Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Monotheism and the Accidental God

Jehovah worshippers got lucky, but what if Elijah the Prophet got it wrong and Jezebel was not so bad, after all?

This isn't going to be a thorough (or, even, reliable) exposition of how we in the West ended up with the one god with whom we live now; it is merely preamble for my poem Jezebel, which can be found posted at Outdoor Poetry Season, my other blog. Behind Jezebel is the idea that history is a story told by victors or, at least, a story told by survivors with a definite point of view.

We live in a world substantially shaped by the bible, variously interpreted as it is by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Never mind that there is no archaeological or trustworthy historical evidence for many biblical tales. The foundational story of the Exodus is fiction, however much it might pain me to say so. The Exodus story, and, particularly, the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, with its implied obligation to side with the oppressed, has been the rock on which I've constructed my (mostly secularized) commitment to social justice. The human capacity for self-deception being what it is, the Exodus story doesn't actually need to be true for me to experience it like some sort of inherited memory. But it can't hurt, I don't think, to seek a better and richer understanding of how the Bible came to be the book that it is, and how and why it came to tell the stories that it tells.

Throughout the 19th Century and a good portion of the 20th, the relatively young science of archaeology was actually focused on proving that much of the biblical account of early history, since about 1500 BCE (BC, for all you traditionalists), was accurate. But as the science grew up, archaeologists have discovered that there is no factual basis for the story of the flight of thousands of Jews from Egypt. There is very little evidence of the existence of Jews, at all, before about 1000 BCE, when they begin to turn up in some Egyptian and, later, Assyrian accounts of a tribal people living in the Galilee and the hills around present day Jerusalem.

There is evidence that there were, briefly, two Jewish states, Israel and Judah, but the northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerers around 800 BCE. After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods. However vexing the worship of other gods was to Jehovah, it was a common practice in the polytheistic Middle East, and a practice tolerated by the kings of the northern state of Israel, who ruled over a kingdom much more diverse than Judah.

Theologians can argue the ways in which monotheism is superior to polytheism (and they do), but the Judean scribes had a much more practical interest in attributing the downfall of Israel to the worship of other gods and to the creation of graven images; they were primarily concerned with creating a rationale to support the reconquest of the Galilee by Judah, the home of the true and devout worshippers of the one god, the one who had promised the land to the children of Israel. Telling a story about how Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made good propaganda.

(How ironic it is that almost 3,000 years later the creation of the state of Israel has been legitimized, at least in part, by the same biblical stories, which have in the intervening time laid an even stronger claim on the Western imagination, become history, without any further substantiation.)

The story made little difference at the time. Judah had nowhere near the power necessary to reestablish of Israel. And for the Jews, further complications followed.

There were difficulties with other Middle Eastern powers, the Babylonians, to be sure; Romans, followed; and so did the Jewish sect known as Christians, who come to believe that they have a new covenant with the one God. Later came the followers of Muhammad, who developed a new understanding of the true intent of the same one God. Then the crusades, further wanderings around Europe and western Asia, expulsions, pogroms and finally the Holocaust. But that discussion is best left to another time and, probably, to others more qualified to pursue it. This piece is merely a look at some of the thinking that contributed came to writing Jezebel.

One important character in Kings is the prophet Elijah, and his relentless denunciations of Ahab, king of the northern state, and of Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who married Ahab in what was certainly a political marriage cementing an alliance between Phoenicia and Israel. Needless to say, Elijah and the one god did not approve of Ahab's marriage outside the faith.

Elijah blamed Jezebel for bringing the cult of Baal to Israel and to Samaria, the capital of the northern state. According to Kings, the prophet was persuasive enough to rouse the bad conscience of the Jews of Israel, who at one point rise up and slaughter 450 priests of Baal. This event enrages Jezebel who persuades Ahab to bring Elijah to justice or, maybe, just slaughter him in return. Elijah flees to the desert, as so many Jewish prophets are wont to do and escapes Jezebel's wrath. He does, however, prophesy (see, somewhere, Elijah Prophesys a Prophecy) that she will die in the streets and that her body will be torn to pieces by wild dogs. This, Kings tells us, comes to pass. But however satisfying the slaughter of the priests of Baal and the dismembering of Jezebel may be to the one god, it is not sufficient to spare Israel, which is itself dismembered and scattered to the winds.

But the historically more likely story is that Israel, far larger and more prosperous than Judah, was governed by rulers who had to tolerate the customs and rituals of a diverse population, including Moabites, Ammonites and other Middle Eastern peoples. The wealth and fertile lands of the northern state also attracted the interest of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans. In the to-the-victor-go-the-spoils world of the ancient Near East, Israel was more likely doomed to suffer at the hands of greedy, powerful neighbors than by its failure to follow Jehovah's commandments.

