Thursday, September 11, 2008

Exit Only

I recently made use of my insomnia to take in this debate from last year between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza. As hard as it is to forgive Hitchens his last seven years of White Man's Burden-esque bullying, he's still got the sharpest knives in the antitheist butcher's block. (Unlike Richard Dawkins, whose utopian faith that humans are perfectable mirrors that of his targets; or Sam Harris, who - unlike Hitchens - makes time in his book to advocate the nuclear extermination of Islam.)

Meanwhile, D'Souza appears to have taken the same mail-order public speaking course as my elementary school principal: his head mechanically ping-ponging like a lawn sprinkler, D'Souza over-enunciates in a torpid lilt as though the audience hasn't yet learned to tie their own shoes. That this mental mosquito armed with cherry-picked evidence is not only a Stanford prof, but a leading intellectual among the American chattering class makes me want to award Russell Brand the MSNBC anchor's chair and promptly hang myself.

Given that almost every word D'Souza utters is easily rebuttable, I'm not typing the X-hundred pages of blogspace required for a complete evisceration of his idiotic demagoguery. I'll leave it to you to decide if (a) watching a fundie and an antitheist catfight on C-Span is worth 90 minutes of your life, and (b) it would be better painstakingly to refute every straw man and tautology D'Souza burps out or just sock him in the throat. Here are the highlights for those not quite curious enough to be arsed watching:
  • Hitchens has achieved a Howard Stern-circa-'85 anti-fame, judging by the number of people who attend his talks just to cheer on whatever faith-enthusiast he's facing off against.
  • Jump ahead to part 7, around the 7:00 mark, and dig on the more-books-than-brains pseud (in a trucker shirt!) who couldn't find a way of asking, "Ex nihilo, nihil fit - yes or no?", that took under a minute.
  • Immediately following, the next question inadvertantly revealed a great deal about the fickleness of the "faithful," as Hitchens was asked by a Tongan gentleman, "What do you have to offer us as an atheist?" Put another way: I'm willing to trade up, so what's in it for me?
That last point hung neatly on a thread that ran throughout the debate. If what people tell the Pew Research Center can be trusted, athiests are the most disliked constituency in America. If you compiled a one-sheet of the false accusations & hysterical indictments made against atheists and replaced the proper noun with "Jew," you'd Godwin yourself faster than you could say "shemozzle." The faithful constantly prod athiests to prove their core contention - that is, to prove a negative, despite the fact that (as Hitchens said) if atheists are right, "the world looks how it would look without god."

The crux of the theist/atheist battle is faith: those with see it as their greatest virtue, while those without see it as the worst kind of wish-thinking. The problem of faith, of course, is that it's as unprovable as god's inexistence. Consequently, the defensiveness often exhibited by the faithful in debate can be read as the nagging ache of the phantasmic/fantastic doubt: "What if we ARE wrong?"

This question of being wrong - of acting irrationally, of inherent inconsistency - is far from some faith-specific quirk: it's the very keystone of ideology. As Žižek would say, it's one of "these unknown knowns, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to." Another possibility is that someone would know damn well they're wrong, but continues unabashed - in which case, we're dealing not with an ideologue but a fetishist. But in either case (aware that they're wrong, or unaware that they're wrong), people live as if they were right. Which is bloody infuriating.

I've recently been engaged in some old-school correspondence with my grandfather, next to whom it's very easy to feel stupid. But I was thrilled to recognise this sentiment in his last letter:
[Deconstructionists] remind me of when I was studying political philosophy away back at Cape Town University after WW2, and there was one guy who was a Marxist and had the answer for everything. I'd be sitting trying to worry out my understanding of some writer - Hobbes, Marx, Hegel, or whoever - while this guy always had the answer - THE answer, from his comfortable Marxist standpoint. In fact I had, and have, a lot of time for Marx' analysis, but also some doubts. I used to envy that guy in a way, for his certainty, his lack of doubt.
This is precisely why I'm such a fan of Žižek, "an improvising philosopher, rather than a composer of philosophy," as it was put over at Endschwindet und Verghet. Hokey though his billing as "the Elvis of cultural theory" is, it's perfectly apt: a populist, ad-hoc repackaging of ideas derived as much from junk culture as from "authentic" sources. Being the toe-dipping philosophical hobbyist that I am, I'm considerably more comfortable with this frothing goofball than amongst the button-down self-seriousness of "authoritative" intellectuals. There's an ease in an enthusiastic sloppiness that can readily result in error that can't be found in obscurantist efforts at some abstract infallibility.

My growing distaste for any ideological orthodoxy stems not a little from the now-deafening furor about carbon footprints, eco-friendly food, renewable energy, etc. Suffocating under so many mixed messages about how best not to be a wasteful bastard, there festers a guilt so bottomless that, were it a combustible semi-solid, our energy needs could be filled forever. Of course, this guilt is precisely the consumer impetus that capital breathes, eats, and shits. That our problems can be solved by consuming less, consuming ethically, but consuming nonetheless is a dangerously brilliant bit of three-card-monte. As K-Punk put it recently, "the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief;" all they do depend on is "a subject who is open to all kinds of fluctuating identities and who is therefore ready to be plugged into every commodity." (That's Dany-Robert Dufour via Jodi Dean.) And once again, the most confounding aspect of this ethical hedonism is its certainty, the smug self-assuredness that drops the curtain on the conclusive truth that All Your Carbon Are Belong To Capital.

Like my grandfather, while I do somewhat envy the womb-like warmth of self-delusion, I've always kept Orwell's caution against all True Believers close to my heart. Even in the instances where I agree with the essence of someone's stance, I find it slightly sociopathic if they're not even dimly aware of contradiction or insufficiency - in which case, I see fit to invoke the eternal words of the Dude:
I'm not saying you're wrong, Walter... you're just an asshole.

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