On Facebook over the past couple weeks, one of my posts about the "Top Ten Conservative Movies" has led to a long, rambling debate about just war and the ethics of self-defense, which you can read here. The latter has been particularly interesting. In the course of the discussion, Exodus 22:2 was brought up, as proof that it was morally right to kill an intruder who might be threatening your life and that of your family's. I countered with the suggestion that there is a distinction between what is justly lawful and what is righteous. This distinction particularly applies in view of the Old Testament/New Testament progression, in which Christ tells us that what was permitted because of the people's hardness of heart in the Old Testament should be transcended by faithful believers in the New. Given that civil authority in this present ages is a holdover from the past age, in power only insofar as Christ's kingdom has not yet fully replaced it, could it be that killing in self-defense ought to be permitted by the law for the sake of order, but ought not to be practiced by Christians?
This is certainly what Augustine thought.
I wrote this up for class today. No doubt, it could be much improved upon in light of O'Donovan's fantastic remarks in class, but this covers some of the main bases, and other important insights might make up a separate post.
Joseph de Maistre, born in 1753, lived and served as a public official in the Duchy of Savoy, part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, but occupying a portion of the European mainland right next to France. He lived until 1821 and wrote much political philosophy after the French Revolution and deeply critical of it. Fervently Catholic, he saw the collapse of respect for civil authority and, along with it, European order and civilization, as the inevitable fruit of a rejection of the Christian religion. Indeed, he went further than this in arguing that the same principles of disrespect for tradition and authority that the Protestant Reformers introduced were liable to yield the fruit of political revolution and chaos.
For some reason, I am always curiously tempted to become Catholic when I read Catholic political theologians. These quotes from de Maistre's "Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions" may begin to illustrate why:
XV: “The New Testament, coming after the death of the legislator and even after the establishment of his religion, offers a narrative, warnings, moral precepts, exhortations, orders, threats, and so on, but certainly not a collection of dogma set out in an imperative form....If the scriptural historian sets out a dogma, it is simply as something already known...Far from the first creeds containing a statement of all our dogmas, on the contrary, Christians of those days would have regarded it as a serious crime to state them all. The same is true of the Holy Scriptures; no idea has been more mistaken than the attempt to find in them the whole of Christian dogma.”
This was for Brad Belschner's wedding, where I was asked to pray for the new couple's role in their church and community:
O Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who have united in one body people of every tribe and nation and tongue in your Church, we thank you that today you unite in one flesh Brad and Sarah, born of different nations, and brought together today from across many lands and a wide sea. We thank you that they have been united in your Church, by your Church, for your Church, and as a sacrament of that blessed marriage between Christ and the Church.
We pray today that they would never forget this high calling and purpose of their marriage, that they might not only give themselves for one another and for you, but for all your people, in this congregation, this nation, and the world. To each of them you have given great gifts, gifts of knowledge, of love and compassion, of patience and diligence, and we pray that, by uniting these gifts today, your Spirit would make them wiser, more powerful, and more tireless in their service of your people than they would ever have been alone.
I had set out to write a post answering the question: "If America is so wickedly selfish in pursuing its national interests, why does it often show such enormous generosity to people in need?" My intention had been, defying my own cynical bent, to assume that America does indeed show enormous generosity, and to then account for it by an examination of the ideology of self-interest and generosity that capitalism promotes. I still want to do that, because there's some fascinating issues to explore. But, as soon as I started doing a little research, I was forced to abandon my optimistic assumptions and fall back on cynicism--America shows no such enormous generosity, either on a national or a private level.
The first problem, of course, is that, even as officially conceived, US government aid is scarcely a matter of unselfish generosity, and in practice, it often becomes little more than a bribe to convince the recipient government to do us a favor. The USAID website explains its purpose this way: "The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States." Wow. Well, at least you can't accuse them of trying to cover their tracks--there it is right in the open: "We give people money to advance our foreign policy objectives, that is to say, USAID is a bribery agency." A little further on, USAID remembers to throw in some nice-sounding rhetoric--"The United States has a long history of extending a helping hand to those people overseas struggling to make a better life, recover from a disaster or live in a free and democratic country. It is this caring that stands as a hallmark of the United States around the world -- and shows the world our true character as a nation."
But then, it goes right back to the starting note: "U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America's foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world." Now, of course, if one really believed (as perhaps our poor benighted former president really did) that democracy and free markets were genuinely improving the lives of everyone in the developed world, then the alliance with "America's foreign policy interests" is not so troubling. But of course, a cursory knowledge of modern history will show that "expanding democracy and free markets" means, "Putting regimes in place that are friendly to the US and her interests, and opening doors for US businesses to make money in the country," both of which often have quite the opposite effect from "improving the lives of citizens."
Sure enough, statistics from the Center for Global Development (CGD) show that foreign aid from the developed world to the developing world, while always falling short of the agreed-upon target of 0.7% of GNP (hardly robust generosity), came closer to that target during the Cold War, when "foreign aid" was generally given to puppet regimes around the world to earn or ensure their loyalty against Communism. When the Cold War ended, such aid fell from 0.33% of GNP to 0.22% by 2001. Unsurprisingly, it has risen since as an informal means of buying allies in the "War on Terror."
Also unsurprisingly, less than one-quarter of foreign aid goes to the neediest countries, those classified as LDCs (Least Developed Countries).
Now, all this is simply to point out that foreign aid is more a political tool than an outpouring of generosity. But let's move on to address the claim that the US in particular deserves kudos for its generosity to poor countries. We often hear claims like "Americans are clearly the most generous on earth in public—but especially in private—giving.” But the CGD's numbers make mincemeat of these claims.
The problem with such claims, of course, is that they are based on absolute, not relative, numbers. Given that the US is vastly larger and in general more prosperous than other developed countries, absolute numbers distort the picture dramatically. As it turns out, the US falls more dramatically short of the 0.7% target than most other developed nations, mustering only about 0.18%. Indeed, the only countries that exceed the target are the "wicked socialist" countries of Northern Europe--the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (countries that are also rather less prone to be using the aid money as a foreign policy tool). But, many will protest, this is all public money; the US private sector is much more generous! Relative to its public sector, the US private sector does do better than most other developed countries, but still, the overall giving per person from the US is abysmal. The CGD concludes, “The US gives 13c/day/person in government aid….American’s private giving—another 5c/day—is high by international standards but does not close the gap with most other rich countries. Norway gives $1.02/day in public aid and 24c/day in private aid.” Wowsers.
This report also offers two different attempts to take account of all the factors in public and private foreign aid and to rank developed countries accordingly. Of the 21 countries, one methodology ranks the US 13th; another 19th. In other words, even by the crooked standards of foreign aid contributions, the US is among the least generous developed countries in the world when it comes to helping the world's poor.
Now, in my next post, I'll return to the theme I had hoped to expound here: how the ideology of capitalism can explain the contradictions we see between America's self-interested foreign policy and the limited generosity we do see from her.
