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A Rock and a Hard Place: Politics & Spiritual Commitment

I seem always to be caught in a bit of a bind as far as ideological commitments go. On the one hand, I am a religious Traditionalist which, assumptions have it, ought to incline me toward social and economic Conservatism; on the other hand, I am a political Liberal. “Liberal” is, in my case, certainly not to say “secularist” as I am far from convinced that non-spiritual values can in any way serve as a firm foundation for an authentically ethical society.

I recently made known in a social medium my enjoyment of David Berlinski’s latest book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, an amusing and well-argued dismantling of the “new atheist” movement’s claim to scientific objectivity. I purchased, read, and enjoyed most of the book before discovering that Berlinski is a senior fellow of the conservative “intelligent design” think-tank “The Discovery Institute”, and his friendship with neo-con talking head—and professional bigot—Ann Coulter. Well, this just illustrates my point. I still agree with much of what Berlinski writes in The Devil’s Delusion. As long as he and I stay away from politics, we could have a rather fruitful friendship.

Yes, I am a religious Traditionalist or, to use my preferred terminology, a Perennialist. I see something inherently, even absolutely (in the “relative-absolute” sense of Schuon), valuable in the sacramental forms of the world’s great Revelations—a category, I hasten to clarify, which is not limited to the three major Abrahamic monotheisms. Somehow, though, my moral obligations within this framework have gone askew of those of many of my cohort. Or, just maybe, theirs have gone quite seriously askew.

Modern Conservatism has gone off to the impossible geography of the land of Ayn Rand-and-some-few-selective-readings-of-Leviticus-and-Paul and left us (not to mention Jesus) in a dust cloud wondering what the hell happened. Politics, at its best and at its core, is not a matter merely of convenient policy-making, nor of unscrupulous deal-making; an authentic political system is moral to its very soul, and is thus founded on the moral assumptions of those who create and recreate it. This being the case, the Conservative fairy-tale becomes, like an unvarnished Grimm story, quite disturbing: we see a narrative of blood and tears, God’s Justice and Mercy belonging only to a select few supermen who have managed effectively to invent a god in their own image. (“[S]o also in this world people make gods and worship what they have created. It would be more fitting for gods to worship people.” The Gospel of Philip) This free-market-god is a total inversion of the God spoken of by the Prophets and God-men; he is not the God of the Logos but, if the expression will be forgiven, the god worshiped by the devils and archons. But what more should we expect of the Age of Iron?

It is certainly not practical to enforce the same scheme individually and locally as on a very large national scale, and this is sometimes the excuse given (when any is proffered at all) by the more thoughtful among this sort of history- and doctrine-ignoring neo-Conservative for their extremely un-Christ-like political and economic ideals. The extremes to which this excuse is stretched, however, make a veritable non sequitur of what would ordinarily be a common-sense observation. Local and individual charity, whether helping people with their chores, donating blankets to homeless shelters, setting up a soup kitchen in your church, or whatever it happens to be, is absolutely vital, andall charity—in the sense of the biblical Virtue—manifests first and necessarily out of the individual’s deepest commitments. But there is no magical ring-pass-not at which, suddenly!, spontaneously!, Mercy must give way entirely to Justice and our judgments of people who are not ourselves need kick in at their very harshest. We may need to soften certain personal moral requirements in order to relate them to society—pacifism being a good example—but that is not the same thing as abandoning them as irrelevant at a certain numerical threshold of living human bodies, land measurement, or—most damning of all—dollar value.

Religion not only does not demand of us that we turn the unfortunate, diseased, orphaned, widowed, or even just irresponsible, out to the unkind elements, it outright condemns any such tendency inherent in earthly human nature. And let us not be coy on this point: “original sin”, at least in the sense of selfishness and schadenfreude within the human psyche, is an observable phenomenon whether or not we choose to attribute it to a primordial event or simply to a naturalistic evolution. To accept fiscal conservatism, then, is simply togive in entirely to the “fallenness” of the world.

