Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Q & A with Dag

Dag just asked me a question over at No Dhimmitude which, along with my response, is worth a post of its own, since I have been slowly developing a discussion of the relevant themes here, as part of my ongoing exploration of the Generative Anthropology of Eric Gans and Co.

Dag writes:
Anti-Semitism, (a relative neologism coined by a German in the 18th century, can't recall his name off-hand,) began in earnest with Christian Jews and Greeks rebelling against their Jewish debts. I think it's in the Gospel of John that one finds the vitriol against "The Jews" beginning in Christianity. I'm sure a Christian will be able to correct my assumptions. The psychology of it is common enough. I saw it vividly in a town in Britsih Columbia, Canada where a sawmill town went bankrupt. The majority of workers waited for the sawmill to return like a Polynesian cargo plane, and when it didn't and there was no more government relief coming either, the workers abanadoned a lifetime of living and moved to another failing one industry town to work thesame despairing routine. But they had a chance to break out from it. They did not have to replay their failures.

There was an Austrian cabinet maker who told the townsfolk that they could turn their village into a tourist town and they could all make a good living buy painting the town with giant murals such as he'd seen in Europe. There was a stoney reaction from the audience. The best the guy could do is get some people to offer that school children might be willing to paint a brick wall. OUr friend said no, that they had to pool their money and pay a professional to make some great artwork that would attract tourists to the town. More stones.

The man, Kurt Schutz, as I recall, entered a city beautifaction competiton. He put up potted plants on lamp posts. He won a fair amount of money in the competition judged in NYC. He used the money to hire a professional painter who came and did magic. Next year three came to compete, and one of them won a prize. Today the village is crammed with cafes and tee-shirt shops and ice-cream parlours and so on. And the man who made it all possible is hated outright by all.

The ones who left hate him for not letting them be a part of the new venture. The ones who came hate him for being the one who made their success possible.

The man was a carpenter. He was Germanic. He was nobody. Anybody could have done what he did. They would have done it better than he did. They hated him, though at some point he will go down in the local history books as a hero. Not yet. Chemanius is not quite ready, to my knowledge, to proclaim that he did a great thing for the good of all.

So it is with the Jews, I think, who did it and carried on and never let go. There are three revolutionary steps in the emancipation of the Jews that seem not to have caught up with the world at large: the American, French and Industrial Revolutions.

I think Truepeers can enlighten us further on the notion of resentment.

I'll conclude with an observation that Islam hates both founders equally, Jews and Christians, and it fears and envies them. Muslims are sick to death from fear that we are founders of their evil religion and that we do not care about them.

I hope Peers can let us no more.

10:13 PM

My response:
That's very interesting, Dag, I never knew the story behind the Chemainus murals and now I wonder why.

Resentment, as I understand it, is something universally human, unavoidable. A lot of people will deny that they are resentful, but I think we all are resentful and loving to some degree and that it is best to admit this as a way of opening ourselves to understanding and mediating our resentment, so as to better encourage our loving side.

We are resentful because we are the species with language and religion, i.e. with the means to create order by representing things and places as sacred, i.e. untouchable and at least temporarily beyond the grasp of our desire (this alienation from the desirable is what we resent). Doing this helps us to regulate our competitive appetites-cum-desires, and to divide and distribute goods in ways that animal pecking orders cannot.

If, say, our tribe makes the salmon sacred, as a means of first making it temporarily untouchable, but also - at an initiation ceremony or a sacrificial feast - of controlling how the resource will be used, distributed and consumed, our tribe creates a period of time between when we first imagine consuming the salmon and when we finally get to eat or to lead the fishing. In this period of deferral, when my desire is both provoked by the thought of salmon - as represented in our language, art, ritual, etc. - and the time when I finally get my piece of fish or my leadership position, it is likely, as with any student or desiring child, that I will feel some resentment towards whatever or whoever I think it is that alienates me from the thing that is both sacred, i.e. desirable, and, for a time, untouchable.

Now if we are a primitive tribe, this resentment will not be as sizeable and notable as later in human history when kings and emperors emerge with the power to expand the number of things in this world that are both desirable and untouchable. Still, as long as I have no reason to ever invest much in thinking that little old me could one day become the king, the level of my resentment will not often approach that of the modern consumer who is continually told he can and should desire everything under the sun.

Of course, as long as consumer society is able to regularly sate the desires it stokes, the system remains more or less stable and it encourages everyone to become more productive to the end of sating the desires it provokes. Similarly, we can think of all religions as being systems that both engender resentment at our alienation from the sacred represented by the religion, and at the same time systems that mediate our resentment by providing us both ascetic disciplines and ascetic satisfactions, and also feasts and holidays, initiations into rights and responsibilities, etc.

In other words, a religion can be understood, from this anthropological perspective, as a technology for controlling or recycling the resentment it also helps generate. The better our technology is at doing this recycling of the desire and resentment it engenders, the more creative and productive the people of the religion are, and the more likely they are to survive through wars, famines, etc.

In discovering or inventing monotheism, Judaism is a leap forward in the ability of people to mediate their resentment. The anti-idolatrous and anti-sacrificial lessons inherent in monotheism – however much these lessons are not immediately or ever fully discovered - engender a sense of a personal relationship with the one God who makes of us personal demands that entail a responsibility for our own resentment - we can no longer sate it in idolatry, scapegoating, or bloody sacrifices - and consequently an imperative that we develop either the ascetic or materially productive disciplines that allow us to feel satisfaction in recognition that our relationship with God and his world is what it should be.

Judaism has survived for thousands of years because it works. Does it work better than Christianity, better than Islam? That is the question that the later entrants in the monotheism discovery must ask themselves. And the fact that many Jews don't drop Judaism and become Christians or Muslims can be a source of resentment, an implicit suggestion that they remain closer to what is sacred...

To my mind, Judaism works very well if you follow the laws and keep a good ethical head. But some of us always fall astray, make bad choices, have bad luck, and it may well be that for someone who has come to feel that they are immersed in sin, Christianity may be a more successful technology for redeeming and recycling one's resentment. It's not obvious to me if this is so, but it is surely plausible. It was Christians, after all, who invented modern science and free market capitalism, however well the Jews have since learned to adapt to them.

But what does Islam have to offer as a technology for recycling resentments? A license to war with the Infidel? Well, the infidel might not like it, but it may be that such a license has some things to recommend it, especially if you have a low opinion of human potential, or if you are among those whom history has left outside of the first two monotheist movements. However, I think history shows well enough that Islam is not as well suited to encouraging the productive disciplines that both Judaism and Christian have shown they are capable of engendering. War, booty, and taxation of the conquered, the competition among men to succeed in polygamy, and the abuse of women, are, historically, Islam’s preferred tools for recycling resentment.

Yes, it's true that Christians may resent Jews and Muslims, while Muslims resent Christians and Jews, and Jews also at times fall into the trap of resenting the other two. And while we all think we know which group is on average the more resentful, the ultimate historical test is not who is the more resentful, but which faith will prove the most successful at recycling its resentments back into itself such that the religion or society of which it is a part survives over time. History has yet to pass judgment on this. But, whoever will win (if not all three) – i.e. the more productive, the more warring, or some combination thereof - it is not, in my opinion, a pre-ordained decision. It all remains dependent on us, on our faith, good or bad.

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