Now, to close on a good note, here’s three good things in the book:
First, it thoroughly dismantles many smug and self-satisfied Protestant attacks on Catholicism. Stark is right to point out that Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was driven partly by an anti-Catholic sentiment that wanted to insist that all the progress had happened in the Protestant countries because of their Protestantism, and the Catholic countries were stagnant because of their Catholicism. Such arguments are a dime-a-dozen in modern American Protestantism. Of course, it goes the other way too--Catholic anti-capitalists have tried to pin all the blame for capitalism on Protestantism. Stark’s account shows fairly clearly that, whatever you want to think about capitalism, the praise or blame has to be more evenly distributed among Catholics and Protestants, and it will remind Protestants that Catholicism has been, in general, a friend of progress, freedom, and development every bit as much as Protestantism has.
Second, this book lent a great deal of support to a hypothesis I’ve been nursing for a while; namely, that there is a direct connection between the size of a political entity and the amount of genuine freedom that is possible within that entity. Stark argues that it was the medieval city-states that prospered much more than larger kingdoms or empires, because their much smaller size was conducive to greater freedom for the people and the commerce and greater responsiveness on the part of their governments. The post-Reformation stagnation of France and Spain vis-a-vis the Netherlands and England was due to their much larger populations and more centralized governmental structures, which could not help curtailing freedom simply because of their size. So, lots of good ammunition here for anarcho-syndicalism. Of course, Stark does not seem to realize the importance of his own observation here, and generally reverts to repeating the tired formulas of despotism vs. market-friendly governments. This means, incidentally, that he has rather too much faith in the “market-friendly” US government, not recognizing that its sheer size means that it will undermine freedom.
Third, in a fascinating passage, Stark confirms another hypothesis that had materialized in my mental matrix last term: to be a social good rather than a social ill, capitalism requires well-distributed land ownership, or at least, easy access to land ownership. In reading about the horrific depredations of British capitalism, I wondered to myself why we had not, in general, experienced the same social misery here in the US with the rise of industrial capitalism. A combination of Belloc, Berry, and the Torah hinted at an answer: in Britain, industrial capitalism arose against a backdrop of landlessness, and hence workers were ripe for exploitation, social dislocation, etc.; in the US, industrial capitalism arose against a backdrop of almost limitless private access to land, as the country expanded westward; hence, workers were in principle free and self-sufficient economic agents, capable of holding their own against capitalist manufacturers (though of course one could argue here that this relative well-being was simply maintained at the expense of tremendous exploitation of the Indians). This is precisely what Stark argues on pages 222-25. If this is true, it suggests an explanation for why industrial capitalism is having such deleterious effects in Third World countries, and also suggests that Torah principles of land-ownership may still have a lot of truth and relevance.
Now, let’s return to my central objection--Stark has to distort Christianity to make it ift his account--either misrepresenting or marginalizing crucial elements, or else focusing on features that, while historically true features of Christianity, were depeartures from the orthodox and Biblical tradition. I will try to substantiate this charge in detail.
Right at the beginning, in seeking to equate Christianity with “reason,” he says, “Theology consists of formal reasoning about God.” (5) That is certainly one definition of theology, but it sounds like something from Turretin. Although formal reasoning about God is certainly part of the theological task, few theologians would want to describe theology’s essence in such an arid way. Curiously enough, when Stark goes on to give examples of how Christian theology uses reason, he cites Aquinas’s defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary--an “irrational” doctrine if there ever was one. The irony seems lost on Stark, but in my mind, this example illustrates well the role of reason in the Christian tradition--disciplined reasoning about tenets of faith that often radically subvert what reason itself would tell us.
Shortly after this, Stark admits that, to be sure, many influential churchmen opposed an over-reliance on reason in favor of a greater role for mystery and mysticism. But these views, he asserts, remained outside of the mainstream of true Christianity that was to be found in the universities. On what basis, we may well ask, can Stark, an unbeliever, presume to make such sweeping judgments about what constitutes the mainstream and the periphery of the faith?
Stark then proceeds to sketch the differences between Christianity on the one hand and Islam and Judaism on the other. Of course, I heartily agree with him that Christianity fosters cultural progress in a way the other two do not, but any Biblical Christian should reject the reason he provides: “Scholars often refer to Judaism and Isalm as ‘orthoprax’ religions, concerned with correct (ortho) practice (praxis) and therefore placing their ‘fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.’ In contrast, scholars describe Christianity as an ‘orthodox’ religion because it stresses correct (ortho) opinion (doxa), placing ‘greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.” (In the margin here, I scribbled “Nay, you beast!”) While it is certainly true that Christianity has always had a tendency to indulge in doctrinal debate to an unhealthy degree, and has developed a rather sophisticated system of doctrines, it is a particularly modern, Protestant, post-Enlightenment notion to think of Christianity as being in essence a set of intellectual propositions. In the New Testament, and throughout most of the Church’s history, Christianity has been all about right practice and community life. Inasmuch as it has failed to focus on this, it has failed to live up to its proper calling, and so the Enlightenment obsession with reason that in some ways grew out of scholasticism, though a child of Christianity, is a bastard and no true son--a distinction that Stark does not recognize.
In distinguishing Christianity from Islam and Judaism, Stark also tries to claim that Christianity does not read its texts about Jesus as “divine transmissions” that “have encouraged literalism.” (9) Christianity has a freer, more flexible relationship to its founding texts that enable it to accomodate progress. For example, he says (having apparently not taken the effort to understand the New Testament teaching on slavery) “While Christian theologians could plausibly correct Saint Paul’s understanding of God’s will concerning slavery, such corrections were (and are) essentially precluded in other faiths--except as heresies.” Again, while it may be true that Christianity has at times (especially in modernity) treated the Bible this way, this is not true Christianity and Christians should be immediately suspicious of Stark’s project.
These problems continue to crop up throughout Stark’s crucial opening chapter.
For example, on page 11, he calls Aquinas’s Summa Theologica “a monument to the theology of reason” which “consists of logical ‘proofs’ of Christian doctrine and set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians.” Of course, while logic and reason played a major part in the work, it is hardly accurate to describe it as a collection of “logical proofs of Christian doctrine.” Plus, it certainly did not set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians--ever heard of Protestantism?
A little later, he says, “Aquinas and his many gifted peers could not have excelled at rational theology had they conceived of Jehovah as an inexplicable essence.” But, of course, they did conceive of him that way!
On page 14, he cites the “great, if neglected, medieval theologian-scientist Nicole d’Oresme” saying that “God’s creation ‘is much like that of a man making a clock and continue its own motion by itself.” Well, no wonder this theologian was neglected if he said stuff like that--that’s a classic statement of the heresy of deism. Stark’s confusion of deism and Christianity continues for quite a number of pages. For instant, on page 16, he enlists Descartes’s view that “God is perfect and therefore ‘acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible,’ except for the rare exceptions of miracles.” Later, on pages 20-21, he contrasts Islam’s “extremely active God who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate” with Christianity: “Islam did not fully embrace the notion that the universe ran along on fundamental principles laid down by God at the creation but assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis.” Of course, there’s a big problem with this--orthodox Christian theology has always taught the latter!
Next, he goes on to gush about how individualism is the product of Christianity: claiming that “It is the individual citizen who was the focus of Christian political thought.” (23) Now, I’ve studied Christian political thought quite a good deal, and I don’t ever remember this particular emphasis; in my experience, the opposite is generally true--Christian political thought is particularly concerned with social bodies and the common good. On the next page, he says, “From the beginning, Christianity has taught that sin is a personal matter, that it does not inhere primarily in the group, but each individual must be conscerned with her or his personal salvation.” From the beginning? The beginning of what? The Enlightenment?
