Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Paradox of Fundamentalism

Several month ago Anthony Grafton wrote an "appreciation piece" about Clifford Geertz based heavily on Grafton's experience in co-teaching with Geertz at Princeton. Grafton was particularly impressed by the way Geertz could persuade his anthropology students to assimilate seriously the mindset of even the most alien of cultures for the sake of arriving at a better understanding of what made those cultures tick. I could not help but remember Grafton's words this morning while reading the reactions to Barry Yourgrau's latest blog post on The Huffington Post, "McCain's Elbows, John Hagee, and the San Antonio B'nai B'rith." Of greatest interest were the reactions provoked by the following paragraph from the original post:

Perhaps that flapping notion [referring to the way McCain carries his arms] holds some merit though--honest John is trying to flap away from the trouble he's in from not denouncing the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, who is a bonafide wacko, a medieval crank, anti-Catholic bigot and slaughter-monger, who happens to be grotesquely pro-Israel.

I had to wonder how Geertz would have reacted had one of his anthropology students used that kind of language or, for that matter, the turn of phrase in the comment by Querent about "most mentally disabled fundamentalists." Hopefully, he would have responded with a quiet reminder that cultures are to be interpreted, rather than evaluated, and that the methodology of interpretation involves the effort to assume "the native's point of view," however difficult that effort may be. Indeed, my recent attention to the work of John Dewey grew out of my reading the first two Parts of Geertz' collection of essays, The Interpretation of Cultures; so it is no surprise that the language I have quoted reflects the very problems that Dewey argued could be resolved through works of art. This is, in Dewey's words, the language of "a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience," thus undermining all possibility "of complete and unhindered communication between man and man."

Ironically, one of my closest experiences with a fundamentalist took place at the St. Andrew's hospice that is practically right outside the wall around the Old City of Jerusalem. (Before the 1967 War it was about as close as you could get to the Old City while remaining within Israeli borders.) The fundamentalist in question was returning to the United States, along with the rest of his family, from missionary work in Asia; and Fate had ironically planted him at the very site where I had established my own accommodations. This experience gave me my first real sense of the extent to which the fundamentalist mindset is not pathological but fraught with paradox.

Appealing again to a healthy sense of irony, that paradox lies in the discrepancies between the Old and New Testaments and the fundamentalist conviction that both texts are authoritative ("word of God") sources. The problem, of course, is the wide discrepancy of opinion about the Jews. Thus, this particular fundamentalist was very comfortable sitting in the living room of our hospice opining over the need for a State of Israel to occupy that territory that had been given by God to Abraham in the Book of Genesis, disregarding all the New Testament texts that condemned the Jews for their role in the Crucifixion. In a way this paradox is in the same league as the optical illusion of the Necker cube, which, due to the lack of any depth cues, can be seen in two inconsistent ways, each viewing the cube from a different perspective. You can see it from one perspective or another, but you cannot see it from both at the same time. So it is that a fundamentalist reading of the Old Testament sees today's Jews as God's chosen people, while an equally fundamentalist reading of the New Testament sees them as fated for eternal damnation.

Yourgrau's text is sort of an example of "thinking out of the box" by denying the significance of this paradox and attributing it to some kind of mental pathology. Perhaps he believes that all fundamentalists should be "deprogrammed" through techniques that have been applied to followers of cults deemed "irrational" or "destructive" by our societal norms. Without appearing to defend fundamentalists, however, I would argue that his approach basically denies the possibility of communication and, by denying the possibility of communication, also denies the possibility of establishing a platform of understanding upon which differences can be discussed. In other words he is no different from President George W. Bush attacking Barak Obama for wanting to meet with leaders of countries like Cuba or North Korea.

There is no easy way out of this mess. It does not take much study of history to appreciate that a mind in paradox, whether the mind of an individual or the "collective mind" of a culture, is a mind under great stress. Even the Necker cube annoys many viewers by challenging the assumption that there is only one way to interpret a visual stimulus. However, the one thing that history may teach us is that increasing the stress tends to provoke consequences that are even worse than those that gave rise to the stress. Not only did Yourgrau's language increase the stress on the fundamentalist mindset, but also it seems to have incited others to do the same through their comments. I am not so much worried about the consequences of a "fundamentalist backlash" as I am about the way in which this strategy reveals how intolerant many who purport to be "liberal" and "rational" really are; and that says a lot as we head towards an election that is more likely to be venomous than decisive.

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