Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Right Wing Ideology Threatens Western Civilization

by Len Hart, the Exisentialist Cowboy

When did “humanism” become a dirty word? When did the recently coined phrase “secular humanism” become a code word with which fundamentalists would attack the separation of church and state, democracy, and the rule of law?
Have you heard that "secular humanists are molesting your children"? According to one pamphlet they are. Have you been told secular humanism is a conspiracy by the filthy rich to pervert American life? That's what some religious leaders claim. They portray secular humanism as an insidious cancer eating away at everything good and decent. Think this "secular humanism" sounds too bad to be true? You're right.

-Matt Cherry & Molleen Matsumura, Myths About Secular Humanism

My education was hardly elitist. Nevertheless, I grew up respecting the "separation of church and state" and considered the issue settled. To borrow a phrase from Churchill, "I got it into my bones" that religious ideology was a matter of personal conviction. I was taught to consider “learning” to be a good thing and often revered positions and convictions with which I differed. I learned to identify “humanism” with the “rebirth of learning” often referred to as the Renaissance.

Given a choice between religion and science, I would have chosen science while respecting the rights of those who chose religion. But with the ascension of Ronald Reagan, a sea change in public attitudes was a fait accompli. My position toward those who would not extend to me the same right or respect hardened considerably. What was behind this seismic shift in public morality? But during the Reagan administration, the religious right deliberately hijacked the term "secular humanism" and made of it a right wing code word.

Strictly speaking, "humanism" is a term most often associated with the Italian Renaissance, specifically, the Plato Academy supported and encouraged by Lorenzo di Medici. It was a revival of the Platonic tradition concurrent with the discovery of new antiquities in Rome, notably the Laocoön, a lasting influence on a young Michelangelo.

I might have been willing to concede certain ambiguities associated with the term "humanism". Humanism was not, after all, a specific dogma like dialectical materialism. Rather, humanism properly denotes a spirit of renewed learning. Amid Medieval Scholasticism, it was a breath of fresh air, a willingness to let free enquiry take us where it will. The opposite of inflexible dogma, it still appeals to the sense of adventure, the sheer delight in the act of learning itself.

Humanism was the dynamic clash of giant egos, intellects, and other larger than life personalities: Leonardo da Vinci, Cosimo di Medici, Michelangelo, Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo di Medici, Machievelli, Pope Julius, Cristoforo Landino, and Ficino's own student, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. So varied are those outlooks, so contradictory, that attempts by the American right wing to pigeon-hole Humanism ring hollow, pathetic and uninformed.

The members of this revived Plato Academy were Michelangelo’s tutors and mentors. Had it not been for these liberal scholars, modern Christianity might be devoid of its many “Platonic” aspects, specifically that there exist abstract and wholly non-spatial, non-temporal objects. God? Or is God simply a specific manisfestation of a pre-existing, "Platonic" ideal?

In a related development, a cache of books have been found in Lancashire. The books date to the time of the Florentine Academy of Lorenzo di Medici. Authors to be found include Ovid and Marsilio Ficino, among others. In a book of verses by Ovid are margin notes believed by some scholars to have been made by a young William Shakespeare. The notes are said to be in a "...Shakespearean hand". If that is true, they date to a time after Shakespeare left Stratford but before registering his first play in London. The margin notes, then, might have been made during Shakespeare's "lost ten years".

Platonism had not gone away during the dark and middle ages. Rather, the scholars of the academy in Florence were inspired by the Plato Academy and took its name. It is fair to conclude that the scholars who gathered around Lorenzo di Medici became central to a renewed interest in learning, literally, a Renaissance. Until the heirs of the inquisition recently raised the specter of theocracy in America, one might have hoped that a combination of science and tolerance might usher in a new golden age.

The Renaissance scholars did not call themselves humanists. The term "humanism" is a relatively new invention, coined in 1808 by a German educator, F. J. Niethammer. Because it denoted programs of study not involving science or engineering, it lead inexorably to those studies that are now called “the humanities” -music, art, literature, journalism, philosophy.