Social conservatism is equally problematic, despite the seeming strength of the “religious” argument in favor of it. As fiscal conservatism turns people materially out into the cold, social conservatism does so psychologically and spiritually. If fiscal conservatism casually (or gleefully, as in the case of Ron Paul supporters) condemns people to disease and death from exposure or starvation, social conservatism forces them to despair and the brink of suicide. Combine the two, and you have a kenomic cocktail—a samsaric Screwdriver, if you will—of which Old Scratch himself would be proud.

Let us take the social-argument-du jour—homosexuality—as our example. And, let us say for the sake of argument that homosexuality is, in fact, sinful by its very nature. Well! How does it differ in kind from the sort of sex which produces children? Christianity, to mention the religion most commonly seen as vocally opposed to any sort of “gay civil rights”, has no traditional claim to a positive view of either reproduction or heterosexual sex-as-such. The idea that Christianity is all about “family values” is an entirely modern development, and one quite at odds with its theological and ethical roots. This is not to say that Jesus was totally anti-family, but He certainly taught that family is of secondary importance (at best!) when compared to our deeper (that is to say, non-biolgically-dependent) commitments. The body, in Christianity, is not to be intentionally harmed, but is also not meant to be venerated; what is family, really, but a biological commitment? Family is very important, biologically, but what makes members of one’s family morally and spiritually important is not the shared DNA, but the brute fact of their humanity. If we happen to share values and interests with them, more’s the better! So, it is hard to make a case for homosexual sex being significantly worse than heterosexual sex. What needs to be placed front and center in both cases is simply this: human love is a lower-order analogy (in the esoteric sense of the word) to Divine Love and, at its best, sex is a specific flowering of love (vide traditional—non-fundamentalist—Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish teachings about sex). And this flows nicely into the other common “Christian” argument made in favor of homophobia: It just isn’t natural!

An “argument from nature” can hold no water with a Christian for the simple fact that “nature” is fallen. Nature is not morally evil, so let’s not be throwing any “world-hating Gnostic” accusations around, here, but it is broken and flawed from the perspective of the relative-absolute (which is to say, the personal God to whom most religions turn when they pray). So, while it is possible to draw metaphysical/esoteric/symbolic conclusions from Nature-as-Scripture, this is a process of higher-order epistemic sublation, of intellectual adequation, or of out-and-out Revelation; it does not follow from this essentially intellectual-intuitive process that nature-as-form is completely good and, thus, useful as a standard of moral guidance. If that were the case, we would have ample examples to follow in eating our own babies, or at least just taking craps wherever we happen to be when we feel the urge. In other words, moral arguments-from-nature simply do not hold in the Christian mind (when that mind is sincere and well-informed, that is). This is all, of course, leaving well aside the fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are quite well-attested and frequently observed in the natural world. If arguments-from-nature do not work in the puerile “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” intellectual miscarriage, they cannot work the other way round, either.

What are most important in both arguments are the points of Love and of Humanity as Archetypes, as platonic Ideals. Whether or not homosexuality is a sin (to return to my initial assumption in service to the greater point), it is nevertheless an infinitely greater sin to assume that we are then in a position to devalue the central humanity and love which is being expressed by it. If it is incumbent upon me to not be gay, well, I’ve already succeeded; but it is in any case far more pressing that I stop caring so much about who a person loves and care more about Love Itself.

The Revelations place great, not to say exclusive, emphasis on morality. This is in part because we are fallen; we require, to some extent, rules to abide by. That is, until we are more fully able to live from the Real—that which is not and cannot be touched by the Fall, by samsara, by kenoma—at which point, morality falls away not because it is wrong within its own limits, but because the Love which lies at the heart of Justice-oriented morality may live through us more spontaneously. The law is transcended by the Law; the spiritual Torah floats above the written Torah. In just such a way, our own psychic narrowness must give way, sooner rather than later, to God’s Fullness.

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Its a Conspiracy!

