Saturday, December 01, 2007

Protest & Moral Sentimentality

The rhetorical pose of protest today is indeed moral sentimentality. There are videos all over youtube in which street interviews of pro-life and pro-choice protesters demonstrate how ridiculously mindless and shallow their positions are. And it's not their views themselves, it's the form of protest that's to blame. In my past life as a social justice dude, I ran the whole protest gauntlet several times and learned the Seeger protest hymnal. I don't care how much MLK loved it - "We Shall Overcome" is as limpy whimpy tune as I've ever heard. But after a while I felt the two sides just feed off each other. It's dualistic, dialectical, demonizing morality politics at its goofiest. Protest today does seem to make you stupid.

I think this has been one of the downsides of evangelicals joining the Catholic pro-life dance - they brought an Urbana/megachurch rah-rah attitude to a complex moral-political-cultural-religious-social issue. It's not just a megachurch thing. I can't watch the presidential debates or the Daily Show anymore because of the self-bovinizing ways American audiences cheer and jeer. Listen to Prime Minister's Questions for an example of cheering-jeering that's raucous but intelligent and attentive, almost choral. There's something so utterly vacuous in the American "woo-hoo," which unfortunately has made its way into every public venue, including our churches along with applause as if liturgy were just a type of townhall meeting.

For apostolic Christianity, liturgy is the primary weapon in our battle with the demons of this world and though protest may have liturgical resonances, it's ultimately anti-liturgical. There's infinitely more power in a Eucharistic procession or Stations of the Cross or even May Day processions than in any protest.

But what about the Civil Rights marches? That which brought a racist empire to its knees was far more specific and clear-headed in its goals and methodology. Today we have annual rallies which have the goal of allowing political co-religionists the comfort of feeling like they're doing something or standing up for something. Posturing becomes a substitute for substance. Look underneath and they're expressions of impotency. In Liturgy, the posturing is theological symbol, and thus heavily stylized and iconic.

This interview with Eugene McCarraher, always the historian/writer provocateur of the Hauerwasian-Catholic mold, reinforces my thinking on this. I strongly disagree with some of his positions, but I appreciate his way of thinking which is rarely given any voice in the Catholic pro-life movement. A good test for me is the reflexive moralistic tone with which pro-lifers will automatically pounce on him for being "soft" on abortion. He may very well be soft on abortion, but the reflexive response of the herd is equally telling.

He has some insightful points on the ties that bind capitalism and American pro-life movement culture. He doesn't draw nearly fine enough of a distinction between pro-life culture and pro-life ethical reasoning as I'd like and he collapses capitalism with "the world" more than I'd like, but he's not trying to skin those cats.
Some of the other advice I'd offer probably won't go down as easily. First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about "consumerism." "Consumerism" is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I've come to think that that's the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It's just too easy a target. There's a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don't, by the way, believe that we inhabit a "post-industrial" society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they're materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome, because it clearly doesn't work, and wrong-headed, because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a "culture of death." Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we're logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of "choice" or "freedom." But that, then, is to indict capitalism, which employs a similar language of sovereignty both to legitimate itself and to obscure the remarkable lack of creative freedom at work. I know that I'll catch a lot of hell for saying this, but I think that a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish. (You'll notice that I think fetishism of some sort or other is a pretty salient feature of the contemporary American moral imagination.) Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don't see or don't care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight. They'll retort that capitalism doesn't kill anyone in its normal operations, but, first, that's just not true—capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence—and second, it doesn't matter, because the exercise of market "autonomy" has devastating effects on individuals and communities regardless of whether or not they wind up dead. ("Yeah, the company cut your medical benefits or cut your job or left your town a mess, but hey, you're still alive!") When I say this, a lot of people retort that I'm "changing the subject." In one way, yes I am, but for a reason—because I want them to see that it is the same subject, in a different guise. Talking about abortion is a way of not talking about the "autonomous individual," the latest ideological guise of libido dominandi, discussion of which would topple quite a few idols, and not just "reproductive choice."