Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Left, Right, Center: American Catholic Centrists Recycle Predictable Election-Year Meme

Lots of blather these days at centrist Catholic blog sites about who occupies the center (which is to say, who issues the defining dictates that limn the lives of everyone else in the world).  About who's center-right, center-left, center-center . . . .

Lots of blather from folks who pretend they have the right to issue these limning dictates that define everyone else's lives because they are the center!  Since one can see the distinctions between center-right, center-left, and center-everything else better than everyone else only when one occupies that exalted hill at the center of it all from which one sees objectively . . . .

This blather predictably recycles itself among centrist Catholics in the U.S. every time an election cycle rolls around.  It does so because centrist Catholics want simultaneously 1) to pretend that they stand for progressive ideas and 2) to put the brake on progressive movements so that those movements' momentum towards real justice and real social transformation is always impeded and controlled from the center.

The center-right, center-left, center-everything else blather recycles among American Catholic centrists every election cycle because they're desperately afraid of seeing the political process move beyond their control, beyond their braking action, through unanticipated progressive developments in the political sphere.  They're desperately afraid to see political developments come along that will expose the cynicism of the alliance they as centrists have long since made with the powerful right--an alliance destructive for the lives of everyone outside the tiny circles of power in the center.

Several of those issuing the we-define-the-center dictates at centrist Catholic blogs right now immediately issued prescriptive-as-descriptive dictates, once Obama was elected in 2008, that the U.S. is and shall remain a center-right nation.  They did not want or intend that the popular mandate for the Democrats in 2008 initiate substantive changes of a progressive sort in the U.S.

Centrist Catholics are also, by the way, positively jubilant at seeing progressives gobsmacked with the Chick-fil-A appreciation events, the attack on American nuns, and so forth.  This justifies their centrist deduction that they've landed on the winning side of history by choosing to side with the powerful right while pretending to hew left.  Nothing comforts Catholic centrists quite so much as seeing their brothers and sisters to the left smacked down decisively by the power centers of church and society.

All this has me thinking about the wisdom of a number of people who have thought far more carefully about the center and the margins than have my centrist American Catholic confreres.  I'm thinking this morning about folks like the following, for instance (boldface in all quotes my own addition):

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (London: Bloomsbury, 2002):

Before movements emerge there are centers of energy . . . . (p. 488).

Andrei Codrescu, The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape (Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley, 1990):

It can be argued that all the imaginary countries of literature have been authored by literal or metaphorical exiles.  Western consciousness is the creation of peripheral souls.  Under pressure from them, the center moves to redefine itself (p. 92).

E.J. Dionne, Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008):

This strange approach to politics, involving nudges, nods, and winks on cultural issues, reflects the real division in the nation: between those who want to have a culture war and those who don’t.  At election time political candidates need simultaneously to ‘rally the base,’ which includes a heavy quotient of culture warriors, and to ‘appeal to the center,’ meaning the majority (often left of center on economic issues), which sees health care, education, jobs, taxes, and national security as central concerns trumping gay marriage or abortion.  The result is a strained, dysfunctional, and often dishonest political dialogue based on symbolic utterances (p. 50).

Constance Perin, Belonging in America: Reading Between the Lines (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1988):

Children compete against the basic industry of culture, to create and sustain reliable meanings.  Their snow-white questions confuse what adults believe has been clarified, perhaps established for all time.  They cast doubt on one idea after another through which adults have been playing upon life's ambiguities, for just by answering their questions, adults have to think again about the answers they give.  With fresh eyes, children see an arbitrary world they have to be taught revolves around an absolute center of equilibrium.  "For the children’s good" is likely to be as much for adults' "good" (p. 169). 

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in her closing testimony in the Pussy Riot hearings:

Their mouths are sewn shut. Unfortunately, they are mere puppets. I hope they realize this and also take the road to freedom, truth and sincerity because these are superior to stasis, contrived decency and hypocrisy. Stasis and the search for truth are always in opposition to one another and, in this case, at this trial, we can see people who are trying to find the truth and people who are trying to enslave those who want to find the truth.

Thinking about these and other insights from those who move against static, self-serving centrism has me also thinking this morning about what centrism is and what it isn't.  To wit:

What centrists aren't:

1. Engaged. 
2. In solidarity with anyone on the margins. 
3. On the margins themselves (being at the center is the opposite of being on the margins). 
4. Willing to listen respectfully to the testimony of those on the margins. 
5. Willing to include the marginal in a way that disturbs the dominant paradigm imposed from the center.

What centrists are:

1. Infatuated with power. 
2. Fatuously certain they alone are objective and able to sort left, right, center-left, and center-right. 
3. Amused at the discomfiture of the left, since that discomfiture validates the wisdom of the centrist choice to side with the right while pretending to be objective. 
4. Willing to find any excuse to side with the right, no matter how outrageously destructive the right becomes towards those on the margins--as long as the right leaves those in the center on their comfortable perches of "objectivity." 
5. Unconcerned about the destruction effected by the right, as long as their centrist privileged status at the center remains intact.  

If Jesus, Gandhi, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King (to take only a few names from a canon of many) were not centrists and achieved what they achieved precisely by pushing very hard against the ruling orthodoxy emanating from the center of their societies during their lifetimes, then the ultimate mistake centrists always make when they calculate winning and losing sides is that they place themselves predictably on the losing side of history.  Since they refuse to listen to the cries of pain and aspirations of those on the margins, who inevitably end up making history when they themselves refuse to live any longer with the way in which things have been arranged for them by those pulling the levers at the controlling center . . . .

As the moral arc of history moves on its trajectory, centrists inevitably marginalize themselves precisely by refusing to take sides in the struggle for justice, to listen carefully to the voices of the oppressed, to allow their vaunted "objectivity" (which is profoundly ill-informed, ignorant, and arrogant) to be transformed by knowledge drawn from experiences of marginalization . . . . 

And by refusing to listen to the gospels, as they pretend--with amazing self-deceit--that both the left and the right can lay equal claim to Jesus and the gospels . . . .  Jesus, who said, "Where your treasure lies, there your heart will be also" . . . . 

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