Thursday, May 26, 2022

Whig History


The Tories and the Whigs, Pulling for a Crown. Via History Collection.


It's religion that allows the excesses of authority, in exactly the way I describe, in that discussion and others: power is constrained by limits of force and, later — post 1215, as we're taught in school — by law (a concept that reaches its revolutionary fruition in the 18th Century, in America and France). For millennia the king had unlimited power, as an expression of ownership, he owned the country and sublet it to his Lords, who were called into service to defend it against other fiefdoms or countries. The point is that the whole thing was property + force = authority — two utterly concrete (meaning, not abstract) elements — until law was placed atop the hierarchy...

religion lets a particular group 1) control the framework of morality absolutely, undergirding states, treaties, laws, everything else...2) within that authoritarian mandate, lets a small group absolutely control the parameters...and 3) is designed to work in terms of the antiquated, the outmoded, and the medieval (so that the elements of civilization are, as they say, "deprecated"). It's the perfect formula for tyrannical control.

If I'm correct in my utopian predictions, the 21st Century will be remembered as the moment when humanity finally outgrew and cast off that ancient shackle. We can't pretend the question isn't being forced — we could hold onto all of it the way we retain so many outmoded rituals (like the father "giving away" the bride in marriage), but they're forcing us to call the question and dump it all.

Jordan's picture, which I may well have been reading wrong, and if so forgive me, looked to me like what they call "whig history", the picture of history developed in Britain after the end of the Napoleonic wars, as the Whig party was turning into the Liberals, characterizing the whole of history as

a journey from an oppressive and benighted past to a "glorious present".[1] The present described is generally one with modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy: it was originally a satirical term for the patriotic grand narratives praising Britain's adoption of constitutional monarchy and the historical development of the Westminster system.[2] The term has also been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (e.g. in the history of science) to describe "any subjection of history to what is essentially a teleological view of the historical process"

Not that the Whigs themselves had actually thrown off the "shackles" of religion, but the religion they all maintained, a cozy high-church Anglicanism, was no more oppressive than an old sweater, free of the superstition and compulsion they ascribed to the religions of the past, or of "primitive" people, replaced by calm rationality, just as the violence of monarchy was replaced by dispassionate and impartial justice under the rule of law, and the civilized back-and-forth of parliamentary democracy.

The bland complacency and self-congratulation of whig history in a Britain and British Empire ruled by the historians' students at Oxford and Cambridge was an important part of the development of British imperialism, and also of the tangle of errors that brought on the horrors of the First World War. In turn, the war really should have killed it, among British intellectuals—those who survived the trenches. The war proved that the standard notion was wrong; progress is anything but steady and uniform, and it's just when you think history is over that the most unspeakable violence and destruction can break out. 

And just as the trauma and mental dislocation of the war revolutionized the practice of the arts, so did they change the practice of historiography, much more slowly, refocusing from great men to ordinary people and grand narratives to local ambiguities, and especially from teleology to the understanding that the movements of and conflicts between social forces don't have a purpose or a moral value, except to the extent that we, as historical actors, try to invest our own actions with values, which we don't always have time to do. The "overly dualist view with heroes on the side of liberty and freedom against traditionalist villains opposing the inevitability of progress" (Wikipedia's words) gives way to a more granular picture of people mostly just doing their best to get by through changes of which they are not necessarily especially conscious, many of them scheming, no doubt, for their own advantage, or just as possibly for some grand social aim, but with an inevitable host of disconnects.

But scholars on the leading edge don't write textbooks, and whig history remains alive in high school and undergraduate instruction, and the op-ed page of the New York Times.

In the post-whig discussion of religious leaders trying to effect social changes of one kind or another, there's no telling whether they'll succeed or not, or how long it will last if they do, but they might also have some entirely different purpose in mind from the one they articulate, and it may be something you can admire or something you despise, or something you can't easily rule on. The Protestant Reformation was always understood in whig history as a struggle on behalf of liberty and enlightenment, against backward and superstitious Popery, and then you must cope with Luther or Calvin setting up dictatorships and silencing dissent in their own communities—even as the Counter-Reformation sets up the Jesuits, who turned out to be surprisingly tolerant people with different beliefs, sometimes to the point of forgetting their job (I'm thinking particularly of the Jesuits in China who originated the disciplines of sinology).

