28 December 2014

Joaquín Torres García vs. Ayn Rand: A Unique Profile of the Uruguayan National Character



Introductory Note

Another year has passed, during which I, unfortunately, have been too busy making the money I need to survive to engage in what I really love to do. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy my current writing and editing work, and I am very thankful to have the opportunity to do it. But it takes up all my energy. Perhaps the new year will bring me to a place where I can once again do the writing that truly moves my spirit and feeds my soul.

To get the ball rolling again, I present a reworked version of an essay that I composed back in 2010, while Jamie and I were living in Patagonia. Although the essay had not generated much interested at the time, recent events here in Uruguay have thrown a spotlight on the country I am so proud to call my home. Our hobbit of a president has, of course, gained international acclaim, as has Uruguay’s pioneering marijuana legislation, the taking in of six Guantanamo detainees, and the president’s role in mediating the opening of US diplomatic relations with Cuba. I feel that this profile contrasting the philosophies of the Catalan-Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García and the Russian–United Statesian author Ayn Rand offers some interesting insights into the national character of this little country that has become a world leader in social progress and human rights under the leadership of President Mujica. The changes I have made to the original were to correct a few errors of fact that I had made, to clarify and smooth out the essay a bit, and to add some context pertaining to recent events. I can only hope that my thoughts and observations as a foreigner hit somewhere close to the mark.

Joaquín Torres García vs. Ayn Rand: A Unique Profile of the Uruguayan National Character

After visiting the Museo Joaquín Torres García in the heart of Montevideo’s historic Ciudad Vieja, I became intrigued by the contrasts between a culture that gave birth to Torres García’s elegant philosophy of art versus the culture that I came from in the United States that, in its deeply held esteem for individual rights and privileges, finds many supporters of the ungainly philosophy of Ayn Rand. In Uruguay, Joaquín Torres García’s art and ideas have become emblematic of the national character. From the philosophy of constructive universalism, which he developed through decades of artistic exploration first in Europe and then in Uruguay, emerged his iconic images espousing an expansive American aesthetic. In the United States, the writings of Ayn Rand have engendered a divisive political movement. From her literature arose the philosophy of objectivism, which she developed to promote the ideals of individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism. Both thought systems include a conception of art as a language of ideas with a social purpose. Yet they could not be farther apart in their characterizations of the nature of humanity and society. One sees society as the invigorating cultural connection of individuals across space and time, while the other sees society only as a hindrance to the pursuit of happiness. One draws strength from the unity of all, the other finds strength to be solitary. One is connective, the other, detached.

Nine Months in Uruguay

When I spent nine months living in Uruguay, beginning in June 2009, my understanding of castellano was sufficient for me to intuit the culture to a fair degree. This matters greatly in Uruguay because this small nation, tucked away between the behemoths Argentina and Brazil, has developed, in its 186 years of existence as an independent nation, a unique cultural understanding that abounds in subtleties that are easily missed by the undiscerning observer.

What I discovered during my time here was that, underneath the general sense of contentment and positive outlooks with which friends and families would gather around the parilla to grill beef, watch fútbol, or for the youths, hit the dance clubs until well beyond the dawning of the new day, lie the hard-learned lessons of more than a decade of military dictatorship, the most recent incidence in a complicated history of political violence and regional warfare. The benefits of these lessons learned were coming to fruition during my time here, in the form of the election of an ex-Tupamaro guerrilla fighter who had been imprisoned in isolation at the bottom of a deep well for many years during the dictatorship. Everyone I spoke to—mostly hard-working people, artists, artisans, and students who I encountered in the beach town of La Paloma, and later, in Montevideo—seemed anxious to find out what my understanding of this extraordinary achievement might be, and I was happy to show my appreciation of the pride in their voices and the tears welling in their eyes as they spoke of José “Pepe” Mujica, with his insistence on continuing to live at his humble flower farm, his practice of donating most of his salary toward progressive causes, his outrageously folksy 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, and his election-night declaration that his gaining of the presidency was not victory, but continuity.

I understood very well that the victory did not belong to the Frente Amplio, the left-wing political coalition that became the target of the US-backed covert anti-Communist manipulations that allowed the dictatorship to take hold after the 1971 elections, but rather, the real triumph was that of nonviolent political engagement. The Tupamaro movement had initiated a romantic, Robin Hood–style scheme for redistribution of wealth that escalated out of control. But they eventually developed a political wing and joined the Frente Amplio, beginning upon a peaceful path of creating change through legitimate participation in the political process. I understood the desperation with which the opposition party, during the 2009 elections, had tried to paint Mujica as a wild-eyed leftist who still had violent intentions at heart. And I understood the importance of Mujica’s acceptance speech recalling a patriarchy that went back to the very founding of the Uruguayan nation.

I understood this in reference to the love and admiration that the Uruguayan people hold for their founding father, José Gervasio Artigas. He was not only “the Liberator” of Uruguay, in military terms, but he is also revered as being a true renaissance man—a skilled outdoorsman, naturalist, and progressive social philosopher who played guitar and sang, knew the indigenous Charrúa people well, spoke eloquently, and proposed a visionary multicultural, multiethnic, federalist “American Plan” that was the western hemisphere’s first attempt at land reform, under the slogan, “Los más infelices serán los más privilegiados,” “The most unhappy will be the most privileged.” His personage expresses the marriage of democratic self-rule, imbibed with the fiercely independent spirit of the austere and self-sufficient gaucho, with socialist ideas about connecting all members of society together in order to create a synergistic whole that benefits all. Artigas’s philosophy persevered through the attempts of Argentina and Brazil to fold the Eastern Republic of Uruguay into their own New World empires. Then, in 1913, after nearly a century of constant rebellion raised by rural caudillos against the democratic rule of the urban intellectuals in Montevideo finally came to an end, ideology known as Batllismo set in motion programs for an “interventionist and redistributor” government with an ample body of social policies. This was the continuity to which Mujica had referred when reassuring the nation that his election was not such a radical turn of events for Uruguay.

I understood all of this when I stepped into the Museo Joaquín Torres García at the end of my nine months in Uruguay. What I had yet to realize concerned the interplay of art with cultural narrative, which my subsequent investigations into how Torres García’s images became such popular representations of the spirit of Uruguay soon revealed. After I saw the original América Invertida, his famous line drawing of South America turned upside down, hanging on the wall of the museum in the section otherwise filled with abstract paintings of geometrical forms, it began to sink in that a simple image challenging the assumption that the Southern Hemisphere must always be depicted below the colonial power centers could represent more than an assertion of the proud self-image of a nation and the continent that it is a small part of. This image did not emerge solely from the mind of the man who had created the paintings that seemed to depict children’s building blocks imprinted with symbolic icons that had become familiar to me as an observer of Uruguayan culture. Rather, the messages of the artwork that Torres García produced after his return from Europe had emerged from Uruguay itself. It is a culture rich in its own vibrant renditions of art, music, theater, dance, poetry, literature, and thought that were built upon traditions imported by waves of immigrants as well as the Africans brought over as slaves by the Portuguese in the earliest days, infused with the region’s pre-Columbian connection of individuals to each other and to the larger universe through the ritual sharing of the mate gourd, and reformulated into something uniquely Uruguayan.

