Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fundamentalism (again)

hb_19.73.209Those of you who've schlepped through my posts before know that I tend to focus my attention on certain issues. Fundamentalism scares the bejesus out of me, for example, and I've been known to pick at it a time or two.
So, imagine my delight when I came across this article today. "The four fundamentalisms and the threat to sustainable democracy" by  Robert Jensen presents a provocative argument that it is not just religious fundamentalism, but a variety of fundamentalisms that create a threat to sustainable democracy here in the United States.
Let's start by defining fundamentalism. The term has a specific meaning in Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote "The Fundamentals"), but I want to use it in a more general fashion to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Such fundamentalism leads to an inclination to want to marginalize, or in some cases eliminate, alternative ways to understand and organize the world. After all, what's the point of engaging in honest dialogue with those who believe in heretical systems that are so clearly wrong or even evil? In this sense, fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris, a delusional overconfidence not only in one's beliefs but in the ability of humans to know much of anything definitively. In the way I use the term, fundamentalism isn't unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of very limited knowledge for wisdom.

It's funny that Jensen uses the term hubris. I tend to reserve the term as that which applies to people I consider tragic heroes, the classical sense of the term, where the one flaw (and it's always fatal) is to have pride great enough that one thinks one is better than the gods. For that, people are made to suffer, To be struck down.

While I agree with Jensen in principle, I think the word I would use is "narcissism." The sense that it's all about me. My interpretation. My beliefs. That I should always get my way, and I'm going to make you suffer in order to bring you around to that point of view. And, as part of that, I'm going to intepret a text or a word in the ways I see fit.

The antidote to fundamentalism is humility, that recognition of just how contingent our knowledge about the world is. We need to adopt what sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson calls "an ignorance-based worldview", an approach to world that acknowledges that what we don't know dwarfs what we do know about a complex world. Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in stupidity, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don't know. When properly understood, I think such humility is implicit in traditional/indigenous systems and also –the key lesson to be taken from the Enlightenment and modern science (a contentious claim, perhaps, given the way in which modern science tends to overreach). The Enlightenment insight, however, is not that human reason can know everything, but that we can give up attempts to know everything and be satisfied with knowing what we can know. That is, we can be content in making it up as we go along, cautiously. One of the tragedies of the modern world is that too few have learned that lesson.

Here, I agree. I've talked before about my fear of control freaks: those people who are so afraid of things being out of their control that they set out to control all of us. To make us comply with what makes them feel safe. And, once again, that's a type of narcissism. And it's fear. I think, at its heart, it's about the fear of the greatest thing out of our control: death.

Death comes to all of us. You're going to have to take my word on this, even though I know there are people out there (not necessarily anyone here on this site) but certainly, members of this administration, who I swear think that they can make some kind of Faustian bargain, can unlock the secret to eternal life if they just control-freak their way over the rest of us. (Are you listening George, Dick, and Donald? Death is coming for you, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. But I will tell you one thing: killing Iraqis and American soldiers is not the bargain that Mephistopheles is looking for. That's fucking garden-variety bargaining. Get some imagination.)

And so, Jensen identifies four varieties of fundamentalism that he sees as especially inimical to democracy: religious, economic, nationalism, and technological fundamentalism. His arguments for each of these is compelling, and I invite you to read the article in full.

One of my favourite parts of the article is his discussion of economic fundamentalism, especially this quotation:

In other words, economic fundamentalism - the worship of markets combined with steadfast denial about how the system actually operates - leads to a world in which not only are facts irrelevant to the debate, but people learn to ignore their own experience.

Capitalism is a funny thing: market fundamentalism teaches us that we would all be better off if we all have an opportunity to make it based on our own merits. That if we work hard enough, and are clever and talented enough, we'll "make it afterall." But certainly my experience--as an over-educated, single, divorced mother tells me something completely different. And so which am I to believe? The ideology or the reality? And is my reality your reality? And if, in fact, experiences differ among us, as we know they do, how then can there be a fundamentalist adherence to an economic system that doesn't work for the majority of us?
After Jensen has reviewed the four types of fundamentalism, he turns to his suggestions for future resolution of the problems. And, like a good anti-fundamentalist, he doesn't claim any one answer as the gold standard. He does, nevertheless, end the article on a note of hope. It's not a false hope, the kind born of "happily ever after" or "the sun will come out tomorrow." It's rather the hope that I always admire, that kind of Camusian hope that life is fucking hard, and yet we prevail. We don't get what we want, but what comes to us can be enough. That sometimes, the monsters do come in the middle of the night, but they can be faced down and sent on their way. That there doesn't have to be just one way of looking at things. That all things are possible, even if all things will not be.

And I can live with that.


Darius said...

You refer to "ideology" and I think that may be a good word to denote fundamentalism in the broader sense you're referring to.

In the comments section of my blog I just happened to be fooling around with defining religous fundamentalism and found myself calling it "traditional beliefs with a bad attitude." Because you do sometimes find people with conservative beliefs who don't have that hateful threatened shrillness in the way they come across.

lorraine said...

I think there's a difference between conservative and fundamentalist. I think fundamentalism is really a language issue, in that fundamentalists belief in the unchanging literalness of a text. Words mean always and forever and, of course, they assume that what they think the words mean is what the words meant when the words were written. I have no problem with someone who calls themselves "conservative." You can have a conversation with a conservative, but how can you have a conversation with someone who only believes that there is ONE truth, and anyone who disagrees with that one truth cannot be reasoned with?