12/22/15

Holiday Musings: Embracing the Myth

The fall semester is over and today is probably the first day in the last four months that I have thought critically about anything not explicitly related to teaching or grading. Whenever I return to record my thoughts after such a break, I do so with trepidation, fearing that I will have forgotten how to think on paper.

We’re also a couple days from Christmas, which makes present one of the most important questions nagging me since leaving religion: is some sort of myth-making necessary for human flourishing? I’ve been increasingly critical of what I might call the ‘collateral damage’ of religion, and I would suggest that this collateral damage is fundamentally related to the supernatural referent of a given religious tradition. In many ways, Christmas seems the epitome of this damage, so diluted as to be harmless, yet a constant reminder of the hegemonic power of myth to shape our lives.

Setting this connection aside for a moment, however, there are important—also potentially damaging—problems associated with the explicit disavowal of all myth-making. Deconstruction takes a significant amount of work and naggingly reminds us of the arbitrary construction of our realities. In addition, there is an inverse relationship between one’s willingness to tolerate the problems of narrative and the willingness of others to tolerate your presence. In short, the more critical you are, the less fun you are to be around.

I was reminded of this when my choice to forgo eating animals became a topic of conversation at Thanksgiving. While one relative asked me questions about my justifications with incredulity and I attempted to respond in a way that encouraged reflection without being accusatory—a difficult thing to do when everyone has animal flesh on their plates—everyone else sat in awkward silence, hoping the moment would pass quickly and we could move on to less controversial topics—ones that do not challenge our cultural narratives.

Of course the broader occasion for our gathering, Thanksgiving, is legendary narrative as well. It is a narrative that masks exploitation, racism, and religious oppression with thankfulness, a paradox that only coheres if we don’t acknowledge it explicitly, given that we increasingly recognize racism and exploitation as such rather than as part of the natural/Divine order. So, at least for our family, we increasingly just don’t acknowledge the occasion for our gatherings, much less the ethical tensions within them. We gather together for the holidays because that is what people do.

It is in this paradigm that I appreciate the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two times per year that the greatest number of our family gathers together, where the existence of a myth beyond us, reprehensible though it may be, provides sufficient social obligation to draw us toward each other. And of course when we do gather, we—or at least I—am glad that we have. I think, as I always do, how I should attempt to connect with family more often than the holidays, when there is no artifice to externally justify our gathering. Until then, these shared narratives draw us together.

Within my immediate family, we put up the Christmas tree with goofy ornaments, stockings over the mantle, and even a small manger scene. If these used to refer to some supernatural other, their referents are now localized, reminders of the good feelings associated with gatherings in times past and the possibility of creating more in the future. But maybe it was always this way. We first encounter our myths as reality, divorce ourselves from them, and then return to them as actors in a role that we are now more comfortable playing than refusing to participate.

The hypocrisy and duplicity in our broader narratives is still there to be challenged, insofar as myth-making provides structural shortcuts to critical contextual thinking. The challenge is not for its own sake, but to uncover our acceptance and perpetuation of inequity and oppression. It may be impossible to create narrative without ethical violation. If so, then perhaps we must be satisfied with smaller narratives—Lyotard’s petit récit—whose harm can be limited and benefit maximized. Strange though it may sound, this comforts me.

Happy holidays.

02/28/13

Pulling Ourselves Up By Our Bootstraps

A group of notable Christian leaders calling themselves Circle of Protection, with Jim Wallis as their spokesperson, recently sent a letter to Congress asking them to protect the poorest in our nation from being affected by budget cuts. Wallis, a long-time advocate for social justice in political circles, argues that the budget is a moral issue and that Congress needs to be reminded that cuts to vital aid programs affect people personally. I recognize that some political posturing goes along with public statements such as this, but I value the efforts of Wallis and those in this group for reminding Christians and others that, “a nation will be judged by how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable.” I’d argue that we’re better off if we judge each other on this principle rather than letting God do it, but the statement is valuable in trying to craft the kind of religion Wallis and some others want to see. He has been a social justice advocate for years and I’ll give his group the benefit of the doubt that not only are they making a public statement, but are engaged in their own communities as well.

