Saturday, September 18, 2004

Counter Reformation for Dummies

If I were a praying man, I’d thank Providence every day that I wasn’t born as a person of literary ambitions in a 3rd World country. I have an intense sympathy for those poor souls who are more or less stuck with the scutwork of explaining how the ancient traditions of their people are—who would have thought it?—precisely relevant to contemporary problems because the positive features of modernity were all adumbrated by various dimly remembered prophets, sages, and poets. Armies of national intellectuals have found their widely varying talents herded into the defile of this historical situation. Nobody writes what they want, just what they can; but the predicament of so many 19th and 20th Century public men and women shows that the great constraint on creativity is not a lack of ability or some subtle psychological block or tragic and ineluctable abyss between conception and performance or even the suffocating, inescapable influence of the Zeitgeist, but often enough the absence of any other plausible career move.

A lot of what gets passed off as historical determinism is no more mysterious than the canalizing effect of available career options. And it’s just for this reason that the best way to assert ideological hegemony is not brainwashing or terror but the creation of opportunities for bright young comers. The Roman church wasn’t particularly successful in countering Protestantism by burning people at the stake, but restricting the best bureaucratic and academic jobs to the faithful had a powerful if gradual effect, especially in Hapsburg lands. Transubstantiation didn’t become any more plausible between 1500 and 1700, but it paid rather better to defend it just as it pays better to arrive at free market solutions to every conceivable problem in an intellectual world increasingly dominated by the patronage of highly ideological foundations. Overt persecution of opposing views is unnecessary and counterproductive so long as personal ambition can so easily be mobilized in the service of authority. Of course the very best minds are a little too proud to shill for anybody, but the mediocre always dominate the scene in the short run as one can easily verify by monitoring the Op Ed page of the New York Times.

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