During my time living in the shadow of a lighthouse on a rocky cape extruding into the mighty Atlantic Ocean, I had written about Uruguayan culture in terms of its elegance of thought, which I saw as a colossal cultural achievement and the source of the nation’s heroic healing power. Indeed, visitors to Uruguay will hardly sense any lingering social problems associated with the not-so-long-ago dictatorship (1973-1985), while the same cannot be said of its more raucous neighbor, Argentina. Also in contrast to Argentina, Uruguay feels unrushed and easy-going, perhaps even simplistic. It is this basis of simplicity, I surmised, an appreciation of pure, unadulterated flavors, of life’s simple pleasures, of naked beauty and quiet moments, upon which layers of complexity can then be added in a way that they can be comprehended and internalized, building a cultural cognizance that is not so easily bewildered by smoke and mirrors or complicated issues or life’s inevitable contradictions.

I saw Uruguay’s geographical location between Argentina and Brazil as one those enigmatic in-between places, like the midway stair step in A. A. Milne’s poem, “Halfway Down,” which “…isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead!” Uruguay exists, small, contented, and self-confident, knowing that its treasures shine brightly for those who go there and have the patience to appreciate the subtleties that lie within a culture that is neither this nor that, but something else, instead. Sharing cultural habits with both Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay embodies the same quality of the lovely, often windswept beaches that line its Atlantic coast—those magical, transitional places between the two prodigious worlds of land and sea. Just as Christopher Robin described “all kinds of funny thoughts” that would run around in his head when he stopped on his in-between stair, so, too, are the minds of those who would stop to contemplate the constantly changing color of the ocean, or the comings and goings of the people in the plaza, or the songs of some 400 species of birds or the sound of the mumbly-jumbly rural Uruguayan dialect, opened to all manner of thoughtful reflections.

For me, those reflections tended to revolve around this idea that Uruguay, because of its unique place in the world, its willingness to learn from its conflicted past, its cognition of complexity, and its amazing ability to enjoy the fruits of its natural and cultural abundance by means of what appears to be a very simple way of life, has managed to create the model social democracy. I found my reflections, to my own amazement, invoking imagery and leading to poetry, and from this process emerged unexpected ideas, such as the proposition that the secret to life is not just water, but the flow of water. I often reflected upon the significance of the fact that Uruguay’s highest denomination monetary note, the 1000-peso bill, portrays the cherished poet, Juana de Ibarbourou, on one side, and a lovely rendition of her collection of books on the other.

America

It was after I had moved from Uruguay to Argentinian Patagonia, while conducting research for my writing about my experiences in the two art museums I had visited in Montevideo in February 2010, when I began to recognize the link between Uruguayan artistic sensibilities and their politics. Could it be that their cultural duality of thought, which allows them to understand that individual self-determination can be enhanced by government policies aimed toward creating a society where more people are able to join in the ranks of those who find their lives fulfilling, comes from the same place in the human being that can recognize simple visual symbols and their conceptual context as representations of complicated ideas? Does the Latin American experience, which has produced a cultural narrative wherein what is real and what is fantastic share a broad and blurry boundary, and where the past lives tenaciously in the present, vivaciously, concretely, inescapably—does this shared experience facilitate the kind of connection of the parts with the whole that is largely absent in a nation that stands alone in the world, apart from its neighbors, distanced from its past, as sure of its inherent goodness as it is unaware of its connections with the world around it?

The United States stands alone in the Americas. Despite the fact that the people of thirty-five sovereign states and twenty-two territories associated with European nations can call themselves “American,” it is only those of the United States who claim the title exclusively for themselves. And for fifty years, only the United States refused to interact with Cuba—a stance that has negatively affected its relations with its neighbors for the past half century. But as Massimo Di Ricco points out in this Al Jazeera opinion piece, Pepe Mujica’s involvement in mediating the reopening of US diplomatic relations with Cuba is reflective of “a heterogeneous regional political bloc able to come to terms with ideological differences and to find common ground for regional coexistence in the name of progress,” with the best example of this being the peace talks between FARC and the Columbian government, with the participation of Chile, Venezuela, and Cuba. President Obama’s bold move is, indeed, of hemispherical proportions.

Joaquín Torres García Discovers America

When he returned from Europe to Uruguay in 1934, Joaquín Torres García adapted his aesthetic philosophy to a broader understanding that America is itself a connective force, embodying the transcendent power to link individuals with the entire universe.

When, as a young man, he moved with his family from Uruguay to Catalonia, Torres García was intent upon pursuing an education in classical art. During his many years in the region, he found work painting frescoes, teaching art, and collaborating with the visionary architect Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona. It was during his time in Barcelona, where Torres García also found an audience for his neoclassical paintings, that he developed the basis for an artistic philosophy that he would spend the rest of his life developing. Throughout his innovative explorations of the language of art, he never wavered from these two principles: that art, although inspired by nature, can provide a deeper view into reality by expressing more than the mere representation of what we perceive; and that art is always connected to the land and its cultures and traditions, going back throughout all of its history.

Torres García worked, for a time, creating a modern art form that was specific to the region of Catalonia—art that helped to define the Catalan identity by reaching back to the Mediterranean traditions of Greco-Roman classicism and connecting the idyllic rural scenes that were popular at the time with their rich regional history. After this period, his art began to evolve into a modernist abstract style as he began crafting inventive wooden toys. He restlessly moved his family about Europe, then to New York, then Italy, where he threw himself into the design and fabrication of his toys. But after problems mounted with that endeavor, he went back to his artistic roots in the Mediterranean, inspired once again to devote himself to painting. From there, he moved to Paris, becoming one of the founders of the Cercle et Carrét group of constructivist and other abstract artists, eventually moving on to Madrid to continue promoting constructivism. Finally heeding the call of the New World, he returned to Montevideo to begin an ambitious new project at the tender age of 60.

The constructive art movement was established upon one of the central principles that drove Torres García: that art can belong to a particular group of people. The movement had originated in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century with the aim of inventing an art form that the working classes could call their own. It was a means by which to build an identity, a community, a consciousness. Russian constructivist art and industrial design strove to redefine the role of art in regular people’s lives, to produce art that, instead of being “fine,” was utilitarian. Abstract geometric forms distinguished this avant-garde style from traditional representative art, emphasizing the idea of a cultural revolution and reflecting the realities of the modern industrial world. Constructivism was eventually banned in Russia by Stalin, when he decided that abstractionism could not be understood by the proletariat, but experimentation with its progressive ideas about form and function and the spiritual nature of art was carried on by such adherents as the Russian artists who went to the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, De Stijl group in Holland, the St. Ives group in Cornwall, and the Cercle et Carré group in Paris, where Torres García taught that constructivism could revolutionize even as it connects the present with the past.

In his paintings, Torres García depicted the unity of the universe. In his writing, he called his philosophy “constructive universalism.” Onto a grid of shapes and colors—a conceptualization of a restructured universe, and by virtue of its abstraction, the joining of the material and the cognitive with the spiritual—he inserted recognizable symbols that allude to our humanity. Thus, on a two-dimensional plane, he was able to express the order of the cosmos—universal reason. The symbols are what draw the viewer in, representing culture, traditions, and nature with a power that societies going back to the beginnings of humanity have utilized as potent tools of communication. Torres García had increasingly found symbolism to be the link not only between each individual and our common humanity, but also between humanity and the cosmos.

