Thursday, August 16, 2007

What are you praying for?

I've been puttering about for a day or two wondering what to write to announce our weekly meeting, every Thursday, 7-9pm in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, in front of Blenz Coffee. Please join us if you can and would like to discuss the renewal of the Canadian covenant.

I've been trying to decide if I want to make anything of the seemingly small matter of our local university's recent gesture of "welcoming diversity," particularly to the extent it is focussed on members of a certain authoritarian politics/religion. Muslim Footbaths at University of BC growls one headline from a notoriously "Islamophobic" blog, going on to quote from our local tabloid:
“It’s no different from upgrading washrooms to accommodate transgender students or students with disabilities,” said UBC spokeswoman Janet Mee.

The plans stemmed from a consultation last December in which UBC asked students how to improve washroom facilities. “We approached [the Muslim students association] to ask them what their ablution needs were,” Mee said. “We included that in a project that we were working on around accessible, gender-inclusive family friendly washrooms.”

Alsalaman said his association and the university have a very good relationship that includes the creation of the prayer room and the installation of a lock to the room after a dark brown patch was discovered on the floor of the room late last year.

“The footbath installation will not be difficult and not cost very much,” Alsalaman said. “We are asking that it only be in the two washrooms near the prayer room. It’s not that big of a deal and is very important to us. We feel more welcome.”
It's a little thing but it raises the question if, on principle, state-funded Canadian universities have any business paying for religious facilities (religious denominations do fund their own institutions on various Canadian campuses, including UBC). I remember a controversy at McGill recently when the university, whose charter affirms it to be a secular institution, refused to create a permanent prayer room for Muslims, not that it refused to allow them to pray in makeshift settings. I can understand how UBC might have felt that all the foot washing going on in regular washroom sinks was creating a mess and it's better to create a special place for this sort of thing. After all, UBC like many universities with their post-national liberal elites in charge, is now in the business of trying to attract money from all over the world and there is a lot of money in the Arab oil states flowing into Western universities (money which many argue is accepted with the implicit understanding that criticism of the Islamic totalitarian religion/politics will be muted in these universities). Anyone who has checked out the building boom at UBC - which includes many multi-million dollar condos that seemed to me on a recent visit to have several owners from mainland China (how many people working in the Canadian economy can afford such homes?), and thus presumably with connections to the highly oppressive Communist Party oligarchy without which it is rather hard to get rich in China - might come to the fast and easy conclusion that UBC is not too particular about the people and values it welcomes to campus in the guise of "welcoming diversity".

Don't get me wrong, I too have connections with connections to the Chinese Communist Party, and I derive some (small) income (not to mention other social benefits) from them. In business today, most people can't avoid trade with China, just as we support the promotion of Wahabi Islam every time we buy gas to support our own economic activities. But at the end of the day, one has to put business partners and friends aside and remind oneself of his own ethical values and his nation's. And one kind of hopes one's local university will take a lead in reminding him of what Canada has, in the past, stood for: the sacralization of the individual as above the claims of the group, including religious groups.

This has meant we have created public institutions that pay attention to the promotion of individuals in public and economic life, while keeping the claims of specific religions or special interest groups carefully circumscribed. We can't of course entirely separate the individual from his religion but traditionally we have made universities and other institutions places where you go as an individual, and member (or visitor) of the Canadian nation, and not as an active representative of some other kind of sub community. In the past, Muslims have made their way through the system.

And we don't expect that all taxpayers should have to pay for special interests that go beyond providing services in order to foster the growth of individuals, indeed to free them from the bounds of traditional, group-centred, restraints. With some exceptions, e.g. the state support for Catholic schools in Ontario and Quebec, we have generally felt that the promotion of specific religious or political interests should be the duty of individuals who want to make such a commitment. And keep in mind that Islam is both a religion and a traditional, authoritarian, political system.

So what to make of UBC's director of access and diversity, Janet Mee, proclaiming:
"The university is absolutely keen and willing to consider any request that comes forward from the Muslim Students Association."
Is Mee unaware of the kinds of radical political positions that Muslim Students Associations promote at various universities? Does she not see any essential difference in using public monies (the university is in large part publicly funded) to a) support a specific religious-political movement and b) guarantee that all students can be respected as individuals with a basic human right to safely use a washroom for its standard purpose:
Bathroom needs became an issue last year after members of the university's Pride association, representing gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered students, raised safety concerns with Mee's department.