Judah, the southern Jewish state, was rockier and hillier. Producing little in the way of surplus, the place was of minimal interest to conquerors. In any case, when Judean scribes wrote the story of Elijah and Jezebel, there were no Israelites left to argue the point.

But what if Jezebel had not been the evil devil-worshipper denounced by Elijah? What if Elijah had himself had an earlier and more positive experience of Jezebel? What if his subsequent fury was, at least in part, the product of repressed desire and visions and, maybe, too much desert sun?

What if someone other than Judean scribes, someone like myself, told a different story about Jezebel?

Friday, June 11, 2010

So Lincoln Won, Now What?

Has progressive zeal gone awry?

Yes, Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, opposed the public option and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), but that sort of thing from an Arkansas senator shouldn't come as a big surprise. Bill Clinton, our emeritus president, also from Arkansas, did worse. He pushed through a welfare reform that further impoverished millions of families, single mothers and their children, in particular. Clinton also made the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other pro-business trade agreements, the law of the land. But somehow, most progressives went along, sourly perhaps, but voted for him for reelection, anyhow. The alternative in the era of Newt Gingerich was much worse.

But Lincoln got no such break from labor unions, the Daily Kos and moveon.org. Unions spent more than $10 million in an effort to defeat Lincoln and elect Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Democratic primary. From the start it was clear that Halter was no liberal. He simply allowed himself to be framed as a politician to the left of Lincoln. Only true believers practiced in self-deception could pretend that Halter would be an improvement.

Arguably, a better health care bill might have passed if Lincoln had been a supporter of the public option. But had she voted for the public option, she would have faced a true right-wing opponent, more formidable than Halter. And who is willing to claim that Lincoln was the principal obstacle? How about Joe Lieberman, who progressives haven't been able to get rid of either, even though he comes from Connecticut, where it ought to be far easier to elect a liberal? But progressives haven't been able to manage that trick, and even supported Ned Lamont, a multi-millionaire businessman with a thin record of opposition to the Iraq War and no other credentials, in a futile and disheartening effort to dislodge Lieberman in 2008.

"Political movements tend to unravel gradually, but on Tuesday [progressives] seemed to be imploding in real time," wrote the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, an off-again, on-again liberal himself, in "Liberals gather, and yell." A bit hyperbolic, given that Milbank was merely observing a "gathering of progressive activists organized by the Campaign for America's Future," rather than, say, tens of thousands assembled in some amphitheatre at a critical moment for change. But Milbank was writing about the angry demonstrations that continually disrupted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's speech at the event. Hopefully, the rudeness was therapeutic and activists aren't also considering Pelosi a problem that leftists need to tackle electorally.

Milbank quotes Robert Borosage, organizer of the event, outlining the disappointments stacked up since Barack Obama's election:
"Progressives have grown ever more dissatisfied, and for good reason...Our hopes or illusions were shattered:escalation in Afghanistan, retreat on Guantanamo, no movement on workers rights or comprehensive immigration reform, dithering on 'don't ask, don't tell,' reverses on choice, delay on climate change and new energy."
Borosage isn't sniping from the sidelines. He co-founded the Campaign for America's Future and is a prolific writer and commentator. A piece he wrote for the Huffington Post prior to Obama's 2008 victory, "A New Progressive Era?" provides a helpful comparison between the political reality facing Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time of his 1932 reelection and political reality as it looked to a smart leftist in the fall of 2008.

But how things looked in 2008 seems a far cry from how things are in 2010. There is probably not a single Republican senator who needs to protect himself or herself from a political attack from moderates within their own party. Substantial minority though they are, the rules of the Senate work absolutely in their favor, and vulnerable Republican incumbents face bigger problems from Tea Party activists and the extreme right than they do from Democrats. And for more than a year, since the passage of the stimulus bill in early 2009, Senate Republicans have recognized that recession and widespread economic distress have created a volatile and emotional electorate just as likely to take out their anger on incumbent Democrats as on Republicans. It is this development, and the decision by Republicans to rejigger themselves as the "party of no," that has led to dashing our progressive "hopes or illusions." The hopeless, reactionary mood that characterizes a considerable part of the electorate is part of the wall against which progressive illusions have been shattered.