Upon his arrival in Montevideo, Torres García was impressed with the vibrancy of the city, but soon found that artistic culture was sorely lacking. So he got busy. He joined in the struggle that artists throughout South America were waging against the popular sentimentalism for all things European, as they worked to develop their own South American artistic styles—new cultural languages that were distinct from the old European traditions—with Uruguay’s own Pedro Figari (whose visage and artwork adorns the Uruguayan 200-peso note) having been at the helm of the movement. With astounding energy, Torres García lectured and wrote and taught and gathered artists together and created paintings and designed murals, establishing the Escuela del Sur and literally turning the continent on its head with his now-iconic América Invertida, signifying that South America needed to stop looking at itself in the same old ways, as defined by others, and that the New World represented entirely new perspectives and new possibilities.

In turning South America upside down, Torres García was upholding the concept that art must come from the land and the culture and traditions that it has absorbed through its history. He recognized the wealth of cultural traditions that indigenous Americans had to offer, but not just for American societies, as he believed that these ancient cultures, through their rich symbolic languages, participate in a universal tradition that transcends the sphere of the relative and unites all into one cosmic truth. Torres García thus reinvented himself and his ideas, presenting a way for the people of the Americas to redefine their role in the world as a powerful new force of creative expression by both distinguishing themselves and, at the same time, uniting with all of humankind, and further, the universe. With this newly invigorated conception of constructive universalism, Torres García, like so many immigrants who brought cultural ideas from the Old World to transform them into truly unique New World traditions, had discovered America.

Square and Circle

Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy assigns to art the role of expressing abstract and metaphysical ideas, especially moral and ethical ideals, offering nothing explicit or fully conceptual, but rather, simply a sense of these ideas.

Rand admired romantic art for its allegorical reminders that it is only through personal volition that values are upheld. However, because objectivism’s emphasis on logic over emotion contradicts the sensual and emotional qualities that romantic art is steeped in, the term “romantic realism” was invented by artists who wanted to square off romanticism’s unruly, curvaceous emotionalism to fit into their faith in logic and reason. Conversely, trying to fit objectivist philosophy into any aesthetic at all is akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

To use another fitting metaphor, the way that objectivist philosophy was constructed was akin to trying to design a structure from the top down. The result is an unsound foundation. How fitting, then, that Rand uses the analogy of architecture to portray the supremacy of individualism over the stifling pressures of society in her novel The Fountainhead. The story can also be seen as a struggle to sever the ties that bind all of humanity together by denying the connective power of art as a cultural language, its ability to distinguish the individual while at the same time uniting individuals with the world, and its ability to shine its light into so many more facets of being than mere perception, strict reason, and linear logic can discover. By choosing architecture as her vehicle, Rand was faced with the contradiction between her romantic vision of the heroic individualist and her desire to find meaning in the act of creativity. Her protagonist, Howard Roark, is portrayed as a “prime mover” who wants to create pure, unmitigated, visionary art. But in order for him to be a true leader, he must engage with society and show qualities of leadership, not reject society entirely because it is flawed. His antagonists—the jealous, the manipulative, the power-hungry—embody those all-too-human characteristics that are the foundations of the ancient art of storytelling. Howard Roark’s tragic flaw is that he believes he is flawless, the “ideal man,” a god. He refuses to take personal responsibility for his inability to navigate the human landscape, to persevere, and to communicate his superior ideas in ways that others in his medium of choice—a highly collaborative art form—will respond to. This is, in fact, the burden of all artists, particularly the most imaginative, who must always find their way through the human landscape, with its pesky trends and popular opinions and cultural understandings, in order to continue.

Rand subsequently wrote about art as the transformation of abstract ideas into physical form—something to which others can respond emotionally—in recognition of the communicative nature of art. However, her reverse engineering exemplifies the unsoundness of her top-down design, as it falls short of explaining why art’s communicative nature would be important to individuals, if not as a connective force. It leaves Howard Roark to his lonely world, where individuals exist disembodied from their cultural ecosystems, independent of the need to connect with something larger than themselves, detached from the interchange of ideas across time and space and cultural worlds that is the true engine of innovation.

Moving from metaphoric physical structures to metaphysical structural forms, objectivism begins not as its name suggests, with the notion that reality exists independently of our consciousness of it, but rather, with the characterization of individualism as unfailingly strong and virtuous, while cooperation and compassion can only be weak and decadent. Working backward from the idea that individual happiness as a moral virtue is the highest purpose of human life, it jumps to the conclusion that, if individuals must be left to navigate the world independently of what all other individuals think, if individual experience is really all that is important, then the human mind must be able to observe a single absolute reality—because otherwise, there would be no contiguity between each individual’s independent perceptions of the universe. It is a stingy, fragmentary, solitary philosophy that speaks from the mind’s desire to divide and conquer the universe.

In turn, by examining the metaphysical structure of constructive universalism, the exquisite elegance of the aesthetic as the atom of our humanity reveals itself: We communicate; therefore, we are human. It begins with the artist’s self-knowledge that creativity is a function of humanity’s intrinsic need to reach out to other human beings, with the understanding that the universe is full of possibility and is infinitely imaginable—the white canvas transformed into realities that we constantly create and re-create. From this foundation follows what Torres García understood as the connection of art to the land and its culture and traditions. Humans develop languages with which we share ideas, experiences, information, values—with which we restructure the universe so we can comprehend it, engage with it, not only survive it, but shape it. The languages of words are certain ways of organizing the universe, as are the languages of music, theater, dance, ritual, symbolism, and plastic arts, each achieving different levels of understanding—the plastic arts, by intuiting meaning in such elements as shape, color, play of light, spatial structure, perspective, and dimension. Various languages shared among groups of people over time become cultural traditions that define who we are and where we have come from, confirming our individual identities though our communication and connection with others. It is a magnanimous, contiguous, connective philosophy that speaks from the center of our humanity.

Connections

Joaquín Torres García’s artistic innovations, as different as they were from anything that came before them, emerged from cultural traditions of the past and conditions of the present, and from the artist’s personal experiences, sentiments, and opinions. Likewise, Ayn Rand’s ideas did not arise in a vacuum. They were, in no small part, a direct reaction to her personal past, having been the teenaged daughter of bourgeois Jewish parents in St. Petersburg when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 and fleeing with her family to Crimea when the Bolsheviks came to power. Her ideas were a product of her time, her locations, her experiences. When she came to the United States in 1925 at the age of 20, she, too, was greatly impressed with the New World vitality, quickly immersing herself in its cultural currents.

