January 20, 2019

Pluralism is Grace, Elitism requires Efficiency

The reason I am a religious conservative and a social progressive is because I believe both in private discipline and civic grace. I believe Jesus lived a perfect life while his neighbors did not, and the reason they all didn't hate him (Luke 2:52) is because he was gracious. Therefore, just like 29 year old Jesus in Nazareth, we need to live and let live. Politically, that means Christians must embrace pluralism. In a deep way, this comes down to what Christians ourselves are called to do and be. If we cannot be gracious, then we are neither holy nor worshipful. Unfortunately, too many conservatives still confuse pluralism with liberalism or relativism or compromise. For me, pluralism is none of those things. From the classical christian perspective, pluralism is grace.

In about the year 53 CE, a guild of silversmiths wanted to run Paul out of Ephesus, but Paul could not have imagined retaliating in kind. Today, largely because Christian Europe spent some centuries abusing its political power, western civilization is trending back towards what it was. Personally, I am hopeful about this developing trend. Ours is the faith of a carpenter, of a tent-maker, of a pregnant teenager, of an exiled refugee. Christianity has suffered most because of wealth and popularity. I don't know if God agrees with me that it would be better for Christianity if we could have fewer Christians, but I do believe God prefers that we not romanticize persecution. Big or small, the future I see for Christianity involves mutual toleration. In my opinion, the best way to preserve religious freedom is by embracing a broader package of civil rights and social equality.

To my mind, the obviousness of that strategy reveals the ugliness of those who cannot see it, or perhaps simply refuse to embrace it. One common critique of the religious right in America is that they do not fear losing freedom, but what they truly fear is losing control. Perhaps I might say more accurately that what conservative Americans fear is being controlled. Perhaps some fear losing freedom precisely because they have tried so hard to deny freedoms to others. Perhaps some fear control precisely because they have worked so hard to control others. Because it's what they do unto others, they fear it will be done unto them.

The preacher who fears he'll be unable to buy or sell christian products is the preacher who forbade his people from buying secular products. The preacher who fears christian media will be banned is the preacher who forbade his people from watching secular media. The preacher who fears Hollywood will turn his kid gay is the preacher who believes he has the power to turn his kid straight. The preacher who fears the government will tell him what to preach is the preacher who uses that tax-exempt pulpit to tell his people how to vote. By the way, yes, those fearful "he" preachers are predominantly dudes. Regarding the general dynamic of that manly ungraciousness, please draw your own conclusions.

At the very least, the christian religion should give up trying to govern unbelievers. Beyond being bad for America but it's been spiritually deadly for the church. And that, in a nutshell, is the message I would like to send to all my fellow religious conservatives.

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Changing topics, now, my chief concern for the future of left-wing politics in America is the question of elitism and efficiency. Across all forms of governments, in the history of this world, a few constants have always ruled the dynamic. The first constant is scarcity. The second is elitism. We do a much better job of mitigating the one than the other.

Elitism requires efficiency. You can't hoard wealth without protecting yourself from the rabble. Aside from monopolizing resources, elites have always enjoyed the protection of controlling political systems. In ancient Athens, by a mixture of accident and design, an estimated 80% of the population lived in some form of permanent servitude. The norm for a long time in much of the world was outright ("mass chattel") slavery, and European feudalism merely gave way to a more sophisticated system of inherited privilege. Although our post-industrial economics offers more upward mobility and our political revolutions more frequently removes social stars from the economic firmament, there are still systems in place to protect the one percent collectively, however much its membership may revolve.

To understand this efficiency today, let's start with Lyndon Johnson's famous remark about controlling the lowest white man by giving him someone to look down upon. That's one system of control that's hierarchically very efficient. By the way, I was raised in the well-to-do south. Racism is real and raw and ugly and ignorant and mean in the lower classes, but in the upper classes a large part of racism is just elitism made more efficient. Tokenism isn't just a clever dodge, it's a genuine acceptance filtered through stringent requirements. The wealthy white folks let a few non-whites into their club not to prove they aren't racist but to prove that their way of doing things is powerful enough to raise up anyone (as long as the blessed new blood proves to be advantageous and remembers to pay proper fealty). It's only the poor whites who need to cuss and damn and threaten whole races of people; the wealthy folks just pass zoning restrictions. Racial elitism requires surreptitious efficiencies.

Efficiency is the same reason authoritarian preachers depend upon patriarchy. Establish that the men can rule over their wives, who in turn let the women rule over their children, and thereby the preacher constructs a social hierarchy with himself at the top. But if it wasn't for that system--if everybody didn't get to be in charge of somebody else--the people would never let the preacher have so much power and control over them all. Of course, what we can still see in those shrinking authoritarian tribes is what we used to see decades ago in much of American life. When all the white folks in America feared the religious disapproval of their local reverends (who in turn answered on some level to the civic government that subsidized clerical salaries by allowing their tax breaks), that entire system itself was dependent on patriarchy. Religious elitism required patriarchal efficiencies.