There is no need to uncritically accept conspiracy theories, and it is high time that “spiritual” people in the United States bring the light of reason to their socio-political views. There is no worldwide organization in total control of the world’s economic and political structures. The Illuminati was a short-lived attempt by a Bavarian atheist to infiltrate occultism and use it as a tool for popularizing secularism (a worthless effort, given that occultism was already largely in favor of political secularism, at the time). The Freemasons do not rule the world’s banking system; if they did, I would not be working retail and worrying over going into debt for college. The Bilderberg Group is just a group of big business and high finance gamers trying to get in on more and more successful business investments; it may be crass and selfish, but it isn’t shadowy or sinister.

Even the “1%” are not in a deliberate conspiracy of social or economic control. The fact is, they don’t need to hide what they’re doing or why. Who’s going to stop them? All it has ever taken is a little political nudge here and there and most people will pretty naturally fall in line with a pro-business agenda. Why? Because a pro-business agenda looks exactly like a pro-individualist agenda, and who doesn’t love freedom?

The principle of parsimony (popularly known as Occam’s razor) states, quite simply, that all other things being equal, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions is the correct one. This means that an explanation which takes account of all evidence without injecting unnecessary assumptions is the correct explanation, while its neighbor which has added even one assumption above and beyond the evidence is at least partially wrong.

With this in mind, we simply do not need the Illuminati, or the New World Order, or the Grays cloaked in near-earth orbit to explain the problems in this world. A healthy mix of greed, fear, and incompetence are more than enough to cause an economic collapse, tyrannical laws and social instability. And, quite honestly, aren’t these enough to worry about without dragging unrealistic paranoia into it?

I have a hypothesis. It seems to me that many “conspiracy theories” work in two directions at once: on one hand, they provide a scapegoat, which is everybody’s favorite mechanism for avoiding blame for the state of the world; on the other hand, conspiracy theories provide an ersatz consolation in that they send the message that, “Well, at least somebody is in control of this mess!” The fact is that people (and societies) are more often buffeted by the winds of fate, pushed around by the tides of luck, and bogged-down by the flotsam and jetsam of good, old-fashioned human incompetence. Still, even if everything is going wrong, it is somewhat comforting to think that some understandable, human agency is both maintaining and benefiting from the seemingly implacable scenario of earthly life. And, to some extent, there are plenty of humans who do benefit from such things. But these aren’t shadowy cabals; they’re us. Even the “99%” in America (with the obvious exceptions of the extremely poor and the homeless)—the middle and upper-middle classes especially, but not exclusively by any means—benefit directly from the hellish conditions of other parts of the world. This isn’t a reason to merely feel guilty, but is worthy of serious attention. Even the “1%”—who do rule the world, after a fashion—aren’t evil sorcerers committing intentional human sacrifice; they certainly do evil, but not out of a will to do evil; they, like all imperfect people, are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families. Almost nobody does something “bad” because they want to do “bad”; usually, evil is committed out of a misguided and narrowly-focused zeal to do good.

So, let’s stop with the black helicopters, the Illuminati, and the like, and face the very real, very serious problems which we do have before us—problems which are spoken of not in shadowy, pentagram-laden grottoes, but openly in board rooms, congresses and parliaments, shareholder meetings, and trade conventions. The problems may arise from nature, but they are bound-up and intensified by ignorance, irrationality, and a callous disregard for the broader needs of others.

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The Socio-Politics of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is not a religious movement easily politicized; anybody with a genuine understanding of the “nature of Gnosis”, whether they accept it or not, can see that Gnosticism is an enemy to temporal power in all of its forms, natural as well as supernatural. We aren’t likely to lay ourselves down for a politician or a god who makes us promises we know they cannot keep. Still, this is not an argument for isolationism or quietism. An equally important aspect of Gnosticism’s rejection of authority is its general insistence on courage in the face—or jaws—of authority. The early Christians who got branded as Gnostics by heresy-hunters (a name which we moderns have taken up proudly, but which we must remember was rarely, if ever, used by our predecessors to describe themselves) were largely no big fans of martyrdom, but understood that it was necessary to be ready to suffer and die with dignity and faith. But not only do we not want to walk into the grinding maw of suffering, but most especially we do not want others to be forced into that position.