The romantic image of the self-reliant pioneering spirit, the rugged individual, the self-made individual, has been a cultural staple throughout the history of the United States of America. It is the American Dream. And the narrative of freedom versus tyranny that defines the battle of political capitalism against socialism has also become a part of the fabric of society in the United States, a thread that Rand was quite keen to pull at. But in her passion to expound upon this cultural narrative, which she came to with the authority of her personal experience as an opponent of communism in Russia, she inherited the same tragic flaw that is inherent to this narrative, that is, its refusal to be self-critical, which prevents it from finding real answers to real problems. This amounts to an illusory disassociation from the fabric of space, time, and thought that is ultimately as unsustainable as wanton consumerism and the profligate burning of fossil fuels. By separating, simplifying, rationalizing, and romanticizing, objectivism severs itself from the possibility of reaching out to people around the world who are not culturally primed to believe that selfishness is a virtue, or that we are not all interconnected in infinite ways on this planet that those of us who speak English call “Earth.” Instead of innovating, objectivism was shaped into the mold that the United States had formed for itself—big and bold and self-assured, culturally uninterested in the fate of its neighbors (although not afraid to quietly engage economic exploitation or political meddling), tragically oblivious to the fact that America actually stretches from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. For an idea or a nation to truly be a “prime mover,” it must understand its connections, in as many dimensions as imaginable, to the universe all around.

Back to Uruguay

Eduado Galeano is another Uruguayan and another connective thinker. He is a journalist who also writes about the interconnectedness of the world by following common threads of history that are woven into the fabric of the present. He is a critic and a cynic who frankly addresses realities that can be difficult to face. He does not always paint pretty pictures, nor does he communicate through abstraction, nor invent fiction. In his literature, he creates a vast mosaic of diverse stories—occasionally mythical, often having been subverted, many about independent women, always with a keen sense of irony, reaching back into prehistoric times, across many different cultures of the world—that all mirror who we are today. In a passage from his book Mirrors: An Almost Universal Story, Galeano poses some interesting questions about the most basic nature of humanity:

Ser boca o ser bocado, cazador o cazado. Ésa era la cuestión. 

Merecíamos desprecio, o a lo sumo lástima. En la intemperie enemiga, nadie nos respectaba y nadie nos temía. La noche y la selva nos deban terror. Éramos los bichos más vulnerables de la zoología terrestre, cachorros inútiles, adultos pocacosa, sin garras, ni grandes colmillos, ni patas veloces, ni olfato largo. 

Nuestra historia primera se nos pierde en la neblina. Según parece, estábamos dedicados no más que a partir piedras y a repartir garrotazos. 

Pero uno bien puede preguntarse: ¿No habremos sido capaces de sobrevivir, cuando sobrevivir era imposible, porque supimos defendernos juntos y compartir la comida? Esta humanidad de ahora, esta civilización del sálvese quien queda y cada cual a lo suyo, ¿Habría durado algo más que un ratito en el mundo? 

(My translation) 

To eat or be eaten, hunt or be hunted. That was the question. 

We deserved disdain, or at most, pity. Exposed to the elements, no one respected us and no one feared us. The nighttime and the jungle terrorized us. We were the most vulnerable creatures of the terrestrial zoology, useless as pups, as adults, little more, without claws, nor large fangs, nor fast feet, nor a long nose. 

Our first story we lost in the mists of time. It would seem that we were dedicated to no more than throwing stones and exchanging blows. 

But one may well ask, Had we not been able to survive, when survival was impossible, because we knew to defend ourselves together and to share food? This humanity of today, this culture of save oneself who can and each one for themselves—could it have lasted any more than a short time in the world?

The expansive power of the connective idea that the small South American nation of Uruguay illuminates, like a lighthouse on a rocky cape, never ceases to amaze me. After my first experience here, then learning more and more about Uruguay’s artistic and intellectual culture, I continue to find inspiration in the idea that, at the heart of our humanity, lies the drive to connect. While the mind wants to divide the universe up into definable segments, assigning a word to each diminishingly tiny particle, the spirit reunites, seeking meaning, continuity, and the ever-expanding vision that can see unity in infinity.

Language, culture, the incessant flow of water, as of time, the energies held close by the land through which the waters of life flow, through which life itself flows, along with people, and ideas, and memories, and love… These are all connective forces, and to deny their power is to sever the veins that animate our infinitely interconnected biosphere for the sake of the human mind’s fleeting illusion that we can know, through reason and logic alone, what truth is—or who we really are.

02 December 2013

Imagine: Religion as Social Reform - Reza Aslan, Iran, and Religious Faith

Reza Aslan


La Paloma, Uruguay
So, the holiday season is upon us. It always sneaks up on me, here in the Southern Hemisphere, where springtime is awakening into summertime. It doesn’t help that I live in a summer resort town, where the bigger issue is the launch of the holiday season that will rain a deluge of beachgoers onto the usually solitary sands of the lovely, if rather windy, shores of La Paloma. Plus, the Catholicism that infuses Latin American culture is not nearly as ubiquitous in Uruguay, and this country’s clearly defined separation of church and state also tempers the Christmas holiday atmosphere. Besides, not since childhood has Christmas been a holiday that I can get into, anyway, given my distain for the crass commercialization and hyper-consumerism that surrounds it in the States. Well, that, plus I am an atheist who feels a bit hypocritical celebrating something I don’t believe in, although I can dig the idea of celebrating family togetherness and the joy that so many other people get out of the whole thing for their own sakes. Oh, but there’s so much more emotional baggage involved in my attitude toward Christmastime, including memories of that one really difficult Christmas that preceded my mother’s death from breast cancer by about a month, all those years ago...

The good news is that I find myself in a delightful, almost blissful spirit this year. I am not a person who can ignore what goes on in the world around me, in the belief that it is ignorance will deliver bliss, or something like that, and I care deeply about the fate of people near and far. I am a hopeful person, who believes in the mission of the United Nations to bring countries together to work out their differences in peaceful ways rather than through violence, and that, if the people of the world really want it and our minds are really set to it, the system can be tweaked and improved to function better than it does right now. I look back through history at all of the wars and conflicts and am uplifted by what has happened afterwards, when societies come back together, rebuild trust, forge new relationships, and move forward with the human project of civilization. So at this moment in time, my heart is overflowing with joy that relations between the United States and Iran have opened back up, after so much bad history. This is an immensely huge deal, such a positive change in the geopolitical landscape... and then there is the pope – WAP! (What A Pope!)

What’s more, I have had something of an epiphany recently, an amazing, important realization about the nature of religion and its role in culture, politics, and conflict – and it’s all Reza Aslan’s fault.

The fantabulous Reza Aslan

When he made the rounds to publicize his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Fox “News” provided the author with far more exposure than his publicist could have ever organized when the video of the show’s host spending the whole “interview” absurdly lambasting him – a religious scholar – for being unqualified to write a book about Jesus because he is a Muslim went viral (Mother Jones’ coverage of Aslan’s Fox “News” “interview"  provides some good context.)

It turns out that, if you give the guy a chance to get a word in, he has some very interesting things to say. It was his debate with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation (the debate is available from the Mother Jones article) that really piqued my interest. Aslan’s weaving of the threads of history, religion, culture, and identity into a vision of a multifaceted social fabric that is worthy of the complex and confounding world that we live in today was so elegant and sophisticated that Harris may as well have been a Fox “News” personality, as he was arguing on a level that doesn’t even come close to where Aslan’s head is at. God knows I love atheists like George Carlin, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens, but it always bothers me when they belittle all theists as being insanely delusional or plumb stupid for their belief in a deity because I think there is much more to religious faith than reason, alone, can get at – not that I get it. But Reza Aslan has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why religious belief is valid, without having any need for concern about veracity. What he is saying – that religions are inseparable from their social contexts, and that conflicts that may seem to be about religion because they are talked about in religious language, the language that holds the most currency, are actually about economic, political, cultural, national, historical, and/or religious issues that are all wrapped up in the concept of identity – really appeals to my fascination with the vast complexity of the human experience.