She said transgendered students have reported feeling harassed or embarrassed when forced to use traditionally segregated bathrooms on campus.
From this specific concern, Mee took an opportunity to mix things up and moved on to a much vaguer justification for providing, among other things, religious facilities:
"I hope it says that we want to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students"..."It has to do with a greater awareness of the needs of diverse students and probably a greater desire on the part of large institutions to understand their students," she said.
Janet Mee, UBC's house mother of diversity, reminds me of a great article by Thomas Bertonneau
The politically correct university, under the domination of the primordial mother, becomes affective and jealous in its basic structures; it replaces the individual (because he is individuated, hence a priori outside her realm and a threat to it) with the group. "If the person can substitute a group identity for an individual one, social organization becomes possible at the level of the group [and] an ideal of oneself as a member of a group can serve as one’s ego ideal" (121). The individual who rejects identification with a group now becomes the focus of the group-consciousness, of the collective narcissism, and indeed, by constituting such a cynosure, actually permits mediation among groups which might otherwise experience destructive friction. Each group depends on the primordial mother to keep at bay the individual renegade; at the same time, they look to the primordial mother for the sustenance of their collective ego-image. She answers the demand through "the idea of the child who needs love the most, the one who has been least loved in the past, the victim" (121 [emphasis added]). The "marginalized" minority is diversity’s unwanted child in the collective plural. Hence the incessant clamor by this or that demographic segment of the university’s enrollment for favors and privileges—and for punishments to be meted out to those who deviate from the one path:
Decision making in the PC university loses even the intention of being rational. Argument about possible courses of action no longer involves consideration of the actual effects policies will have. The process turns instead to the competitive avowal of one’s goodness and the imputation of badness to one’s opponents. But that is only the beginning of the matter. The separation of decision making from the consideration of results, together with the a priori establishment of some views as morally good while others are morally bad, has other consequences. It leads to a situation in which the intentions of the actor, and, indeed, often only the purported intentions of the actor, are the only matter of importance, removing the means from moral consideration. (124)
The politically correct university is not only, as Schwartz notes, a "psychological regression" (159) into infantile narcissism, it is likewise a cultural atavism, a relapse into archaic, indeed sacrificial, forms of communal organization that belong more properly to the Stone or Bronze Age than to the twenty-first century of the Christian Era. I return here to the work of Gans, who argues in Signs of Paradox that the Holocaust represents a cultural turning point in the Western moral imagination, by verifying in a massively empirical way the essential Christian revelation that communal solidarity based on persecution and victimization is evil. "Our ideal moral certainties are re-grounded in the opposition between (Nazi) persecutor and (Jewish) victim" (188). But it is really a good deal more complicated than this, because:
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing. As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself. When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema. In the already tiresome clarity of this asymmetry, culture has been abandoned to youth; adults are too world-weary to participate wholeheartedly in the eternal and now transparent structure of victimary resentment.… Group resentment has replaced individual resentment —the point of essential difference between the high and the popular—as the primary object of cultural deferral. (188-189)
Gans remarks how
a long-lost Dionysian frenzy reappears in the ecstatic forms of postwar popular culture, in its music and dance, the audience of which more than that of any other popular form incarnates "the people." These central dramas of the youth-culture are not coincidentally the most subject to black and other minority influences. The rhythms and chord progressions of popular music dissolve individuality in a real or imaginary group movement that is the historical heir to sacrificial ritual. They create, in an imaginary context, the resentful unanimity of the sparagmos. (189).
Schwartz’s "Revolt of the Primitive" and Gans’ atavism of a minoritized "youth culture" are, I believe, aspects of the same epochal cultural transformation. The primordial mother is the ringleader and youth (always in a rainbow coalition of sexually ambiguous misfits) are her press gang. Schwartz interprets the phenomenon more pessimistically than does Gans, who notes, but does not particularly stress, the sacrificial character of the new, resentment-driven forms of collective identification. Yet Gans does admit that "what is new in our era is the promotion of non-integrative local theories…. as though they were the only theories conceivable and it were no longer possible for the human community to think of itself as a whole" (198). He also notes how "feminism and other minority approaches, which maintain their link with universal thought only through the unacknowledged mediation of the Christian centralization of the victim, are fast driving out other forms of cultural interpretation" (198). Gans’ "non-integrative local theories" are nevertheless deeply troubling, not least because their most recent prototype appears to lie exactly in the ferocious biological dualism of Hitlerian anti-Semitic policy, as "non-integrative" as you can get. Paradoxically, of course, the proliferating new Übermenschen find their superiority to all others in their own alleged victimization, which then becomes the pretext to victimize all who would deny the in-group’s special (mother-authorized) victim-status. The lèse, as it were, proves the majesté. Where the lèse does not exist, which means just about everywhere, it is necessary to invent it. There is much burning of the Reichstag. Schwartz catches the same paradox, noticing that the eidos of women in the regime that they now obviously control is a contradictory one, simultaneously a picture of "passive, hopeless victim" and "exemplars of the primordial mother" (158).
Am I blowing a little foot shower out of proportion? Maybe it all depends on whether you think the Muslim Students Association will now happily go its way, keeping their religion/politics - focussed on Jihad and Sharia - a private matter, or, on what you think they are going to demand next. Maybe they will declare some visiting speaker, a "homophobic" Jew, say, a threat to their sense of security.


dag said...

I haven't encountered eidos used in this sense before.

Very clever post, and one that I hope we can all deal with further at our meeting this evening. As always, I look forward to it.

Anonymous said...

"What are you praying for?" -
Less religion and more common sense.

truepeers said...

Anon, here's a link for you. Anyone who thinks all religions are the same, and that it is possible for someone to have no religion (in the broadest sense of the word) needs to do some more thinking. The likely historical result of trashing all religions is that the trashers will give support to the more primitive among religions, for it is the more refined and complex forms of the sacred - e.g. the sacralization of the invidual (and make no mistake, if you want to value free individuals you have to have a way of sacralizing them, as Jesus, the God-person, knew well) that are likely to be lost when people become cynical about everything "religious"; and it's the more primitive and barbaric that will return to fill the void because it's easier for the primitive to do that because it needs to bring less civilizational energy and investment to the task.