Thursday, February 22, 2007

Promises and Covenants

[Note to the average reader: this post is meant to encourage people in Vancouver to attend one of our weekly meetings. In the comments to this post, my friend and colleague, Dag, says the language I quoted was too abstract and alienating and that you won't want to attend our meeting if you read it. Well, it's something new. If you don't like it, just skip to Dag's comment. In any case, be sure that our meetings are about bringing new political ideas into everyday conversation and human association. We all have our passions, but none of us is pretentious or snobbish about them, quite the reverse in fact.]

Every Thursday, the Covenant Zone bloggers meet in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, from 7-9 pm, in front of Blenz Coffee. We wear blue scarves in solidarity with the conservative Revolution Bleue in France, and discuss ways of renewing our own national political covenant. The name of our blog refers to one of the most fundamental of political forms, one central to nation building. Another of the basic political relationships is the promise. Recently checking out the Reconquista blog, I discovered this remarkable passage from G.K. Chesterton, in an essay condemning the conduct of the Prussians at the start of World War I, specifically their breaking of their promise not to invade Belgium. Chesterton saw that the promise is somehow the most fundamental or original of human gestures:
It is plain that the promise, or extension of responsibility through time, is what chiefly distinguishes us, I will not say from savages, but from brutes and reptiles. This was noted by the shrewdness of the Old Testament, when it summed up the dark irresponsible enormity of Leviathan in the words "Will he make a pact with thee?" The promise, like the wheel, is unknown in Nature: and is the first mark of man. Referring only to human civilisation it may be said with seriousness, that in the beginning was the Word. The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known. Just as a man who cannot keep an appointment is not fit even to fight a duel, so the man who cannot keep an appointment with himself is not sane enough even for suicide. It is not easy to mention anything on which the enormous apparatus of human life can be said to depend. But if it depends on anything, it is on this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of to-morrow. On that solitary string hangs everything from Armageddon to an almanac, from a successful revolution to a return ticket. On that solitary string the Barbarian is hacking heavily, with a sabre which is fortunately blunt.
The Prussians have been told by their literary men that everything depends upon Mood: and by their politicians that all arrangements dissolve before "necessity." That is the importance of the German Chancellor's phrase. He did not allege some special excuse in the case of Belgium, which might make it seem an exception that proved the rule. He distinctly argued, as on a principle applicable to other cases, that victory was a necessity and honour was a scrap of paper. And it is evident that the half-educated Prussian imagination really cannot get any further than this. It cannot see that if everybody's action were entirely incalculable from hour to hour, it would not only be the end of all promises, but the end of all projects. In not being able to see that, the Berlin philosopher is really on a lower mental level than the Arab who respects the salt, or the Brahmin who preserves the caste. And in this quarrel we have a right to come with scimitars as well as sabres, with bows as well as rifles, with assegai and tomahawk and boomerang, because there is in all these at least a seed of civilisation that these intellectual anarchists would kill. And if they should find us in our last stand girt with such strange swords and following unfamiliar ensigns, and ask us for what we fight in so singular a company, we shall know what to reply: "We fight for the trust and for the tryst; for fixed memories and the possible meeting of men; for all that makes life anything but an uncontrollable nightmare. We fight for the long arm of honour and remembrance; for all that can lift a man above the quicksands of his moods, and give him the mastery of time."
This amazing passage reminded me of another by the writer and anthropologist, Adam Katz, who has taught me much about promises and covenanting. In an unpublished essay reviewing the foreign policy of the Bush administration in the Global War on Terror, Adam writes about our need to rediscover the sacred source of the promise and covenant:
we need, especially in this long war, our sources of sacrality--ultimately, the invisible God the creator discovered/invented (no matter where, when, or by whom, exactly) by the Jews; and the Greek polis. The sacred is what is universally desired and the renunciation of which is therefore constitutive of the community. The first meaningful act, that is, is renunciation [i.e. a promise not to appropriate what is commonly desired]. But as long as the universally desired object is appetitive, no cultural progress is possible--renunciation begins and ends with the production and consumption of the object and hence cannot become productive itself. For renunciation to become productive, what is renounced must become invisible and internalizable, and hence portable and projectable over time and space. This depends upon the recognition that what is universally desired is not, ultimately, some object, but to carry out meaningful acts, to be at the center oneself. If the renunciation of an appetitive object must attribute the power of repelling and suspending desire to the object itself (it being inconceivable that such a capacity be attributed to oneself by the agent experiencing it), then the desire to be at the center must be represented and suspended by the author of all meaning, an infinitely creative and renewable source of being. The creature of such a God must be similarly capable of absolute freedom, limited only by the infinitely greater power and freedom of the Creator himself. The relation between such a God and such a creature is governed by the promise and the covenant--the only forms of relationship that can reconcile freedom and order, initiative and reciprocity, thereby producing history: a history of covenants established, broken and restored, revised and extended; of promises deferred and the signs and terms of its imminent fulfillment sought. This fundamental anthropological structure is true regardless of whether we "believe" in the God in question--there is always the need for renunciation, however complex the social setting, there must always be someone who initiates and "persuades" others to imitate the gesture of renunciation and thereby complete it; and that initiator must draw upon him or herself the resentment of the community since original renunciation is only minimally distinguishable from the acquisition of a subtle and insidious mode of appropriation, which in turn means that the initiator must apply the forms of the promise and the covenant to the work of persuasion. If you know of a kind of morality either more realistic or more elevated than this, please hasten to inform the rest of us.