So I devoured Aslan’s intriguing book about how the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth was transformed into the religious figure of Jesus Christ. Then I consumed his book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. And now I feel like I understand a whole hell-of-a-lot better not only what Christianity and Islam are all about, but also the bigger historical picture underlying the major events occurring from North Africa to Southeast Asia that are reshaping the world today.

I haven’t been this enthused about any religion since I was mesmerized by Zoroastrianism that one summer when the concepts that I wrote about in my own book No Stranger To Strange Lands: A Journey Through Strange Coincidences, Connective Thoughts, And Far Flung Places were beginning to crystallize within my being. But how did I become fascinated with Zoroastrianism, you ask? It was because I was obsessed with the possibility that Dick Cheney and his cohorts, abusing their power like that very same crowd of war hawks did during the Reagan administration, were seriously considering an attack on Iran, and I wanted learn about this country beyond the single-dimensional narrative of radicalism and hatred that was engraved upon the psyche of our nation by nightly images of angry, dark-eyed men holding blindfolded hostages and burning US flags during the 1980s.

A very abbreviated history of Iran

With a history stretching back to about 2800 BC, when the Elamite kingdom began forming on the Iranian Plateau east of the Mesopotamia, there is, indeed, much to learn about the home of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. Ancient Iran produced not only the proto-monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism, but also the heroic Cyrus the Great, who, in 538 BC, freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity – and they weren't the only ones delivered from bondage, as the King of Kings, revered for establishing the foundations of good governance, freed all slaves, repatriated all displaced peoples, and allowed the restoration of destroyed temples and sanctuaries, codifying racial and religious freedom in the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the world’s oldest charters of human rights.

Before the 7th-century Muslim conquest, there had been a series of Iranian empires – the unifying Median, Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid, the Hellenistic Seleucid, the Parthian feudal monarchy, and the powerful Persian Sasanian – whose legacy as technologically advanced, culturally vibrant, socially diverse, politically sophisticated models of administration and rulership hugely impacted Central Asia and strongly influenced the development of human civilization from Europe to China.

After the Muslim conquest, under the elite Arab rulership of the Rashidun and Ummayad caliphates, Iran was gradually Islamized, but a renaissance of Persian culture and influence under the Abbasids seeded the Medieval “Islamic Golden Age” of art, science, and philosophy, and after two centuries of Arab rule, the Persians eventually regained self-rule.

In 1219, Genghis Khan’s army invaded, but the Mongol rulers ended up adapting Persian culture several generations down the line. Iran became a monarchical theocracy in 1501, when Ismail I established the Safavid Dynasty and instigated forced conversion to the new state religion of Shi‘ah Islam.

After the rise and fall of the Safavid Dynasty, the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by regional and civil war. The modern period then found Iran in the crosshairs of British and Russian colonization, followed by Cold War manipulation by the United States. Today’s Islamic Republic of Iran is a product of the 1978 coup d’état that overthrew the US-installed and supported anticommunist, secular, autocratic monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with the radically theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini being swept into power and setting himself up as the Supreme Leader.

Religion as social reform

Iran’s intriguing Zoroastrianism was founded upon the writings and teachings of Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, who lived sometime during the first half of the second millennium, BC. Zarathustra was, fundamentally, a social reformer. Seeing the Bronze Age polytheist religion he was immersed in as over-ritualized and supporting an oppressive class structure, war, and strife, Zarathustra sought to place spirituality into the hands of individuals. He preached the importance of personal responsibility, truthfulness, and caring about the well-being of others and the environment, all nicely summed up by the creed, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” According to his divine revelation, he promoted the God of Wisdom to the status of Creator and Supreme Being, represented by the light of fire and the sun. The essence of goodness, everything that Zarathustra’s Supreme Being had created was pure, to be treated with love and respect. The other gods also lingered, though, representing falsehood, darkness and destruction; thus spoke Zarathustra of the twin spirits of Truth and Falsehood, leaving people with the freedom of choice between the two, with prayer being simply the invocation and celebration of truth, goodness, and purity.

Reza Aslan highlights the historical importance of Zoroastroism in No god but God:

“More than a thousand years before Christ, Zarathustra preached the existence of a heaven and a hell, the idea of a bodily resurrection, the promise of a universal savior who would one day be miraculously born to a young maiden, and the expectation of a final cosmic battle that would take place at the end of time between the angelic forces of good and the demonic forces of evil.”

By the time an Arab named Muhammad was working for his uncle as a merchant in the pluralistic sanctuary of Mecca, home of the universal shrine called the Ka‘ba, around the beginning of the 7th century, Aslan explains, “Zarathustra’s primitive monotheism had transformed into a firmly dualistic system in which the two primordial spirits became two deities locked in an eternal battle for the souls of humanity: Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda), the God of Light, and Ahriman, the God of Darkness and the archetype of the Christian concept of Satan.”

Just as the ancient Persian dynasties set the precedence for good governance that would influence civilizations across three continents for millennium to come, Zoroastrianism laid the foundation for the world’s great monotheist religions that were born out of this potent region, this cradle of prophets. And like Zarathustra, both Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad of Mecca were also fundamentally social reformers. 

Aslan defines Jesus as “the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost.” By “Kingdom of God,” according to Aslan, Jesus was talking about “a radically new world order wherein the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed, and the poor are made rich.” But this Kingdom of God “is not some utopian fantasy wherein God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed. It is a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.” This Jesus of Nazareth fellow, Aslan explains, was no hippie peacenik, as teachings such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were spoken by a Jewish man to a Jewish audience in the tradition of Jewish moral codes that applied only within the Jewish community. The establishment of Jesus’ Kingdom of God on earth would, no doubt, be a violent revolution.

Some six hundred years after Jesus’ Kingdom of God had been transformed into an ethereal celestial kingdom and after his gospel had transformed from a call for Jews to rise up in revolt against the current order into a wholly new, universal spiritual calling, another righteous reformer appeared – with mission very similar to that of the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

“When fifteen centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society.”

Religion as myth

In No god but God, Aslan writes, “It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is ‘What do these stories mean?’”

And therein, my friend, lies the crux of the matter of religion.

Myths are like art, which Pablo Picasso referred to as a lie in service of the truth, and like literary fiction that illuminates reality in ways that the truth cannot, reaching deeper truths than facts can get at. Myths are vivid stories encoded with symbols that represent a shared cultural identity and pass along information – about people and places, about knowledge, about ethics, about aesthetics – in a way that will be internalized and then passed on to future generations. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell’s amazing conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell puts forward that myths provide perspective on what’s happening in our lives. He says that, because what we are seeking in religion and spirituality is not the meaning of life, but rather, to “feel the rapture of being alive,” myths serve as “clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

Religion, itself, Aslan says, is a story. Religion isn’t defined as faith. Rather, it is the story of faith, concerning a sacred history that is “like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time.”