Gnosticism is not a faith of elitism, but neither are we populists. Really, we refuse to limit ourselves to such categories, as if we had to leave behind our suffering sisters and brothers in order to accept scholarship, ideas, and personal experience. And that’s the rub: our fellow humans, our fellow life-forms generally, are suffering just by virtue of living in this world-system. And so are we, personally. Neither is the problem purely collective, nor purely individual; it cuts across such simplistic notions. And so does salvation. Fundamentalists are all about the individual, while liberals are all about the Group. Gnostics don’t see a conflict, there, but only a confusing array of artificial barriers which are designed such that to break one down another one must be erected; to get rid of racial tensions, we must substitute religious ones, to evoke a particularly successful (read: pernicious) example from American society. (This is not to say that racism doesn’t still exist, and strongly, but only to point toward one of the strategies of social integration.)

If you put a gun to my head, I would call myself a “social democrat”, but that hardly encapsulates my entire socio-political worldview. It just gives you an idea. Similarly, many Gnostics of my acquaintance identify as “libertarian”, but I would never try to argue with them as if they were simply Tea Party stooges. That would miss the point. Just like everybody else, Gnostics try to ally themselves with whichever mass movement seems to be aiming in the direction of the Good; the difference is, we also try to remind ourselves that the Good, in the Enlightenment sense, is inherently unattainable in this world. We aren’t caught by empty promises quite as often because of it. Of course, we often fall off the opposite edge into raw and bleeding pessimism, a possibility we must try to guard against by invoking the Romantic sensibility of the inherent divinity of each and every human and of humankind as a manifestation of a profound spiritual totality.

That is the crux of the Gnostic worldview in the modern world, especially as concerns politics and society: we are neither wholly of the Enlightenment, nor wholly of the Romantic, but both speak to us deeply. We are truly children of the Greeks, for we see the bare pathos of existence while trying to reason-out an ethical response to it.We lop-off the nihilistic relativism of postmodern culture with one edge of the blade while slicing through the prefab truths of absolutism with the other. We live with contradictions and seeming-paradoxes until resolution comes, always by a drop of reason, a bucket of sweat, and a downpour of Grace.

So, when we Gnostics enter into political discourse, we do so not as liberals or conservatives, not as progressives or libertarians, certainly not as Democrats or Republicans; we enter in as smiling-faced Siddharthas, as laughing Jesuses, as Strangers to the Powers of this world-system, who aren’t willing to play by those rules for the brute fact that they have been decreed. No empty iconoclasm, here; it isn’t by whim that we ignore the rules to the game of life, but because it is by those rules that we are made sinners, while freedom from them allows us the chance to be truly moral, truly good, truly loving. And that won’t mean the same thing from this moment to the next.

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The Present Age: Some Political Comments

If a generation were given the diplomatic task of postponing any action in such a way as to make it seem as if something were just about to happen, then we should have to admit that our age had performed as remarkable a feat as the revolutionary age. (The Present Age by Søren Kierkegaard)

I don’t generally discuss politics here, and there is a very good reason for that. The purpose of this blog, successful or not, is to explore topics significantly deeper and more essential than politics. Political arguments of the past few years have taken quite the religious turn, though, and with some of the most popular mainstream political commentators being also religious commentators, I feel the need to make a few comments of my own, though my audience will certainly never equal theirs in number.

In the same essay from which the opening quotation has been extracted, Kierkegaard had the following to say:

A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times.