What does it means to say a religious group "allows" some other actor to control the framework of morality? Some religious groupings directly and in their own right aim at absolute control over the society's moral framework. Those aren't passively "allowing" anything to happen; they're demanding it. The conservative Catholic priesthood that welcomed Franco's takeover of Spain didn't "allow" the Caudillo to clamp down on the sexual license and artistic freedom of the voters who had elected a Republican government. He allowed them, in return for their support for the dictatorship. And they jumped in with a certain amount of glee.

By contrast, you could say most of the Lutheran pastorate in northern and eastern Germany "allowed" Hitler's movement, in spite of its openly expressed hostility to the "slave religion" of Christianity, to take absolute control over their society's moral framework, in the Niemöller sense: "Then they came for ... and I said nothing." Though soon enough there arose a split, artfully encouraged by the Nazi regime, between the collaborating churches of the Deutsche Christen (German Christians) and the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) from which resistance eventually arose, with Niemöller himself as one of the leaders. By collaborating with the political resistance, they attempted to not allow Hitler to transform the moral framework within which Germans operated, and I suppose they really did contribute to his eventual failure.

I got personally interested in the complexity of religious engagement in politics during the Vietnam War, when the conservative Catholic establishment under Cardinal Spelman was a big player in encouraging US entry into the war (seen as a struggle between Vietnamese Catholics like the Diem brothers and anti-war Buddhists who would have surrendered to the Communists), while some of the most effective resistance came from Jesuits, from celebrities like Phil and Dan Berrigan down to Father Jake at the Newman Center in my own little college town, who marched along with Sister Marian in every protest, and welcomed us draft evaders to the annual champagne and strawberries party (which must, it occurs to me, have been associated with the traditional May devotions for the Blessed Virgin, but nobody hassled us about that).

Then, after the collapse of the Republican party in the loss of the war and the revelations of Nixon's criminality, the rise of the Moral Majority coalition, which seemed to us hippies like an open effort in which professional religious like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson collaborated with secular politicians in trying to impose some kind of horrible old Victorian moral code on the whole US population. But as we peeled back the layers of that particular onion it became clear that the object of the family values crusade was actually to preserve racial segregation, from Memphis and Montgomery to Boston and New York, while allowing the new Republican voters to deny that's what it was ("Why no, we're all about the endangered American family")—and the purpose of that was to recruit a new Republican majority to further the interests of the FIRE (Finance/Insurance/Real Estate) and energy industries and Chamber of Commerce businesses in tax and regulation policy, which they did, while not really transforming the moral climate at all.

While the Trumpery, what's been happening over the last six years—the response to yet another collapse of the Republican coalition, brought about especially by the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis—looks to me like a different way to revive the racist coalition of the 1980s with a different, "populist" branding reminiscent of Spiro Agnew and Bill Safire, depicting a struggle between good old people who just happen to be all white and the wicked urban élite who just happen to be not all white. Complicated by the party's blundering (at least I hope it's a blunder for the Republicans, politically) in allowing one reactionary Papist, Leonard Leo, to appoint a Supreme Court majority for himself. Leo and his backers, meanwhile, haven't "allowed" the Court and half the state governments to eliminate legal abortion wherever they can: they have directly engineered it. (I'm pretty sure Roberts and McConnell think it's a blunder too.)

I do not hope the "ancient shackle" of religious observance disappears from our world in the 21st century, and I don't expect that it will. It would sure be nice if some of them died, notably the Southern Baptist Convention, which originated as a home for racist trash and is now revealed thanks to reporting from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News as having harbored some 380 sexual abusers in a massive coverup operation (won't be as big a scandal as those of the Catholics or Boy Scouts, I'm afraid, because most of the victims were female and too many people just don't care if there's no same-sex behavior to spice up the story). I agree that we Americans need to be more vigilant than ever right now for our First Amendment freedom from established religions, and the right of unbelievers to the same free exercise of our beliefs that theists have. I think there's some real hope for the Jewish case that abortion bans harm the free-exercise right for Jews, and I look forward to some kind of collective representation for Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Buddhists and Muslims, and what John Adams referred to as "Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and 'Protestans qui ne croyent rien'" demanding that our rights be protected too.

I'll be back with one last post on these mattters, I think, detailing my hypothesis on how Christian traditions have acquired the peculiar power-lust that has afflicted them. so often.

No comments:

Post a Comment