Thus, prophets can be understood as mythical characters whose truths lie in their encounter with the Divine – outside the realm of facts. So true believers may have full faith that their prophets were conduits of the “Word of God,” with the understanding that their messages have been interpreted, first by the prophets to speak to a specific group of people at a specific time and place, sometimes dealing with a very specific situation (Muhammad’s words about the veil, for instance), then by their disciples to speak to different audiences at different times and places and contexts, and they will continue to be interpreted by many others through time.

Sacred traditions, according to Aslan, become religious institutions when their myths become orthodox and their rituals become orthoprax. Christianity is an orthodoxic religion because it is based on profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, while Judaism is orthopraxic, as it is primarily expressed through the practice of its laws. Islam, too, Aslan characterizes as orthopraxic, particularly Sunni Islam. He is careful to define orthodoxy as “the correct interpretation of myths” rather than using the more common definition of “established doctrine,” and orthopraxy as “the correct interpretation of rituals,” emphasizing the key fact that myths and rituals originate from human experience.

In fact, by definition, Aslan states, religion is simply interpretation – that is, it is dependent on its social context – and interpretations are always valid. The thing is, some interpretations are more reasonable than others. It is the religious scholar’s job to compare a religion’s myths with the environment from which they arose to form a reasonable interpretation of how that religion was born, grew, diversified through the ages, and is now interpreted by people in diverse societies.

Interpretation of Islam

In the case of Islam, a reasonable interpretation looks at 7th-century tribal Arabia, then traces the gradual transformation of what Aslan refers to as Muhammad’s “revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism” into the competing ideologies that created a widening rift between the mainstream Sunni Islam and Shi‘ism, the largest sect in Islam, as well as Sufism, the mystical traditions of Islam.

To understand Islam, one has to begin by learning about the story of Muhammad’s life, taking into account the environment that he arose from. Muhammad’s great triumph was the creation of a new kind of tribe, a radically new social organization that was based not on ethnicity or race or kinship, but on a common social and religious identity. The communalism of Bedouin tribalism persisted, where the leadership was charged with caring for the well-being of every member of the tribe, but Muhammad eliminated class structure, instituted broad egalitarian reforms – including for women – introduced laws based on moral principles rather than simply on utilitarian principles, and predicated leadership on religious authority (a concept drawn from ancient tribal Judaism).

The Fatimid Zulfiqaar
(image via Wikipedia)
As Aslan explains, Shi‘ism has an orthodoxic nature that is absent from Sunni Islam, as this sect is based on rituals surrounding the myth of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad who died at the hands of the Umayyads at Karbala fighting for the right of the descendants of the prophet to lead the Muslim community. The Shi‘ah believe that these descendants were chosen by God and endowed with the living spirit of the prophet. Similarly, Shi‘ites believe that certain divinely inspired people, the Imams, have been chosen by God to lead the Muslim community. That the schism occurred so soon after the death of Muhammad is not at all unique or surprising, as chaos often ensues among the generations immediately following great personages in history. The story of the period immediately following Jesus’ time on earth is the same; in fact, the schism among his Jewish community was so great that a new religion was born out of rapidly evolving interpretations of why Jesus died and what the myth of his rising from the tomb means.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Muslim community was forced to rethink the role of faith in a rapidly changing world, responding to colonialism with some pushing to develop “Islamic alternatives to Western secular notions of democracy,” while others completely rejected Western cultural concepts and pushed for the Islamization of every aspect of society. And here, Aslan offers an interesting insight into the socio-political events that are reshaping the Muslim world today, when he states that “at the center of the debate over Islam and democracy is a far more significant internal struggle over who gets to define the Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of the Muslim world.”

This is interesting because equating today’s Muslim struggles – between movements such as the pan-Islamists, pan-Arabists, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic socialists, radical Islamists, and Wahhabists in situations such as destabilized Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring of North Africa, and the civil war in Syria – to the Protestant Reformation highlights the colossal scale of the process involved in coming to consensus on how diverse peoples can meaningfully interpret the myths and rituals of Islam, a religion that is centered around building communities, in today’s world. Aslan makes clear that, rather than being at the center of the Muslim struggle, as we in the West may perceive it to be, tensions with the West actually stand on the periphery of the internal struggle for control of the future of Islam.

What Reza Aslan is doing is not only interesting but very, very important. Understanding religion in the way that Aslan perceives it is an exercise in peace-building. Acknowledging religion as the story of faith, and encouraging the reading of scripture – by those within the religion as well as those outside of it – in the poetic, allegorical, cultural, and historical contexts that produced them brings reason and validity to the ineffable experience of faith. His message is uplifting in its celebration of religion as a connective force and its rejection of the idea that religion is the cause of any more conflict and strife than nationalism, political dogma, or the struggle for power.

Uninformed Westerners might take note of the fact that Muslims are far more familiar with the Torah and the Bible than Jews and Christians are familiar with the Quran because Islam’s sacred history encompasses those of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Muslims don’t consider their religion to be separate from Judaism and Christianity. Rather, it is a continuation of its predecessors, known as “the religion of Abraham.” Allah is not a separate god, just a different word for YHVH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Theós, God, Gott, Dieu, Dios, etc, etc. The Islamic prophets include Muhammad as well as Jesus, David, and Moses, and Islamic holy books include the Gospel, Psalms, and Torah along with the Quran – it’s just that Islam interprets them differently and has faith that Muhammad is the ultimate prophet.

Of course, throughout human history, people have regularly demonize others who are perceived as a threat to their identities or well-beings, and this is true of religious factions as well as of political factions, tribes, societies, nations, and entire regions of the world. And it can’t be denied that extremists exist in every conceivable form of ideology. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are dangerous Islamic extremist groups, women are treated horrendously in some cultures, and there will be groups of Muslims who will riot any time someone provokes them by desecrating the Quran or drawing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. But there is a massive perception problem in assuming that these groups characterize the entire Muslim community.

First of all, as the title of this article from the Pew Research Center, “World’s Muslim population more widespread than you might think” reveals, people in the West, especially in the United States, associate Islam with the Middle East and North Africa, whereas the reality is that nearly two-thirds of world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, alone, is home to 209 million Muslim souls, and another 176 million or so live in India.

Then there is this report on Muslim views of extremist groups from September 2013, which shows that, rather than being anything close to the norm or even acceptable, al-Qaeda is “widely reviled.” And about women’s rights, here’s a generalization-busting fun fact: Women won the right to vote in the Muslim country of Azerbaijan in 1908, two years before women in the United States were enfranchised. Finally, this article titled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” has a lot to teach us, showing just how differently Muslims around the world interpret their religious scriptures and traditions.

Iran today

Iran is often described as a theocratic republic, as it has an elected president and representatives but its constitution places the real power in the hands of the religious clerics, with the Supreme Leader sitting pretty at the top of the heap. He gets to appoint people to many powerful institutions, including the armed forces, the national security councils, the state television network, and major religious foundations in addition to having final say in all matters.