Writing in 1846, Kierkegaard couldn’t have been more wrong about his own age, given the bloody rebellions across Western Europe only two years later. Still, more apt words could not be written for America here at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. (Of course, Kierkegaard and I both can only write about what we have so far witnessed, making inductive projections into the future, so I can’t be too critical of Søren’s observations.) There is perhaps no area of our lives in which this is more true than in the political arena. We do not have far to look in order to see politicians and pundits making grandiose claims, compiling massive plans, and organizing sparkling rallies, but really to what end? Our eyes are dazzled, our ears left ringing, our brains confounded, our souls enlarged by the promises of HOPE and CHANGE, and declarations that “America today begins to turn back to God.” Where, then, is the hope? It seems to have died, because the change surely hasn’t made itself known. The fact is that the one needed to fuel the other, which would have then fed back into the first, and so on, but of course there was never any real chance for that to happen. Call it indolence.

Kierkegaard continues:

On the other hand a political virtuoso might bring off a feat almost as remarkable. He might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home—having spent a very pleasant evening.

Does this sound familiar? I can recall the excitement of Obama’s rallies, the enthusiasm of going to the polls to elect him, and the resulting ecstasies (perhaps “seizures”) upon the announcement of Obama’s election. And what happened immediately after? Immediately after sex, the warm, relaxed, “fuzzy” sensation which washes through the bodies of many men and women can serve to bring us closer together as individuals, or it can serve to make us lazy. Immediately after a “revolutionary” election, the warm, relaxed, fuzzy sensation which washes over us can serve to enliven us for our mission, or it can serve to put us to sleep. So much for the afterglow!

But the present generation, wearied by its chimerical efforts, relapses into complete indolence. Its condition is that of a man who has only fallen asleep towards morning: first of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed.

Now, I am not blaming President Barack Obama for this state of affairs; I am merely saying that he, like most politicians, took full advantage of it. I do not know if he and his speech-writers and aides did so on purpose, but it is rather bad in any case. Either our President did not understand the very forces and trends which brought him to power, or he did know and took advantage of the combined boredom, anxiety, and laziness of the American people. And Obama is certainly not the only politician to have taken such advantage! Look at the “anger” of the Tea Party movement, and you will see many politicians riding the coattails of that hollow sensationalism. Whether we dress it up as HOPE or RAGE, we are dealing with the same SUBSTANCE, in truth no substance at all.

Equally unthinkable among the young men of today is a truly religious renunciation of the world, adhered to with daily self-denial. On the other hand almost any theological student is capable of something far more wonderful. He could found a society with the sole object of saving all those who are lost. The age of great and good actions is past, the present is the age of anticipation when even recognition is received in advance.

Golden Age romanticism aside, Kierkegaard’s point here is clear, if stated somewhat sarcastically: it is easy, now, to found a society, what we today might call a “special interest group”, for anything at all, but nothing ever changes. The answer to this, which Kierkegaard also says in the same essay, is simply that such societies are worthless, without substance, unless they are made up exclusively of substantive individuals. In other words, as the old trope goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When we are dealing with a “chain” as large as a social movement, a political party, or a nation, how many weak links must there be, and how weak must the weakest ones be?

And what of Glenn Beck and his ilk? It is common to place Obama, and those like him, at one end of the American political scale, and Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and so on, on the opposite end. But is this accurate? It depends, I suppose, on the metric. As far as how much good they do, we could safely place them both firmly in the “negative influence” side of the slider-bar. Are they evil people? Almost certainly no; evil is an extremely strong term, and I hesitate to apply it to flawed human beings, likely no better and certainly no worse than myself. Though likely not “evil”, there is a rather terrifying political messianism surrounding and vivifying both camps. Beck has gone so far as to actually place himself in the role of prophet, a role which traditionally is not assumed but rather imposed; we must always be careful of those who are glad to be God’s mouthpieces!

And so the whole thing comes down to one essential: American society has no essence. It is empty but unwilling to be filled. What can we do? I cannot answer for everybody, but my own intention is to work upon myself, rather to allow God to work within me; if only substantive individuals are of value for creating positive change, if only such individuals can profitably create and join organizations, we must become substantive individuals! Take Kierkegaard’s advice or no, but his vision for becoming such a one was simply

behold, all is in readiness, see how the cruelty of abstraction makes the true form of worldliness only too evident the abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveller makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade—and behold, it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God’.

