Monday, 5 May 2014

Sacraments of Empire, by Matthew Cooper

I never thought I would see myself typing these words, but: poor Sarah Palin.

The former Alaska governor is finding herself more and more a pitiable and tragic figure, even on the right.

As governor, she tackled corruption in Alaska’s infamous energy industry, cooperated with Democrats and moderate Republicans to raise taxes on the big oil and gas corporations, and helped to set her state on the path to finical stability.

Sadly, that moderate, principled administrator seemed to vanish into thin air once someone bearing her name made her d├ębut in national politics during the 2008 election.

Armed with her undeniable good looks and formidably charismatic stage presence, Palin immediately threw herself headlong into the Washington spectaculum, making a name for herself as the ‘mama grizzly’, the backcountry defender of ‘real America’ and its values.

She found herself well-suited to becoming a cultural marker, a touchstone of identity politics particularly for rural Western whites. Once the 2008 election was lost, unfortunately, Palin decided to keep playing her Washington persona rather than returning to the state politics where she had undoubtedly done the most good.

As time has gone on, she has grown increasingly shrill and noisome, and she has thrown herself further into the sort of insidious invective the spectaculum invites.

Recently, at the NRA’s national meeting, Sarah Palin made the following comment:

‘Oh, but you can’t offend [jihadists], can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgeon. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptise terrorists.’

The NRA crowd erupted in applause and cheers.

At once, a significant contingent of Christians – including Christian conservatives like Rod Dreher, Mark Shea, Mollie Hemingway and Joe Carter – decried Palin’s comment as sacrilegious and even blasphemous, which it was.

Likening a life-giving Mystery of the Holy Spirit, imparted by the our Holy Mother Church upon those who are willing to free souls from sin, to a torture technique employed by the government to extract information forcibly from those in captivity, is inexcusably wrong.

The ex-governor replied as might be expected – by defending torture, by calling her critics ‘overly sensitive wusses’, and by wrapping herself in the flag.

It is well and good to decry blasphemies against the Holy Mysteries, but we ought to be wise enough to recognise that what needs to be opposed is not just one woman speaking blasphemy, nor just one party or contingency defending it.

What we are looking at here is a resurgence of neo-paganism in our nation’s civic religion.

When the Fathers of the Early Church decried the dramas, ritual races, wrestling matches and gladiatorial exhibitions, the ludi, of the Roman Empire, they were largely concerned with two things.

First, they feared that the ludi gave rise to base and unholy passions, tutoring the onlooking crowds in adultery and violence.

Secondly, they were concerned with the votive and sacral origins of the ludi, and their connexions with the rites of the Imperial cult.

The ludi, after all, were first employed as rituals of thanksgiving and satisfactions of debt to the pagan gods, particularly after a military victory or imperial conquest; and even after the rise of the Empire they did not lose that significance.

These concerns should not be lost on those watching American politics today.

It is true that we have always had a party system and a representative government; that many of our politicians have been theatrical and flamboyant in their public appearances; and that vicious partisan rhetoric is by no means a novelty.

But the modern American public sphere, aided by cable television and the Internet, has taken on a more-than-passing resemblance to the Roman games and ludi to the point where the descriptor ‘gladiatorial’ has entered common use among critics of our post-2000 political process.

Much too much like the ludi of the bygone era, the modern political process is designed to stoke passions very similar to bloodlust.

On cable television in the vein of FOX News, the hosts and guests very deliberately calibrate their language to stoke self-righteousness and disdain for dissenting political views in their audience.

Debates on cable and radio talk shows are engineered not to inform, but to reinforce the loyalty of the cultus and to inflame self-righteousness and opprobrium. Internet comment boxes are very regularly filled not with careful and thoughtful commentary, but with violent invective.

It has become alarmingly common for both sides to engage in homicidal fantasies. And on both sides of the aisle – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ – the symbols of the civic religion are never far out-of-reach.

The spectacula of cable news are routinely sanctified in the high-budget graphic liturgy of flag and Constitution and 1776, justified in the name of ‘free speech’ and clothed in the public pieties of remembrance of (especially military) sacrifice.

One can see resort to all three sanctimonies in Ms. Palin’s response to her Christian critics.

And as with ancient Rome, it would be irresponsible not to connect the domestic spectacle which has taken the place of an active and healthy public sphere, with the excesses of our government on the world stage.

Just as the ludi were originally designed to bless and attain support for Rome’s imperial adventures abroad, so too do our political spectator sports serve to bless and attain support for the excesses of our own imperium.

The sacraments of our empire, which sees itself as exceptional and indispensable as a matter of its public faith, do lend themselves to the sanctification of waterboarding, along with wars of choice, covert operations abroad, indefinite detentions, drone strikes, police brutality and experimentation on death-row inmates – if as nothing else, then as grim necessities for maintaining our liberties in a hostile world.

We rightly ought to oppose all of these things done in our name, but also ought to recognise their roots and their continued support in a resurgence of paganism masquerading as republican virtue.

This is not, of course, a call to replace the American political system with a Christian theocracy.

Far less is it a Russell Brand-style clarion call to abandon the vote; far from it! Though let it be understood that voting ought to be the least of our political concerns.

Within the procedures and ‘background noise’ of that same political system, we should certainly be called upon to understand the points at which the expected political praxis becomes agonal to the human dignity and the justice proclaimed in the Gospel, and irreconcilable with Christian orthopraxis.

Though we ought to act as always in keeping with the law of the land, we ought always to be on the lookout for points of resistance to empire, and then use them to proclaim the Gospel – as precisely such an act of resistance.

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