March 12, 2009

My Politico-Religious Journey

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 5:34 pm

A few days ago, Hilzoy brought to my attention the latest fad among wingnuts. It appears all the cool kids on the right are talking about going Galt. Boy, this brings back some memories.

You see, I was once a libertarian. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

Like many college students, I read Ayn Rand when I was in college, which like the gateway drug that Rand is, led me to read some books on libertarianism, and I was hooked. There is something so perfect about libertarianism, especially when viewed through a Randian lens. Poor people are poor because of their laziness and moral defects. Rich people are rich due to hard work and virtue. Government bureaucrats are leeches trying to take what is not theirs. In the end, there is justice: everyone gets what they deserve, not in some after-life, but here and now on this earth. How romantic. How perfect.

Yes, but.

Libertarian thinkers have added to this a whole theoretical edifice explaining how free markets can price anything and everything can be privatized all to the ever-increasing welfare of the virtuous citizenry and to the detriment of the shifty poor and controlling government autocrats. Through college and business school I was enamored of this ideology. This was how the world should work, and if it didn’t, it was because vested interests were depriving us of our freedom. Capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!

Yes, but.

There was another ideology running through my college and grad school years. I had been raised and confirmed Lutheran, but was wandering in the desert during those years. I had many late night conversations about God and religion, and read a smattering of books on theology. I had several of what I would call conversion experiences, except that they didn’t really lead to any enduring conversion. It was all rather cerebral. But there was something profoundly true to me about all this Christianity stuff.

The Christianity I knew had nothing to do with today’s moral judging from the religious right. It didn’t depend upon a church hierarchy throwing around its weight in the name of ecclesiastical authority. It wasn’t defined by the drama of today’s fights over gay rights or attempts to sneak creationism into the schools. There was no political grandstanding. It was a deeply humble, self-emptying, other-serving Christianity.

Still today, the Christianity I know is virtually invisible to those not looking for it. The leaders of my denomination issue a stream of press releases about the need for relief for disaster victims, funding for food stamps, or services for the homeless. There are always urges to do more for the hungry around the world. Micro-credit, mosquito nets, schools, health clinics, water projects, goats (yes, goats!) for the global poor. But none of it ever makes headlines. The AA meeting in the church basement isn’t newsworthy. But there it is all the same.

As an adult, I had to decide between these two ideologies. I tried to reconcile them, and thought I had succeeded for awhile. But I was once asked to sign a petition to “end world hunger”. I wouldn’t sign it because it went against my libertarian ideals. Later, I thought about that decision. How could any Christian not lend their voice to the effort to end world hunger? What about the least of these? I came to realize that this world, the real world, the one we’re stuck with, isn’t just. There are both poor and rich who do not deserve to be so. Even the best of us are not quite as noble as Ayn Rand would have us believe, and the worst are not quite as evil. Markets themselves are sustained and thrive because of government regulation, not in spite of it. There are things none of us can do alone, and which we must come together to accomplish through government. While we must always be on guard against the excesses of government, we all need government to do what only it can.

This need for government isn’t just pragmatic, it’s also moral. A Randian libertarian utopia would rapidly turn into a morally unjust dystopia. And I don’t speak of morality the way the culture warriors do, but the way the Christianity I know does. I’m not talking about sex, drugs or wardrobe malfunctions, but morality as a glimmer of the Kingdom of God. Without that kind of moral justice, we would live in a world where power begets more power, disregard for others is rewarded, and justice isn’t available for those without the ability to pay for it.

So I am now a political independent, but in the current environment aligned mostly with Democrats. And my religious wanderings have brought me to the religious home I left as a teenager. And Ayn Rand is left where she belongs: to gather dust.

March 9, 2009

The Watchmen: Rorschach Test

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 7:24 pm

You really don’t need to know anything about The Watchmen to see the irony. All you need to know is that one of the characters in the movie, and the graphic novel it is based on, is named Rorschach, as in the psychological inkblot test. That, and that an Objectivist sees in Rorschach an Objectivist hero.

Why else would you create a character named “Rorschach”, except to invite each reader to decide just what it is they see in him?

This is one, but only one, of the fascinations of The Watchmen. (I haven’t seen the movie yet, but just finished reading the novel.) What we believe about Rorschach has more to do with what we bring to it than the character itself. I am sure that someone to the left of me would see a tragically broken man who, through a horribly screwed up childhood, has become a vengeful vigilante full of hate and anger, desperately in need of healing. And they would be absolutely right. Meanwhile, our libertarian friend at Reason magazine sees a noble Objectivist right out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or even better, The Fountainhead, ready to blow up any building that violates his architectural principles. And he’s right.

Rorschach’s ability to evoke in us what we want to see isn’t because he is a mushy gray character. There is no ambiguity — his every action, and every action taken towards him, is black and white. But it is the complex combination of black and white that allows us to see in him what is already in us.

Just like an inkblot.

So what do I see in Rorschach? A brilliantly post-modern character, full of good and evil, hatred and hurt, noble moral principle and foolish stubborness. He’s both protagonist and antagonist, horribly complex, humanity’s vices and virtues all in one person. There is no moral to Rorschach’s tale, no heroic example to follow. Nothing but permission to accept that we are all also full of our own contradictions, at the same time both sinner and saint. And that’s enough.

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