Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mystery and Authenticity

A while back I wrote how this piece in the New York Times complaining about the lost authenticity of Indian life was a bit mush-headed. It contains some sort of romantic notions about Indian culture and life.

FLG always finds it odd when people disdain Western culture, but have some sort of reverence for other cultures (Native American, Asian, etc). At first, he thought this was some sort of weird liberal guilt, combined with twisted logic. To wit: White men bad. White man's culture is therefore bad. Therefore, other cultures, ones untainted by white men, are good. But it's not quite that simple, and this view, while partially true, is largely based upon FLG's own biases.

But a search on Liberal and Cultural Authenticity returns this:
Liberalism and the Politics of Cultural Authenticity
James Johnson

University of Rochester

In this paper, I consider one possible defense of the presumption, common among liberal legal and political theorists, that we should respect culture. Specifically, I examine the view, forcefully articulated by Joseph Carens, that we can identify those attachments or practices that are candidates for one or another form of legal protection by determining whether they are `authentic' in the sense that members of some relevant group accept or embrace them as an integral component of their culture. I first sketch in detail Carens's view and show that despite appearances his position is central to liberal arguments that we should respect culture. Next, I recapitulate the empirical case (the complicated cultural politics on the islands of Fiji) that Carens uses as a vehicle for his argument. I then challenge the implications that Carens draws from the Fijian case. In particular, I argue that claims to `authenticity' are themselves artifacts of strategic political processes, that they and the institutions they purport to justify are in fact morally arbitrary, and, therefore, that `authenticity' cannot afford a basis for justifying policies aimed at protecting culture in Fiji or elsewhere. I suggest in conclusion that by invoking authenticity in this regard Carens courts a brand of relativism that is especially pernicious in that it erodes the terrain of democratic representation and deliberation. This is ironic to the extent that Carens seeks to defend democracy as well as difference. On this basis I recommend that, for purposes of justifying social, political or economic arrangements, we abandon the language of authenticity altogether.


Emphasis mine.

This gets to the heart of what FLG finds so odd about people on the Left appealing to authenticity. Authenticity is Burkean Tradition's cousin. It's a pact between generations and therefore stands in the way of Liberal progress. Johnson calls this pernicious because authenticity, and by extension tradition, block some things off from public debate or at least frame the debate in ways that somebody who is most concerned with the current, material, and empirical state of things wishes they didn't. Put simply -- they are a barrier to expeditious, short-term progress.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Yuval Levin argues that conservative bioethics is somewhat of a paradox. The arguments that conservatives produce to defend against the onslaught of progress undermine taboos. His argument is that it is more powerful to simply rely upon the visceral revulsion that most people feel toward things like incest than to produce a reasoned argument. Reasoned arguments can be defeated with trick of language and sophistry. Visceral revulsion is harder to overcome. So, this desire to examine, reason, and rationalize seems to pervade our modern, democratic sensibilities. Levin writes:
The greatest teacher of conservatism, Edmund Burke, complained about this tendency of democrats. “It has been the misfortune, not as these gentlemen think it, the glory, of this age, that everything is to be discussed,” he wrote. The greatest student of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, understood why this should be so, and that often it is for the good. In democratic times, he explains, individuals no longer accept ideas on authority or faith or age-old sentiment. Equality convinces every citizen of the power of his reason, and he wishes to subject every idea to his own rational inspection. Tocqueville describes the public life of a democracy as a constant transformation of the implicit into the explicit, as the authority of tradition and the power of sentiment give way to clearly defined operations of interest and will. Old, deep, unspoken social ties—between owner and tenant, employer and employee, governor and governed, and many others—are transformed into clearly delineated contractual relations, and everywhere old sentimental notions are replaced by explicit arguments. “Do you not perceive on all sides beliefs that give way to reasoning, and sentiments that give way to calculations?” Tocqueville asks.


It's almost the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to politics. Examining the reasons for some human institution's existence, even in its defense, undermines its authority and authenticity. And that's where we return to FLG's biased account of hating White Man's culture.

It's not just that many people, taking a lead from atheist, communist college professors, have taken a critical eye toward Western culture to dig up every aspect of racism, classism, patriarchy, and generally discriminating against the Other. It's that the mere examination of the culture's institutions undermines them. And that's why one of FLG's big pet peeves, the assumption that authentic, real culture exists in native or foreign cultures, has begun to make sense to him.

FLG believes that all people want to feel connection to something or someone. This seems apparent both in everyday life and the multiple discussions of alienation in modern and postmodern political philosophy. The Enlightenment exposed existing institutions to the light of reason, empiricism, and social science. Thus, they tore out the authenticity, and by extension traditional authority.

Since Western tradition has been pretty thoroughly discredited as racist, homophobic, classist, and patriarchal. It's only natural that they would search for authenticity outside of it. And thus we have all the Hollywood types who revere the Dalai Llama and search for meaning in Ancient mystical religions. But FLG has always asked himself why these appeal to lefty Hollywood types, and his explanation about the White Man's culture explained it. But that's not the whole story as he tried to explain above.

To put it simply -- familiarity breeds contempt. Growing up in Western culture, one that has been critically examined to the point of near exhaustion, likewise breeds contempt in some. FLG gets especially upset when the Founding Father, who created this greatest of countries, are dismissed simply as slave owning white men who didn't want to pay their taxes, completely dismissing how they did set us on the path to greater and greater equality and perhaps it's not fair to project our present moral and cultural values back onto them, but I'm getting off-point...

Anyway, the foreign traditions are considered more authentic by these people simply because they haven't been examined as thoroughly as Western traditions. They accept the traditions without looking into what atrocities or discrimination or whatever they may have justified or let to in the past. FLG is sure there are some there. Every culture has its atrocities. Although, he doesn't know of any evil acts anybody has committed in the name of Buddhism.

But then FLG asked himself, why don't they look into these things. First answer was that they are lazy. Second was that they don't want to know. They understand intuitively that examining these things too closely will undermine its authenticity and since they've gone looking for authenticity it's best to leave all that alone. Last, and this is an important point FLG thinks, the authenticity of foreign cultures has no impact on current, domestic politics. They pose no threat or obstacles to the progressive project here in the States. Likewise for the cultures of "marginalized peoples." By definition, marginalized people have little to no power. Hence, the marginalization. Therefore, their traditions can safely be revered by somebody concerned with progress.

And so, after all that thinking, I came back to the White Man culture. White men had the power, so need to undermine the authenticity and by extension authority of white male power. Actually, it's about undermining Western traditional authority, which happens to have been controlled throughout history by white men. But there's a serious conflation of the two in some circles that rely on bastardized Marxist class antagonisms, such as Feminism, which took the capitalist-proletariat and largely changed it to white males-everybody else.

Oh, I have one more point, but it doesn't fit into what I've written so far quite neatly. The most pernicious, to borrow a word from James Johnson, movement in modern democratic debate is the one toward hyper-rationalization and empiricism, best exemplified by Richard Dawkins' attack on Harry Potter Apparently, it's not enough that religious belief has been undermined. We shouldn't tell stories that very clearly are fiction unless they conform to our empirical understanding of the material world, which is just fucking nuts.

I pity Prof. Dawkins. Not because he lacks faith, but because he lacks imagination and a sense of whimsy. And not only does he lack them, but he outright disdains them. It's must be a sad, sad life.

Human beings need some mystery. Pulling back the curtains isn't always a good idea. And we certainly shouldn't pull back the curtains when somebody put them there for our amusement like J.K. Rowling did.

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