In his discussion of individualism and personal liberty, he claims a thoroughly anti-predestinarian stance as the orthodox Christian one. He enlists Augustine in defense of the proposition that “while God knows what we will freely decide to do, he does not interfere,” but, notably, he is working off of Augustine’s De Libero Arbitrio, rather than his later anti-Pelagian writings, in which he retracted many of his earlier statements.
The point here is not that Christianity has not encouraged rational enquiry, scientific investigation, individual liberty, the progress of civilization, prosperity, etc. I would contend that it has. But in Stark’s hands, all of these points are made in a fashion that is only half-true. True Christianity does promote individual liberty, but not individualism; it promotes rationality, but not rationalism, prosperity, but not capitalism.
Stark accepts the Constantinian thesis--that there was a radical shift in Christian values as Christians were catapulted into positions of power and quickly set to work providing theological legitimations, rather than critiques, of power. The problem is that Stark thinks this is altogether a good thing, and this should make us immediately suspicious. The same pattern appears all throughout, as he identifies genuine shifts that occurred within Christianity, but, where true Christians would see corruption and apostasy, he sees great progress and innovation. For example, he is very enthusiastic about the way the great monastic estates and other church institutions accumulated vast wealth, sometimes growing into huge profitable institutions resembling modern corporations in some ways. In one bizarre section about the monasteries, he talks about how “The manual labor prescribed by the rule of Saint Benedict was reduced to entirely symbolic tasks about the kitchen. The monks lived like lords” and then goes on to gush, as if this were a good thing, “All of this was possible because the great monasteries began to utilize a hired labor force.” (61) (To cap off the oddity, he starts praising the Christian work ethic and contempt for luxury on the next page, right after praising the monasteries for finding ways to ensure they didn’t have to do work and could live in luxury. Of course, this particular contradiction is endemic to capitalist thinking.) But the problem is that these developments were decried on all sides, and critiqued by one reforming movement after another, from the Cistercians to the Franciscans to the Protestants. Christians repeatedly insisted that the monasteries that turned into engines of profit had abandoned monastic and Christian principles.
The same problem appears with usury, where he tries to argue that, despite the traditional usury prohibition, Christianity actually favored usury, because many of the worldly hierarchy engaged freely in usurious practices to help finance the buying and selling of church offices. These and other related practices of the exceedingly corrupt late medieval Church are embraced as part of the development of capitalism. Never mind the fact that they were condemned by all honest Christians and eventually incited the massive schism of the Reformation.
In my mind then, the book actually demonstrates, contrary to the thesis that Stark is seeking to advance, that genuine Christianity opposed capitalism as a corrupting force, rather than encouraged it. Stark recognizes this challenge in the form of the traditional theology of the just price and the prohibition on usury, and so he seeks to address these. But his response to this challenge is so pitiful that it leaves one more doubtful than ever about the strength of Stark’s thesis. A single paragraph addresses the issue of the just price, claiming that Christian theologians basically considered the just price to be the one determined by free market forces. On usury, he is even worse, apparently having made no serious effort to understand the scholastic teaching on the issue and dismissing it as “confusing” and “fuzzy,” though it is clear, in his mind, that the gist of the thirteenth and fourteenth-century developments is to nullify the usury ban in the face of the pressure of worldly economic realities. Stark ends this section by scolding Islamic banks for holding firm to their religious convictions and attempting to do business accordingly, unlike their Christian counterparts, who more willingly abandoned their Scriptures: “Religious opposition to interest, combined with the avarice of repressive regimes, prevented capitalism from arising in Islam, and still does. Victories of reason have yet to be won.” (68) In passages like this, Stark shows his true colors: he is not really in favor of the Christian religion, but is in favor of what he sees as the Christian willingness to abandon religious scruples in favor of reason.
The same movement appears in his treatment of property rights, which was shockingly naive, clearly ignorant of the complexities both of Biblical teaching on the subject and of early modern developments and disputes concerning how private property was to operate and be protected. Here too his narrative is one of an irrational early Christianity which was against property rights, superseded by a late medieval rational Christianity that set the stage for full-blown modern capitalism. The narrative has a vague truth to it, but as Christians, we should ask which stage in the development was Christian, and which was heretical.
Indeed, Stark occasionally seems to mess up and accidentally enlists examples that directly contradict his thesis, such as when he discusses a “Puritan”-style Italian ascetic movement (“the Humiliati”) that arose in opposition to the materialism of Italian capitalism, and details how Protestant Puritanism also strove vigorously against the affluence of Dutch capitalism.
The clearest evidence that Stark’s project is sharply at odds with orthodox Christianity comes in the last chapter, where he treats religions as economic competitors in a religious marketplace, and argues that Christianity succeeds better the more the Church is divided, because then it benefits from competition, and is able to offer a diversity of “religious products” to suit various needs. Churches are encouraged to take a more and more explicitly marketing-oriented approach to “promoting” their religious “products.” Of course, this is entirely antithetical to the orthodox confession of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” and should be proof to Christian readers that Stark’s values and his understanding of Christianity are far from theirs.
Of course, none of this is to say that true Christianity is necessarily antagonistic to capitalism across the board; clearly it isn’t. But the relationship between Christianity and capitalism is obviously a deeply ambiguous and conflicted one, contrary to Stark’s thesis, and the concept of capitalism itself is deeply ambiguous and conflicted, though you wouldn’t know that from Stark’s presentation.
Stark’s argument fails on logical and stylistic grounds because its method of argumentation is thoroughly propagandistic. I’ll never forget something I learned from Doug Jones about the difference between persuasion and propaganda. All art (and he helped me understand that academic research is no different) is trying to tell a story in such a way as to win over its audience to a particular thesis. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the persuasion will fail if it tries to resort to propaganda. What’s the difference? In true persuasion, the story alternates between thesis and antithesis, presenting the author’s viewpoint and the alternatives, leaving you with the conclusion that the author’s viewpoint is basically true, although there is much to be said for the other side as well. In propaganda, the story advances one viewpoint only, the entire time, without any serious attention given to alternatives. This is certainly the way that Stark proceeds, which is particularly egregious given that it is not as if he were writing in a scholarly void. Rather, his narrative directly contrasts with Max Weber’s highly influential thesis about the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism. So you might expect that, Weber’s viewpoint being so influential, Stark would expend considerable effort in addressing and refuting it. Not so. Instead, he merely mentions it from time to time to pour scorn upon it, claiming to treat it as scarcely worthy of refutation. Given that giants in the field, like R.H. Tawney, have felt otherwise, this is hardly a credible or scholarly tack to take. Of course, this is not to say that Weber’s thesis does not have a number of problems and does not need a number of modifications (nearly all agree that it does), but that it still holds enough sway that it needs to be dealt with and not dismissed.
Unfortunately, this problem does not appear only vis-a-vis Weber, but all throughout, such as in his dismissal of positive assessments of the medieval guilds (“Fortunately, reality has set in and fantasies about guilds as engines of social justice have mostly run their course”) and of liberation theology (“By now, Liberation Theology is widely recognized as a naive clerical fantasy, although many academics refuse to concede the point”). This kind of drive-by-shooting-style criticism is unhelpful, uncharitable, and unscholarly--if you think some widely-held position is wrong, then show me why, don’t just mouth off.
