Spinoza, Leibniz and Teabaggers

Reading Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Hereticis proving most fascinating. It is illuminating to me how genuinely modern Spinoza and Leibniz were in their thinking, and then again how sometimes backward Leibniz could be. For Spinoza, it’s as though his conception of the modern state is a reaction to today’s teabagger Christianists. From the book:

In the closing sections of his Tractatus, Spinoza sketches the outlines of a radical and quintessentially modern political theory. His fundamental aim is to replace the reigning, theocratic conception of the state with one founded on secular principles. According to the theocrats, the state is the temporal representative of a divine order. The purpose of the state, in other words, is to serve God; and the role of the ecclesiastics is to tell the people just what it is that God wants. Spinoza says, in a nutshell, that the purpose of the state is to serve humankind; and it is up to the people to tell the state what they want.

What ties this so firmly to our current political climate is that instead of a direct connection between church and state, between the government and religious authorities, the founders have been deified as The Founders, divinely-touched men who somehow channeled the mind of Jesusinto the most holy (if totally misread or ignored) Constitution, itself an allegedly infallible “book” like the Bible. Stewart reveals Leibniz as a man consumed with his own advancement, so much so that he panders to European political leaders’ vanity and religious fervor by suggesting such absurdities as intentionally launching a holy war in Egypt, and in general working to justify the nonsensical claims of the Bible. But much of that may have been smoke and mirrors, bringing Leibniz, too, into the realm of modernity in the best sense of the word:

There is good reason to suspect that Spinoza’s hardheaded critique of revealed religion found a sympathetic listener in Leibniz. It is a fact worthy of notice that, although he lived in a century noted for its Bible thumping, Leibniz rarely bothered to cite the scriptures in his philosophical works. His grandest aim, after all, was to build the republica Christiana on a foundation of pure reason, not of biblical interpretation. According to Eckhart, furthermore, the philosopher often claimed that he saw nothing in the New Testament “that is not part of simple morality,” and he frequently described himself as a “priest of nature”—sentiments that are clearly in tune with those of the author of the Tractatus.

This notion is intriguing, that of a state founded upon Christianity, but not in such a way as, say, the GOP would have it, but founded on a philosophical Christianity. One that reveres the scriptures, but uses them as a basis for rational, decent behavior among the otherwise-ungovernable rabble. I wonder if this is where Jefferson was coming from. I’m looking forward to delving further into this book, learning more about these two men of whom I know almost nothing, save for that Spinoza was Einstein’s spiritual role model, and that Leibniz was a good conversational companion to the fictional Daniel Waterhouse.

DADT and the Religious Right’s Clout

Jonathan Chait dissects the breach in Republican resistance to gay rights in the wake of the coming repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and reaches an astounding side conclusion, emphasis mine:

The progress of gay rights in the United States over the last generation has been intoxicatingly rapid. It’s happening so fast that opponents, rather than fomenting a successful backlash, have mainly lost their desire to fight. In part this reflects changes in the Republican Party, which is now dominated almost entirely by defenders of the economic prerogatives of the rich and barely pretends to care about the Christian right’s agenda anymore.

What? Really? I dunno about that, sir. I might — might — buy into the notion that the organized Christian-Coalition-type political onslaught has lost some of its potency (some!), and if so, that’s mainly because the Southern strongholds for religious conservatives have essentially been established and heavily fortified for, I suspect, the next couple of generations at least, with no new territory to be won, only maintained.

But one can’t have witnessed the rise of the tea-bagger right and not have noticed that they, too, seem pretty crazy for the Jesus of Real America. They may not be as organized or have the kind of media sophistication of the major pressure groups, but they have passion and rage, a hair-trigger defensiveness about supposed attacks on their Christianness, and they don’t require any finessing to be made upset. If anything, this Christianist Mob that is currently posing as the Tea Party is more dangerous; angrier, dumber, and quicker to strike.

But yes, all Republicans really care about is the rich. The religious pandering is just a means to an end. But it is still one of the prime means.

