Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Thomas Harrington on Aggressive Cluelessness Then and Now: Parallels for Contemporary Catholic Discussion

I've made no secret (and here) of my admiration for Trinity College professor Thomas S. Harrington.  Harrington's a professor of Iberian Studies who does what any really capable historian does: he tells a compelling story about the area of the past in which he has expertise, and he then draws parallels between that story and the story of the present.

In a piece at Common Dreams today, Harrington reminds us of what "aggressive cluelessness" did to the powerful Iberian empire of the 16th and 17th centuries--he reminds us of how aggressive cluelessness led to the demise of an empire whose vast extent and seemingly overweening power made it appear impervious to many of its rivals during this period.  Harrington situates Spain's dominance in two primary features of its imperialistic culture, both deriving from its long battle against Islam: 1) its enshrining of military force as the primary reason for the state; and 2) its imposition of religious dogma as the controlling paradigm from which both civic and educational life were expected to function.

The latter move required, Harrington insists, a scholastic approach to education in which arguments and disputes were expected to "take place within a framework defined by a number of pre-ordained truths," in which Roman Catholic dogma held pride of place.  Within that framework, one could argue with a will, as long as one agreed that the central core of truth--dogmatic truth--was off-limits for inspection or argumentation:

In other words, one was free to argue quite vigorously as long as this central “truth” and its many accompanying and/or underlying assumptions were not subjected to any serious form of cross-examination.

Harrington thinks that this educational framework, which derived from Spain's militant "cleansing" of all taints of Islam from its culture, served the Iberian empire well when it came to extending its range through force, but failed to serve the empire well at all when the problem was to adapt to the rise of a modern culture represented by free inquiry and industrial capitalism.  When modernity came along, the Iberian empire was ill prepared to respond effectively, because its educational system had shackled the minds and imaginations of its educated elite: 

. . . [I]t was because Iberia’s many highly intelligent and vigorous people were forced into an educational system--rooted in scholasticism and possessed of great, if highly misplaced, confidence in the universality and endless durability of its own suppositions—that implicitly (and often quite explicitly) demanded that they refrain from asking large questions of a systemic or paradigmatic nature.

And the contemporary parallel: we now live in a cultural context in which the dogma of free-market economics has achieved the status of unassailable truth within the top echelons of our government, in our universities, and in our media.  One can natter on all one wishes about other paradigms for understanding our economic life, but this is mere nattering set alongside dogmatic truth--and the latter can and must prevail.

Because it's, don't you see, true!  As Marilynne Robinson points out in an essay entitled "Austerity as Ideology" in When I Was a Child I Read Books, which I happened to re-read just last evening, free-market economics with its concomitant prescription of austerity for the masses (but never the rich!) in times of economic stress has now reached the level of unassailable "truth" because, the media and the academy want to give us to believe, it "won" the Cold War.  We "won."  Because we have a free market!

And the free market generates wealth, left to its own devices.  It generates wealth when we prime the pump of wealth by throwing more wealth in the path of those who already have wealth, who then start the pumping process to produce oodles of wealth that will benefit everyone even as these oodles benefit largely and directly the pump-primers.  As should be, since they risked their own wealth to prime the pump in the first place.

As Robinson points out, we no longer question these ideological assumptions because they "won."  They "won" the Cold War.  

And so they're self-evidently true.  And what person in his or her right mind questions truth?

Harrington's concluding reflections about such self-evident dogmatic "truth" and what it's doing to us right now in our culture:

Yes, were the Spanish and Portuguese scholastics of the 16th century able to visit us today, they would, no doubt, be great admirers of todays’ economics establishment.  
They would identify strongly with its ability to talk about “new”  policies without ever questioning the philosophical and moral underpinnings or empirical results of the old ones, or, for that matter, the deep philosophical and moral underpinnings of any policy prescription. 
They would love its naked obeisance to established power and its sublime confidence that most major questions about the optimal relationship between markets and governments have been definitively settled for some time now. 
Most of all, they would celebrate, and revel in, its aggressive cluelessness, that is, its inability to ask, never mind answer, the type of human questions that might lead us and our children to a more dignified future within our rapidly evolving world.

"Aggressive cluelessness" is a fine phrase, it seems to me.  If nothing else, for me, it gets at a certain clearly discernible and growing gender divide in some of the current battles about dogmatic truth and its opposite--e.g., praxis-based, solidarity-grounded probing of the claims of dogmatic truth from the vantage point of lived experience among those who are made the object of dogmatic truth.  And for whom dogmatic truth doesn't always work very well at all, as it requires the objectification of those who do not fashion truth but are expected to receive it humbly, as dogma, from their betters who inhabit the top echelons of institutions.

And so questions arise, or they should arise in a world that values careful pursuit of complex truth rather than humble submission to truth imposed from above, which works to the advantage of those at the top and the disadvantage of those at the bottom: questions arise, or should arise, about the not-to-be-questioned truth claims of dogmatic truth imposed from above.

This juxtaposition of unquestionable, self-evident dogmatic truth from above and lived, praxis-based, solidarity-grounded quest for complex truth: this is right at the center of the clash between the Vatican and American nuns today.  Or, for that matter, it's right at the center of the debate about why, as the dogma boys love to insist, the Episcopal church is in decline while our dogmatically strong and self-evidently true Roman Catholic church is chugging along just fine, thank you very much.

For my part, I detect more than a little "aggressive cluelessness" among many American Catholic male institutional apologists right now--among those who cheer at how our dogmatic truth claims are "winning" while the blowzy non-dogmatic approach of the Episcopalians is "losing"; or those who say that of course Rome is winning and the sisters losing, because Rome has dogma on its side, after all.

Rome has dogmatic truth on its side, after all.  And dogma wins!

Read the responses to Lisa Fullam's recent Commonweal posting about the Episcopal-Catholic issue, or read Michael Sean Winters slapping yet another female scholar of religion upside the head (in this case, Regina Schulte) recently, and tell me there's not a strong gender component to the misplaced sublime confidence that truth is tautologically true, or to the belief that word "dogma" is an end-all, be-all shibboleth that should shut down all discussion once the word is invoked.  I dare you to deny this gender component in contemporary Catholic discourse about these matters (though I'm also perfectly well aware that there are old boys in both genders).

I also dare you to try to make a convincing case for this macho aggressive cluelessness and its dogmatic prescriptions as the future of any religious body, any culture, or any economic system that wants to meet the complex challenges of postmodernity with any effectiveness at all.

No comments: