Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Street Wise: Religion and the Domestication of Dissent

Street Wise is a semiregular posting, featuring a selection of significant quotes and excerpts from something I've been reading.
Just this morning I finished reading Russell T. McCutcheon's book Religion and the Domestication of Dissent: Or, How to Live in a Less than Perfect Nation, 2005, Equinox Publishing. I am still processing it, going back and forth between thinking that his account is brilliantly insightful and suspecting that he missed the boat somewhere. There were some great quotes, though, which I wanted to include on the blog:
Writing about scholarly fascination with passivity in the face of wickedness, McCutcheon says,
I admit that I am rather perplexed as to why the curiosity of such scholars is limited to "some governments." For instance, we are never curious as to why we as a social group devote considerable intellectual energy, labor, and dramatic amounts of capital developing and marketing such things as laundry soaps capable of making our already white whites even whiter, "longer-lasting" air fresheners, and erectile dysfunction medications for the aging baby boomer generation, while something as easily addressed as childhood diarrhea continues to kill tremendous numbers of children all across the Third World. To stick with this one simple example, given that the worlwide incidence of childhood diarrhea is linked to issues of basic sanitation, it is estimated by the Christian Children's Fund that "drinking-water and sanitations improvements could reduce the overall incidence of infant and child diarrhea by 1/4 and cut total infant and child mortality by more than 1/2." Yet consumers and executives who devote their energies to deciding whether Coke or Pepsi are more refreshing lose no sleep whatsoever over participating in a socio-economic system that functions to horde wealth. (3)
We...do not entertain that our own government's foreign and domestic policies might be understood -- correctly or not, in our opinion -- by others as a form of violent behavior that, like it or not, some people think needs to be met with retaliatory violence. No, this we can never entertain for, as Noam Chomsky has succinctly phrased it, "that would require at the very least a willingness on the part of the educated classes to look into the mirror instead of restricting themselves to lamentations on the crimes of official enemies." As the evil Queen in "Snow White" found out, sometimes mirrors are dangerous things to look into, for they are apt to tell you things you might not want to hear; it's likely to be safer to offer up grandiose theories of social deviance and religious fanaticism, since they enable us to dismiss other people's behaviors before ever really considering just what we're all competing over. (2)
Quoting Slavoj Zizek, McCutcheon points out that oppositional or marginal groups are so by virtue of daring "to take their beliefs seriously." (64) Or, summarizing two Western writers on Islam (although he might as well have been talking about Christian political theologies and the resistance to them by the Western Liberal-democratic State):
"Political Islam" and "Islamist", then, are the...labels given to...virtually anyone who (i) believes that the mass movement known as Islam has anything to do with contemporary life and (ii) puts this belief into practice in some fashion....Members of so-called politicized religious movements are therefore those who, according to these commentators, mistakenly think that their beliefs have something to do with their behaviors, the behaviors of others, and the institutions in which they live and interact. (68)
Or as Stanley Fish put it, "The only good belief is the belief you can wear lightly and shrug off when you leave home and stride into the public sphere." (quoted on 81)

McCutcheon's basic thesis contests William James' notion (and the subsequent common-sense idea) that "religion" (or better these days, "spirituality") is about some inner, pure essence, untouched by political contentions and historical contingencies, whereas politics (or the nation, or the state) is about public, observable phenomena which involve interpersonal negotiation and conflict. He contends that this sort of split domesticates dissent, by making it acceptable but trivial, and solidifies the totalizing power of the Western Liberal-democratic State. Along the way he deconstructs the notion of tradition, which is giving me much to consider, being something of a follower of Alasdair MacIntyre. But I think he is really on to something about the social mechanism we have for relativizing (certain) beliefs, and making sure that people don't act on them. His discussion of the political force of poetry (historically) and its subsequent trivialization is fascinating (p. 74). (Have you ever wondered why, with freedom of expression, so little actually changes? Maybe, as he suggests, the freedom of expression -- and the implication of its powerlessness inasmuch as it is divorced from action -- actually underwrites the status quo.)

Anyway, I find McCutcheon to be both troubling and insightful. I'm going to be reviewing this book for Reviews in Religion and Theology, and I need a little more time to think about it. But I do think that I might make a foray into some of his other works sometime soon.

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Blogger Doug Wood said...

***Or as Stanley Fish put it, "The only good belief is the belief you can wear lightly and shrug off when you leave home and stride into the public sphere."***

Your post drew me back to this column by Leonard Pitts - http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/living/columnists/leonard_pitts/11165806.htm

Unfortunately, it seems to me, those who wear their beliefs well (attending to the sick, the poor, the outcast) are paid little attention while those who don't (utilizing Christianity for their own power and gain) end up on the front page.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005 1:39:00 PM  

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