Friday, July 3, 2015

Values Voters

In those days there was no king in Israel.
Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
— Judges 17.6 (ESV)

            Puberty as such wasn't a trauma for me. I recall during my first shave, or an early one, catching a glimpse of my mother watching me, with her looking pleased and a little proud. Shortly thereafter, my father came up to me and gave me, let's say, a complimentary-size box of condoms (many more than I'd use by the time I left home) and delivered the fatherly advice, "Until you know what to do with it, keep it in your pants."
            What was jarring, my real loss of innocence, was when it hit me at about age fourteen, "Everybody feels justified!" Even then, I knew that was hyperbole and overgeneralization, even if I didn't know those terms: we often do things we know or believe are wrong, and we feel guilty. Still, I was surprised and a little shocked and upset to realize that people doing some nasty shit, including to me, felt justified: some guy hurting others, including possibly me, was doing "what was right in his own eyes."
            This was hardly a new observation, and I've since gotten it reinforced frequently. Shakespeare's Othello (1604) murders his wife for honor, and a murderer in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River (2001) is consciously specific about feeling justified in his crime. Indeed, in a number of books I've listened to recently — and in a couple cases went so far as to buy hard copy — in at least two cases, the argument is made explicitly that many "evil-doers" from petty thieves to international war criminals do what they do to right what they feel as an injustice.
            And, of course, in cases where it is the law that is wicked, criminals can do what is right in their own eyes and be right.
            Runaway slaves were stealing their masters' property, and after the passage of the US Fugitive Slave Act, anyone who helped them broke the law. Similarly with those Righteous Gentiles who helped Jews escape the Nazis, and, of course, any Jew who escaped the State-sanctioned policies of slavery and then death.
            We should keep this in mind if the discussion in the US heats up again on "Values Voters" and "Religious Voters.
            I'll take the second phrase first, because the clarification has been done for me by Henry Fielding with his satire of the Reverend Mr. Thwackum's position in the great line in Tom Jones (1749), "When I say religion, I mean the Christian religion, and when I say the Christian religion, I mean the Protestant religion, and when I say the Protestant religion, I mean the Church of England!" Ten to fifteen minutes listening to attacks on attacks on "religion" will make clear that "religion" usually means the religion of the speaker, not so much the Episcopal Church in America nowadays, but many of the churches and traditions and sects from Evangelical Christianity to Salafist Islam — and on.
            A caveat here, though: sometimes "Religious Voters" means just what it says, and differentiates between voters who take their religion seriously — for a wide swath of religious beliefs — and differentiates them from people who are secular. Or, in the United States, "Religious Voters" can refer to those who couldn't reliably tell you the basic tenets of any religion but have a traditional American commitment to a generalized faith in God and country and tradition, without thinking much about any of them — although this variety of "Religious Voter" can despise the secular with more vehemence than those who know about religion. (Indeed, Pope Francis knows a whole lot about religion and speaks loudly against greedy materialism, not so much against secular philosophical materialism.)
            It's scary that horrible people often feel completely justified, and, indeed, it's almost a matter of definition that psychopaths don't feel guilty at all about the harm they cause. On the other hand, it's just a given that most of us most of the time act according to our values. Sometimes a tragic hero (female as well as male) will see that something is wrong but doing it anyway — and ditto for more normal people. And sometimes we just fuck up. But most of us, most of the time are "Values Deciders" in our considered action, and rarely more so than when actually voting.
            Even as Mr. Thwackum was narrow-minded in limiting "religion" to, finally, his own Church of England, even so people are narrow-minded in denying values to people whose values differ. Or, putting the same point differently, "The Moral Majority" of the 20th century wasn't against an "Immoral Minority" so much as against other groups operating from different moral codes.
            And sometimes our oppositions are even deeper than fairly conscious moral codes or ethical systems and get into "world-views" and the basic myths — in the anthropological sense — that help us organize our dealings with the world.
            Here we need to be cautious.
            It pisses me off when Right-wingers passing themselves off as conservatives — there's nothing conservative about capitalism! — it pisses me off when hyperventilating people on the American Right praise "Values Voters" and/or "Religious Voters" and exclude those of us with other values and other religions.
            On the other hand, it's not always a good idea to be too explicit about just how radically (from the roots) we disagree on issues such as the history and nature of the universe and what we mean by such words as "liberty," "freedom," "country" and "honor." And clearly it can be risky to get specific about how much we disagree about even such relatively superficial things as the causes of the US Civil War and what is signified by the Confederate flag and the word "heritage" for the States, both Confederate and United.
            If you truly believe the "Heavens and the Earth" were created some 5775 years ago (Jewish count) in six days by a God who crowned creation with humankind, you are going to have a different world view from those who have as their creation myth The Big Bang of some 13.77 billion years ago followed a universe evolving in a way that happened, eventually, to produce us — along with innumerable other entities and species of importance equal to us, and some (a galaxy, say) a whole lot bigger.
            If you firmly believe that human beings are essentially souls to be saved and this life but a brief pilgrimage to heaven or hell — then you will and should have practical views different from those of us — who may include the author of Koheleth ("Ecclesiastes") in the Bible — who are pretty sure this life is all there is.
            If you accept as a tenet of faith that the Christian Scriptures are "inerrant in their original autographs" and that the King James translation pretty well says in English what those originals said; if you believe that the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and the example of the Primitive Church established a Way for the saved then and until the end of time — then you're going to have different values from people who don't know what the hell what I just wrote means.
            So: Right-wing folk in America, please stop talking vaguely about "attacks on religion" and try to get specific about just what the attacks and conflicts are. And please don't talk of yourselves as "Values Voters" as if the rest of us didn't have values.
            But, yet again, all of us: Turn down the volume and the passion and the heat. We have serious disagreements, and the seriousness is all the more reason to practice care, humility, and compassion.
            We're not far in much of the world from large-scale wars of religion between Sunni and Shia. We don't need literal culture war in the US. We need to play nice, compromise where we can, find friends where possible, and at least tolerate otherwise decent people who are so benighted as to disagree with us.

            Criminals who are obviously hurting people and feel justified doing it — those folk we can get together and try to hold in check.

No comments:

Post a Comment