universities have played a central role in attempting to formulate an etiquette of behavior through questioning traditional rules of conduct and the values underpinning them. Since “traditional values” have lost their capacity to motivate a significant section of society—particularly the university-educated—opponents of traditional conventions and values have succeeded in establishing a commanding influence in institutions of culture and education, and public life more widely.”

When All Else Fails

Ceridwen Dovey wonders if reading can make us happy:

“In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance, Bagster, in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value. “Bibliotherapy is…a new science,” Bagster explains. “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” To a middle-aged client with “opinions partially ossified,” Bagster gives the following prescription: “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” (George Bernard Shaw is at the top of the list.) Bagster is finally called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature,” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow”…

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.”

Heros and Antiheroes

G. M. Tamás considers the recent decision by the Budapest city council to remove a statue of Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács from a public park, and what that move says about  the nature of Hungary’s authoritarian state apparatus:

“Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Lukács was a pessimistic conservative. Like so many German and Austrian writers of the time, he hated the bourgeoisie from the right. In 1917, however, he lost all his reserve and reticence, and all his respect for convention. For him, as for many of his generation, the revolution brought salvation: it saved their souls by proclaiming the end of exploitation, of class divisions, of the distinction between intellectual and manual labor, of punitive law, property, family, churches, prisons. In other words, it promised the end of the state.

The revolution also meant the end of utopia. “The class struggle of the proletariat,” Lukács writes in 1919 (the year of the communist revolution in Hungary), “is the objective itself and concomitantly its realization.” The driving force in human society, therefore, is history, not utopia, because the aims of the proletarian revolution are not outside the world, but within it. It would be silly to deny the religious undertones of such a view of history, which some of Lukács’s subsequent pronouncements would echo. For example, in spite of all his disappointments, he insisted on remaining a member of the Party — since extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It was his — and other communists’ — conscience (to use another religious term) that was the Party proper, not the politics or ideology of those who happened to be Party leaders at one moment or another….

Western audiences know only liberal anticommunism, the kind created by antifascist émigrés such as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Michael Polanyi, as well as by former far-left figures such as George Orwell, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. After 1968, this type of anticommunism was picked up by East and Central European and Russian dissidents and clandestine human rights groups. But relatively little is known in the West about the “White Guard” type of anticommunism, which was prevalent on the European continent in the interwar period, and which is now triumphantly reborn in contemporary Eastern and Central Europe, including Hungary. The latter has tended to see socialism and communism as the uprising of the Untermensch, the biologically and spiritually inferior members of society. For these anticommunists, communism does not mean too little, but too much freedom, and the idea of equality is a sin against nature.

These are also the people for whom “Christian” means “Gentile” and for whom universal franchise means mob rule, just as “constitution” and “the rule of law” mean a loss of nerve. These people believe in the whip, in the cane, in putting women in their place, and in kicking the queer down the club steps. They believe in making deals with the swarthy Levantine and robbing him blind.”

Optimism and Forgetting

Seizing on recent statements by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, who cited segregated schooling as a precursor to the school choice movement, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who compared the Middle Passage to immigration, Jelani Cobb reminds us of the reasons for, and the dangers of, selective forgetfulness:

“One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.”

Feeling Like a Woman

March 8th is International Women’s Day and, given the political situation and the international Day Without Women strike, who gets to claim femininity and why, or, put differently, who was able to go on strike, and why, was an important conversation bouncing around social media and the blogosphere this week. In this context, Eliza Starbuck Little writes about what it means to be a woman when you don’t quite feel like one:

“During my college years at Oberlin, my ambivalent relationship to femininity solidified into a purely instrumental one. I wanted to look like a woman in order to appeal to the people I wanted to desire me, but I didn’t consider my appearance to be expressive of anything essential about me as a person. At the same time, I was surrounded by people who insisted that gender posed an insurmountable obstacle to mutual understanding between straight men and everyone else. Encountering Hélène Cixous in an English class during my sophomore year of college, I remember looking on in disbelief as my female classmates nodded with enthusiasm and something more, maybe relief, at formulations such as “Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” To nineteen-year-old me, the mere utterance of these words was a betrayal. My resistance to identity-based feminism came from many places, but perhaps most deeply from a fear that cultivating a self-understanding based on an inherently non-universalizable set of feelings and lived experiences—namely the feelings and experiences of being a woman—would prevent precisely the kind of recognition that the exhausting ordeal of feminine presentation was meant to facilitate. The only solution to this problem, I concluded, was to disavow identity altogether.