Hassan Rouhani
official photo
Yet the will of the people still matters, and the more moderate politicians and clerics there are in the government, the less autocracy will be tolerated. The election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 has already proven to be a major victory for moderation and diplomacy. The Iranians deeply appreciate their prominent place the geography and history of the world, and the opening up of relations between President Rouhani and President Obama constitutes a widening of Iranian influence, which, historically, has been a beautiful thing.

What we in the West can do is to partake in the peace-building exercise by making an effort to understand the complex context of what is happening and support the people of Iran and this movement toward moderation, encouraging the injection of reason into the way that the Iranians and, for that matter, anyone else interprets their religion instead of roundly rejecting – as I have been guilty of doing for many years – the whole idea that organized religion can play a positive role in the modern world. Religion, for better or for worse, is not going away any time soon, so imagining peace is going to require us to imagine something other than no religion. People of all colors and creeds can identify with the power of mythical stories to resonate across space and time and contexts, to speak to the universal human experience. Indeed, this is what imbibes them with their awesome spiritual power, and our spirituality is what connects us as human beings.

For more on this topic, see: Iran Nuclear Deal as Geopolitical Global Warming, my article for SpeakOut at TruthOut.org

08 September 2013

From "I have a dream" to "I will seek authorization for the use of force"

From "I have a dream" to "I will seek authorization for the use of force," the final week of August 2013 was an intense one.

"I have a dream"

We had the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington reminding us of how far our nation has and hasn't come in achieving race equality, putting us in a self-reflective mood and highlighting the conflict between those who climbed up and, as a part of the establishment, are now standing on the shoulders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroic civil rights advocates versus those who see such leaders as sellouts rather than as examples of the movement's successes.

Fifty years is not much time, in the grand scope of things; yet, because of the increasingly accelerated speed of change in modern society, it constitutes a huge generational gap in which the synergy of King's life and work has become subtly diluted.

The untimely death of Martin Luther King Jr. – he was just 39 when he was assassinated – marked the end of an era of major advancements for blacks in the United States. Although the movement had been gaining steam well before King, a fresh, new face among the clergy in Montgomery, Alabama, was asked by activists to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 when other clergy were afraid to expand the spiritual and moral missions of the church to the broader social issues of racism and injustice, his personal magnetism along with his skills as an orator and wielder of the power of nonviolent direct action  launched him to the forefront of a movement whose moment had arrived.

After his death, the pace of racial social change switched gears, shifting into a slow progress of everyday integration through social experiments like desegregation busing and affirmative action quotas for the next twenty years. Angela Glover Blackwell reminds us that black people, half a century ago, were "the face of discrimination." In the two decades after King's death, the nation's nonwhite minority diversified and grew as urban situations changed, until a tipping point was reached and the tide was turned. On a growing swell of resentment and fear of loss of status and culture, public support for mandatory integration programs began to fizzle out. They were reactions to the gains that had been made that allowed many blacks to join the middle class and a few to join the wealthy and influential.

Defending the dream

Three decades after the turning of the tide, we have come to another tipping point, when the nation's black and brown youths are reinvigorating the "fierce urgency of now" that King had elucidated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago. The leaders of the Dream Defenders began their social activism on college campuses in Florida in 2006, outraged that 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson had been beaten to death at a Florida boot camp. Their 33-hour sit-in of Governor Jeb Bush's office helped bring national attention to Tallahassee and to force the resignation of the state's top cop. It was these same activists who, in April 2012, insisted that Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman would not be just another statistic of a black youth's life being preempted in the name of safety and security. They saw the Trayvon Martin case as more than a source of reactionary outrage; it was a wakeup call to take the long view, to look beyond the results of a single trial among so many similarly unjust trials and build a movement focused on pushing for racial progress and righting the systematic inequalities that plague so many communities in the United States today.

These activists are building an expanding network of social activism in defense of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, in defense of undocumented immigrants' dream, in defense of all dreamers who know they are not the only ones.

Once again in Tallahassee, they have been fighting for the repeal of Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which, in its wildly uneven implementation, tends to be a sorry excuse for racism. But their mission is far greater than that. They recognize the crisis of the moment:
Across the country we find our communities trapped in a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and depression.
They feel the weight of a society that not only criminalizes, to a staggering degree, dark-skinned youths, but also profits from this criminalization through the "private prison menace." And as they have made clear in their #OurMarch campaign, they understand, as did Martin Luther King Jr., the connection between racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.

This is the new generation of social justice leaders. They are the real deal – not just diminutive "youth" activists. They are savvy in the use of social media, and they are powerful communicators. They are inspiring in their passion. They are contagious. They are "dreamers, fighters, lovers, defenders, builders bubbling, bubbling, bubbling beneath the rubble." They are ready to change the world. And by taking the long view, they are making a connection that is vital to building a movement that will be successful at producing real social change, the connection between the individual and the universal.

Spiritual connection

The central point of my essay Honoring the Truth of Martin Luther King's Life is that King was eliciting this connection when he said, "I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," and he found in this connection a source of strength and joy.

It is a spiritual connection with metaphysical forces that are greater than the self. It is a connection to a flowing current of positive energy, of moral imperative, of universal love, which sparks the synergy that elevates the various aspects of an engaged individual's life to a level of greatness that exceeds the sum of its parts. This spiritual connection with this magnificent energy, this essence of the processes of nature and the flow of humanity,  transcends religion, and the power that comes from sensing one's connection with the grander schemes of the universe manifests itself in the charisma, persuasiveness, and fearlessness that people like Martin Luther King Jr. are able to apply toward positive social change.

Historical consciousness

But Martin Luther King Jr. possessed something else, as well: historical consciousness. As his eloquent Letter from Birmingham Jail reveals, it was King's vast knowledge of social and religious history that informed his understanding of the "urgency of now." His keen awareness of the arc of history allowed him to tie the actions taken in the present with the progression of humanity, through the tireless efforts of social activists, toward the ideals of Justice, Beauty, and Truth.

What motivated me to write my article about honoring King's life was a disconcerting cynicism – cynicism that had crept into the celebration of the March on Washington, cynicism that would bend the meaning of King's uplifting words and disrespect his legacy by making assumptions as to what he would and wouldn't do today, cynicism that is in direct contradiction to what his life was all about. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a fear monger and he was not a cynic. Rather, he spread fearlessness and faith in people's ability to create a better future.

King preached the gospel of nonviolent resistance that requires courage and the willingness to suffer, seeks reconciliation rather than defeat of an adversary, eliminates evil rather than destroying the evildoer, rejects hatred, animosity, and violence – both spiritual and physical – and most importantly, necessitates faith that justice will, in the long run, prevail.

His conception of nonviolent social action is that it should be used to create tension and confrontation that opens the door to negotiation when it has been denied.

His philosophy is greatly influenced by Paul Tillich's idea that separation is sin and unity is grace.

Standing on this deeply spiritual and philosophical foundation, King was at once principled and pragmatic, always treating his adversaries with respect and making compromises in order to reach higher goals.