More to the point, “humanism" had never opposed religion especially in its Renaissance birthplace, Italy! Characterized by openess and enquiry, it was never insidious or covert. Unlike cults -religious and otherwise -humanism is so broad, so open, so encompassing as to be very nearly meaningless. Among humanists throughout history are to be found both churchmen, scientists, atheists, and monks. Why, then, has this term, coined but recently, become such a cause celebre among the right wing? What’s the beef?

In the fifteenth century, the term "umanista," or "humanist," was current and described a professional group of teachers whose subject matter consisted of those areas that were called studia humanitatis. The studia humanitatis originated in the mddle ages and were all those educational disciplines outside of theology and natural science. Humanism was not opposed to logic, as is commonly held, but opposed to the particular brand of logic known as Scholasticism. In point of fact, the humanists actively revised the science of logic.

Humanism, then, really begins during the middle ages in Europe; while the humanist scholars of the Renaissance made great strides and discoveries in this field, humanistic studies were really a product of middle ages. Not only that, the "rediscovery" of the classical world which was the hallmark of Renaissance humanism in reality began much earlier in the middle ages; as Europeans began to see themselves as a single ethnic group with a common origin in the middle ages, the recovery of classical literature, both Latin and Greek, became a concern for all the medieval centers of learning.

--Humanism, Early Modern, Italian Renaissance

A prominent member of Lorenzo's Plato Academy was Pico della Mirandola who claimed to have read every book in Italy. Mirandola, himself, wrote some 900 theses in which he tried to cover “all knowledge”; he offered to debate anyone on those points. Admittedly, the church in Rome considered some of the theses heretical and Pico was imprisoned for his beliefs.

It must be remembered, however, that his work in general has not been considered politically controversial since that time. Moreover, those criticizing “secular humanism” today are primarily the progenitors of “Protestantism” -not the church from which the Protestant movement eventually separated. At last, modern Protestants opposed to “secular humanism” have apparently failed to raise specific objections to specific points, only to the vague idea of “secular humanism” itself. It is, therefore, an extremely vague position unfairly demonizng the very act of investigation and knowledge seeking.

Modern reactionaries often try to equate “secular humanism” with atheism. The charge has the smell of moldy strawman about it. Of course, it is untrue. Wikipedia entries describing an atheistic "secular humanist" movement are suspicious. I doubt such a movement exists. Who are the leaders? Where are the headquarters? Where is the membership, the meeting hall? The very notion of a top down, cult-like "movement" seems at odds with the very spirit of humanism i.e., free enquiry, open mindedness, enlightenment. Humanists are unlikely to go underground, or to wear white sheets and light bon fires. They are unlikely to scurry through alley ways to attend surreptitious meetings. They are not Illuminati. They do not wear robes and pointy hats. They do not chant. It is simply not in their nature to conspire. Conspiracies are best left to the CIA, the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, the Religious Right.

How does one make of freedom a cult? More precisely, how does one make of freedom a cult unless with fascist means and aims? And what of charges that "humanism" is of necessity and definition atheistic? The founders of Lorenzo's Plato Academy most certainly were not as if anyone in Florence at the time had been!

At its inception, “humanists” were not merely scholars, they were by and large good Catholics. A perfect example is Michelangelo himself, a devout Catholic to the very end of his life and, likewise, a “humanist”. In fact, the very icon of humanism is his statue of David now in the Academia in Florence.

Significantly, David is not a pagan Greek god. Rather, David is an Old Testament hero who figures prominently in Judeo-Christian traditions including those of Protestants, the very Protestants who now rail against “humanism”. Other humanists were Churchmen who remained loyal Catholics; others became Protestant during the reformation.

The excesses of Pope Leo (the Medici Pope), following as they did the scandals of Pope Alexander and the militarism of Pope Julius, provoked a reaction from Martin Luther. But Martin Luther, himself, was a "humanist". Both the "Reformation" and the eventual Protestant split are accurately described as "humanist".