I arrived at graduate school wanting to read, talk about books and not get up for work in the morning: What did gender have to do with any of that? In my first year, I rolled my eyes at the attempts of my female departmental colleagues to hold “Women’s Teas,” events designed to cultivate female collegiality. When emails about “women in philosophy” appeared in my inbox, I deleted them without a second thought, aside from some confusion over how they’d gotten ahold of my email address.

During this time, however, I found myself confronted by a demand to assume my gender in contexts that I couldn’t as easily brush aside: in workshops and classrooms, first as a student, then later as a teaching assistant and teacher. One of the first times I TAed a philosophy class, the professor I was working with remarked on what a great choice I was for the position. When I asked why, assuming it had something to do with my work, the reply surprised me: because I was a woman of color, and it was good for students to see someone who looked like me at the front of the classroom in a field that struggled with diversity. I was crushed; my work in philosophy stood at the center of my self-understanding in a way that my appearance never had.

But he wasn’t wrong. Teaching is the academic counterpart of artistic performance. Standing in front of a classroom full of students, you are forced to appear before a group of human beings who are old enough to have a complete set of acculturated stereotypes but who have, for the most part, only just begun reflecting on them. A colleague of mine noted offhandedly that as women, we have only two pedagogical archetypes to work with—mother and lover, each authoritative in her way but neither one admired for her philosophical genius. When my anger subsided, I realized for the first time that I had no vision of what success looked like in my field for me as me.”


Sarah Menkedick considers how Mexican-Americans are articulating their own Americanness right now, and how they are struggling to get that part of the identity to be recognized by others:

“I met Vianney Bernabé in the buffet line at the Fiesta Inn during the Fulbright orientation in Mexico City. I was struggling to contain my toddler, who was a hydra-like mess of limbs fighting to race freely up and down the corridor. “She’s beautiful,” Vianney said, and we started chatting. Vianney’s English is quintessential California: lots of “likes” and drawn out “yeahs” and “killed its,” with big vowels and sentences that curl at their ends into question-like realizations. She is petite, with a tensile, restless energy. Her wavy black hair is often corralled in a low ponytail, and her features are chiseled: fine cheekbones, fine collarbones, delicately contoured fingers. They are the features of a violinist, which she has been since she was eight years old.

As we inched closer to the tubs of chilaquiles, she began telling me her story, and a familiar space opened between us: a territory de aquí y allá, a shared experience of having family on both sides of the border. We started talking by phone every Monday night, after she’d finished her 12-hour day of commuting and work at a security firm as part of the Fulbright Binational Business Program. Her family here in Mexico, she explained, thought of her as American: a deserter of her home country, wealthy and privileged, a gringa come to strut around with all the gringa’s carefree assumptions of power. Meanwhile, in the United States, Vianney’s parents clung to the lowest rungs of a racialized U.S. labor and power hierarchy, having worked for three decades to give their children better lives. She and her sisters had grown up in some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Los Angeles, struggling against failing schools, crime, racism, and poverty.

Vianney had come to Mexico City expecting to embrace her past and to be embraced as a long-lost daughter. Instead, like many second-generation Mexican Americans who return to Mexico, she wound up being confronted with her Americanness. “I have never had turkey at Thanksgiving. I grew up listening to cumbia, but on the other hand my education was from the United States,” she told me. Our conversations were full of this vexed ping-ponging between Mexicanness, Americanness, and Mexican Americanness, an ineffable cultural zone inhabited by more and more Americans, including my own Mexican-American husband and daughter.”

Posted on 12 March 2017 | 9:00 am

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