In securing major gains such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King counted among his allies both JFK, who had directed the CIA to attempt the assassinations of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and LBJ, who escalated the Vietnam War. In his focus on improving the lives of blacks in the United States, King never confronted them on other issues such as these. It was not until 1967, four years after the March on Washington, that he finally expanded the scope of his fight for social justice in his speech, Beyond Vietnam, doing so at the cost of support from many of his white allies, including LBJ. He could no longer hold his silence on Vietnam, he said. He had come to see the connection between racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, he realized, was part of a worldwide revolutionary movement, but
...because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.
The West, he was saying, was preventing social justice causes from moving forward in countries across the globe by subjugating the world's poorest under the dark shadows of dictatorial regimes as well as corroding the values of the wealthier societies that were out to protect their own capitalist commerce.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," King had said about racism in Birmingham, Alabama. His leap into the antiwar movement was an expansion of this philosophy that was globalist and socialist in nature. Therefore, using King's opposition to the Vietnam War to back up libertarian small-government and isolationist antiwar sentiments is in direct contradiction with what the man's life was all about.

So, it is with great consternation that I observe some among the younger generations of social justice activists twisting Martin Luther King Jr.'s words toward anger at this nation's president and other black leaders who are standing on the foundation laid by activists who came before them. It pains me to see the divisiveness between people who, according to King's teachings, should reject anger and refrain from the use of vitriolic or demeaning language. Although some prominent figures have claimed that he would have been banned from the celebration for insisting on speaking out against Obama's use of drones, the truth is that nobody could possibly know what Martin Luther King Jr. would have done to help celebrate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After all, the original, too, had been limited in its scope and tone, due to pressure from the Kennedy administration, with criticism of the federal government being set aside, and King might very well have acted in this same spirit.

"I will seek authorization for the use of force"

Then there is the second-guessing the president. Probably the greatest irony of Obama's presidency has been the fact that, in the so-called information age, when one would think that knowledge would set us all free and people would become smarter because of it, what David Corn from Mother Jones Magazine calls "that trademarked Obama nuance-ism that blends pragmatism and principle in a manner that hardly lends itself to crystal-clear messaging" only encourages confirmation bias to take wild speculation further toward the fringes of lunacy.

From assumptions that President Obama is acting on behalf of the Israelis to accusations that he orchestrated the chemical weapons attack in Syria as a false flag operation to bring on US military intervention because of a gas pipeline, the supposed reasons for the president's push for military action in Syria are widely conspiratorial while it seems that those who believe that his intentions are, as he says, to enforce the international norm banning the use of chemical weapons are in the minority. The fact that the president decided to seek authorization from Congress for the use of force doesn't appear to have much of an effect on the fear mongers and haters of everything about President Obama.

When I heard the president speak those nine astounding words on 31 August, I couldn't have been more proud of him. The implications of this surprise decision to hand power from the executive branch to the legislature are enormous. As David Corn's source, a former Obama administration official, concludes, the only answer to why the president did this that makes any sense is that he did it because he believes that it's the right thing to do to strengthen our democracy.

Opposition for the right reasons

While in support of the desire to take action against the Assad regime for the unconscionable act of unleashing chemical weapons on innocent human beings and citizens of his own country, I was conflicted and didn't come to a coherent position on military action in Syria until Obama encouraged a national conversation with the decision to defer to Congress. After briefly toying with the idea that Obama, knowing full well that he could not win over Congress, was really just fulfilling his role as commander in chief of the world's most powerful military and projecting signals of strength without actually intending to attack, I rejected the idea, sensing that the push to gain authorization for a military strike was authentic.

Then, remembering how regretful I was after supporting Obama in his decision to go with the troop surge in Afghanistan back in 2009 instead of drawing down, and, having to accept the fact that I was coming down on the same side of this argument as vicious civil libertarians whipped into a frenzy by Glenn Greenwald's irresponsible reporting on Snowden's NSA leaks and Tea Party obstructionists who see Obama as the enemy of Freedom, I came to my senses and decided that the United States should be pursuing viable alternatives to military strikes, instead.

My greatest concern is that opposition to the Obama administration's military action be for the right reasons, and denying Obama the moral authority on the basis of this nation's past actions or even on the basis of his own less-than-exemplary record is not right. When an actor is doing something in good faith, regardless of other failings they may have, it is called "progress," not "hypocrisy," as the latter only applies when someone criticizes another of doing something that they, themselves also do.

I am arguing that President Obama does have the moral authority to take some punitive action, and more importantly, to prevent the Syrian army and other actors from being emboldened by inaction to use chemical weapons in the future. The authorization by both the US Congress and the UN Security Council would provide legitimacy for military strikes, but that does not mean that it is the right way to go about achieving the purported goals – and that is the only truly durable foundation for opposition to military action.

Another objection that has been put forward is that Obama lacks the moral authority to launch a military strike against Assad. But I reject this argument because no person and no nation is absolutely moral in every regard, nor can any person or nation be expected to be – so the issue of moral authority needs to be applied narrowly, in the specific area of concern.

In this case, Assad's army is accused, backed by much more reliable intelligence, this time around, of unleashing the chemical weapon sarin, a type of nerve gas, on its own people. Of course, it is true that the United States has its own deplorable record of crimes against humanity, and the Obama administration has continued to indulge in several very controversial programs, such as the manufacture, use, and/or sale of land mines, cluster munitions, and targeted drone killings. However, the United States does not currently use chemical weapons, according to international treaties to which it is a signatory, and the issue here is the use of chemical weapons, which have been recognized since as far back as the 1675 Strasbourg Agreement between France and the Holy Roman Empire, followed by 11 more multiparty treaties, as something that should be banned from military use. Whereas other munitions can be argued to have legitimate limited military utility, chemical weapons simply step over the line – that "red line" that Obama was referring to.

Alternatives to military options

So the strongest progressive argument against military strikes is one based on their ineffectiveness, and progressives must also present alternative courses of action rather than retreating to inaction. The most ethical thing for the United States to do is to be engaged in international efforts to bring about a solution to the crisis in Syria.

In her powerful piece on alternatives to military strikes, Sarah van Gelder explains why, instead of seeking congressional approval for military action, Obama should be pursuing peaceful solutions:

By applying the rule of law through existing international institutions, we can work to isolate the wrongdoers on all sides of the conflict in Syria from their bases of support around the world. We can support those in Syria working for peaceful change and offer humanitarian assistance. And we will move beyond the limitations of responding to lawbreaking with violence.
MLK and redemption

To emphasize the point about narrowing of the application of moral authority, let me use Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. He pushed for racial justice, making connections to other issues that are intertwined with it and, through the years, expanding the scope of his focus. His is a moral argument for justice; yet some question his moral authority because he was a womanizer, a philanderer, and he often plagiarized other people's work and ideas.

Although the social context of King's failings – that his wife supported him, even in the knowledge of his philandering, and that his plagiarism was not a clear-cut case of knowingly committing an academic crime – may be mitigating factors, I believe it is wrong to apply those moral failings, to whatever the degree, to the entirety of the man's life and work, as they don't in any way diminish King's moral authority in the area of social justice.


The moral of this story is to judge not too broadly. King was not the first to teach the principle of hating not the sinner but the sin. By loving those whose actions and ideas we wish to change, we leave open the possibility of redemption, without which there can be no social progress at all.
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