Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On the Hoof

There’s a joke in the Pooh Perplex about the professor who published “All Previous Thought, a rather large freshman casebook.” The notion that even an elephant folio could contain that much content is pretty funny, but I have several volumes on my shelves that purport to be only marginally less capacious—the closest in view is Wing-Tsit Chan’s Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, clocking in a comparatively modest 856 pages. Sourcebooks are an improvement on the potted summaries one encounters in surveys since even translations convey something of the voice of the real thinkers instead of reducing them to a set of opinions rephrased in the conceptually impoverished pidgin language of all-to-much intellectual history. That doesn’t evade the problem of selection, however. It isn’t just a choice must be made between particular thinkers—that subtraction is often part of the value added by the editor. What is problematic is the almost inevitable systematic bias in favor of representatives of traditions whose activities come down to defending definable points of view as opposed, for example, to those for whom a philosophy is more a methodical practice than a body of results. But if the tendency of anthologies to focus on doxa misrepresents the history of philosophy, something similar has a far worse effect when it comes to compilations that survey the world’s religions.

Perhaps because in modern times having a religion is often more like having a hobby than anything else, it’s not surprising that one thinks that adherence to Christianity or Buddhism is definable as belief in a series of propositions. One can easily decide to believe this rather than that. Adapting a total manner of living and feeling is quite a different matter, especially considering the very onerous obligations that go along with the traditional practice of religions. Are you really going to give 10% of your income to the church? Are you really going to sit on a mat two hours a day? Are you really only going to have sex with your wife when you intend to reproduce? And that’s not the worst of it. The theologies of the various religions, having typically been elaborated by extremely intelligent and sophisticated men engaged in a long-range debate with other extremely intelligent and sophisticated men, are intellectually respectable while the ritual, devotional, ethical, and magical elements of the same faiths are often rather embarrassing. Small wonder if a comprehensible belief system presented in a scriptural anthology seems more congenially than the Howl’s Moving Castle of a real religion.

If, for some reason, you really want to know something about the religions of the world, you have to find a way to go beyond accounts that focus on the intellectual rationalizations of the several traditions and take a series of soundings of their daily substance. Donald S. Lopez, Jr.’s Princeton Readings in Religions series is a good place to start since these volumes focus on practice. Reading them conveys a very different picture of the reality of the world religions than the usual accounts, which, in contrast, often seem to be apologetics by proxy, appreciations of alien cultural institutions that accept the accuracy of the self-definitions of the religions they describe. The contemporary scholars who introduce the selections in the Lopez anthologies demonstrate something largely missing from popular discussions of religion: a combination of sympathetic understanding and critical distance.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

When the Man on the Horse Won’t Get Off His Ass

Like many others, I’ve taken comfort over the years from the reluctance of American military men to intervene in politics—two hundred and thirty years without a coup. George Washington’s decision not to seize power by force is perhaps an even more defining moment in our history than the Declaration of Independence, which, after all, would read as pretty feckless exercise in enthusiasm had the revolution resulted in a dictatorship. The willing subordination of military to civilian authority is not without its ambiguities, however. It certainly doesn’t mean that the generals and the admirals, inhabitants of an authoritarian world of obedience and deference, respect democratic politics. Indeed, many of them find the give and take of free institutions distasteful and avoid partisan involvement as much out of fastidiousness as principle. Which has a good side and a bad side. The prospect of some future Colin Powell riding a tank onto the Whitehouse lawn is remote, but it’s easy to imagine the Joint Chiefs of Staff looking the other way in the event of a violent seizure of power. “We don’t want to be involved.” The precedents are not favorable. It wasn’t the Italian army that marched on Rome back in 1922, but the fascist seizure of power was made possible by passivity of the generals. The aristocratic German General Staff certainly looked down on the hysterical corporal; but they were too proud to get political and, anyhow, the new party promised to respect their prerogatives and increase their budget allotments. Historically, right-wing craziness is ineffectual without the willingness of military men to sit on their hands. Of course Bush hardly measures up to Mussolini or Hitler and he lacks (for now) the requisite army of street thugs; but the acquiescence of high-ranking officers to torture and illegal wiretapping shows how little effective resistance to extra-constitutional behavior we can expect from a supposedly apolitical military. That’s especially serious because the American military has enormous prestige right now, not only because of its technical competence but because it is perceived, probably inaccurately, as less corrupt than such despised institutions as Congress and the Press. If Bush turns out to have been the John the Baptist to some really malevolent messiah, can we expect the Generals to defend the republic?

As the Bush administration becomes odious even to its erstwhile ideological supporters, many conservatives are defecting. In a parliamentary system, the result would be a vote of no confidence and a new government. Our constitution prevents that sensible outcome. An American President is like a king, albeit a king with a legally established term of rule. Baring impeachment—an exceedingly unlikely event even if the Democrats regain the House—Bush will occupy the Whitehouse for more than two more years. Of course he might have better luck or try better policies in that period. He might follow the precedent set by Reagan, whose last years in office were rescued by a set of moderate Republicans. Bush, however, is not Reagan. The “new” people he is bringing on board are, if anything, even more ideological than their predecessors. Meanwhile, since the people who are leaving are more principled or at least more cautious than the ones who stay, the administration will probably become more erratic and incompetent. The tarry remains of the distillation will be characterized above all by blind loyalty. Not a comfortable prospect, especially since the better people are not just being driven out of political jobs. The CIA, the armed forces, the civil service, and the science advisory bodies are also affected.