August 3, 2008

A convenient worldview

Some years back I read about 40 pages of Ian McEwan's Saturday but had not managed to get beyond that - not because I did not like his writing (I am a BIG fan!) but I did not have the time to complete it. I have re-started the book, finding the one paragraph from the first chapter which I had enjoyed so much that I still have it bouncing around in my head every time I fly. Here it is:
Like most passengers, outwardly subdued by the monotony of air travel, he often lets his thoughts range across the possibilities while sitting, strapped down and docile, in front of a packaged meal. Outside, beyond a wall of thin steel and cheerful creaking plastic, it's minus sixty degrees and forty thousand feet to the ground. Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm. Looked at a certain way - deaths per passenger mile - the statistics are consoling. And how else attend a conference in Southern California? Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there's failure, there will be no half measures. Seen another way -- deaths per journey - the figures aren't so good. The market could plunge.
Like with every other McEwan book, I am quite enjoying the language and sentence structuring in the book. But having recently read some of McEwan's recent views on Islam* (also,the Guardian articles: The day of judgment: part 1 and part 2), I cannot help but read some of Henry Perowne's thoughts about life in a post 9-11 word as reflecting McEwan's own biases and prejudices. For example, read this paragraph from later in the book:

The three black columns, start against the canyon of creamy stucco and brick, heads bobbing, clearly arguing about the address, have a farcical appearance, like kids larking about at Halloween. ..... He can't help his distaste, it's visceral. How dismal, that anyone should be obliged to walk around so entirely obliterated. At least these ladies don't have the leather beaks. They really turn his stomach. And what would the relativists say, the cheerful pessimists from Daisy's college? That it's sacred, traditional, a stand against the fripperies of Western consumerism? But the men, the husband -- Perowne has had dealings with various Saudis in his office - wear suits, or trainers and track-suits, or baggy shorts and Rolexes, and are entirely charming and worldly and thoroughly educated in both traditions. Would they care to carry the folkloric torch, and stumble about in the dark at midday?

* To be accurate, it is not Islam but Islamism he is against; which as something that I, who am against religious intolerance and fundamentalism from all religions, am also against but not any more than I am against Christian fundamentalists or Hindutva rhetoric spouting goons. McEwan seems to make a distinction because... it in his own words, this excerpt from the aforementioned views on Islamism article:
McEwan's interviewer pointed out that there exist equally hard-line schools of thought within Christianity, for example in the United States. "I find them equally absurd," McEwan replied. "I don't like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others. But those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in my city, that's the difference."
A page or two later in Saturday, he writes about what he thinks is a solution to fundamentalism - bright-eyed materialism and consumerism!
The secular authority, indifferent to the babel of various gods, will guarantee religious freedoms. They should flourish. It's time to go shopping. .... Such prosperity, whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture, is a protection of a sort. This commercial wellbeing is robust and will defend itself to the last. It isn't rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails - jobs for a start, and peace, and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray.
How typical! If you are looking down at Islamic fundamentalists, as McEwan probably is when he is writing this, this may even begin to make sense. Not really... but maybe its just a difference of opinion. But it makes no sense at all if you apply it to fundamentalists in the US, say! Fundamentalism cannot be countered by consumerism just as it cannot be countered with spreading more hatred and creating further ill-will and misunderstandings between communities, based on lies and half-truths.

In talking about religious bigotry, I am reminded of these wonderful lines from the Afterword by Stephen Eric Bronner to Will Eisner's last graphic novel, The Plot, which is a fine exposition of the lies people will believe to back up their biases and prejudices. Instead of "the work", read "opinions" and the following sentence is as applicable to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as to any other nonsense spewed by zealots everywhere:
The authenticiy of the work does not seem to matter. But that is because the antisemite, in the great phrase of Jean Paul Sartre, "turns himself into stone." Bigotry becomes his way of explaining the world without having to justify the explanation through evidence or logic. Antisemistism offers a convenient worldview for all the "losers" who feel themselves threatened by the forces of modernity, who fear the future, and who seek comfort in rigid religious and anti-democratic forms of authority. Admitting that these traditional forms of authority are becoming increasingly anachronistic would shatter the bigot's sense of self-worth. Better for the losers to find a "scapegoat".
Note that I am not saying McEwan is a loser. But in fighting bigotry, let us not ourselves become blind and bigoted in making sweeping assertions and broad generalizations about a certain sect of people. Because otherwise, like another philosopher said, in fighting darkness we run the risk of becoming monsters ourselves. (I cannot remember who said it and the exact quote. I think it was Nietzche.
I will update this when/if I find the quote I am thinking of.)

"Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.
" - Nietzsche

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