Thursday, August 30, 2012


Ah, the west. What can be said about western civilization that hasn’t been said already? It’s not that I aim to be critical. I just want to understand. It’s like Pascal said about man and the universe. The universe may crush man, but the universe doesn’t really know what it is doing, while man at least understands what is happening and in that one small way vaults himself above the universe (which may or may not have been Pascal’s final point). I just want to be clear before I’m crushed.

The difference in this case is that western civilization is not the universe. It’s run by men and women, mostly men. It often would like to claim that it is unconscious of what it is doing and not really intending certain consequences, but who are they kidding? Themselves, for the most part. The leaders of a culture are more conscious of what they are doing than they are willing to admit. If any of us get crushed, it won’t be by an unknowing civilization.
It might seem odd, but we do not have the same Pascal advantage over a culture that we have over the immense universe. I want to understand western civilization, but it already understands better than I what it is doing. The only thing anyone can hope to gain is to be able to say, “I know, finally I know, and you the culture know what I know, and now I get to fully realize what you tried to keep me ignorant of.” Combating ignorance is the only tiny victory you can gain in a world of superior forces. It’s not much at all, but maybe God hears.
I am not going to reduce western civilization to one thing. I don’t believe any culture has a single essence or one overall quality that captures it perfectly and completely. All cultures have multiple threads running through it. The Bible, for example, has not an essence. It has many themes. Western civilization is no different.
One thing about western civilization I never noticed until very recently. It almost seems as if the goal of our culture has been to learn to be more and more effectively violent but without the use of guns or other weapons. By ‘violence’, I mean the exertion of overwhelming force which we in the west have learned can be done without resorting to bloodshed. We get what we want — utter domination — and keep our hands clean.
Suppose a government or a political party does not want certain kinds of people to vote. They could send men with rifles to the polling places and these men will turn away the unwanted voters. A step down from that would be to send the same men in the middle of the night to ride through the targeted neighborhoods, warning people not to go to the polls if they know what’s good for them. But why do any of this if you can get the same result without the ugly business of threatening death and destruction?
Just a short while back, in Pennsylvania, they passed a law requiring voters to have ID with them when they come to cast their ballot. I don’t know all the details (like whether the ID will have to have a photo and address). (In NY, once you are registered, the only verification they use is your signature which should match what they have on record.) Many poor people who get social services of some kind will likely have some type of ID, but I don’t know if that ID will meet the requirements of the PA law. The working poor may have no ID at all as many low-paying jobs provide none. Suffice it to say that this law seems designed to knock out a lot of low income voters. And all without guns.
Many years ago in a county in some state somewhere, another brilliant strategy was used to undo the right to vote. The county councilors (about nine?) were all white. Every year, they divided the county revenues equally among them and each used his portion to improve his neighborhood. The black community never got anything. After the civil rights laws were passed, one black man was finally voted onto the council. So now the black neighborhood would finally get something, right? Wrong! They changed the rules of the game. Instead of each councilor getting a share of the pot, they kept all the funds in one huge pot, and the council voted on how to distribute it. Since it was eight to one, the black community once again got nothing.
The case was litigated as a violation of the voting rights act on the premise that when you vote, you are voting for two things: 1) a certain individual, and 2) to put that person into an office with specific powers. Since the powers of the office were changed in this case, the right to vote had been violated. The Supreme Court did not buy that argument and once again a subtle form of violence triumphed. I don’t have updated information on this case or what is happening in PA, but still, these examples serve to illustrate the ways in which domination can be achieved without overt violence. Who said this isn’t a beautiful world?
So many are the ways you can do violence to people. Telling lies about their history is a major one. You might even get them to cooperate in spreading these lies about their own culture. This has been a major technique used against Jews and other minorities. It is my impression that most Jews have a low opinion of ancient Jewish culture (believing it to have been excessively tribal and ritualistic) and even believe that ancient Jewish leaders conspired against Jesus. It forms a dark spot on Jewish self-consciousness. Once a people think badly of themselves due to lies about their culture, you can do almost anything you want to them.
That brings me round to Darwin and the theory of evolution. How so, you ask? Funny you should ask ne that because I was wondering how I’m going to pull this off. Let’s go back to the Bible for a moment. Torah, the Hebrew scriptures. It has many threads, as I said. One is a concern for justice, for the outsider, for the weak, for the unfittest. But that bumps up against a lot of violence. Theologians (who with some exceptions know less about the Bible than any group on earth) are fond of telling us that the God of the Hebrews was a violent deity.