(All quotations from The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion by Søren Kierkegaard, translated by Alexander Dru, with an introduction by Walter Kaufman, 2010, Harper Perennial Modern Thought paperback edition.)

The Wheel Turns Again

I try to avoid writing about politics, not because I am apolitical or count them as unimportant, but because politics runs in the same spiral-cycle as everything else. We are politically (vide socially and fiscally) better off now than ever before, despite renewed conflicts over war, health care, abortion, and GLBT rights, not to mention the faltering global economy and environmental issues. All of this is on a spiral track; we keep seeing the same scenery over and over again, but always from a progressively higher vantage point. Consider, for instance, the frequently made comparison between our current “recession”; and the Great Depression of the first half of the last century. We are still much better off than our recent ancestors were. While I worry for individuals and communities, I am overall unconcerned for our civilization or for my country.

There are certain constants in politics, at least until our next major upheaval. One of these factors is opportunism. Very few politicians are in any functional sense “evil”, despite the mud slung by the supporters on any given side; it is also unfortunately true that at least as few truly act in a moral or ethical manner.

While my own feelings and ideas more often than not agree with those of “progressives” (a euphemistic term for “very, very liberal”), I was not excited by the election of Barack Obama. He seems a decent fellow, and I’d probably love to spend an evening with he and a few beers, but when even the most saintly of women and men act as “politicians”, they must of necessity check their ideals and morals at the door. At the best of times, and in the most jaw-clenchingly polite of terms, politics is a game of compromise within and psychic manipulation without. To these points, Dr. C. G. Jung, in his essay The Undiscovered Self (2006, Signet; first copyright 1957) wrote, “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” Further:

Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies. That is to say, a sort of collective possession results which rapidly develops into psychic epidemic. In this state all those elements whose existence is merely tolerated as asocial under the role of reason come to the top. (pp. 4 & 5)

And, later:

The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed and educated as a social unit, accommodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in accordance with the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the masses. The rulers, in their turn are just as much social units as the ruled and are distinguished only by the fact that they are specialized mouthpieces of the State doctrine. They do not need to be personalities capable of judgment, but thoroughgoing specialists who are unusable outside their line of business. State policy decides what shall be taught and studied. (pg. 12)

It is fascinating, to me at least, that relevant to this same topic the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot had this to say:

I am not able to cite by name any black magicians among the occultists I know, whereas it would not be too difficult to name some politicians who, for example, have nothing to do with occultism—and who would even be hostile to it—but whose influence and impact agree very well with the classical concept of that of the “black magician.” Indeed, is it difficult to name politicians who have exercised a deadly, suggestive influence on the popular masses, blinding them and inciting them to acts of cruelty, injustice and violence, of which each individual, taken separately, would be incapable…and who, through their semi-magical influence, have deprived individuals of their freedom and rendered them possessed? And is not this action to deprive men of their moral freedom and to render them possessed the aim and very essence of black magic? (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, author unknown, corrected English translation 2002, Tarcher/Putnam, pg. 160; author’s italics)

All of this sounds rather sinister, and at times it is, but it is really quite normal. Manipulation of the public and politics go together like tea and honey or, say, the sublimation of free will and autonomous thought with an social group of sufficient size. We may safely call these “natural human tendencies,” not quite as basic as instincts but certainly common to the species.

As social units, humans are little more evolved than wolves and apes. We have well-defined hierarchies (even when they go unstated, or only semi-consciously recognized) and culturally (cultically)-elected pariahs, though our methods of breast-beating, scape-goating, marginalizing and casting-out are increasingly sophisticated and subtle. Doctor Jung’s “individuation” and Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” are our most hopeful prospects for further evolution, and they are strictly limited to individual application only.