If our Hebraic heritage puts resentment to work in producing more refined and flexible modes of renunciation, our Athenian line of descent puts resentment to work in ensuring ever higher levels of transparency and openness. In the Greek polis, a space is elevated over everyday life wherein everything that is said and done is heard and seen by everybody. Symmetry and action in common is constitutive of the space, which ceases to exist as soon as people cease to enter and renew it by striving to carry out memorable actions, i.e., actions that will become exemplary and hence a "renewable resource" for the space itself. Anyone can represent the center, under the condition that everybody makes sure that nobody tries to possess it. Publicity is enormously flexible, like--if somewhat more fragile than--the invisible God: it can emerge anywhere fixed hierarchies break down and there is nothing but the articulation of power and accountability to hold things together. The "absolutes" of free speech and free inquiry derive from the Greek event, which has been synthesized with the Hebraic in the form of that remarkable creation, "conscience"--the idea that what we do must be squared with some inscrutable "voice within" over and beyond what all the voices without are telling us.

And this leads us to the much maligned "modern individual," out there on the marketplace, who is in fact the pinnacle of these convergent developments. We can all represent ourselves through an unrepeatable and ever changing array of signs that can, in all their diversity, never exhaust or adequately portray what lies "behind" them; not only do we experience ouselves this way, be we feel obliged to treat others as if this were the case. We constantly renew our relation to the invisible while we prepare ourselves for various "exhibitions" and we insist upon the integrity of this articulation despite our inability to demonstrate it. This incomplete project, drawing upon our Athenian and Hebraic events and reconciling those events with the accelerating development of market society, the scientific and technological revolutions (all signs, when properly understood, of deferral and renunciation in the name of the future, the one none of us will ever see), this is our sacred, one eminently worth defending.

We can defend such a commitment unreservedly and we can apply it to this long and unpredictable conflict by untiringly insisting upon establishing new sites of symmetry and reciprocity where there is presently asymmetry and "unprocessed" resentment. We seek out opportunities for promising and making covenants, and we seek to prove ourselves worthy of receiving promises and being offered covenants in return. We insist upon transparency, and even that the watchers themselves be watched. We treat Islam as an argument about the most significant moral and anthropological questions, and we view each practicing Muslim as a example in that broader argument, which we engage as generously as possible while being unflinching in pointing out its weaknesses. We take those who declare themselves as our enemies at their word, and treat them accordingly. And we measure internal criticism in accord with the extent to which it works to persuade us to retrieve and renew the sources of our civilization, which must be the sources of those critiques themselves.
Well, taking on the responsibility to represent the sacred centre of our nation, through words and deeds, as our promise to help renew the national covenant of Canada, is what we do every Thursday at the library. All are welcome to join us, not least those still scratching their heads trying to figure out what is being argued through in the quotes above. Come, talk, and all will become clear through our faith in being and exchanging together. I promise.


dag said...

I heard someone outside in the alley screaming: "Kazt can jammer, kids." Damn, I got so distracted that I took a break and read Aristotle on "The Unmoved Mover" before taking a further break by browsing through Saint Anselm's writings on ontology just for fun.

Mark Steyn you ain't, friend.

Nevertheless, for anyone who got through that and had any idea what you're on about I'm sure they'll flock to our meetings just to have someone to talk to on that level. I'll be there to do so, partly because of the level of debate possible. But I'll also be there because we can and do talk at the level of Steyn and Sowell and the average person at the library.