Humanists of many persuasions thus found themselves at odds with the church. Though most humanists were church people, even those eager to break with Rome. But the controversies leading to the break with Rome were not about "humanism" unless Luther's opposition to Pope Leo's sale of indulgences is to be considered "humanist". It is only modern extremists who have irrationally demonized "humanism”. It seems odd given recent right wing rhetoric that Protestantism, itself a "humanist" movement, seems to be at the forefront of the contemporary controversy. During the Reformation, humanists and non-humanists alike were burned at the stake. Humanism had little to do with it; indeed, the word was not even in use at the time. If "humanists" did not exist, the American right wing would find it necessary to invent them.

Of course "humanists" were found among the new practitioners of new, emerging empirical sciences. Science was often opposed by both religious establishments: Catholic and Protestant. Science was likewise opposed by the state, though it was the city-state of Florence that offered Galileo a measure of protection until it became untenable. The early pioneers included Copernicus, Bacon, Montaigne, Descartes, Bruno. Most of these men were not anti-church, though the Catholic Church was intent upon disciplining them. Likewise, most modern "humanists" are not communists though fundamentalist are intent upon equating them with it. The most tragic examples are Galileo -forced to recant, and Bruno -burned at the stake. And, recently, Bill Clinton, often called Satan by Republicans.

Now here is a fact that must surely be unsettling to members of the right wing who recently summoned a Catholic Saint with which to punish a President. The saint was Sir Thomas More, canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

Saint Thomas More was trotted out by then Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, Chief Council to the United States House of Representatives David Schippers, and Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. I will wager that Hyde didn't know that More was not merely a (gasp) liberal, he was a socialist.

The object of such right wing attention was More as he had been depicted in Robert Bolt's great screenplay: A Man for All Seasons. Significantly, none of them quoted him correctly. Moreover, they did not really quote More himself, but rather More as he was depicted in the movie cited above. Even then they got it wrong.

Safe to say that not one of them knew that More was, perhaps, the most prominent “secular humanist” in England at the time. What makes more a “humanist”, like his friend Erasmus, is his dedication to the idea of the perfectibility of humankind. What makes More a “secularist” was his insistence, unto his own death, in the separation of “God’s law” and “man’s law”, a principle that we refer to as the separation of Church and State. Lest we forget, More died at the hand of an all poweful "state". Though it was not Henry VIII who said l'etat, c'est moi he might as well have done.

Here's an example of how Kenneth Starr mangled More and, in the process, proved himself a mediocre intellect. The following excerpt from Starr's interview with Diane Sawyer:

Kenneth Starr:
Well, I love the letter and the spirit of the law, but it`s the letter of the law that protects us all. And, you know, St. Thomas Moore, Sir Thomas Moore put it so elegantly, you know, in A Man For All Seasons. He took the law very seriously and said, `That`s what protects us. It`s not the will of a human being. It`s not Henry VIII`s will. Henry VIII is under the law. We are all equal under the law.`
Sorry, Mr. Starr, no where in the play A Man For All Seasons did the character of Sir Thomas More say anything resembling that.

In fact, More defended the obedience to "...man`s law, not God`s" [that makes More a secular humanist] and never made reference to either Henry VIII's law by name or description. The actual exchange that both David Schippers and Starr are both so fond of misquoting is as follows:

Roper: So now you`d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get at the Devil?

Roper: I`d cut down every law in England to do that.

More: Oh! (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you --where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country’s planted thick with laws --man's laws, not God's [emphasis mine]--and if you cut them down --and you’re just the man to do it --d`you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I`d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety`s sake.
And, in yet another memorable exchange:
Margaret More: Father, that man's bad.

Sir Thomas More: There's no law against that.

William Roper: There is: God's law.

Sir Thomas More: Then God can arrest him.
Of course, the dialogue above was written by Robert Bolt. But if you want to read the original More you will find comments equally biting, equally witty, comments that will most certainly curl the hair of modern right wing reactionaries and intellectual gnomes! More, they will charge, is a socialist for his comments having to do with the business class:
...so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth. They invent and devise all means and crafts, first how to keep safely, without fear of losing, that they have unjustly gathered together, and next how to hire and abuse the work and labour of the poor for as little money as may be.

