Sunday 25 November 2007

The bomb is not the problem

The Politics of Heaven: America in fearful times by E Shorris (WW Norton)

Earl Shorris’ new book is a classic example of how method can overshadow and even crowd out content, theory and analysis. He introduces The Politics of Heaven by arguing against a mechanistic conception of society (and therefore causation) and in favour of ‘confluence’, the coming together of factors like streams merging into a river. This is a fairly well established trope in avowedly atheoretical (ie, mostly conservative) history, and need not necessarily produce the disorderly mess that stands in place of structure in Shorris’ book: even if there is no underlying theory to guide the reader, you can at least arrange and spell out your argument clearly. Instead, the various chapters, bafflingly headed ‘Death’, ‘Dinosaurs’, ‘Silence’, ‘Pessimism’ and so on, each rehearse or repeat various themes that Shorris presumably hopes flow together into some sort of coherent statement. This requires a great deal of effort on the part of the reader and it is not altogether obvious that it is worth it.

It is not that Shorris is short on ideas – the lengthy book fairly bulges with them, and some of them are good. Some of his core insights seem spot on: America’s politics are saturated with fear; the American people are increasingly pessimistic; the Democrats have lost all touch with their base; Republicans are much better at connecting with the grassroots through the last bastions of social capital remaining, churches; mainstream politics no longer offers the meaning that people crave and single-issue campaigns like environmentalism are closely related to this death cult and offer little but pessimism. The problem is that these insights are haphazardly advanced, scattered across the book, and largely overshadowed by rather more unsatisfactory claims and contradictory explanations.

The book’s basic argument, to the extent that it exists, seems to be something like this: the American people are obsessed by the thought of death, which is ultimately traceable to the development of the atomic bomb; the basic religiosity of American society (he argues all Americans are essentially ‘Protestant’) reinforces this into a concern for the afterlife. Citizens are however divided into various sects, and share few interests in common except a desire to be ‘left alone’, ie. they do not want to be subject to laws with which they disagree. This produces what Shorris calls ‘the movement’ or sometimes ‘the national movement’, which is an amorphous, poorly-defined mass which comprises not merely the Christian right but fundamentalists of all stripes, and has now spread to both political parties, as evidenced by the way that the Democrat recovery of Congress in 2006 relied on the election of many candidates indistinguishable from centrist Republicans.

There’s obviously something to be said for the vagueness of the definition of ‘the movement’: the pieties of the Democrats can be seen not merely as an appeal to the ‘centre’ but to a particularly reactionary set of values, and the problems he identifies in American society – racism, an embrace of security over other values, silence in the face of oppression, pessimism – are obviously not confined to the right wing of the Republican party, still less the neocons.

But ultimately Shorris’s imprecision is infuriating: there are, nonetheless, large institutions that dominate and shape the movement, and identifiable figureheads – many of which get mentions but none of which attract sustained analysis. This is in keeping with the rather anecdotal nature of the account, which leaps from idea to idea with no obvious connecting link. Although I’m sure that Shorris is a deeply conscientious humanist, well-read and progressive (his Clemente Course in Humanities has taught thousands of poor Americans, many of them in jails, the basics of philosophy and other subjects, and given them a new perspective on the world), sadly, he often comes across as an intellectual flaneur. On just one page, for instance (p272) he references Buddha, Freud, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Augustine, Kant, Darwin and Heidegger. Wearing one’s learning quite so heavily is rather irritating; doubly so when there seems no obvious string pulling everything together.

Shorris is surely right to dismiss the ‘left-liberal’ thesis of people like Thomas Frank that people are simply voting against their own interests as tantamount to calling people stupid, an anti-democratic thesis. Yet his own view of the masses is scarcely better, since he suggests that racism is ‘the most widely held value in America’ (p284) and that the American people might well turn to fascism in the face of another major terrorist attack (p251). The oddest idea in the book is this idea that the ‘politics of heaven’ have their roots in the invention of the atomic bomb. This idea is repeated dozens of times throughout the book, but repetition does not make something true. Little evidence is adduced to prove that Americans are deeply troubled by the bomb; in fact, much of the evidence cited seems to disprove this. In any case, the timing of his basic chronology is all wrong: the role of religion in politics is stronger today than it was during the Cold War, despite the fact that nuclear holocaust is an extremely remote possibility, and there is no evidence to back up his bizarre claim that fear of annihilation has recently arisen ‘from the grave of the subconscious’ (p126).

Many of Shorris’ claims are simply mystifying and the sequencing contradictory. He recognises that there was a contending set of optimistic ideas to counter the ‘politics of heaven’, but he dates its demise variously as Hiroshima, the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb, the Cuban missile crisis, and the rise of Ronald Reagan. A clear historical framework is not spelled out until the very final chapter, when something more sensible is suggested: optimism displaced pious pessimism as capitalism boomed in the eighteenth century and gave Americans a share in plenty; it was damaged by the greed of the Gilded Age, but repaired by the ‘Social Gospel’ pushed by various churches in the late nineteenth century, which Roosevelt was able to draw on in order to save the country from starvation and revolution. The two world wars shook American confidence but ultimately reaffirmed it. Pessimism tipped the balance with the Cuban missile crisis and from then on it was only a matter of time before the ‘politics of heaven’ took over.

This is not totally implausible, but what evidence is set forward in the book would appear to suggest that America’s present troubles emerged most clearly in the 1980s with Reagan’s anti-poor, racist administration replacing the liberalism of the post-war era that had been dying since Johnson in the face of reaction. Time and again Shorris is clear on Americans’ need for meaning in public life and the inability of the two main parties to provide this, but he does not link this to his observation that the Democrats have abandoned their base, leaving the poor without any representation. Moreover, his interview with a Reagan strategist shows that even The Gipper had a transformatory vision for American society (the campaign’s goal was ‘Make US/World a Better Place for Future Generations’), while by 2005 the goal was merely ‘security’, ie, the preservation of the existing order. Shorris’ obsession with the Bomb prevents him seeing the disjuncture between Cold War and post-Cold War American politics, the former replete with meaningful conflict and the latter best characterised by Bill Clinton’s complaint, after his election, ‘I’m president. I need to be for something’.

Although the book’s long-term approach helps us see that the defeat of liberalism is not a new development, which shows why it is the ‘politics of heaven’ that is likeliest to rush into this vacuum of meaning, falling back on fear of nuclear annihilation does not seem a very sound way of explaining the emergence of the vacuum in the first place. Although the scattered insights of The Politics of Heaven might, in the hands of an author devoted to a more scientific approach, produced a compelling account of the rise of the religious right, what Shorris offers is ultimately a confused hodgepodge whose occasional flashes of lucidity fail properly to enlighten.

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