I don’t see it that way. What I see is that violence was a very real part of their world. They did not want to erase it and pretend all was rosy. How to make sense of it, account for it, respond to it, reconcile it or not with their fuller experience of the world and God.
Darwin was faced with a similar problem. There is violence in the world and plenty of it. Does it add up to any kind of sense? Is it just random? Is human violence on the same order as violence in the larger world of nature or does it have its own sources and meaning? Darwin and all evolutionists are no different from the writers of Torah. They are not better, wiser, more sophisticated. They are just human beings like those ancient human beings trying to figure things out. Both are worth listening to. Both have answers worth paying attention to, even if you disagree with their particular answer.
Here’s another biblical thread: These Torah people, they hated power and abuse of power. They hated violence, though they had to stomach it. You shall make no graven image. This is often interpreted as opposition or resistance to idolatry. There’s more to it, I believe. I think they saw images as symbols of power and wanted to undermine, in any way they could, power and the violence that goes along with it. Elsewhere, God says to Moses, No man shall see my face and live (Ex 33:20; I’ve rephrased it just slightly). Even God shall not be a source of power. No one sees him, no one owns him, no one controls him. We shall not be governed by kings, priests, or God, and especially by anyone who claims to have special access to God.
How then shall we live? We shall be governed by a Constitution (the Torah) and rational debate over its meaning. It will be as democratic a process as possible. There will be no hereditary class of interpreters. Merit will determine who joins in on the debate.
The writers of Torah tried to create a society that would be conscious and self-conscious about the problems of power and how it imposes itself. Get a handle on power and the desire for power in yourself, and you can get a handle on violence, both the unsubtle and subtle kind. It is probably impossible to entirely eliminate abuse of power from any society. The antidote to that is to maintain a consciousness of what it means to grab for power. That’s what the authors of Torah tried to do and pass on to their descendants, the Pharisees and rabbis, who picked up on this inheritance pretty well.
And that’s where western science has singularly failed and where it could, if it had a mind to, learn a great lesson. These ancient Jews thought a lot about power and tried to create a system into which they built this concern for what might go wrong. They made questioning power—the power of authorities, including the learned people of society—part of the system. Western civilization has not done the same. We prefer to be unconscious about power and invisible about violence. I say ‘we’, but I’m thinking primarily about scientists who assume they are always objective. They never question whether science too is greedy for power.
We say we want to understand the world, nature, other peoples, but is our presumed knowledge sometimes a way of committing violence? Many native peoples object to anthropology. Why? Because they are against knowledge? No. Because in their experience anthropology is often used to control them and misrepresent their heritage. It is almost impossible for human beings to be objective in the study of other human beings. Darwin is a good example of how easy it is to deceive ourselves about that.
In Origin of Species, Darwin is pretty blunt describing the violence in nature. He does not try to soften it or make it look pretty. He uses some very strong metaphorical language—beat, dominate, battle, and much more. But he resorts to euphemisms in The Descent of Man when he talks about Europeans and savages. I’ll save the details for my book on Darwin. He doesn’t mind telling us that savages make war on other savages, but he has a lot of difficulty saying the same for Europeans and savages.
Rather famously, in fact, he regards the disappearance of natives as something of a mystery. “Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal,” he wrote in his Beagle journal (The Voyage of the Beagle, 375; a few pages into Chapter 19, if you have an edition with different pagination). He believes there is “some more mysterious agency” in addition to some obvious causes of destruction. In a letter to his sister Caroline (May 19-June 16, 1837), he writes, “I am very much inclined to suspect that there is some such mysterious law connected with the destruction of the Aborigines in both Americas.”
This is admittedly early in his career. By the time of Descent, he sees some causes (shrouded in euphemism), but he never emphasizes that there was simply a lot of killing or that dispossessing the natives of their land and culture was an act of silent violence. He does his best to make it invisible. There is an irony here. Darwin is famous for supposedly making man a part of nature. But he is really a part of an older tradition in western culture of setting man apart. He seeks to make violence as visible as possible in the natural world, while making it invisible in civilization. Not that Darwin could, or even desired to, get rid of it altogether. Perhaps I should say he tried to make it less visible. Whereas the writers of Torah sought to make human violence palpable and to find a cure.
Woody Guthrie said it best: Some people will rob you with a gun, some with a fountain pen. Today it would be a computer. They might even back it up with science.
© Leon Zitzer 2012