We do recreate the Athenean agora and the 18th century New England town square at our meetings, making democracy as it is rather than as we are told it is. Our meetings reify the very concepts you discuss above. We make democracy concrete in ways that no one else does, to my knowledge. I leave it at that for further discussion.

Who will come to our meetings? Will the average person come-- the teenaged skate board kid, the plumber, the secretary, the land developer? Not a chance. Only people with high self-confidence and a terrible urge to make more of the nation than now exists will venture into the realms of discussion as above. And few will follow them. Those timid few who might have thought of joining us will flee in terror at the idea of being made to look stupid in the eyes of the group we are now. And what a shame will that be. Ours is a group for all people regardless of their facility with theoretical pyrotechnics. No one is dazzled nor is anyone burned by our group discussions. I, for one, when not clamouring to hang people from lamp posts, tell chicken jokes; and Charles extols the beauties of Vancouver's landscapes. Others contribute various themes and insights to our collective banquet of celebratory pot-luck democracy.

Would I have quoted Chesterton? Only in negative ways. Today I learned something good and new. Tonight I expect to gain further from our meetings, things I cannot assume or expect. You can be part of that, as 'Peers can be, and Charles, and the others.

Will you join us? I have my doubts. Still, there is a place waiting for you. You have a right to join us and to be heard. Whether we'll have any idea what you're on about is a question we'll have to find out later. Give it a chance. Meet us this evening.

truepeers said...

Katz is abstract, which is somewhat inevitable in trying to spell out something new in ethical terms - all the things that Mark Steyn intuits but can't fully spell out. But it is not theoretical gymnastics intended to separate an olympic elite from the ordinary folks. It is a genuine attempt to spell out an understanding of our humanity, the nature of society, religion, and politics, the distinctive contributions of Western history, all in order to prove the conclusion that it is only ordinary, competent, caring, engaged, people who can renew our national political covenant.

Only through the active participation of engaged amateurs, speaking in the name of anyone and everyone, can certain forms of representation necessary to freedom and democratic self-rule be renewed. There simply are things the aristocratic elites of our academies and bureaucracies cannot do for us. That, essentially, is what Katz is saying in perhaps the only way he can. He is writing in fundamental anthropological terms to show this understanding in a new light for the first time; he wants us not to be frightened or cowed by abstract ideas, but to know that our shared belief in the need for an engaged citizenry is also what our deepest self-understanding possible today says is true. I think this is right.

In time, with a little effort, people like us will be able to distill this vision and understanding in terms accessible to many more people. Then more people will feel they have both the reason and the promise to act freely again. I promise. But everything new starts with one person trying desperately to justify our seeing that he really does have something good to offer, so that we will sign on and share in something sacred again. It is not an easy business going first, but a necessary one we all need to be prepared to take, sometime somewhere.

dag said...

There is the need for popularizers in the marketplace of ideas, and it's not something to disparage. My concern, slight as it is, arises from our need to popularize what we must all take for granted,the very themes you write above, and though it does take some effort; and though Katz's work is worthwhile, in my opinion, I like to approach things, as we likely all do, in a style of my own, not at all that of Katz, and regrettably, not popular like that skunk Steyn! Ha! I'm a way better writer than he is, so it must be a flaw in the public that I'm not rich and famous like him. Yeah, that's it. I need a popularizer.

Hey, sweetheart, get me rewrite.

truepeers said...

Yes, we should all pursue these questions in our own style. But doing so, we will inevitably come into contact and conflict with others. And then the claims on authority start intervening. We have to be able to make a convincing claim that justifies our own authority as free, engaged and serious individuals without a string of professional credentials to justify our freedom.

That is why we need to have better ideas and a stronger faith about fundamental human questions than those who want us to defer to their credentials. That is why we need the true intellectual aristocracy to inspire us, those who serve the cause of the greatest freedom, who know that true thinking defers to what is sacred for all of us, or as many as possible, and that means going back to the fundamentals of human existence and faith. If we do this, then we can build the covenants or compacts that include the most freedoms and opportunities presently possible for all of us. Figuring and negotiating these not yet fully visualized, or institutionalized, compacts is something harder to grasp than an old-school way of dividing up us and them. It's difficult, unless you are free-thinking, honest, and full of faith, without undue fear of the unknown. But if we want to be free we have to take the harder road.

dag said...

I cheer. What a great thing to be able to have a conversation like this over the Internet and then to follow it up face to face at the library. Good, good. And as always I found myself having committed factual errors which came to light not from anything I thought of but from our conversations. I win all 'round.