Saturday, June 29, 2013

In the middle of things

Some might renounce, detach, or ignore worldliness because the realm of the spiritual is deemed something wholly other. There is often proposed an alternative to the entrammelled banalities of the political and social and that should lead the way to a greater awakening and contentment.  I demur from this view not only because I doubt there is such "awakening" but because it does little to advance the conversation about how we might create together the world in which we are living.

We may also evince little patience for such difficult conversations because they necessarily leave us fractured in a deeply factionalized world, even if that fracture provides a more honest form of self-disquiet.  It could be that our factions are more than tribal allegiances; they might present to us real disagreements about what it means to be human.  There is no promise in the history of spiritualities that our shared humanity means we will share what it means to be human.   A spiritual life without inviting self-disquiet renounces the vulnerabilities of being human and at a cost: it is our humanity that makes us spiritual and our vulnerability that invites our growth.  That we might disagree over these fundamentals is part of the human narrative.

I write today because I have been asked to comment on issues raised by the revelations of Edward Snowden.  When conscience demands and private convictions imply a further social and political participation, we are undoubtedly entering into controversy.  At least we might hope for as much: such a conversation needs to carry forward because the issues at stake will not evaporate into the mists of spiritual resolution.  What sort of spiritual life that exempts us from the demands of our public life?  

The Snowden situation warrants reflection and consideration, especially in light of the meaning of free speech and the powers of speech.  I am grateful to those who have prompted my comment since they have cajoled my own conscience into these uncomfortable places and because the current situation as I write this (29 June 2013) is still liminal in many respects.

We may never learn why Edward Snowden did what he did or even what he has done.  In an age of global communications it’s not without irony that truth is further victimized by the ways information is bought, sold, and manipulated for gain.  Perhaps this too will inspire our desire to keep the conversation open and, at the same time, grounded enough to take the evidence seriously.  Little stanches the pursuit of truth than arguments that cannot be revised or evolved and, just as perilous, some form of eagerness to deny the realities of fact pursued by reasoned efforts.  As desperately as many search for absolutes, finalities, and ultimate truths, we can instead choose to stand in the middle of things, in the evidence we have at hand, in the arguments we can create from the imperfect things we experience.

Political views, like religions, too often begin with theories rather than arrive at them as a means of an explanation of the evidence.  When we want something to be true, we are apt to carve our theory first and then use whatever we discover to fit into this architecture.  We take age-old views, particularly those we regard sacrosanct ---“all men are created equal,” “…because such is God’s word,” “…because the sages tell us so”----as providing the normative, the ought we should not emend, and then compel the evidence and ourselves to agree.  If we believe there is god or heaven or freedom or privacy, what have you, we will often do whatever we can to make sure that that belief is supported by whatever we discover.

Perhaps instead we can stay in the middle of things, working with the evidence, asking every question no matter how controversial or even offensive, and so remain willing to subject our most hard won conclusions to every further scrutiny.  We are not only imperiled by our desire to have our theories confirmed, we are disadvantaged by the fact that the evidence we uncover may not be the all we hope it is.  Even if we willfully refrain from conclusiveness we must learn to live in the middle of our best judgments.  The alternative that presumes we can transcend or exempt ourselves from any (or all) judgment is not only ironic--- it is an unwillingness to admit that our imperfection creates the foundation of our most laudable humanity.  Only nature refuses to judge or to imagine a future.  This means that our natural human condition presents no advantage to our creating a more humane world.  For that, we must invest in our abilities as cultural and political beings, as spiritual beings creating more than the imperatives of survival.

 No democracy more vigorously espouses protection of speech than America in the form of the First Amendment. In the majority of democracies speech is far more restricted than in the US: that is a fact apart from the issues surrounding the flagrant abuse of our claims to privacy.  How do we address too the realities of a dangerous world in which concerns for privacy and freedom are inseparable from those that point directly to individuals, groups, and governments who would inflict their own versions of nihilism, oppression, and violence? I don't mean to exempt America from that latter claim given a decade prosecuting wars of choice but America is certainly not the only perpetrator of these forms of abuse.

Snowden's father put the matter into some perspective when he said that his son had betrayed his country but not its people. Edward Snowden took a job that required his consent to secrecy and in conscience (apparently, we have no other evidence yet of other motives) he violated that oath. Without Edward Snowden we would not have the slightest inkling of the depths of intrusion and manipulation advanced by America's security apparatus. It's with no small irony that Senators like Feinstein find themselves in tacit agreement with the majority of Republicans who criticize these recent NSA revelations only because it suits their immediate political objectives, which have only one focus: to discredit, distract, nullify, and undermine anything that the President proposes or does. We can otherwise imagine the roar of approval if there were a Republican President.  More to the point, President Obama can assert with no political risk that his actions have been "within the law." Who is to blame for that?  We Americans: for creating a political culture in which we demand a risk-free world with no real costs.

There is social and psychological denial implied here that closely parallels our spiritual immaturities: we may be demanding what the world has never been offering  If we must look somehow beyond the world for such a spiritual experience then we may just as well ignore the world to pursue the realm beyond conditionality.  Of course, this too has costs.  Are we willing to abdicate the practical and imperfect imperatives of creating our world for a suspension of belief, a faith committed to some or another perfection, to claims that assert life’s purpose is ultimately unconditional?

Of course, it is deeply disappointing that the Obama Administration has perpetuated and in important respects furthered the intrusive and invasive policies of America's 9/11 hysterias.  The majority of Americans have little notion, in my opinion, how Bush policies in the aftermath of 9/11 have shaped world opinion as well as impacted our personal freedoms.  Some of this blithe disregard for world opinion is fostered by what is euphemistically called “American Exceptionalism,” a claim comparable to spiritual ultimacy because it presumes a destiny supported by assertions that set apart the privileged from the many.  One trip out of the country through any airport makes such issues disturbingly clear.  I cannot condone the Obama Administrations continuance of these surveillance policies but one can only imagine how much further things would go under the alternatives. Could it be worse? I can imagine that.

At the heart of the matter is this: what price are people willing to pay to advance their desires to be free and secure?

We Americans seem to believe we can have it both ways without costs. That we have created a political environment in which the security apparatus can collect and use anything we say as a tool of "freedom" is truly Orwellian: Americans have tacitly consented to the NSA situation by electing government that can legitimize such behaviors as within the law. The President has repeatedly stated that there are such mechanisms of legitimacy behind these decisions and actions, including a Court that has approved 99% of all requests for such intrusions into privacy.

We Americans are responsible for the NSA actions; we brought this on ourselves because we refuse to debate the issue of the costs of political freedom and our desires for personal security. Snowden has brought some of that debate into the public discourse. But his portrayal by government and media (N.B., David Gregory's questioning Glenn Greenwald’s journalism as criminal) will surely provide more heat than light: we are not mature enough as a society to have this honest discussion. That Snowden is foremost portrayed as a "traitor" charged with espionage, presumably camped for now in the Moscow airport, assures only that he will be vilified and just as certain to be railroaded into interminable prison if he returns. There will be no fair hearing of the issues, rather a deflection into Snowden's actions. That what he has done might also bring comfort or advantage to those who seek to do Americans harm is part of the price he will have to pay in conscience as well.  Americans, however, refuse to confront our conscience, so vividly displayed in our unwillingness to have the required conversations, at least among our elected leaders.  These political circumstances are in effect no different than our highest spiritual aspirations.  At stake will be how willing we are to be engage the uncomfortable and disquieting realities of a world that will only offer as much as we are willing to create.