But why would anyone wish otherwise? Illusions, after all, do not provide a sound base on which to begin building strategy? It was far easier for the Republican minority to develop an effective legislative stance in the chaos created by the worst recession since 1929 than it was for Democrats. Borosage's Huffington Post piece makes clear that, even under ideal conditions, there never was going to be unity among Democrats: "For Obama, the greatest obstacles to pursuing progressive reform are likely to come from his party's conservative Blue Dogs and Wall Street DLC New Democrats." Perhaps, he should also have taken pains to point out that Obama, himself, is no progressive, only a breath of fresh air; a smart leader willing to do the right thing in cooperation with a cohesive progressive movement able to focus effective political power, if such a movement actually existed.

It is still less than two years since Obama's election victory. It is barely 18 months since Obama took office with the country headed toward double digit unemployment. Arguably, the labor movement has less political power to focus now than it had a mere 10 years ago, just before Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and president Andy Stern led several other unions out of the AFL-CIO, in an ill-fated attempt to reverse labor's decline. The fact that AFSCME and SEIU could scrape together $10 million to oppose Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas primary tells us very little about what the labor movement is capable of doing or what it ought to do next. But it looks somewhat like a tactical indulgence, spending money and lashing out becoming a sort of consolation for strategic failure.

Labor, and all progressives, ought to take a closer look at the political realities of this moment. No, we are not out of Iraq, but we are going to be. We are escalating in Afghanistan, but I see no sign that we are really hunkering down for an even longer war there. A higher likelihood is that we will leave both Iraq and Afghanistan over the next two to three years because we cannot afford to be there any longer. Yes, that point begs the question of whether or not we could ever afford to be either place. Worse, we will be leaving chaos behind in both countries, the forseeable result of a warlike, confrontational and theatrical foreign policy, but a policy that the Obama administration did not create. More problematically for progressive Democrats is that a specific plan does not exist for reengaging parts of the world which have been long neglected or exploited by U.S. policies.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, perhaps, the biggest foreign policy challenge of all to progressives. Israel has no secure future as an occupying power. But many Jewish progressives believe firmly that Israel should be supported as a Jewish state within pre-1967 borders. Talk about illusions from which we all must one day awaken.

A country cannot be both a theocratic state and a democratic state. Even if it is founded by, or on behalf of, Holocaust survivors. That may help make Israel a sentimental favorite for many, but in the modern world, it is not possible to play fast and loose with the rights of other peoples, no matter the gloss put on the act. If there is to be peace, Israel must give something on many points, forcibly evacuating settlements, returning to pre-1967 borders, acknowledging right of return on some basis, if only for compensation purposes.

And the United States is Israel's principal enabler. Without U.S. foreign and military aid, Israel would be bankrupt. And its weapons industry, now an exporter to all sorts of governments with dubious human rights records, has been built and sustained by U.S. aid. The American administration that finally reduces, ideally cuts off, such aid will help Israel to recognize some part of the injustices that have been perpetrated by the Jewish state, and create a more realistic basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ultimately, Israel will even have to choose between being a Jewish state, privileging some, and being a democratic state. But that crisis comes later.

We are facing an environmental disaster in the Gulf that highlights the limits to which corporations can act in a broader interest. The BP oil spill will help build support for climate change legislation, but whatever does pass, it will fall far short of what we wish for. So, obviously, will Wall Street regulation. Most members of Congress, in both the House and the Senate, will fight fiercely against efforts to raise taxes on the rich, and to raise the ceiling on social security taxes to cover more of the salaries of higher-income people. But some modest form of that could happen, especially if progressives let go of dreams and focus a little more on realpolitik.

It is somewhat surprising that so soon after Obama's apparently game-changing victory in 2008, so many Democratic incumbents turn out to be facing difficult reelection campaigns in 2008. And the idea that Illinois Democrats may turn out to be too weak to hold Obama's Senate seat is a major shocker. But the Republican party does not have the stature or the policy proposals to take real advantage of the national bad mood. Any rightward shift by Republican candidates sufficient to satisfy Tea Party activists during primaries will undermine those candidates in general elections. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, looked like a goner in Nevada, until Republicans nominated the extremely right-wing Sharon Angle. The smart money now is on Reid's reelection.

But the survival of moderate Democratic incumbents in difficult races does little for progressives. It simply seems vastly superior to challenging those incumbents in Democratic primaries. It is true that a frightened and panicky electorate is hardly a good audience for complicated progressive policy campaigns. But it should be obvious that expensive campaigns aimed at punishing Democratic incumbents for apostasy are counter-productive, if not also the desperate act of a movement with few, or no, ideas.

What's left then? In "Progessive Strategy in the Obama Era," posted on the Huffington Post website, activist Deepak Bhargava argues that there are no shortcuts. The progressive challenge in a deeply divided country is to admit "that we have a long way to go to win hearts and minds" and to "put the emphasis on organizing and recruitment, and social movements."

