Sunday, January 25, 2004

Everything for Everybody

When the Soviet Union went under, the market for Russian language tapes tanked. French has also suffered a steep decline as a second language—oddly, or maybe not, the new comer, outside of English, is German. That reported, one of the amazing things about the last century is how well the French have maintained their cultural importance as they have declined from a world power to at most a middling regional power. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to match up Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Aron, Sartre, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Dumezil, Bachelard, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, and Bourdieu with the corresponding American thinkers. Good luck.

The most recent French savant I’ve encountered is the philosopher Alain Badiou. I don’t know what I think about him yet. I’ve only read his brief book, St Paul, the Foundations of Universalism. If nothing else, Badiou got me to thinking about how relevant Paul is to us here in the early Imperial period. Paul is important not because of his monotheism—arguably every human belief system has a supreme entity of some sort because of the irresistible logical temptation to posit one—but because he addressed everyone, Greek and Jew, as if ethnicity doesn’t really matter. These days we’re more likely to argue about getting Supersized than circumcised; but our tepid multiculturalism, as convenient, mediocre, and indefensible as the calculated tolerance of the Romans, contrasts drastically with Paul’s genuine, if scary, universalism. Suggesting that any idea or value might hold for everybody really is impolitic—even the Bush administration wants to keep the Missionaries on a leash in Iraq—but ruling out a confrontation between faiths or convictions means that one’s religion or philosophy is merely local color like wearing a colorful sombrero or eating gravilax. I’m certainly no Christian, but, like Paul, I do believe in playing for keeps.

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