Monday, February 06, 2012

You Have The Right To Sound Stupid: Two Cases

An amazing amount of stupidity would be removed from so much of our world if people took the time to consider something really, really simple. This consideration is overlooked, I believe, precisely because it is so simple.

Most people, most of the time, look really stupid picking arguments with other people. Much of the time, these same people think they're being really smart and clever when, in fact, they're doing little more than displaying their monumental ignorance. Cringe-inducing, like watching a drunk uncle at a family get-together sing "Light My Fire".

One of the problems with the internet - and there are many - is that it gives everyone the opportunity to say whatever they want. Marvelous tool! Except, if you're pig-ignorant, yet haven't had the opportunity to interact with people who aren't pig-ignorant, you tend to get indignant when these people come along and remind you, "Wow, I've dissected frogs that knew more than you."

When the subject turns to "religion" (one of those words I would discard from the Oxford English Dictionary with a smile on my face and a song in my heart), there is no shortage of ignorance. This ignorance is aided and abetted by people who are educated in other areas; have demonstrated a depth of understanding in these areas, and therefore given a certain benefit of the doubt when they speak on matters outside their areas of expertise. Thus, a few years back, the rise of the New Atheists, who showed all the world they, and those who sang their praises to earth and sea and sky could join hands in a battle against a figment of their imagination. The "religion" they talked about, the "God" they hated, was a marvelous invention of their own febrile imaginations.

The only thing that was worse was all the other allegedly intelligent people who, to this day, express "support" or "agreement" with things written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the rest of them, demonstrating an appalling lack of understanding of . . . well, anything.

This post from a British theology tutor makes a point that I have been driving home in my Christian Believer class. Christian talk about God is not just anything we decide it can be. It is, and has always been, only this one thing, considered in this way. In all its variety and plurality, all the different ways and languages and times and places Christians have sought to understand who this God is with which we have dealings, we have to make clear we are only talking about the God of the Christian faith when we understand the specificity of the Subject. A Subject who reveals who that Subject is in this way and not that; in this person's life and not just any; in this particular history and not another. Anything else, no matter how marvelous and subtle it might sound, no matter how beautiful and moving it might be to our hearts and minds, isn't talk about the Christian God.

Those who wish to argue with the faithful might take just a little time to understand that before they start sounding really silly.

Over here, I'm actually sorta-kinda engaged in a discussion on matters of how the US should relate to other nation-states. In the course of the discussion, I gave a definition of how to understand the way nation-states interact that comes from International Relations 101, the whole real politique business of countries acting out of their self-interest. I was immediately accused of being "relativist" because I made no moral judgments of the intentions or actions, of the expression of the self-interest of certain countries.

We Americans are Wilsonian in our view of the world. Like Hegel in the 19th century, there are Right Wilsonians like the neo-conservatives who seek to use American power to impose a second American imperium, in particular in the Middle East. We also have Left Wilsonians who desire to use American power to assist nations struggling in any number of ways, from internal strife and even civil war (consider American intervention in the Libyan Civil War, and the clamor to intervene in Syria) and to depose dictators (all those little Hitlers all over the world . . .) right up to the mundane uses such as development and crisis management. Wildly different in so many ways, to the point of mutual contempt, the single trait they share is their dedication to Woodrow Wilson's belief that our national exceptionalism, the purity of our motives and history, and the grand moral vision of a world managed according to the principles that have made the United States a world power compel us to act, even when there is no possible national interest served by acting, and when acting often creates situations that create more problems than they relieve.

My interlocutor is, I think, a Right Wilsonian. Imbued with the missionary zeal of American Exceptionalism, as well as a terror that someone, somewhere might wish the United States, its government and people, and/or its interests harm, little recourse other than belligerence seems clear. One bit of evidence offered is a recent article in the on-line edition of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, that claims operational links between the very Sunni al Qaeda and the very Shi'a Islamic Republic of Iran. While the headline certainly seems scary, the evidence the article provides, as well as the recommendations of official caution, hardly justify much worry. Furthermore, they demonstrate the reality that otherwise antagonistic groups can continue to be antagonistic, yet work together toward common ends. A wonderful demonstration of real politique if ever there was one!

Finally, I have no idea whether or not the folks who run Iran are good people or not. I certainly wouldn't choose to live there; I know my wife and daughters wouldn't enjoy it very much. While I know the Iranians, under their current form of government, aren't going to join hands with America to make the world safe for democracy, that isn't a reason we shouldn't be talking about any number of things. The United States maintained the fundamental illegitimacy of the Soviet Union for half a century, yet we traded with them, negotiated treaties with them, competed with them in international sporting events, hosted cultural exchanges with them; shoot, Richard Nixon shipped them grain! All the while we were nipping at one another's heels in each other's home countries, and sniping at the peripheries of one another's spheres of influence.

That's what countries do. No big deal.

If we can do that with the Soviet Union, I'm straining to understand how Iran is qualitatively different.

It isn't "relativist" to refuse to say, "The Iranians are bad." The Iranians are going to do what they do, and whether or not I believe they are bad or not, or agree with either the ends they seek, or the means by which they seek it, it seems to me sitting around and claiming a moral high ground that doesn't exist doesn't make anyone feel more safe. On the other hand, saying, "Well, the US has its interests, the Iranians have theirs. Let's see what we might have in common, and chat about those things, agreeing to disagree - and even snipe at one another in all sorts of ways - in others."

There is a way to think about how the US relates to other countries that is correct. I know it's difficult to understand, with the explosion of the internet, that there are such things as being wrong about any number of issues. It's tough to hear that you're wrong. Trust me, I know.

That doesn't make it any less the case that, if we're going to dig ourselves out of the very deep hole in which we find ourselves, the least we can do is start to accept the notion that many things are not a matter of opinion.

Virtual Tin Cup

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