Right now the only viable progressive movement, Bhargava says, is the immigration movement. This ignores, I think, an environmental movement that has never stopped educating and organizing on college campuses and in communities. It also glosses over the domestic and international peace mobilizations in 2002 and 2003 that delayed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The related experience of millions of young Americans who took to the streets to oppose war at that time remains important, but it must be conceded that the peace movement proved unable to capitalize on those mobilizations. It is painful to think that most Americans still do not see the logic of peace and justice arguments, and are easily persuaded that government is the problem.

I am no particular fan of organizing efforts like, say, Organizing for America, the substantially web-based effort to keep supporters engaged that grew out of the Obama campaign. But it has kept a million people engaged in political action in some form and connected to each other. This is no small accomplishment. I don't know the numbers for Robert Borosage's Campaign for America, but it, also, aspires to overcome the isolation that demobilizes progressives and to focus them on a longer-term agenda. This is key.

Unless we understand what long-term progress would look like and develop strategies and tactics that teach us patience and allow us to pursue half-a-loaf outcomes, we will founder on frustration and anger with the difficult political reality that challenges us. We will dither away millions opposing Blanche Lincoln. And we will duck the hardest issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which Americans will not admit responsibility. And we will drown in a sea of crude oil, and languish in a stagnant, poorly regulated economy, and bemoan our individual fates.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower

I'm returning Parable of the Sower to the library today (DC Public)

but I don't want to do so without acknowledging just how effectively Butler is able to tell an optimistic story, while framing it within a dystopian future that seems only a degree or two off from the world we live in now. In a postscript to Parable of the Sower, Butler said she based her dystopic view of the future on what the United States seemed to be at the time (Sower was first published in 1993):
"It is to look at where we are now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us. I considered drugs and the effects of drugs on the children of drug addicts. I looked at the growing rich/poor gap, at throwaway labor, at our willingness to build and fill prisons, our reluctance to build and repair schools and libraries, and at our assault on the environment. In particular, I looked at global warming and the ways in which it's likely to change things for us...I considered spreading hunger as a reason for increased vulnerability to disease. And there would be less money for inoculations or treatment. Also, thanks to rising temperatures, tropical diseases like malaria and dengue would move north. I considered loss of coastline as the level of the sea rises. I imagined the United States becoming, slowly, through the combined effects of lack of foresight and short-term unenlightened self-interest, a third world country."
But Butler's world, however crushing and grinding, is only background to her story of Lauren Olamina, a precocious, empathic, visionary teenager who leads a small group of fellow travelers out of harm's way and to a shared vision of the future that is motivating and optimistic. Just prior to a calamitous incident that will destroy the community in which she lives and scatter its survivors, Lauren begins a journal that will become the foundation document for Earthseed: The Books of the Living.

Essentially, Earthseed is a new holy book for a faith that has no supreme being, only a profound and Buddhalike understanding of the world that humans must embrace, sharp points and sharp edges, notwithstanding. "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change." In other words, there is nothing for it but to live in the world, and to see oneself as both responsible for what the world becomes and subject to its conditions at any given time. People are most present in the world when they are growing and changing.

I assume that Butler was partly motivated to tell this particular story by a perception that the religious faiths and traditions people use to interpret the world and hold it at bay are part of the problem, one of the reasons why we do not effectively address problems like climate change, poverty and the gap between rich and poor. There are, after all, a great number of ways in which prevailing cultural beliefs and attitudes seem to hamper our ability to solve critical problems. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), in particular, seem to have created a mania in the West, and certain other parts of the world, for interpreting the modern world based on the experience of others, mostly men, mostly white and long dead, who would be even more baffled by modernity than we are; a riot of such folks, ranging from Moses, the prophets, Jesus and Mohammed, all the way to the Founding Fathers, whose inability to address and resolve the question of slavery would lead to a fratricidal war that would nearly destroy the United States less than 100 years after the country's founding.

In an ironic end to her story, Butler quotes a verse from the bible: "A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside;and it was trodden down and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And others fell on the good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit an hundredfold. (The Bible, Authorized King James Version, St. Luke 8:5-8)"

I've wanted to write a book something like Sower, myself, and have even outlined one (but not pursued it to completion); so when I read Butler's very effective go at the same problem, I feel a little bit awed and very aware of my weaknesses. All the more surprising then to discover that Butler's diagnosis of her own character bears some resemblance to my self-diagnosis: [I'm] an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Well, so what? Butler's combination seems to include a little bit more drive than mine, which turns out to reward me well.