Senator Arlen Specter’s recent defection to the Democratic party, set against the backdrop of a dual-house Democrat majority and Democrat executive, presents a fine example of the underlying (and overarching) principles at work. Everyone, from high-level Democrats and Republicans to man-and-woman-on-the-street constituents and supporters, views this move on Specter’s part as sort of coup, a final nail in the GOP coffin, or the dramatic sign of a final, eschatological changing of the guard. Only the most insightful acknowledge it as an act of political survivalism on Specter’s part, but even they won’t go far enough to say that it really is “merely” an act of survivalism. Specter has not aced out of some powerful idealism arisen from his unconscious but, like the “mass man” that he is (and I say this in all humility arising from the realization that I, too, am a potential criminal, madman or politician), out of the growing knowledge that he has backed the wrong horse the past election cycle or two. While that fact may be ethically grating for most people—myself included—it is in no way abnormal. Instead, it is a dramatic flaunting of “business as usual.”

As bad as all this sounds, and for as many complaints as we can level against our officials and the system which they embody, we are still forced by the facts of history to admit that we are all far and away better off in the modern West than at any other time. I promise that we will make mistakes, that politicians, social groups and nations will continue to falter, but barring a massive catastrophe of unthinkable and unforeseen proportions, the spiral will carry on. Around and around so that we see little or no progress in a single lifetime, but up and up so that progress always occurs in the long haul, human social orders will carry on as always. I therefore try not to get to worked-up by any one event or any given conflict. With one eye to history, and the other to psychology, I feel that we can safely hold to our most passionate ideals while soberly living in a culture and climate which so often disappoints.

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The Pope flubs on AIDS in Africa

Old news by now, but I feel the need to weigh in. “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” said Pope Benedict XVI to a group of reporters on his Alitalia flight to Yaounde, Camaroon; “On the contrary, it increases the problem.” (Wall Street Journal article here.)

That’s hilarious. I hate to devolve into mere sarcasm here, but how else am I supposed to respond?

On the level of common sense, this is patently ridiculous and false information. With leaders like this, I weep for the faithful.

Are condoms 100% effective? Of course not. Are abstinence and monogamy the only methods which are? Barring rape and the odd accidental needle-stick, yes. Given my druthers, I’d love to see more people in Africa and elsewhere slowing down on their sexual promiscuity and being more willing to commit themselves to one another in loving monogamy. Given the choice between giving out good information and the practical tools to protect oneself and others, and telling flat-out lies to remain within one’s religious moral confines, however, I’d never try to tell people that condoms make it worse!

In this Interfax article, the Russian Orthodox leadership of Moscow support the Pope’s position, saying: “It is incorrect to consider condoms as a panacea for AIDS.” Of course it is, but that isn’t what most health activists are doing. No thinking person can believe that dropping a crate of condoms in every village will suddenly make HIV/AIDS go away, but putting condoms into the hands of people who will be having sex with one another no matter what anybody else says and teaching them how to properly use them will at least stem the tide somewhat, saving lives and giving the world more time to come up with a real solution.

Quoth Fr. Vsevolod: “If a person lives a sinful, aimless and senseless life, uses drugs and is lewd, some disease will kill him one day, neither a condom nor medicine will save him.”

Well that’s Christian love right there, isn’t it? “If you’re a sinner, why should anybody bother trying to help?”

I have a great idea. Let’s do a background check on anybody attempting to enter a church; if they’ve ever committed a crime beyond traffic violations, if they’ve ever had an abortion for any reason, if they’ve ever attended a sex education class that mentioned birth control as an option, turn them away. The next time you meet somebody with cancer, tell them you’ll pray for them only on the condition that they’ve never touched drugs, never had sex outside of wedlock, and never even considered playing a violent video game or going to a nightclub on a Saturday. Then we can organize, incorporate, and call ourselves “The United Church of the Holy Inquisition” and begin fundraising for a “landmine the lawns of the mentally handicapped” event.

Who’s with me?

(With thanks to Jonathan Swift, who has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his breast no more.)