-Of the Religions in Utopia, St. Thomas More

Clearly, none of the Republicans attacking Bill Clinton had understood the movie. None of them had bothered to learn anything about their “hero” other than what they had seen in a movie. Indeed, this film is among the best movies ever made. Sadly, the real meaning of the film was lost on Kenneth Starr. He came away from it having learned all the wrong lessons and that may be worse than having learned nothing at all.

The likes of Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde et al might have stayed home for the good it did them. The lessons of Saint Thomas More (the real one) is likewise wasted. The crux of A Man for All Season is existentialist at its very core. It is about what it means to be a human being. It's about the disintegration of one's very identity. It is about redemption. It is about nothing less than man's search for meaning.

Religious folk will see in this a parable about "Faustian" bargains. I don't have a problem with that. Secular folk, on the other hand, will take away from it an Existentialist message non-unlike that of Jean-Paul Sartre in Existentialism and Human Emotions. They are both right!

Sir Robert Bolt`s A Man for All Seasons, the motion picture which won 6 Academy Awards in 1966, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay [Bolt], Best Actor [Paul Scofield], and Best Director [Fred Zinneman], is a familiar story to English history aficionados, but Bolt’s telling of it is just as fresh now as it was in 1966, a time when US troops were mired in Viet Nam. Today’s headlines, likewise, spotlight an interminable war, government corrution, and egregious establishment attacks on "the rule of law." Here's a resource that right wingers, overly massaged about the strawman, humanism, should check out:

A dignified biography [of St. Thomas More] by Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, offers a picture of More which is a combination of Catholic admiration and modern scholarly determinism.
It was Kant, I believe, who wrote of a moral imperative to be intelligent, a dictim largely ignored by the religious right today. Many speak of the acceptance of "Christ" as "one's personal savior"and in the next breath denounce "humanism". It is a dead giveaway that he/she is parroting a demagogue.

The very act of accepting "Christ" is a choice and as such must be made freely, if not rationally. By definition, free choices may not be compelled; compelled choice is an oxymoron. [See Kierkegaard] If the acceptance of Christ is the price of salvation, it cannot "take" in a theocracy where such decisions are compelled by the state.

Personal choices cannot, therefore, be imposed by any state or by any established church. The idea of "conscience" is a humanist idea. By attacking "humanism", the American religious right intends to rob you of what it means to be a human being. They intend to deny you personhood just as Hitler sought to dehumanize his Holocaust victims. His first theft of them was their right to choose. That is what America's religious right will take from you. If you let them. [See Victor Frankl]. Free will is a humanistic idea.

Without free will there is no freedom, no republic, no United States as conceived by our founders. Without free will there is neither religion nor atheism. Without free will, there is no Western Civilizaion.

Some updates:

Premised upon their misconceptions and misrepresentations of humanism, the right wing continues to wage war on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in particular. It is the First Amendment which guarantees both Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion that the right wing finds most odious.

O'Reilly ignored First Amendment, misrepresented Jefferson's position

In his December 14 nationally syndicated column, " 'Tis the Season,"
Bill O'Reilly wrote that the "separation of church and state argument" is "bogus" because it "does not appear anywhere in the Constitution." O'Reilly continued, baselessly asserting that "[i]f Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would mock these secular fools and then retire to his Virginia estate for Christmas dinner." In fact, Jefferson wrote a famous letter in 1802 in which he declared his support for "a wall of eternal separation between Church & State" and expressed his "reverence" for the First Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Additionally, Jefferson made numerous other statements of support for the principle of the separation of church and state.
21st Century Kierkegaard
It is by design that the American right wing, typified by the likes of Bill O'Reilly deal in lies, labels, and lapses of logic, learning, and love. It is by design that the American right wing kicks up as much West Texas dust as it can. It hides their dishonest souls. I'll leave you today with this brilliant nugget by the 19th century thinker Kierkegaard:
If you label me, you negate me.

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