Indeed, throughout the book, the evidential basis for the most significant parts of Stark’s argument was often extremely thin. This was disguised, of course, under a mountain of statistics and facts, which hid the paucity of definitions and logical connections. The method is a common one in more popular-level works masquerading as scholarship: the author trundles out mountains of evidence in defense of individual building blocks in his argument, in order to impress the reader with his erudition, all the while failing to provide much defense for the logical connections between these building blocks. The resulting structure has the illusion of solidity, but will collapse under any pressure of argument. My general impression in reading the book was long stretches of head nodding--“Yes, yes, I believe you there, but I could’ve gotten that from any number of sources; indeed, I already have”--punctuated my moments of frustrated bafflement at crucial junctures--“Wait, hang on a minute! Where’d you get that from? Could you defend this proposition a bit?”
Part of the problem here, of course, is one of definition, particularly concerning the term “capitalism.” Stark acknowledges that the definition of this term is very difficult and controversial, but then, without interacting with any of the standard definitions and debates, he just whips out his own definition, and then proceeds as if this definition were established and uncontroversial. The rest of his argument is based on this assumed definition, and unfortunately, can only succeed insofar as this definition is meaningful and helpful. I’m reminded of the standard illustration in philosophy about “grue” objects. If I were to assert “All grater is grue,” in which “grater” referred to all objects that were either grass or water, and “grue” referred to colors that were either green or blue, then my statement would be largely true, but the explanatory value of any statements built off of this “fact” would be very limited, since the concepts “grater” and “grue” were entirely of my own making, and of little interest to anyone else. I think that something similar may well be happening in this book. If Stark’s definition of capitalism encompasses fundamentally different phenomena (medieval commerce and modern industrial capitalism) under the same heading (“capitalism”) and then says “See, capitalism was around in the Middle Ages” then all he is doing is begging the question--capitalism was around in the Middle Ages because he has defined medieval commerce as capitalism.
Here is his definition: “Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated or actual returns.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, two problems, as far as I can see. First, in many ways, it seems to be too broad. Terms like “relatively well organized,” “stable” “complex,” “relatively free,” “long-term,” etc. are terribly vague. By this definition, capitalism is as old as civilization, and occurs whenever commerce is given time and space to flourish. Stark reserves a lot of criticism for the Roman Empire, arguing that such “capitalism” never really existed in Rome. But what about Athens, Carthage, or Tyre, the great trading and mercantile centers of the ancient Mediterranean before Rome? Certainly the Biblical description of Tyre sounds a lot like a “capitalist” economy. The particular ideology and set of practices and values underlying modern capitalism (the last 200 or 250 years) would seem to me to be much more specific than this general rosy sketch of free commerce. (The main distinctive, without going into it at length, is the isolation of economic rationality and economic practices as functioning according to their own rules and morality, independent of the rest of the social matrix--see The Great Transformation by Polanyi.)
The second problem is the anachronisms in this definition. First, what does Stark mean by “privately owned”? As opposed to “publicly held,” as in, held by the state? Given that “the state” itself is in many ways a modern invention, and that certainly the bifurcation of society into only two realms--“public” (state) and “private” (everything else)--is a modern invention, it seems ambiguous to discuss medieval economic enterprises under this rubric. This is particularly clear when Stark treats monastic communities as if they were modern private firms. Clearly, they were not; they occupied a position in the social sphere somewhere between our modern purely private institution, and our modern public governmental institution. I’m also suspicious of “hired workforce” after reading Hannah Arendt, who asserted that no such thing as “the working class” existed before the 18th century. Most labor functioned through an association of free or apprenticed artisans. I’m suspicious of Stark’s implicit portrait of a bunch of little medieval factories, consisting of the capital-owning manufacturers and their contracted laborers. Third, when he speaks of an “unregulated” market, he seems to envision the modern dispute over state-regulated or self-regulated markets. Of course there are other kinds of regulation that were pervasive in the Middle Ages, such as by “private” social institutions, like guilds, or by religious rules (like the Church’s rules for just price and against usury). Indeed, Stark seems aware of the potential rejoinder at this point, as he devotes a couple of pages at various points toward criticizing the former as a stubborn elitist holdout against capitalism, and toward minimizing the latter two as non-factors. The problem was, of course, that these couple pages were much too hasty to convincingly dispose of the obvious objections.
Of course, on each of these three possible anachronisms, I am open to being persuaded that I am wrong and Stark is right--these were truly “private firms” in basically our modern sense, there really was a “labor force” in basically our modern sense, and there really was non-regulation in basically our modern sense. But though I am open to being persuaded, I wasn’t, because Stark made almost no effort to persuade on these points--he simply asserted his definition, and then assumed it as accurate, relevant, and useful.
The other problem with Stark’s view of capitalism is his almost religious devotion to it. No doubt Christianity did contribute to the rise of capitalism, but Christianity also teaches the parable of the wheat and the tares--that as good grows and flourishes, evil grows up alongside it. And most sensible historians realize this too--any good historical movement is likely to generate many bad side effects. Stark, however, seems immune to this kind of common sense, speaking of capitalism in the same way that six-year-olds speak of cotton candy. Capitalism is always treated in the narrative as an unmitigated good, and everything that might hinder it is a villain in this story. Related to this is a fervent mammonolatry--Stark seems to think that as long as he shows an increase in material affluence (no matter what coincident increases their may be in vice or social disorder), he has depicted a rise from darkness into light.
His allegiance to capitalism is so absolute that he consistently holds up as models the “capitalist” Italian city-states, even when they were governed by deeply corrupt and brutal governments. As long as these governments helped encourage the free flow of wealth, he doesn’t seem to care too much about their other faults. For example, “Milan [was] vulnerable to autocrats able to impose civil order--especially members of the Sforza family, who rose to fame as mercenary soldiers (sforza is Italian for “force”). Fortunately for Milans economic affairs, the Sforzas were realists who understood finance, and during their rule they encouraged investments in manufacturing capacity and were friendly to commercial interests.”
This kind of bias is just bad history.
If I had come across this book in a vacuum, no doubt I would’ve thought it mediocre and occasionally annoying, but nothing to get worked up about. But, knowing as I did (from word of mouth and from the enthusiastic blurbs on the cover) that many in conservative evangelical circles loved this book, I spent the entire time I was reading vexed by the question “Why?” And unable to satisfactorily answer that question, I found myself in a very ill temper throughout. Now, because this book received such endorsements from such unlikely quarters, I shall be ridiculously thorough in backing up my many criticisms, and if you don’t have patience to read the whole thing, I understand.
Of course, that’s not to say that there’s not much to profit from in this book--there certainly is. If you wade through the whole review, you’ll find at the end three things that I enthusiastically learned from this book. And, it’s understandable why Christians might get excited about this book at first glance. After all, it advertises itself as a sort of modern-day Speeches on Religion to Its Cultured Despisers--a defense of Christianity against the critiques of the Enlightenment and its followers, showing that Christianity is not in fact barbaric, backward, repressive, obscurantist, etc.
