Monday, August 28, 2006

Selimovic again, and the concept of answers from on high

From Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish (1966)
For a brief moment I had been separated from everything and returned to my childhood, under someone’s protection, freed from years, events, and painful decisions. Everything had been placed in hands stronger than mine, and I was wonderfully feeble, with no need for strength, protected by omnipotent love.
. . . .
I went off to school when I was a small child and have been a dervish for twenty years, but I know nothing more than what they wanted me to learn. They taught me to be obedient, to endure, and to live for the faith. Some were better than I, but few were more faithful. I always knew what I should do. Although the dervish order thought for me, the principles of its faith are firm and thorough, and nothing of mine existed that couldn’t fit into them.

With these statements, Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin limns the form of his moral weakness: he wants to be told what to do. Faced with difficulty, he wants someone else to make decisions, and he doesn’t even care why they’ve made their decision, so long as the onus has been taken from him.

Such an approach to life is not uncommon, which is one of the reasons the Sheikh is such an interesting character. And I’ve never quite understood it. Not that I’m any kind of hero, or rebel—god knows I’m as timid and boring as the next person, as likely to quail in the face of danger, or even discomfort. But I’m curious, and even as a kid I didn’t like doing things just because I was told to. If I’m going to follow rules, if I’m going to think or live according to some group of ideas, I want to know why. I want to know how the ideas work, why they work the way they do, and what their effects are. Such questioning is a large component of the complicated batch of reasons I couldn’t imagine ever having religious faith.

For Ahmed Nuruddin, and many other believers, however, such acceptance—submission, even—to the power and expertise of another is a comfort, possibly even the greatest in the world. The faithful surrender the power to God, try to live according to a set of laws they believe he has set out, and assume he’ll see things right. They exhibit an odd mix of trust and mistrust, their willingness to trust in a higher power in part a product of their distrust of their own selves, their decisionmaking, discernment, and willpower.

Expanding a bit (to the point, I’ll admit, of wild generalization), this strikes me as a basic difference between the progressive and conservative mindsets, religion aside. The very nature of conservatism is to assume that there are eternal truths, and we should focus our energies towards holding on to them, or getting back to them. It’s backward-looking, and never mind that those cherished verities are frequently an incoherent blend of wishful thinking and nostalgia. Conservatives know what they know, and they have always known it—even as the world has become a different place from what it was in the past, when it was already a different place from what they thought it was then.

On the other side, one of the many reasons progressive politics has been such a fitful, stop-and-start enterprise for a hundred years is that progressives are not easily marshaled: we all want the why to be simultaneous with the what. Active, thoughtful disagreement is our métier, and thus we both take a long time to hash out positions and, when we put those positions to the public at large, we refuse to pretend to unanimity or certainty. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, and it’s generally agreed that it’s lousy politics, and something the Democratic Party, the closest thing to a party we progressives have, is only just now learning to get past (while not giving up on its ideas). Serious, hard-fighting partisanship can arise from internal disagreement, but it’s not natural—it takes hard work, talent, and determination.

But if your party relies for its votes largely on people who are accustomed to believing in an overall set of rules, handed down by someone (whether government or God), you start well ahead. You can set out a message and trust that it will be believed, your calls to action followed. No, the Republicans don’t ever get all their members to agree, and the conservative, rule-abiding tendency of their base is no proof against the real pressures of policy failure (as we’re seeing, ever-so-slowly, right now). But they start from a point of more natural cohesion than progressives, and, knowing it, their leadership uses that to its advantage.

So progressives have a built-in disadvantage, but it’s one that I think is essential to live with if progressivism is to remain what it is at its best: a belief that we can improve the situation of life on earth, through our own power, working together and putting forth our best effort. We trust in what we’ve learned and what we see, we put our faith in the ability and knowledge of people themselves.

At our best, we’re the party of honest uncertainty, unwilling to pretend to know. We're the party, in a sense, of Doubting Thomas, or Moses when he smites the rock, or even Job when he cries out:
Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me. (23:3-5)

Oh that one would hear me! behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book. (31:35)

The difference is that we don’t even hope for an answer to come from without. Instead, in the absence of given truths, we keep moving forward, aiming at making things better, and we’ll keep doing so until we’ve created the answer ourselves.

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