[I haven’t heard from you in a little over a week. What have you been up to? Self-deprecation and scorpion bowls?]
Nothing quite so rewarding, I’m afraid. I’ve been watching a lot of interviews with John Pilger, most of which were aired on Russia Today.
[You are quite the fan of John Pilger, aren’t you? This isn’t the first time you’ve mentioned him to me.]
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, not when I haven’t watched any of his documentaries in full. I did begin The War You Don’t See a few months ago, but I never finished it. It wasn’t a bad documentary at all; I just paused it to do something else and then became distracted.
[What’s the subject matter?]
Among other things, it’s an examination of the media’s failure to question the official position of the United States government in the months before the invasion of Iraq—the invasion of 2003, that is. There was very little reported skepticism of the government’s intentions, in particular its moral justification for invasion. According to Pilger, the media—by which he means not only American media, but British press, as well—was all too complicit, providing the Bush administration with a free and massive platform.
[Funnily, that isn’t the way we remember the first few years of the twentieth century, is it? Looking back on it, we seem to believe that the media was split down the middle from the very beginning. But in reality, opposition to the invasion didn’t become a mainstream position until the American military was already in Iraq—by which point, it was, in many ways, already too late.]
Yes, it was. The option to withhold our forces was never really on the table. There were a handful of elected officials who voted against the invasion, but their dissent never amounted to much more than token opposition.
[And by the same measure, the so-called opposition media, the left-wing media that became critical of the ongoing military operation, that dissent was mostly symbolic, was it not? Irrespective of the validity of their arguments, nothing they said was ever going to convince the Bush administration to give up the fight and scrap the project.]
And yet, at the time, it really seemed like we were one disheartening story away from an overhaul of our moral apparatus. The tragic reality of the failed invasion would become undeniable, first to the American people, and then to George W. Bush himself, who would struggle to contain himself as he read the report. Holding a tissue to his eyes, he would call for the return of every American soldier, who would find a hero’s welcome with a bouquet and a parade and a pregnant wife.
[And don’t worry about the Iraqis. They’ll clean up the mess themselves. After all, the catastrophic violence of the invasion was a small price to pay for the removal of Saddam Hussein, was it not?]
Or so we were told. But in all sincerity, I used to believe that the president could be reached, that Bush’s problem was that he was just too stupid and too proud to admit that the American operations in Iraq were failing. I never considered the possibility that he was corrupt, that he would willingly support and prolong something so destructive. I don’t think I was ever too young to be cynical, but then again, I suppose it is more comforting to believe a man is foolish, rather than evil.
[I don’t think an observation such as that is cynical. Cynicism is a fixed disposition to negativity, even when it’s inappropriate to be dour. Think of it as political depression, or something: it has no rational basis. The truth about Bush, on the other hand, gives us any number of reasons to make a gloomy forecast for America.]
That’s true. Maybe it wasn’t an incapacity for cynicism, but a capacity for youthful naivete? Well, in any case, I really ought to try to articulate myself more successfully. This is especially important for me now, as I have returned to Plato and am reading all about such errors, errors that we are all guilty of making unconsciously, daily. How many people have the stomach for Protagoras, a sixty-page analysis of our conflicting definitions of the word virtue? How many people have the stomach for such a dialogue today, when the president tweets more often than he speaks?
[Have you ever noticed that the verb tweet, when referring to the use of Twitter, is written in lower case?]
I have, actually. And it is disturbing.
[Getting back to Plato, it’s hard to believe that these issues of simplification and conflation, verbal as well as intellectual, are every bit as pervasive today as they were twenty-four hundred years ago. If the most learned men of Classical Greece were unable to master their own vocabulary, then what kind of hope can we possibly have for the future of the American intelligentsia?]
Oh, don’t be so . . . cynical. Think of all the progress we have made in the last few months alone, talking amongst ourselves in this little blog on an obscure corner of the endless Internet. I feel like we’ve covered a fair bit of ground in such abbreviated time and with such modest resources, don’t you?
[I’m not thinking individually: there is always the potential for personal improvement. I’m talking about humanity generally, or at least America generally. Maybe I sound like a pretentious fool for expressing concern towards something so nebulous, something so shapeless, but personally—]
Wait. Don’t tell me. You have a hard time finding motivation to try, to work towards the betterment of humanity generally, when there seems to be just the remotest chance of your efforts making any meaningful difference.
[Haven’t you struggled with this problem all your life?]
I have, but not as of late. In the last months of this year, I’ve been feeling increasingly apart from the rest of American society. For the most part, this is due to my deepening estrangement from the popular culture: the interests of the American people are almost completely foreign to me. I really do feel like I moved to a different country last year, or maybe even the year before that.