However, there’s a problem with this particular defense even more serious than that of the original Speeches on Religion--in this case, the author is an unbeliever, and not just any unbeliever, but one who seems to be particularly doped up on modernity, accepting uncritically all of its trappings as eminently desirable. This much is evident from the title, which made me highly skeptical despite the rave reviews: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Now, for all my Kierkegaardianism, I’m certainly not one to say that Christianity is anti-reason--indeed, it is the only viable source of true reason--but it is certainly skeptical enough of it that it is oddly incongruous to describe its triumph as “The Victory of Reason.” Remember that we’re talking about a faith that preaches as its central event the voluntary crucifixion of its God as a lower-class ruffian at the hands of imperial authorities, and then claims that he popped up alive again three days later, having, somewhere in the midst of all this, conquered all evil spiritual forces and erased all the sins of the world. I can think of a lot of ways to describe the triumph of such a faith, but “The Victory of Reason” would not be among them. (It is perhaps rather telling that Stark does not, so far as I remember, once mention either the crucifixion or the resurrection.)
See, here’s the problem. There’s two ways a book like this could be written. One would be to assume that the Bible and the historic Christian faith were good and true, and then to show that it had borne good and true fruits in modernity, despite many troubling and countervailing tendencies in modernity. Such a book would have much to offer, though I would still be suspicious at points. The other approach is to assume that modernity and the Enlightenment are good and true, and then show that they grew out of many things that were good and true in Christianity, despite many troubling and countervailing tendencies in Christianity. Such is the approach of this book. In the first approach, Christianity is the yardstick by which modernity is measured; in Stark’s, modernity is the yardstick by which Christianity is measured. Of course, that could be said of any number of modern attacks on Christianity; what makes Stark’s book so maddening is that he claims to find that Christianity measures up to this yardstick--that Christianity is in fact reasonable, progressive, and capitalistic in our modern sense. Unsurprisingly, in order to make Christianity fit this Procrustean bed, he has to push it and pull it, emphasizing this odd element here, and covering up this important element there, in order to make it fit. The result is a “Christianity” that any sensible Christian should disavow, and a historical narrative that is scarcely coherent.
Now, it seems that some have latched onto this book because for them it provides a defense of capitalism as something Christians should embrace. But the problem with this (aside from Stark’s failure to clearly analyze “capitalism”) is that this isn’t what Stark is trying to do--he is taking for granted that capitalism is a great good, and is then trying to “defend” Christianity as something capitalists can embrace. This means, of course, that Stark’s hierarchy of values is quite inverted from that of a Biblical Christian, and it shows in all kinds of deeply troubling ways. Repeatedly, Stark points to a genuine historical change in how Christendom responded to some social or economic issue, and, because “progress” is his barometer, he consistently rejects the earlier form of Christianity as “irrational” and seemingly, un-Christian, while the later form represents for him the true (because “rational”) Christianity. The problem is, of course, that in general, Christians at the time (and Biblically-minded Christians today) would clearly recognize the later form as a heresy or corruption.
Thus, Stark tends to identify heretical or corrupt elements in the Christian tradition, holds them up as as the true Christian tradition, and thereby asserts that Christianity is friendly to his Enlightenment ideals of reason, progress, and mammon. The result, therefore, in my mind, is to mount a convincing case that genuine Christianity is in fact hostile to capitalism, since Stark repeatedly demonstrates that it became receptive to capitalism only after deserting its first love.
Now, I will return to illustrate the various ways in which Stark distorts Christianity to try to fit it into his “capitalism” mold, but first, I want to spend some time critiquing the ways in which Stark fails to even provide a persuasive account of capitalism, much less Christianity.
All of us have heard the horrific news filtering through from Haiti, a country that has already suffered far more than its fair share of misery over the past century. It is hard not to weep at the reports coming out--of anywhere from 100,000-500,000 dead, which would make this anywhere from the 2nd to the 15th-deadliest earthquake in history, but, considering Haiti's small size (1 million people) and terrible poverty, even the smaller number would probably make it proportionately the worst natural disaster ever to strike any nation in modern history (100,000-500,000 dead would be equivalent to 3.5-18 million dead in the US). The disaster has stricken high and low alike, demolishing the headquarters of the UN humanitarian mission and apparently wiping out most of its leaders, demolishing the National Cathedral and killing the Archbishop and many of his colleagues, and causing the collapse of the Parliament Building and Presidential Palace.
Pat Robertson, ever prone to massive public faux pases, said this morning that this quake is one more blow in the long curse Haiti has been suffering for the "deal with the devil" that they made in order to become free from French oppression in the 1830s, which surely ranks among the bizarrest and most tactless statements ever made on television. Of course, it is true that Haiti has long been "cursed," but not by divine retribution so much as human oppression, much of which the United States is squarely responsible (a brief account of some of the U.S.'s appalling actions in Haiti can be found in Paul Farmer's Pathologies of Power). Robertson's statement is simply the most extreme form of the kind of statement that we hear frequently from conservative evangelical leaders--excusing the actual human sins of the United States by blaming the suffering of our victims on divine retribution. Jeremiah would not have been impressed.
Obama has pledged "an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort, adding that the U.S. commitment to its hemispheric neighbor will be unwavering." Let us hope that he means it, and that we use this opportunity to atone for some of our past sins against Haiti.
Labels: current events
So, we come to Gardiner's last four films. As I said, I haven't seen any of these myself, though I know a bit about two of them. So I will primarily confine myself to remarking on Gardiner's descriptions and the shallowness and appalling priorities they display.
#7, The Hurt Locker. This, I understand, is a recent portrayal of the Iraq War, and one which, by all counts, is a very well-done film. Also, by many counts, it is by no means as pro-war and pro-America as Gardiner seems to think (he seems to think here along similar lines as he did for Black Hawk Down), but in any case, the most troubling thing here is Gardiner's rationale for his endorsement:
"What is refreshing about the film is its willingness to portray the US military presence in Iraq in an overwhelmingly sympathetic light, and the al-Qaeda-backed enemy as barbaric and fundamentally evil. There are no shades of gray in The Hurt Locker, and this is a strikingly patriotic motion picture that has been embraced by an American public weary of the anti-Americanism churned out by Hollywood in its portrayal of the War on Terror."
Aside from the fact that his last statement is simply false--the film was a total failure at the box-office, ranking 128th among 2009 releases--this is one of the most ridiculous sentiments I have ever read in a movie review. So we're supposed to think of our enemies as "barbaric and fundamentally evil" and to place ourselves in an "overwhelmingly sympathetic light" without any "shades of gray"? Not only is this blatantly un-Christian, it is also irrational and unrealistic--the world doesn't work that way. There are shades of gray...the good guys are usually riddled with bad motives and bad decisions; the bad guys are often motivated by laudable and sympathetic goals. To call them "barbaric" is to dehumanize them in a way that can be used to legitimate any kind of behaviour against them, Nazi-style. To think so uncritically of one's own forces is naive and unwise, certain to lead to an embrace of any number of atrocities. This kind of talk is just foolishness.
#8, Hotel Rwanda. This too, from what I understand, was an exceptionally fine film, but its conservative credentials are dubious. According to Gardiner, we are to embrace this film because "it demonstrated the impotence and moral bankruptcy of the UN’s leadership in the face of genocide as well as the limits of multilateralism, and ultimately made a compelling case for the use of force by the free world to act against evil."
Wow, is that all that conservatism has left to stand for? Opposition to the United Nations and multilateralism? I've got my share of criticisms for the United Nations as well, but that hardly makes me a model conservative. And while multilateralism certainly has its limits, any sensible person should agree that it has less than unilateralism, and is certainly a more Christian course of action.