What worries me now is wondering what might come next. Personally, I can boldly imagine we might somehow convince lots of white evangelical preacher dudes to quit using Calvinism and other traditional doctrines as an excuse for white supremacy and patriarchy. That's a long way off but I can imagine it happening. What I can't imagine is that CNN and the New York Times could ever maintain operating revenues (in the current political climate) without occasionally featuring the false equivalence of their "both siderism" to maximize page views. With the near-total death of mass marketing, there are few if any niche-level efficiencies remaining which are still so broad as sexism and racism. It's pure economics. For CNN and the NYT, media both-siderism is a brand choice, a way to stand above the more obviously biased outlets (which remain less profitable, for now). Media elitism requires marketing efficiencies.

Likewise, the rise of anti-immigrant fervor in Europe isn't just a strange side-effect of neo-liberalism; it's a leverageable efficiency which is still available to unscrupulous opportunists on a broad-enough scale to be useful politically. Eventually, albeit gradually, the information age might educate enough people about the truth of well-behaved immigrants at least well enough to save us from this particular leverage. What the information age cannot do, however, is affect the dynamic by which ambitious politicians  who wish to join their national elite always recognize their own need to leverage some degree of political efficiency.

In short, I'm wondering what kinds of efficiencies might be leveraged in our future.

Today's "brave new world" creates new elites more frequently, but the new system still needs protections for elitism itself, and on some level those protections require efficiency. Right now, Americans are still in transition, as we have been for the past sixty to eighty years. The current white house occupant still maintains northward of 30% approval rates even after two years of non-stop scandals generating legitimate outrage. Forget him, though. Focus on that percentage.

I remain personally committed to reducing racism and sexism--now more than ever--but even if we can end those dynamics completely, the socio-political dynamic will still offer relative efficiencies. On this point, I fear that some fears of the religious hardliners may not be unfounded. Although I cannot yet foresee the U.S. experiencing governmentally sanctioned persecution of christian believers, our slide towards unpopularity will soon give us a minority status that will eventually turn animosity against us into actionable leverage. Elitism requires efficiency. As George Orwell said, some animals are always going to be more equal than others. Still, with all my heart, I would rather face persecution myself than support the persecution of others. This is my faith, to endeavor to live like Jesus Christ, and my Lord did not try to take over Judea. Instead, to fulfill God's desires, Jesus denied his own desires and turned his face toward death on a cross.

On this point, some of my friends who are liberal-christians (I say again, I remain committed to conservative orthodoxy), may put their hope in the rise of the Religious Left, and indeed social tribes in those circles may withstand future political leverage. They may even wind up serving those who take power in the future liberal governments, but I must let them contemplate building their own bridge over that River Kwai. What I would like to suggest to my left-leaning christian associates is merely the following.

Social progress does not depend on sweet religious kindness. Social progress depends on economic progress. Since the first Sufferagettes (organizing in post-Victorian urban areas) women [okay, white women] have gained political power in lock step with their own economic advancement with social status following behind. Racial progress lags far behind women's progress, with a few powerful exceptions, but the same general principle holds true. For the past hundred years or so, technology and education have been gradually shifting our paradigm from scarcity to abundance. It is operating in seasons of relative abundance that allows marginalized groups to organize for political power. It is operating in these several decades of global stability and abundance that has allowed western culture the luxury of breaking up the old norms and expectations. Without the fear of suffering scarcity, the poor and middle classes have less need to embrace conformity. We haven't suddenly grown enlightened in America. We've just gotten too rich to care what anyone thinks anymore.

The old world maintained stability with armies and walls but our new world of relative abundance has allowed us to entertain notions like world peace and open borders within plausible contexts. It's wonderful, albeit historically bizarre, but it may be sustainable. Obviously, bad things still happen, and utopia gets sidetracked every day, although trends remain hopeful. Some type of elitism will always be with us, and will sometimes be manageable, but all kinds of elitism require some type of efficiency.

History should assure us, at least, that if economic progress disintegrates, social progress will probably devolve accordingly, however gradually and sporadically. Before some such future occurs... if we first manage to end patriarchy... if we first manage to end white supremacy... I cannot begin to imagine what new percentages would shake out... or what kinds of leveraged efficiencies the new social disintegration would suggest to that era's political opportunists.

With all intellectual humility, I can only suggest that Christian believers are one of many options. Some groups will face threats of persecution. Others may not. None of those options should be preferable to anyone.

But elitism requires efficiency.

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In lieu of that true nightmare scenario, may I humbly suggest once again that civic tolerance and political pluralism are the far better way to proceed.

Anyway, to my view, it's the proper christian choice. 

Pluralism is grace...

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