[You no longer have a personal investment in the nation’s progress, then?]
No, of course I still have my own personal investment: if the country tanks, it’s going to affect me, regardless of whether I’m an active participant. However, I no longer feel as if the country’s failure is mine: I perceive it, but I don’t own it.
[That’s an interesting perspective, not in the least because it is so very different from how you felt not so very long ago. But I would still be concerned about this “deepening estrangement”: if you’re truly becoming psychologically divorced from your countrymen, then that will cause you problems sooner or later.]
I get what you’re saying, but on the other hand, independence is freedom: it has been a great relief to break from the wave of anti-Trump hysteria. I’m no longer reaching for my phone first thing in the morning, and then gritting my teeth when I read about the president’s latest senseless claim.
[That anti-Trump hysteria has claimed only half of the country, though—if that. We tend to forget that a lot of people aren’t invested in politics at all. You’re something of a special breed in that you are still very much absorbed in our political culture, even if its filthy elements really just slide off of you, which I’m not convinced they do. But we don’t have to argue about that right now. My question still stands: how do you find the motivation to excel, to work within the society generally, if your energies have no effect upon it?]
If I knew for certain that my energies would have no effect, then I would be spiritually paralyzed, I reckon. Alas, I know nothing of my certain impotence, and so, in the absence of proof, I believe in the possibility of success. I won’t smother my sentiments in cheese by insisting that I choose to believe, for, as you well know, I wrestled with suffocating misery for years—for most of my life, in fact. Maybe this newfound confidence—for I think this outlook of mine is defined more by the absence of pessimism than by the presence of optimism—is the natural result of an excess of displeasure: eventually, the mind must balance itself out.
[Through a complementary excess?]
Well, I don’t think anyone who reads our conversations would accuse me of being an optimist. We tend to concern ourselves with the ugly side of American culture. I mean, you’re almost suggesting I’m too carefree because I don’t have anything substantive in common with the rest of American society, so what kind of benchmark is that?
[I see your point, and I can’t pretend to be so certain of my own failure that I can’t get out of bed in the morning. Maybe I’m just riding a downward swing today.]
Eh, it’s the holidays. Most thoughtful people are irritable at this time of year.
[You didn’t happen to see the Christmas displays in front of the capitol, did you?]
Yeah, I’ve been forced to look at them for over a month. It’s impossible to avoid the nativity scene: that thing is so massive, there are probably people sleeping inside.
[Tell me about it. Is that the same one they parked in front of the capitol last year?]
As far as I know. I seem to recall it being unreasonably large last season, as well.
[I wanted to know what you, as an atheist, think about something like that.]
I don’t have any issues with it because of its religious messaging—assuming, of course, that it has a message. I don’t like it, simply because it’s enormous. It’s totally out of proportion to the rest of the architecture. If it were half the size, I probably wouldn’t care.
[But considering how large it is, doesn’t it seem like it is sending a message, like it’s trying to get up in your face, or something?]
Yeah, I could agree with it. Obviously, the people who set it up wanted it to be the only thing that’s visible within half a mile, although I suppose we should point out that the overgrown Christmas tree is obnoxious, as well.
[And if you don’t object to the religious implications of the manger scene, then I can only assume you don’t find the Christmas tree oppressive religiously, either.]
No, and I don’t have any sympathy for people who do. I don’t pretend to know the origin, the “true story”, behind the Christmas tree: some people say it’s a pagan symbol, while others believe that, whatever its source as a seasonal symbol, it has since been co-opted by the Christians. I don’t know what’s what, and I don’t really care: the tree, to me, is a symbol of the holiday season, and I can’t really imagine why a non-Christian would object to the appearance of such a thing, even in his or her own house. I’m not a Christian, but I observe Christmas as a holiday, and if I see a Christmas tree, I don’t see that as a religious endorsement, or something.
[So, in your opinion, an atheist who complains about a Christmas tree is just looking for something to complain about?]
Yeah, I would say so. But then again, I’ve never met an atheist who actually complained of such a thing. I think that kind of atheist is mythological, mostly. There’s a concerted effort in right-wing media to perpetuate this fear of the rubbernecking godless, the kind of intolerant busybody who wants to file lawsuits every time somebody whispers, “Merry Christmas.”
[You’re referring, of course, to the non-existent War on Christmas?]