#9, The Lives of Others. This East German film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007, but, like Hotel Rwanda, its claim to fame as a "conservative" film seems to depend on an isolated and arbitrary criterion--namely, its opposition to Soviet-style communism. This is just silly; almost anyone on the political spectrum is quite aware of the evils of the totalitarian East German regime, and a film that exposes them does not thereby plant itself firmly on the right. Humorously, from Gardiner's description, the bad guys in this movie sound more like the Bush-Cheney government than any leftists I know: it "is a damning indictment of the totalitarian surveillance society run by the Secret Police in East Germany. Set in East Berlin in 1984, the film tells the ultimately redemptive tale of a conflicted Stasi officer tasked with spying on a dissident playwright." The most totalitarian surveillance regime in US history was inaugurated by the Patriot Act, and the dissident playwrights of American culture have generally been hard leftists.
#10, 300. You have got to be kidding me. You mean the comic-book style violent action extravaganza that came out a couple years ago, based on the Battle of Thermopylae? Wow. This really proves that all a movie needs to do to be a "conservative" masterpiece is to be bloody and militaristic. Gardiner's first line here is particularly fatuous: "Any film that prompts howls of indignation from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his brutal acolytes in Tehran deserves recognition." I'm sure that American Pie and its sequels would prompt howls of indignation from Tehran, too, but that is hardly a reason to recognize them as great films. The conservative lesson to take from this film is this: "As he contemplates how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, Barack Obama should ditch his failed appeasement strategy and take some tips from the Spartans about standing your ground in the face of an evil tyrant." Never mind that, in terms of relative power and the history of the conflict, Iran is much more analogous to Sparta and the US to Persia than the other way around. It's rather juvenile for us to pretend like we, the United States of America, most powerful empire that the world has ever seen, are the hopelessly outnumbered, overmatched heroes standing our ground and facing certain death in the face of an enormous enemy force that wants to conquer and colonize our homeland. But, the Iranians might reasonably enough identify with the Spartans in their long struggle against the U.S.'s military ambitions.
Gardiner lists for "Honorable Mention" the following 10 films: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005); Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008); Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007); The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004); Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006); Tears of the Sun (Antoine Fuqua, 2003); United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006); We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace, 2002).
Although this list is slightly better, now I, as a Christian, am insulted. In the previous movies, Gardiner made no pretense of identifying conservatism with Christianity, even if many Christians have themselves foolishly done so. But by throwing in Narnia and The Passion, and the pro-life Juno, Gardiner lumps Christian values (which were admittedly completely stripped from the film version of Narnia) together with his bloodthirsty pagan militarism. In any case, this listing, aside from Juno and The Passion, shows the same idiosyncratic selection of values--a vague but uncompromising conflict of good-vs.-evil, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism, and a gory appreciation of martial bravery.
Wow, that was all rather too easy. But people actually believe this kind of thing, so presumably someone has to take the time to tear it to pieces. One hopes that we are finally reaching the point where conservatism has become so shallow, self-refuting, violent, and pagan that Christians will stop hitching themselves to its wagon and stand up for the Gospel.
By the way, in case you were wondering why this is chopped up into little segments, it's because my brother-in-law advised me that more people would read my posts if they were broken up into shorter installments, and I grudgingly agreed that he was probably right.
So, Gladiator. Of course, this is a fantastic movie in many ways, one which I've enjoyed many times, but I can hardly see how it's a showcase of conservative political thought. Gardiner clearly disagrees, however, and his reasons are rather chilling:
"In essence this is a movie about confronting evil and destroying it. There is not an ounce of appeasement or the whiff of “engagement” in Maximus’s blood, only the desire to avenge the murder of his family and see justice carried out. It is the sort of uncompromising movie experience guaranteed to send pacifists and lily-livered liberals running for the exits."
Holy hexameter! That sentence ought to send Christians running for the exits. So uncompromising, bloodthirsty vengeance, rather than any more peaceful form of engagement, is to be the the order of the day? Well count me out. This is about as un-Christian an ethic as one could present, at least when put in those terms (though there are certainly more sympathetic angles to Gladiator). One desperately hopes that this is not indeed the essence of conservatism--an unswerving commitment to violence and revenge. Of course, this is also an absurdly simplistic distillation of the film, of which I hope we could say more than that it is about "good vs. evil"--as trite a summary as can be imagined. It is also about subversive opposition to the nation's rulers when they become too violent and oppressive, something which conservatives loudly condemned as "unpatriotic" during the Bush years, but which they now happily engage in now that Obama's in charge.
Next, Gardiner lists The Pursuit of Happyness, calling it "one of the most powerful tributes to the free market and the value of individual responsibility ever made." He goes on to gush,
"Smith’s character embodies the can-do spirit of Reagan’s America, and rejects the welfare state in favour of the capitalist ideal, while bringing up a young son on his own. The Pursuit of Happyness is an inspiring and often deeply moving tribute to the American dream, and one of the great conservative movies of this generation."
Once again there are two problems with this picture: 1) is it accurate? and 2) if it is, Christians should hold it at arm's length. Now, I've only seen the movie once, but it seems more reasonable to read it as the story of one man's determination winning out against the greedy capitalism that's repeatedly screwed him as it is to read it as a ringing endorsement of free-market capitalism. If Smith's final achievement of some measure of happiness in spite of all that has gone wrong is the American dream, then I'd wish for a better dream, one that didn't force one good man to fight the whole world to achieve success.
Which brings me to my second concern--a can-do individualism is light-years away from the Christian ethic of cooperation, interdependence, and care for one's neighbor. If this is conservatism, let us have nothing to do with it.
The sixth movie on Gardiner's list is The Dark Knight, which is, like Gladiator, an indisputably great film, but hardly seems to fit Gardiner's mold of conservatism. Unsurprisingly, Gardiner identifies its conservatism, similarly to Gladiator's, with the hero's unswerving opposition to the villain.
It is its depiction of Batman’s relentless war against the Joker’s campaign of terror, which marks The Dark Knight as a standout conservative film. The Dark Knight himself, played to perfection by Christian Bale, is unwavering in his determination to defeat his adversary, whatever the cost.
Now, The Dark Knight is a rich, subtle, and sophisticated film, and one can identify many themes in it, but when I see it, I find in general, a deep critique of Bush-era conservatism. In this film, as in Lord of the Rings (contra Gardiner), good and evil are not straightforward, and the war of the good guys against the bad is deeply ambiguous and morally perilous. We find that the "good guys" are deeply corrupt, and even the one shining white knight in the government determined to stamp out evil--Harvey Dent--himself becomes a villain through the relentlessness and remorselessness of his fight against the bad guys. The movie depicts the fact that the fight against terror creates as many villains as it destroys, both because it provokes new opposition like the Joker, which embraces violence in response to the violence of the law, and because it creates villains out of would-be heroes ("You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain"). Batman himself remains uncorrupt, yet this is a critique, not an endorsement, of forces like the US government, since Batman remains resolutely outside of the untrustworthy institutions of government, and refuses to fight terror with terror, to use deadly force against even enemies like the Joker. To be sure, the film does appear to in the end endorse victory through deception, rather than through the truth, and possibly of appalling surveillance methods (though these are portrayed as highly ambiguous in the film), endorsements which could certainly come across as endorsement of Bush-Cheney methods, though hardly of traditional conservatism or Christianity.
