Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Handshake

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Immanuel Wallerstein, Centrist Liberalism Triumphant


Since the French Revolution, as Immanuel Wallerstein demonstrates in volume IV of his history of the modern world system, the central ideological concern of the liberal classes--never mind  their party affiliation or nation--has been to silence voices of dissent from the left and to preclude significant democratic movements; to hold power by doling out token economic benefits to the working and disenfranchised classes; to push their nations into wars that underwrite a form of atavistic national unity, and to unleash the propaganda powers of the modern media in defense of the status quo. Stated this blandly, Wallerstein's vision of modernity looks a bit like crude Marxism or a paranoid delusion (some of his right-wing critics have thought as much), but the argument as a whole, supported by a lifetime of reading, is convincing. I demur on the point of working-class ineptitude; it was never that easy for the liberal classes to dupe the workers, as the history of labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates. State-sanctioned violence, rather than propaganda or economic carrots begrudgingly doled out (Ford's $5 daily wage) preserved power for the ruling classes, and if there were any genuine risk of working-class solidarity, then a pointless Great War would focus the minds of the masses, provide a smoke-screen for rounding up the radicals, and provide a tidy profit for the corporate sector as a bonus.

I bring up this bit of esoteric political history only to frame what I want to say about Pope Francis, the picture above, and a passage from one of my favorite poems--one worth rereading just now.

I confess to being deeply moved by that Jesuit hand bearing the ring of Peter, by the glimpse of white cassock and pellegrina, the pectoral cross, the fascia--medieval symbols of transcendent power, weighted with traditions of infallibility, celibacy (a man forever betrothed to God), and sanctity--grasping the outstretched hand of an inmate in Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold prison. An honest and sad and achingly moving reaching across social roles and moral boundaries in a moment of simple humanity.

The history of liberalism found in Wallerstein's books is largely a history of fear--fear of the loss of authority, fear of the loss of the material prerogatives--deference, wealth, and permissible cruelty--that have accompanied worldly power since the first bully arose to be primus inter pares. The notion of freedom, so central to the liberal creed, could only be freedom for some and of only a very particular kind. An anonymous arm reaching (as I imagine it) through a cell door--an ironic symbol of the prisons built for us by a politics that has promised freedom and delivered, for most, only servitude.

Here's Auden, lines on the day the Second World War began:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

My students, with their unlined faces (so unlike Wystan's!), prefer the "realism" of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the "romantic notions" of Rousseau and Rawls. Maybe they're right. But there's still that handshake, a simple gesture made more powerful by the absence of faces: a man of God and a man perhaps not. If we can't love one another--and it appears we cannot--we can at least learn that ideas seem empty when in fact they are empty.

Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages...

"Ironic points of light." In his moving work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone quotes Emile Durkheim:  "The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a person who is stronger. He feels within himself more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them."

A little awkward, this sort of talk. Since religion has been co-opted by the resentful (does any Christian actually read the New Testament anymore?) it has become unfashionable to quote anything from Durkheim or even the bits of M.L. King that remind us he was a Baptist minister first and an activist second. But what Cone puts at the center of his theological book isn't God or the Cross--the very same one worn by Francis in that Philly jail--but the struggle for empowerment in a world that has been tidily arranged to convince us that we have no power, except maybe in our choice of smartphone and wardrobe. "In stupor." Yes, that feels right. And yet, there's that handshake--a gesture, but not only that: a reaching across a great divide of power and powerlessness.  Look at it.

No comments:

Post a Comment