Yeah, anyone who actually believes that there is a war on Christmas is badly misinformed. Those people don’t understand the present-day reality of Christmas in this country. The fact is, Christmas has already been secularized on a national level. The holiday is observed generally, not because it is the birthdate of our lord and savior, but because it is convenient and desirable to take a day off from work, and this will continue, even if we someday find ourselves living in a country whereof every citizen is an atheist. Take Thanksgiving, for example: how many people do you know who actually sit down for the evening meal and talk about, or even think about, Plymouth Rock and the pilgrims and all that other nonsense? Your high school history teacher, maybe? Anybody else?
[I can’t think of a single person.]
Me, neither. Now, Christmas is obviously much more personal to many, many people. I’m not saying that Christmas has been completely stripped of its religious elements, but clearly, it has not endured on a national level because of these theistic connotations. It is simply a date of convenience, much like Labor Day, a holiday that no one seems to understand.
[Actually, come to think of it, the people who protest the observance of Columbus Day usually say that we ought to replace the holiday with something else, with some remembrance of the genocide effected against the Native Americans. What they don’t say is that we should abandon the holiday completely, that we should stop taking the day off from work.]
Exactly: the concept of a holiday is too convenient, and too desirable, for people to want to give up. It is this reason, more than any other, that discredits the rumors of a war on Christmas. As long as you think the concept through, there is no rational way to take it seriously. Now, if we want to talk about the secularization of the holiday, that’s a different story, but that is very different from the displacement of the holiday entire.
[Above, you said that Christmas had already been secularized, implying that the fearful may have a point?]
It has been secularized on a national level, and for a specific, single purpose: that purpose being, the universalization of the holiday. But it has not been secularized internally or inherently: nobody is going to give you dirty looks for setting up a nativity scene in your home. Well, I’m sure there are disrespectful people who would, but that is because they likely have no respect for anything. It isn’t a reflection of atheism as such, and it certainly isn’t an indication of a developing trend of hostility to Christians, or some such nonsense.
[You do realize that you sound terribly hypocritical, yes? You have written at some length about the problems with feminism, yet, in the face of animosity towards Christians, you want the analysis to be one of perfect subtlety and nuance?]
All right: I’m not doing a very good job of covering my bases.
[Or even reaching for them.]
Okay, so let me try again. When I attempt a critique of feminism, I’m dissecting an organized and formal political movement. When I speak of feminists, I am speaking not of random people on the street, but of elected officials, established media personalities, etc. Here, in our analysis of the war on Christmas, we have no such stability of ground whereon to stand: we speak only of the drunken douche bag who mutters some unlettered statement about Christians. The difference is, that man cannot be said to speak for anybody, whereas the higher-profile figures I’ve alluded to herein can.
[All right, I see the difference, and it’s a meaningful one. By this metric, would the people who set up the nativity scene at the entrance to the capitol be classified as “higher-profile figures”?]
No, not any more than the guy who set up the adjacent display, one which was obviously intended to contradict the message of the religious fundamentalists who put up the manger. I didn’t take the time to actually read the statement written on the second display until a couple of weeks ago, but it states that any kind of religious symbol, such as the nativity scene to the side, is established in violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state.
[So, it’s not necessarily a declaration of atheism, but a call for religious ambiguity on the capitol grounds?]
Probably. I mean, most people would probably assume that the person who set it up is an atheist, but that would be stereotyping, would it not?
[Probably. Now, you’ve said that you don’t find the nativity scene offensive, but you haven’t said whether you consider it to be a violation of the First Amendment.]
I don’t know. Maybe it is, but I’m not worried about it. I don’t feel like it’s a shot across the bow of atheists, or something. I don’t think that it’s intruding on my rights or my existence, just because it obviously doesn’t accord with my own particular theological position.
[So, you obviously don’t take any greater issue with the other display, the one warning against the intertwining of church and state?]
I don’t think it’s the most effective way of sending the message. It’s a relevant message, but when it’s presented in this way, it comes across as, I don’t know . . . something dark, I guess, something paranoid, perhaps. I’m still not doing a very good job of articulating my views, but maybe I see the “counter-nativity” as a mistake because there are probably better, more meaningful, and more threatening manifestations of theocracy than a gaudy nativity scene, even if it has been placed on the grounds of the state capitol.
[Are these the same views you’ve always held on this subject?]
I wasn’t always this measured, if that’s what you mean. I used to be one of the New Atheists, also known by their critics as “the militant atheists”, but that was a while back, back when I still thought I knew everything.
[Back when you thought you could still reach George W. Bush?]
Yeah. Maybe that naivete was my own form of religion.
[Will we speak again before the New Year?]
Probably not. These conversations tend to take the wind out of my sails. But then again, the silence flattens me, as well. Hey, if I don’t see you: Happy New Year, my friend. Here’s hoping it’s better than the one we’re wrapping up.
[Oh, I wouldn’t be quite so optimistic.]