In another article published recently, Amia Srinivasan exposes the “sin” of being dependent on the state. There is a connection between apathy toward continuing funding for aid programs and our stigmatization of their use. I’ve been more aware of the prevailing negative attitudes toward the “poor” in Idaho than when I was in California. I’ve heard comments at the gym, located downtown near a shelter, about how the people milling around should stop smoking cigarettes and “go get a job,” as if it were simply a matter of making the decision. (If that were the case, I wouldn’t be an underemployed PhD.)  One might think that we stigmatize receiving state support just to be mean, or we feel guilty, or because we’re scared that if we don’t make people feel terrible for relying on it, they’ll just stay on it forever. But there’s more to it than that.

Srinivasan’s article points out that we only stigmatize particular kinds of state support, and don’t recognize the state’s contribution to the wealthy (and the rest of us) to maintain our socio-economic status. Thus, much of the article is devoted to poking holes in the myths that support our inaccurate judgements of state support. Many people who rely on government aid, for example, already have full-time jobs that don’t make ends meet, and we subsidize those people in minimum wage jobs so that we can have cheap t-shirts from Wal-Mart. Wealthier folks, on the other hand, are protected by favorable tax laws (and have the means to take advantage of them), and have the ability to grease the wheels of legislature to remain in their favor.

So much has been heard before, and reinforcing the polarization between the rich and poor only goes so far. It already is joining the ranks of such played-out dichotomies as Democrat and Republican, pro-life and pro-choice, etc. The better question the article asks that is unique is why Americans only stigmatize certain types of state dependence and not others. Srinivasan suggests a couple possibilities. First, the state relies on the wealthy just as the wealthy rely on the state. We’ve been told at least since the Reagan era that big corporations and their leaders are what drive America’s economy. America and the wealthy are codependent, while the poor just drag the state down (and work at the companies with huge profits that don’t “trickle down”). Secondly, we have the myth of the self-made man or woman, which ignores the fact that many of today’s wealthy inherit their wealth. Indeed, even if they “worked hard,” they began with social advantages that the poor could not dream of. While self-reliance and rags-to-riches are embedded in American culture, they are largely myths. In their current form, they merely reinforce class divisions.

What struck me most in reading the article, though, is the idea that the biggest obstacle to destigmatization of the poverty we see around us every day may be pride, the indoctrinated belief of the aspiring middle class that we will be wealthy some day as well if we try hard enough. Thus we blame the poor for their poverty, giving them a minimal amount of support so that we can maintain the outline of a dream that will not be a reality for the vast majority of us, while those for whom wealth is a reality benefit from cuts to the bottom half.

This, I would argue, is one of the greatest hypocrisies in American Christianity, which extends strong ideological support for the poor while attempting to limit state support for them. I had a conversation a few years ago with a person who fits the self-made profile well, coming from humble beginnings to successful entrepreneurship. This person argued, as a Christian, that the government shouldn’t be able to force people to do things, like help support the impoverished, that they would otherwise do on their own. Many share this sentiment, yet I imagine they wouldn’t want the same principle applied to infrastructure or small business tax breaks. The government support of the poor that allows those, even those just above the poverty line, to stigmatize those just below because they are “mooching” from the system. But it’s not because they cheated the system and we worked hard for what we have. It’s because we know that we are no different. We have been able to take even more advantage of the system, and it is only circumstance that put us where we are today. The line separating “us” from “them” is ever so thin.

I agree that taxation of the wealthy will not solve the country’s economic imbalances. Part of the reason it is so controversial, however, is that it pokes a hole in the myth that we deserve what we have and we earned it all ourselves, a myth so vital to our nation that many of us will continue to support it without ever seeing any benefit from it.