The last post shall address Gardiner's final four films: The Hurt Locker, Hotel Rwanda, The Lives of Others, and 300. (I have seen none of these, and shall merely cross-examine, and laugh at, Gardiner's rationales.)
So, Master and Commander is the top "conservative" movie of the past decade. Why's that, Nile?
"Peter Weir’s unashamedly old-fashioned and visually stunning adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel is one of the greatest odes to leadership ever committed to celluloid....Set in 1805, it is an epic tale of heroism and love for country in the face of incredible odds, and a glowing tribute to the grit and determination that forged the British Empire."
Ok, that may be, but it's still puzzling how this manages to rank as the top conservative film for the decade. The only reason I can imagine is that the opponent is the French, whom conservatives have decided to rank just above Al-Qaeda on their hate list. Aside from my concerns that military leadership seems to be the paradigmatic for our understanding of the virtue of leadership (whereas, for Christians, it is the leadership of the saint or martyr, usually the opposite of a military leadership, that embodies the virtue of leadership), it is hard to see how this is a distinctively conservative virtue. Surely liberals believe in leadership too? We may not like their leaders, but they have leaders. The latter sentence is equally troubling, on three grounds already expressed--love of country is not obviously a virtue, nonmilitary heroism ought to be our highest ideal of heroism, and liberals, so far as I know, are fans of grit and determination as well; conservatives have no monopoly on these ideals. Of course, perhaps what Gardiner means (this becomes clear with later movies) is that it endorses a kind of individualist grit and determination, which is perhaps a modern conservative value, but which should make alarm bells go off for Christians. Also, needless to say, imperialism is scarcely a Christian or a traditionally conservative ideal.
Now, for #2, "Black Hawk Down." This seems an odd pick, in light of the first, since it seems to present a much more cynical view of the kind of overseas imperialism that Master and Commander could be interpreted as endorsing. Gardiner does have to acknowledge this--"Many critics enthusiastically dubbed Black Hawk Down an anti-war film, and it is in some respects a cautionary tale about the perils of nation-building." But then he hastily adds,
"But I regard it above all as an extraordinarily powerful and deeply patriotic tribute to the heroism and bravery of the US military, faced with overwhelming odds in a hostile city dominated by brutal Somali warlords. It is essentially a story of incredible sacrifice and camaraderie in the heat of battle, and ranks alongside Zulu, Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far as one of the greatest war films of all time."
This is just too much...so what if it's a sharp and tragic criticism of the kind of meddling in foreign affairs and militaristic nation-building that conservatives have endorsed all through the Bush years, so what if it makes the war there look foolish and pointless; it must be a "conservative" film because it pays respect to the bravery of the soldiers. Come on, give me a break! As if conservatives had a monopoly on respecting the heroism, sacrifice, and camaraderie of the soldiers! You can be against a war and still have respect for the acts of bravery by the soldiers involved. Of course, even here, Christians ought to be very restrained, given that the military arena is not, for our faith, the place where we primarily find bravery, camaraderie, and sacrifice exemplified, but even we can still appreciate these virtues when we see them in battle. Don't keep patting yourself on your conservative back as if only you have any respect for these sacrifices. And don't pretend the movie is "patriotic" just because it respects those sacrifices--it is clearly critical of the US policies involved, which is "unpatriotic" in a good sense. Plus, let's not hear anymore of this "incredible sacrifice" faced by "overwhelming odds"--forgetting that we had tanks and helicopters against handguns and grenades, and inflicted, if I remember right, 100 times as many casualties as we suffered.
Now, what about the Lord of the Rings? Now, I'm a big fan of these stories too, particularly as told in the books. But this is because they are deeply Christian, not because they are particularly "conservative" in Gardiner's sense. In fact, the books promote at least two "liberal" messages, both of which still come through in the movies, though in a somewhat attenuated way: 1. a deep concern for the environment, and a suspicion of the industrial capitalism that has exploited it in the past couple centuries; it is notable that both major "bad guys" in the story are pictured as anti-environment, and one (Saruman) is clearly a modern capitalist figure. 2. a pacificistic tendency in its awareness that war, that superior force, is not the solution. True victory comes not through force of arms, no matter how resolutely it opposes evil, but only through acts of absurd faith and self-sacrifice. I admit that the latter message is deeply compromised in the films, which have a tendency not only to depict much more violence than the books describe, but to put confidence in it, where the books always throw doubt upon its value. I should add that, according to Tolkien critic Tom Shippey, two of the main "bad guys" in the story are clearly political conservatives, one of the capitalist variety (Saruman), and one of the traditionalist variety (Denethor).
But, let's let Gardiner speak for himself. Why are these "conservative" films?
"[Tolkien's] vision of a mighty battle between good and evil in the realms of Middle Earth was brilliantly transferred to the screen by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, perfectly fitting a post 9/11 world where the forces of freedom found themselves pitted against a barbaric enemy."
There it is again! Just because there's a battle between good and evil means that this must be "conservative," since supposedly no one else believes in an opposition between good and evil. Ridiculous. No, Christians like Tolkien believe in a battle between good and evil, but it is one in which the lines are not black and white ("forces of freedom" vs. "barbaric enemy") but are grey and deceptive, often cutting right through our own midst, and it is one in which the victory is not, as I already mentioned, through force of arms, but by self-sacrifice. Another problem with drawing an analogy between the good West vs. evil East in Middle-Earth and in the "post-9/11 world" is that in the former, the West is a tiny, withered, besieged enclave; in the latter, is a mighty global power such as Sauron could only dream of.
The next post will deal with Gladiator, The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Dark Knight.
Now, having seen what "conservative" principles mean so much to Gardiner, let's see what movies tickle his fancy. Here, then, is the list:
1. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
2. Black Hawk Down (2001)
3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03)
4. Gladiator (2000)
5. The Pursuit of Happiness (2006)
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
7. The Hurt Locker (2009)
8. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
9. The Lives of Others (2006)
10. 300 (2007)
If you're baffled by this particular selection, don't worry, you're not alone. Admittedly, the columnist does not seem to be as interested in quality of filmmaking as he is in how resolutely the film advances a conservative agenda, but even here, he shows himself strikingly unable to read what some of these films are actually trying to say, and instead simply yanks certain idiosyncratic "conservative" threads out of the larger weave of the narrative. Black Hawk Down, The Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Knight, for example, have much more complex and ambiguous messages, as I will get to. Aside from the oddity of some of these choices, they are also rather troubling, at least for Christian conservatives. For one, the common element in most of them (at least six) is violence and gore. If these are conservatives' favourite movies, why not skip movies altogether and just go for video games, where you can get all the violence and gore you want? Certainly, there is a legitimate place for violence and gore in movies, but it certainly does not invite a positive image for conservatives (and certainly not an image Christians should want to identify with) if that is the common element in their favourite movies. Moreover, not a single movie in this list is particularly Christian at all (even if Lord of the Rings the book was, the movies certainly were not). That would suggest that there is little natural alliance between conservatism and Christianity.