Parade of the Fanatical Ignoramuses

It is almost becoming a ritual in our house these days. At the end of a long day at work, the wife and I turn on MSNBC and watch, stunned, as Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart put on the parade of angry right wing lunatics. We sit, mouths agape, as we see manufactured rage at town halls over something tangential to health care, we see Glenn Beck weeping over something called “oligarhy” and a whole circus of birthers, deathers, truthers, tenthers, and every other sort of “-er” you can think of (except “thinkers”). Obama is a Nazi, or a communist, or the antichrist, or the Hamburgler, or whatever.

My wife can’t stand it anymore, and is more inclined to change the channel to the new show about hoarders on A&E. But I always like to watch my friends in the liberal media take down the hypocrites, the liars, the ignorant. Besides, at first they all seemed harmless, a silly distraction, the easily-provoked getting riled up by an otherwise impotent minority party. But the more I consider what I’ve been hearing, the more I sense a more fundamental problem with an aspect of American culture, something dark.

To give you an idea, take a look at this foreboding interview with Frank Schaeffer, a former founding father of the Religious Right and now impassioned critic of wingnut zealotry.

Schaeffer calls the angry fanatics “beyond crazy,” a “fifth column of insanity,” particularly in their enmity toward Obama (the original subject of the interview), but I think that lets them off the hook. He notes that this pseudo-fundamentalist subculture is conditioned to “reject facts,” and I think that gets closer to the point. The rage and racism (more on that word in a bit) here is the result of a willful ignorance on the part of millions who know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not insane, they are opting out of reality.

Schaeffer also notes that the Republican Party, languishing in the political minority, is “enthralled to this subculture,” and this is evident in the unwillingness of the more reasonable members of the party to take a stand against the hate and stupidity, as well as in the more knuckle-dragging members who dive head first into the filth, hoping to ride a mosh pit of bigotry and fear into a fixed position of consolidated power.

Which leads me, as one might guess, to Rush Limbaugh. I don’t care to simply quote mine Limbaugh to prove some kind of point about what a blowhard he is—this is like explaining that fire is hot. Instead, I want to use a recent diatribe of his as an example of exactly the kind of thing Schaeffer is talking about.

If you read any liberal-leaning blog, you already know about Limbaugh’s stupid tantrum about the white student who was beat up on a school bus by black students, in which Limbaugh belched, “We need segregated buses.”

This is revolting and offensive enough on its own, but a full reading of the transcript shows that this isn’t really what Limbaugh was getting at per se—don’t worry, I’m not defending him, because it’s really worse than you think. Limbaugh said:

It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white. Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives. We can redistribute students while we redistribute their parents’ wealth. We can redistribute everything, just return the white students to their rightful place, on their own bus with bars on the windows and armed guards—they’re racists, they get what they deserve! …

… I wonder if Obama’s going to come to the defense of the assailants like he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.

It’s that term “Obama’s America” that kept haunting me as I heard this. That Rush Limbaugh and those like him harbor racist feelings and resentments is not news. But what is striking about this serving of rhetorical vomit is how it attempts to make white racism against blacks acceptable again, but uses a perversion of the phraseology of identity politics and manufactured umbrage. The important message of Limbaugh’s monologue is not “let’s bring back segregated buses,” it’s really, “You see? Black people have always been the problem!” He feels the racists have had their point proved: In Obama’s America, white kids get beat up and white men get blamed for everything, while their wealth is stolen by blacks (and gays). Another way he might have put it: “We let the blacks have a shot at being in charge, and now your kids aren’t safe from black people.”

When Obama was elected, there was a lot of fuzzy talk about the beginning of the end of racism. But Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk (and I specifically mean anyone in the Republican Party who will not totally renounce them), in what they are telling their stupid followers, are showing us the opposite—they’re trying to make the case that it’s okay to be racist again, because Obama is a Nazi/communist/black nationalist/foreigner/racist/Muslim/antichrist. You were right all along, these inexcusably abhorrent men tell their anti-intellectual swarms, so it’s okay to take this president down.

Frank Schaeffer said something else that is spot on, that we can’t “reorganize village life to suit the village idiot.” But we do have to wake the village up, assemble a legitimate town meeting, and make sure everyone knows that the village idiot has formed a posse, and it’s headed this way.