Now, we should let Gardiner explain himself:
"A central theme that runs through several of my top ten picks is the eternal conflict between good and evil, and why the forces of tyranny and despotism must be confronted and defeated. They include films that Barack Obama should watch as he contemplates appeasing the likes of Iran and North Korea, or turning a blind eye to mass murder in Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe. They also provide important lessons for the president as he faces the Taliban in Afghanistan and the broader threat posed by al-Qaeda."
In other words, these movies are great conservative propaganda because they show us that the world is an evil place where superior force and aggression is the only solution, and any hesitancy to use it must be condemned. Clearly this is a deeply anti-Christian worldview. For one thing, Christians do not believe there is an "eternal conflict between good and evil," but rather, a limited conflict in which the decisive victory has already been won, which frees us from feeling like the whole weight of the struggle rests on us and on our might. For another, while Christians believe that the forces of tyranny and despotism must be confronted and defeated, they have modeled for them in Christ the way in which this confrontation and defeat is accomplished, and it has nothing to do with the methods of military aggression that Gardiner seems to favour.
Of course, aside from this concern, there is something rather incoherent and self-congratulatory in this presentation of what defines "conservatives," something that crops up again and again in the treatment of individual films. Do liberals not believe in a struggle between good and evil? Most of the ones I've read or encountered do. They just have a different idea of where the line between the two is, and how evil should be confronted. For example, they tend to class militarists and multinational corporations with the evil, instead of the good, and they are no less animated and vociferous in their waging of this contest between "good and evil" as many conservatives are.
Now, in the next post, I will interact with Gardiner's description of his Top 3 films: Master and Commander, Black Hawk Down, and Lord of the Rings
A couple hours ago, I stumbled upon a little gem entitled "The Top 10 Conservative Movies of the Last Decade," by Nile Gardiner, which you can read here. I have seldom passed a more diverting five minutes. Nothing that I have read to date (so far as I can remember) has so perfectly illustrated the simultaneous shallowness, novelty, and godlessness of modern conservatism. My first impulse was to make excuses for conservatism along the lines that the columnist must be some kooky extremist blogger from the US heartland of the Michael Savage variety. But, as you can see, he is a respectable columnist for the respectable British newspaper The Telegraph. Of course, one might still plead that he is not remotely representative of modern conservatism, but if he is, this little essay should be enough to send Bible-believing Christians running the other way as fast as their flabby little legs will carry them.
To demonstrate my point, I need scarcely go further than the first sentence, which defines a conservative message as one that ranges "from strong support for the military and love for country to the defence of capitalism and the free market." Now, aside from the fact that these are values so bland, shallow, and vague as to make a former generation's conservative intellectuals blush, these are values that have almost nothing in common with the legacy of stalwart Russell Kirk-ian conservatism. If I am remembering Kirk's The Conservative Mind properly, there was no particular promotion of "strong support for the military and love for country"; on the contrary, a healthy suspicion of both was often cultivated. And certainly, most of the figures of Old School conservatism would be resolutely opposed to "capitalism and the free market." This fourfold declaration of principles immediately marks Gardiner's style of "conservatism" as a radically novel departure from what formerly went by that name. Of course, an accusation of novelty need not be a fatal criticism, but it certainly is a rather embarrassing one for a movement whose creed is conserving ancient traditions, rather than innovating.
It is also easy enough to see that Biblical Christianity does not lend support for a single one of these principles; in fact, in my mind, it stands squarely in opposition to each. One does not have to be anything like a pacifist to see that "support for the military" is not high on Jesus and the Apostles', or even the Old Testament's, agenda. Indeed, it would be a worthwhile meditating upon this principle solely in light of the ostensibly more militaristic Old Testament. Here we find such policies as a prohibition on standing armies and repeated declarations to the effect of "Our trust is not in chariots or in horses, but in the Lord our God." "Love of country" as a general principle is likewise never endorsed in either Testament, and is often undermined. Particularly vivid counterexamples are Jeremiah's imprisonment for repeatedly prophesying against the nation, rather than endorsing the nationalist agenda which put its faith in Israel's status as "God's chosen nation," and Jesus's adamant opposition to every form of Jewish nationalism in first-century Palestine. And of course, while the Bible certainly endorses a kind of qualified private-property rights and desires genuine godly freedom in the marketplace, it is easy to show that it unanimously opposes the kind of free-market capitalism that prevails in the modern West. So much for novelty and godlessness.
Stating conservative principles this way also suggests that conservatism is a stunningly undiscriminating, intellectually vacuous creed. "Support for the military"? Under what circumstances? In what conflict? In spite of what kinds of conduct? For what purpose? An unqualified, undiscriminating "support for the military" is exactly the sort of mindless behaviour that led to the rise of the Third Reich. The same goes, obviously enough, for "love of country." Love of what country, under what circumstances, in spite of what behaviour? Love of country as a general principle is simply another form of moral relativism. The same concerns apply to the principles of "the defence of capitalism and the free market"; clearly, any such defence must be qualified, depending on what practices capitalism is currently engaged in and how the free market happens to be using its freedom. As no less a conservative than Burke said, "freedom" can be no more an unqualified ideal than "government" can be.
Much more to come, as I deal with the (rather laughable) selection of movies that Gardiner has to recommend to us.
I finally got ahold of Cavanaugh's new book, The Myth of Religious Violence, and am just getting started on it. It looks likely to be a be a nugget of brilliance, just like Cavanaugh's previous works, and I hope to blog about it as I go along. In this book he completely undermines the increasingly standard attack on Christianity along the lines that "religion causes violence," but this apologetic is only a by-product of a much grander project. His argument strikes at the heart of modernity and the nation-state, by arguing not that religion is innocent of these charges but in fact that the whole notion of religion as an isolable transcultural phenomenon is a modern myth; historically, religion was part and parcel of a larger cultural/economic/political milieu, and in fact, it still is today. By ignoring that fact, we have been able to pretend that nationalism, capitalism, et al. are not religious, and so violence for these causes is "rational" unlike "irrational" religious violence. Crucial to this argument is the case that Cavanaugh has been making for years about the rise of the state and the "Wars of Religion"; namely, that these were not so much wars of religion, but wars in which "religion" was created as a apolitical category, and the loyalties that formerly belonged to the Church were translated to the newly-fabricated State.
A sample sentence from the introduction that sums up Cavanaugh's project eloquently: "The gradual transfer of loyalty from international church to national state was not the end of violence in Europe, but a migration of the holy from church to state in the establishment of the ideal of dying and killing for one's country."
If you're intrigued, but don't to read the whole thing, you can check out this lecture (text format; audio link is dead) that he gave a couple years ago on this topic.
When I first listened to this lecture, I was struck by how naively conservative Christians had embraced the rhetoric of denouncing the irrational, violent nature of the Islamic religion, and the need for it to be subjugated by the state. Don't we realize that we're shooting ourselves in the foot? Of course, Islam has had, and often still does have, violent tendencies (though these should be resisted with the gospel of peace, not the swords of the nations), but when we blithely buy into the notion that this religion is inherently irrational and violent, we unknowingly bolster the notion that all religions are inherently irrational and violent, including our own, and that a secular state is the only way of overcoming this violence. It has been remarkable how easily writers like Christopher Hitchens have extrapolated from the supposedly ubiquitous violence of fundamentalist Islam to the violence of all religions. And, as we learn here from Cavanaugh, conservative Christians have little right to complain when the myth is turned on them, since they embraced it so enthusiastically in the case of Islam.